Isla Robertson is the youngest farmer in her family. At seven months old, she spends the majority of her days outdoors, sharing in the work of running Skyelark Ranch with her parents and fellow farmers, Alexis and Gillies. In addition to her budding interest in leaves and birds, Isla is learning what it means to be part of a small livestock farm—raising animals humanely, attending farmers markets, and cultivating direct connections with local food. There’s a lot to understand and even more to do on the ranch, but, for the Skyelark farmers, sharing this work as a family is what sustains their business.

A Conservation-focused Vision

Before Skyelark Ranch and Isla were born, Alexis and Gillies focused their efforts on environmental conservation. After crossing paths in a geography class in Tasmania, the two returned to the U.S. together to explore farming via internships. Gillies’ one and only season picking carrots in the rain confirmed for him that he was definitely not a vegetable farmer. Instead, the couple’s shared background in conservation drove them to pursue livestock management.

Skyelark Ranch is a pasture-based livestock operation located in Yolo County’s Capay Valley. The farm is home to Berkshire pigs, California Red sheep, and a variety of chickens (both broilers and layers). A strong conservation component that prioritizes habitat preservation was a vision Alexis and Gillies had for their farm from the start. Rotational grazing, carefully selected livestock breeds, and low tillage are among their methods for integrating their animals into environmental management practices. The animals spend their lives outdoors, grazing or foraging in one field before being moved to the next. Not only does this approach make for happy and healthy animals, but it also spreads nutrients across the ranch, building soil fertility and supporting forage regrowth.

Alexis and Gillies’ commitment to conservation extends to another major resource on the ranch: water.  Starting their farm during one of California’s historic droughts greatly (and not surprisingly) influenced their irrigation plan. Quite simply, the farmers don’t irrigate because there’s no water to do so. “We have to adapt our management approach to what’s going on in the landscape,” explains Alexis. “With the below average rainfall of the past six years, we’ve learned how to farm in drought and know no differently.”

Capital Crusades

Limited water, fickle animals, and uncertain weather can amount to enormous challenges for first-time farmers. Still, for Alexis and Gillies, some of the most significant hurdles they encountered lay outside of nature. “The hardest part of getting started was access to capital,” said Alexis. Six years ago when Alexis was finishing a master’s degree and Gillies was working full-time, they struggled to get a loan to start their farm.

They relied on credit cards and paychecks to piece their operation together, growing slowly and thoughtfully. “In hindsight, it helped us learn about scale and what’s sustainable for this piece of land,” Alexis reflects. “We were more intentional about what we grow and what the land can support.”

Eventually, the couple got connected with California Farmlink and was able to secure a loan to lease their farm. While the 60-acre ranch continues to be a cherished home for the young family, their ultimate goal is land ownership. As fervent environmental stewards, Alexis and Gillies view land ownership as an opportunity to build sustainability and resiliency into their farm’s ecosystem.

In preparing for this next step, the couple expressed gratitude to California Farmlink and Kitchen Table Advisors for helping them chart a course toward ownership.  Kitchen Table Advisors is advising them on budget development, preparing the farmers to search for properties based on what they can afford. 

"Why is this bacon so expensive?"

Whether sharing about their capital needs or speaking to the unending drought, Alexis and Gillies remain as transparent as possible when it comes to their farm, for two reasons. It is deeply important to the couple that their customers know them as their farmers and understand that they are the only ones behind the food being produced. “I really want people to know that we are a true family farm. Every time you buy from us, you are supporting us directly,” Alexis emphasizes.

As customers get to know Alexis and Gillies, they come to understand the realities of their work. “Why is this bacon so expensive?” is a constant question the couple receives from customers at farmers markets. The question makes for the perfect opening into a discussion about running a small farm business and the real costs of conscientiously produced food. Alexis particularly enjoys talking about the often-overlooked finances of small farming, as she wants customers to recognize that this is their family’s sole livelihood.

Selling at farmers markets has helped facilitate these open and honest conversations. For the past three years, the family has attended Oakland’s Jack London Square Farmers Market on Sundays. With CUESA recently taking over the waterfront market, Alexis already feels a change, translating to more opportunities for one-on-one conversations. Owing to the scale and diversity of sales they’ve been able to achieve at farmers markets, the couple is now adding another sales channel to the mix—wholesale. 

Generations of Family

Amidst the many twists and turns of farming, Alexis and Gillies find motivation and connection from their tight-knit community of growers. Speaking about the older generation of farmers, Alexis recognizes Full Belly Farm, Riverdog Farm, and Fiddlers Green Farm for their pioneering work establishing sales channels and educating customers on local food.

Gillies also expresses appreciation for the multi-generation farmers and their profound expertise in traditional production methods. “Even though our operation is slightly different than theirs, they’re still willing to help us with advice and equipment,” he says. “We’re lucky to live in a community with these resources. And most of the farmers still answer our phone calls!”

From one family farm to the next, the farmers’ shared experiences and cooperation are what preserve the art of producing food. Alexis and Gillies do not know yet if Isla’s future will be in farming; however, their commitment remains to building a farm that can support them. In turn, the family of three can then reach so many more with the food and farm they’ve grown.

Find Skyelark Ranch at CUESA’s Jack London Square Farmers Market on Sundays, alternating with Casa Rosa Farms.

This article is a part of an ongoing series highlighting CUESA farmers and ranchers mentored by Kitchen Table Advisors. Together, CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors are supporting the economic viability of the next generation of sustainable small farms by offering critical market and promotion opportunities and in-depth business and financial advising. You can read more articles about businesses supported by CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors here.

Photos courtesy of Skyelark Ranch and Caitlin Crow, Orange Photography.

9452_CC-10.jpg

If you have the lucky opportunity to speak with Sergio Jimenez on his five-and-a-half acres at Ground Stew Farms or at one of his five weekly farmers markets, you’ll be struck immediately by his bright smile and humility. He’ll probably offer you a taste of his stunning produce while speaking about the immense gratitude he has for all who’ve helped make his farm in San Martin, California a success. He will likely also find a way to weave into the conversation that quality soil is at the heart of good farming.

Finding His Way Back to the Family Business

Sergio hails from Oaxaca, Mexico where his father was a successful farmer. He didn’t immediately fall into the family business, however. As a child, he recalls working long, hard hours helping on the farm while also attending school full time. He couldn’t picture his adult self as a farmer.

Fast-forward to his life in California: Sergio had a number of careers outside of farming, including a role with a manufacturing company and in real estate. The real estate work was incredibly stressful for Sergio. At that time, he had a large backyard and, with little effort, began growing things in his garden for fun and to help relieve stress. Farming in his garden came easily to him, and he soon realized the passion that he had for working the land.

Growing Soil

A relative told him to look into ALBA (Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association) in Salinas. He immediately signed up for classes with them, and learned how to both farm organically and run a business. As part of this program, he was able to lease land at a reasonable price so he could get his business off the ground. His first year (2012), he leased two and a half acres, and, in the last two years he has expanded to five and a half acres.

The current home of Sergio’s farm is ALBA’s Triple M Ranch, located in Northern Monterey County. The ranch is on a 195-acre farm, only 60-acres of which can be cultivated due to a natural land easement, with the rest zoned for conservation in the environmentally sensitive Elkhorn Slough watershed. Being in the slough, Sergio’s farm is not only a haven for beautiful produce, but also a mix of native frog species that include American Bullfrog, California Red-Legged Frog, and Pacific Tree Frog. Ground Stew and the resident frogs have built a harmonious life together in the watershed.

Sergio grows many kinds of certified organic fruits and vegetables, and the stars of the current summer season are his strawberries. Customers buy them weekly because of their incredible flavor. Late summer is tremendously busy for him, like most farmers. Currently, tomatoes, kale, and zucchini are top sellers at the farmers market. (Insider tip: You may see some of his perfectly delicate Little Gem lettuce in local restaurants soon.)

Sergio avoids using pesticides -- even organic ones -- on his crops whenever possible. He prefers to grow a large variety of plants, and “naturally confuse the pests.” In other words, Sergio is committed to integrated pest management, which means building biodiversity and employing a combination of natural tactics, like disrupting a pest’s living conditions, to reduce pest levels. At the core of his farming philosophy, he believes in creating a strong base for the roots of his plants. “I grow soil first before I grow plants," he says. "It’s very important for me to enhance the soil where I’m growing. I use a lot of compost and cover crops over the winter. Many people use organic practices, but I believe establishing healthy soil is the key.”

When you bite into one of his sweet-like-candy yellow tomatoes as I did this week, you will agree that whatever he’s doing to that soil is the right approach.

Struggles and Support

When asked about the biggest struggle he faces as a farmer, Sergio doesn’t complain about the exhausting work, the extensive hours, or anything one might expect. Instead, he shared that the lack of labor is the biggest challenge that he and other farmers face.

“This is what keeps me from expanding further: lack of labor," he says. "There aren’t enough people who want to work on a small farm like mine. I’m not sure why exactly. We depend on immigrants a lot, and the tightening of the border may be one cause of this. This happens to all farmers--both small and large commercial farmers. Signs all over the area advertise for more workers.”

Sergio shares that most farm workers get paid minimum wage, but he pays his folks more because he appreciates their work and hopes to earn their loyalty. He speaks of one smart and responsible worker with leadership skills that he helped develop recently. Sergio noticed a neighboring farmer trying to lure this employee away, which sadly seems to be all too common in times of shortage.

We don’t linger on this subject for too long. Sergio would rather speak about the support he’s received than focus on the negatives. He couldn’t say enough wonderful things about the connections he's made through ALBA, Kitchen Table Advisors, and CUESA. He also has great love for Oakland and San Francisco farmers market shoppers, because they are “very knowledgeable about how eating organic food positively impacts people and the environment.”

“Kitchen Table Advisors helped me get the farm’s financials organized," he says. "That’s still a challenge, but we are getting there! It’s hard to juggle farming, going to markets, and the books.” He also appreciates CUESA’s oversight of their farmers markets. “They are truly there to help and support small farmers, not just to collect a stall fee.”

You can find Ground Stew at the Jack London Square Farmers Market on Sundays, and at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Thursdays.

This article is a part of an ongoing series highlighting CUESA farmers and ranchers mentored by Kitchen Table Advisors. Together, CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors are supporting the economic viability of the next generation of sustainable small farms by offering critical market and promotion opportunities and in-depth business and financial advising. You can read more articles about businesses supported by CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors here.

Photos by Caitlin Crow, Orange Photography.

By Janet McGarry, CUESA Volunteer

Americans have become accustomed to jumbo portions of poultry, and few of us remember a time before oversized boneless breasts were the norm. These days, most chicken meat comes from birds bred to grow at an abnormally fast rate—as much as six pounds in six weeks. If humans grew this quickly, we would weigh 260 pounds at age two!

Accelerated growth takes a toll on birds’ health and quality of life. “Breeding for these qualities doesn’t produce animals that thrive in natural settings,” explains farmer Dede Boies of Root Down Farm. “Chickens’ legs and hearts can’t keep up with the weight gain, so they’re not able to move well. Turkeys’ breasts are so large that they are physically prevented from mating naturally, so they have to be artificially inseminated.”

Learning about the negative impacts of industrial animal agriculture inspired Dede to start Root Down Farm in Pescadero, where she raises heritage chickens, turkeys, ducks, and pigs humanely and sustainably.

“As I learned more about the food system and farming, it became a political passion as well as a love of the physical work,” she says. “Even though my farm is just a teeny tiny drop of change, I am trying to do the best I can to raise animals in a way that is healthy for each creature, the land, and the bellies they feed.”

Water-Wise Pasture Management

Raised in the New Jersey suburbs, Dede got her first taste of farming by volunteering through WWOOF in New Zealand and Hawaii. She later found herself at Pie Ranch in Pescadero and “totally fell in love with the place.” As she gained more farming experience raising baby goats at Harley Farms and helping to start Echo Valley Farm, she realized her heart lay in raising livestock.

In 2014, in the midst of California’s deepening drought, she decided to start her own project. Root Down set down roots on 62 acres owned by the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST). Having limited water has led Dede to certain decisions, like growing fewer annual crops and more perennials. She doesn’t irrigate the pastures, which impacts the cycle of rotational grazing, requiring longer periods of rest for each paddock.

“We get all of our water from the creek on the farm, and it almost dried up that first summer,” she remembers. “At first, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a crappy year to start a farm.’ But it actually turned out to be a good thing because we started the farm knowing that we had to deal with water issues, so we established drought-wise systems from the beginning.”

Animal Welfare Approved

The ranch is certified through Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), a program with rigorous animal welfare and environmental sustainability standards designed to ensure animals live in “a state of physical and psychological well-being” from the pasture to the slaughterhouse.

New Hampshire, Delaware, Barred Plymouth Rock, and Chantecler chickens—all heritage breeds—eat bugs, grubs, and grass on the pastures, and Dede supplements their diets with organic grain. They take 15 to 16 weeks to reach maturity, almost three times longer than industrially raised chickens. Similarly, the Bronze, Midget White, Bourbon Red, and Blue Slate turkeys on the farm take 27 weeks to reach maturity (compared to 16 to 18 weeks at large-scale operations). The slower growth of these heritage breeds increases the cost of raising each bird, but also improves the meat’s taste. 

“A chicken that is raised naturally, moving freely and developing muscles at a normal rate, has superior flavor,” explains Dede. “Meat is more evenly distributed around the bird, and it develops more dark meat. It’s amazing what a huge difference it makes to the taste.”

Due to its greater complexity, meat from heritage chickens needs to be cooked longer at lower temperatures. “Cooking requires more effort and time, but the end result is so worth it,” according to Dede.

Root Down also raises heritage pigs: crosses of Berkshire, Large Black, Red Wattle, Gloucestershire Old Spots, and Mulefoot breeds. They’re kept outside all day long and are fed a diet of organic vegetable scraps from nearby Blue House Farm. “We give them showers and wallows on hot days,” says Dede.

She divides the pigs into small groups of 12, rotating them to different pasture areas each week. This requires more work for Dede and the farm’s three part-time workers, but “when the groups are smaller, we can develop strong relationships with the animals and be more in tune with them,” she says. 

Humane Treatment On and Off the Farm

After investing so much effort and personal care in the animals, Dede says it can be difficult to say goodbye and send them to the slaughterhouse. “I feel better knowing that they had very good lives, that we gave them a lot of love, and that they are going into people’s bellies to nourish them,” she says. “I want people to recognize that bacon and pork chops come from living creatures, and that a ton of work and a whole life make the food possible.”

During the first year, Dede slaughtered all the poultry on site, which was labor-intensive and also limited where she could sell the meat, since meat sold at farmers markets and other off-farm locations must be processed at a USDA slaughter house. She now sends all the chickens that she brings to market to an AWA-certified processing facility in Stockton. “It’s all about speed so that the animal doesn’t suffer,” says Dede.

Root Down also offers poultry harvesting workshops to train others in how to humanely process chickens. “I get a lot of calls from people who want to bring their chickens to the farm to learn how to process them,” she says.

Deepening Roots

Dede credits Root Down’s successful start to supportive relationships she’s developed with other Pescadero farmers. “I feel like I wouldn’t be here without my community. You just have to lean on people with a range of skills to help you with building, equipment, and other advice.”

She has also benefitted from business and financial planning guidance from Kitchen Table Advisors, and infrastructure support from POST, which has invested in rebuilding the 100-year-old barn on the land she leases. “All of this support makes me feel like I’ve started the farm at the right time.”

She is delighted to share her love of raising livestock humanely and sustainably with others at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. “Public education is a big piece of what I’m doing,” she says. “So much of my story has to be told verbally. I’m really looking forward to engaging with customers face-to-face at the farmers market and letting them know how they can affect change.”

Support Root Down Farm at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

This article is a part of an ongoing series highlighting CUESA farmers and ranchers mentored by Kitchen Table Advisors. Together, CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors are supporting the economic viability of the next generation of sustainable small farms by offering critical market and promotion opportunities and in-depth business and financial advising. You can read more articles about businesses supported by CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors here.

Root Down Farm photos by Federica Armstrong. Market photo by Amanda Lynn Photography.

This feature was originally posted on CUESA's website on August 19, 2016. View it here.

Our friends and kindred spirits at CUESA recently shared the story of one of our clients, New Family Farm. We're grateful to be working alongside CUESA in spreading the stories of our Bay Area farms and supporting their thriving operations.

By Kayla Abe, CUESA Staff

As two outdoorsy college students at UC Santa Cruz, Ryan Powers and Adam Davidoff, the founders of New Family Farm in Sebastopol, never saw conventional office jobs in their futures. Exposed to issues of environmental degradation and justice in their studies, the burgeoning revolutionaries were moved to action. “We both felt committed to making change in our own lives using all that we have: our bodies and our time,” recalls Ryan.

The two friends each settled on agriculture as their path of environmental advocacy and social transformation. “Farming in the way we have chosen to farm is activism,” Ryan continues. “We need as many people as possible working toward causes in whatever way they want to. And we chose to farm.”

A Plot of Their Own

After attending both high school and college together, they parted ways. Adam worked as an apprentice on various farms across the county, and Ryan started a farm in Tennessee. With parallel life trajectories, Ryan and Adam seemed destined to pursue a project together, and years later, following a serendipitous reunion working on the same New Mexico farm, they moved to Sebastopol to begin their own farm.

The two initially farmed on multiple sites around town, offered up by members of the local community who were eager to support the first-generation farmers. Ryan recalls the challenges of juggling multiple plots: “There’s what we call ‘the tool shuffle of death.’ You’re at one site and you think, ‘Oh, I need this tool.’ And then you realize that you left it at the other site!”

The two forged on, writing letters to family, friends, and relatives in search of leads for their own land. In 2010, an employee at what is now one of their two main sites answered their call. With help from California FarmLink to secure the lease, coupled with business and financial planning consulting from Kitchen Table Advisors, Ryan and Adam were ready to hit the field. “We would not be here if it weren’t for the community around us, hands down,” says Ryan.

Modern Traditionalists

Integrating low-tech sustainable techniques like cover cropping, crop rotation, and dry-farming, Ryan and Adam operate their farm with hands-on care and a nostalgia for simpler times. Their first four years, they even experimented with using draft horses in place of tractors as homage to early farming traditions. “We use beauty as a standard,” states Ryan. “I think that what appears beautiful to us as natural and ecological organisms, as humans, is what’s good for the earth and for our bodies. It’s an intuitive criteria.”

Taking advantage of the coastal climate, New Family Farm focuses on cool-weather crops like lettuces, carrots, kale, and beets. They’ve also had success with dry-farming, a method by which crops are given little to no water. In addition to juicy dry-farmed tomatoes, Ryan and Adam produce dry-farmed quinoa, with their crop last season yielding over one ton per acre. “There’s definitely room for improvement, but that was without a single drop of water in the worst drought year in 600 years,” says Ryan. “For California during a water crisis, that’s a big deal.”

Feeding the Food Revolution

Growing tomatoes or quinoa without water is no small feat, but for Ryan and Adam, the most challenging work isn’t in the fields, but rather in the grocery aisle. “Americans have an insane dedication to food being the cheapest thing there is,” says Ryan. Comparing an industrially farmed tomato with one from a small organic farm, many customers see only the difference in sticker price. But behind the dollar signs are vast differences in growing practices and values.

Telling their story to produce buyers and distributors became a mandatory side project for the young farmers. “For years, I was calling stores twice a week saying, ‘Buy from me. Buy from me. This is why. I have all this good stuff. If you don’t like it, tell me why and I’ll make it better,’” recalls Ryan. “It took time for them to get it, but it’s clicking now. All the stores in Sonoma County are thumbs-up for local now.”

Finding Richness in the Margins

Ultimately, purchasing choices rest with shoppers, which is why Ryan and Adam like to connect directly with the public at farmers markets. As the young farmers feed the land and their community, the best way Bay Area eaters can give back is by showing up at their stand. Ryan admits that requesting that shoppers buy their food “sounds sort of capitalist,” but money spent on their produce is also an endorsement of values like supporting first-generation farmers and advocating for sustainable agriculture.

“As a farmer, I would prefer that all my sales were at farmers markets, and if everyone showed up, that’s how it would be,” he says. “Food is a really great place to start if you want to change something, change your life, change the world.”

“My friend once said, ‘The margins are thin in farming, but there is a richness in the margins,’” quotes Ryan. “There is a richness in what we do that cannot be bought or sold. What I’m growing is valuable, and I’m proud of it. There’s love and intention and respect that’s going into it. We’re making our little corner of the world more beautiful, and you can support that.”

Support New Family Farm on Tuesdays at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco or Sundays at the Sebastopol Farmers Market.

This article is a part of an ongoing series highlighting CUESA farmers and ranchers mentored by Kitchen Table Advisors. Together, CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors are supporting the economic viability of the next generation of sustainable small farms by offering critical market and promotion opportunities, and in-depth business and financial advising. 

Photos courtesy New Family Farm and Kitchen Table Advisors/Jonathan Fong.

This feature was originally posted on CUESA's website on August 12, 2016. View it here.