Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Packard Foundation and its Apricots

Dried apricots from the hills above Los Altos, California. We call them "California Candy."

I got a postcard this week from my secret friends up in the hills above Los Altos, saying that the 2012 dried apricots were ready for sale and listing the dates and times they would be available. I've already made some apricot jam from the windfalls they let me glean this summer, so I feel doubly lucky to have made their dried 'cot mailing list.

"They" are the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. As part of their program to support conservation and retain iconic areas of the West, they operate eighty acres of apricot trees in Los Altos Hills. What a great idea!

Loading up in Los Altos Hills.

There wasn't a huge line of cars going up the long driveway to the orchard, but there were a few cars ahead of me. When we stopped to get out and give our order to Mike, who runs the orchard, I could see some people were really loading up.  It is a good year for it: Mike told me his crop was twenty-five percent larger this year. Hooray! It means we'll be able to go back and get more as we head into the rainy season and need some of those bright orange treats to remind us of the golden summer.

Apricots drying in the Los Altos Hills orchard in July.

Apricots have been dried all over the world for millennia: especially in China which is now believed to be the origin of the apricot. But it was in California's Santa Clara Valley, where I was born, that apricots were first sun-dried in large enough quantities to turn this unique delicacy into a hugely successful commercial product. 

Up until that time, only the French dried enough apricots for export and those were produced in very small quantities. The French used dehumidifiers and they require fuel and maintenance and thus limit production.

In California, where it doesn't rain a drop between May and October, somebody looked up into the sky one cloudless summer day and figured out you could produce millions and millions of dried apricots with almost no equipment at all. Thus were born farmers' cooperatives like Sunsweet which helped turn the Santa Clara Valley into the largest fruit producing region in the world. (For the entire story on this you'll have to read my book. As soon as I've finished writing it!)

The Santa Clara Valley, at the south end of San Francisco Bay, when it was the world's largest orchard.

I realize that if the clock had been stopped and change had not come, my own father, an aeronautical engineer who came here to work for NASA, would not have been able to buy a lot to build our house on in the middle of an apricot orchard. And the high tech progress that followed, along with the subdivisions and computer companies that were built on this fertile land--who would not want all that to have happened? It was the good schools and the perfect climate that brought the Jobs family to Los Altos and gave us all Steve Jobs' wonderful gadgets we can no longer live without.

Loading up our cars with dried apricots at the Packard Orchard.

But I love the fact that a few thoughtful people have retained a little open space--like the Packard Orchard in Los Altos Hills, and the Smith Orchard surrounding the Los Altos City Hall--and have kept this acreage in productive use today. It leaves a few places in this rich valley that aren't paved over with asphalt. It gives us all a reminder of our agricultural history--unique in all the world. It shows some kids, who think the world was born yesterday and that they have invented everything, that solar panels aren't the first use around here of the sun's power. And a couple more things:

Here's a man who will never lack for friends.

These few, small, remaining orchards produce a beautiful local treat so many of us love--for their nutrition and their nostalgia. Finding them is like finding a little treasure here in the sea of developed land.

Oh and one more thing: they make me very popular with my relatives.

My haul. I might still buy more. If my family is very nice to me.

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