By Herb Benham
In the winter, it might be a good idea to skip the stretch of South Edison Road in Weedpatch between Sunset and East Bear Mountain Boulevard, especially if the car in which you are riding includes a passenger with a delicate constitution and predilection for nightmares.
Nothing wrong with the 60 acres of cotton; however the next field, which contains nearly 100-year-old grapevines on the west side of the road, are the stuff of Middle-earth. An agricultural Twilight Zone. The grapevines are twisted, gnarly, stark and furry with strips of gray bark. These are the Bristlecone Pines of grapevines, beautiful in an ugly sort of way.
"A couple winters ago, (neighboring farmer) Jeff Thomson passed by," said Verner Stenderup, whose family has owned the property, which includes the 40 acres of grapevines, since 1960.
"He said Verner, those things are ugly. Why don't you take them out and replant?"
No. And why no? Because the Thompson Seedless grapevines, which Stenderup estimates were planted in 1917, still produce more than 12 tons of grapes per acre and either match or outproduce younger, fancier vines 80 years their junior.
The grapes, which grow in rich, sandy loam and have roots nearly 10 feet deep, are an agricultural version of the wild pigs overrunning eastern San Diego County and Kern County: It's hard to find a predator that can control, much less make a dent in the population.
Termites? They've given up. Pierce's disease? No chance.
The grapevines have withstood dust storms, brutally foggy winters, Biblical floods, drought, human error and about any other tool in the malevolent cosmic toolbox.
The one concession to age is that the Stenderups -- the farm is now run by Stenderup's son Kent and his cousin Andy-- pick this field by hand and sell the fruit as concentrate for sugar and for use in light jellies and juices.
The grapes' toughness may have to do with their physical address: Weedpatch. You have to be tough to live in Weedpatch, and the Stenderups have lived there all their lives. Andy, Kent, Stenderup, his wife, Birthe, and sister-in-law Colleen live on the ranch.
However, not everything in Weedpatch is tough. Take some of the newer, prettier vineyards the Stenderups have planted in the last 30 years.
"Look at those Muscats across the street," Stenderup said, as we stood in the 100-year Thompsons, covered with luminous green leaves and clusters of BB-sized grapes.
"We put those in 30 years ago and they're about to give out."
I detected a trace of disdain in his voice, both for the Muscat varietal itself and its inability to last even a third as long as the Thompsons.
Growing with the vines
Stenderup is 75. Although he was born in Bakersfield, he has spent his whole life in Weedpatch, passing up numerous opportunities to move to town.
He grew up with those vines and when he was younger, so were they. They are a connection to his father, who moved from Denmark to Weedpatch and started farming in 1928. Stenderup raised his two children in the shadow of those vines, which helped pay tuition at Garces and then at a private college. Those grapes helped pay for a house on the Central Coast.
They are gnarly, twisted and reliable.
They are ugly. They are beautiful.
They are tough, and here to stay.
These are Herb Benham's opinions, and not necessarily The Californian's. His column appears Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. Call him at 395-7279 or write hbenham@ bakersfield .com.