August Grower Spotlight of the Month - Chris Sayer of Petty Ranch - Ventura County Agricultural Education
When someone mentions figs in Ventura County, only one farmer comes to mind: Chis Sayer of Petty Ranch. Just as Chris’s ancestors were some of the first growers to realize the potential of Ventura’s Mediterranean climate, it seems fitting that this fifth-generation farmer would choose to grow an ancient crop from Mesopotamia: the first-known agricultural landscape.
Ancient Mesopotamia bordered the Eastern Mediterranean Region and was located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, otherwise known as the “fertile crescent” and later, Babylon. Chris Sayer is thus growing what is known to be one of the first cultivated crops in civilization.
Evidence shows the fig industry spread slowly, arriving in the new world by Spanish and Portuguese Missionaries. They were imported from the West Indies to Spanish missions in Mexico, and subsequently spread to California with the Franciscan missionaries who planted them in the mission gardens at San Diego in 1769, and up the Pacific coast to Santa Clara by 1792, Ventura by 1793, and later on to Sonoma. This is how those first dark purple California figs came to be known as Mission Figs.
Similar to the cultivation of figs over the centuries, the history of Harry, the oldest fig tree on Petty Ranch, is also alluring. Chris thoroughly enjoys telling the story of his great-grandfather, Harry Pardee, who planted the first Petty fig tree 90 years ago. Chris reminisces on how “Harry was known as Harry’s tree, but is now known as just Harry.” They ignored Harry for many years, but as trees do, Harry grew and grew and is now a large, lush, and prolific Black Mission fig-laden tree.
I’m happy I was able to first meet Harry in his full summer glory. Chris even allowed me to pick one perfectly ripe and ready fig. It was delicious. Like grapes, when you eat a fig you are tasting the soil, the sun, and the rain. Now when he refers to Harry, it’s as if Harry is part of the family, no longer just another tree in the backyard. Harry is at the helm of the 600 trees on Petty Ranch’s 52 acres.
As for my introduction to Chris – I met him in 2012 through Farm-to-Table Chef Jason Collis. Jason and I were working together on my 1st benefit dinner at Limoneira, which had a Tuscan-Italian theme. Jason suggested serving his special fig appetizer and recommended I contact Chris Sayer for his locally-grown, delicious figs. Sure enough, Chris immediately, without hesitation asked, “How many figs do you need, Mary?” Like most Ventura County Farmers I have met on my agricultural education journey, Chris, site unseen, was very generous and donated figs to SEEAG, an organization he had never heard of before. Chris and his wife Melissa attended my dinner, of course, and Jason’s fig dish was a big hit.
Figs are delicate and have a similar delicate flavor to match. They have a subtly sweet taste with a unique texture that contrasts their soft flesh with the crunchiness of their seeds. From that initial SEEAG event, I have seen Chris at many other agricultural education meetings, farm-to-table dinners, networking nights…the list goes on. Chris is a very active member in the local Ventura County agricultural community and is very quick to offer his assistance on anything pertaining to promoting or cultivating local grassroots agriculture.
I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting Chris’s soft spoken wife, Melissa, a local attorney; and his lovely mother Susan, a very talented landscape artist and keeper of the family’s backyard chicken flock. Happy chickens live in Saticoy. Her lemon ranch and garden are the artistic inspiration for her work. The Sayers, like most Ventura County farming families, are good, down to earth, kindhearted people.
Chris and Melissa have two sons, Stephen, 24, and Jon, 18, who live on their ranch in Santa Paula when they are not off at school. Like father, like son, Jon helped SEEAG over the summer promote Ventura County Farm Day. I’m very proud that this year marks Petty Ranch’s second year on Farm Day’s pick-your-own-adventure farm tour, which is on Saturday, September 26.
I’m positive Chris’s great-grandfather would be very proud that Chris is carrying on the Sayer family farming legacy. Visitors to the farm on Farm Day will not be able to meet ‘Harry,’ unfortunately. His whereabouts is a secret, but you be able to purchase Sayer’s delicious figs, and enjoy their beautiful flavor yourself all while learning about Petty Ranch at the source.
To learn more about Chris and Petty Ranch please visit Chris’s insightful blog at Saticoy Roots