Farming on the go
Published: Sunday, October 7, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 4, 2012 at 12:02 p.m.
It's late afternoon on a sizzling Indian summer Saturday on the Sonoma Plaza and Kendra Kolling has already made 175 gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches at the Vintage Festival.
Her day began at 6:30 a.m. in Larkspur, where she helped staff set up booths for her sandwiches and her Nana Mae's line of organic apple juices, sauces and vinegar.
Then she dashed back to Sonoma for more sandwich making until after sundown. On Sunday she will do it again, down to the Marin Civic Center Farmer's Market and up to the Sonoma Plaza for more grilling.
Somehow the Kenwood mother of three finds time in her busy weekend to hit the soccer field in time to see son Liam, 14, score a winning goal.
“It's a wild ride for sure. It never ever ends. It's the rhythm of the season,” said the unstoppable Kolling, a familiar face on the event circuit as the caterer called The Farmer's Wife.
Meanwhile her husband Paul is up before 5 a.m. daily bringing in the apples, a bruising schedule that will continue until the last Rome Beauties are plucked in November. When he's not doing that he's taking daughter Elizabeth, 12, to a soccer game in Vacaville and zipping down to a farmers market in Marin to help pack and unpack Kendra's food cart — all in a Sunday's work.
The Kollings are the face of contemporary family food farming, hedging against the vicissitudes of agriculture with multiple products and ventures, and patching together 300 harvestable acres spread among 100 different orchard owners throughout western Sonoma County.
“We are nomadic apple farmers. We go from landowner to landowner, harvesting apples in an age-old way. We just do it with modern tractors and trucks rather than a pack on our backs,” said Paul, who shares 25 acres in Sebastopol with his brother and has contracts, some formal, some just a handshake, with 100 different landowners in Western Sonoma County. He once tended 500 acres, but with the rapid loss of old apple orchards to grapes and development, he's down to 300.
However weary, the Kollings are committed to a life neither were born into.
“This life has chosen me and taken on a life of its own. I'm jut along for the ride,” says Kendra. A fresh-faced woman of 44 who grew up on Cape Cod and studied communications and marketing, she fled west in pursuit of a more “interesting life story.”
She found it in the burgeoning Bay Area food scene, working at places like the legendary Manka's in Inverness and Straus Creamery in Petaluma, and selling her own fresh juice smoothies. She found a kindred spirit in Paul, 57, who 30 years ago walked away from a secure job as an engineer for the U.S. Geological Survey to grow organic apples at a time when vineyards began transforming the Sonoma County landscape.
Watching older guys eyeing the clock in a countdown for retirement, Kolling bolted when he heard “the farm calling me.”
The couple courted in the apple orchard.
“We ate beautiful blackberries and orchard fruit and it just seemed so charming and simple,” said Kendra with a laugh. “And I was swept off my feet.”
The reality has been much different. After building up a successful line of Nana Mae's organic gravenstein and other apple products, named for Paul's always food-making grandma, the company suffered a major blow this summer when the French company that bought Manzana, Sonoma County's last apple processor, imposed new prices and payment rules.
“They've changed the way they've done business for the past 25 years,” Paul says. “It means that instead of having my full line of products on the market, I have only half.”
During a recent panel talk at the Petaluma Seed Bank, the usually stoic Kendra dissolved into tears, relating how they've had to sell most of their beautiful heirloom apples this season to a vinegar producer.
But neither Kolling spends much time lamenting. Kendra has ramped up her Farmer's Wife catering and food cart to keep the money coming in while she's seeking $200,000 in funding to open a small cafe and small craft cannery to put up her own product at The Barlow, a former apple factory remodeled into a home for artisan foods and wine in Sebastopol.
“I'm a tough piece of meat and I'm going to do what needs to be done,” Kendra vowed. “It takes a certain breed of woman to be a farmer's wife. Hard work and being resourceful is a big part of it.”
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 521-5204 or email@example.com.
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