A visit to Tenbrink Farms

Checking in on the land trust’s oldest conservation agreement   

A conservation agreement is often the culmination of years of farming, a decision a landowner makes to keep their land in agriculture forever.

But for some farmers, conservation agreements are their ticket into that world.

That’s what fifty-two acres of conserved farmland on Gordon Valley Road meant when Steve Tenbrink bought it from his neighbor Ben Bennedsen.

Having the land assessed as agricultural rather than multi-use, kept the sticker price down for Steve, and put this self-described “city boy from El Cerrito” in business.

“It’s hard to get into farming without land or money,” says Steve. As a grocer in Martinez, he’d dreamt of growing his own food, before moving to the Suisun Valley with his wife Linda in the 1980s.

On the success of their farm, they’ve branched into the winegrowing industry, and now have an agricultural presence in all three of the Suisun Valley’s microclimates.

And it all began when the first property protected by a Land Trust Agricultural Conversation Agreement was secured from development in January 1998 (only eight days before the second conservation agreement closed at Rowe).

“Steve has thrived knowing he was able to buy the land at ag value, minus the development value,” Conservation Program Manager Tracy Ellison says. “He knew he and his family could work hard at farming without the burden of high property taxes or pressure to sell for development.”

Risk and reward

Ben Bennedsen had taken a risk growing the Chandler Walnut variant developed at U.C. Davis, which produces leaves after freezes and storms but also has a late harvest, narrowing the window of time for processing.

“They have thin shells, thin tissues,” says Steve. “And they break into perfect halves.”

The risk paid off: the varietal has since become California’s most popular, constituting ninety percent of nursery sales. Walnut trees spread over thirty-six acres of the property.

A natural balance

The farm also operates a market garden that supplies produce to elite restaurants in San Francisco and the Napa Valley. (Tenbrink’s heirloom tomatoes are legendary at the Fairfield Tomato Festival).

Steve recently led staff on a tour of his idyllic fruit orchard. The orchard borders a seasonal creek lined with tall leafy oaks. Some oaks have oak weed fungus, which can creep into fruit trees, so Steve’s planted an ingenious, edible solution: a row of fungus-resistant persimmons grow between the oaks and the orchard like soldiers halting the advance of the fungus. The riparian habitat draws squirrels, foxes, coyotes, and insect-hungry birds.

“We need these properties to preserve our animals,” Steve says.

He explains how the natural source water allows him to go light on irrigation, which helps the fruits’ flavor, and slows the growth of weeds and the crop cover.

To keep out fruit moths, Steve hangs pheromone disrupters on the trees; they look like hanging car air-fresheners and discharge pheromones that keep the moths from breeding. These techniques defend a gourmand’s platter of choice drupes: apriums, Elegant Lady peaches, and even a peacotum (a fuzzy peach/apricot/plum hybrid).

Starting off, Steve didn’t know he’d be growing fruits like this (some didn’t exist back then), nor how much his business would prosper. His family took a risk and worked hard and it paid off.

But he has been working with one certainty: that protecting prime agricultural lands matters, and it requires a forever-commitment.

“We really need to protect our environment and our food,” Steve said, when the walk was over. “You really are making a difference for the future.”