I didn’t expect the aroma of onions as I stepped out of my car at Lao Saetern’s strawberry stand on Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol but that is just what enveloped me as I breathed in the cool spring air. At that moment, there were nothing but bright red strawberries on the stand’s counter but within a minute or two, a young woman began piling bunches of glistening red onions, peeled and trimmed, on one side of the counter.
There are five onions to a bunch, a bargain at just $2.
This was my first clue that the stand offers more than strawberries. I’ve stopped now and then over the years but only for berries and, honestly, not all that often, as I usually pick up berries at a farmers market. But this is more than a strawberry stand. Soon, Saetern will begin harvesting the summer crops he’s recently planted, green beans, cucumbers, zucchini, corn and tomatoes.
But it’s the strawberries that beckon. From April, when the stands open, until October or November, depending on the weather, cars come and go all day long, buying a basket ($3), three baskets ($7), half a flat ($14) or a full flat ($23) of delicious strawberries, picked from rows adjacent to the stand itself. When chefs try to buy more, he often refuses to make the sale, explaining that he must have enough berries on hand for his regular customers who arrive throughout the day.
These strawberries disprove my long-held belief that the larger the berry, the less flavor it has. These berries are sweet all the way through and full of true berry aroma and flavor. They are also red nearly all the way to the core, unlike a lot of commercial berries that are so white within that the red seems almost painted on.
The farm is not certified organic but Saetern does not use pesticides. He also deals with a host of pests, from aphids and spider mites to gophers, raccoons, wild turkeys and small black birds. Crows and ravens, which are abundant here in the Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed, don’t bother the berries and when it comes to the other critters, Saetern seems to have a live-and-let-live attitude.
“They don’t have tools and they can’t grow anything,” he says, laughing, about the turkeys and raccoons.
The stand, marked by a large sign that announces “Strawberries” and a colorful fabric flag fluttering on the far side of the driveway, is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., unless everything sells out early. And sometimes, when there’s an abundance of fruit and Saetern senses that customers are still coming, he remains open until 8 or 9 p.m.
Lao Saetern is from Thailand, where his family has always farmed, he explains. He came to California in 1990, where he continues his family farming tradition.
Lao Saetern’s strawberry stand, founded in 2007, is located at 555 Highway 12, between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol and just west of Duer Rd. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., unless the daily harvest sells out early. You can reach Saetern 731-7637.