Photo essay: A rare find in the Bay Area, chestnuts grow in the hills above Palo Alto

Thousands visit La Honda orchard each fall to reap and eat the rewards

San Jose resident Neil Catic searches for the best chestnuts out of his harvest from the Skyline Chestnut farms nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Photo by Sammy Dallal.

About 2,500 feet above Palo Alto in the Santa Cruz Mountains, there's a 20-acre farm that nurtures a rare crop for this area: chestnuts. Skyline Chestnuts is the only such farm in the Bay Area, and among only a handful on the entire west coast.

Manager Hans Johsens said the Santa Cruz Mountains provide ideal growing conditions for American-hybrid and Japanese chestnut trees — the coastal fog and rain help sustain the trees, the air currents help facilitate wind pollination and the steep and relatively rocky terrain provides efficient drainage of excess water. And the area is isolated from the fungal disease, commonly known as chestnut blight, that decimated the American chestnut in the early 1900s.

With all the right conditions in place, the 120 trees planted in the La Honda orchard can produce several tons of chestnuts on their branches during the short harvesting season, he said.

Johsens said thousands of visitors come up to Skyline each fall between mid-October and Thanksgiving Day to reap and eat the rewards. The farm typically sells out of its harvest within weeks.

On a recent Saturday, people were out in the orchard with buckets and leather gloves gathering up chestnuts to take home.

"We've never seen a chestnut tree before," said Melanie Barnett, a California native and senior research scientist at Stanford University. Melanie recently came to the farm with her husband, Glen Barnett, to see a chestnut tree and eat a chestnut for the first time.

"We're gonna find out how to roast them or how to prepare them," Melanie Barnett said. "I've heard some people boil them?"

The origin of the farm is hazy. According to Johsens, a Spanish settler moved into the mountains and planted the chestnut trees in the mid-19th century during the California Gold Rush. Over the years, the farm was passed down through two families and eventually purchased in the 1980s by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, which acquires land with the purpose of preserving open space for the public.

But without the proper resources to maintain a chestnut farm, the land was left largely neglected. Then Johsens stepped in, a burly, bearded but gentle retired mechanic who has managed the farm for 15 years since Skyline Chestnuts re-opened to the public in 2004.

"I've done a tremendous amount of work since the beginning," Johsens, 58, said. "When I first got here, there was a huge amount of underbrush and forest trees that had grown up through the canopy of the chestnut trees, so we could only access about 20% of the crop the first year."

Disruptive interlopers also became an issue. Overzealous gatherers would trespass during closed hours and scavenge for chestnuts in the dark with flashlights. Some would bring ropes with grappling hooks to yank the branches down and pick unripe chestnuts off the trees, damaging the entire plant in the process.

This year, Johsens suspects the yield will be consistent with the last — around 2 1/2 tons.

But with climate change exacerbating violent weather fluctuations, annual yields can vary even in the favorable environmental conditions of the mountains.

"In 2014, we had the worst season ever where we were only open for 10 days because there was no crop out there, and we had been preceded by five years of severe drought," Johsens said. "The annual rainfall up here was 16 inches. Normally we get 45 to 50 inches."

Johsens also needs to clear more ground and plant more trees as the number of visitors increases each year in part because of social media. According to Johsens, a thousand people had visited the farm on a recent Sunday.

Loui Zhang, a Saratoga resident who came to the farm with his family, was among the season's earlier gatherers. Zhang said he knew exactly what he was going to do with the chestnuts after he purchased them for $7.50 a pound.

"Stew," Zhang curtly said, while crouched down, digging through sticks and leaves with equipment provided by the orchard to find the perfect chestnuts. "Maybe cooked with some water. It's delicious. No other ingredients you need to add in."

Sachiyo Akiba, who brought her daughter, Akari, and son, Yamato, said she planned to use the chestnuts to make kuri gohan, or chestnut rice, a traditional Japanese dish usually eaten in the fall.

To keep these customers happy and returning next year, Johsens is determined to put himself and his small team of laborers and staff through the arduous process of maintaining the land. And to him it's worth it.

"I don't know what it is," Johsens said. "I love it (here). I got a real strong connection to it, and it's a connection I don't have elsewhere in my life."

Skyline Chestnuts is open Wednesday through Sunday during harvest season, which typically runs from early October through November, or until the chestnuts stop dropping from the trees. For more information, go to skylinechestnuts.com.

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