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70-year-old Sebastopol apple farm shut down, but plans to reopen

General manager Bill DeHaas checks the health of the apple trees at Twin Hill Ranch on Monday.

Conner Jay/The Press Democrat
Published: Monday, March 18, 2013 at 5:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 2:21 p.m.

A beloved remnant of the west county apple industry is closed after state officials ordered the shutdown of a drinking water well in the rural outskirts of Sebastopol, but the owners vow to reopen by spring.

"We found it a good time to retool, to be able to keep the farm going," said Jeff Palk, owner of Twin Hill Ranch. They will "keep the heritage of the apple operation alive while going forward with grapes, where the future really is."

He said he plans to expand wine grape growing on some nearby parcels, since grapes are more lucrative, but he will maintain the eight remaining historic acres of apples on the main ranch property.

Farm manager Bill DeHass, Palk's father-in-law, said he is particularly eager to open the orchard for families to come pick their own apples and watch the historic process of washing and packaging the Gravenstein apples that once flourished that part of the county.

"Kids have got to know what their ancestors did here in America," he said. "If we're not here, that's gone."

Regulators shut down the operation on Jan. 17 after a state inspector found that the ranch was drawing water from an unapproved well, said Bruce Burton, chief of the California Department of Public Health's Drinking Water Northern California Field Operations Branch. Without state-approved water on site, county health officials suspended the ranch's permit to sell food, the cornerstone of its business.

Palk said the water system was not operated by the ranch, but rather by a private water district, known as the Twin Hill Mutual Water Co. It was established by the previous owners decades ago as part of an abortive effort to build a residential subdivision, but the water system fell into disrepair after the plan was abandoned. At some point in recent months, the pump on the main well failed and the system switched to a backup well, which turned out not to have state approval.

"I didn't realize I was even a member of the water district … as a customer, I basically had my water cut off," Palk said.

Details on how the switch came about, and who is in charge of the private water company, remain murky, with varying accounts told by people involved.

State regulators did not offer any evidence that the water from the backup well is contaminated or an immediate danger, but Burton said anytime water is coming from an unapproved source, there is the possibility of some threat to human health so the agency issues a "do not drink" order.

Twin Hill Ranch was established in 1942 by Darrel Hurst. He and wife Maggie raised 13 children, including eight adopted, on the property before his death in 1998. They built the ranch into not only a wholesale apple seller, but a well-loved tourist attraction, offering a variety of apples for sale in the summer and fall and developing a wide range of apple products, including pies, bread and cookies.

Jeff and Kelley Palk bought the ranch from the Hurst family in 2010 and vowed to maintain it as the founders had intended. The remaining 21-acre property is just a part of the Hurst's original farm; pieces were sold off by the family or donated to various causes over the years. In addition to the eight acres of apples there are about five acres of wine grapes, plus a large barn, a house, and several outbuildings.

Palk said he plans to expand his acreage of grapes on some nearby parcels, but intends to preserve the remaining apple acres as they are today.

The ranch has been a popular venue for events and a destination for school field trips for many years. It was also a frequent stop for families searching for Christmas trees at the area's once-numerous farms.

"The late Darrell Hurst was a really strong advocate for the apple industry . . . it is an ideal place to help educate people about agriculture and buy local products," said Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

The west county apple industry has declined significantly in recent decades, he said, although it is having a small resurgence with the popularity of organically farmed apple such as those grown by the historic Dutton Ranch in Sebastopol. The Christmas tree industry has declined in the area as well.

"It's cheaper to ship apples from Washington or China than grow them here in Sonoma County," McCorvey said. "I imagine the same is true for the trees."

Once Twin Hill reopens, the future for the ranch is likely to be more tourist-oriented than its working agricultural past, Palk said. When he bought the property, he had hoped to break even just on the wholesale apple growing and processing operation, but that dream has proven elusive.

"Let's be honest, you're trying to operate an old apple farm," he said. "I was trying to operate the way it had been in the past; it wasn't working."

State officials say the ownership of the water system is unclear, but regulators have issued a number of technical citations to the system in recent years, mostly for failing to pay fees or submit required test results.

The shutoff of the water system led the county Department of Health Services to suspend Twin Hill's license to sell food, said Christine Sosko, interim director of environmental health and safety. That license could be restored if the owners find a source of drinking water acceptable to state regulators.

The water system supplies three houses adjacent to the property and a nearby fire station and private school, according to the state. Former owner Ben Hurst, son of Darrell Hurst, said Monday that he had been running the water system informally since he sold off his interest in the property in 2010, though he had stepped away from that role by the time of the do-not-drink notice.

Water does continue to flow from the long-time backup well, he said, which is operational but not approved by the state. Plans are in place to replace the failed pump on the main well, which is approved for water company use.

None of the residents of the three houses has been forced out of their home, Hurst said; the school has switched its supply to pipes from a nearby public school.

Hurst said the residents of the houses are working to revitalize the management of the water system, taking it over themselves. No residents were at home when a reporter visited last week and one did not return a call for comment by phone on Monday.

Chief Dan George of the Gold Ridge Fire District, which operates the nearby station, said water had not been interrupted to his station. The department is, however, moving ahead with a long-term plan to shift to a well on the station property so as not to be dependent on the Twin Hill system.

Palk said Friday that the ranch will reopen as early as the end of this month, returning to offering tours, school programs, and pick-your-own apples, and will once more sell the popular line of apple-themed products, including pies, cookies, and breads.

Business consultant Wayne Weisler, who is helping rebuild the ranch operation, said he has been astounded by the reaction to the temporary closure, with area markets calling to demand more of the apple goodies and teachers and other visitors stopping by to see when they will reopen.

"The demand for our products is going up, which blows me away," he said.

While the farm is closed, the owners are overhauling business practices, rebuilding and expanding facilities for visitors, such as a covered picnic area, sprucing up the barn where products are sold, and eyeing new product lines.

Weisler promised, however, that the business would continue making the popular baked goods and other products.

"Don't fix what isn't broken," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.

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