I am currently live-blogging at the Eco-Farm Conference, at Asilomar State Park in beautiful Pacific Grove, California. It’s Friday, the third day of the conference.
Weather report: Cloudy, drizzly, mild.
Plenary Session this morning features presentations by three successful organic farmers. Right now we are listening to Chuck and Lily Boerner from Hana, Hawaii. Their farm (Ono Organic Farms) looks like a tropical rain forest. They raise beautiful tropical fruits, coffee and specialty fruits. “Grow what you love to eat.”
Ono fruit basket
I am sitting in the overflow building where they are broadcasting the plenary session from Merrill Hall. It’s a lot less crowded in here, less than 50 people. There’s room for 250. The capacity in Merrill Hall is less than 900. It is totally full during plenary sessions. So where is everyone? Over 1,600 people pre-registered for the conference, so there must be a large number of folks who are doing other things.
Overflow room and informational resource room
Next successful organic farmer is Tony Azevedo of Double T Acres, Stevinson, California. He runs a dairy in the San Joaquin Valley (at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Merced Rivers. He markets through Organic Valley. Tony took over the farm from his father who had started the farm on a run down piece of ground at the end of quarter-mile road. Tony says if you want to know if a dairy is healthy, look at the cats. If the cats are healthy, it’s a healthy dairy.
Tony’s father was able to establish clover and pasture on the white alkaline soils, and learned that after five years he could rotate out of the pasture into corn and be weed free for at least two years. Tony showed many great, old pictures and is a real local history buff. When Tony first purchased the farm from his father he shifted everything over to a more modern, agribusiness approach. He borrowed a bunch of money and put all the cows in confinement, and started buying his seed and fertilizer. It worked for awhile, but cracks started to show up and profits went down. Over time, Tony and his family built up an agritourism museum around a western theme and it turned out to be more profitable than the dairy farm. In fact, he was using money made from the museum to maintain and pay down the debt on the dairy farm. He finally decided to expand the dairy. He was only milking 160 cows. Before doing that he talked to other dairy farmers who were larger than him – 300, 600 and 1200 cow farmers. None of them were making it and looking to get bigger. That’s when Tony decided to do something different.
Tony shared stories about his experiences in Ethiopia, working with actor, Eddie Albert to help that country. One of Tony’s keys to success – focus on quality, not quantity. Other keys – Never allow you education to get in the way of getting your hands dirty; Farm the farm, don’t let the farm farm, you.
Tried to get into the 10:30 session on permaculture. I love permaculture. The session was packed. Actually, there was room in an attached overflow room, but the speaker wasn’t miked and I could barely hear her. I left and tried to catch the farm bill session, but it was packed. It’s raining harder now so I’ve holed myself up in the main lodge to try and catch up this blog. Still haven’t finished the post I started on the farm tour.
After lunch I took a nap. It was great.
John Masiunas and I attended afternoon sessions together. The farming with nature session was interesting…
2:00 – 3:30 Nature-Friendly Farming: What we Know, Don’t know and Need to Know.
Came in the middle of this farmer presented session. Phil Foster presented some very good photos of his farm (Pinnacle Organic, San Juan Bautista, California. The use and establishment of Hedgerows has been a real theme throughout the conference. We say it at the farm tour sites. Seems to be an important element in farming with nature (organic), particularly in controlling insects. Contributes to pollination as it provides habitat for native bees and other pollinators. Commercial beekeepers find their bees are healthier if hives are placed near hedgerows. Birds are also attracked to hedgerows. Birds can eat bad bugs, but can also eat beneficials so it’s a complicated dynamic. Owl houses help with the control of gophers in orchards. Farming with nature is a balancing act. Had to use fences to keep out deer and wild hogs.
Cindy Lashbrook of Riverdance Farm in Livingston, California.
Protecting the soil and building its health is the fundamental objective in farming in a more nature-friendly way. Cover crops are the natural method. But it’s clear Cindy has a passion for endangered (and non-endangered) animal species. 74 acres, only about 60 are farmable. There’s a river running through it. They host public open house event to deal with what she called “nature deficit disorder.”
John Anderson, Hedgerow Farms, Winters, California.
Hedgerow Farms produces native specie plants for use in hedgerows, insectories, riparian corridors and roadside plantings.
Roadsides – native grass plantings and shrubs. The plants change during the growing season, flowering at different times, keeping the weed populations down, and attracting beneficial insects and birds across the whole season. Riparian regions along canal banks are usually kept clean through out the valley to keep weeds from building up. Anderson has developed species mixes that create a wonderful habitat for riparian areas. Soil is held and habitat is created that can support aquatic species. Great images of what they’ve done on the farm to create a much more balanced system. Visit the site.
The Wild Farm Alliance handed out a survey trying to gather research ideas for farming with nature. Looks like they have a good site too.
The question is why farm with nature? Farming is really an organized resistance against the “chaos” of nature, re-inventing it to serve our purposes, forcing it to produce the maximum amount of the product we want. That approach sacrifices an infinite number of good things to optimize one thing – production. The reinvention is never easy and the battle to keep it in the image of our desire is a constant battle against nature’s slow and constant succession back to natural equilibrium. What’s the balance that retains the best of both?