Jennifer Crane: Sixth generation on the land
By NICOLE ZIMMERMAN / Rohnert Park Correspondent
Jennifer Crane, the sixth-generation steward of Crane Melon Barn, defies all stereotypes of a farmer’s daughter. Slender and wearing stylish boots, she adjusts a silk scarf around her neck with a manicured hand. You wouldn’t know she spent the whole morning picking the final grape harvest of the season, four and a half tons of Pinot Noir.
Early autumn is hectic, when the grape and melon harvests overlap. She wakes up at 4 a.m., picks until noon and sells melons at the barn until closing time at 6.
“We love our barn,” says Crane, 34, referring to the stately structure on Petaluma Hill Road.
Now a Sonoma County historic site, the barn has weathered more than 140 growing seasons, but she says it didn’t look this good when she was a kid. The single-board walls were full of knot holes, and the rain came through the roof. Her father, Rick Crane, spent 30 years restoring it, recycling redwood planks from another barn but keeping the original beams.
Built in 1868, the barn was used for storing hay and horses. Now a hand-written sign on one wall announces fruit for sale: “Only 99c/lb. The more golden in color, the more ripe they are.” A few dozen melons, each the shape of a small bowling ball weighing 4-7 pounds, sit atop a pile of straw on the concrete floor. The air is infused with their floral scent.
Mounted on another wall is a portrait of a white-bearded man in a crumpled suit. That’s Oliver Crane, Jennifer’s great-great-grandfather, who developed the melons at the turn of the 20th century around the same time that horticulturalist Luther Burbank bred a plum with an apricot and called it a plumcot.
The mouth-watering Crane melons are a cross between heirloom varieties that include white, Japanese, Persian and ambrosia, each popular 100 years ago and no longer commercially available.
“After years of experimentation with many different plantings, he perfected the melon we know and love today,” says Crane. “He was looking for something that would not only taste great but would be well suited for the particular soil and climate we have here on the ranch. That’s where they do the best.”
At the tail end of the Sonoma Coast appellation, the ranch gets the kind of weather melons like best — warm afternoons with cool mornings and evenings. This year’s summer-to-autumn days were perfect for ripening the fruit. The climate pattern is also well suited for Pinot Noir.
When she returned to the ranch after college in 2000, Crane took culinary classes at SRJC’s Shone Farm. “I’ve always loved food and cooking, but I didn’t know anything about wine,” she says.
Two years later she received a degree in viticulture and began planting what has evolved into 12 acres of grapes. She refers to both melons and grapes in terms of terroir, crediting the site-specific clay soil for their unique and concentrated flavor profiles.
The melons, as well as Crane yellow-meated watermelons (49 cents per pound), are grown within a mile of the barn. Vine-ripened, they are picked daily and sold along with an assortment of apples, dried fruit and homemade jam. Most of the day’s melons will be sold by late afternoon.
“My parents and I used to grow 80-100 acres of melons, but we’ve scaled back to 30 acres since it’s just the three of us,” says Crane.
People still ask about the melon honey she used to take from the 40 beehives she learned to tend in 4-H. “I’ve never had the time to get back to it, but hopefully one day I will.”
Her father used to feature his iron metal sculptures in ARTrails, pieces welded from antique tractors and farm implements, but his art also has taken a backseat in recent years.
“You’ve got to have a little diversity under your belt,” Rick Crane said on a farm tour, wearing a baseball cap, blue jeans and work boots as he leaned his stocky frame against a fence. “Farming is always a challenge. You’ll get your heart cut out and stepped on. It’s cutthroat. But I can guarantee if you own the place you’ll be a lot more tenacious.”
When he was growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the region was full of Gravenstein apple orchards and livestock ranches, but those were nearly gone by the time Jennifer Crane came along. Now their field abuts a housing development at the upper end of Rohnert Park.
Planning for the future is what motivated her and her parents, each without siblings, to get a conservation easement on two parcels of their farmland through Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, an agency established to preserve agricultural land and the local food supply.
“I knew I wasn’t going to sell it,” Crane says of the property she wants to protect. “This is definitely something I plan on doing for the rest of my days.”
Crane Melon Barn, at 4935 Petaluma Hill Road, is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. through October while melons are ripe. For more information, call 795-6987 or email email@example.com.
The annual Crane Christmas Boutique, headed by Cindy Crane, opens Friday, Nov. 23, and runs weekends through Dec. 16 with barn displays of antiques, local crafts, baked goods, a walnut crop and more. Admission is free.