I often buy produce at the Redman Hirahara House farm stand in Watsonville, which has some of the best strawberries I’ve ever eaten. The produce comes from High Ground Organics—three Watsonville farms operated by Stephen Pedersen and Jeanne Byrne—located at Harkins Slough, Lewis Road and the Redman House property.
On Saturday, I visited their 40-acre home farm at Harkins Slough, and Byrne led me on a tour. Perched on rolling hills above the slough, their land looks very different from the vast agricultural fields in the Salinas Valley. The large farms often grow only one or two crops on many acres of flat land, but at High Ground, the diverse crops form colorful rows growing side by side on the hills. Hedgerows nearby teem with willows and other native plants, and shelters high on poles are provided for nesting owls.
The family has been farming in Watsonville since 2000. As a youngster, Pedersen worked on his uncle’s farm, and this inspired him to start one of his own. Byrne—who does the farm bookkeeping—has a degree in environmental studies, and has edited a magazine on farm conservation. Her knowledge about local environmental issues is impressive.
She informed me that 20 acres on the home farm are not cultivated; they are protected in a conservation easement. The hillsides sloping down to Harkins Slough are being restored to their native foliage and wildlife. Invasive plant species are being removed, helped by grazing animals such as cows, goats and elk. The slough itself is being restored. Its water is no longer pumped out for farming and peat mining. Many more birds nest in the area. I was amazed at the numbers of white herons we saw flying over the water.
We walked to the orchard. While Pajaro Valley apple orchards are giving way to strawberries and more commercially viable crops, High Ground has begun growing apples whose names—Rubanette, Waltanna, Jonagold and Hudson’s Golden Gem—are likely unfamiliar to many customers. Byrne pointed to some Golden Gems. “They’re not pretty,” she said, “but they’re crisp and tasty.”
She showed me a hillside once covered with thick concrete slabs. To reclaim the hillside for blueberries, they had to remove the concrete. After three years of preparation, they now produce four different varieties, some of which are available this week at the farm stand.
We passed rows of beautiful squash plants (they have 10 varieties), peppers, rainbow kale and various other greens. I wondered how they managed the pests, because they don’t use pesticides.
“Here’s our pest control,” Byrne said, with a smile, pointing to a ladybug on a leaf.
The diversity of the plants and predatory insects helps to control pests, as does rotation and use of cover crops. But, according to Byrne, they worry more about weeding, much of which is done by hand, hoeing, burning or tractor cultivating. Diversity is important; if bad weather or pests ruin one crop, there are plenty of others to make up for it.
High Ground is a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm; it provides boxes of fresh, organic produce weekly to its members. If you’re interested in becoming a CSA member, you can sign up at the CSA webpage.
You can also purchase produce at the Redman House Farmstand, at 200 Lee Rd., just off Highway 1. There’s still plenty of summer produce and flowers. On Oct. 8, plan to attend the Annual Pumpkin Patch and Harvest Festival.
The farm stand's summer hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays; phone is 831-212-1990.