The Grand Old Man of the Apple Hill Growers Association sipped his coffee, gazing across rolling acres of budding apple trees.
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“Used to be covered in cedars and Doug firs,” he noted. “We cleared it by hand because we couldn’t afford equipment.”
Edio Delfino has seen the cycles of life many times in his 84 years.
“There was a time when Camino farmers produced the juiciest, most delicious and distinct pears in the country.” He waved his hand. “Then just like that — gone.”
He explained that the choice Bartletts were produced by grafting local pear scion onto Japanese root stock.
“But nobody knew how susceptible that stock was to pear decline, a terrible bacterial disease,” he said.
Also known as fire blight, the malady struck in 1959, and tree death was almost immediate. Production tonnage fell from 52,000 tons to 8,000 in five years. Farm death lurked.
What happened next defines the man and his pals, the resolute farmers of El Dorado County along a stretch of Camino now doted with farms and ranches belonging to the Apple Hill Growers Association.
For what it’s worth, Delfino doesn’t change course easily. He was married 60 years, was El Dorado County Agricultural Commissioner 32 years, in the Air Force and Reserve 26 years, and has lived in the same self-built house for 52 years.
Delfino recently received an American Legion award for 61 years of membership.
“My Air Force squadron commander made everybody join the Legion even while on active duty. I’m glad he did. The Legion Hall was a great place for Joan and me for lots of years.”
He is referring to the charm of his life, his late wife who he met as a student. She was the sister of a college buddy, a cheerful and talented girl with a flair for writing. Until her passing in March of this year, she was the sparkplug of the family with a spirited outreach to others.
“She was the ambassador of fruit pies, even invented the Walkin’ Pie,” recalled Mary, one of the couple’s seven children. “Mom was a natural communicator, gave big smiles and lots of energy to all of us, the farm, 4-H, church, a dozen other community projects, and of course, Kids, Inc.”
That would be the bakery the Delfinos began in 1962, when it was clear the precious pears could not be saved.
Ed Delfino remembers as though it were yesterday.
“I had just come in as El Dorado County Ag Commissioner in 1960 at the height of the fruit tree destruction. The farms in that area were run by Dick Bethell, Gene Bolster and Bob Tuck who was the largest grower. I wasn’t farming yet, but as commissioner I sure had a large dog in the fight. We tried everything, met almost daily, brainstormed a ton of ideas,” he recounted.
Bolster and Delfino set out to discover a way to help the ranchers keep their farms and make the rich soil of Camino productive again. In 1962 Bolster and Delfino visited the Oak Glen growers cooperative in Southern California.
“They had a successful marketing program, so we got a copy of their bylaws and improved on them,” Delfino said. “Well there were about 400 acres of apples in the area and one of the wives suggested we make up a smorgasbord of baked apple products and invite the public.”
The farmer chuckled. “I thought, ‘Are you kidding?’ That didn’t sound like much of a solution to the kind of large-scale disaster we were facing.”
Apples to the rescue
However, the families agreed to go forward. The event was called, “Apple Smorgy Days” and was held on the flats of El Dorado Orchards. Radio stations were called and local newspapers were notified.
“We overturned apple bins and topped them with sheets of plywood to make serving tables,” noted the former commissioner.
To everyone’s shock, nearly 5,000 visitors came in a single day. Next month they ran the smorgasbord for two consecutive days and drew nearly 10,000. Traffic was so jammed, the Highway Patrol complained.
Each farm then agreed to start its own bakery, and the trade style Apple Hill Marketing Association was born, including the Delfino’s “Kids Inc.”
The success of the bakery wasn’t a piece of cake. Delfino had just acquired a farm in Camino but its forested hillsides needed clearing. He enlisted his small but growing family, cut the trees and blasted stumps with dynamite, a project that lasted for years.
“Dad would drill the stump and drop the dynamite and us kids would run out to the highway with flags and stop traffic,” remembered Joanie, the eldest daughter. “Then blewy! Sometimes the stump actually went sailing and I remember when one landed on the roof of the house.”
The prosperity of Kids Inc. relied on Joan’s delicious pies and baked goods, effective marketing and returning customers, but the overall success of Apple Hill is traceable to the determination and intuition of its founding quartet of farmer-families. Ed Delfino is the last of the originals.
A few years ago he sold the farm to his son John, but kept his vineyards of cabernets, pinot gris and pinot blanc grapes which he sells to local wineries.
Not everybody in the family wants to farm. He counts among his kids a teacher, registered nurse, two Department of Agriculture specialists, Realtor, contractor and just one farmer/investor. They all live within 5 miles of the farm.
Ed Delfino is content with the way it all went. Despite his own health issues, he watches daily over the premises, prepares for the seasonal opening of Kids Inc. and mourns the absence of his beloved Joan.
What does he think of the whole history, the cycle of success he helped create?
“We did our best,” he said quietly, barely maintaining composure amid 60 years of family photos. “I’m satisfied.”
“He should be,” reflected Mary. “He and Mom took on life with all they had, raised us right, made something enduring out of nothing but a vision. They helped create a national treasure. That’s saying something.”
Indeed. The Apple Hill Growers Association, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has grown from 16 original ranchers to more than 55 ranchers, including Christmas tree growers and wineries, vineyards, a micro brewery and a spa.
Last year Apple Hill growers hosted 780,000 visitors.