Sebastopol grower spreading ‘joy and love’ through his heirloom apples
Brooke Hazen doesn’t immediately give off farmer vibes.
Sure, he has the deep tan and lined face typical of someone who has worked for years outside in the sun and wind, but his pristine pink T-shirt and two pink jeweled stud earrings in his left ear belie that this is a man who lives to tend the soil and trees at Gold Ridge Organic Farms, his 88-acre apple and olive farm in Sebastopol.
“I love the color pink. I think it brings joy and beauty,” Hazen said. “Pink is really a symbol of the apple blossom, a huge part of what we grow here. So, the power of Gold Ridge is pink power.”
But brown is the color most people might associate with Gold Ridge. That’s the color of the paper bags filled with Hazen’s apples that have been sold for years at 47 Whole Foods Markets all over Northern California.
The handled tote bags hold about 2½ pounds of an ever-changing mix of heirloom varieties he began marketing as an heirloom blend because stores won’t create bar codes for each type of apple
“Every time a person picks up one of those bags each week, they’re getting a whole new different blend of whatever’s at peak season, peak ripeness at that time,” he said. “They’re getting an incredible range of flavors, colors and textures, all in one bag.”
While customers may recognize the brand, Hazen said he’s trying to transform how he does business so it’s not just about a label. He’d long wanted to sell directly to consumers. The pandemic helped put that desire in motion.
Gold Ridge will hold its second Annual Heirloom Apple Celebration later this month, and Hazen couldn’t be happier about opening his farm to celebrate the season.
“I felt like I was losing my soul through anonymous wholesale. Now I’m getting to put faces to it and put emotions to it,” he said. “It’s bringing the culture back into the agriculture I’m engaged in.”
‘Promise of the seeds’
Hazen spent his childhood on the beaches of Malibu before moving to the Bay Area when he was 11. He considered a career in natural resources until one day, he picked up a packet of seeds and had an epiphany.
“I fell in love with the promise of the seeds,” he said.
For several years, he worked at Green Gulch Farm, an organic farm and Zen center in Marin County. In 2000, his family bought the property on Canfield Road “when the land was still affordable,” Hazen said.
“(This land was) a huge empty canvas I could paint my dreams on,” he said.
The windswept rolling hills offer stunning views from every direction. An Old World-style stone tasting room and production facility is surrounded by neat rows of olive and apple trees that undulate along the hillsides.
On a late-August morning, the 18 acres of apple trees hung heavy with fruit in an array of reds, yellows and greens, some 70 varieties. Their origins are scattered across Europe and the U.S. Some varieties can be traced back more than 500 years.
When asked to name a few favorites, Hazen spent almost 20 minutes describing apples in order of their ripening windows — early, mid or late season — with details as poetic as their names.
The Pink Pearl he called “sprightly, punchy … a rebel of an apple.” Hudson’s Golden Gem “can get sort of warbly, sort of bumpy. It’s got quite an interesting personality.” Pittmatson’s Pineapple is a small variety that was a favorite of a tour he did for Whole Foods.
He also has a new variety that developed on its own from a parent tree.
“One branch decided to do its own thing, and that’s called a bud mutation,” he explained. “(It) reverted back to an unnamed variety, so I got to name it.”
He chose the name Sea Breeze for the aromatic, Golden Delicious-style apple he said is quite special.
“I’ve had people actually get really emotional and even had one person cry when they had it. (It) evokes a lot of emotions in people,” he said.
Hazen said the cool coastal climate his farm enjoys is optimal for the golden family of apples.
“Those varieties are very nuanced and aromatic. (This) climate really nurtures and expresses those nuances best,” he said.
Romance versus reality
Heirlooms account for just 10% of Hazen’s apple production. The romance of those heritage varieties is balanced by the reality that Honeycrisp and Fuji are the most popular varieties, so he grows those, too.
He has a hard time keeping up with the demand, especially for Honeycrisp. He attributted their popularity to texture.
“For Honeycrisp, it’s what ‘s called the explosion. The cell walls are larger than other apples, so when you bite into it, it explodes in your mouth,” he said. “For the people that love (texture), this apple meets their wildest dreams.”