When the pandemic began, Rick Knoll erected an on-farm store at his 12510 Byron Highway Knoll Farms property where people could purchase organic fruits and vegetables and pick up free information concerning such things as foods that can boost the immune system, together with practical directions for designing gardens and creating healthy compost piles.
Rick spent years preparing for this in part of a long-term mission of educating people about the positive impact of organic products and herbs on the immune system. He has focused his attention on creating healthy alternatives to packaged and processed foods that contribute to such health problems as heart-disease, gastrointestinal illness and obesity.
During the past 10 years, Rick studied the healing properties of plants and herbs associated with raphaology, which is the study of medicine found in nature. He said that he is a disciple of Morning “Mamma” Wolf — a master herbalist, nutritionist and accomplished healing practitioner who learned the principles of indigenous plant-based medicine from a number of qualified healers plus a famous tribal shaman.
The story of Knoll Farms began 41 years ago, when Rick received a Ph.D in Organic Chemistry from UC Irvine and moved into the Brentwood area. He and his wife Kristie had enjoyed growing their own vegetables and fruit in the back of their Santa Ana residence. They were now planning to grow crops on a larger scale, so they bought a small farm in Brentwood. They figured out how to create a sustainable farming practice on 10 acres by finding crops other than wheat, corn or cherries.
They began by planting 60 fig trees. It took three years until they harvested the first crop, which they then began to deliver to local farmers markets. They eventually developed a reputation among people who wanted quality ripe fruit that had been carefully handled and delivered. Customers in farmer-friendly stores appreciated their products, so they were granted “back door privileges” — meaning the store accepted whatever they brought without going through any marketing agent or distribution service.
They continued planting more trees.
“We now have more fig trees than I’ve ever counted — probably 600 of them — with several varieties, including a favorite that I named Melissa, after the woman in an Allman Brothers song, ‘who was as sweet as a fig,’” Rick said.
They added other crops including pears, almonds and apricots. They have 600 plum trees that, according to Rick, are ideal because they are low maintenance, reliable and can be planted close together. They continued adding products until they ultimately had 150 cash crops. Rosemary, for example, is a year-round crop that supplies them with up to 400 pounds of product each week. From November to May they gather a weekly harvest of up to 1,500 pounds of garlic. The farm’s diversity is improved by such winter crops as potatoes, carrots and leeks. Years ago, Rick said he learned from Ron Nunn to plant a plot of lettuce each day in the fall as the days grow shorter. The next spring, the daily fall plantings will yield a new harvest every week.
Rick has raised exotic crops, such as purple thorny artichoke thistles, which is an ancient member of a family of plants, called cardoon, that originated in Italy and Sicily. The plant has a beautiful flower that develops into a truly delicious thorn-covered fruit! The flower’s pistol is a rennet for coagulating milk into cheese that can substitute for animal rennet, which is made from animal intestines. They also grow a number of herbs including sweet basil and medicinal herbs, such as thyme, which repairs damage to the pancreas, and lemon balm, which keeps gums and teeth happy.
Of course, Rick admitted that all of this has changed during the pandemic. But while he is waiting for things to get back to normal, he has “morphed” parts of his business plan, including his on-farm store, which he intends to continue as a regular feature in the future.