Nestled in the Ukiah Valley, sandwiched between the famous Napa Valley and the redwoods of Mendocino County, is Johnson Orchards, a family farm for more than a century and home to some of the tastiest pears in California. They use organic methods and IPM (Integrated Pest Management) to grow their pears. “We are really lucky to be surrounded by natural habitat, riparian areas and fallow fields. It encourages the beneficial insects and wild pollinators,” says Peter Johnson.
Susie Johnson stands atop the catwalk above the farm’s packing machine. The packinghouse sorts, packs, and inspects all sizes of pears. After being picked, the pears go into a tub, so they don’t jostle each other and mar the fruit. Then they are sorted: little pears, that are pristine, but small, are put into boxes for baby food makers. Delicate organic Bartletts are wrapped in tissue for The FruitGuys. The Johnsons supply us with wonderful Bartlett, Red Sensations, Bosc, and Starkcrimson pears. Some of their orchards have been growing pears for four generations of Johnsons. Today Johnson Orchards picks, packs, markets, and ships all their pears under their Eagle Peak brand, ensuring high-quality fruit care from orchard to delivery.
This has been a family operation since the 1890s, when family ancestors first came to Ukiah, a Pomo Indian word for “deep valley.” Susie is the matriarch and embodies the Johnsons’ kind and generous style. She directs the trucking operations, a walking database of drivers’ destinations, and is also a fourth grade teacher at Yokayo Elementary. Her husband Bill is in charge of operations. Son Steve is a lawyer by day, but gets up early enough to man the orchard phones till he leaves for his law office. Son Peter is the orchardist and handles the farm operations. Brother Frank is in the field too taking care of the equipment. “Each generation adds something to it,” says Bill.
Employees are treated as members of an extended family. The large vegetable garden behind the office is filled with corn, tomatoes, garlic, peppers, and a wall of Nopales cactus. Everyone who works there is welcome to pick what they like. Susie pressed an armload of goodies into my arms, and I found a beautiful braid of garlic on the seat when I returned to my car.
The Johnsons chose the image of an eagle soaring over a mountaintop as their label. “Eagle Peak” is a reminder of their family summer camping spot, not far from Ukiah, in the Mendocino mountains where redwoods surround a little mountain lake and a genuine eagle lives. “You should come visit,” Susie says, regaling me with treasured family memories.
- Heidi Lewis