California’s wine country combines an unforgettable abundance of locally grown produce with world-renowned wines. We partnered with Chef Ari Rosen and the team of local artisans and farmers behind his Healdsburg restaurants, Scopa and Campo Fina, as they celebrate both with a family-style meal that brings our Open Kitchen collection to life. Read our interviews with the team and try Ari’s recipes here.
Zureal Bernier has worked on a farm almost since the day he was born on his family’s Geyserville, CA farm. A childhood spent tending vineyards led to his current role overseeing the day-to-day operations of Bernier Farms, whose crops regularly supply the restaurants, chefs and markets in the Healdsburg area, including Scopa and Campo Fina. We spent a day at Bernier Farms talking to Zureal about the crops and his day-to-day life on the farm; read on for our Q&A.
What is your background? Have you always been involved in farming?
I was born (yes, a home birth) and raised on the farm that I currently live on. Growing up my siblings and I were always assigned outside chores like feeding the chickens and collecting the eggs. We also fed goats, lamb, and occassionaly a pig that we raised for meat. On the vineyards that my parents sharecropped, my brother and I spent many hours during our summers attending to various needs (pulling noxious weeds, moving and setting aluminum irrigation pipe, training grapevines up the stake), including tractor driving as we got older. I have always been involved except for years that I have spent away at school or traveling.
Bernier Farms is made up of several different locations; can you describe the set up of your farms?
Our family owns 5 acres, on which we have planted vineyards (zinfandel, petite sirah), orchards (peaches, plums, pears, apples, pomegranates) and vegetables. 5 acres is not enough land to support a family, so my father and I sharecrop another 35 acres of vineyards (mostly zinfandel) and we lease 4 more acres for planting vegetables and 2 more acres where we are establishing an orchard. The grape vines exist on 7 different ranches, and the vegetables on 2 others besides our home farm. The distance between the farms that are furthest apart is no more than 10 miles from end to end and the rest fall scattered through the middle. The ranches that we are farming are all in Dry Creek and Alexander Valley.
What do you your farms produce?
In the category of vegetables, we produce a very wide variety but our focus is on alliums. That is garlic (14 varieties), onions, leeks, and shallots. In the orchard we have mostly peaches, pears, plums, and pomegranates. In the vineyards we have mostly zinfandel, some petite sirah, some carignan, and a tiny bit of a couple other varieties. 95% of our vines are dry farmed.
Bernier Farms uses sustainable farming practices—can you explain what they are?
Well, we just became certified organic on three of our growing locations. We derive at least 98% of our fertility needs on all our farms from composts that my father makes and cover crops that we plant in the fall. 95% of our vineyards are dry farmed which requires zero irrigation outside of the winter rains. This means that we are not running energy consuming pumps and depleting the ground water on a drought year or any year for that matter. Those are a few points.
Describe your typical work day at the farm.
It changes through the year but right now this is how it goes: Wake up early, pick and pack vegetables for restaurant orders (we are taking orders 5 days per week minimum) or the farmer’s market. Maintain the farms, which could include preparing ground for planting our continuous plantings, seeding in the greenhouse, hand weeding, tractor cultivation, direct seeding into beds or transplanting from our greenhouse. Irrigation (vegetables require irrigation frequently during the summer especially in our hot and dry climate.) Check around the vineyards for mildew outbreaks. Check in on the vineyard crew who are opening the canopy of the vines.
What is your farming and food philosophy?
Farm sustainably, produce quantity, feed community and family, eat whole foods prepared with love or raw.
Where do you sell your produce?
Local restaurants/bakeries/general stores in Geyserville, Healdsburg and Santa Rosa. Farmers’ markets in Cloverdale, Healdsburg and Santa Rosa. Through our farm stand located on our main vegetable production site in Alexander Valley. Seed garlic is sold through our website and at Harmony Farm Supply in Sebastopol. We also sell at Shelton’s, which is a natural food store in Healdsburg.
What is your favorite growing season?
I love the fall and spring for the produce that is coming in during that time but also for the weather that we have during those times. As a farmer, my work day occurs almost entirely outside. The heat waves of summer are something we have to accept as well as the rainy days during the winter. Tasks must be completed no matter the weather we are having.
Tell us about your relationships with chefs and restaurants. Which restaurants use Bernier Farms produce?
My mother is the main contact for the restaurant outlet. We have been working with some chefs for 6 plus years and we are courting some chefs for the first time this season. The personal relationship is important. Otherwise the restaurant may as well be buying from a distributor with no knowledge of who, where or how it was produced. Starting from our northernmost customers we have Catelli’s, Diavola, Dry Creek General Store, Wild Sage Deli, Shelton’s, The Shed, Campo Fina, Scopa, Downtown Bakery, Dry Creek Kitchen, D.L. Catering, Mateo’s, Bishop’s Ranch, Spinster Sisters. We’re just getting started with Spoonbar this season.
How do you work with the chefs?
We supply a list of what is available at what price every week. The restaurant calls or emails in the order the day before and we fill the order and deliver the produce. Simple as that.
What is the best part about working on the farm? What are some of the biggest challenges?
The best is to see rows of plants through from seed to maturity and have a market for our final product. Farming is full of challenges but one of the biggest is insect/pest pressure. There is a multitude of living creatures in the soil and in the air that will try to feed on your plants.
What are your future plans for the farm?
Not much is changing; we just want to keep on producing high quality fruits and vegetables.
In your experience, what has been the hardest thing to grow? The easiest?
Every year there is a crop or two that throw us for a loop and another that comes in like clockwork. Farming is dynamic and many factors contribute to the success of a crop including factors like weather that one cannot control. For the labor needed, I would have to say that wine grapes are the easiest and vegetables are the hardest.
Do you cook with the produce you grow at the farm? What are you favorite things to cook?
Of course. My family and I eat it all. No favorites but everything has to have garlic in it.
What’s for dinner tonight?
I have not even started to think about dinner for tonight, but I have vivid memories of our meal last night. My wife and I prepared a vegetarian lasagna with eggplant and sliced tomatoes, garlic, basil and parsley from the farm. Of course it also had some very nice mozzarella and a bechamel sauce that tied the whole thing together. We also had a salad made from our lettuce, carrots and cucumbers.