Agritourism: From Farm to Table in Ojai, CA

Gather bunches of lavender at the New Oak Ranch. Melinda Quintero
By Melinda Quintero

The Ojai Valley, just over an hour's drive north of Los Angeles, already draws visitors who seek spa treatments and the charms of small-town life.

But for those travelers who never venture beyond Ojai's destination spas, it's easy to miss out on the area's agricultural roots. After all, Ojai is the kind of place where you can still find unattended roadside fruit stands that operate on an honor system.

Get back to nature with this handful of attractions, activities, seasonal tours, and volunteer opportunities.

Photo Caption: Pick your own lavender at the New Oak Ranch in Ojai, CA.
View Next Slide
The Sunday Ojai Farmer's Market features local products and produce. Goddamn Cobras
Year-round, Ojai's mild, Mediterranean-like climate allows valley farmers to grow vegetables, fruits, and flowers, and to raise goats, chickens, and everything in between.

The Sunday Ojai Farmer's Market (300 E. Matilija St.; www.ojaicertifiedfarmersmarket.com; 9am-1pm) features Ojai's farms and products, as well as those from around Ventura County.

Boccali's maintains a farm that supplies its pizzas and pastas with fresh tomatoes, herbs, and other vegetables. In September, Boccali's hosts a tomato festival, and in October, you'll find a pumpkin patch with hayrides and a maze in the fields behind the restaurant.

Photo Caption: The Sunday Ojai Farmer's Market features local products and produce. Photo by Goddamn Cobras/Flickr.com
View Next Slide
A volunteer lends a hand to Steve Sprinkel (left), who runs the Farmer and Cook in Ojai, CA. Melinda Quintero
The Farmer and the Cook (339 W. El Roblar; tel. 805/640-9608; www.farmerandcook.com; 8am-9pm daily) is an organic market, café, and community gathering place. On a 12-acre farm off Highway 150, Steve Sprinkel grows enough vegetables, herbs, and flowers to supply the Ojai Farmer's Market, the Farmer and the Cook, and 65 CSA (community-supported agriculture) members.

Spend a morning on the farm alongside Sprinkel and local volunteers. In exchange for picking, packing, and washing veggies, volunteers will receive lunch from the Farmer and the Cook's soup and salad bar (which is naturally filled with fresh farm produce).

Volunteers are needed Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; depending on the season, work begins at 8am or 9am and typically lasts for three hours. Call or e-mail Sprinkel (tel. 805/290-0988; farmerandcook1@gmail.com) to confirm a spot and to get directions. Bring a hat.

Photo Caption: A volunteer lends a hand to Steve Sprinkel, who runs the Farmer and Cook in Ojai, CA.
View Next Slide
The organic cafe at the Farmer and the Cook is run by Olivia Chase, Steve Sprinkel's wife. Melinda Quintero
Also at the Farmer and the Cook, Olivia Chase is the organic café's chef (and Sprinkel's wife). Chase crafts her weekend dinner menus from the farm's produce to complement a full list of pizzas (main courses $6.50-$16; Fri-Sun 5:30pm-8:30pm; reservations are appreciated, but not essential).

Each weekend's vegetarian meals are cooked from scratch and determined by what's ripe on the farm -- one week could be Thai and the next could be Italian. A daily Mexican lunch ($5-$11) features quesadillas, tacos, tamales, smoothies, and vegan sweets.

The café also hosts events such as lectures, workshops, and live music on the patio.

Photo Caption: The organic café at the Farmer and the Cook is run by Olivia Chase, Steve Sprinkel's wife.
View Next Slide
John Fonteyn runs Rio Goza ("Joy River" in Spanish) farm in Ojai, CA. Melinda Quintero
Self-proclaimed chef/farmer John Fonteyn uses three acres of Sprinkel's land for Rio Gozo farm (tel. 805/272-8170; www.riogozofarm.blogspot.com). Fonteyn's long road to Ojai sent him traveling, cooking, and farming through South America and California before teaming up with Sprinkel to start Rio Gozo ("Joy River" in Spanish). Fonteyn, who lives on site with his family, now grows for his CSA members as well as several restaurants in Ventura.

Volunteering at Rio Gozo is for early birds. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Friday mornings, picking and packing CSA boxes with Fonteyn typically begins between 8am and 9am; Mondays and Thursdays are for weeding, planting, and plowing. Volunteers receive fresh veggies in exchange for their work -- and "will not leave hungry." Hiking trails lined with sycamores below Rio Gozo lead to an oak grove, the ideal spot for a picnic and a well-deserved nap.

Contact Rio Gozo farm in advance for directions (it's on the same land as Sprinkel's). Bring water and a hat.

Photo Caption: John Fonteyn runs Rio Goza ("Joy River" in Spanish) farm in Ojai, CA.
View Next Slide
The humble tasting room of the Old Creek Winery. Courtesy Old Creek Ranch Old Creek Ranch
You'll find Old Creek Ranch (10024 Old Creek Road; tel. 805/649-4132; www.oldcreekranch.com; 11am-5pm daily) off Highway 30 at the dead-end of Old Creek Road. This family-owned winery uses grapes grown throughout California (including those from as far north as Napa) to create a variety of French, Spanish, and Italian wines -- the 2007 Sangiovese, Grenache, and Syrah all recently received high accolades from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Free winery tours are given by owner John Whitman; tastings of eight to 10 varieties cost $10 (or $15 with a souvenir glass). Bottles run between $19 and $30 and are best enjoyed on the patio overlooking the ranch's cherry orchards and the surrounding hills.

Photo Caption: The humble tasting room of the Old Creek Winery. Courtesy Old Creek Ranch
View Next Slide
The citrus groves of Friend's Ranch in Ojai, CA. Friend's Ranch
From late winter to early spring, Southern California's markets are flooded with local tangerines and mandarin oranges of all varieties. Ojai has its own tangerine variety, called the Ojai Pixie (www.ojaipixies.com), a hybrid that does especially well in the Ojai Valley.

During Pixie season, Friend's Ranch (tel. 805/646-2871; www.friendsranches.com) opens its doors to tours. The ranch grows 30 varieties of citrus, and you can enjoy the fruit right off the tree during your tour. (Friend's Ranch has been in the same family since the 1870s; your guide is typically a family member). Pick and eat as you go, and pay for whatever you'd like to take home with you -- they provide the bags. Citrus is market price per pound by variety.

Tours, which run January through May, start at 9am Saturday mornings and last between two and three hours ($15 for adults; $5 for children ages 3-10; free for children 2 and under). Tours are capped at 20 people; call in advance or sign up online because the spots do fill up (you'll receive directions to the ranch upon confirmation of your tour). Private tours can be arranged in the spring.

The citrus groves of Friend's Ranch in Ojai, CA.
View Next Slide
Lavender season at New Oak Ranch in Ojai, CA. Melinda Quintero
It's never too early to think about planning next year's vacation. Aim to visit Ojai in June or July during lavender season, and be sure to stop at Bill and Karen Evenden's New Oak Ranch (9599 Ojai-Santa Paula Road; tel. 805/640-1189; www.newoakranch.com). Two gray kittens loll about in the shade; copper horses pose majestically against a backdrop of the rolling Upper Ojai Valley hills; and the Evenden's 5,000 silver and purple lavender plants shimmer under the orange sun.

The Evendens harvest lavender, produce their own olive oil, grow Ojai Pixie tangerines for commercial sale, and welcome guests for farm tours.

Spend a lazy afternoon on the ranch with a picnic lunch while gathering bunches of lavender ($5 per bunch). The season runs mid-June to the end of July with the ranch open for free visits 10am-4pm Saturdays and Sundays; other times are by appointment. You can also buy lavender skincare and cooking products made by Karen Evenden. Bring a camera.

Photo Caption: Lavender season at New Oak Ranch in Ojai, CA.
View Next Slide
Ojai Olive Oil sits just beyond the limits of the Los Padres National Forest. Melinda Quintero
California is America's largest olive oil producer. Every olive oil holds the distinct flavor of the land, making the certified extra virgin olive oil produced by Ojai Olive Oil (1811 Ladera Road; tel. 805/646-5964; www.ojaioliveoil.com) a rare treat. Don and Alice Asquith started in Ojai with a citrus grove and a chunk of land that just so happened to have 100-year-old olive trees growing on it.

Ten years later, they have some 2,500 trees spread over about 20 acres of land. A visit to the grove and the small processing facility shows how the olives go from tree to bottle and how each olive oil gets its own flavor. Ojai Olive Oil ranges from fruity and bold, to mellow and light.

Free tours and tastings are available year-round on Saturdays between 10am and 2pm. Call in advance to confirm the ranch will be open. The Asquiths sell several varieties of olive oil, each with a different composition of olives, as well as flavored oils that they infuse themselves. You can also pick up imported infused balsamic vinegars, olive oil soaps, and creams.

Photo Caption: Ojai Olive Oil sits just beyond the limits of the Los Padres National Forest.
View Next Slide
Sespe Creek in Los Padres National Forest. audelising
Hiking trails of varying difficulties lace the valley's mountains that make up the Los Padres National Forest. Several trails lead to rivers for sun-bathing and splashing. Pick up a trail map and other tourist information from the Ojai Valley Museum & Visitor's Center, 103 W. Ojai Ave (tel. 805/640-1390; Mon-Fri 10am-4pm) or the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce, (201 S. Signal St.; tel. 805/646-8126; www.ojaichamber.org; Mon-Fri 9am-4pm).

Photo Caption: Sespe Creek in Los Padres National Forest. Photo by audelising/Flickr.com
View Next Slide
advertisement
advertisement