Before running her successful Love Apple Farm, before selling her luscious tomatoes, before planting her first seeds, Cynthia Sandberg was an attorney.
“On the dark side,” as she laughingly put it.
But all that changed one summer when she had an abundance of tomatoes from her garden.
The Sprouting of Love Apple Farm
Cynthia’s journey away from “the dark side” began about 13 years ago.
“One year, I had too many tomatoes, and I didn’t want them to go to waste,” she explained. “I lived on a busy street in Ben Lomond, so I opened up a farm stand and started selling to my neighbors.”
She didn’t have time to sit at the stand, so she decided to sell the tomatoes the old-fashioned way—on the honor system. And the word spread.
Her garden grew into a small farm, which she managed for many years at the Ben Lomond location. And then an opportunity came for her to take on a new challenge in the form of a larger farm.
“I saw land prices coming down, and I had someone interested in investing with me,” she said. “I found this beautiful piece of property on Vine Hill Road. I had customers from all over the Bay Area, and knew this would be a good location for them to get to the farm and classes.”
Though she felt completely prepared to take on a larger property, she knew there would be challenges.
“I knew anytime you take on a challenge, it’s always bigger than you realize. And this was a big challenge,” Sandberg admitted. “Nevertheless, it was not a surprise.”
One of the things she had to tackle was hungry inhabitants intent on getting their share of the veggies.
“We have more critters here than in Ben Lomond trying to eat our stuff,” she said. “We lost a ton of tomatoes last year to rats and mice. I’ve never had that issue before. This year there’s a lot more damage with deer. We put up a deer fence, but they’re getting in somewhere.
“Every challenge stops us from pushing the garden forward, and it makes us have to go back and have do-overs of things that we thought we did right the first time. It’s all part of the learning curve, but less time devoted to what we really want to do.”
And what they really want to do is not only grow enough food to satisfy their position as exclusive produce supplier to Chef David Kinch and his two-Michelin-star restaurant Manresa, but to have enough left over to feed the 14 people living on the farm.
The Manresa Connection
The masterful partnership between Manresa and Love Apple Farm came about during Sandberg’s birthday dinner several years ago.
“I was in the middle of the most compelling, magnificent, thought-provoking life-changing meal of my life, when Chef Kinch came out of the kitchen,” she said.
“I remember one of the very first things he said to me was, ‘I understand you’re a tomato grower.’ He asked if I would bring some for him to sample. And I said yes, because I was in the middle of this incredible meal.”
Once Kinch tasted Sandberg’s tomatoes, he was hooked. She agreed to supply his restaurant with tomatoes, although she had refused similar requests in the past.
“The thing that changed my mind is when I had dinner at Manresa. I’ve eaten at lots of fine restaurants around the world, but nothing was even close to that.”
After providing tomatoes to the restaurant for one season, Kinch asked Sandberg if she would become his exclusive grower.
Her answer? “I said yes, I would love to do that.”
And from then on, the entire farm was devoted to growing for Manresa. Together they discussed what the farm would produce, but Sandberg says, “Chef Kinch gets to call the shots as far as what we grow.”
Manresa paid for a couple of the greenhouses, but the business wasn't an investor in the property as many people believe.
One year since the move from Ben Lomond to Vine Hill Road, the farm is still expanding.
“Our intention with this farm is to give Chef Kinch all the produce he needs, but believe it or not, we don’t have enough growing area.”
A Stunning Piece of Property
Sandberg explained that they aren’t a traditional farm with acres of crops. Rather, they do all their planting in raised beds. One reason for this is the property was terraced at one point in its history when the Smothers Brothers used the land to grow wine grapes.
Love Apple Farm is a stunning piece of property. Sandberg gave me a tour on a beautiful, sunny spring day. The view from her balcony just outside her office takes in the out-buildings where supplies are kept, the raised beds grouped here and there on the terraced land with a few apprentices doing the afternoon watering, and beyond that the expanse of green valleys and trees of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“After one year, we have half the beds we plan to have,” Sandberg said. “Fourteen people live on the property, and our intention is to eventually feed ourselves, too. But Manresa needs so many crops—over 300 different things.
“And we really want to focus on Manresa. We want to help them get their third Michelin star. It’s 99 percent Manresa, but that one little percent, we’re going to do our best to help with that.”
Educating People at Love Apple Farm
I asked Sandberg what she loved most about running her farm, and her answer was teaching people.
“We’re educating future farmers with our apprentice program,” she said. “We’re educating through our gardening, preserving and cooking classes. Hundreds of home gardeners, aspiring cooks and people who are trying to not only grow food for themselves but other things such as keeping chickens, bees—all of those things that create a little homestead in your backyard that can feed you.
“It’s a very worthy endeavor. I’m happy to be a part of that. It feels good. It feels a lot better than suing somebody!”
Many people, including David Kinch, home gardeners and diners at Manresa, couldn’t be happier that Cynthia Sandberg found her way out of the “dark side” to her sunny, thriving Love Apple Farm.