News From the Farm | February 8, 2016

Here in the Capay Valley we take our traditions quite seriously – with no messing around. February, first coined as Almond Festival month in 1915 is no exception. Starting in the beginning of the month, as the almond trees begin their month long blooming period, the valley is dotted with pink and white puffy blossoms on dark trunks all along the hillsides and valley floor. Some of these orchards date back to the early 1900’s – planted by farming settlers who often dry farmed in the hills. Their gnarled twisted trunks are testimony to a struggling history of farming on the rugged hot hills. In more recent years many new plantings have sprouted up on the rich valley soil, comprising over 2,000 acres of this much-heralded nut, with many new varieties and more modern farming techniques.

The real tradition of the Almond month begins in the third week of February when the Almond Queen Pageant is held in Yolo County’s only Grange Hall – the Guinda Grange. This hall, dating back to 1910, provides a perfect home for the annual dinner and competition among a group of the valley’s finest high school seniors. These young women are judged on scholastic prowess, community involvement, an interview session and their crowning moment – a speech to the dinner’s attendees. In the speech they answer a series of questions that often revolve around the rural theme of growing up in the valley and how their lives may have been shaped by the agricultural flavor of the area. Over 250 locals pack into the Grange Hall for the evening of farm food and speeches and all are anxious to see who that year’s winner will be. Tears and clapping abound as each one of the woman present their practiced speeches, and family members watch on in pride. The crowning of the Queen is a special moment in all of their lives, though it is less about the actual “crown” and more about celebrating each young woman as an individual. The Queens prestigious duty is to reign over the valley’s Almond Festival the next weekend.

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Hannah Muller, second generation Full Belly Farmer, was crowned the 2010 Almond Queen. 

The actual Almond Festival itself, traditionally held the last Sunday in February, is one of California’s longest running agricultural based festivals and is the only festival of its kind that encompasses five different townships all showcasing the Capay Valley’s finery. At the south end of the valley the town of Esparto kicks off the day with a now famous Pancake Breakfast, a fundraiser for the High School’s Ag Department and local FFA. The park in Esparto is filled with vendors and local non-profits; the local library has its biggest annual event in a used book sale. Going further north the towns of Capay and Guinda both have demonstrations revolving around the history and agricultural heritage of the area – crafters selling quilts and baby blankets, knitters selling sweaters and hats, Granny Wyatt’s Legendary Almond Roca and a blacksmithing demonstration. There are lots of options for food. The Fire Department serves grilled sausages and oysters in Guinda and there is tri-tip for sale at the Grange.

The town of Rumsey, at the north end of the valley, is perhaps the jewel of all five towns, with the beautiful old Rumsey Town Hall building as its backdrop. Built in 1903 this National Historic Building was renovated by dedicated volunteers in the last ten years and is a gorgeous spot. Rumsey pulls out all the stops, with music, wood-fired pizzas using all local ingredients and a farmers market, which includes some of the valleys’ finest growers. Full Belly Farm is actively involved in this town’s activities – tossing 500 pizzas throughout the day and running a market stall with all our best flowers and produce. Olive oil, lavender soaps, native plants, locally brewed beer and, yes, almonds are for sale throughout the day.

The second generation of Full Belly farmers are very active in the entire festival planning process. Hallie and Hannah (both former queen pageant winners!) now spearhead the Queen pageant planning; Ellis and Jonas will be flipping pancakes in Esparto; and Amon and Rye coordinate the food booths in Rumsey. It is a delight to see them carry on the Almond Festival’s values of life in a rural region, bringing new ideas and energy to a century-old tradition.

Please join us for this the 101st Almond Festival on Sunday, February 28th 2016. There is no admission charge to the 5-town event but be prepared to buy some delicious food, homemade crafts and of course, yummy almonds!