Friday, March 23, 2007

Endive Farmer Envisions Agricultural Complex on I-80

Endive Farmer Envisions Agricultural Complex on I-80
By Barry Eberling

Richard Collins would like to build a produce-selling center on the north side of I-80 on Kidwell Road near Dixon. (Photo by Mike McCoy)

FAIRFIELD - An Interstate 80 interchange to nowhere could next year begin taking motorists to Solano County's biggest roadside farmstand since the heyday of the Nut Tree.

Richard Collins plans to open the initial phase of Bridgeway Farms in May 2008. It would ultimately have orchards, crops, cows, pigs, hens and other farm staples. People could buy products grown and made at the farm, as well as produce from other local farms.

Collins last summer bought 200 acres along I-80 near Highway 113, between Dixon and Davis. His in-laws bought an adjacent 250 acres. Both properties have conservation easements, which bars them from being developed with industry and homes.

"We want to develop the land, not in the sense of classic development, but agriculturally," Collins said.

The Nut Tree in its original incarnation was a roadside fruit stand that grew so big and famous that it put Vacaville on the map. Freeway travelers stopped there to buy fresh fruit and nuts grown in Solano County - just as Collins hopes they will do at Bridgeway Farms.

"It's like a new-age Nut Tree," Collins said, adding he wants to take the concept and update it for today.

That interchange to nowhere makes it all possible.

The state built the $2.3 million interchange in 1991 after a 20-year delay. It had promised the structure to farmers in the 1960s as part of the right-of-way agreements to turn Highway 40 into I-80. Once the freeway got built, farmers with land on both sides needed an overpass to move their equipment between the parcels.

So there sits the interchange at Collins' property, with off-ramps leading to dead-end Kidwell Road. There are no developments nearby. The structure is seemingly waiting to serve the proposed Bridgeway Farms and Bridgeway Farms alone.

"It's a curious little asset out there," Collins said.

The overpass is one reason Collins chose the name of Bridgeway Farms. The other reason is the dream he has for the endeavor.

"What we hope to do is bridge from the valley's agricultural past, which is rich in history, to it's agricultural future, which we consider to be just as rich - but different," he said.

More and more, small farmers talk about selling products directly to customers. People visiting Bridgeway Farms would be able to shop inside a new building, possibly a turn-of-the-century-style barn with 20-foot-high ceilings and cupolas on the roof. They could watch cheese being made with milk from the farm cows and eat a pork sandwich with meat from the farm pigs.

Bridgeway Farms could buy produce from farmers within a 50-mile radius and tell their stories to customers. The property would ultimately include farmworker housing.

This won't be the place for people who are willing to settle for bagged lettuce from a mammoth discount food store.

"We're not going to be the cheapest, because that's not sustainable," Collins said.

Larry Clement, director emeritus for the University of California Cooperative Extension, is looking for new ways to make Solano County farming profitable. He has brought up the idea of establishing agricultural enterprise zones, to give farmers the opportunity to try more entrepreneurial ventures.

Collins' ideas for Bridgeway Farms is exactly the type of creative thinking that is needed.

"Traditional farming is OK, but it's getting less and less economical," Clement said. "These guys need to come up with something different."

Collins grew up in Carmichael during the 1970s. His father bought 2 acres near their home and Collins as a boy grew vegetables there.

"I've always wanted to be a farmer," Collins said with a laugh. "I don't know why. I can't explain it. There's no explanation."

In 1978, as a teen, he worked washing dishes at a French restaurant in Sacramento. The owner on a special occasion had endive, a vegetable that comes from chicory.

"It's the only night he had it," Collins said. "He said, 'This is what you should grow.' "

Collins and Marc Darbonne started California Vegetable Specialties, located in Rio Vista. The company harvests chicory roots with the growing buds intact, puts them in cold storage for 10 months, then grows them again in a dark room. The result is endive, which looks like a budding flower.

"As far as we know, there are no other commercial growers in the U.S.," Collins said.

Endive is pronounced "on-deev." People can buy Collins' product at such stores as Trader Joe's and Raley's. Soon, Bridgeway Farms should be added to the list.

"It's going to become a bastion of endive, I hope," Collins said.

Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or at

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