By Reed Adam, courtesy of Capay Valley Farm Shop
On a warm June day, the aroma from field of sweet peas behind the T and Y Strawberry Patch, located just west of Woodland on Highway 16, is overpowering, providing a sensory counterpoint to the stunning display of the flowers themselves: a sea of whites, reds, purples and pinks and every shade in between. Though the flowers may capture the visual and olfactory senses, the farm stand, which attracts a loyal following from across California, is best known for its’ delicious berries, which the owners of T and Y Strawberry Patch, the Saelee family, grow in Yolo County.
Newt Saelee is the third generation in his family to farm in California. The Saelee family are Mien, and farmed in their home country of Laos before immigrating to the United States in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. During the 1980s they farmed outside Fresno, then opened their first strawberry patch in Oakdale, located near Modesto. Newt Saelee, along with his two brothers and one sister, parents and grandparents moved north to Yolo County and have cultivated the land behind their produce stand since 1995. In 2003, they opened the current building, which is spacious enough to house a plethora of fruits, vegetables and other agricultural products. In addition to the six acres outside of Woodland, the Saelees also farm 8 acres outside of Esparto, land they found with help from local farmer Fred Manas, who is a longtime Strawberry Patch customer.
The Saelees grow five varieties of strawberries, along with thornless blackberries and boysenberries; during my visit, two older members of the family were plucking the dark berries from the fruit laden canes. T and Y is truly a family business: Newt and his siblings, who speak fluent English, staff the farm stand and manage the business, while Newt’s parents and grandparents primarily work in the field. The farm relies on the labor of relatives, who as Newt says: “enjoy getting out of the house and doing some work on the farm”. Since all weeding on the farm is done by hand, keeping the fields clean is no easy task. In one bed, newly emerging okra, which had gotten a slow start from the cool weather, remained largely hidden among stands of weeds. One of the most prolific of these is a kind of green amaranth is prized by a few of the farm stand’s Fijian customers: “it’s one of their main vegetables”, Newt says. The Saelees have chosen not to pursue organic certification, because they use some conventional fertilizers and occasionally will apply a non-organic spray to a specific crop. Newt plans to further his studies in horticulture at Woodland College and UC Davis in order to implement better agricultural practices on the family’s land: current farming decisions, says Newt, are mostly done “day to day.” In addition, the family hopes to purchase the land behind the strawberry patch and have been discussing options with the Yolo Land Trust, a local organization dedicated to farmland preservation.
The great majority of T and Y’s income comes from the roadside farm stand. That day’s display included the family’s own harvest: strawberries, boysenberries, chard, kale, the last of the favas and peas and some very delicious looking red onions and early garlic. Newt says that “keeping the cost of produce down is very important, because most of our customers cannot afford to pay premium prices.” In addition to berries and vegetables the stand offers pastured eggs from Klinger in the Capay Valley, honey from apiaries near Woodland, nuts, nut butters and dried fruit. In addition to the berries, the farm stand may carry apricots, cherries and peaches from Lodi and blueberries from Dunnigan, depending on the season. The Saelees are passionate about offering products especially from Yolo County in order to support the local farming community. They are committed to family farming as a way of life. As a resident of this area, I am looking forward to reaping the rewards of their hard work, whether it is berries throughout the summer or some heat-loving okra and yard-long beans if the warm weather continues.