No need for a sign

Local sustainable-farming duo attract customers with their eye-catching (and tasty!) pesticide-free produce

Bruce Balgooyen (left) and James Brock in their Riparia Farm pepper patch.

Bruce Balgooyen (left) and James Brock in their Riparia Farm pepper patch.

photo by christine G.K. Lapado-breglia

Bruce Balgooyen and James Brock’s vegetable booth at the downtown Chico Certified Farmers’ Market may not have a sign, but it doesn’t really need one: Its amazingly varied, colorful heirloom tomatoes, huge leafy lettuces, and vivid red, green, purple and yellow peppers speak for themselves.

The pesticide-free produce—including onions, Japanese cucumbers and an impressive selection of winter squash of all sizes and shapes—that Balgooyen and Brock grow on 4 acres at Riparia Farm in south Chico, as well as the equally pristine produce and walnuts that Brock grows on his 4-acre Farmelot farm outside of Vina, have long been in high demand at the Saturday-morning farmers’ market.

Balgooyen’s reputation as a farmers’-market vendor goes as far back as the days when the market was located in the parking lot of the now-defunct Gold Country Market at Fifth and Flume streets; he started selling his eye-catching produce there in 1987. Brock joined him approximately eight years ago, after moving to California from Oregon.

Not only are their veggies tasty, beautiful and often bigger than most, but Brock and Balgooyen also manage to have them at the farmers’ market (including the Chico Wednesday Market in north Chico and the Paradise Tuesday Market) from very early in the year to very late, thanks in part to Balgooyen’s seasoned farming expertise (and the help of a handful of Chico State ag interns).

Also, the duo’s three salad mixes, called Sissy, Sassy and Sensational, are becoming legendary—and two of them, the Sissy and the Sassy, are available year-round, a feat whose difficulty can be appreciated by many a backyard gardener who has seen her or his lettuce bolt as soon as summer temperatures hit.

Balgooyen and Brock’s colorful array of heirloom tomatoes.

Photo By Christine G.K. LaPado-Breglia

“Growing lettuce in the summer—to novices, I say, ‘Don’t do this at home,’” said a smiling Balgooyen, who happens to have a doctorate in plant breeding from Cornell University.

“Our two main items are lettuce and heirloom tomatoes,” he said. “We grow a whole lot of varieties of each.” He and Brock grow “about 120 varieties of lettuce, from seeds from all over the world. … We have varieties of lettuce that look so unusual that people don’t recognize them as lettuce.”

Some of those lettuces end up in the aforementioned Sissy salad mix—a gentle-on-the-palate combination that sometimes also features edible flower blossoms—and the Sassy mix, which includes arugula and a number of Chinese greens, such as mizuna and mustard, as well as edible chrysanthemums.

The Sensational mix, for the record (which is only available in the cool seasons), is always lettuce-less, and features escarole, endive, kale, spinach, radicchio, several varieties of mizuna, “plus other ingredients—the makeup changes seasonally,” Balgooyen said.

“This year, we have about 70 varieties of tomatoes—almost entirely heirlooms, including an ‘heirloom hybrid’ developed in 1951 called Moreton,” he added.

A walk through the crop rows at Riparia on a recent sunny day revealed a row of trellised cucumbers growing along the south side of a field of tomato plants, which were loaded down, even in the last days of summer, with countless red, yellow and orange heirloom tomatoes. “We use cucumbers to protect the tomatoes from sun-scald,” noted Balgooyen, who until recently served as a paid consultant to Chico State’s Organic Vegetable Project (“They no longer pay me, but I still go over there and put in my two bits from time to time,” he said).

“We’re always trying new lettuces to see how they handle heat,” he said, as he walked through rows of immature lettuce plants. “We’ve got certain varieties that work well in the summer, certain varieties that do well in the winter, and certain varieties that grow well in the ‘shoulder seasons.’”

“We’re both very firm believers in local food sustainability,” Balgooyen added, comparing buying locally produced food to buying food (at, say, a supermarket) that has been transported hundreds or thousands of miles.

“When you figure in the cost of the packaging, and the transportation, and the middleman taking a share—it’s not the way of the future.”