Growing on the river
Sept./Oct. 2012 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Ching Lee and Trina Wood
Delta family helps put the region's farms on the map.
Come on down!
That's what Michael and Amber McDowell tell potential visitors to their family farm in the historic delta region of Sacramento County.
As founding members of the Sacramento River Delta Grown Agri-Tourism Association, the couple hopes to turn the region into a favorite travel destination by promoting agricultural sustainability and introducing people to the area's diverse local farms.
Their farm, along with more than a dozen others in the association, is part of a new farm trail that kicked off this past summer that includes wineries, a hog farm, a pumpkin patch and products such as herbs, dried pears, squash, organic cherries and heirloom beans.
Michael and Amber McDowell, with their daughter Sierra, have opened their farm to visitors in order to boost agritourism in the historic delta region of Sacramento County.
A fourth-generation farmer, Michael McDowell said the idea for the farm trail grew out of necessity to earn extra income for his farm—so it can thrive into the future. He and his wife, who are in their 30s, agree that it's not enough to simply continue doing what the last generation did if they want to pass the farm on to their daughter, Sierra.
At 3, Sierra is already fully engaged with different aspects of the farm—collecting eggs, caring for the baby chicks and spending time in the pear orchard. The McDowells say they would like to give her the opportunity to pursue farming if she chooses, but they realize that to keep that dream alive, they need to look for new markets and niches.
"We have to change for economic reasons," Amber McDowell said. "It's apparent to everyone that you have to make some adjustments, and I think the younger generation is more willing to."
Farm trail visitors will encounter bridges such as this one near the town of Courtland that provide vital links to the communities and farms along the Sacramento River Delta, a region rich in agricultural production.
While the McDowells grow pears, alfalfa, feed corn and wheat on a commercial scale, Michael McDowell noted that those products have traditionally been at the mercy of fluctuating commodity prices. These days, not only is he still farming those crops, but he's also providing an outdoor experience for customers that visit part of the pear orchard now open as a U-pick. And, he's retaining more control over his livelihood.
"We're trying to find something steady that we can make a nice living off of without worrying about whether we're going to make it or not," he said. "That's all I really want to do—make a living out here farming. If I can take the stress level out of it and find something we know we can make money at every year, it'll be nice."
Michael McDowell checks for hatched eggs inside an incubator tray.
During the winter, when all the alfalfa has been harvested and baled, the fields become a hunting preserve for game birds that McDowell also raises. He started raising the birds in high school as a project for FFA, or Future Farmers of America. He's been expanding his flock ever since and now breeds and raises more than 1,600 pheasants, chukars and quail on the property.
"My grandpa told me I would never get people out here to hunt," he said. "At least he was still alive at the time to watch them come in. (The hunting preserve) has provided another revenue stream for my family and given us another use for the land."
The McDowells' alfalfa field becomes a hunting preserve in the winter for game birds.
Inspired by the success of the hunting club and well-known California farm trails such as Apple Hill in El Dorado County, the McDowells got the idea to start the U-pick, which also sells picked fruit for folks too busy to harvest their own. In addition to the pears, Michael is now developing his own private collection of fruit trees, including peaches, plums, nectarines and apples, to increase the farm's offerings.
Recently, the farm also started selling eggs from free-range chickens. Already equipped with the infrastructure to raise the game birds, the family decided to add poultry to the mix.
The family also raises chickens and sells the eggs on the farm.
Amber McDowell, who teaches science and agriculture in an urban high school, initially raised the chickens for educational purposes—so she could bring part of the farm to the classroom, because her students had never seen chicks being hatched.
"The kids didn't have any idea where their food comes from, so we're trying to get that connection to them," she said. "They had never seen different-sized eggs or brown eggs. We took animals to school one year and they didn't know what the animals were. They thought the dairy cows were zebras and our four goats were dogs. The only one they got right was the pig."
Before long, the McDowells were overflowing with eggs, so Amber started selling them to fellow teachers, many of whom have become loyal customers. Demand for the eggs grew—and so did the McDowells' flock. Now, other customers are stopping at the farm to stock up.
"People have been buying directly from us, and they seem to really love what we have," Michael McDowell said.
Sierra, 3, loves being on the farm, especially caring for the baby chicks.
Getting their farm on the map and being able to sell products directly to the consumer, he noted, have given new life to his family's farm. Whether visitors are coming out to pick pears, hunt birds, buy eggs or just tour the farm, the McDowells said it's an opportunity for them to educate people about agriculture, now a big part of their mission.
"People want to know where their food comes from," Michael McDowell said. "If we can give them a glimpse, maybe they can understand what farmers are trying to do and our way of life—that farming is an important aspect of our whole economy, that we're taking care of our land."
Exploring the delta
Motorists taking a scenic drive through the heart of the historic Sacramento River Delta can now visit a number of farms along the way. The Sacramento River Delta Grown Farm Trail, which debuted this past summer, includes the McDowell family's Double M Farms, along with several vineyards and wineries, a farmers market and farms with a variety of crops.
While much of the farming activity along the delta peaks during the summer months, there is still plenty going on in the fall and winter. Vierra Farms, for example, offers a produce stand through October, a pumpkin patch the last weekend in September through October and a Christmas tree farm in December.
Free-range eggs—in a self-serve refrigerator on the porch—are among the items available year-round at the McDowells' farm (www.mcdowellestate.com). The McDowell Hunting Preserve runs from mid-October to January by appointment.
For a farm trail map and more information on the farms, go to www.sacriverdeltagrown.org.