As you drive east from Ukiah on Highway 20, passing Lake Mendocino, Redwood Valley and the turnoff to Potter Valley, a calm sets in as an unfamiliar landscape begins to engage your imagination.
A series of small lakes (Blue Lakes and Tule Lake) hint at what is soon to come ? Clear Lake, the largest natural lake in California. It stretches for nearly 20 miles and is, at its widest, eight miles across, forming the fluid heart of Lake County, the dramatic Mount Konocti nestling against its southern shore.
Lake County has long endured a reputation as the poor cousin of the wine country, a place of cheap property, trailer parks and, in the summer, the stench of decomposing algae.
But there is so much more to Lake County than the seasonal algae blooms that locals understand are natural.
Today, there is a refreshing vitality and sense of enthusiasm reflected in a flourishing local food movement, a passion for organic and biodynamic farming and a thriving wine industry.
And Lake County has that precious, rare resource, open space, vast stretches of undeveloped land that is home to a vast array of wildlife.
Colleen Rentsch began working at her family?s farm stand when she was in eighth grade. During college, she worked at the stand duringsummer break and today is in charge of the 120-acre farm her grandfather founded in the 1950s.
?We grow all the summer crops except sweet corn,? Colleen says, ?including pears, peaches, apples, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, winter squash, pumpkins and 80 acres of sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon.?
Seely?s Farm Stand, open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Memorial Day through Thanksgiving, also sells Lake County?s Yerba Santa Goat Cheese, Socora?s Salsa, made in Lower Lake, and honey from R.B. Landrum, who has hives throughout the county. This year, Colleen will offer value-added products such as jams and jellies from the farm.
The stand?s prime location on Highway 20 in Upper Lake brings a steady mix of locals and tourists, many of whom have come year after year for decades.
?When I first started as a young girl,? Colleen says, ?the customers were mostly grandmothers doing canning. They would buy five boxes of pears. Today, customers buy a handful of one thing, a handful of another. They buy a great variety and they want to know everything about how it is grown.?
Lars Crail of Yoxagoi Orchards has been farming at his 25-acre Lakeport pear orchard since 1997, though his wife?s family began growing pears in Lake County in the 1800s. The orchard?s farm stand is open from late July or early August through September, though most of his pear harvest is sold on the wholesale market.
After the farm received organic certification in 2004, sales became much stronger. Prices are great, Lars says, and the demand is high.
The demand is high, as well, for the organic eggs, chicken and walnuts from Barrett Farms, where Jacquelyne Byers and her husband, Michael Barrett, tend their 15 certified organic acres themselves, with little or no help.
?We currently have 800 Rhode Island Red layers in production,? Jackie, as her customers know her, says. ?They are all named Norma, after my sister.?
The farm also has several dozen guinea fowl who are seasonal layers, offering their unique eggs from spring through early summer. The eggs have a greater ratio of yolk to white and extremely hard shells with a shape suggestive of a diamond. Campers love them because they don?t break when carried in a backpack.