Although Southern California abounds in little-known nooks, few are as remote and mysterious as the Cuyama Valley, 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The drive north from Ojai passes stunning gorges, 8,000-foot peaks and a condor sanctuary before descending into Cuyama (population 264), which has no bank, post office or fire department, but does grow fabulously tasty apples.
On a brisk morning recently, Fred Kosmo, a 6-foot-plus 65-year-old with fine blond hair, a ruddy complexion and brilliant blue eyes, looked over an orchard loaded with Granny Smith apples ready for harvest. He noted that the valley, at 2,500 feet, experiences plenty of the winter chill that apples need to bear bountiful crops, while its hot days and cool nights in summer are ideal for color, flavor and sweetness.
Kosmo walked back to an old adobe house ("built in the early 1930s when people were eating rabbits and calling them 'Hoover hogs,"' he said), where mounted trophy heads of impalas and gazelles adorned the foot-thick walls. In the kitchen he cut a piece of a freshly picked Fuji apple and squeezed the juice onto a refractometer, a small scientific device for measuring sweetness. It registered 17 degrees Brix.
"Wow!" he said. "Washington growers pick at 12.5 or 13."
Kosmo, who grows 340 acres of apples along with peaches, cherries and walnuts, has stayed with the original Fuji, less colorful but better-tasting than the new redder mutations popular with many growers.
Next to the house, workers hoed the weeds from around young trees bearing Pink Lady apples, which were just starting to turn color. The variety, an Australian cross of Golden Delicious and Lady Williams, is the latest-maturing apple grown in the United States. It's been widely planted in recent years, but commercial specimens are often disappointing; raised in Cuyama, though, where the long growing season mimics that of southwestern Australia, Pink Ladies offer intense, satisfying sweet-tart flavor.
Born in Brooklyn, where his father was a Lutheran minister, Kosmo graduated from Dartmouth and Stanford Law School before working as a prosecutor in Ventura County. In the late 1960s he went into private practice and bought the adobe house and 40 acres in Cuyama, but he didn't plant substantial apple acreage until 1986.
Why don't more farmers flock to Cuyama? "Water is the crucial issue," said Kosmo, his voice a gruff but amiable growl that was almost overwhelmed by the roar of diesel engines pumping the precious liquid from 1,000 feet below ground.
Water from 350 square miles of surrounding mountains drains down into the Cuyama Valley and nourishes the farm but occasionally wreaks devastation. Touring his property in an old pickup, Kosmo pointed out several former orchards gouged into gullies by a 1998 flood.
Another threat that has pushed Kosmo Ranch to the brink in recent years is low wholesale prices. Kosmo drove by a field strewn with the carcasses of dead trees, where a neighbor, Logoluso Farms, was forced to bulldoze a showpiece 1,424-acre planting of Pink Ladies.
Kosmo and his wife, Patricia, have scraped by through growing organically, which earns a premium to conventional farming, and through direct marketing. "Farmers markets have saved my life," he said.
What keeps him going? "Insanity," he said with a wry grin. "I'm doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different result." But it's clear from the gleam in his eyes that there's no place he'd rather be.
Kosmo Ranch sells at these farmers markets: Wednesdays, Santa Monica, Ventura, Westchester; Thursdays, La Cienega, Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Westwood; Saturdays, Burbank, Santa Monica Organic, Torrance; Sundays, Alhambra, Encino, Hollywood, Santa Clarita, Santa Monica (Main Street); Tuesdays, Culver City, Torrance.