Fit to be dried: Family farm turns fresh fruit into year-round treat
Nov./Dec. 2009 California Country magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Ching Lee, Tracy Sellers and Scott Monaco
Vivian and Belle Martino of Bella Viva Orchards are the latest in their family to continue a long history of taking produce directly to the people.
The Martinos—from left, Belle, Victor, Vivian and Angie—stand in the "dry yard" of their Stanislaus County farm, where they grow and dry a variety of fruits and nuts for Bella Viva Orchards, their family business.
Ask Stanislaus County farmer Victor Martino what he misses most about summer and he will likely say those triple-digit temperatures that had many Californians flocking to the beach to cool off just a few months ago.
But taking a dip in the water isn't what he has in mind. For Martino, blazing hot summer days in the Golden State provide the perfect conditions for sunbathing—his fruit, that is, from apricots and nectarines to cherries and raisins.
"This is the traditional way of drying fruit," he said, walking among a sea of fruit laid out on trays in his dry yard soaking in the rays. "Other people hear that weather report of 100-degree days and dread it. We love it here because it means we can dry more fruit!"
A third-generation farmer, Martino has had a weakness for dried fruit since he was a little boy growing up on his family's farm in the Central Valley. He loved dried fruit like candy and made a habit of drying his own personal stash so he could indulge all winter. By the time he was a teenager, he was selling his natural fruit confections at the farmers market along with fresh fruit from the family farm.
When he met his wife, Angie, in college and later started a family of his own, drying fruit began to take shape as a business, and Bella Viva Orchards was born.
"I was so impressed going to farmers markets with his original business, watching the people go to the fruit, that I was determined to grow this end of the dried fruit business, which was what we did," Angie said.
The Martino sisters Belle and Vivian have a huge presence at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza, where their fruits are sold fresh and dried.
Bella Viva, which in Italian means "beautiful long life," is named after the Martinos' two daughters, Belle and Vivian, who have been the inspiration for the business and an integral part of it as well.
"Angie didn't want to go back to work because she wanted to take care of the kids, but she really wanted to do something.This business allowed her to do something with the kids because we didn't have to leave them," said Victor.
Unlike her husband, Angie did not grow up on a farm, but she loved the country life, and visiting the state's many orchards to pick fresh fruit was always a favorite pastime in her family.
"When Victor and I met, we just had lots in common," she said.
Her warm, bodacious spirit and go-getter attitude made her a natural saleswoman for Bella Viva, and Victor credits her for the success of the business.
They started small, running the business from their home on the farm, at first mainly selling to local doctors who used the dried fruit as gifts to other doctors who gave them patient referrals. Then sales expanded into supermarkets, and from there, the business began to really blossom.
Fresh fruit picked ripe from the Martinos' 49-acre farm is placed on trays to be sun-dried.
Doubling as busy mom and the marketing force behind Bella Viva, Angie recalls how in the early days she used to bring the girls along on some of her appointments with clients. With their mother working from home, Vivian and Belle learned quickly the difference between the business phone and the family phone and knew when they were supposed to hush.
"No matter if I had two babies hollering and needing me, whenever the business phone rang, they just stopped crying," Angie said. "They were so sweet. But the minute I hung up the phone, they would start crying again."
When Vivian was 7 and Belle was 5, they were put to work on the farm, even if it was just washing boxes. They soon became familiar faces at farmers markets, where the family sells their fresh and dried products. Too young to count money and give correct change, Vivian, now 20, said she'd just hand out bags to customers.
"My dad made us work in the summer because he didn't like watching us just sit around," she said.
Angie said it was also to give her children responsibilities and help them build character.
"Victor really believed in developing a work ethic, even though the girls didn't have to be working in the dry yard," she said. "It was more to help develop them as people and to show them that the people who are out there doing that hard work are just like you."
Today, the Martinos are carrying on a family tradition of growing fruit on their 49-acre farm in Denair, about 16 miles southeast of Modesto, just as they've been doing since the 1940s. But over the years, it is their diverse selection of dried fruits that they've become best known for.
As Bella Viva grew, the family moved into town and converted their old home into the business's official headquarters. There, they grow the majority of the fruits and nuts that Bella Viva offers, including peaches, nectarines, apricots, cherries, almonds and raisins. What they don't grow they source from other California farms.
Because "it takes good fruit to make good dried fruit," Victor said, his workers pick only fruit that is fully ripe for processing. Everything is dried and packaged on site, which enables Bella Viva to have complete control over its product.
Since the drying operation runs year-round, even during rainy winter months when the sun is out of commission, dehydrators take over to complete the job. Drying time varies depending on the type of fruit and how hot the temperature is outside. Cherries, for example, take about seven days to dry in the sun, whereas apricots can take from two to four days.
"The great thing about the sun-dried product is solar. We don't use energy; it's greener," said Victor.
These days, the Martino sisters are still a huge presence at the farmers markets where they've been taking their produce directly to the people for years. Vivian, now a senior at the University of California, Davis, double-majoring in sociology and psychology, is paying for her college expenses working summers at the farmers markets. She wants to go to law school.
Belle, 18, is a sophomore at California State University, Stanislaus, majoring in business. She said going to farmers markets, where she gets to interact with patrons, answer their questions and see who's actually buying and eating their products, has always been her favorite part of the job.
"I just like the people, seeing all the different kinds of people in San Francisco," she said, referring to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, where the Bella Viva fruit stand has been a longtime fixture. "And I like meeting new people."
Even though her daughters are older now and have busy lives outside the farm, Angie said they still often travel with her to trade shows and conventions.
"I feel blessed that we were able to grow our business and put our family first," she said. "I like what I do, and I get to be closer to my girls. We just feel like we've had the most beautiful life and we want to share that with everyone."
A must for the holidays—and beyond!
Years ago Victor Martino's sister, Beatrice, made this no-bake fruitcake for the family, which owns and operates Bella Viva Orchards. It has since become a family favorite because of its ease of preparation and mixture of tempting flavors. Angela Martino makes this "holiday must" a few times a year to serve as dessert and give as gifts.
Ching Lee is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.