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  • Hector Amezcua /

  • Hector Amezcua /

  • Hector Amezcua /

    Danny Johnson moves tree trimmings to a burn pile at his Loomis farm. He believes increasing produce supplied by the farm to the family’s Sacramento eateries will lower costs for both.

  • Hector Amezcua /

    A bee pollinates plum blossoms at Pico Farm in Loomis, which supplies produce to the owner’s capital restaurant operations.

Sacramento’s Taylor’s Market gets fruit from the owner’s farm in Loomis

Published: Sunday, Mar. 2, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 2, 2014 - 9:53 am

At dawn, inside Taylor’s Market in Sacramento, Danny Johnson dons a white smock and wields the knives and cleavers that mark an old-time butcher.

When afternoon comes, Johnson drives east to his family farm in Loomis, where farmer’s jeans and pruning shears define his latest pursuit: fruit farming.

His second job is a new twist on the farm-to-fork movement of stores and restaurants emphasizing locally grown food. Johnson is revitalizing his 2-acre family farm, called Pico Farm, with the goal of providing the majority of plums, peaches and other stone fruit, along with some greens, to his Taylor’s Market and Taylor’s Kitchen restaurant operations in the Land Park neighborhood.

For Johnson, who has co-owned Taylor’s Market and Taylor’s Kitchen with his wife, Kathy Johnson, since 2007, moving into farming was natural. Johnson grew up on the Loomis farm, which sits in the middle of what was once a major fruit-growing and packaging region.

“My grandfather was a fruit rancher. He’s the one that inspired my father to grow fruit trees,” said Johnson. “And I worked in the packing houses here in Loomis before they closed in the late ’70s, where I caught the tail end of the kiwi and peaches.”

Pico Farm has already been supplying tomatoes and persimmons to Taylor’s. Johnson’s aims is to plant enough peach, plum and pear trees over an acre and a half of the property to supply 70 percent of the stone fruit and heirloom tomatoes needed by the restaurant and market.

Johnson says this will lower the cost for both operations. “Getting really good stone fruit can be difficult,” he said. “There are not a lot of people producing it.”

While a growing number of Sacramento restaurateurs make it a point to buy produce from local growers, Johnson is unusual because he’s the farmer as well as the customer. At least one local restaurant operation, the Paragary Group, has experimented with the concept before. But Paragary executive chef and partner Kurt Spataro said he found growing his own produce daunting.

Spataro established a 1-acre garden near the Garden Highway 15 years ago. That effort lasted a year. He said that such gardens demand the right kind of staffing. And proximity of the garden to the restaurant is key, especially when problems arise. The wrong choice on either end can quickly raise costs, the factor that ultimately sank Paragary’s garden effort.

“You have to manage the person that manages the land,” said Spataro. “It was challenging. We tried to make that project pencil out in terms of the cost.”

The Paragary group remains interested in finding the right plot, and is currently looking into a possible farm partnership in Davis, he said.

“I think it’s definitely easier to do this kind of thing if you’re already a farmer,” said Spataro, about Johnson’s Pico Farm venture.

For Johnson, staffing is no issue since he’s as much a farmer as he is restaurateur. He has the luxury of having an apprentice butcher at his Taylor Market, Gary Freeman, helping him plant and prune trees at the farm. Freeman, who has worked at Taylor’s market for eight years, was born nearby and lives a half-mile from the farm.

“I love doing this. This gets me out into the daylight and sun on my days off,” Freeman said.

In Loomis, Johnson has 30 fruit trees in the ground – with a goal of having 45 total when all are planted. Some of the trees have been on the property for decades and were only recently rejuvenated. He plans to use drip irrigation to keep the trees growing and says he will have no problem getting water from the local water agency, despite the drought.

“Young trees can be watered and are perfect for drip irrigation,” said Johnson. “These will not need the amount of water that a full canopy tree needs,” he said.

The trees he has planted so far will bear a small crop next year. In three years they will bear 50 percent of their capacity. In five years the trees should be at full production. Hard-to-find varieties that cannot be grown on the farm will be sourced from other small growers in the region.

Johnson said he hopes that growing his own fruit will cut his costs by 15 percent on those products. He hopes to pass the cost savings on to the consumer, with caveats.

“I would hope to pass reductions on, but at the end of the day it is all economics,” he said. “You still have to pay your expenses and do everything right.”

Johnson said his fruit and tomatoes are organically grown, but he is not planning to get his farm certified as organic – a time-consuming endeavor. He contends that the “organic” moniker is somewhat arbitrary anyway, in that a farmer’s use of water creates a nebulous definition of what is truly organic.

In that vein, Johnson is no purist. He’s using untreated water for his farm. “You can never guarantee the purity of water ... and water is the foundation of everything,” he said. “We’re running ditch water through it from a canal from the old mining days. It’s raw water.”

The fact that Johnson still has a farm in Loomis at all has everything to do with the economic downturn, he said.

“I came close to developing it. I even surveyed it and was going to split up the land in 2007, but we backed out. We thought it was better to let the land sit. Then the real estate crash happened and that helped changed our minds, too.”

The centerpiece of Pico Farm is an old barn built in 1914. Clad in wide Douglas fir planking, the building’s charm is tempered by years of farm inactivity. But that may end soon.

Johnson intends to fix up the barn’s interior and offer barn dinners in the space. With two sliding barn doors the dinners will have an al fresco feel, he said. “I envision us using produce we produce here and doing dinners with some good local wines from Newcastle and Loomis,” Johnson said. “We may even do some butcher demos up here.”

For Johnson, the new endeavor has re-energized him. “I’m getting a kick out of getting this thing to come back,” he said.

“We want to be able to give people suggestions about what to do with this fruit,” said Johnson. “It can be something like how to cook with donut peaches – like how you can grill it and put it in with some ice cream during the summer,” he said.

In the final accounting, Johnson feels Pico Farm is as intimate an effort as it is a savvy business move.

“It’s also about honoring my grandfather and father, both of whom worked in the fruit business. That’s why I’m excited about putting these trees back in.”

Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.

Read more articles by Edward Ortiz

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