A Fruitful Heritage

A Fruitful Heritage

By: Renee Kiff

Jan. 12, 2011

Bryce Austin’s appreciation of a fruit tree is both environmental and genetic. His three-acre orchard, containing some two hundred trees, includes a century old Mission fig tree planted by his mother when she was a young girl. He points to another centenarian, this time an apricot, recalling the time his mom and he picked fifty boxes of fruit from that one tree, earning the tidy sum of six dollars per box.

“My aunt, who lived on the adjacent property to us, could really pick prunes faster than anyone and she was just a little small woman!”

Bryce’s gaze followed the gentle ridgeline beyond his orchard where he could see the roof of the neighbor’s house nestled in more trees.

“I was raised in that house. Both my parents grew up on these two properties.” As children and neighbors, Philementa Vellutini and Elga Austin walked to school together down the hill to the Quick Silver Mine School, a one-room schoolhouse, joining the children of the miners who worked at the Quick Silver Mine, the principle employer in the area.

Their destinies were determined, as is usually the case with all of us, by someone of an even earlier generation. Bryce’s great grandfather, Granville Thompson Austin, whose ox team crossed the Great Plains in 1861 from Tennessee, arrived in Santa Rosa on May 11th, 1862. With his new bride, who also made the trek, the couple homesteaded property near Guerneville and gradually added acreage until they owned 370 acres, 25 of those in vineyard, with acreage in fruit as well. Austin Creek near Cazadero is named for the family.

Granville lived to be 95 years of age and passed the land on to his son, Harry Austin, Bryce’s grandfather. From 1862 through the late 1960s, the land was farmed primarily in prunes and apricots, which one could argue are still Bryce’s favorite fruits, although his special Fuerte and Bacon avocado trees are right up there, close to his heart.

The youngest trees, Imperial and French prunes, receive special care in their earliest years. “This orchard is dry-farmed, except when the trees are new. For their first three years they get regular watering.”

In evidence are support and protection devices, which Bryce monitors. He carefully and painstakingly thins and prunes his fruit trees and is willing to show others the proper way to care for a tree. The trunks are painted to reflect the sun and repel burrowing insects. He will often wrap the trunks of the trees with sheet metal—stove pipes work well—to keep possums and raccoons that are motivated by an overwhelming desire to steal some of Bryce’s delicious fruit from climbing up into the trees. Can you blame them? Bryce did.

“Something’s getting into my young prune trees, breaking branches and eating the new leaves,” muttered Bryce one spring day at the Healdsburg Farmers’ Market. It didn’t take him too long to solve the mystery, but the culprit was a surprise. Bryce tells the story.

“I got a box trap and set it out the first night. The next morning, there was a raccoon caught in the trap. Then, I reset the trap to see if there were more raccoons to catch. The next time I caught a fox. I don’t think he was climbing into my fruit trees. The third time I caught the neighbor’s housecat.”

All this time, the trees were continuing to be climbed into and chomped.

“Finally, I caught the culprit. It was a porcupine! It weighed 35 to 40 pounds and my trees haven’t been damaged since.”

If you’re wondering what sort of bait the porcupine succumbed to after choosing those tender leafy shoots, it was bran muffins.

Bryce’s orchard consists of the part of his family’s acreage that was known as the “French Orchard,” so named because it contained many of their French prunes. In his childhood, his folks gave names to the other acres in order to understand the location of family members and to clearly designate what and where trees were.

They all knew what was meant by the Spring Orchard, the Pea Patch Orchard, the Above the Barn Orchard, the Lake Orchard, the Young and the Old Orchard, and the Below the House Orchard. All of these, fifty acres’ worth, were sold when Bryce’s mother sold much of the property following his father’s death.

The French Orchard faces southeast, tucked beneath McCray Ridge. It is protected from the cold and therefore Bryce can grow the avocados, which most of the rest of the valley growers cannot.

One of the more remarkable trees in the orchard is a Burton prune, a variety created by the team of Luther Burbank and Isaac Burton. Isaac’s great grand nephew, Healdsburg resident Jerry Doyle, is a friend of Bryce’s. The Burton prune is nearly extinct and that is a shame because it is an excellent fruit. It is bigger than the Imperial prune with a unique taste. The original tree on the Austin orchard was part of the Pea Patch section, which was sold and consequently neglected. The old tree died.

Later, Bryce was excited to find that fruit grower Gary Blasi, a grape grower and produce vendor at Healdsburg and Windsor farmers markets, had a Burton prune plum tree. Bryce, an experienced tree grafter, got some scion (potential fruiting) wood from Gary and now has a healthy Burton plum tree within his own orchard.

The interesting fruit varieties include a Halloween Peach that is gold in color and the last harvested peach of the season. Other peaches grown by Bryce are Bella Georgia (a white peach), Sentiment, J.H. Hale, O’Henry, and Elberta. When Bryce “didn’t like the way a Granny Smith was growing,” he created a nine-variety apple tree. That means that he took the Granny Smith tree and grafted different scion wood from nine different apple trees onto the trunk and the grafts all took.

Among some of the more interesting Austin heritage trees are the Winter Pearmain dessert apple whose history goes back to 1200 A.D.; a French apple called Caville Blanc D’Hiver, which just might be of German origin; a Wolf River apple which is famous for producing an apple big enough for an entire pie; Anna, an Israeli variety; Pink Pearl which is yellow skinned yet pink fleshed; and a kiwi vine named Howard that is knock-down gorgeous and thirty years old.

Photographer Sarah Bradbury and I concluded our visit to Bryce’s orchard with a short drive uphill to his home just below the ridge from which, on a clear day, you can see Jenner and the Pacific Ocean. In the opposite direction, the view from the living room encompasses Mount St. Helena and the Santa Rosa Plain.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to see Bryce’s great grandfather, with all his worldly possessions in that ox cart, moving slowly across the valley floor, then guiding his ox by pulling on the left reins, and easing the beasts along the river’s edge to just about Guerneville.??Next time you turn on Austin Creek Road this side of Jenner, you can think about the three or four generations of Austins, farming, caring for the land, and of one guy in particular who recalls as though it were yesterday, “coming into the house and sitting down at the table to my mom’s homemade baked bread and homemade apricot jam.”

And, if you have an opportunity to visit Analy High School, there should be a giant trophy belonging to the agriculture club, FFA (Future Farmers of America). Engraved for four straight years on that trophy is the name of Bryce Austin who, for his first three years in high school, won the trophy outright for an orchard project which he recalls with pride.

“My grandfather and my dad cleared and planted the “Young Orchard” in French prunes and gave it to me to oversee. It was on top of the mountain, the highest point of our land and I could see Jenner and the ocean. I kept that orchard groomed perfectly. I painted all the trunks white and I used to till the weeds down around the trees. It was seven acres. In my senior year there were two of us that won the trophy—I tied with an apple grower from Sebastopol.”

Hmm. Makes you wonder who the apple growing teenager was. Perhaps a Walker? Dutton? Hale? Hurst? Analy High had better polish that trophy, ’cause some of us are coming to see it.

Meanwhile, you can buy some of Bryce’s famous Austin Heritage Fruit and get seasoned, solid orchard advice directly from him at the Healdsburg Farmers Market, which runs through October on Tuesday evenings and through November on Saturdays.

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