Northern California Orchards
Buying and Developing a Farm
While others switch to grapes, Sebastopol rancher George Menini, 84, remains faithful to the apple.
October 7, 2001
By Tim Tesconi
The Sonoma Press Democrat
George Menini's gnarled, work-worn hands wrap around the tractor's steering wheel like the root of an old apple tree. It's another day in the orchards for the 84-year-old Sebastopol farmer who is loading bins of Jonathan apples on a truck bound for market. "I practically live on a tractor seat," says Menini, who farms more than 300 acres of apples in the rolling hills around Sebastopol. He has 20 tractors but doesn't own a computer or cell phone.
Menini's apple harvest started in July with Gravensteins. It will continue through November when he picks his last Rome Beauty and sighs with relief. Another harvest behind him.
This year will be a long harvest season because trees in western Sonoma County have produced a bumper crop. "I've never seen so many apples on a tree, and it doesn't matter what variety, they're all loaded," he said. Menini is now the largest apple grower in Sonoma County, a title he earned by default as other, larger growers sold acreage to pay off debts or planted wine grapes to earn more profit. The lifelong rancher remains a holdout, saying as long as he's alive the apple trees -- some of them 100 years old -- will stay anchored in the sandy soil he knows better than the callouses on his big farmer's hands. He quit Analy High School when he was 14 to become an apple farmer like his father, Andrea Menini, an Italian immigrant who settled in Sebastopol in 1913. "I don't know anything about growing grapes," says Menini. "I've got to hold on to the apples because that's all I've ever done. That's all I know." He says many buyers want his land for wine grapes, but he politely tells them no, his land is not for sale at any price. When he dies, it will pass to his daughter, Dena Bondelie, who loves apple farming, too. "I'll be on this tractor until they plant me six feet under," he says.
Menini is a survivor in the Sonoma County apple industry, which has been in decline for the past 20 years. He and other surviving growers work year after year to produce a crop that is increasingly difficult to sell. "There are bad years and good years, so it all averages out," he says. He lost a small fortune in the 1980s when the farmer-owned Sebastopol Cooperative Cannery collapsed in bankruptcy, taking growers' money with it. "Kiss that good-bye," says Menini, as familiar with farming's ups-and-downs as he is the red stripes on a Gravenstein. Menini's long tenure on the land and his determination to continue farming even as he approaches 85 on Nov. 1 have earned him the admiration of the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. He is the recipient of the Harvest Fair's "Lifetime Contribution to Sonoma County Agriculture Award." The Harvest Fair, a fall festival and wine show, wraps up its three-day run today at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Sheila Quince, the Harvest Fair's exhibit coordinator, said the lifetime agriculture award pays tribute to farmers like Menini who are the bedrock of Sonoma County farming, hard-working people who are keeping farms and ranches part of the county's heritage and rural landscape.
Warren Dutton, one of Sonoma County's leading grape growers, and his sons, Steve and Joe Dutton, who also farm, nominated Menini for the honor because they said he represents the spirit of farming in Sonoma County. "George is the hardest working guy I've ever seen in my life. Even when it's pouring rain, he's out in the orchards pruning. He has some of the nicest orchards in Sebastopol," said Warren Dutton, a former Harvest Fair director who continues as a member of the fair's awards committee. For his part, Menini is proud to be honored, accepting the award not only for himself and his late wife, Jean, but his immigrant parents, Elvira and Andrea Menini, who worked hard to buy the land he now farms. His father arrived in Sonoma County in 1913 and worked for prominent apple grower George Sander for 14 years, saving money to buy his own apple ranch. Today, Menini owns 165 acres and leases another 150 acres from landowners not interested in apple farming.
Menini's 70 years in farming have given him a natural rhythm with the seasons: fall is harvest time, pruning takes place in winter and spraying in spring.
"These apples keep you going all year long. Finish one thing and then you go to the next," says Menini. His favorite time is winter when the pace is slower and he's out piling brush from pruning. Apples were once the leading agricultural industry in Sonoma County, with hundreds of growers farming some 20,000 acres of orchards. During the busy harvest season, dozens of apple packing houses with colorful ranch labels like "Jackie Boy" polished and packed apples for markets around the country and overseas. "It was all Gravensteins when I was a kid and they shipped them out of here by the trainload," recalls Menini.
Apple acreage has declined by more than 50 percent in the past 20 years. While the county crop report shows about 3,800 acres of apple orchards left in Sonoma County, growers estimate that less than 2,000 acres are actually farmed, with the rest abandoned or minimally farmed. In comparison, there are 56,000 acres of wine grapes. During the past two years, hundreds of acres of apple trees were cut down to clear the way for pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. The transition from orchard to vineyard is being accelerated by the dismal market for apples and the high prices for winegrapes.
Because his land was paid for long ago, Menini says he can continue farming apples even if the prices are low. "George is one of the old-timers who doesn't want to change. He grew up growing apples and that's what he'll continue doing," says Ben Hurst, 38, another survivor in Sebastopol's Apple Country. Hurst is a scion of the Hurst family, which owns Twin Hill Apple Farm in Sebastopol. The Hurst family was once the largest apple grower in Sonoma County, with more than 500 acres. Today, the family farms 80 acres of apples and has planted 35 acres of wine grapes "Hopefully we will earn enough from the grapes to keep the apples going," says Hurst. The market outlook doesn't look good for apples in the years ahead because there is a worldwide glut. "It comes down to supply and demand. Over the last 12 years the world has overplanted apples," said Kenton Kidd, president of the California Apple Commission, based in Fresno.
Many of Menini's apples are purchased by the Martinelli Sparkling Apple Cider Co. in Watsonville. He also sells to local processors who make apple juice and applesauce. During harvest time, Menini's thoughts turn to his late wife, Jean, more than usual. Jean Menini, who died in 1979, helped out on the ranch and drove the trucks that hauled the apples to processors. "She was a big help. She loved driving the trucks," says Menini. His daughter, Dena Bondelie, farms apples with her husband, David Bondelie, who also handles the truck-driving for the Bondelie orchards during harvest.
Menini is out in the orchard every day, up at dawn and not back in his old farmhouse until after 6 p.m. He hates to cook so he eats out a lot. When he's really hungry, he gets into his 1987 Chrysler for a trip to his favorite place, the Washoe House between Sebastopol and Cotati. The Chrysler is just one of the hundreds of things that Menini has brought home from auctions, everything from tractors to water tanks. He's built sheds on his ranch to house his purchases, bidding on anything if the price drops low enough. "I can't pass up an auction," said Menini. "So I've collected all this junk, which I can't throw out because I might need it some day."