In the Right Place
Connecting With Local Food #23
By Tom Melcher
Late in the afternoon on May 7th, 1971, Bernie found himself on the corner of Route 128 and Cloverdale’s main street, which at the time was Highway 101—you know, where the road comes over the hill and heads toward the sawmill. He had a backpack, $200 and intentions of reaching the coastal town of Mendocino by nightfall. He couldn’t see beyond that. Behind him was a troubled love relationship in Berkeley that needed thinking space, four years at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a comfortable childhood outside of Chicago.
Had things gone differently—even by a minute—had someone else picked him up, or had that fellow named Sandy had trouble finding the part to fix the track on the Caterpillar tractor, the world now would be poorer by the count of one apple orchard in Yorkville. But Sandy did stop and, as he drove Bernie north, he started talking about the collective farm he and eight friends had just purchased in the steep hills they were approaching. As Bernie (Bob Bernstein) tells it, Sandy’s narrative was compelling enough for him to accept the invitation to stay over. Forty-three years later, Bernie is still here, now the soul and inspiration of Pomo Tierra Orchard, the source of fresh apples in season and Pomo Tierra’s famous Gravenstein apple juice.
At the time, Bernie didn’t know that all the vectors of his life had been leading him to the land that George Schoenahl homesteaded in the 1890’s or that his life’s work had just opened before him. He had no farming in his background. But he fell in love with the place right away and liked the five women and four men of the collective. When it was clear they liked him back, he stayed a week before traveling on. Yes, he returned to Berkeley to work it out, but the relationship couldn’t be saved and this suited the collective residents just fine. On one of Bernie’s subsequent visits they asked if he would join them as a full member. That was in January 1972.
Over a century ago, three-quarters of the way up a rugged hill, George Schoenahl stumbled on eighty acres of paradise—with twenty acres of flat, south-facing land and a spring on the hill above. He built a grand house in the shade of large oaks and planted the land in apples. One hundred and twenty years later, the house is giving way to gravity and the assault of woodpeckers, but many of the apple trees are still bearing. The collective bought the place with dreams that they all would work and be supported from the sale of apples, dreams fueled by the enthusiasm of George’s son and the real estate agent to sell. But after a few years most of the members realized they didn’t love the work and that the crop wasn’t as big as they had been led to believe. One by one they found work off the land or moved away and by 1981 Bernie had become master of the trees. He was young then and threw himself at all the jobs. He trimmed the oldest trees so they would produce better and pulled the dead ones. He planted new trees in the old grid and now, along with Gravensteins, he grows Sierra Beauty, Pink Ladies, Golden Delicious and some Bartlett Pears. There are even a few figs scattered about. He estimates he has over 700 trees and even these days, as he approaches seventy, he prunes the trees, thins the apples, props the branches so they won’t break, plants new trees, mows the orchard and fertilizes. Along with his friend and land partner Dick Jordan he repairs the vehicles, among them a behemoth tractor and a forklift, though, he admits, he’s doing well enough to be able to hire out some workers to weed whack. He also does the books and travels to Berkeley twice a week to sell apples in season and juice year round.
On the spring we day that we meet, he moves around his orchard with ease, dragging hoses to water the younger trees and tells his story. Twice a year the collective work hosts parties—in spring to fertilize each tree and in late summer and fall to harvest the fruit. Many of those people are his customers coming from Berkeley to have a real world adventure and touch the source of their food. (He also grows Yukon gold potatoes and can never bring enough.) Gravenstein apples, in particular, have a short shelf life, so their best use is for juice. In Bernie’s opinion they make the best juice anywhere. He opens the door to a new building and shows cases of juice stacked high in the air. “Unless you freeze it, unpasteurized juice doesn’t last long,” he says,“ which means you have to have a refrigerated truck. Really expensive. But after it’s pasteurized and bottled in glass, it keeps indefinitely.”
A crowd of fifty to a hundred folks picks the crop and a local trucker drives it to Sebastopol for processing. It comes back in cases. These are joyous days and help complete the circle that Bernie shepherds year after year.
The April grass under the trees is long and has to be mowed before the spring work party descends and he won’t be able to prune all the trees this year because he had to be away for a few weeks. But apple trees are forgiving. They can stand a little variation in care, still bear fruit and be brought right next year. Bernie smiles to see the blossoms coming out. “We’re having a great season,” he says and points to trees where some branches are in bloom and others hold buds still tight. Though rain is essential, if all the blossoms open at once and then it rains, the bees stay in their hives and the crop won’t get fertilized. So the more gradually the blossoms come, the better the chance of a full crop.
In the early days, after one of the members began to behave irresponsibly, the collective reorganized as a trust to better protect itself from human foibles and the members who remain continue to thrive on the land; you can catch the glimpse of a roofline here and there. The whole land is off-the-grid and their water comes from the spring and a solar-pumped well, but water is anything but plentiful up here. Bernie says it’s been hard for three years now and his discussion brings up issues of climate change, sustainability, how to live a good life and what the future might hold. He thinks a lot about these things.
It’s unmistakable that he intends to leave the earth better than he found it. And in doing so, he weighs his use of fuel for tractors and the car against what his labor brings to society. He seems at ease with how things have developed since that day hitchhiking. “How do you arrange life to not trash the environment?” he asks, rhetorically. He gives credit for his answer to his wife, Mary. “She tells me ‘You’re doing a service by bringing great food to people, taking care of the soil and trees. You’re doing the best you can and using fuel to get to Berkeley is the price you pay for what you do.’ ”
His discipline and relaxed demeanor flow from a committed practice of meditation, and yoga keeps his body up to the tasks. But the residents at Pomo Tierra are all getting older. They don’t yet know what will happen when they are gone. Bernie doesn’t seem the kind to try to manipulate outcomes, but he is clearly pleased that the children connected with the place seem to be taking an interest in keeping the mission and land intact. Things do circle around and the Back-to-the-Land movement of his youth is reemerging, as many educated young people are seeking meaning in life through working with the soil.
When asked if he has any regrets, he reflects a moment and his tone is authentic. “I have loved every day here.” And if you are the betting kind, best to expect Bernie to be up here with his trees for quite some time to come.
(You can find Bernie’s Best apple juice and sauce at Boont Berry in Boonville. The next CWLF article brought to you by AV Foodshed will be on the McEwen Family farm written by David Ballantine. The entire series of articles is available at www.mendocinolocalfood.org.)