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Modesto-area growers bank on the holiday, gift-giving spirit

On the chilly morning of Dec. 25, people in many places will open gifts packed with the flavor of a San Joaquin Valley summer.

Some of the region's farmers put their fruit, nuts and other products in gift packages that shoppers can get online or in stores.

"A lot of the people like the idea that we grow it here, dry it here and sell it here," said Michael Colombo, who oversees online operations for Bella Viva Orchards, a dried fruit producer near Denair.

Although much of agriculture slows down this time of year, many growers are busy packing the nuts and dried fruit from the harvests of May through November.

Then there's the cheese, which is produced year-round and pairs nicely with wine made from the grape harvests of recent years.

Shoppers can find a bag of plain almonds for few bucks or spend a little more for candied nuts. Plenty of gift packages can be had for $20 to $100. Business can spend much more than that to shower favored clients with Christmas goodies.

Many producers put together packages with items from other companies, such as the Fiscalini cheese in some of Bella Viva's baskets.

Shoppers also can assemble their own valley samplers -- perhaps some Nunes Farms almonds, dried vegetables from Just Tomatoes Etc., and olive oil from Nick Sciabica & Sons.

Christmas accounts for about a third of Bella Viva's business each year, owner Victor Martino said. The company employs about 50 people all year and expands to as many as 200 during peak times.

The production starts with cherries in May and ends with citrus in December. In between are apricots, nectarines, plums, pears, persimmons and other fruit.

Much of Bella Viva's farming is organic, Martino said, and all of it is done with an eye on quality.

"If you want a really good piece of dried fruit, you need to start with a really good piece of fresh fruit," he said.

One other touch: The company makes fruit boxes with wood from its own organically grown peach trees.

Gift packages are a slim fraction of the valley's farm production, much of which ends up in big vats of tomato paste, bags of dry milk and other large-scale shipments.

Wrapping up a bit of the bounty as gifts is a way for growers to connect with consumers.

That's the case for Wood Colony Nut Co., which sells candied walnuts and almonds and is named for an old settlement west of Modesto. It is owned by the family of Paul Wenger, first vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

"With people wanting to know where their food comes from, we see this as a huge opportunity," he said.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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