Photography by Julie Ann Fineman
In 1973, Al Courchesne and his college class mate Bill Pfeil came up with a plan: to begin farming papayas to sell at local markets. At the time, the two were living in Honolulu, Hawaii, both recent graduates of UC Berkeley.
“Bill came up with this idea of farming papayas on the Big Island and presented it to me one morning,” Al explains, “we both got very excited by it and decided to give it a try.” “We launched our project that same day,” Al remembers. But, as sometimes happens to young twenty-somethings, their plan never really panned out. Instead of papayas, the two wound up planting a vegetable garden on a quarter of an acre in the Monoa Valley of Honolulu that would set the stage for Al’s farming path.
They worked the soil rich land cooperatively for about a year before the two went their separate ways. Bill purchased a plot of land on the Sunset Beach side of Oahu, while Al found a plot along the Waianae side of the same island. “Forty-five years later, we’re both still farming,” Al, remarked, a hint of satisfaction.
After growing on his Waianae plot for about three years, Al, now affectionately referred to as “Farmer Al” by his friends and family, made the decision to take on farming full-time. “I realized that I wanted to make [farming] my life’s work and I wanted to do it in a serious way in California,” he reminisced. “At that time I saw California as being as ground-zero for farming. Serious farming was happening in California and had been for over a hundred years.” As a Berkeley native, California was also the home of Farmer Al’s friends and family, where he would be both returning to his roots and literally putting down new ones. In January of 1976, he took the plunge and purchased a thirteen-acre plot in Brentwood, California, where he’s been ever since.
Frog Hollow Farm was born in the early 1980’s after Farmer Al procured twenty additional acres. “When I originally bought the thirteen acres in Brentwood, the farmer that showed me the parcel for sale recommended that I plant peaches,” Al remembers. “Since he was an old Brentwood farmer who knew the area and knew what would do well [in Brentwood], I took his advice. Now forty-one years later, I’m farming over two hundred acres of ground.” While his initial plantings were peachy, Farmer Al has diversified his land with nectarines, cherries, apricots, apriums, plums, pluots, pears and apples. Not one to rest on his laurels, Frog Hollow Farm also produces and sells incredible olive oil, baked goods, dried fruit and fruit spreads, a line developed by his wife, Rebecca Courchesne.
Fruits not sold to chefs, grocery stores or farmers market food fans, Rebecca, a master preserver of the seasons, ensures every piece is crafted into either a marmalade, conserve, dried or baked into a pie, cake, tartlet, truffle, scone, scuffin, cookie, galette, or brownie. A delectable mouthwatering list indeed…..NOTHING goes to waste on this farm!
Organic practices abound at Frog Hollow Farm, a decision he made in the late eighties as the organic movement gained momentum within the agricultural and scientific communities. “I always wanted to take care of the environment,” Al says, “I didn’t want to be polluting the soil, the air, or the groundwater with chemicals and I certainly didn’t want to pollute my own body or affect the health of the people eating the produce.” Naturally, sustainability has become a core value for Farmer Al and greatly influences his farming practices.
Compost is key to effective soil management at Frog Hollow Farm. “When you’re making compost. You’re combining nitrogenous and carbonaceous materials with water so that the microbes go to work and start decomposing that material. So when you add compost to the soil, you’re not only putting minerals back into the soil, but you’re also putting all the bacteria and microbes and fungi to help you cycle nutrients from the soil into the roots of the plant,” he explains.
Community engagement is also key to Farmer Al. Hosting several of events throughout the year serves as an opportunity for people to visit the farm and learn about the sustainable farming techniques in use at Frog Hollow Farm. “We have fun parties that we host from time to time like the Olive Harvest Party where people can come and learn about a particular crop and how we make olive oil.”
In addition to these periodic tours, every Saturday, you can find Farmer Al at the Farmer’s Market located at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Frog Hollow Farm has participated in that particular farmer’s market since its inception in 1992, and is also how they were led to open the Farm to Table Cafe in 2003. “The port authority decided to develop the Ferry Building into a food court (affectionately known as the temple of sustainable food) instead of an office building. The marketing team that they hired to fill the space went first to the vendors at the farmer’s market. So that’s how they asked me, and I accepted. I immediately saw the value in it.” Today, the Farm to Table Cafe offers a seasonal menu with items sourced from local farms, vineyards, and breweries such as Abounding Harvest, Ken Olsen, Cuyama, Apricot Lane, Twin Girls, Bloomfield Vineyards, CowGirl Creamery and Far West Fungi.
Commitment running deep, Farmer Al Also serves on the Board of Directors for the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association: a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering California farmers. Once a year, the Association meets for a three-day retreat, in which members share ideas on "how to make the markets better, how to grow and improve quality of the markets and their services to the community and to the farmers that sell at these markets." As Farmer Al puts it, the Board, with their combination of agricultural expertise, serves as "the idea people" for the organization.
Farmer Al believes that the future of the organic movement is stronger than ever. “The organic movement is going to continue to grow and thrive,” he says. “It has taken root at the grassroots level, in homes and communities and in stores, in farmer’s markets and farms across the country---I don’t see anything changing that.”