meet the farmer

PEAR DYNASTY

A passion for farming is in every bite of Stillwater Orchards pears.

WRITTEN BY EDYE KUYPER
PHOTOS BY CANDICE VIVIEN

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Ryan Elliot picks pears on his family farm, Stillwater Orchards, in Courtland

What happens when you are born into a family that has grown pears in the Sacramento Delta since 1860? At three years old, Richard Elliot proclaimed, “I want to be a farmer.” Elliot was able to realize his childhood dream, and his generation of the Elliot family is now working full time alongside their father and grandmother to continue the family’s legacy.

A different kind of gold rush

Stillwater Orchards launched when Scotland-born David Osborn failed to strike it rich during the California Gold Rush. Noting the Sacramento Delta’s fertile soil and climate, he imported pear stock from France and found his fortune by selling a crop that was rarer than gold. Ships ferrying passengers between San Francisco and Sacramento were obliged to pass by the orchard on the banks of the Sacramento River, and the story is told that miners would start bidding for pears before the boat had even docked. 

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Fresh pears from Stillwater Orchards

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Fresh pears from Stillwater Orchards

Six generations later, the family business is still strong. The family matriarch, Bonnie, now in her 80s, works in the office at least three days a week. Bonnie tells of how she and her husband incorporated the business under the name David J. Elliot & Son shortly after their marriage in 1953. Bonnie’s son, Richard, his three children, a daughter-in-law, and 40 other year-round staff members manage day-to-day operations and are joined by nearly 500 seasonal staff members during the harvest period. Being born into a pear dynasty is not an automatic qualification for running the outfit, however; each family member also has ample college training to overcome the business’ ever-changing challenges.

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Stillwater Orchards is a family business run by the Elliot family,
including (from left) Richard Elliot Jr., Richard Elliot Sr., Rachel Elliot, and Ryan Elliot

Evolving orchards

Like other family businesses that stand the test of time, Stillwater Orchards adapts to meet the shifting demands of customers and the environment. It is committing more acreage to organic production and diversifying. Richard Sr. recalls when the orchards produced a single variety of pears (Bartletts) using flood irrigation. The crop mix now includes cherries, kiwis, and seven pear varieties. These days, flood irrigation is only rarely used on any of the 1,600 acres, and a mix of drip and micro-sprinklers ensures the efficient use of each drop of water.

Other walks of life have limited pull for members of the Elliot family.

“It’s rewarding to face a new challenge every day,” says Richard Sr.

His daughter, Rachel, the youngest member of the clan, expands on that sentiment.

“It’s our responsibility to keep the business going,” she says. “After all, it has our family name on it.”

A transplant from Vermont, writer Edye Kuyper is rooted in Sacramento, where year-round gardening bolsters her mental health. She spends her work days helping small-scale farmers around the world produce and eat more nutritious food.

Resources

Sacramento-area pear aficionados can find fruit from Stillwater Orchards (under the Daily brand of Bartlett pears) at Raley’s, Safeway, and Sprouts supermarkets, in school cafeterias throughout the Sacramento City Unified School District, and at restaurants supplied by Produce Express and General Produce. Also, people who rely on local food pantries can find the farm’s top-quality fresh pears at them. The family donated 680,000 pounds of produce to the California Association of Food Banks in 2017. Their pears also are shipped throughout the United States, to Canada and Mexico, and to destinations as distant as South America.

Recipe

Pear Crumble Pie
(courtesy of Becky Elliot, payroll and office manager, Stillwater Orchards in Courtland. Makes 1 pie)

⅓ cup sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 cups pears, freshly peeled, sliced
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 unbaked pastry shell

For crumble topping
⅓ cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons brown sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons cold butter

In a large bowl, combine sugar, flour, cinnamon, and vanilla; add the pears and toss gently to coat. Spoon into pastry shell.

In small bowl, prepare crumble topping. Combine flour, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Cut in butter and mix until crumbly. Sprinkle over pie.

Bake at 400 degrees F for 45 to 50 minutes or until pears are tender and topping is golden brown. Cool on wire rack.

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