Nancy Skall, queen of Sonoma County produce, dies at 84

A fixture at local farmers markets, Nancy Skall provided her prized fruit, vegetables to some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area.|

She was known as “the strawberry lady” for her unforgettable fruit grown from a French variety she declined to disclose.

Nancy Skall was also “the garlic lady” and renowned for her flavor-packed fat asparagus, tiny fennel, sunchokes, broccoli and Comice pears, fava beans and haricot verts. She said she considered growing garlic “a competitive sport.”

She grew produce that was venerated in the finicky Bay Area food world and served on plates in the highest-end restaurants, from Chez Panisse to The French Laundry.

“Nancy grows with conviction and love. Her vegetables make home cooks heroes and professional chefs gods,” Chef Maria Helm Sinskey of Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa once said of Skall.

The grande dame of Wine Country farmers markets, who took up organic farming and mastered it as a second act career at an age when most people are retiring, died Friday at her Healdsburg home with her two daughters by her side. She was 84 and by her own admission, tired. But she never retired. She worked her last Farmer’s Market in Sebastopol on Jan. 4.

“She was just exhausted after that. The body just wore out,” said her daughter Lucia Claster of Arlington, Va.

Recognized for her signature coral lipstick and bright colors - she made “orange the new black” long before writer Piper Kerman made it a trend - Skall cut a striking figure, even beneath a straw hat or baseball cap.

She was an artist and interior designer before she and her late husband Malcolm traded life in San Francisco for the old eight-acre Middleton Farm off Westside Road in the late 1980s. Her farmers market stalls in St. Helena, Healdsburg, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol were regarded as visual feasts.

“She had such an appreciation for the beauty of the things she brought to market. She’d be there in this pink and white striped shirt with pink lipstick standing next to a giant vase of peonies and with those strawberries. It was all so spectacular. Such perfection. .?.?. and transporting,” said Jimtown Store owner Carrie Brown, a longtime friend and customer.

Claster remembered that her mother lived with a “sense of possibilities.”

“She always loved talking about taking a sow’s ear and turning it into a silk purse. She liked houses that were old and dilapidated and liked to remodel them. She would take bits and pieces and create something new about them that was beautiful.”

Although her formal education stopped after completing secretarial school in Chicago and a year at Northwestern University, she was worldly and well read, and would devour the entire New York Times every day. Friends say she didn’t suffer fools and was known for a dry wit that at times could be as acidic as an unripe apple.

Mary Kelley, the recently retired manager of the Healdsburg Farmers Market, recalls that when something or some person struck Skall as stupid or ill-informed she would throw up her arms in exasperation, shake her head and lament, “Where is the truth? Where is the beauty? Where is the comprehension?”

Restaurant consultant and food writer Clark Wolf, who said it was Skall’s strawberries that inspired him to move to Sonoma County, recalled that she was “admittedly cranky to the point it cracked her up.” But she was also quietly generous. After the warmth following winter rains produced more strawberries, she gave Wolf a flat free of charge with instructions to “give them to nice people and don’t tell.”

Born Nancy Colman and raised in Flossmoore, Ill., just outside Chicago, she developed a love for growing things while helping tend her family’s victory garden during World War II.

At age 20, she left the Midwest to take a secretarial job with the CIA in Washington, D.C., and then grabbed an opportunity to work for The Committee for Free Asia, now the Asia Foundation, a year later. There she met her first husband, Robert Vincent Sedwick. After an assignment for several years in Sri Lanka, now Ceylon, the couple moved back to San Francisco to raise a family.

Even in the city, she maintained a rooftop garden while carving out a career as an interior designer. She was widowed in 1979 and married Malcolm Skall, an investment banker with Merrill Lynch, with whom she traveled the world on international business. It was her long-held desire to “find a little place to garden” that prompted him to buy her the former peach orchard.

She set about learning everything she could about farming and working to perfect the flavors of her crops.

A pioneer in organics, she continued to diligently maintain her official organic certification, suffering the hoops and paperwork long after other farmers had given it up, Kelley said. After Malcolm’s death in the late 1990s, Skall continued the daily work of the farm, as well as manning the booth at multiple farmers markets and personally delivering produce in her Toyota Celica to restaurants in San Francisco and the East Bay. She also found time to serve on the board of directors of the Healdsburg Farmers Market.

She never used a computer and didn’t own a TV, preferring the sounds of nature.

“I like the quiet,” she said in a 2008 interview. “I think the grave is going to be quiet .?.?. and I’m getting used to it.”

Friends are defying her wishes for no memorial. A small remembrance is planned for Skall at the Sebastopol Farmers Market at 11 a.m. Sunday.

“We’ll set up a table in her space, get a little boom box and tell some cranky, funny stories. If it pours down rain, we’ll know we ticked her off,” Wolf said with a chuckle.

In addition to her daughter Lucia Claster, she is survived by a daughter Celia Rogus of Burbank and three grandsons.

A scholarship for The Farmers Guild is being set up in her memory.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 521-5204.

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