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In Pursuit of Magic: How Frog Hollow Farm Made Organic Fruit a Fairytale

I remember first seeing Frog Hollow Farm’s preserves at my local grocery store when I was still too young to reach the shelf they were on. Neatly stacked near the top, just above the rows of honey bears, the label of each jar was illustrated with a frog waiting patiently under a fruit tree, almost as if the two were engaged in a thoughtful conversation. I recall the taste of their orange marmalade most vividly–sweet and tangy, perfect on biscuits with tea, or (often not so) delicately portioned onto a spoon and eaten straight out of the jar.

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As Frog Hollow grew, their jams– now joined by fresh fruit and rich olive oils– began appearing at more and more farmers’ markets around the Bay Area, until soon, stopping by their stand became a routine feature of my week. In July, I looked forward to their bright red Summer Flare nectarines– sweet, heavy, and almost too big for one of my hands– while in the fall and winter I devoured their famous Warren pears with thin slices of salty cheese.

Over the years, Frog Hollow’s fruit– certainly more than Bay Area weather– came to mark for me the passing of seasons. The taste of Frog Hollow was the taste of early mornings at the farmers’ market after going to the gym with my mom, the taste of running into neighborhood characters, the taste of a perfect afternoon snack. But most of all, it was the taste of home.

(If all this seems a gross exaggeration, then you have not tried Frog Hollow Farm’s fruit.)

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When I moved from Oakland to New York City for college, I adjusted relatively easily– but I had been spoiled by the edenic farms of the West Coast, and missed the ease and bounty of produce there.

I vowed I would return to California the moment I graduated.

Two months into the school year, my mother– sensing the issue of fresh produce remained a barrier to my completely settling in– told me she was sending something in the mail, and to keep an eye out for it. A day later, a wide, flat box arrived, a frog inked onto the outside. Inside were Frog Hollow Pears, each one carefully packed into its own crevice. Enclosed, a note printed on their stationary read, “Don’t forget to share! xoxo mom.”

I would distribute the fruit among my friends and roommates, handing off a pear with formal solemnity and assuring the recipient this would probably be the best piece of fruit they ever tasted. Even after traveling 3,000 miles, the fruit did not disappoint. I never once rescinded my claims.

The boxes became a tradition. I would distribute the fruit among my friends and roommates, handing off a pear with formal solemnity and assuring the recipient this would probably be the best piece of fruit they ever tasted. Even after traveling 3,000 miles, the fruit did not disappoint. I never once rescinded my claims.

Frog Hollow Farm has an undeniable other-worldly quality about it. Named for the frogs singing in a nearby pond, Frog Hollow’s crates of produce are like pages out of a storybook: animals frolic between rows of fruit trees and a quaint cottage, while cheery flowers grow along the side. And after tasting their fruit, the possibility of this scene being reality doesn’t seem far off. What makes Frog Hollow so extraordinary is that its rare, old-fashioned charm never feels forced or artificial. It is completely authentic.

Frog Hollow Farm opened in 1976 after Al Courchesne (known now as “Farmer Al”) left his job teaching high school history in Honolulu, Hawaii. Later, he purchased a 13-acre lot near the San Joaquin River Valley delta, where he planted his first crops despite having grown up in the city and knowing next to nothing about farming. For several years, the produce was sold only at roadside stands or with a “u-pick” approach (which invites individuals to come to the farm and collect their own fruit). Slowly, the farm’s reputation began to grow, and in 2000 they produced their first batch of pastries and jams, which ignited their popularity.

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Today, Frog Hollow is a venerable Bay Area institution, supplying Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse with fruit and operating a CSA, a mail-order business, and a market & café in San Francisco’s Ferry Building– all this in addition to the weekly appearances they put in at local farmers’ markets (where Farmer Al can often be found behind the counter in his classic blue overalls). An exemplar of the farm-to-table movement, Frog Hollow practices sustainable farming methods and ensures sustainable employment for those who work for them– their employees at the farmers’ market become familiar faces, even as the seasons change.

The commitment to sustainability extends to Frog Hollow’s operations, as well. Farmer Al wastes nothing– the fruit that is not cosmetically fit for grocery stores or farmers’ markets is used in baking, donated to the local food bank, or added to their compost, ensuring that even “ugly fruit” has its place.

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Though their fruit is enviously exquisite, Frog Hollow isn’t shy about sharing their best practices. They enrich their “legendary soil” (as they refer to it) with seaweed, fish, limestone, and compost, and are always experimenting with new compost additions– like using coffee grounds from the Ferry Building in San Francisco, where their market & cafe is located. Their blog is rife with tasty recipes and posts detailing the ins and outs of their farm, like their efforts to overcome “replant syndrome” (which occurs when plants are removed and the subsequent crops planted in the same plot grow poorly).

In addition to the rich delta land Frog Hollow claims as its home, Farmer Al credits the farm’s success with harvesting “tree-ripe” fruit, rather than picking it early to make it ship better. Frog Hollow also engages in “aggressive thinning” in the months leading up to the harvest, in order to reduce competition for the fruit, and they under water their plants shortly before the fruit is collected to concentrate the flavor. Just before being picked, Farmer Al personally inspects the crops to ensure they are ready.

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The magic of Frog Hollow Farm lies somewhere in between the fortunes of nature and the reality of hard work– a great meeting of science and instinct. But when tasting it, it is difficult to believe their fruit has come from anywhere else except an enchanted valley, marked nowhere on the map. For me, the magic of their fruit rests in its ability to take me back to where I grew up– to the habits and times and places that shaped my childhood. The fruit has come to represent both familiarity and comfort– all in the course of a single bite.

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