32nd Annual EcoFarm Conference The EcoFarm Conference is put on my the Ecological Farming Association and brings together farmers, academics, scientists, food activists, entrepreneurs, and more, all with the similar interest andcommitment to the development of more resilient, healthful, and ecologically responsible food and farming systems. Adam Mehr – Graduate Research Assistant Pacific Grove, CA University of Texas at Arlington Fort Worth Center
Bus Tour: Organic Farming on the Central Coast Pacific Grove is on the Monterey Peninsula and not far from some of the most fertile and agriculturally important areas in the United States, including Las Salinas Valley which grows 99% of the U.S. artichoke crop and contributes significantly to commercial strawberry and brussels sprouts production.
Bus Tour Stop #1: Fogline Farm Having been farmed since 1906, Fogline Farm in the hills and forests of Santa Cruz is now managed bythree younger farmers. Originally an orchard farm, the farm is now branching out into livestock such as poultry and heritage Berkshire pigs and focusing more attention on vegetable growing. The farmers have found that livestock can have positive effects on soil fertility and health. Chickens and pigs both provide beneficial manure; plus the pigs make for great tillers. The farm butchers their own livestock, sells their fresh meat, fruit, and vegetables at four farmers, operates a CSA, and sells to some local restaurants.
Bus Tour Stop #2: Yellow Wall Farm Yellow Wall Farm is a micro-farm in Santa Cruz consisting of only 2-3 acres. The property, which was bought and farmed by two career-changers, shows how much one can actually do with a seeminglysmall area. The couple of acres hosts a number of peach, pear, apple, citrus, fig, and persimmon trees,as well as a variety of vegetables and a small flock of layer hens. The owners insisted on growing food “for your neighbors” and felt passionately about growing and selling their local produce as close to home as possible (a key element to creating more sustainable food systems).
Bus Tour Stop #3: UC-Santa Cruz Farm & GardenThe University of California-Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems offers a comprehensive learning, training, and research opportunity for students at its 25-acre operating farm. The farm has been certified organic for 25 years, and the staff educate students on the many elementsof agriculture through classes, apprenticeship programs, and internships. Most of the interns live on site throughout their respective programs and prepare their own food from what is grown on the property. The UCSC Farm & Garden is funded equally by donations, fundraising, and tuition.
Cover CroppingMany of the farms visited throughout the tour were practicing cover cropping. Even though the central coast of California has a relatively mild winter and is still conducive to year-round agricultural production, many farmers are seeing the benefits of planting cover crops for a few months out of the year. Common cover crops include oats, peas, beans, and mustard, and are used to add nutrients back into the ground and help prevent soils from being overworked and prone to disease.
Bus Stop #4: Bonny Doon WineryThe last stop on the bus tour was the Bonny Doon Winery. The winery sources its grapes from a number of California vineyards in addition to fruits Bonny Doon grows on its own land. The winery grows and experiments with different varieties of grapes and well as olives, fruit trees, and vegetables, an this polyculture allows for a more ecologically diverse landscape than conventional vineyards. While manyof their wines are already certified organic, the winery is also striving for biodynamic certification (follow a set of integrated, holistic agricultural practices). In addition, Bonny Doon has been investigating the effects of biochar use on fruit production and flavor.
Session 1 & 2: Farming on Public Land & Alternative Financing for Small FarmsThe first two sessions that I attended dealt with some of the financial obstacles that beginning and smallscale farmers face and some of the opportunities that may exist in order to overcome these challenges. Land (especially in California) can be quite expensive and leasing public land may be one of the more affordable options for beginning farmers. Open space preservation associations and resource conservation organizations may also be supportive of using designated land for agricultural purposes. Grants and loans through the U.S. government’s Farm Service Agency & Small Business Administration as well as private entities can also help farmers get started or expand their business. Farming ventures can be very vulnerable to market trends and environmental uncertainties. FredHempel of Baia Nicchia Organic Farm mentioned that creating a loyal customer base to help support you through the tough times can be surprisingly effective , and finding alternative revenue streams can be one of the best ways to stay profitable.
Session 3: Organic Farming as a Strategic Tool for Global Change This session focused on how sustainable agriculture can help curb the negative effects of peak oil, climate change, and ensure the food security of a growing population. Creating localized food production systems can greatly reduce oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions due to shortertransport. Using environmentally-friendly agricultural techniques can help yield healthful food without the use of hazardous chemical fertilizers and insecticides that contribute to pollution and invasive practices that deteriorate soil fertility and ecosystems. And local food sources can be essential tomeeting the needs of a growing population by providing accessible and nutritious food to people of all economic and social backgrounds. While there are concerns over the performance of organic agriculture versus conventional, more sustainably managed farms can produce yields equal-to or greater-than many conventional farms.
Session 4 & 5: Farmer Training for Everyone & Successful Organic Farmers Farmer Training for Everyone explored the opportunities available to new and beginning farmers looking to learn about agriculture and gain hands-on work experience. Most of the opportunities presented were west coast-specific such as the California Farm Academy, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), and Rogue Farm Corps, but also included programs on a national level like the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) and World Wide Opportunities onOrganic Farms (WWOOF). The United States is facing a shortage of farmers as the median age of current farmers continues to rise. Commitment to the training and development of younger Americans in this trade can help revitalize an often overlooked field and ensure food security for the future. The next session highlighted how certain people have found success in the field of organic agriculture. Shinji Hashimoto of Japan spoke of his farming pursuits in his home country and how he hopes that sustainable agriculture will contribute to a sustainable society. Farmers and gardeners from the Esalen Farm & Garden in Big Sur, CA spoke of how their educational farm helped connect people to earth on more than just a physical level, but on a deeper, spiritual level. Bob Cannard of Green String Farm and Green String Institute in Petaluma, CA finished the session talking about his longtime farming philosophy. Understanding what nature is telling us can direct us towards solutions on how to manage and steward it.
Session 6: From Dream to Reality, Building a Farmstead Creamery While most of the sessions so far had been far broader in scope, the session From Dream to Reality: Building a Farmstead Creamery was a very focused topic. Gianaclis Caldwell of Pholia Farm Creamery in Rogue River, Oregon outlined her guide to planning a successful farm-basedcheese business. The farm, which off-grid with the help of photovoltaic panels and micro-hydropower, is home to a small herd of Nigerian milking goats that produce close to 20,000 pounds of cheese per year. Caldwell’s advice to those pursuing any type of agricultural venture, be prepared for worst case scenarios as it will force you to create a strong business plan and may even help you to find ways to turn concerns into assets.
Session 7: Climate Friendly Farming This was definitely my favorite session of the conference as it illustrated such an innovative and integrated approach to sustainable agriculture. Fetzer Vineyards combined efforts with the University of California-Davis to investigate the effects of the vineyard’s sustainable land management practices on carbon sequestration. Fetzer manages its vineyards in a very sustainable manner, improving the health of their soil through compost and cover crops and conserving the habitat and biodiversity of the land, and powering 100% of its energy from renewable sources. Dixon Ridge Farms, a grower and producer of organic walnuts, also partnered with UC-Davis. In addition to things like composting and cover cropping, the walnut farm began researching the use of biochar. After the nut-shelling process, the hulls were incinerated which not only resulted in biomass energy but in a carbon-sequestering biochar byproduct. The resulting char-ash was then mixed back into the soil and helped improve soil pH and microorganism activity while slowing soil degradation and reducing Nitrous Oxide emissions, a very dangerous greenhouse gas.I was fascinated by this session because agriculture is often looked at as being a simple, straightforward industry of producing food, but as seen with these enterprises, agricultural systems can be created that work in a very cyclical, holistic manner. And in doing so, these farmers and researchers have demonstrated how it can contribute to global sustainability.
Session 8: Edible Eco-GardensMore on the notion of sustainable, local food systems, the Edible Eco-Gardens session touched on how communities can become more resilient by growing food in their own landscapes. Many people underestimate what can be done in their relatively small backyards. Jillian Steinberger of The GardenArtisan and Owen Dell, author of Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies, insisted that edible landscaping and home-grown produce could be the “future of food growing”. The Path to Freedom micro-farm inPasadena, CA is evidence of this possibility producing 3 tons of food in one year on less than 1/10 of an acre.
Session 9: Farmer Chef RelationshipsMany farmers rely on the support of restaurant chefs. Chefs can play a major part in the success of farmers, and finding and maintaining these relationships are vital. Cynthia Sandberg of Love AppleFarms in Santa Cruz, CA and Tucker Taylor, the Culinary Gardener at French Laundry in Yountville, CAspoke of their experiences cultivating and maintaining their farmer-chef relationships. Chefs can bemore than just a client, they can be an ally for farmers. They appreciate the value that food can hold and are frequently pursuing the best, freshest, and most local products.
32nd Annual EcoFarm Conference Attending the EcoFarm Conference was a great opportunity for me to see what innovative approaches agriculture is undertaking to deal with various sustainability concerns. I have come away from theconference with a number of ideas, and I am looking forward to further exploring a number of the topics especially the possibilities of edible landscaping and biochar.