A lush, chaotic garden of fruit trees
in the outback of northern California

Guru Ram Das Orchards is commercially successful, but its wild beauty
is obviously inspired by the unearthly, life-long love affair its owner
has with deciduous trees.

By Lisa M. Hamilton

Esparto, CA, Posted March 28, 2003: It’s fitting that you couldn’t whiz by Guru Ram Das Orchards even if you tried. Sure, you can blast down Highway 505 at 65 mph and still identify the orchards blurring past by mere color. In March, green means almonds, bright white indicates apricots, and bare brown is peaches, waiting patiently to bloom. Passed by so fast, the precisely planted trunks beat out a visual rhythm like a stick running over the slats of a picket fence.

Didar Singh Khalsa selecting lemons: Chez Panisse’s pastry chef, buys from Didar twice a week because he knows he can rely on his fruit’s perfection. “He takes the time to pick them when they’re ripe, and he tastes critically before he brings anything to market. That makes the difference.”
PHOTO BY LISA M. HAMILTON

But exit at Highway 16 and you slow to 50 mph, down to 30 through the tired town of Esparto—and that’s still fast. Road 22A challenges you to go above 20 mph, and Guru Ram Das Orchards sits one road further off the grid, on a bend that demands first gear. Turning onto the driveway you come to a rolling stop, left with no choice but to contemplate the puddly stream that marks the crossing into this whole other world.

In this orchard, you can’t see to the end of a row. Citrus anchors the hillside, standing like fantastically bushy Christmas trees hung with fat orange ornaments. Before them spring lithe green almonds; behind them arms of hot pink blossoms reach wildly toward the sky. The understory flows from low clover to grass high enough to tickle branches, and the landscape above changes literally from tree to tree. Here is a meadowlark atop a regal walnut, next to it a young nectarine tree girdled with compost. The wind is harsh here, but in the thick grove of Valencias two rows over it is merely a rustle, leaving the air draped with the perfume of nearby Meyer lemons. From any perspective you might see the mingling branches of plums, pears, persimmons, and peaches. It is syncopation no Highway 505 orchardist could fathom.

But then, who among them could fathom making an annual pilgrimage to the Great Smoky Mountains, just to stand breathless in front of the massive Carolina silverbell trees? Who among them has a Chinese wingnut tree in his front yard, much less a pair? And who among them, when he talks about his trees, holds the tips of their thin branches with his fingertips?

At the top of the hill, Didar Singh Khalsa stands in the shade of the smaller Chinese wingnut, showing me a string of blossoms. His words might describe how the seeds make a decorative chain, but the real message—told by his upcast eyes, his lilting voice, his fingers delicately rolling the flowers—is what he said an hour before: “It all has to do with this unworldly love I have for deciduous trees.”

Farm-at-a-glance

Guru Ram Das Orchards

Location: Near Esparto, about 75 miles NE of San Fransisco and 25 miles west of Sacramento
Total acres: 16 1/2
Years farming: The orchard was planted in 1981
Crops: A huge mix of fruit and nut trees that produce fruit throughout the year: lemons, oranges, plums, cherries, pears, kumquats, almonds, walnuts, figs, apricots, nectarines, etc.
Marketing: farmer's market, direct sales

I had come to Guru Ram Das Orchards to hear how spirituality influences Didar’s farming. Knowing he is a diligently practicing Sikh, I expected to uncover a formal structure for applying sacred beliefs to the profane world of commercial farming. But here on the hilltop my questions are dead ends, and the conversation always turns back to the trips Didar takes to see the world’s great trees—the yellow buckeye tree with its candlabra flowers, 300-year-old boxwoods in France. As we walk into the orchard, Didar’s excitement only rises; for him there is a direct correlation between number of trees and adrenaline.

”I love talking about them because I love their stories,” he says. “And every tree has a story.”

For instance this fig tree. Ten years ago a customer from the Berkeley farmers market brought Didar cuttings from a white fig tree in Greece. The customer believed (and many agree) that it is the best fig variety on earth, and for that he thought Didar must have one. The cuttings were crude, imported as bare branches in a garbage bag, but Didar rooted them in sand and one took. Today it is enormous, limbs sprawling into the air. “We’ve even been pruning the hell out of it,” he says, “but it’s still huge.” The trunk has even split from the weight of its fruit, yet the tree shows no hesitation.

Which is good, considering it stands white and bony in that dense grove of Valencia oranges. It was planted here the way most trees have arrived since the 16 ½-acre orchard was planted in 1981: something else died, and the hole it left was filled with Didar’s fancy. He has no master plan—the orchard map hanging on the packing shed wall looks like a puzzle.

Still, the decisions work. The fig tree is bold enough to reach for the sunlight it needs, yet its thin foliage never threatens the neighbors. A tiny kumquat tree hides in the same dark grove of Valencias, but it is so small that the bigger trees’ spacing affords it the air and light it needs, while their bulk protects it from the wind.

Myrobalan cherry plum: The most spectacular and beloved tree in the orchard, it doesn't produce a single sellable fruit. But in March, it's electric with bees, assuring that surrounding trees will not suffer for pollination.
PHOTO BY LISA M. HAMILTON

Most advisers would frown on such seemingly haphazard interplanting, warning of inefficiency, but this complexity is exactly what Didar values. In fact, tree fanatic that he is, Didar has never seen the giant redwoods a few hundred miles north because the forests are too homogenous to enthrall him. Likewise, his plantings almost intentionally defy the uniformity standard to most orchards. “I like formal gardens planted informally,” he says. “Formal gardens alone are like a piece of music all in major keys—there’s no contrast.”

Along the same lines, he chooses tree varieties not for early maturity or other market considerations, but for their taste, their color, and their intrigue. As those choices start to bear fruit, he chooses to keep trees according to an equally special set of priorities.

Take his Keiffer pears. He planted the trees as an experiment, but for a while had no idea how to ripen the fruit. So he had someone graft a California pear onto one of the Keiffers, and found a mixed blessing: the fruit was “amazingly good” but terribly unvigorous.

“Still,” he says, “after 11 years, I get one box of fruit from the whole tree. I should have left it as a Keiffer, because since then I’ve figured out how to ripen them. But the Californias are the best pears I’ve ever tasted. A few of my customers know that and they alone will buy almost the whole crop. Even selling them for $2.40 a pound, though, I still make nothing off of them. And that’s okay. They don’t make me any money but they make me friends.”

"As we walk into the orchard, Didar’s excitement only rises; for him there is a direct correlation between number of trees and adrenaline. ‘I love talking about them because I love their stories,’ he says. ‘And every tree has a story.' "

Sometimes even the trees themselves seem to become friends. On the east side of the orchard is one that’s irresistible in spring, its mass of blossoms so round and thick and white, like a thin cloud in front of the sun. Even when eyes are closed and backs are turned, the scent sweetly coerces attention. It is the most spectacular tree in the orchard, perhaps the most beloved (though such favoritism seems unlikely), and yet it produces not a single sellable fruit.

This Myrobalan cherry plum started as a sucker from the rootstock of a neighboring Blenheim apricot, which Didar’s former partner cultured accidentally. Full-grown now, the tree’s crop is excessively heavy and negligible in quality. Didar doesn’t prune it regularly, but still he must do enough cutting to get a tractor under the robust limbs. A money pit, it would seem.

But on March 17, the tree is electric with bees, assurance that the surrounding apricots and nectarines will never suffer for pollination. And that’s not all. “It has the best flowers anywhere,” Didar says, smiling proudly at this shocking white tree. “Even better, it has red color in the fall.”

Most farmers would be skeptical of making choices according to an unconventional set of priorities, and rightly so, considering this industry’s thin margins. Looking down the hill and across the stream to his neighbor’s conventional almond orchard, Didar says that in recent years he hasn’t seen the rented hives that used to appear there each year during bloom time. “The prices kept dropping and I think they decided it just wasn’t worth it anymore.”

Didar’s decisions, too, have tangible results, good and bad. Because of the varied layout, tasks such as harvest and spraying take more time and attention. Today the farm is applying sulfur to the peaches, but must stutter its application so as not to harm the sulfur-sensitive apricots in their midst. This kind of particularity requires that Didar be personally involved in the farming, physically present and making decisions about individual trees. And because his workers can know the layout only after a few seasons, he must offer incentives to retain them. (Thanks to climate and wise planting, the orchard produces fruit throughout the year, which keeps workers in town.)

But for what the diversity demands in attention it pays back in vitality. With habitat so scattered, diseases don’t mushroom out of control and insect populations never reach threatening numbers. Plus, the deep and varied ground cover hosts plenty of predators. Walking through the orchard you feel the ground change by the yard, now lush then muddy then solid again. Such complexity means a thriving underground world of microorganisms that control perennial threats such as Phytophthora and Verticillium.

Marketing decisions follow a similar balance. Didar takes incredible care to assure his product is optimal at the point of sale. The process is time-consuming, but it pays off. A loyal customer is Alice Water’s Chez Panisse, the celebrated Berkeley restaurant that began the revolution toward eating food not for what culinary alchemy makes it, but for what it is to begin with—namely fresh, local, and carefully grown. Their standards are uncompromising.

"Usually the discussion of a farm stops here, after you’ve satisfied all the traditional considerations of what makes a successful business: good pest management and fertility, a product matched to its market, a reliable customer base. But there is something more to Guru Ram Das Orchards—namely love."

Chez Panisse’s pastry chef, Alan Tangren, buys from Didar twice a week at the farmers market because he knows he can rely on his fruit’s perfection. “He takes the time to pick them when they’re ripe,” Tangren says, “and he tastes critically before he brings anything to market. That makes the difference.”

Usually the discussion of a farm stops here, the evidence having satisfied all the traditional considerations of what makes a successful business: good pest management and fertility, a product matched to its market, a reliable customer base. But there is something more to Guru Ram Das Orchards—namely love. American agriculture is uncomfortable talking about this other, it being impossible to fit into an equation of input and return. Yet while love might be less official, it is no less important.

Most growers feel this other—they wouldn’t be in the business if they didn’t. But Didar is special in that he has gone from treating love as a nice side effect to acknowledging it as a powerful principle. At his orchard, alongside considerations of money, vitality, and long-range planning, love makes decisions.

To the untrained eye the decisions love makes might seem frivolous; just as we don’t have words to quantify love itself, we don’t have words to quantify its effects. We could legitimize love by how it promotes other goals—generous watering means a heavy first crop of figs when the market is good, for instance, and keeping the Myrobalan means healthy bee populations. But going beyond that, to validate love on its own, requires a whole new plane of thinking.

As Didar sees it, it’s no different from his faith. He explains, “To create a holy place, people get together and bow in reverence. That act of reverence is what makes something sacred. You can feel it when you go into a place like a cathedral. People have had a devotional attitude about it, and the place keeps that and reverberates it back.

“It works with a farm, too. If you love it and have a reverential attitude toward it and are grateful for what it gives you, ultimately it works better. Things taste better, and ultimately you probably make more money.”

It certainly feels true at the farmers market; Alan Tangren is one of many customers to note that there’s something different about Didar’s fruit. Back at the farm, looking through this lush, multi-colored landscape and across the stream to the neighbor’s acres of sad almonds, that different thing is made clear. With my nose full of cherry plum perfume and ears full of bird songs, I’m left to wonder only why this beauty is so rare.

Lisa Hamilton is a freelance ag writer from Mill Valley, CA.