Oroville, CA – Oroville is a gold rush town in Butte County, CA. Oro means gold in Spanish, and during the Gold Rush prospectors stampeded over the area in a greedy frenzy. When Del Chaffin came to the area, he was looking for riches of a different kind—a valley where he could grow crops year-round. Del bought land from a group of professors at UC Berkeley, his alma mater, where researchers had a grove of Mission Olive trees. Five generations later, the Chaffin family still tends the olive grove and has expanded into a diversified farm using an impressive mix of organic and sustainable farming methods.
“The ranch contains about a 600-acre microclimate. Its horseshoe shape creates a natural weather bay that faces west, which sunset fills with warm air. At the back of the horseshoe is Table Mountain, comprised of dense volcanic rock that retains heat, says Chaffin Family Orchards sales manager Chris Kerston. At the top of the mountain, Del Chaffin built a large reservoir for irrigating crops that populates springtime vernal pools with 60 species of wildflowers. Table Mountain is famous for its multitude of native spring wildflowers, vernal pools, and waterfalls.
What really makes this 2,000-acre farm outstanding is how it’s run. Many farms in this area of California generally focus on one crop, say, nuts or apples. Chaffin Orchards grows over 40 varieties of different types of orchard fruit, raises 4 kinds of livestock, harvests eggs and wool, and makes olive oil and jam. A handful of family members and three life-long employees are able to be in production year-round by enlisting animals into the operation. “We run the livestock through the orchard to do land management. Sheep and cows are the lawnmowers. The goats prune invasive weeds to clear out riparian areas and cut fire breaks,” says Chris. Animal power has replaced 85 percent of the diesel fuel they previously used for tractors. And they don’t need nitrogen fertilizer or pesticides because their chickens rid the orchards of pests.
The animals are rotated through the orchards to munch on the fresh grass between the trees and are corralled by solar-powered electric fences. A regiment of guard dogs protects the livestock from native predators like bear, bobcat, mountain lion, and coyote that reside on the ranch. Chaffin Orchards is certified predator-friendly, meaning the wildlife gets to keep their jobs and the ecological system stays in balance. This symbiotic approach to farming is hardly new, as most farming before World War II utilized a mixture of livestock and crops. It has taken environmentally minded, enterprising people like the Chaffin family in the West and Joel Salatin at Virginia’s Polyface Farms in the East to bring these methods back into practice. Writers such as Michael Pollan have focused the public’s attention on the importance of such efforts.
The idyllic location and environmentally friendly management make for some very fine fruit. Many of the trees were planted 50 years ago. The thick-trunked, well-established trees produce tasty heirloom fruits like Blenhiem Apricots, Fay Elberta Peaches, and the rare Sun Crest Peach made famous by the book Epitaph For a Peach by David Mas Masumoto. Chaffin Family Orchards also offers an array of stone fruits and citrus, from avocados, cherries, figs, and lemons, to mandarins and persimmons—a rainbow of colorful fruit available the whole year long. And beneath that rainbow lies a farm worth more than gold.
– Heidi Lewis
Photos by Chris Kerston and Dan Lemley