Monday, July 10, 2006

Solano's Grand Stands

Solano's Grand Stands
Local Produce Abounds at Countryside Stops
By Amanda Janis/Business Editor

Might Solano County's countryside eventually become a destination like Apple Hill or even Napa Valley?

Whether or not the county's various valleys, wineries, ranches and farms - and the regulations under which they operate - can fuel an agricultural tourism revolution remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Solano's existing farm and produce stands continue to sell bounties of fresh, locally-produced goods, from peppers and pears to pies and preserves.

The items offered, and the stands themselves, vary greatly. There are large operations that have dozens of employees, and smaller ones with just a few workers to weigh colorful produce and calculate its cost. Some stands resemble retail shops, while others are simple barns and shacks. Some sell only produce cultivated from their own farms, while others have no farm at all, but serve as an outlet for local farmers, as well as artisan goods like honey and roasted nuts.

If there is such a thing as a "blockbuster" produce stand, Larry's Produce in Suisun Valley - now in its 20th year of operation - fits the bill. As with many of the area's seasonal stands, Larry's opened several weeks later than usual this year due to the rainy spring. And when it opened July 1, the public pounced.

"They literally needed a traffic controller to direct traffic, there were so many people and cars out there," said Joe Murdaca, owner of Pietro's No. 1 in Vacaville.

Murdaca visits Larry's four to five times a week to purchase ingredients for use at his restaurant.

"I am a big fan of Larry's," he said, emphasizing the variety of fresh, high-quality items available at bargain prices. "For restaurants, if you're not using someone like that you're missing out."

Restaurateurs only make up about 10 percent of the stand's sales, said owner Larry Balestra, whose goal is to simply "sell what people need, the basics."

Most of his customers are locals like Suisun City resident Emily Gaskins, who has supplemented or replaced her regular grocery shopping for the past four years with the produce farmed on Balestra's 800-some acres in Suisun Valley.

"On the weekends, we get a lot of out-of-town people," Balestra said. But the out-of-towners pop in during the week, too.

Shirley Gini and her husband stop at Larry's Produce when traveling between their homes in Truckee and Bodega Bay.

"It's on our way, the prices are right and it's a fun place to come to," Gini said. They usually buy a "little bit of everything," she explained, because "in Truckee nothing grows but rocks, so it's like dying and going to heaven here."

The couple learned about Larry's several years ago from a neighbor in Bodega Bay who commutes back and forth from Davis, and also makes regular pilgrimages to the farm stand.

That's Larry's marketing tactic in a nutshell. "Word of mouth - I think that's the best," Balestra said.

Word of mouth has also propelled Vacaville's Aliki's Finest from a neighborhood "secret" to a widely-adored produce stand.

"We had been wholesaling since 1989 and going to farmers markets," explained owner Aliki Poulou. In 1996, as development enfolded the land located at Orchard Avenue and Fruitvale Road, a decision was made to open a produce stand.

"They built all around us, and we're the only orchard on Orchard Avenue, so we thought we'd open something for the neighborhood," Poulou recalled. Repeat customers who told friends who told friends who told more friends, she said, is how Aliki's became known well beyond its neighborhood.

Part of the appeal, Poulou explained, is that her fruits and vegetables are locally grown.

"Eighty percent of the stuff, we grow right where we are," she said. Other produce comes from local farmers who need an outlet for their commodities, such as peaches farmed in Gates Canyon by the Brazelton family.

Giving local farmers and artisans a place to sell their produce and products is the purpose behind Dixon's Pedrick Produce, which is popular among residents from Winters to Fairfield, and appeals to "anybody that drives down the highway," said owner Henry Barraza.

Located on freeway frontage just off Interstate-80, Pedrick Produce does not have its own farmland, but it has been selling a complete line of fruits and vegetables since 1989.

"As much as we can, we go local," said Barraza. For example, one the stand's most popular items - corn on the cob - comes from Dixon farmer Allen Simonis.

But because the stand stays open year-round and hopes to keep its customers from visiting supermarket produce aisles, Barraza noted, it supplements from other sources when items are out of season or unavailable locally.

The store also sells specialty items from the area, including tortillas from Woodland-based California Fresh Salsa, and pies baked by Vacaville's Pure Grain Bakery.

"We sell lots and lots of pies," Barraza said. "People try them and they come back for more."

Amanda Janis can be reached at

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Finding farm-fresh goods

Heirloom tomatoes, tomatillos, sweet corn, kiwis, peaches and plums are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to farm-fresh produce available at local farm stands. Here's a quick-guide to some of the county's popular stands:

ALIKI'S FINEST - Fruitvale Road and Orchard Avenue, Vacaville

CAL YEE FARMS - 5158 Clayton Road, Fairfield 425-5327

CASTA EDA BROTHERS PRODUCE - 4075 Green Valley Road, Fairfield, 207-0717

DIXON FRUIT MARKET - 7808 Batvia Road, Dixon

ELMIRA PRODUCE - 6083 California Pacific St., Elmira

ERICKSON RANCH - 2482 Cordelia Road, Fairfield, 864-0557

LARRY'S PRODUCE - Suisun Valley Road and Ledgewood Road, Fairfield 864-8068

MORNINGSUN HERB FARM - 6137 Pleasants Valley Road, Vacaville, 451-9406

PARKER FARM - 2710 Rockville Road, Fairfield, 422-2915

PEDRICK PRODUCE - 6850 Sievers Road, Dixon 678-1814

SAECHAO FAMILY FARM - 2707 Rockville Road, Fairfield, 422-6357

THE VEGETABLE PATCH - 2820 Rockville Road, Fairfield, 427-8164

WILLOTTA RANCH - 2423 Rockville Road, Fairfield, 864-0912

Solano's Got It!

Solano's Got It!
The Best That Northern California Has To Offer.

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