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How One Family Rescued an Abandoned Julian Orchard and Preserved a Legacy

Bailey Creek Ranch organic apples now available exclusively at a Jimbo’s near you

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PHOTOGRAPHY by
Lauren Di Matteo
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October 12, 2020
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Many find themselves longing for cool, crisp weather and colorful changing of leaves with the arrival of autumn. While both are a rarity for Southern Californians, one can get close to it by taking a short drive up to the quaint mountain town of Julian for boots-and-sweater weather, apple pies, and apple picking along with beautiful trees offering visual souvenirs of crimson and burnt-orange leaves.

Brett and Christie Combs were your average seasonal tourists as well. The couple with three young boys visiting from Solana Beach never envisioned themselves living the Julian farm life. Brett Combs, a coastal real estate broker, received a call from a friend to look at a special piece of property out in Julian, far outside of his usual lineup and he and his wife decided to make a day of it. The farmhouse was set on a sprawling 180 acres with a fruit orchard on the hill nearing the brink of extinction due to severe neglect.

“When Christie and I drove up there, it was sad to see because there were these beautiful four to five thousand fruit trees that were sort of deprived and dying,” says Combs. As they sat on the back porch of the farmhouse soaking in the wild, golden landscape, something just clicked. “Christie and I said, ‘Hey, why don’t we tackle this?’ This is the most amazing thing for us to learn, for our kids to learn, and we really just decided to get the organic farm back,” Combs explains. 


The couple made an offer and immediately began the work of regenerating the long-neglected orchard of specialty apples, pears, and peaches.

Photo Credit: Jessica Davis

The story of Bailey Creek Ranch, however, began long before the Combs family purchased the property almost two years ago. For over 30 years the orchard was managed and cared for by a man named Roger Sonnenberg, a well-known and highly esteemed farmer in the area. When ownership of the land changed hands in 2013, Sonnenberg’s services were no longer required by the new owners as they had more interest in raising cattle than growing fruit. For five years Sonnenberg watched the trees he’d spent his life cultivating lie destitute without any care or water.

The Combs purchased the land without having a background in farming and quickly reached out to Sonnenberg who lived next door. Though reluctant at first, they managed to win him over as a friend and fellow worker, recognizing how much they needed him to bring the farm back to life. For the first time in years, Sonnenberg returned to his familiar trees, laboring to revive them and teach the new owners all he could along the way. 

After a year of great progress, he was forced to take a step back and instead pour his knowledge into their ranch staff to do the job when his strength wavered due to a battle with brain cancer. The Julian community suffered a great loss when Sonnenberg passed away in July of this year. As a beloved friend, he was depended upon by many within the local community for his valuable wisdom, insight, and support. 

Thanks to Sonnenberg’s unceasing efforts, the ranch has successfully entered a second harvest season with apples delicious enough to be sold rather than sent to a cider mill.

The once gloomy orchard now brimming with flavorful fruit had little in the way of an outlet for the produce, leading the Combs family to use the farm services of Dickinson Family Farms. With a knowledge of the market, long time connections in the San Diego agricultural community, and a passion for seeing younger generations carry the baton of farming, Dickinson Family Farms was able to provide their expertise in the realm of marketing, shipping, and distribution. They recognized the inherent value of an organic Julian apple, which is not currently available to patrons down the mountain, and knew that San Diego consumers would be thrilled to have access to this coveted seasonal gem.

With this in mind, Dickinson Family Farms connected Combs with the local organic grocer, Jimbo’s Naturally, and are delivering these organic Julian apples exclusively to Jimbo’s stores throughout the fall season. Grocery shoppers can enjoy a familiar variety including Gala, Honeycrisp, Cameo, and Braeburn, plus specialty varieties such as Northern Spy, Pippin, and Macoun. 

With a commitment to building long-term relationships with local farmers, Jimbo’s looks forward to selling Bailey Creek Ranch pears and peaches in the coming years as well. It is a well-known fact in Julian that the tastiest peaches around were Sonnenberg’s O’Henry peaches. When the peach orchard had to be torn out because it was too far gone due to neglect, the Combs decided to plant hundreds of O’Henry peach trees instead of several varieties in hopes of carrying on Sonnenberg’s legacy. His memory will live on through the orchard he resurrected, and the Combs family and their farm team who use the knowledge and passion he graciously passed on to them daily.

When you bite into a Bailey Creek Ranch apple this season, know that you are tasting the fruit born of struggle and triumph, infused with a bit of Julian’s treasured history.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
Nicole Bravo
Nicole Bravo is a San Diego based food and travel writer with a penchant for digging into foreign cultures and stories off the beaten path. In her...
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