Kendra Kolling, The Farmer's Wife
Farming is the stuff of romance, the iconic images familiar to all: soft breezes carving fields and treetops into artistic, undulating shapes; overflowing produce baskets filled with beautiful, shiny fruit; impossibly cute baby animals, frolicking in their barnyard pastoral. Right?
Not so, laughs Kendra Kolling.
Kendra, most recently known as The Farmer’s Wife for her sandwich stands by that name at numerous Sonoma and Marin farmers’ markets, is, in fact, a farmer’s wife. Married for 16 years to Paul Kolling, the owner of Nana Mae’s Organics and the actual Nana Mae’s grandson, she knows a thing or two about the commitment required to farm.
“The cash flow for farming is a black hole,” she says, swabbing bacon grease from her hands. “Your work ethic is so important because you have to hang tough.”
Paul bought their Sebastopol farm in 1984, farming organically from the start. With the organic movement not yet a significant part of the local agricultural fabric, Paul’s decision was radical. Pioneering, even.
Putting in apples set him even further apart. “Everyone was planting wine grapes,” says Kendra. People thought he was crazy to plant apple trees.”
Kendra and Paul and their three children—Liam (15), Elizabeth (13) and Alaina (9)—often work together to farm the 350 acres of apple trees in and around Sebastopol that grow their flavorful fruit.
Gravensteins are the best-known of the heirloom varieties that the Kollings grow, blend and press into Nana Mae’s organic apple juice, applesauce and other apple products, but the Kollings’ farm boasts more than 25 varieties of heirloom apples.
Kendra’s move into the real food business actually pre-dated her becoming the farmer’s wife.
“I had this solar mobile cart in the mid-’90s,” she says, recalling Pulp Friction, her fresh-pressed smoothie and juice stand at the Marin Civic Center Farmers’ Market. Her juice blends included apple and, ever the businesswoman, she struck up a conversation with an apple farmer with a nearby stand. Fittingly, fruit was at the heart of their courtship.
“I flirted with Paul for the best deals on apple juice,” she says. Paul, in turn, wooed Kendra with beautiful apricots and medjool dates. Pulp Friction is no more, but in the ensuing years Kendra kept busy raising children, helping Paul with Nana Mae’s and with the occasional moonlighting gig as a caterer.
As the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, the Slow Food movement began to have a widespread impact in the United States. Farmers in Sonoma took notice and, in 2004, the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Presidium formed under the Slow Food umbrella to promote and protect the historically significant apple. In 2006, Gravenstein apples were included in Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste, a program designed to catalog foods that are in danger of extinction.
“A shift occurred in consumers’ thinking,” Kendra says. “People started thanking us for what we were doing.” [Editor’s Note: For more information on Slow Food Russian River’s efforts to save the Gravenstein, see the Summer 2011 issue of Edible Marin & Wine Country and visit SlowFoodRR.org.]
Work ethic ever at the ready, Kendra decided the time was ripe to re-enter the food service market, launching another farm stand. Not yet known as The Farmer’s Wife, her new venture made its first appearance in 2010 at Larkspur’s Marin Country Mart, serving soups, baguette sandwiches and salads dressed with her signature apple cider vinaigrette.
“The grilled cheese sandwiches just took off,” says Kendra, who in 2011 revamped her menu and developed a separate identity for the sandwich stand. Some 13 years into referring to herself as “the farmer’s wife,” she turned to the moniker as the perfect name for her self-made brand.
Kendra crafts her sandwiches with products sourced from nearby farmers, ranchers, cheese-makers, bakers and other food artisans, highlighting the best of each season.
On a whim in the spring of 2012, she entered the first annual ’Wich Hunt at Battle of the Brews, going up against 21 top local restaurants for the title Best Sandwich in Sonoma County. She took home Best in Show with her Tully Dolci Farm fried egg, bacon and blue, Lyonnaise grilled cheese sandwich on Full Circle Baking Co.’s organic sourdough.
Feather firmly in cap, Kendra’s phone started ringing.
The Farmer’s Wife market presence in Marin and Sonoma increased from one to four stands in just a few months. “[It is all] built on blood, sweat and bacon grease,” jokes Kendra.
Proving that her 2012 win was not a fluke, Kendra’s entry also took first place in the People’s Choice category of the 2013 ’Wich Hunt. This time her winning sandwich featured Harley Richter’s chorizo, a Tully Dolci Farm fried egg, avocado and three cheeses.
“John’s [Richter] specialty is whole animal butchery,” she says. “I take it from the butcher to the sandwich. I love to showcase local products.”
The Farmer’s Wife also offers special house-made drinks like sarsaparilla and shrubs.
As of the time of this writing, Kendra was also on the hunt for a storefront space in downtown Sonoma.
Industrious, fearless, proud, committed—these are just some of the adjectives that describe a Cape Cod girl turned award winning sandwich pro married to a Cal engineer turned apple farmer. But the most fitting description of all may be committed mom, businesswoman and farmer’s wife.
And that cash flow black hole? Kendra is doing her part to reverse gravity for her farm, her family and the greater farming community. Good farming and good business, it seems, can indeed be romantic.