A beloved remnant of the west county apple industry is closed after state officials ordered the shutdown of a drinking water well in the rural outskirts of Sebastopol, but the owners vow to reopen by spring.
"We found it a good time to retool, to be able to keep the farm going," said Jeff Palk, owner of Twin Hill Ranch. They will "keep the heritage of the apple operation alive while going forward with grapes, where the future really is."
He said he plans to expand wine grape growing on some nearby parcels, since grapes are more lucrative, but he will maintain the eight remaining historic acres of apples on the main ranch property.
Farm manager Bill DeHass, Palk's father-in-law, said he is particularly eager to open the orchard for families to come pick their own apples and watch the historic process of washing and packaging the Gravenstein apples that once flourished that part of the county.
"Kids have got to know what their ancestors did here in America," he said. "If we're not here, that's gone."
Regulators shut down the operation on Jan. 17 after a state inspector found that the ranch was drawing water from an unapproved well, said Bruce Burton, chief of the California Department of Public Health's Drinking Water Northern California Field Operations Branch. Without state-approved water on site, county health officials suspended the ranch's permit to sell food, the cornerstone of its business.
Palk said the water system was not operated by the ranch, but rather by a private water district, known as the Twin Hill Mutual Water Co. It was established by the previous owners decades ago as part of an abortive effort to build a residential subdivision, but the water system fell into disrepair after the plan was abandoned. At some point in recent months, the pump on the main well failed and the system switched to a backup well, which turned out not to have state approval.
"I didn't realize I was even a member of the water district &#8230; as a customer, I basically had my water cut off," Palk said.
Details on how the switch came about, and who is in charge of the private water company, remain murky, with varying accounts told by people involved.
State regulators did not offer any evidence that the water from the backup well is contaminated or an immediate danger, but Burton said anytime water is coming from an unapproved source, there is the possibility of some threat to human health so the agency issues a "do not drink" order.
Twin Hill Ranch was established in 1942 by Darrel Hurst. He and wife Maggie raised 13 children, including eight adopted, on the property before his death in 1998. They built the ranch into not only a wholesale apple seller, but a well-loved tourist attraction, offering a variety of apples for sale in the summer and fall and developing a wide range of apple products, including pies, bread and cookies.
Jeff and Kelley Palk bought the ranch from the Hurst family in 2010 and vowed to maintain it as the founders had intended. The remaining 21-acre property is just a part of the Hurst's original farm; pieces were sold off by the family or donated to various causes over the years. In addition to the eight acres of apples there are about five acres of wine grapes, plus a large barn, a house, and several outbuildings.