The K.B. Hall Apricot Ranch – An Ojai Legend
By Steve Fields
Over the past century, Ventura County has seen waves of change in its local agriculture. At one time the Oxnard plain was filled with lima beans instead of strawberries. And before the region became a haven for oranges and lemons, there were 44,000 acres of apricots commercially grown in the county. Now, there are just 20 acres. And 87-year-old K.B. Hall isn’t quite sure how long these 20 acres of nearly 90-year-old trees can keep up.
But, while the trees are still producing, Ojai residents have the opportunity for a precious few weeks sometime in late June or early July (depending on the weather) to drive up to the Upper Ojai Valley and taste a bit of history. You won’t regret it.
Throughout the coastal valleys of California before the middle of the 20th Century, apricots were one of the leading agricultural crops. They were shipped back East either fresh, dried, or processed into jams and preserves.
Later, many of the best growing areas (like Northern California’s Silicon Valley), were lost to suburban housing tracts. Now, most of California’s crops are grown in the Central Valley and the modern commercially-grown varieties don’t match up to what was originally planted.
K.B. Hall grows what are frequently known as Royal Blenheim apricots (there is some confusion about the name since sometimes this variety is also called just Royal or Blenheim). The fruit is often somewhat smaller than the commercial varieties, but they are packed with intense apricot flavor. They are wonderful for almost any use–drying, making preserves, canning or eating fresh.
Apricots are one of the trickiest stone fruits to grow since they bloom earlier than all other stone fruit, usually in late February or early March. And after blooming occurs, growers hold their breath for almost a month because a variety of weather conditions can devastate the crop.
The K.B. Hall orchard has suffered some weather-related problems over the last few seasons, including a torrential hail storm, gale force winds, and last year’s draught. At press time, they were still uncertain about this year’s crop. The trees had started to bloom in early February after the unseasonably warm January. Then there was a cold, wet snap which stopped the process. The trees have had to restart their flowering process and as a result it is not certain how the ultimate crop will turn out.
While the small crop may not be good financially for the Halls, it can be a treat for the consumer. Frequently, the remaining fruit receives all of the energy generated by the trees and produces exceptionally sweet fruit.
The history of K.B. Hall’s orchard is almost a condensed history of Ojai itself. The orchard was started by Henry Hess, who was a part of the German immigrant community that settled the Ojai Valley. He planted the original apricot trees plus 20 acres of almonds and some grape vines (to make wine for himself and his workers).
Harvest times were a combination of hard work and big fiestas. Entire families from Los Angeles would come and camp on the property. They would pick and process fruit during the day and drink Hess’s wine and celebrate each night.
K.B. Hall was an oil industry geologist who moved his family to Ojai in 1947 to work in the Upper Ojai oil fields. His office was just down the road from the orchard and he and Hess became friends–probably over some glasses of wine from Hess’s vineyards.
When Hess died in 1955, Hall decided to buy the property and move his family of 7 sons up to the Upper Valley. He quit his full-time oil company job in 1966 to devote more time to farming. Now, the farming operations are run by K.B.’s son Tom (who splits time between farming and going to farmers’ markets with a career in Hollywood as an actor). Another son, John, who operates a tractor service business, helps maintain the orchard throughout the year.
The property (which is now a registered historic landmark) features a board and batten main house originally built around 1870, smaller houses brought on to the property to use as bunkhouses for the boys, a windmill used originally to pump water from a well, and, in essence, a factory to process apricots for drying.
Originally, the fruit was picked and brought to a covered area in the middle of the orchard where it would be washed, cut in half and put on redwood trays. The trays would then be stacked on trolleys that would be rolled down tracks into the sulphuring house (until the 1980’s, all of the apricots were treated with sulphur dioxide in order to kill any worms in the fruit). Then, the trays were carried out to the fields were the fruit basked in the sun for a few days until they were dried.
The process today no longer includes sulphuring. As a result, the dried apricots are darker and smaller than you normally see, but are bursting with sweetness.
The orchard has always been completely organic, for a variety of reasons according to Hall. First, the trees seemed to do all right by themselves. Second, pesticides and commercial fertilizers were just too expensive. The only “additive” used is a deposit of manure from a local horse ranch.
In addition, the crop is dry farmed, which means that it isn’t irrigated. They are able to grow the fruit without extra water for two reasons: apricots ripen early, before the weather turns sizzling in the Upper Valley, and the water table underneath the orchard is quite high. Generally, whatever water the ancient trees require they can get through their extensive root systems.
In its heyday, the orchard produced 60 tons of fruit a year. Recent harvests have been fractions of that. But, thankfully, there is still enough for locals to enjoy. June is the expected harvest time. Stop by this year and enjoy a bit of history.