Califonia Bountiful

A plum of a crop

July/August 2017 California Bountiful magazine

Flavorful fruit offers a taste of family's legacy

Holding a basket of just-harvested plums, Nathan Chandler represents the fifth generation at Chandler Farms.¬†Photo: © 2017 Tomas Ovalle

Summer is a wonderful time to enjoy fresh fruit—and for the Chandlers, who have farmed in Fresno County for nearly 130 years, it's prime time for plums. The family ranks the sweet orb as a favorite in the season's starting lineup of stone fruits.

"There is nothing I like more than to be out in the plum orchard on a hot summer day and grab a nice piece of ripened fruit," said John Chandler, who operates Chandler Farms with his brother, Tom, and their parents, Bill and Carol. "If I'm feeling really ambitious, I'll grab quite a few and bring them home to make a plum pie. I've also added them to smoothies and made plum tarts and plum jam."

Four generations of Chandlers have worked the soil in Selma in the heart of California's Central Valley since 1889, soon after Bill's grandfather made a wintertime visit from his home in the Midwest.

In describing those early days, Bill recalled, "I was given a letter that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother in Illinois that said, 'It is Dec. 27 and the children can play outside without their mackinaws (heavy coats).' In other words, the weather out here is so great, you can farm 12 months out of the year."

Bill and Carol still live in the old farmhouse where he grew up, and the farm's vintage tankhouse and windmill are central to the Chandler Farms logo.

The Chandler family has lived and worked in the heart of California's Central Valley since 1889. Photo left: courtesy Chandler Farms. Photo right: © 2017 Tomas Ovalle

Traditions and innovations

About the same time Bill's grandfather was visiting Fresno County, horticulturist Luther Burbank was developing plum varieties at his home in Sonoma County. Burbank had imported seeds from a Japanese plum, Prunus salicina, and crossed them with other species to achieve many new plum varieties.

According to the University of California, nearly all of today's cultivated plum varieties derive from those Burbank developed. Before that, early settlers brought the European plum, Prunus domestica, to the United States. This plum, still grown today, produces sweet fruit for drying or eating fresh.

"There are various flavors of plums, maybe 50 or more varieties that appear throughout the season, from the middle of May clear to the first of September," Bill explained. "There's yellow plums, purple and red, and all sorts of colors. Some are good for eating out of hand, we call it, and some for making jams, jellies and pies."

The Chandlers have grown plums for more than a half-century and, through the years, have added almonds, citrus, winegrapes and raisin grapes to the farm's mix of crops. The family says that when customers bite into the Chandlers' ripe plums or a handful of their almonds, they become partners in sustaining a long farming legacy.

"The food that we produce has a connection to 128 years ago, whether the consumer realizes it or not," John said.

Chandler Farms with current generations: Bill, center, and, from left, wife Carol, daughter-in-law Kathryn and sons John and Tom. Tom and Kathryn's children are, from left, Laura Jane, Nathan and Silas. Photo: © 2017 Tomas Ovalle

Summer's bounty

California farmers produce 100 percent of the fresh plums harvested in the U.S., with the growing area concentrated primarily in Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties. On 50 acres, the Chandlers grow three varieties of plums for SunWest Fruit Co., a Parlier-based grower, packer and shipper that sells fruit to supermarkets across the United States.

Harvest time for the Chandlers' three varieties—Owen T, Catalina and Angeleno—are staggered throughout the season, offering shoppers a range of colors and flavors to anticipate.

"The Owen T variety has nice flavor and is a good mix of the bitterness found in the skin with the sweetness found in the flesh," John said. It has purple skin and a yellow interior, and runs on the larger side. Harvest typically begins in late June or early July.

The Chandlers also grow a midseason variety called the Catalina, which is harvested in July. It is a medium-sized, black plum that boasts a white pulp and sweet, juicy flavor. Last in the season, but definitely not least, is the Angeleno, a purple-skinned plum with a yellow interior.

"The Angeleno is a variety that has been very successful for us for about 30 years and is very marketable," Tom said. It is harvested in late August.

Chandler Farms employee Vincente Pacheco harvests late-season Angeleno plums, a dark-skinned variety with a sweet, yellow interior. Photos: © 2017 Tomas Ovalle

Orchards in bloom

Because many commercial plum varieties require pollen from another variety to produce a crop, "we plant two varieties together—the Catalina and the Angeleno—so the bees are able to cross-pollinate the fruit," John said.

The family brings honeybee hives to the orchards in February just prior to bloom, a spectacular display of small, white blossoms that lasts through March. Visitors are able to see Chandler Farms' orchards in all their glory each year along the scenic Fresno County Blossom Trail, a self-guided cycle or motor tour of an area alive with fragrance and bursting with blossoms.

The Chandlers say they enjoy showing off the blooms in late winter as well as harvesting the resulting fruit in the summer.

"Plums are fun to grow because you can eat them in the field," Tom said. "People want them as gifts, and Dad will hand-deliver plums fresh from the farm as gifts and let people know that they came from our farm."

This, Tom pointed out, adds to the sense of pride that comes with being a farmer.

"I have friends with careers outside of farming and they are just blown away by the plums," he said. "They always ask, 'What varieties are these?' There is enjoyment from the amount of tree fruit and crops that we can grow, especially here in the Fresno area."

Christine Souza


Mrs. Krause's plum pie

Ag Heritage Club honors longtime farmers

Photo: Christine Souza

For farming the same land for more than 125 consecutive years, Chandler Farms was inducted last year into the California Agricultural Heritage Club, a prestigious group of families and businesses descended from founders of the state's pioneer ranches, farms and agricultural businesses. Chandler Farms of Selma is operated by Bill and Carol Chandler and their sons, John and Tom, and was founded in 1889.

"There are so many things that work against family operations and it gets tougher with each generation, but both my brother and I feel the responsibility to keep it going and help it grow," Tom Chandler said. "The family takes a lot of pride in the fact that we are still farming the homestead."

The Agricultural Heritage Club dates back to 1948, when the state created the 100 Year Club on the 100th anniversary of the discovery of gold in California. It was renamed in 2001 to honor farms, ranches, organizations and agricultural businesses that had been established for 100, 125, 150 or 175 years. To date, Chandler Farms is one of 65 entities to have received the 125-year recognition.

California Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross said being inducted into the club is "a testimony to the resiliency and innovation of agriculture: the financial commitment, environmental stewardship and community contributions of families who have persevered and thrived for multiple generations."

Several hundred entities have been inducted into the California Agricultural Heritage Club, and this month, another set of inductees will be welcomed during a ceremony at the California State Fair in Sacramento.

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