The Santa Cruz Mountains are home to a very special farm, which is the only certified bio-dynamic farm in Santa Cruz County, grows over 300 culitvars of organic fruits, vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers, operates as a gardening and cooking educational center, and is known on occasion to throw a fantastic dinner parties by celebrity chefs. I am speaking of Love Apple Farm.
Cynthia Sandberg is the owner, and quite impressively, the brains behind Love Apple Farm. In late August, Cynthia sat down with me for an interview, during a rare quiet hour, on the shaded deck of her farmhouse overlooking the Santa Cruz Mountains. We talked about a lot…farming, business, motherhood, restaurants, life’s unusual turns, and food.
My first pressing question for Cynthia was, “Tell me the story behind the name of your farm?” I have known of Love Apple Farm for the past five years, they are famous for growing fantastic tomatoes…not apples.
Cynthia explained her long time love and fascination with tomatoes and told me that when she started her business she had researched the origin of tomatoes. Tomatoes are indigenous to Mexico and it was the Spanish Conquistadores that brought the first tomatoes to America. The Mexican people though of the fruit as an aphrodisiac, so the Europeans decided to call them, “Love Apples.”
Cynthia had not intended to be a farmer. She graduated from law school and joined a law firm in downtown San Jose, where she worked for a long time. She was commuting to San Jose from the quaint seaside town of Capitola, where she lived with her husband and young son. As a young mother, Cynthia made the bold decision to quit her job to stay home with her son. A decision she has never regretted.
At their home in Capitola, Cynthia wanted to start gardening in her small patch of yard. She planted her first flowers, which at the end of the season died. She did not know she had planted annuals! But the experience sparked a curiosity in Cynthia that grew into a flame. She enrolled into her first horticultural class at Cabrillo College that fall, and within time, took every horticultural class Cabrillo offered.
In 1995, Cynthia decided she wanted more land and purchased her first farm in Ben Lomond in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was this farm where the first Love Apple Farm laid it roots. Cynthia had a large vegetable garden with numerous varieties of tomatoes. She opened a farm stand and sold her produce and fresh eggs. It was hard work, seven days a week, but she loved it and it kept her home with her son. Her many customers asked her advise on how to grow better tomatoes; a question she is still answering, which has become the educational cornerstone of her present business.
While in the Ben Lomond location, Cynthia made the acquaintance of Chef David Kinch of Manresa Restaurant in Los Gatos. Cynthia proposed to him the concept of growing all his fruits, vegetables, and herbs for his restaurant, which would provide him with the freshest, the highest quality, and the most unique products; far beyond what chefs can purchase at a farmers’ market. Cynthia and David finally agreed to a working model and shook hands to seal their new partnership. It took a few years to work out the kinks, but after nine summers, their collaboration is now the model to follow for other chefs and gardeners, who are pursing this level of quality, diversity, and artistry in their cuisine.
Chef and owner David Kinch of Manresa Restaurant
Cynthia and David meet quarterly where they discuss what they want to grow two seasons ahead. They maintain a crop list from each year’s seasons and discuss what was successful and what was not. Cynthia expressed that the learning curve is quite slow because you can’t replant until the following year. Cynthia is constantly researching new, old, and forgotten plant varieties and culitvars where she may discuss them with David during these meetings. It is these amazing varietal “finds” that, coupled with David’s unique culinary talent, differentiates his restaurant. David truly has evolved to be a trendsetter in the culinary world, which has garnered him two Michelin stars at his restaurant.
Into the Vegetable Garden
Abalone, Courgettes and Basil
The kitchen staff at Manresa Restaurant work hard to individually select the best of all products, and create a menu that best takes advantage of the designs and whims of nature and the seasons. Cynthia told me that it is an absolute thrill for her to dine at Manresa Restaurant. “I get so excited when I am going to dine at his restaurant….it is like Christmas! David is an internationally respected chef and a true genius. It is a distinct honor to grow vegetables for him.”
Strawberry Gazpacho with Parmesan Churros
Squash and Nasturtiums
In 2009, Cynthia purchased a new 22 acre farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains right off highway 17, which is only a quick 15 minute drive to Manresa Restaurant. There was many buildings on the new location, which 40 years ago was a winery owned by the Smothers Brothers; it was their childhood home.
Today Love Apple Farm offers many gardening and cooking one-day seminars, such as growing tomatoes, bee keeping, jam making, cheese making, backyard chicken keeping, basic garden irrigation, and beginning beer brewing… the list is endless. The classroom is either in their large kitchen and work area, in the garden, or out in the animal corrals. The property is beautiful and lovingly cared for by eight full time gardeners and offers a wonderful retreat only a few minutes away from hectic city life. I attended a beginning cheese making class with my friend Martha a few summers ago. We made ricotta, chèvre, and mozzarella. We had a fantastic time while meeting many fun and happy people.
Casey’s Pure Yellow
In addition, visitors can attend farm dinners during the warmer months, which are served out in the garden on long tables under umbrellas. Cynthia invites guest chefs to come to the farm and prepare these wonderful feasts. Some of these guest chefs have been David Kinch from Manresa in Los Gatos, Dominque Crenn from Atelier Creen in San Francisco, and Josiah Citrin from Malisse in Santa Monica.
Every year from March to June, Love Apple Farm has a huge tomato plant sale in Scotts Valley. All of the tomato plants are started at the farm from the huge seed library that Cynthia possesses. She sells it all: cherry, classic, beefsteak, and paste tomatoes; over 100 heirloom cultivars. Frequently, Cynthia is at the tomato sale location with her staff. She is always eager to teach customers how to grow better tomatoes. Her website is filled with wonderful information written by her on how to plant and grow better tomatoes. Cynthia sells many unique and unusual varieties of heirloom tomatoes that just can’t be found elsewhere.
Life has a funny way of taking off on its own journey sometime….regardless of our own intentions and planning. Sometimes the unexpected turns in the road of our lives bring us to a place we could not had imagined. As a mother myself, I can totally appreciate Cynthia’s wonderful story and journey. I love the ingenuity that motherhood brings!
Please visit Love Apple Farm’s website to read about all the wonderful classes, dinners, and farm tours that you can be involved with at this fantastic farm. And to taste Love Apple Farm’s amazing produce by the culinary talents of David Kinch at Manresa Restaurant in Los Gatos, please visit their website where you can make a reservation.
LOVE APPLE FARMS
2317 Vine Hill Road
Santa Cruz, California
320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, California 95030
NOTE: Portrait of David Kinch, Exterior of Manresa, and Manresa food photography by photographer Mark Holthusen