View From The Valley
Down on the ranch, vineyard, and farm
Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA)
We all imagine taking a day off and being a tourist in our own town or heading out to the coast. It usually turns into a tour for family or friends who are visiting and you’re driving, answering questions, and pointing out the sites. So you can imagine our surprise when VOTMA President Kathy Pons and I were invited to join a tour of a local farm, a working ranch, and an organic winery where we would have a driver, be greeted by local farmers and growers, and then be treated to a gourmet lunch of locally grown foods! And the best part turned out to be learning about sustainable, best practices that not only grow amazing amounts of food but help save grasslands, streams, and topsoil.
We were enthusiastically met by Paul Kaiser, a board member of CAFF, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, headquartered in Davis. Paul and his wife Elizabeth own Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol where we were served local Taylor Maid coffee and morning muffins before boarding a green mini-school bus. We were on board with county policy makers, newly elected officials, and reps from local supervisors, along with Tony Linegar, the Sonoma County Agriculture Commissioner.
We were headed for the Freestone ranch of Jon and Misty Gay, who raise grass-fed Black Angus and homeschool their kids on their land. They do rotational grazing which staves off erosion and benefits the creek that flows through the property. Brittany Jensen, of the Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District, headed up a hillside containment project above their creek that screens out major debris and soil. A part of the Estero Americano watershed, the clean creek helps create steelhead habitat and year-round flow for fresh water shrimp. Grasslands store water and help with carbon sequestration. The deeper the grass roots grow, the more carbon gets into the soil. And the cattle like it too. The Gays sell their beef at Andy’s Produce Market and Bill’s Farm Basket in Sebastopol. They also supply the Salmon Creek School with beef for their burgers.
Our next stop was an organic winery. Marimar Torres Estate wines are grown on the rocky hillsides in Green Valley near Occidental. Torres came to California to look for land as an immigrant – in 1970s Spain, women could not own a winery. She has worked to improve the soil, using organic methods in problematic areas in 2006 that yielded amazing results in just one year. They are now working on a new system of tile drainage to capture water in new vineyards. Jensen mentioned that 50 percent of growers in Green Valley are dry farming in the deep alluvial soil. Storing water may become a necessity in the future. Alas, no wine tasting on this stop, but it was a beautiful site to visit.
Back at Singing Frogs Farm, Paul Kaiser led us on a tour of the eight acres they manage. Kaiser and his crew practice a no-till approach to planting and harvesting, right down to cutting the plants off rather than pulling them up by their roots. They manage five to seven harvests each year by rotating crops, using powerful homemade compost and planting right next to the plant they just harvested, without disturbing the roots. Their topsoil goes down four feet in places and the plants love it so much that he is grossing more than $100,000 an acre – almost 10 times the average per-acre income of comparable California farms, even organic ones. Organic produce farms and wine grape vineyards typically bring in $12,000 per acre.
Paul and Elizabeth met in the Peace Corps where they worked on the edge of the Sahara Desert and used this method to grow an abundance of food. They increased the organic content 10-fold and fostered the tens of millions of fungi that, along with soil bacteria, help retain water, cycle nutrients, and suppress disease.
Carbon sequestration is also an important benefit of the no-till method. When the ground is tilled, nitrogen and carbon are released from the soil where they combine with oxygen in the air to form two of the most potent greenhouse gasses: nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.
What about weeds? Kaiser keeps hedgerows on the edges of plots to help keep out wind-blown seeds. Compost and leaf cover on the surface suppress weeds, and by not tilling, new weed seeds are not brought up to light. A goat and a llama tethered in green areas between crops looked well fed.
Everything on the property traps water. He gets up to 100,000 gallons of “holding water” on one acre while using slow drippers to irrigate as little as an hour a week. Everything is covered with rice straw, which enriches the soil over time.
Over lunch we discussed some of the amazing benefits of this kind of land stewardship. Quoting from CAFF’s three focus points for the day: “Actively farmed land can provide environmentally beneficial functions regarding water, carbon capture, wild life habitat, and soil stabilization. The value of land management practices can be as important as the value of the crops; such practices should be prioritized with land conservation and land use policies. Barriers to agricultural land reaching its full potential include but are not limited to: expensive land prices, neighborhood opposition, and lengthy or expensive permitting processes. These are barriers to becoming more sustainable as a County and a nation.”
We need to work for policies that promote diverse agriculture and small farms.
By the way, lunch was amazing!
Community Alliance with Family Farmers – www.caff.org
Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District – goldridgercd.org