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15 years experience growing peppers and cucumbers

Christmas Paprika at the Ferry Plaza

The Pepper People

Family Farming Specialty Peppers in the San Francisco Bay Area Since 1980

Farms? In East Palo Alto?

Happy Quail Farms thrives on high-quality produce

No John Deere tractors rumble up and down endless rows stirring up plumes of fertile dust. No biplanes spray insecticide over tender crops. No crews of straw-hatted workers cut and pack truckloads of ripe vegetables.

 

Happy Quail Farms might be the ultimate micro farm, only a stone's throw from IKEA and the Four Seasons Hotel in East Palo Alto.

When we spoke, David Winsberg had just returned from the 18th International Pepper Conference in Palm Springs. He was hardly out of breath.

"I was small potatoes there," he said, smiling, as he relaxed between chores around his diminutive farm. "We measure our farm in square feet, not acres."

Small doesn't necessarily mean obscure. Winsberg has just been invited to join the California Pepper Commission; such is his reputation for quality produce.

Winsberg's 2-acre farm, half of which is greenhouse, stretches around four loosely connected backyard plots at 804 Green St. It's linked by wobbly gates and narrow passageways, behind chicken coops and rusty farm implements. I would have sworn I was trudging around a 500-acre spread in the Central Valley.

He has managed to squeeze in 30,000 plants, including 20 varieties of peppers along with cucumbers, rhubarb, gem squash from Zimbabwe, zapallito redondo (an Argentine round squash) and mioga (a Japanese type of ginger). His expertise dates back to childhood. For years, his father cultivated peppers on hundreds of acres of south Florida farmland.

Winsberg started raising quail here in 1980, before East Palo Alto was incorporated. "Those were bachelor days for me. I'd sell the eggs to Chinese restaurants around the area and in San Francisco. This area was nothing but backyard produce farms back then."

After he married Karin, a psychotherapist from Argentina, life changed. Now the couple have two sons — Felipe, 15, and Andreas, 11 — who help with planting and at farmers' markets around the area. There are two full-time field employees as well.

Winsberg's signature crop is the pimiento de padron, a small, mild pepper native to Galicia in northwest Spain. Pimiento de padron is one of the most popular tapas in Spain. A few years ago, Spanish friends introduced me to this taste treat in Madrid. They are easy to prepare, and platters of them will disappear within minutes.

Here's a recipe from the farm's Web site at www.happyquailfarms.com:

Pour a generous amount of olive oil to coat frying pan.

Turn heat up high.

When oil starts to sizzle, toss in peppers and stir.

When blisters start to appear, they are ready.

Drain quickly on paper towel and sprinkle with coarse salt.

Hold pepper by stem and eat immediately.

Peppers are not easily propagated in northern California; it's too chilly. So every November, David sends seeds to winter in south Florida.

"The seedlings then come back to us in boxes with no soil, by air, sometime in January," he said. "They arrive in batches of about 8,000 at a time and need to be planted immediately.

"We put them in plugs first to allow for the roots to get established. This happens better in small containers with controlled watering and temperature. Around the beginning of March, when the threat of freezing is over, the peppers get planted in dirt, inside the greenhouse."

The tilling and preparation of the rows is completed a couple of weeks before, and a special irrigation hose is buried to slowly drip water into the soil.

Winsberg's pride and joy is his state-of-the-art, half-acre, 28,000- square-foot greenhouse. Electronics monitor heat and humidity and automatically open and close roof sections and side wall panels.

"All of this provides the perfect environment for the peppers to have a longer maturing time in the climate of the Bay Area, which gives them their renowned sweetness," he said.

"We also produce small quantities of rhubarb, primarily to be able to take something to market before our peppers come in," Winsberg added. People often ask him why the rhubarb is green.

"We are told by plant breeders that originally rhubarb was green. Later, when marketing experts got involved, it was hybridized to produce mostly red stalks because they sell better," he said.

During my visit, rhubarb plants arranged in neat rows were being transplanted from one plot of land to another. Each plant is expected to produce up to 10 pounds of "fruit" this season. Technically, rhubarb is a vegetable, but is usually prepared as a fruit and often paired with strawberries.

Although Winsberg says California weather typically isn't cold enough for rhubarb, his green-stemmed Victoria variety has adapted well. He started in 1980 with five plants; today he sells about a ton of rhubarb every season.

<p >Happy Quail Farms' Mediterranean cucumbers are worth seeking out. Seedless and crunchy, sweet and thin-skinned, they are about 6 inches long and need not be peeled. Since Winsberg does not spray any of his crops, toxicity is never a question.

"We have adopted the Dutch method of growing cucumber plants in the greenhouse," he said. "After the seedlings come up in flats, the plants are put in the ground. As they grow, the lower leaves are pinched off and the vine is trained up a string clipped to an overhead wire."

As the plant grows, Winsberg unwinds the string and lowers the plant to make it easier to pick the cucumbers.

And what farm would be complete without chickens? Winsberg keeps about 150 chickens spread among different cages and plots of land, with 20 or so birds per flock. There is one rooster for each of the species that greets each dawn with its own distinctive song. The palette of colored eggs looked like a page torn from Martha Stewart's magazine's Easter edition.

<p >I was introduced to the Columbian Wyandotte, a good layer of brown eggs, which has its rose comb low and tight against the head. Also prolific with brown eggs, the Australorps had an greenish sheen to their black feathers and dark, suspicious eyes.

There are also fluffy Silkie Bantams, who lay medium-toned brown eggs; and pretty brown-and-black Araucana with green eggs. I also saw trim and stylish Gold- and Silver-Spangled Hamburgs, layers of small white eggs.

A good week at the farm produces 20 dozen eggs for market, Winsberg said.

Happy Quail Farm products can be found at the Palo Alto farmers' market on Gilman Street behind the downtown post office, every Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon. They're also at the Menlo Park farmers' market, every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., in the parking lot between Draeger's and Trader Joe's.

Quantities of all products are limited, so go early. Sorry: no sales or tractor rides at the farm.