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Farmers Markets: The Spencers keep Windrose Farm standards high

PASO ROBLES, Calif. — For the diversity and high quality of their heirloom fruit, vegetables and meats, and the integrity of their principles, no vendors at local markets excel Barbara and Bill Spencer of Windrose Farm. Several other growers do a first-class job on just fruit or vegetables, but no one else comes close to pulling off a trifecta like the Spencers. They do so much it seems impossible, and actually it may well be.

Barbara, 68, had a long career as a professional cellist and still records in studios in the winter. Bill, 66, was involved in thoroughbred horse breeding, airplane hangars and real estate before he met Barbara on a blind date. When they married and bought a 50-acre property in Paso Robles in the early 1990s, they had no idea what to do with it, other than planting a few herbs and apples.

The land, rimmed by golden hills, with mature oaks and an Indian burial ground, lured them to farm. With deep, rich soil, abundant good water and an astounding 40-degree daily temperature range, it's a magical environment that imparts intense flavor to produce.

"The farm just rolled along, with us holding on behind it," says Barbara, who has short hair and a gently bemused smile.

They named the farm "Windrose" after Windy, a horse, and Barbara's much loved roses, but they later found to their delight that a wind rose is a mandala-like depiction of the winds, often found in Provence, where the climate and crops are very similar to those in Paso Robles.

When they started selling at the local Templeton farmers market 20 years ago, they took in all of $35 the first day, but they persevered. After forays into market governance, Bill became chairman of the state Certified Farmers Market Advisory Committee, where he impressed the managers of the Santa Barbara and Santa Monica farmers markets. Today they sell at the Santa Monica Wednesday and Hollywood farmers markets, where they have a following of foodies and chefs.

Bill takes care of the orchards, along with maintenance, construction and systems development; Barbara works the row crops and nursery greenhouses. The 24 acres they farm are evenly divided among vegetables, fruit and pasture for their sheep, raised for meat.

Barbara scours nursery catalogs to plant dozens of unusual heirloom vegetables, such as tender, beautiful Bianca di Trieste zucchini, sweet Fairy winter squash and Verona radicchio. Italian purple garlic varieties, which are rich, complex and full-bodied without being bitter, are among her personal favorites. Her chipotles, smoked jalapeños, are little flavor bombs.

Sixteen years ago, Barbara assembled a dream orchard of 42 heirloom apple varieties from Sonoma Antique Apple Nursery (now called Trees of Antiquity, and moved to Paso Robles), with rare, high-flavored varieties such as Cox's Orange Pippin, Ashmead's Kernel, Calville Blanc and Sierra Beauty. For anyone who loves full-flavored apples, Windrose is an essential stop from late July, when New Jersey (a.k.a. Strawberry Parfait) is extraordinarily aromatic for an early-season variety, to December, when the Spencers sell the last of their Hauer Pippins.

Their peaches often freeze out in spring, but this year they're enjoying a bumper crop; the only flaw is that the Spencers have lost the identifications of many of their great classic varieties. Recently they've offered the most flavorful white peach, Silver Logan, with dense, buttery flesh and classic acidity — like the peach equivalent of Snow Queen nectarine. This week they've had the best yellow peach, Baby Crawford, a freestone with the distinctive, spicy flavor of the old Crawford family of peaches. Any day now they should harvest their first greengage plums, the true European reine-claudes, rare here, supersweet and intensely flavored. (Michael Cirone and Jeffrey Rieger may also have a few greengages at Santa Monica next Wednesday.)

Barbara is "chemically sensitive," so the Spencers have long farmed organically, but they stopped being certified a few years ago because they think the national organic program standards are diluted to accommodate industrial agricultural practices. They're transitioning to being certified biodynamic, a far more rigorous (and mystical) farming system.

The farm is environmentally friendly, using solar arrays for power, cool air piped from underground, hot geothermal water for frost protection and tricycles for the workers to get around. The Spencers offer a farm stay to visitors and will soon open a farm stand.

How does one couple possibly have time for all this? Sadly, they don't, and on a recent tour of the farm, Bill winced as he admitted that he never has the resources to properly prune, thin and weed the orchard. And though the Spencers are among the most highly regarded farmers at local markets, growing small quantities of great tasting produce isn't necessarily profitable.

"We've done nothing but lose money in agriculture since Day One," said Bill ruefully. "We're not going to be able to survive unless we learn quickly how to make a profit and stop dumping our retirement savings into the farm."

Helping to sustain the Spencers is a dedicated group of sales assistants at farmers markets, several of them culinary professionals, such as Beth Miller, a former baker and restaurant owner in New Orleans, and Amanda Broder-Hahn, pastry chef at Food cafe.

"I work for Windrose because I feel what they're doing is so crucially important," says Broder-Hahn.


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