Del Rio Botanicals

Posted on March 11, 2011 – 7:47 PM | by Admin
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Story and photos by Michele Hebert

Driving north along the Old River Road, I recently saw rural West Sacramento at its wintry best. With magpies and bare almond orchards to my left and the high Sacramento River to my right, I gradually made my way toward Peabody Ranch and savored the view. When I arrived I met Suzanne Peabody Ashworth, the powerhouse behind Del Rio Botanicals. As a company, Del Rio Botanicals focuses on three things: seed production, Restaurant Supported Agriculture (RSA) and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Ashworth grew up on Peabody Ranch, which her grandfather founded, and started producing seed about 30 years ago. Today she farms 75 acres and the entire ranch is certified organic.

Ashworth is the kind of person whose mind is so sharp and manner so brisk she makes you wish you’d had an extra cup of coffee in order to keep up. As she took me on a tour of the property, pointing out the “Burbank Spineless” nopales in the distance (both the cactus pads and pear-like fruits are edible) and the shock of lovage at our feet (Ashworth makes juice out of the leaves), I was awestruck by the sheer diversity of plant and animal life surrounding me. It couldn’t be more different than the monoculture on most farms, with rows upon rows of the same crop. At Peabody Ranch every available vertical surface is commandeered by various vines, every horizontal space planted with vegetables and herbs. Where there aren’t plants, there are animals: rabbit and quail hutches sit across from the goat and chicken pens.

The greenhouse is a wintertime nursery for growing herbs and germinating tomato seeds. Verbesina, stevia, tarragon, salad burnet, hyssop, tejocote, lavender and many more nascent herbs and plants line one side; Ashworth uses these mainly for the tisane blends that she offers in her CSA boxes. The other side houses 2,360 tomato seeds that will later be moved to an unheated hoop house and after the last frost, into the fields. In the summer, Ashworth will harvest tomatoes for her RSA deliveries and CSA boxes, as well for their seeds.

Del Rio Botanicals started as a seed production company, raising produce specifically to harvest and prepare seeds for sale to heirloom seed companies all over the country. Ashworth’s office is lined with deep and wide drawers filled with jars of seeds; many tomato varieties were unrecognizable to me: names such as Golden Ponderosa, Green Sausage, and Trifle. Ashworth pointed out a jar of Rice Beans, saying they are currently trendy among chefs. The pale green bean is shaped like a grain of Arborio rice and not much bigger. I spied jars of Afghan Melon and Snake Melon seeds and saw the largest collection of hard-shelled gourd seeds outside of the United States Department of Agriculture.

Ashworth is very passionate about gourds. She grows them to guarantee their purity, indeed their existence. She spoke excitedly about the historical importance of gourds, describing them as the “tupperware of time past” because they were used for everything that we use plastic for now. She pointed to a gourd sculpture in her office by artist Robert Rivera, saying that many artists who work with gourds require different varieties to continue to be available. After harvesting the gourd seeds for storage, she donates the empty gourds to local schools for art projects (she also loans her rabbits to 4-H kids). The author of Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners, Ashworth is a true expert on the subject. Her list of seeds available for purchase is mind-boggling: I counted sixty-nine varieties of eggplant, and nine varieties of ground cherries.

About ten years ago, Ashworth was approached by local forager Jim Mills of Produce Express. He said that the chefs he worked with wanted the kinds of unusual things she was growing for seed production and harangued her until she agreed to start growing produce for restaurants too. The RSA aspect of her business is a boon for local diners who get excited by heirloom produce. Near her office is a long table that seats twenty running perpendicular to a professional kitchen. She periodically invites local chefs out for lunches, during which she cooks for them as a way to showcase her farm’s produce. Looking at the empty but beautiful table it was easy to imagine the convivial lunch parties oohing and aahing over exquisite produce. These meals usually include tours of the farm where the chefs might milk a goat or fondle some herbs. The lunches provide an opportunity for a dialogue about what types of things the chefs would like to see more of – chef Patrick Mulvaney takes particular advantage of this relationship, frequently asking Suzanne to ”custom-grow” vegetables of interest to him. Via Produce Express, Ashworth works with most restaurants in Sacramento, but Mulvaney’s B&L, Waterboy, Hot Italian, Grange, Enotria, Lucca and Roxy are among her most frequent customers. Working with restaurants can be hectic: on the morning of my visit there were emergency orders for quince (Ritz-Carlton in Truckee) and green mustard frisée (for Mulvaney’s B & L in Sacramento).

A CSA box for home cooks was a logical extension of the business once Ashworth was harvesting produce for restaurants. She offers the Gourmet Box at $20 a week; a seasonal and eclectic mix of produce which changes every week. One week in January the box featured a bag of tiny red mustard frisée, one of miner’s lettuce (a sweet and wild little salad green is a rare treat because it defies cultivation), a bunch of golden turnips, a couple yacon (a tuber that’s crisp like a water chesnut, but sweet), two apples, a bag of fava greens, a beautiful wrinkly winter squash, and a bag of rosehips for tisane.

Ashworth stresses the point that her box is for “people who actually cook”. Because the items are more rare and obscure, it takes some effort to learn how to prepare them. Unlike other CSA boxes which occasionally feature heirloomy oddities but also have staples like carrots, potatoes and onions, the Del Rio Gourmet Box is, in Ashworth’s words, “not about feeding the troops, it’s about having an exotic experience.” She says a good portion of subscribers quit after the first quarter because the contents of the box are too challenging to cook; but those that stay, stay for good. She laments the passing of Gourmet Magazine because she’d use it as a sort of litmus test for potential subscribers. If you subscribed to Gourmet, you’d be a good fit for the Gourmet Box. Subscribers spread from Lodi to Lake Tahoe, and range from young families who want to give their children a culinary education at home, to retirees with spare time to cook special meals.

This very local farm is an asset for the Sacramento region. Whether you reap the benefits as a gardener, chef, diner, schoolchild, or home cook, Del Rio Botanicals has a lot to offer our community.

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