Bearing fruit

Brown family finds sweet success in pomegranates

Chris Brown’s family business, Skylake Ranch, takes juice from pomegranates grown in its Durham orchard to create sauces, marinades and jellies.

Chris Brown’s family business, Skylake Ranch, takes juice from pomegranates grown in its Durham orchard to create sauces, marinades and jellies.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Skylake Ranch:

Twelve years ago, Chris Brown and his mother, Gail, looked out at a 20-acre stretch of orchard land on their property in Durham and saw the potential for an agricultural venture.

Exactly what kind, they weren’t sure. Walnuts? Almonds? Olives? So many others in the North State already had established such businesses. What could the Browns do distinctly?

A farmer friend referred them to a grower in Gridley who’d had success with pomegranates; he gave them cuttings for free. That spring, the Browns planted what would become robust rows of fruit-bearing trees.

As for what to do with the crop, they started off selling juice at farmers’ markets, “but that was just a seasonal thing,” Chris recalled. Further inspiration came after he got married in 2008 to Sarah, an interior designer who loves to cook, and spoke with neighbors, Iraqi immigrants who extolled the benefits of pomegranates’ uses in marinades.

Sarah experimented in the kitchen and came up with recipes for a marinade and grill sauce, which the Browns began bottling. They launched their first products—labeled Skylake Ranch, after their ski-lake community—in 2009.

From the initial days selling locally at S&S Produce and farmers’ markets, Skylake Ranch now has a line of nine sauces, marinades and jellies also carried by Chico Natural Foods, Raley’s and several Sacramento stores. Chris travels to around 50 trade shows and events annually. The Browns estimate their production has more than tripled over the past three years.

“It feels good to be able to do this in this town,” Chris said.

The Browns moved to Durham from Bakersfield in 1989, when Chris was 14, due to the family’s affinity for water skiing. Chris’ parents split up in 2006; mother and son “were wanting to find a way to make things work,” Chris said, “make a living.”

Neither had worked in agriculture nor launched a business, though Chris had experience in sales.

“We laugh at ourselves, because it’s so difficult sometimes,” Gail said, “but it’s just so rewarding that you’re growing it, you’re making it, people are enjoying it—but sometimes I think, How did we ever get into this?

“It’s not something I would recommend willy-nilly to somebody … but I have my kids; they have a lot of energy.”

The Browns—who get help from Chris’ brother, Michael, at farmers’ markets and Michael’s wife, Nicole, in the commercial kitchen—plan to add pressed pomegranate juice to the product line. Someday, they’d like to create pomegranate molasses; “I think that’d complete the whole puzzle,” Chris said. Along with incrementally expanding Skylake Ranch’s retail footprint, Chris aims to ramp up direct sales online.

“It’s nice not having a real job,” he said with a laugh.

“Yeah,” Gail interjected, “we just have a job that you work 80 hours a week, but it’s not a real job ….”

“You pass up 50 hours a week and a paycheck for 90 hours a week and hardly any check [at times],” Chris continued. “But that’s all right.”