By comparison with their neighbors, Kelly's and Lange's orchards look downright scruffy. The trees seem to be smaller and the weeds taller. That's fine with them. Big, healthy trees don't necessarily produce the best fruit, they say. Sounding like high-end wine-grape growers, they say they want to stress their trees to concentrate the flavor in the fruit. Lange points out the lush green foliage of his neighbor's trees. "That's really beautiful," he says, "but you can only get that by using a lot of nitrogen, and that makes his fruit taste sour."
That is one reason — in addition to sheer contrariness — that neither Kelly nor Lange is certified organic (although both use only minimal amounts of chemicals and only when absolutely necessary). Stressed to the edge of survival, these trees need all the help they can get, from time to time and in carefully measured doses.
Fertilizers are fed in minute quantities. Watering is treated almost as an art form, applied abstemiously following a carefully worked out, highly regimented routine (despite being friends and farming practically next door to each other for decades, it was only at a recent dinner that they discovered their "secret" watering techniques were almost identical).
Most of the time, they rely on beneficial insects rather than insecticides — the bad bugs are eaten by better bugs. And those aren't weeds between the trees, but a carefully chosen blend of vetch, peas, barley, wheat, rye and wild oats that add nutrients to the soil.
Lange, a tall man who at 81 is getting a little stooped, bought his 17-acre farm in the early 1970s, when he was at the University of California's nearby Kearney Agricultural Center. A weed scientist by training, Lange must be one of the few farmers at any market with a doctorate in plant physiology. This tends to give his conversations a professorial air. While Kelly talks birds out of the trees, Lange is a gentleman of a few carefully reasoned, well-chosen words.
The two met when Kelly came to Kearney with a weed problem ("As I recall, it was a prickly question of purple nut sedge or yellow nut sedge," Kelly says). They became closer when the two were among the first farmers to concentrate on white-fleshed fruit. "We do a lot of discussing of fruit varieties; we have a lot of the same ones," Lange says. "He tests a lot and so do I. I guess you could say we're both on the cutting edge of varieties."
It was Lange who recruited Kelly to the Santa Monica market in 1990. He was one of the first farmers there, having started in 1985. Today, he sells at half a dozen markets and runs a mail-order business for fresh and dried fruit. Kelly sells his fruit at Santa Monica's and San Francisco's Ferry Plaza farmers markets and at a few independent grocers in the Bay Area.
It would be practically impossible for either farmer to grow for mainstream markets. To produce enough peaches to satisfy even a single grocery chain takes the pooled fruit of many individual farmers. The distinctive qualities that make Lange's and Kelly's fruit so prized would be lost in the mix.
More important, their fruit is so ripe when picked that it would never make the jarring trip from orchard to market. Most commercial fruit is picked and dropped into deep buckets, which are then dumped into huge boxes, shipped to sheds where the produce is sorted and packed and finally trucked to wholesale and then retail outlets. That usually means at least a week of handling, little of it gentle. To survive, the fruit must be firm, if not rock-hard.
Kelly and Lange pick their fruit nearly dead ripe, when it has already begun to soften. Lange's goes straight from the tree into a flat lined with a single layer of individual protective cups. When that is filled, it is taken to a truck, where another worker sorts the fruit according to size. That is the last time it is touched until it gets to market.
Picking fruit this ripe entails risks even beyond those associated with packing and handling. For a farmer, every harvest is a race against time, weather and misfortune. Every day the fruit hangs on the tree is another day it might rain or the wind might blow, another day for bugs or birds or some other calamity to find it.
Following the picking crew, the price of this gamble is obvious. Harvesting Lange's famous Snow Queen white nectarines, the workers seem to leave fully half the fruit on the trees as unsalable. Maybe it is too small or it is split (something the variety is prone to do); maybe it's been gnawed by a pest. When the fruit that does pass muster gets to the truck for sorting, what seems like another half is discarded. The closer inspection turned up a bruise, excessive russeting from the sun, or a spot on the neck where it rubbed against a twig.
The cost is enormous. While the average stone-fruit farmer in California harvests between seven tons and eight tons per acre, Lange and Kelly get only about two tons. This difference could never be recouped through normal commercial channels; it is only by direct marketing that growers can get a premium for a great product.
While peaches and nectarines at many supermarkets can go for less than $1 a pound and even good farmers market fruit may sell for $2 a pound, stone fruit grown by these two fetches up to $6 a pound. And people stand in line to buy it.
Of course, the difference in flavor is enormous as well. It has to be. What Lange and Kelly and others of their ilk see themselves as doing goes beyond growing fruit. They believe they're rescuing the very idea of great flavor from the blanding effects of modern farming.
Ask Kelly about a commercial peach and he goes practically apoplectic: "You know, I'll tell you the truth. The tomato has always been the example of what people hate about modern farming — they remember it tasting so great and it doesn't taste like anything anymore. I honestly think the peach is going to be in that league too.
"All of these factory farmers, they've got an awful lot of facts. They can tell you how many hours of sunlight a peach needs. And they do everything by the rules. But their fruit doesn't have any flavor."