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70-year-old Sebastopol apple farm shut down, but plans to reopen

  • General manager Bill DeHaas checks the health of the apple trees at Twin Hill Ranch on Monday. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

A beloved remnant of the west county apple industry is closed after state officials ordered the shutdown of a drinking water well in the rural outskirts of Sebastopol, but the owners vow to reopen by spring.

"We found it a good time to retool, to be able to keep the farm going," said Jeff Palk, owner of Twin Hill Ranch. They will "keep the heritage of the apple operation alive while going forward with grapes, where the future really is."

He said he plans to expand wine grape growing on some nearby parcels, since grapes are more lucrative, but he will maintain the eight remaining historic acres of apples on the main ranch property.

Farm manager Bill DeHass, Palk's father-in-law, said he is particularly eager to open the orchard for families to come pick their own apples and watch the historic process of washing and packaging the Gravenstein apples that once flourished that part of the county.

"Kids have got to know what their ancestors did here in America," he said. "If we're not here, that's gone."

Regulators shut down the operation on Jan. 17 after a state inspector found that the ranch was drawing water from an unapproved well, said Bruce Burton, chief of the California Department of Public Health's Drinking Water Northern California Field Operations Branch. Without state-approved water on site, county health officials suspended the ranch's permit to sell food, the cornerstone of its business.

Palk said the water system was not operated by the ranch, but rather by a private water district, known as the Twin Hill Mutual Water Co. It was established by the previous owners decades ago as part of an abortive effort to build a residential subdivision, but the water system fell into disrepair after the plan was abandoned. At some point in recent months, the pump on the main well failed and the system switched to a backup well, which turned out not to have state approval.

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