Food & Drink

Woodland farmer’s roots go deep

George Suyenaga checks on the placement of newly planted carrot seeds on four acres he owns in Woodland in late August. The carrots will be ready to harvest in 65 to 90 days.
George Suyenaga checks on the placement of newly planted carrot seeds on four acres he owns in Woodland in late August. The carrots will be ready to harvest in 65 to 90 days. aseng@sacbee.com

Four acres doesn’t sound like a very large farm, but when you consider that the farmer is 80 years old and farms the land mostly by himself, that’s impressive.

There’s a small hill on the northern side of the Woodland property. From there George Suyenaga keeps a close watch on the progress of his crops. With a baseball cap pulled low, he leans on his hoe and scans the fields from his perch on the hill. Not much happens without his notice. He is slight in stature, amazingly fit and strong with mahogany-brown arms and neck. His handshake is strong and crusty with soil and calluses. He’s a serious man, until prompted to talk about his father and his children. Then he’s all smiles and pride.

“Look over in that direction,” he says, pointing toward the far corner of the farm. “That’s about an acre and a half planted with carrots. You can see they are starting to sprout. It won’t be long before I can begin to harvest.”

As we talked, Susyenaga was in constant motion, gently tilling the space around tiny broccoli and cauliflower plants.

“I made this hoe myself,” he says, holding up a long, wooden pole worn smooth from decades of use. At the end of the pole was a triangle piece of metal with a loop on one side. “I needed something with a hook to hold the small plants up and out of the way while I tilled the soil so I made this.”

Suyenaga has been farming his entire life. His father was a farmer who believed hard work was its own reward. Together they farmed the area that the Elk Grove Auto Mall now covers. Suyenaga still lives on and farms a small piece of that property.

“My father always told me to buy farmland,” says Suyenaga. “He said I could make a living farming until I was ready to retire, then sell the land to pay for my retirement. So far I’m not ready to retire.”

Suyenaga worked at Aerojet for 44 years, but all during that time he never completely stopped farming. “I just kept at it part time. When I retired from Aerojet I started farming full time. When the developers wanted the land in Elk Grove for the auto mall, I sold it and bought a few acres in Woodland.

“This is where I do most of my farming now. It actually was a good thing. The soil in Woodland is so much better than Elk Grove. That makes it much easier to work and the crops are better. The commute, though, is too much at my age, so I stay here in Woodland most of the time, then drive home for weekends.”

Happily working his few acres in Woodland, Suyenaga concentrates most of his efforts on carrots.

“A lot of people at the farmers market are anxious for them,” he says. “I also grow broccoli, cauliflower and Japanese radish, but it’s the carrots everyone asks about. The broccoli and cauliflower I plant in the small bed, then transplant to the larger field. The carrots I plant directly into the field – one plant every two inches. I plant one row every two weeks so that they are ready to harvest at different times. I end up with about 1,600 carrots per row. Depending on the weather, it takes about 65 to 90 days from planting to harvest. I harvest one row a week beginning in late September and ending in March.”

Occasionally he hires a temporary worker to help with the harvest or heavy lifting. He has a few pieces of farm equipment such as a tractor and a tumbling water bath for cleaning carrots, but all are small-scale compared to the mammoth cultivators you see on corporate farms. His son, a biochemist, helps out on weekends. “He’s not so sure he wants to be a farmer though,” says Suyenaga. His daughter is a nurse. “The young ones are more interested in other things. But they are very successful in their own chosen professions.”

With a great deal of pride, he adds, “I paid for their college by selling Japanese radish to Mr. Raley. Of course things were different then. You loaded up your produce in the back of a truck and drove it to the store. He would come out and look it over and buy a few boxes of this and that.”

Now he sells at farmers markets. Look for him at the Sunday morning Certified Farmers Market under the freeway at Eighth and W streets in Sacramento.

As much as he enjoys growing produce to sell at farmers markets, his true passion is bonsai. “I have been working on this grove of landscape pine trees,” he says, as he marches down the hill toward a small patch of trees.

“They are regular-size pines, but I grow them bonsai-style, training the branches into interesting shapes and keeping the trees small.”

Most of the trees are about 5 feet tall. “It takes about 10 years to get them just right. Then I can sell to landscapers.”

What keeps him going?

“It’s a challenging life but when I walk out into the field and see the carrots have sprouted it’s always exciting. When a customer tells me how much they enjoyed the carrots, that’s my reward,” he says as a big smile spreads across his face.

“Yes, it is a lot of hard work, but I wouldn’t have lived my life any differently and I’m certainly not ready to retire.”

FACTS ABOUT CARROTS

When it comes to getting kids to eat healthful foods, carrots can be a tough sell. Parents, though, shouldn’t feel any guilt over their tricks and pleading. Carrots have a good punch of vitamin A, which does support good eye health, and they are loaded with fiber. Here are a few other interesting tidbits about carrots:

▪ Wild purple carrots were originally found more than 5,000 years ago in the area presently known as Afghanistan.

▪ In the 1600s, Dutch farmers developed orange carrots to honor the royal House of Orange.

▪ When the New World was settled, colonists brought orange carrots with them.

▪ In California, more than 20 million pounds of carrots are grown annually. They are a year-round crop grown in cool climates, but peak season is October through April.

▪ Most carrots are sold as fresh, but a large portion of the crop is grown for processing.

▪ Orange is still the staple, but consumers will find a variety of colors, shapes and sizes when shopping high-end markets and produce stands. Look for them in shades of orange, yellow, purple and white.

▪ Carrots will stay fresh in the refrigerator for several weeks. Remove any green tops, which will draw moisture from the root. Do not wash before storing; keep the carrots unwrapped in the crisper drawer.

▪ For a quick snack, keep peeled and cut carrots in a bowl of water in the refrigerator. They will stay ready-to-eat for about a week.

Source: California Farm Bureau Federation

A.J. Bump’s carrot casserole, sort of

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Serves 6-8

In the 1980s there was a restaurant called A.J. Bump in the town of Freeport, which is about 7 miles south of Sacramento along the Sacramento River. It was one of those oddball places that wasn’t pretty, but attracted locals, artists and college students, who flocked there for, of all things, the carrot casserole. The cook never shared the recipe, but we ate it so often that we were able to figure out a version that was close. For many years it was one of The Sacramento Bee’s most requested recipes.

Gwen Schoen

INGREDIENTS

12 medium carrots, peeled

1⁄2 cup butter, plus 1 tablespoon, softened, divided use

1 small onion, diced

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

2 cups crushed Ritz crackers

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Nonstick cooking spray

INSTRUCTIONS

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cut carrots into 1-inch pieces. Bring a pan of water to a boil. Add carrots and cook in boiling water until soft, about 5 minutes. Drain well, then mash, leaving a few larger bits in the mash.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and sauté until very soft. Combine carrots, onion, egg, garlic, salt and pepper. Mix well. Spray an 8-inch-square baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Place the carrot mixture in the prepared dish. Combine crushed crackers with 1⁄2 cup butter. Spread the crackers over the carrot mixture and top with cheese. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until the mixture is set, cheese is melted and lightly browned.

Cream of carrot soup

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Serves 6

Since this soup is thickened with egg instead of flour, it’s quite rich so plan to serve it in small portions and keep the rest of the meal simple. The soup pairs nicely with pork and chicken dishes or Caesar salad.

INGREDIENTS

1 1⁄2 cups small-diced, peeled carrots

2 tablespoons butter

2 cups chicken broth

1 1⁄2 teaspoon finely grated fresh onion

1 cup heavy whipping cream

2 egg yolks, lightly beaten

Salt and pepper, optional

INSTRUCTIONS

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Add carrot pieces and stir-fry about 10 minutes or until the carrots are slightly tender. Add the broth and onion. Cover the pan and allow the mixture to simmer about 10 to 15 minutes until the carrots are very soft. Remove the mixture from the heat and transfer it in small batches to the work bowl of an electric blender or food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade. Blend for 20 seconds at low speed. Repeat until all of the carrot mixture is blended and smooth.

Pour the purée into the top of a large double boiler and set it over simmering water. Whisk together the cream and egg yolks. Then whisk the cream mixture into the carrot purée. Heat, stirring constantly, until the soup is slightly thickened. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

24-karat cake

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Serves 12

Most long-time cooks have a treasured recipe for carrot cake. This is a traditional version topped with disgustingly sweet and delicious cream cheese icing. You either love it or hate it. This one is for the lovers.

INGREDIENTS

2 cups flour

2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

2 teaspoons baking soda

4 large eggs

1 1/2 cups oil

3 cups grated raw carrots (about 1 pound whole)

Cream cheese icing, recipe follows

INSTRUCTIONS

Grease and flour 3, 9-inch-round cake pans. Sift together the flour, sugar, cinnamon and soda; set aside. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the eggs and oil together. Beat in the carrots. Add the sifted ingredients to the carrot mixture and beat one minute until well blended. Bake at 350 degrees 30 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of one cake comes out clean. Remove the pans from the oven and let the cakes cool completely in the pans. Turn the cakes out of the pans and frost as desired with cream cheese icing.

Cream cheese icing

INGREDIENTS

1⁄2 cup butter, room temperature

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

1 pound powdered sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 cup diced pecans, optional

1 cup flaked coconut, optional

INSTRUCTIONS

Beat butter with cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer until very light and fluffy. Beat in powdered sugar. Add the vanilla, pecans and coconut and beat just until mixed thoroughly.

Note: Do not use whipped cream cheese.

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