Grande Dame: All of the recipes for the goods sold at Carmen Kozlowski's farm store are devised by family members.
Savvy marketing keeps the Kozlowski family farm in business
By Bruce Robinson
"NONE." Spoken softly and matter-of-factly, the word still comes as a considerable surprise. Carmen Kozlowski has just enumerated the number of acres of berries growing at Forestville's famed Kozlowski Farms.
"This year there will be none," she answers. "They're all coming out. I'm sorry." A tiny, resigned shrug accompanies her grandmotherly laugh.
"We just couldn't afford to do it anymore," she elaborates. "We have a nematode problem for berries in this county. You have to keep fumigating the ground in order for [the berries] to flourish like they did in the beginning. And my son is into organic farming now, and you can't do both. So we're converting back. We went from apples to berries and back to apples."
Raspberries have been the unofficial trademark of the family farm since 1969, when Carmen and Tony Kozlowski harvested their first crop, put up a sign along Highway 116, and entered the world of retail agriculture. They had converted the entire 20-acre farm from apples to berries, but they were not trying anything new.
"This was berry country at one time," recalls Kozlowski, winner of 1997's Lifetime Contribution to Agriculture award at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair--the first time in its 14-year history that the award has ever been given to a woman. On the Sebastopol farm where she grew up, she says, "my father had blackberries in the late '30s and '40s. And there was other berry farms. The Vine Hill Ranch was all in berries at one time.
"People gave up for the same reason that we decided not to do it anymore. The vines get diseased, and then they quit bearing, and it's very expensive to keep replanting. But in the beginning, they were in such abundance, we didn't know what we had gotten into."
At first sales boomed, and Kozlowski raspberries--and later blueberries and blackberries--were shipped all over the state, then nationwide, and then even to Asia. But, Kozlowski recalls, "there were always those that couldn't go to the fresh market. So, I started making jam."
It was a fortuitous decision, one that gave visitors to their roadside produce stand another reason for return trips, even when the fruit was not in season. Soon the raspberry jam was joined on the shelves by other flavors--strawberry, blackberry, peach, boysenberry, and apricot--and, in time, other homemade items: apple butter, raspberry vinegars, salad dressings, mustards, and more.
The Kozlowski Farms mail-order catalog now lists more than 50 products, including two kinds of honey, two fudge sauces, a pasta sauce, three chutneys, and 10 flavors of 100 percent fruit spreads, which are among the numerous fat-free items. The list of preserves has grown to 13, with kiwi jam and jalapeño jelly among the offerings.
A couple of new products are entering the list this winter, notably the new Kozlowski Farms B-2 Steak Sauce. "It's not A-1, it's B-2," Kozlowski chuckles, showing off the label's artwork, which features a stylized Stealth bomber trailing a plume of little garlic bombs.
And even if the raw materials are imported--most of the berries now come from the Pacific Northwest, a few from Watsonville--all the actual cooking is still done in the same former workshop that the family has used since Kozlowski's output outgrew her farmhouse kitchen.
"Everything that has Kozlowski Farms on it, this label," she says, holding up a jar of salad dressing for emphasis, "was made here."
But the Kozlowski matriarch is no longer the chief cook. Son Perry is now the main jam maker, as well as the primary farmer. His two sisters are deeply involved in other aspects of the family business, and several grandchildren also work in various capacities on a part-time basis.
The second generation assumed a greater role in the operation when their father died in a 1982 plane crash. "The kids decided, if we got a little bit bigger we could keep the land, we could keep the farm," Carmen Kozlowski says. So the farm began wholesaling their small-town products.
Wholesale shipments now account for the biggest share of their business. "You can get our things in all 50 states," says daughter Cindy Kozlowski-Hayworth, who now handles many of the fiscal aspects of the business. Many of their outlets across the country are gourmet specialty shops, "but also there are a lot of mainline grocery stores that carry specialty foods," she adds.
The entire Kozlowski collection is in abundant supply at the family's farm store, where shoppers can also select a considerable range of other Sonoma County food products as well as kitchenware and gift items, a sideline that came as a complete surprise.
"A lot of things we bought just to decorate with," Kozlowski-Hayworth recalls, "and people would ask, 'Can we buy it? That's really cute.' That was something that people were looking for, so we just started putting price tags on them."
The farm store is also the only place where one can reliably find the special Kozlowski baked goods--berry muffins, pies, turnovers, and the like. Although family recipes are still used for everything, a staff baker now produces most of the goodies.
But if there should happen to be some fudge on the rack, its authenticity is unquestionable. "I'm the fudge maker, I still make all the fudge." Carmen Kozlowski asserts.
"It's my little hobby."
Kozlowski Farms is located at 5566 Gravenstein Hwy., Forestville. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for visitors and picnicking. Free. 887-1587.
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From the December 24-31, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.