Home

Introduction

Tairwa'

Philosophy

History

Newspaper Articles

Pests in the Garden

Composting

Recipes

Farm Tour

Directions

Farm Calendar

Vacation Rental

Weather

Related Links

 

 

 

 

Newspaper Articles about Knoll Farms Products

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marketing to Restaurants is an Art Fully Developed By Rick and Kristie Knoll

By Gail Wadsworth, CAFF Grants Coordinator

On September 17 at 6:30 p.m., a unique relationship was consummated at Prima Ristorante in Walnut Creek, when a special dinner was hosted featuring Tairwa· produce from Knoll Farms in Brentwood.

Peter Chastain, executive chef and owner of Prima, makes a point of purchasing fresh, local produce and features the Knolls’ products in many of his creations. He is an advocate of sustainable agriculture and works hard to reflect that attitude in his menus. He said that he had wanted to create a dinner like this for several years and offer it to patrons. Prima is well known for its wine cellar and organic wines from Italy were paired with each course of the dinner. A description of the menu and accompanying wines was offered by the chef, who met all diners personally, and by the sommelier, JD Massler.

Chastian’s cooking style relies upon flawless execution with his preparations showcasing the quality and freshness of the components. He uses fresh, seasonal ingredients from artisan producers in northern California as a basis for his traditional Italian cuisine. The restaurant has received rave reviews since he began creating dishes that highlight fresh flavors without fussy treatment. “The taste has to be there,” Chastain said. “Everything you do must help the main ingredient stand out and emphasize its freshness.”

During the dinner, Rick Knoll told an amusing story about ‘Knollomint’ when asked how it got its name. He said that while Knoll Farms had been growing mint for a long time, his workers made fun of it as a weed and suggested he plant Yerba Buena instead. He did so, and began featuring it to clients. It was not a big seller, however, so he started calling it Knollomint and it began selling well.

This is just one example of the Knolls’ unique outlook to marketing their harvest. They have developed a farm-to-restaurant link that is a model for other farmers and restaurateurs. Their principal business comes from selling wholesale directly to local restaurants and bakeries. One of their best selling products is their rosemary. They estimate that they sell 325 pounds a week to Bay Area bakeries. Rick said that a friend of his claims he can tell when he buys bread with rosemary whether or not it’s from Knoll’s farm, simply by the taste.

In spring, the Knolls’ green garlic is a staple in many local restaurants, featured in soups, side dishes and meats. Last spring they shipped between 600 and 800 pounds a week to restaurants such as Chez Panisse, Universal Café, Slow Club, Sent Sovi and Crescent Park Grill. Their products are often listed by name on the menus of such discerning restaurants. Just as the Knolls led the acceptance of green garlic as a desirable ingredient in gourmet dishes, they have also begun harvesting and selling fava greens. As fava beans have grown in popularity, many farmers have taken advantage of the market. Kristie Knoll says Rick was out grazing one day, sampled some fava greens, and thought, “Whoa, this is pretty good.” The greens are tasty raw but most chefs wilt or blanch them.

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle reviewed them this way: “They’re a popular tapa at Cesar in Berkeley, flavored with onion and crisp bacon. At Caffe Venezia in Berkeley, they’re stir-fried, then tossed with fresh fava beans and lamb braising juices and served with lamb shanks. At Prima in Walnut Creek, a small salad of wilted fava greens and Blue Lake beans accompanies fresh fish. Farallon in San Francisco uses them raw and cooked as a fish garnish. At Firefly in San Francisco, they’re sliced and added to risotto at the last minute or stir-fried to accompany sturgeon.”

The Knolls also sell at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market and to a Walnut Creek CSA that was started by consumers in search of local food. Knoll figs are an especially popular item, as are their ‘vicious varietal’ artichokes. This past year, the Knolls developed their own label and are currently marketing all of their products under the name Tairwa. This is the first year the Knolls have decided not to renew their certification with CCOF. They have taken this step in favor of the label that better reflects the unique properties on their farm. Tairwa is a phonetic translation of the French word terroir, meaning ‘the essence of place.’ Familiar to wine drinkers, the term refers to the characteristics that grapes pick up from specific soil and climate. Rick and Kristie hope that their label will uniquely reflect the essence of their farm in flavor, quality and nutrition.

Because the Knolls have a strong market base, this change has not harmed them and may help them in the long run. They have made some unusual decisions in the past, but time has shown that in most cases they have been smart choices. Imagine, making money from fava greens!

To learn more about the Knolls and their unique perspective, visit their website at www.knollorganics.com. Prima Ristorante is located at 1522 North Main Street, Walnut Creek, and can be reached at 925-935-7780 www.knollorganics.com. Prima Ristorante is located at 1522 North Main Street, Walnut Creek, and can be reached at 925-935-7780

 

Raising Consciousness-

Every day is Earth Day for an organic farmer.

By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz

A drive down Highway 4, the main artery through a mostly agricultural territory in Contra Costa, reveals an organic farmer surveying his land.

It's an early morning ritual for Rick Knoll, forty-seven, who came of age in the sixties and retained his anti-establishment ideals by creating a farm that he says stands in contrast to the pesticide-and-chemical-dependent enterprises of many of his Brentwood neighbors.

"They're not monsters," he says, "but they are victims of the chemical industry. My radicalism was spawned by that industry--with its chemical spills and its exploitation of third-world agriculture. I wasn't going to be a part of it."

Although other organic farms have sprouted up in the area, most notably Frog Hollow Farms, the ten acres of Knoll Farms are surrounded on all sides by nonorganic growers. "We are like a little island ecosystem surrounded by the desert," he says. "It's a very honest way to live and farm."

Northeastern Contra Costa is a province of big-business industrial farming; most of the land is in winter hibernation until the weather turns. Thousands of sprawling acres of muddy earth stand empty next to Knoll's green acres--row upon row of fig trees, apricot trees and artichoke plants, interrupted sporadically by verdant rows of green garlic, rosemary and salad greens.

In a sweatshirt, sweatpants and boots, his Doberman pinscher, Junior, pacing a few steps behind, Knoll walks through his fields. Stopping to pick some blades of the grass-like green garlic that is a staple of his harvest, Knoll puts his ear just inches from the ground near holes dug by earthworms--his form of farm equipment. "I can hear the land breathe," he says. "I've got thousands of little cultivators on this farm." He pokes at some of the clumps of castings left behind by the worms as they dig through the dirt.

It's on regular morning walks like these that Knoll says he connects with the land, takes stock of what needs doing and derives his daily dose of energy.

Fencing needs to be erected. Piles of dirt need moving. Fruit trees need pruning. And work beckons on a house Knoll is renovating on the property. But not today.

"I'm scattered," he admits, listing the chores that need attention but will have to wait until he has more energy. "I like to do five or six things at once instead of one thing start to finish. That bores me."

The day before Knoll loaded his white Toyota pickup truck and hit the Produce Mart in the warehouse-strewn end of San Francisco, as he does twice a week at about three o'clock in the morning to deliver farm goods to some of the distributors, restaurateurs and retailers who depend on his organic produce. Berkeley's celebrated Chez Panisse restaurant, Rainbow Grocery and Molly Stone's Market in San Francisco-- all meccas for the organically minded--are regular clients.

Alice Waters even sent Knoll an autographed cookbook. The farm has supplied her restaurant for about a decade now, a relationship that began after Waters tasted some of Knoll's harvest at Berkeley's Monterey Market.

Each year Knoll delivers thousands of pounds of organic produce that's been picked, packed and loaded by him and his farm workers to the Produce Mart. But owing to the weather, this week's delivery was small--just a few boxes of freshly picked green garlic, salad mix and dried apricots.

"The rain prevents us from picking," he says, as he weaves his truck through the maze of delivery trucks and piles of cardboard produce boxes that invade the produce emporium each morning. "So it's a smaller delivery than normal."

Knoll's trips to the Produce Mart give him an opportunity to mingle and network with other growers, distributors and buyers. There's talk of families, new delivery outlets and upcoming organic-farming conferences as Knoll unloads his truck and hands his clients invoices.

This day, the ruddy-faced Knoll is tired from his early-morning delivery runs and content to spend time checking on some of the farm hands who help work his land. One worker is spotted in a thicket of apricot trees, spraying an organic solution of calcium and diluted sulphur on branches to drown out rot from the rains. If not controlled, the rot could threaten growth later this year. No synthetic herbicides or pesticides are used on Knoll's farm, or on any certified organic farm like his, as governed by the California Certified Organic Farmers.

After an exchange in Spanish between the two, Knoll moves on to a small, wooden house--more of a cabin, really--that serves as his office.

Inside, his wife, Kristie, is at work on the computer, tracking inventory and notifying distributors of upcoming deliveries. While Rick tends to the hands-on work of tending the farm, Kristie anchors the business end of the operation in a partnership that has endured for twenty-two years.

The two met when they were living in the same Southern California apartment complex back in the early seventies--she was going to school and working, while Rick pursued a graduate degree in plant chemistry. They married in 1974 and moved north eighteen years ago, when they spent $110,000 for ten acres in Brentwood. At that time it was just an abandoned alfalfa field, but the land offered a welcome change from the congestion that was overtaking Southern California.

Soon afterward, they planted a grove of six hundred trees and planned to live off the land in a chemical-free way. They drew their techniques from Rick's study of plant physiology and from a mutual desire to live in a pesticide-free environment.

"We were ego-centered," Knoll says, as he makes tea in a rustic kitchen adjoining the office. "It was prophetic. We were surrounded by chemical farmers. I'm a Catholic, and I thought God had sent me up here to change things."

Relations with his nonorganic neighbors suffered. At one point, Knoll recollects, he stood on his land with a rifle, threatening helicopters that swarmed over neighboring farmlands spraying pesticides. "I didn't want any of it drifting over here," he says. "I was in a revolution, and there are no laws in a revolution."

All the while, Knoll was also working in biochemical research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to support himself and his wife. "It was a dichotomy," Knoll says of working at the lab, which is known for its nuclear weapons research. "But I saw myself in an organic revolution. There were no rules. You did what you had to do. It wasn't hard to rationalize. But it was hard to go to work."

Back on the farm, the work yielded success--the Knolls quickly discovered they were producing more food than they knew what to do with. Loathe to waste any of the figs, apricots, tomatoes, artichokes, salad greens and seasonal vegetables that dotted the farm and flourished under the Knoll's organic methods, they began selling to emerging and established grocers, restaurants and distributors that were ready, enthusiastic buyers, predisposed toward organic food.

To Rick Knoll, the revolution has become a way of life. Although he's not pointing rifles in the air any longer (he believes his neighbors are using less-potent pesticides), he is ready to spread his philosophy to anyone who is willing to listen. "We have the potential to produce food that has the power to sustain life and reduce problems," he says. "That's the challenge in this polluted environment."

It keeps the Knolls busy. On the two days prior to his visits to the Produce Mart, he and his field workers do nothing but pick and load the Knoll Organic Farm truck.

And then there's the harvesting that has to be done to put food on the Knoll's dinner table. Most afternoons, Kristie dons a hat and coat, grabs a basket and heads to the fields to pick arugula, kale and beets, among other items, for the evening meal. This day is no different, as the fog continues to blanket the farm and rain drops begin to fall lightly. As Knoll leaves the cabin to tinker around with his tractor, his wife walks ahead in the distance, shopping from the earth, shadowed by Junior.

"It's a very honest life," he says. "Come back and visit us sometime and we'll sit under a fig tree and take it all in."

San Francisco freelancer H. Glenn Rosenkrantz last wrote about transporting nuclear materials, "What a Waste," in January.

The New Organic Standard

by Patricia Unterman

The retail market needed a standard organic definition. The very fact that the Federal government stepped in to supply one shows that organic has gone mainstream.

On October 21, 2002 everyone in the United States will know that ”organic” means food produced without hormones, antibiotics, herbicides, insecticides, chemical fertilizers, genetic modification or bacteria-killing radiation. The US Department of Agriculture, after a torturous twelve-year process during which every big agriculture, food industry and bio-tech interest group lobbied for its own definition, finally set down an organic standard that raises a meaningful bar.
The National Organic Rule represents a long awaited victory for health and environment conscious consumers who want assurance that organically labeled food is actually organic. Now when a consumer buys an organic apple grown in Washington it meets the same farming standards as an organic apple raised in Michigan. And growers outside the United States--Mexico, Chile, Australia-- who want to market organic produce here, must meet those same certified standards.

No longer a niche market, organic food is the fastest growing segment of the retail food industry. Each year for the past decade, sales of organic food have increased by 20 percent. Though organics represent less than 2 percent of the overall food supply, farmers’ markets with organic vendors proliferate. The neighborhood health food store has paved the way for giant whole foods chains. Safeway now has organic produce sections and the corner grocery stocks packaged organic salad greens. Even Pacific Bell Park sells organic fruit from a farmer’s market food stall behind home plate. The retail market needed a standard organic definition. The very fact that the Federal government stepped in to supply one shows that organic has gone mainstream.

But not everyone in the organic sector is popping the champagne cork. Many of the very farmers who started the organic movement in California thirty years ago say that the national organic standard falls short by not addressing some of the most important principles of sustainable agriculture, like size of the farm, distance to market, water usage and fair labor practices. Industrial scale farms can substitute organic inputs (compost instead of nitrogen fertilizers; organically derived sprays instead of chemical ones) while still maintaining a monoculture (acres and acres of a single crop farmed mechanically) that ignores these human and environmental costs.

Small organic farmers are afraid that the government has opened the door for big agriculture to take over what has been the domain of the family farm. In protest, some organic farmers have chosen to de-certify by creating their own labels based on more far reaching criteria. The cutting edge of northern California agriculture considers itself beyond organic.

Organic chemistry PhD. Rick Knoll who started Knoll Farm twenty three years ago, is one farmer who currently rejects the organic label, though he has been a California certified organic farmer since 1983. He regards his ten acres in Brentwood as a living eco-system, which he created with a technique of microbial composting called bio-dynamics. This system makes soil so rich that plants absorb maximum nutrients and resist disease. Each of his acres earns a whopping $40,000, twenty to thirty times more than an industrial acre. “If the Los Angeles basin were returned to agriculture and farmed bio-dynamically, it could supply the whole United States with food,” he claims.

He believes that the Federal organic standard degrades the philosophical principles of sustainable farming that he practices. So he has come up with his own label called Táirwa, a transliteration of the French word terroir, which refers to flavors in food and wine that come directly from the earth. This distinctive taste of the land is the highest expression of “locality,” a characteristic prized in a world where industrial agriculture produces food that tastes the same no matter where it’s grown.

When he gave up the organic label Knoll says that several big organic wholesalers dropped him but that he has gained many direct restaurant accounts, farmers' market customers and the full attention of Greenleaf Produce, a San Francisco wholesaler that markets small artisan producers. He’s never been busier.

Other farmers are banding together to create a label that emphasizes locality. A group of Central Coast growers launched a Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign last weekend with their own logo. Produce in America travels an average of 1500 miles from farm to table.

Considering the added cost of transportation and warehousing, local farmers are being squeezed. They earn more by distributing and selling locally. Two partners of Santa Cruz's Route One Farms, who cultivate a 112 acres of certified organic land in the Central Coast, say that they have actually lost money growing for the national market. Their only profits come from produce they sell locally.

Jared Lawson, spokesman for the Community Alliance of Family Farmers, the organization that launched the Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign, feels that buying locally is more important than buying organically. Though most of the farms in the Central Coast initiative happen to be organic, they don't have to be certified to carry “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” label. Lawson hopes that their campaign will raise consumer awareness about the provenance of food since locally grown food is usually fresher, picked ripe, and tastes better. They are looking to distribute to school lunch programs and restaurants.

A group of farmers and food producers in Marin county, including Warren Weber of Star Route Farm, Sue Connoly and Peggy Smith of Tomales Bay Foods and the Straus Family Creamery are also working on their own local label to offer consumers the choice between buying fresh from their own backyard or shipped in from thousands of miles away. The Marin Organic label currently covers eighteen county ag commission-certified growers, but Weber wants the make the whole county organic. Though he strongly believes that only organic agriculture is environmentally healthy, he's motivated by the importance of creating a niche for small local farmers. With the big boys moving into the organic marketplace, Weber knows that small sustainable farms must position themselves beyond organic.

Though I celebrate the new organic standard, I learned first hand that organic protocols are not lightly adapted. As a board member of the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, an organization that supports sustainable agriculture, I voted with the majority over a year ago to move toward an exclusively organic market. I discussed this goal with one of my favorite farmers, who grows fruit in the foothills of the Sierra. He’s a proud second generation small family farmer who produces some of the most luscious peaches, apples, pears and cherries I have ever tasted. He sells to a small, local supermarket chain and drives three hours to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market when he has fruit.

About a year ago I got an anguished call from him. “I want you to drive up here and see what happened to my cherry trees,” he said. “Twenty years of production gone.” He had used a “soft program” of insecticide augmented with insects that eat leafhoppers, the pest that spreads a cherry tree disease called buckskin. His trees became so severely infested under the new regime that they had to be destroyed. We were both devastated. How could I have stuck my nose into something I knew absolutely nothing about, especially in the cause of a doctrinaire position on organics that I myself don't always follow. The cherry tree disaster made me rethink my own values, just as the new federal organic standard has made farmers, large and small, decide what side of the line they want to be on.

It’s absurd to think that the new organic standard has pushed a ten acre bio-dynamic farmer like Rick Knoll and big agri-business to the same side. But an organic label doesn’t mean that food has been produced with the highest principles of sustainability.

Frankly, flavor guides my buying, trumping considerations of cost, health, the environment and fair labor practices. If it doesn’t taste good I won’t buy it. However, most of the time the freshest and tastiest produce happens to be grown locally on small family farms that most likely follow organic practices--whether the farm seeks organic certification or not.

But maybe, because of attention focused on the new organic label, people who thought tomatoes grow in cellophane packages will become conscious for the first time of the sources of their food supply. Maybe grassroots campaigns to identify locally grown fruit and vegetables will make consumers aware that they live near farmland, and that these farms supply them with tasty food. Only then will city dwellers come to realize that what they choose to buy makes a difference and that they can influence the food chain. Ultimately it was the consumer who caused the new organic standard and it will be the consumer who takes agriculture beyond organic to an even healthier sustainable realm.

This article originally appeared in the October 16, 2002 issue of the San Francisco Examiner.

For the last twenty-five years Patricia Unterman has been writing restaurant criticism and food essays for the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner. She has also written for Gourmet, Food and Wine, Bon Appetit and Taste magazines. She also publishes a bi-monthly newsletter

Brentwood tries to mix farms with growth

Katherine Conrad  

 

One day this summer, Rick Knoll was riding his tractor down Highway 4 near Brentwood when an SUV full of kids, with the driver talking on her cell phone, screeched behind him. Angered by Knoll's pace, the driver swerved across the double yellow lines to pass and indicated her disgust with a universal gesture.

For Knoll, the moment illustrated the conflict building for the past 10 years between residents searching for affordable homes and farmers struggling to eke out a living from the soil being lost to those houses.

"This is the most viable place to conduct agriculture because it's so close to the biggest market in the world – San Francisco," said Knoll, who grows figs, tomatoes, rosemary, basil and pears on a 10-acre farm that supports 15 workers year-round. "Northern California soils should be preserved, but, unfortunately, it's not being preserved."

Development versus agriculture has been a battle in Brentwood ever since the city seemed to take it upon itself to satisfy the Bay Area's voracious appetite for housing. The city's population has grown from 7,000 in 1990 to 31,500 today, and Brentwood plans to top off at 75,000.

The area's roadsides show ample evidence of the conflict: huge colorful signs posted along the two-lane highways advertise the latest housing subdivision next to small, easy-to-miss brown-and-white signs telling drivers they are now in Brentwood's Agricultural Core.

Ron Nunn, a fourth-generation farmer and, more recently, a developer, grows tomatoes, corn, garlic and apples on his farms that total an estimated 2,500 acres, according to press accounts. He also co-developed Summerset, the 2,000-unit Brentwood senior community. Nunn, who would not say how many acres he owns, opposes the efforts to "preserve" farmland, saying agriculture needs to stand on its own.

"Agriculture will survive only if it's flexible, only if it can roll with the punches, find new avenues to sell, find new niche markets," Nunn said. "It's a complex problem. I'm not against farming and I'm not against growth. They could both coexist if the public agencies and environmentalists would let them."

A year ago, Brentwood adopted a plan designed to allow the two to coexist by protecting 11,000 acres to the south and east of town. Called the Agricultural Enterprise Preservation Program, the voluntary program offers farmers the option of selling conservation easements on their land to a land trust, which would allow the farmers to farm their land but not develop it.

The program also grants transferable agricultural credits to farmers who guarantee their land will never be developed. The credits are worth two units of density for every acre permanently saved. If the farmer has property in Brentwood, for example, he can increase the housing density by two units. If he does not own property, he can sell the density credits to a developer who does.

So far, no farmer has signed up to take advantage of the program.

"The program recognizes that we have some of the best ag soils in the area, with quite a bit of class 1 (soil)," said Mitch Oshinsky, the city's community development director. "It recognizes that ag is a major component of the economy. Over $200 million to $300 million is generated by ag in Brentwood."

About a third of Contra Costa County – 148,000 acres – is devoted to agriculture, including grazing. Some 28,400 acres is planted with fruits, nuts, corn, vegetables, hay, wheat and apples. The value of the county's agriculture output was $97.5 million in 2001.

Gregory Gee, the chief deputy agricultural commissioner for Alameda County, is quite familiar with the problems in Brentwood, having watched the same thing happen to the agriculture business in Southern Alameda County as houses encroached upon the fields of gladioluses.

"When people think about moving to the country, they have this bucolic scene of roosters crowing and cows mooing. But ag is an industry that has noise and smells and dirt," Gee said. "What makes it work is understanding. Otherwise, the conflicts will result in the farmer selling off his land. That land will be developed and then the neighbors will have all the problems of urban sprawl."

State Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg, represented the Brentwood area as a county supervisor and frequently found himself in the middle of development disputes. Canciamilla says it takes education so that the SUV driver will understand the upside to having a tractor in front of her, even if it is slowing her down.

"It's no rougher than if another 300 homes were built on that property and the person in the SUV had to deal with another 300 people on the road instead of a tractor."

Reach Conrad at kconrad@bizjournals.com or 925-598-1427.



© 2002 American City Business Journals Inc.

 

Forget Paris

You are young and French and think you're the center of the universe. Think again. The culinary capital is here. Welcome to the east bay, home of the world's freshest fare.

By Bill Staggs

 

When Martine Labro moved to Berkeley in 1967 from her native Provence; the home of mesclun salad and soupe au pistou;she despaired over the Bay Area's paltry selection of public markets and seasonal food.

The dearth puzzled her. So much about the region resembled her Mediterranean home: the gentle coast, the long, dry summers so perfect for growing, the gentle rains of winter, the olive trees, the expanses of vineyards and orchards. But in five years of living here and even shopping in the health food stores and produce markets; she never came across ingredients that inspired her to cook as she had at home. In Provence, above the French Riviera, she had always cooked with produce from the garden and products from the thriving street markets.

When she returned to California recently to help her old friend Alice Waters celebrate twenty-five years of her Chez Panisse restaurant, Labro was surprised at the many changes that had been wrought in the local food landscape.

"I was amazed and overwhelmed," says Labro, a painter and coauthor with Waters of Chez Panisse Pizza, Pasta and Calzone, after a recent visit to the local farmers' markets. "I wanted to buy everything. They have real mesclun now, wonderful vegetables and such delicious fruit."

Labro's excitement doesn't end there. She rattles off superlatives in her Provençal accent, cataloging the wonders of a Bay Area that has finally seen the light. She lauds Berkeley's Monterey Market and calls breads from Acme and others around the bay "as good as the best in France." She thinks the Bay Area's food revolution stands in sharp contrast to what is happening in France. "We've gone the other way," she laments. "We have to grow our own lettuces at home, because now they are selling fake mesclun."

Labro had not visited her Northern California friends since 1987, so the transformation seemed to her a revolution, not a surprising assessment for a town with a reputation for big ideas and strong public stands.

But that's Berkeley.

Here in Contra Costa, so few miles from Berkeley's political and culinary ferment, revolution drops the R.

"Evolution more than revolution describes the food scene in Contra Costa, and it's a slow evolution at that," says Michael Dellar, a twenty-six-year resident of Orinda and partner with chef Bradley Ogden in Walnut Creek's Lark Creek Cafe.

While Berkeley and San Francisco have been in the national culinary spotlight since the seventies, the changes east of the Caldecott are just becoming evident. In both zones, however, the path to the table begins in the dirt.

 

Down on the Farm

Contra Costa County has a long and rich agricultural history. Vineyards and orchards once covered hillsides from Brentwood to Pleasant Hill; the Christian Brothers built their first winery in Martinez. Today only a few small farms remain active, most of them in the east near Brentwood, where the valley's heat and fertile soil produce succulent stone fruit and berries. For decades Bay Area residents have driven to the Delta to pick fruit for canning. But rapid development is gobbling up farmland, and even the "U-pick" growers have seen a decline in business.

Kristie Knoll, co-owner with husband Rick of Knoll Organic Farms in Brentwood, says U-pick sales have fallen off. The Knolls grow stone fruit; apricots, nectarines, plums and cherries; as well as figs, green garlic and herbs. They truck produce from their ten acres to restaurants and retail outlets, and when they've inundated their traditional wholesalers, they drive to the farmers' market at Ferry Plaza in San Francisco for a busy Saturday of selling direct to the public.

Al Courchesne, proprietor of Frog Hollow Farms near Brentwood, sells succulent organic peaches and nectarines to Chez Panisse and other restaurants, as well as at farmers' markets. He despairs over the future of farming in his area, seeing development as a death knell for the little that remains of small-scale agriculture. But still, "there are people here who care about good, fresh nutritious food," he says. "They just need to teach their children."

 

To Market, To Market

Fueling the food transformation is the array of produce grown in surrounding counties. And it's not just tomatoes and peaches. Small farmers are producing organic milk, specialty cheeses, virgin olive oils, mushrooms and, of course, wines that challenge the best of France and Italy.

Although a portion of their produce goes directly to restaurants, much of these small farmers' business comes from selling direct to the consumer at farmers' markets, where many shoppers, reacquainting themselves with foods they had forgotten or never encountered, buy what the season furnishes; no raspberries in January, no celery root in July. Typical is the day when a dozen or more chefs prowl stands with their restaurants' lunch and dinner menus in mind.

Just a few years ago there were fewer than fifty such markets throughout the state. Today, according to Lynn Bagley, founder of the Marin County farmers' market, there are three hundred statewide; sixty-six in the Bay Area alone.

The local movement began in 1983 with the opening of farmers' markets in Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill. And those two original markets have done well, especially in the past few years, as have the markets that followed, in Pleasanton, Danville, Concord, Antioch, Richmond, Martinez and El Cerrito.

"They are living up to their purpose," Bagley says, "which was to keep the small farmers alive, to give them outlets while putting the consumer in direct contact with the farmer." Bagley also praises the markets' leadership in food trends: "Farmers' markets test-market every day. They plant a small crop of something new, they let people taste it and if it's a hit they grow more and then more. It sells, and the restaurants pick it up and then the stores. To me that's a sign of the markets' strength. Just look at the items we now see as commonplace that started at the farmers' markets: kiwifruit, fuji apples, heirloom tomatoes, mesclun salad mix.

"Shopping at farmers' markets is an adventure," Bagley insists. "It's experiential. It will subtly and deeply change your whole life."

The markets have their devotees, among them longtime Walnut Creek resident, cooking teacher and author, Marion Cunningham. She started her culinary career in the sixties after taking a cooking class from that icon of American eating, James Beard. When Beard died, Cunningham settled into her own place in the home-cooking pantheon. She twice revised The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, and wrote The Breakfast Book, The Supper Book and Cooking with Children. And today she is on the verge of a deal that will bring her classes on cooking with kids to television.

"The farmers' market is such a wonderful way to spend part of your Sunday morning," says Cunningham, "with lots of old friends, both customers like myself and the farmers. I've seen the same people for so many years. It's a real community, and Sunday wouldn't be complete without it. The farmers' markets don't have that clinical, businesslike feel of supermarkets. It's so easy just to stroll along and talk to someone, or to listen. You find out what's been great, or what to wait for."

Cunningham is heartened by the recent popularity of the markets. "For the longest time," says Cunningham, now seventy-five, "it seemed all I saw at the market was older folks like myself. We all have such vivid memories of food that was picked fresh to eat and not to ship. Tasting these wonderful things in season and ripe off the vine or the tree takes you right back to those taste memories, which are some of the strongest we have."

But for all her enthusiasm about farmers' markets, Cunningham still defends the supermarkets as essential and sometimes superior.

"This summer I had the hardest time finding the right plums for a tart I was making," she says. "The ones at the farmers' market just didn't have the flavor and the sweetness. But then I found the perfect ones at Safeway. So I think you can't count the supermarkets out. They're trying, and sometimes they do a lot better than the farmers' markets."

She's also a stickler for farmers hewing to what their communal markets are meant to be: "It's been disappointing to me that many farmers don't harvest ripe. Some harvest to hold. And I think that even though the markets have been useful in educating the public, they have often been victims of trendiness, growing things because they're stylish. Who wants a pretty tomato with no flavor?"

Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Vegetables is a cookbook based on shopping at farmers' markets. "The Bay Area has the most and the most beautiful, and wholesome, produce I've seen," Waters says. "I remember when there were just three or four vendors at the Center Street market in Berkeley and now there must be thirty. "People just need to learn how to use the markets; how to buy things at their peak and support the farmers. That's how we create interest and demand."

Always the missionary, whether for better greens or better school lunches, Waters maintains that the markets are about much more than making a meal: "Farmers' markets are the most positive and spirited movement in the country. There's this unbelieveable learning that happens through the markets, almost by osmosis. It all comes from just being part of the farm-to-market process. We learn about seasonality, the work that farmers do. The kids learn too, by smell, by taste. It's an essential, sensual education."

Like her French friend Labro, Waters has watched the decline of markets in France: "In France, you have to go way off the beaten track to find the kinds of wonderful things you used to see. Not long ago we found a tiny little market in the Dordogne, and there was this one little guy. He had a few squash blossoms and a handful of haricots verts, some potatoes he had dug up that morning and some mushrooms he had gathered. But he's a rarity now except in the remotest corners.

"It used to be," she says, "that every time I went to France I'd bring back seeds for mesclun. But now I see my friend Martine looking for seeds for all the wonderful tomatoes we have here. Today it's our Bay Area markets that have the diversity and the wholesomeness. Who could have imagined that?"

 

What's in Store

At the Oakville Grocery Company in downtown Walnut Creek, the tables and shelves are stacked high with breads from the Bay Area's best bakeries. Display cases feature dozens of cheeses, deli meats, imported and local olive oils, flavored vinegars, Californian and European wines, along with chef Richard Hoff's array of prepared foods, from grilled wild mushroom polenta to roast salmon.

"Opening here has been an education," Hoff says of the two-year-old store. "In the beginning people came in and looked at all the prepared food in the cases, and many of them just didn't know what to do with it, how to use us." But customers have at last grown comfortable with the way of food shopping so prevalent in Europe.

Around the corner on Main Street, the Good Nature Grocery sets forth what is probably the county's best selection of organic produce.

Dina Izzo, who oversees the organic produce department with produce manager Mark Mulcahy, finds that many shoppers are young women with children who no longer want to feed their kids foods with chemical histories. Izzo has seen the customer base for organic produce expand at least 30 to 60 percent every year. She is convinced that as the population of the county grows, so will a demand for better food: "People with kids want to feed their children food that's good, that tastes good, that has nutritional value."

Andy Powning, spokesperson for organic-produce wholesaler Greenleaf in San Francisco, a supplier to Good Nature and many restaurants, confirms Izzo's belief that Contra Costa's food consciousness is inching higher. "Our sales in Contra Costa County are burgeoning," he says, "increasing 25 percent in the past year. Alameda County is steady with continued growth, but nothing like the increased demand we're seeing in Contra Costa."

Even the folks at Safeway are seeing an increased demand for organic produce. Safeway spokesperson Debra Lambert isn't sure whether it's from their customers' exposure to farmers' markets or concern for their families' health, but the company; with 220 stores in Northern California; is seeing a "teeny but steady" increase in the call for organics.

"We're seeing greater quantities available to us so we can offer it consistently," she explains, "and an increase in the number of requests we get."

Powning and other food professionals acknowledge that this shift in food consciousness is embryonic and needs nurturing. That fragile, nascent consciousness can go bust in a county whose demographics and family pressures can contribute to the demise of ambitious food ventures.

In Orinda's Theater Square, produce professional Gary Gentry closed his Orinda Produce early this year after a four-year run. Gentry is not bitter, but he doesn't hold back on his theory about food's sometimes tenuous place among economic priorities: "Many people are so busy and so highly leveraged that buying great, fresh food; especially more expensive food like organics; is a low priority. Those pressures mean they'll spend $40 on prepared foods to take home and heat up, but not $40 on prime fruits and vegetables in season. Plus, everybody's too tired to cook."

 

Chez East Bay

But the biggest buyers from small farmers are still restaurant chefs. Contra Costa diners have witnessed the emergence of restaurants modeled on the bistro or trattoria style, small, neighborhood places with changing menus and a seasonal focus.

At Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland's Rockridge district, chef/owner Paul Bertolli sees the farmers' markets as essential to keeping his changing menus attuned to what's happening on the farm.

"The markets are busier than ever; full of people," says Bertolli, who joined Oliveto after ten years as chef at Chez Panisse. "Part of the reason that people love seeing things in season is that they are bright, vivid and tasty. People respond to that simplicity. I remember we found these remarkable blue lake beans, big, with no fiber. We boiled them in salt water, tossed on some shallots, olive oil and sherry vinegar, then served them cold. There's such a power to food with that kind of simplicity, a kind of nostalgia about what was really good when people were young."

Bertolli carps about high prices but contends that, if a visitor shops smart, a good deal can be found. "Bargaining is not forbidden," he says. And though he may be a good negotiator, Bertolli admits that high-profile restaurants such as Oliveto have a built-in advantage. "A grower will save a special case of peaches or beans for us," he admits.

South along I-680 in the hills beyond Pleasanton, at Wente Vineyards Restaurant near Livermore, President Carolyn Wente and Executive Chef Kimball Jones have just celebrated the tenth anniversary of their vineyard-edge operation. Like their neighbors to the north, they have built their repertoire on the best of the season, and enjoy the extra luxury of offering wines from the adjacent cellars, and extra virgin olive oil from centuries-old trees on the property.

Jones scours the countryside from Livermore to Brentwood for produce, visits the farmers' markets and serves an American-style menu with Mediterranean influences and an ethnic edge. "Our food looks and sounds Mediterranean, inevitably, because that's the kind of growing region we're lucky enough to live in," Jones says. His customers come from flourishing business parks in the area, from new residential developments and from the steady flow of tourists through the winery.

Yet Wente is quick to point out that our quiet valleys are seeing a bloom in more than man-made works. "A mile down the road from us," she says, "one farmer is planting a hundred acres of olive trees to make the finest, Italian-style oil."

At Walnut Creek's Lark Creek Cafe, chef Bradley Ogden tells of a similar dependence on small farmers for the flux in his menus. He changes the menus every three or four months but leaves room to take advantage of the changing goods at the markets. "I've been using farmers' markets since I worked at Campton Place," Ogden says. "They are a big inspiration to me." He sees the markets as being here to stay. "In the Bay Area it's become part of the lifestyle. People have been exposed to the best in food, markets and restaurants. They're demanding it now because they know how things should taste."

Ogden's partner Michael Dellar sees the demand for freshness showing up in the fast-food world as well as in finer restaurants. He points to the success of places like World Wrapps and food-to-go counters in restaurants as signs of the demand for "portable foods" in a frenetic era: "I think what's happening with food in Contra Costa is only going to get better. There's a lot of disposable income, a high level of education. People here travel widely. They know good food from very good food and good food from fair. And the people here are demanding, at the very least, good food."

Bill Staggs is a private investigator in Emeryville. In his spare time, he writes for the New York Times, Health and Saveur. This is his first piece for Diablo.



A Farmer's Profile

The
KNOLL FARM

by Melissa Kaman





You could drive Hwy. 4 right past the Knoll Farm and never be aware of its existence. The inauspicious turn off the Byron Highway leading down a long, dirt driveway crowned by an old oak tree doesn’t prepare the first-time visitor for the amazing things waiting within.

Going to Knoll Farm isn’t like going to Disneyland. The first time I went there I felt a little uncertain about my location, since no clues were visible to confirm that I was actually going the right way. A person going to the farm for the first time can’t know for sure that they made the right turn until they’re actually driving up the lane.

But then the uncertainty is washed away by the sight of an emerald patch of land lying in beautiful disarray. Rows of fragrant rosemary, towering fig trees bearing sweet flowers, bunches of verdant greens, and radiant varieties of peppers are just a few of the foods that grow here, but the crops are not restrained in the neat rows and columns of traditional farm crop land.

Knoll farm plants are allowed to grow over one another, trees droop their limbs in unpruned majesty, and weeds are permitted to grow to their full glory. The sand-silver mane of Rick Knoll, the steward of the land, is usually seen bobbing here and there among his beautiful and disorderly tenants.

Meet the Knolls
Rick Knoll is a tall man with the clear, ruddy complexion that only a life of extended contact with the sun can bestow. Knoll greeted me with a firm shake by a callused and strong hand that was stained by a life of contact with the soil. His clear blue eyes are hesitant but trusting. He speaks in a deep voice, with a careful manner as if evaluating each word before allowing it to flow from his lips.

Rick’s petite, vivacious wife, Kristie, makes a first impression that seems the opposite of her big taciturn mate. Kristie’s soft, curly brown locks used to spill over her olive colored skin, but she recently shaved her head, creating quite a different effect.

Kristie’s dark eyes smile quickly in welcome. Her Southern drawl — the result of her Texas childhood — provides a perfect context for her affable, breezy manner. Kristie’s speech is an enchanting blend of sugar and sand sprinkled with an occasional smiling vulgarity that puts most people at ease the minute they meet her.

Rick and Kristie have made a great mark upon the agricultural history of East County. The two of them have been an inspiration for those around them. The Knoll Farm has become an institution in their industry. Innumerable fans regard them as true pioneers.

In the Beginning
Rick and Kristie Knoll arrived in Brentwood in 1979, when the area was still rural, consisting mostly of open fields and farms, peppered with only a few local, family businesses. “When we first got here, we really thought we were in the boonies,” laughed Kristie.

When they first purchased the ten-acre plot of land that would become Knoll Farm the land harbored mostly alfalfa and weeds. It was a perfect spot to fully embrace the dream that had begun with the small organic garden that they’d fed themselves with back in Santa Ana.

The young couple was excited about the transformation they were making to their “Green Acres,” lifestyle. The piece of undeveloped land was going to help them realize their dreams of living a country life. They found a place where they would build a home, and feed themselves and their friends from the food grown in their own gardens and from the chickens that provided a source of natural fertilizer and that could roam free without disturbing any neighbors. They also had found a place where they could eventually retire.

A Melon Revolution
Everything changed for them because of melons. A few years after moving onto the property, Rick and Kristie planted Crenshaw melons. Kristie says that their palates dictated this decision. “We only planted them because we loved to eat them,” she said.

The Brentwood climate turns out to be a paradise for Crenshaw melons. The land produced bountifully and hundreds of melons sprouted that season. There were more melons than the couple could eat or even give away to friends.

The Knolls decided to sell the extra melons in a simple effort to keep them from going to waste. They worked out a schedule to harvest these during the week, load them on a truck, drive them to the Bay Area, sell their melons at three different farmers’ markets, and then drive home on Sunday.

That weekend excursion quickly evolved into more farmers’ markets — expanded into Marin — and evolved into more produce, such as hefty braising greens and additional summer fruits.

In 1983, the Knolls expanded their business into restaurants. They delivered their wares personally, as well as routing certain items through Greenleaf, a San Francisco-based produce distribution company that also works with restaurants and retail stores.

“Farming really found us,” remarked Kristie. “We weren’t out looking for it.”

Organic Food and
Soil Health
The Knolls were the first people to farm organically in Brentwood. They had never used any chemicals or pesticides, and made their position official by joining California Certified Organic Farmers in 1984.

Rick’s educational background, with a Ph.D. in chemistry and three years of postgraduate agro-ecological study at the University of California at Santa Cruz, prepared him well for the position of organic farmer. With Kristie’s help, Rick experiments with alternative ways to control pests and encourage growth.

For example, the Knolls made the wonderful discovery that poisons weren’t really required to get rid of the artichoke plum moth, a common artichoke pest. All that was required to control the pest was to plant a certain thistle, which the moth prefers to the artichoke.

Rick discovered that the moth had only adapted to the artichoke when the thistles were no longer available. Planting the thistles near the artichoke plants not only lured the moth away from the artichoke, but while living on the thistle, the moth provides a food source for a wide variety of beneficial insects.

Pioneers Showing
Others the Way
Rick’s genius and respect for nature began to garner attention from environmentalists, organic food eaters, and world-renowned restaurateurs, but his own neighbors didn’t always understand.

“People thought we were nuts,” he said. Kristie added, “They called us messy hippies because we let our weeds grow. But bare ground is unnatural — unless you’re in the desert — and killing weeds also kills habitat for beneficial insects, kills helpful microbes in the soil, and takes away moisture for root systems. Food can’t grow on denuded ground.”

Andy Powning of Greenleaf Produce thinks the practice of intelligently concentrating on the health of the land sets Knoll Farm apart. “The amazing thing is that when you go to see them, their soil is more than a foot higher than the surrounding area,” Powning said. “They so lovingly care for it.”

Walnut Creek resident Gail Wadsworth agrees. “They are pioneers in the California’s sustainable agriculture scene. Everyone in the industry knows who they are,” she said. Wadsworth set up a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program in which Brentwood farmers contribute to weekly boxes of produce to be delivered to private homes in her town. The Knolls have participated in the CSA, appropriately called “Eat Outside the Box,” since its inception in May 2002.

Wadsworth says the members of CSA love Knoll Farm produce, not only because they know it was grown ethically and responsibly, but because the products expand their horizons. She said that it encourages people to eat produce that they normally wouldn’t buy, such as cardoons, fig wood for grilling, and fig leaves for imparting flavor to meat, fish, and vegetables.

The Evolution Continues
In 2002, the Knolls attracted even more attention when, as a result of the National Organic Rule, they decided not to renew their organic certification. The new rules provide a federally enforced definition of organic foods that Rick and Kristie disagree with. “There has been a lowering of the bar,” Kristie said. “The industry has begun to take the easy way out rather than pursuing a plan to create the most nutritious food.”

The Knolls believe that the USDA ruined the word “organic” by giving it a definition that Rick and Kristie disagree with. With a local artist, they decided to design their own label, a name for their produce they could believe in. They chose the name Tairwa.

“Tairwa” is the phonetic spelling of the French word “terroir,” which Knolls believe communicates their vision. The French word refers to the characteristics of soil, earth, and weather that contribute to the character of wine, fruits, and vegetables. Knoll Farm produce reflects the land on which it’s grown. The kind of farming the Knolls carry out represents true sustainability, a concept the Knolls consider to be beyond simple organic farming.

“Our focus is the soil. It always has been and always will be,” said Kristie. “The soil is the foundation — its viability and health are paramount.”

Tairwa, though shrouded in controversy, has had great success. “We are still amazed,” said Kristie. “We thought we’d be ostracized. We struggled with the decision, and were in battle for years, but we got so much positive publicity that we finally made it,” she said.

An Eye to the Future
The Knolls hope that Brentwood will be able to preserve its agricultural roots. “Brentwood has some of the best farmland in the country — capable of year-round production,” said Kristie. Such a treasure should be conserved and not frittered away through bad land management.

That remains to be seen, but the prospects aren’t good. According to Winston Rhodes, senior community development planner, Brentwood’s population has increased from 7,500 in 1990 to 33,000 today.

In Contra Costa County, harvested crop land has decreased by roughly half from 1982 to 2002, while at the same time the population has grown by about a third.

Ed Meyer, County Agricultural Commissioner for Contra Costa County, said the preservation of the area’s natural state must be deliberate. “It is not going to be saved or maintained by accident,” Meyer said.

Thanks to Rick and Kristie both working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, Knoll Farm deliberately survives. Still, staggering population increases and urbanization are a constant threat, not only to small family farms like Knoll, but to Brentwood’s essential character and history.

Knoll Farm now sells to several Bay Area restaurants: Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Oliveto Café and Restaurant and Dopo Ristorante in Oakland, and many more in San Francisco, including Delfina, Boulevard, Greens, and Rose Pistola.

Produce from Knoll’s farm is also available at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmers’ market and Monterey market in Berkeley, and has been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, Contra Costa Times, the Oakland Tribune, and many local magazines.

“We believe in giving people the best product we possibly can,” Kristie said. “We let our products speak for themselves, and hope that people come back for more.” °

Melissa Kaman is an Oakland-based freelance writer. You can reach her at
melkaman@earthlink.net

Rick and Kristie Knoll's figs draw long lines of suitors at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in summer. Heavy with sugar, with honey often dripping from their blossom ends, the Brown Turkey and Kadota figs go home with seduced shoppers who don't flinch at paying $5 a pound.

What the fruit's fans may not have noticed is that their supplier has changed names: the former Knoll Organic Farms is now simply Knoll Farms, a small alteration with big implications.

Leaving organic

In a protest move that the couple feared might cost them more than half their business, the Knolls banished what they now call "the 'O' word" from the name of their Brentwood farm in 2002 and dropped organic certification.

"We didn't want to be associated with it," says Rick Knoll, 56, a lanky man with a farmer's ruddy, weathered face, snow-white eyebrows and a long braid of platinum-blond hair. Knoll was so convinced that abandoning organics would undermine his sales that he bought a surfboard to take advantage of what he expected would be slow times.

In fact, the farm's business has continued to grow and the surfboard lies unused. Only one customer -- Berkeley Natural Grocery -- dropped the Knolls as vendors. The farms' prominent restaurant customers -- Chez Panisse and Oliveto among them -- have continued to purchase the Knolls' figs, green garlic, fava beans, cardoons, artichokes, Blenheim apricots and other specialties, despite the couple's full-throttled critique of the organic movement.

What caused the Knolls' change of heart, after almost two decades of certified organic production, was the U.S. Department of Agriculture's effort to codify national organic standards.

Fundamentalist view

The heated debates that preceded the adoption of the standards in 2002 -- whether genetically modified crops could be certified organic, whether sewage sludge was an organic soil amendment, whether chlorine rinses should be allowed on organic salad greens -- split the organic community, with, typically, large-scale growers favoring liberal interpretations and small growers like the Knolls taking a more fundamentalist view.

"I felt like the feds were going to be lowering the bar," says Kristie Knoll, 57, a petite, voluble woman with close-cropped hair. "That blew me away. You don't ever lower the bar. That's not how you achieve greatness."

Although, in the end, the USDA organic standards prohibited genetically modified crops and the use of sewage sludge, the Knolls felt that the government was nibbling away at the integrity of the regulations that had defined organic farming in the past. In their view, the new standards may have codified the rudiments of organic practice, but they ignored the environmentalist spirit that drove so many young idealistic people into organic farming in the 1970s and 1980s.

Bagged organic salad greens are exhibit A in the Knolls' case against the federal standards. Processors are allowed to rinse the greens in chlorinated water as long as the water leaving the facility and the water remaining on the product are diluted to four parts chlorine per million, comparable to municipal water. But Rick Knoll argues that oversight is lax and that the chlorine creates a potential wastewater problem.

"So certified organic farmers are creating toxic water," says the farmer, who has a doctorate in organic chemistry. "And now chlorinated greens are sent across the country. Does that sound like organics? What happened to fresh, seasonal and local?"

Although the Knolls no longer complete the burdensome paperwork, pay the fees and submit to the inspections required for organic certification, they claim that their organic growing practices haven't changed.

'Ecological' farmers

If anything, says Rick Knoll, he and Kristie have become more rigorous in what they now refer to as ecological farming. They have implemented biodynamic methods and talk about "evolving beyond" organic, a word they believe has been irreparably diluted by large organic farms with a bottom-line mentality.

The Knolls backed into farming in 1979 after purchasing 10 acres in Brentwood. Refugees from Orange County, where Rick Knoll had worked as an aerospace-industry chemist and Kristie Knoll as a legal secretary, the couple were looking for more room to garden and a more rural life. With their new property, they quickly found that they could produce more than they could possibly eat and began taking their extra harvest to farmers' markets. Today they grow a variety of stone fruits, herbs, flowers and specialty vegetables, such as cardoon, green garlic and chicories.

No objections

Their farmers' market customers haven't objected to the Knolls' lack of organic certification. San Francisco's Rainbow Grocery complained at first because the produce no longer fit into one of the market's three categories: certified organic, in transition or conventional. The store carries it anyway.

Whole Foods, which had dropped Knoll Farms because its prices were higher than the large organic vendors, now buys the produce again. The Knolls haven't dropped their prices, but their product is no longer competing with the low-cost organics. Now, it's "specialty produce."

"My only regret in not being part of the organic thing is in terms of trying to change it from the inside," says Kristie Knoll. "When your church goes bad, do you bail or try to change it? We bailed. It seemed like the movement was really going corporate, and this was one of the reasons I was happy to bail."

 

Knoll Farms is at 12510 Byron Hwy., Brentwood; (925) 634-5959, and sells on Saturdays at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, on Embarcadero (at Market), San Francisco.

You can e-mail Janet Fletcher at jfletcher@sfchronicle.com.