May/June 2009 California Country magazine
By Tracy Sellers
The Olson family happily preserves their 110-year-old farm in city's center.
Cherries, Sunnyvale and the Olson family. Since 1899, all three of these things have been linked together. And despite urbanization, other family farms in the area disappearing and basically an entire city being built up around them, the link between these three doesn't look to be broken anytime soon.
You see, when your last name is Olson and you live in the South Bay, there really isn't a question about what you're destined to do in life. That was determined over a century before.
It all started when Carl and Hannah Olson put down roots as cherry farmers in the agriculturally rich area. At the time, Sunnyvale was a pastoral paradise, and the Swedish immigrants knew immediately this was where they wanted to raise a family. They bought 5 acres for about $150 an acre and had a little money left to build their home.
Other farmers in the area were planting apricots and prunes, but Carl Olson decided on cherries. He sold some of his crop locally and the rest he hauled by wagon 5 miles to the small town of Alviso, where a boat picked up the cherries and took them to San Francisco. Legend even has it that the reputation of the Olsons' cherries was one of the reasons Sunnyvale was considered the prime cherry-growing area in the country.
Twenty years later, in 1919, the Olsons moved a few miles away to property they referred to as "the country"—a parcel at El Camino Real near Mathilda Avenue. Next in the farming legacy came son Ruel Charles, who along with his wife, Rose, would change the look of the farm and ultimately the future of the family with one simple idea.
"He put a little fruit stand in for her, which was basically a tray on two sawhorses, selling fresh cherries and apricots," said Charlie Olson, the couple's son. "And she immediately saw it was a real moneymaker, so she had him build her a fruit stand."
From that small fruit stand, the business blossomed. Their 5 acres quickly turned into 100 and life was, well, a bowl of cherries. The mid-20th century was the golden age for the Santa Clara Valley fruit business, as the abundance of agriculture earned the area the moniker of "The Valley of Heart's Delight." In fact, according to local historian Yvonne Jacobson, by 1960 Santa Clara County had a total of 23 dried fruit plants, 25 frozen food operations and 85 fresh fruit and vegetable packers.
"During that time, the area was easily the world's largest center for these industries," said Jacobson, author of the book, "Passing Farms, Enduring Values: California's Santa Clara Valley."
But following World War II, urban and suburban sprawl covered the fertile land and the largest fruit-growing region in California gradually vanished. As millions of people moved into the area for its prosperous economy, dozens of family farms moved out. Eventually the dot-com era in the Silicon Valley caught up to the Olsons and in 1999, with agriculture all but gone from the Sunnyvale area, the Olsons were forced to make a difficult decision: make way for development or hang on to their past.
"We knew there would come a day where this all would change—that we'd have to change—and sure enough that day came," said Deborah Olson, Charlie's daughter. "So we decided to change on one condition."
That one condition was that the beloved family fruit stand stay intact and be unaffected by urban encroachment.
"That was really, really important to my family and I, and to the citizens of Sunnyvale, I think," she said.
So today you will find the famous C.J. Olson Fruit Stand still near the corner of El Camino Real and Mathilda Avenue, as a shining beacon of the agricultural prosperity the region once enjoyed. But just like the area around it, you will also find that the stand has evolved a bit. Instead of a tray and two sawhorses, a thriving retail store highlights local goods ranging from jams, jellies and nuts to some of the state's best produce, artisan goods and, of course, the family's famous Bings and the other cherries they now get from throughout the state.
"Over the years, I've met so many really talented farmers," said Deborah Olson. "And I've cultivated relationships with them where they give me their best produce and I highlight it in the best way I can. It's a win-win situation for everybody."
Showcasing some of the finest farms, farmers and foods the state has to offer is easy, she says, thanks to an education that has taken her all over the world.
"Since the age of 14, I knew working with the farm and with food would be somewhere in my future, but I just didn't know how," she said. "So I left after high school and went to culinary school in France to learn everything I could to bring back to the farm stand."
Today Deborah Olson is embarking on a new stage in the family's farming heritage. She has taken her knowledge about food—along with her entrepreneurial spirit—to develop different marketing plans for the business. These include a cookbook with family recipes and a successful mail-order operation that features baskets of homemade delicacies that have been bought by such celebrities as Martha Stewart, Jacques Pepin, Prince Albert of Monaco, Aaron Spelling and Courtney Cox Arquette. In addition, local restaurant menus have recently started to list the Olsons' cherries among their ingredients and, later this summer, the family's products will be sold in a kiosk at the San Jose International Airport.
"I just love working with the growers," said Deborah Olson, with her trademark cherry-red-lipstick smile. "I learn something new every year about farming, about what's affecting them, and I try to pass that on to my customers, too."
But don't think she does it alone. Deborah's dad remains active in the business, tending to a barn full of equipment that he maintains and repairs on a regular basis. Seventy-four years young, Charlie Olson gets up early every day and tends to a small farm near the fruit stand. It is down to a 3-acre plot of land in between tennis courts and apartment complexes now, but this rural oasis reminds him of days long past. He says he still relishes his role of picking and delivering fresh-from-the-farm cherries to his favorite worker at the fruit stand: his daughter.
"She runs it beautifully and has really made it grow," he said. "Some weeks she puts in 60, 70, 80 hours, and all she asks for in return is that people are happy."
Happiness isn't in short supply at the family business that has now been in existence for more than a century. Over the years, employees have become an extension of the Olson family, as many have grown up right alongside Deborah. Some of the fruit stand stalwarts include Stella Hernandez and sisters Lidia and Ester Veloz—or as Deborah Olson calls them, "The Ladies." Working for the family for more than 50 years each, the women have become experts not only at picking out and packaging the best little red orbs around, but for what they think makes a family business last so long.
"I have worked here almost my entire life," said Hernandez. "We work together, we laugh together, we cry together. The Olsons aren't just my employers. They're my family."
The old and the new combine harmoniously at this famous fruit stand, which over the years has become a slice of the country in the middle of a city. Visitors from all over the world come to taste and purchase the Olsons' cherries and other gourmet products, to tour the orchards and enjoy the events the family hosts.
"People are willing to come from a long way for our cherries," said Deborah Olson proudly.
The dedication from the community to keep the family business going is evidenced each May at the Olsons' annual cherry festival, which attracts hundreds of visitors. The festival serves up plenty of old-fashioned fun for the entire family and includes an educational orchard tour that Deborah Olson gives herself.
"With people living in the Silicon Valley, they really don't know what this valley is all about and its strong tie to agriculture," she said. "What we try to do here amongst other things is educate people."
And educating folks about agriculture is just the latest effort by the Olsons to continue their longstanding farming tradition. Like a chameleon, they have taken on many identities over the years—from farm to fruit stand to mail-order business. The Olsons have reinvented themselves time and time again and have managed to survive the test of time the only way they know how: through family and cherries.
"I've been trying to keep this thing alive," said Deborah Olson. "Many of our customers are getting old. They were my grandmother's customers. But we are committed to keeping the fruit stand. Most people are amazed that we even held on this long. And right in the middle of Silicon Valley—go figure!"
Want to try Deborah Olson's famous cherry pie recipe?
The Olson family's annual cherry festival—this year on May 30 and 31—features a smorgasbord of cherry pies, cherry pancakes and other cherry delights. Plus there's fun for the whole family that ranges from an orchard tour to a cherry-pit-spitting contest. For more information, call 1-800-738-BING or visit www.cjolsoncherries.com.
Tracy Sellers is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and associate producer for California Country TV. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.