Fruits of labor
The Noble family’s apple-pickin’ tradition began more than 90 years ago
If it looks old, it’s because it is. That’s what Lori Noble tells visitors to the marketplace she owns and operates with her husband, Jim, on 40 acres of orchards in Paradise.
Lori’s referencing the building that houses Noble Orchards’ market—built in 1921 by Jim’s grandfather, Perry, as a packing shed—but the phrase applies to other aspects of the operation as well. Like Jim’s rusty 70-year-old Willys Jeep that rumbles through rows of apple, peach, nectarine and pluot trees—or the trees themselves, many of which were planted decades ago. But the most direct link to the past is a blown-up photograph that hangs near the market’s register. Published in 1963 in The Sacramento Bee, it depicts Perry and Jim’s father, Vincent, posing by a box of apples, while Jim, 16 years old and hair waxed and parted to the side, stands halfway up a ladder behind them. Below is a simple caption reading, “Paradise Applemen.”
Isn’t it surreal, working the same land of his father, and his father’s father? To that, Jim says simply, “The world’s different now.”
The fruits of the Noble family’s labor have been available to locals for nearly a century, but they can’t be found in big-box grocery stores. As a small-time farm, the operation sells almost exclusively from the market on their property and area farmers’ markets, including the Saturday market in Chico. Jim is the farmer; Lori is the saleswoman.
Lori likes a small operation. To her, local and regional distribution makes more sense than trucking produce across the country.
“There are issues we’re going to continue facing in the next few decades,” she said. “How far do we ship things? What’s reasonable? What are the limitations? Is transportation just insane? Sometimes I think it is.”
Of late, Noble has been selling its fruits to Happy Valley Fresh Fruit Co., a regional distributor based in Shasta County that buys fruit from local growers and sells to schools and other institutions.
“It helps show kids that fresh fruits are available,” Lori said. “We have kids come in and say, ‘We had your apples today at school. I know they were yours—they were really good.’ So they’re learning at 7 or 8 years old what quality is. It’s a different lesson than what we’ve developed.”
Noble Orchards’ apples, especially the popular Pink Lady and Red Delicious varieties, are of high quality. They’re also distinct from what’s grown in the valley heat—apple orchards fare much better in the Ridge’s higher elevation, Lori said. Compared with apples grown toward the Sacramento River, Noble’s differ in color, texture and flavor. “The grows out there, their apples are very bright in color and soft in texture.” What about the flavor of hers? “In my opinion, much better.”
Though they’re obviously known for their apples, the Nobles grow about a dozen varieties of peaches and nectarines, as well.
The drought has affected the Nobles’ crops in odd ways, but not always negatively. Trees this year are producing an unusual abundance of fruit.
“Everything was loaded,” Lori said. “If they’re stressed, and because the whole purpose of a tree is to reproduce, they will drop more fruit.”
However, the fruit are generally smaller than in a typical season, and this summer’s pervasive heat sunburned some varieties, damaging the tissue so the exposed side turns brown and flattens out.
On the other hand, heavy rains this winter might present an entirely different set of problems. “If it rains continuously while the blooms are on, and the bees want to be out but they can’t be … I mean, lots of different things can happen.”
Such is a farmer’s life—never knowing what to expect. For instance, foraging bears decimated the Nobles’ pluots last winter, Lori said, and since she and Jim knew water would be scarce headed into spring, “we decided we wouldn’t focus on the pluots this year; we would just ignore them.
“Well, we had thousands of pluots this year, and they didn’t have any irrigation water.” She shrugs. “Go figure.”