Featured Farmer – Jose Baer

A secret food weapon sits quietly in my semi-clean fridge. Behind the organic hot sauce and unsweetened ketchup hides a delicate bottle of unrefined walnut oil that turns every salad leaf it touches into pure gold. Guests come to dinner and fall madly in love. I share the secret, but most brush past and lavish praise on the cook. Bewilderedly accepting the glory, I breathe a heavy sigh and quietly acknowledge evidence that the applause doesn’t always reach it’s proper recipient. Ask a book editor or film producer. They’ll tell you.

I’m guilty of writing with a bit of melodrama. I took acting classes in college, for frog’s sake. The classic acting teacher. Hot pink tank tops, black spandex pants, big, big blonde hair, bigger ta-tas and a raspy, sultry, cigarette-induced voice, Ms. Sandra Dorsey carried me through my dry, technical university by providing a creative outlet for my unsettled soul. I adored her and her classes. She is responsible for opening my Pandora’s box of drama.

But drama appropriate, this walnut oil is no joke.

Always looking to meet a new farmer and spend time in the great outdoors, John and I hit Highway 1 on a perfect California Wednesday, headed towards the man who makes me look like a culinary rock star.

Tall and thin, Jose Baer of Rancho La Vina shook our hands with a smile and graciously offered to show us around his gorgeous land. He seemed thoughtful and smart, plugged in. I liked him. The season was winding down; it was the final day of harvest. We strolled beneath the canopy of walnut trees, now bare of fruit, and listened to the multi-step process that brings beautiful premium walnuts to our homes. Jose pointed to a fallen walnut, but we didn’t see it. Another point. Still nothing. Jose picked up a kelly green fruit. Nothing registered. Because… The shell that we recognize as an un-cracked walnut is actually the pit of this bright green stone fruit! Like the black sheep brother of an apricot or plum, walnuts are an inedible stone fruit that stain dark ink on your unassuming hand. But like most black sheep, it’s protected core houses delicate, untouched beauty.

Jose explained that like Italian olive oil or French wine, the specific soil and climate of his land are largely responsible for the delicate flavor and creamy texture of his walnuts. I find the land’s controlling force a most fascinating aspect to growing food. Even with near identical growing practices, no two walnut farms are the same. It’s about reading your land and learning from the farmers before you. There is no sense sticking a square peg in a round hole. Flow with the land and reap the reward. The great farmers seem to know that they are merely talented and imperative shepherds of their land’s success, not the ultimate master. Jose then suggested we take a ride to the top of his hill to absorb the view from his vineyard, which overlooks the walnut orchard.

Piled three wide in Jose’s pick-up & headed up the windy dirt road past acres of walnut trees, John and I stumbled upon something we couldn’t believe. When asked why the trunks of the walnut trees dramatically and suddenly changed textures. Jose explained that most quality and prolific walnut trees are native to dry arid middle eastern countries, like Afghanistan and Iran. But, those middle eastern trees won’t last in the foreign California terrain, vulnerable to diseases for which they have no defenses. So growers, using a completely organic method, chop the top off a hearty, native tree, chop the roots off the prized, but delicate foreign tree and tape them up with who knows what. My mental image says duct tape. Result? They grow together. The technique is called grafting. Can you imagine? How… does that happen? But, it does. And it has for thousands of years. Jose has acres of grafted Afghanistan walnut trees to prove it. John snagged a picture for you.

On the way down from the amazing vineyard view, Jose and I got to talking about GMOs. In sketchy science layman’s terms, GMOs are foods that have been tweaked in a lab – inserting, say, an insect repellent gene from a tomato plant into an avocado plant’s DNA to improve the avocados susceptibility to a certain insect. My instincts have always led me quite strongly away from them. I am very much aware of the allergies that they may cause, read The Unhealthy Truth by Robyn O’Brien for a mother’s tale of the sharp rise in our nation’s allergies. And being affected by a soy allergy myself, it is not something that I take lightly. Could a gene of soy be housed within the DNA of another unsuspecting whole food, in turn making me allergic to it? It’s a scary thought. I mostly buy from the organic label, which doesn’t allow for genetically modified foods. But Jose, an organic walnut farmer and former physicist, explained that he supports genetic modification in farming and disagrees with it’s exclusion from an organic label. He calmly and patiently explained that farmers have been using methods of selective breeding since the dawn of time; genetic modification is simply more accurate. I asked him, already knowing the answer following our time spent together, if he considered himself an environmentalist. I felt his immediate “Yes” to my core. I don’t know the answer to such an enormous question, but I do know that I want thoughtful, talented and humble people leading the charge – on both sides. And, I am guessing the answer lies somewhere in the grey. It usually does.

John and I waved good-bye to Jose after getting his okay to wander and picture take. And later that afternoon, John and I arrived home, sun-kissed and relaxed, dreaming of the small farm in our future that we would like to call home.

As parting gifts, I have three things for you. First, I leave you with the website where you can buy your own can of Jose’s walnut oil. I didn’t even get to what makes this walnut oil so special, but there is a distinct difference in Jose’s approach. I hope to convince him to let us film a walnut episode for Farm to Table on his farm one day, and if so, I’ll tell you all about it.

La Nogalera Walnut Oil – http://lanogalerawalnutoil.com/

Secondly, a recipe for the walnut oil salad dressing, for which I selfishly receive all of Jose’s kudos.

Click HERE for The Amazing Walnut Oil Dressing recipe.

And finally, we part with a picture, just for kicks, of Ms. Dorsey and I, circa 2001:

xo – Organic Spark

5 comments


  • celeste kellerhouse

    great post, Molly!

    November 10, 2009
  • The Domestic Diva

    Great post! I love walnut oil, too!

    xoxo
    Jen

    November 11, 2009
  • My Farmhouse Kitchen

    Hi Molly…walnut oil talk….my favorite subject…you sure got my attention on this one…and the timing..I just changed my header picture the other day to….A WALNUT ORCHARD….up on Vineyard Drive in Paso Robles…took a drive there the other day with a friend. Santa Ynez and the walnut orchard you mentioned is only about an hour south of me. I live in San Luis Obispo….I know my friend would love to go with me…we can make a day out of it…with lunch in Los Olivios. Have you been to the Los Olivos Market? Foodie Heaven.

    More later,
    Kary

    November 18, 2009
  • Maurice

    Hi, Molly,

    Doing research on Jose Baer and came across your blog. Excellent. I'm sure we've crossed paths at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market. I am the milkman. Please come by soon and formally introduce yourself.

    Cheers…..

    November 26, 2009
  • Molly

    Celeste & Jen – THANKS!

    My Farmhouse Kitchen – No… I have never been to Los Olivos Market – sounds great! Thanks for stopping by.

    And Maurice – Are you the Raw Milk guy? Usually wears a hat? I know you! I buy milk from you all the time! If that's right, see you soon!

    November 27, 2009

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