At the end of a meandering lane at the southern tip of the Dry Creek Valley is a diverse fruit orchard where preserving the harvest is still done the old-fashioned way — by sun-drying.
It is a grove of sweet-smelling stone fruit and flowers where, in the height of the summer, bees buzz around seven-foot-tall sunflowers and the task at hand is solar preservation. Brothers Ken and David Gradek run the farm, where their family planted peach, plum, nectarine, and apple trees more than 60 years ago. Brother Dale is visiting the day that we arrive. The men explain that they started drying the fruit because, David says, “our mom couldn’t bear to see any fruit go to waste.”
As he halves nectarines with his paring knife, Ken explains that solar drying is a slow and laborious process that reduces their harvest while extending its life; six pounds of fresh fruit yields only one pound of dried. Each peach and nectarine needs to be hand-picked at its peak ripeness before being washed, sliced, and sulfur-cured and then laid on redwood trays in the sun for several days.
Once upon a time, when Healdsburg was still known as the “buckle” of the Prune Belt, fruit drying was a major part of our agricultural economy. Today, the process has all but disappeared. The brothers found antique redwood field drying racks from the prune era on their property and repurposed them for their operation. “When we found them, they had square nails,” Ken says. “There’s no two of them alike.”
Like any farm task, this one is weather-dependent. In sunny and dry conditions, the fruit will dry in three days. It must then be cured outdoors over a smudge pot of burning sulfur, a centuries-old technique that preserves the color in the fruit and protects it from bacteria, yeast, and mold. The Gradek brothers sell out of their fruit – both fresh and dried, every year.
Photos by Caitlin McCaffrey