On February 28, 2017, 300+ people gathered at UC Davis for the annual CalCAN (California Climate and Agriculture Network) conference. Farmers and ranchers, government and non-profit agencies, policy advocates and funders came together to learn, share best practices, and problem solve around agriculture and climate change.

I had never been to the CalCAN Summit before, but left feeling blown away by the quality of people and conversation. I clearly sensed the deep intersection of our work supporting the economic viability of sustainable small farms and ranches with CalCAN’s coalition and policy work supporting ecological land stewardship and climate resilience on farms.  Several of the farms we support at Kitchen Table Advisors had a presence at the conference: Javier Zamora of JSM Organics was on a farmer panel in the opening plenary; Emma Torbert of Cloverleaf Farm participated in a workshop; and Alexis and Gilles Robertson of Skyelark Ranch hosted a farm tour.

It was great to be in dialogue with seasoned farmers like Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm and Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery; non-profit partners like POST, California FarmLink, Point Blue, and the Carbon Cycle Institute; thoughtful policy advocates like Renata Brillinger at CalCAN and Dave Runsten at CAFF; and key supporters like Sallie Calhoun of Paicines Ranch, Michael Roberts and Joanna Lehrman at 11th Hour Project, Susan Clark at Gaia Fund, and Nancy Schaub of New Priorities Foundation.

The day after the CalCAN Summit, 70+ people spent the day visiting three farms in the Capay Valley to walk the land, touch and feel the soil, and hear from farmers on the ground about healthy soils, agriculture and climate change, and how they understand the connection between operating an economically successful farm while stewarding the land.

The first stop was at Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Farm & Ranch, owned and operated by the Wintun Nation tribe, to hear from ranch manager Adam Cline about his efforts to raise cattle while improving soil and ecosystem health. Co-leading the tour was Corey Shake, a partner biologist with Point Blue who is part of a statewide rangeland monitoring network providing advice and conducting wildlife and plant species monitoring to learn about the impacts of grazing strategies on soil health.

The group moved on to Full Belly Farm to enjoy a delicious organic lunch prepared on farm with their fresh organic ingredients. Co-owners Judith Redmond and Paul Muller shared their experiments and experiences with minimizing soil disturbance, using various cover crop mixes, and rotating livestock to enhance soil organic matter and carbon sequestration.

The last stop on the farm tour was with Kitchen Table Advisors client Skyelark Ranch, a 40-acre pastured livestock ranch operated by Alexis and Gillies Robertson who receive business advising from our Farm Business Advisor based in Yolo County, Thomas Nelson. Alexis and Gilles are a young couple who have been farming since 2010. They sell their pastured lamb and pork through the Davis and Oakland Jack London Square farmers’ markets, and their pastured eggs to institutions like Airbnb through food hubs like the Capay Valley Farm Shop.

We walked under the canopy of an old almond orchard where Alexis and Gillies rotate pigs and chickens next to fields where they grow hay and graze their sheep. The focus of the conversation was, of course, around how they manage the animals and their land, and how the land stewardship practices of farms like theirs are helping fight climate change.

After we walked under blue skies to the top of the hill that overlooks their farm, Alexis and Gillies reminded us that this conversation about their efforts to steward the land, sequester carbon, and battle climate change has to be considered in the context of the long-term viability of their farm business and their ability to make enough to support their family.  They have a one-year-old daughter, Isla. The family has been working hard and fighting an uphill battle to build Skyelark Ranch to be a farm business that raises livestock in a humane way that is in balance with the land and their community, and provides a living for their young family.

It’s more than clear to Alexis and Gillies that they need to have a farm that is economically viable in order to be sustainable. They need to be able to cover business expenses and investments in long-term farm infrastructure; cover their family’s living expenses; and hopefully have the chance to eventually save a little money. Because if they can’t do that, then despite their best intentions, they will not be able to continue stewarding the land in a way that is in line with their values, incorporating practices that sequester carbon, and building healthy soils.

As the sun was getting low in the sky, we closed our conversation surrounded by sheep in one of their pastures. We talked about how long-term farm viability is a necessary piece of the puzzle to nurturing ecological farm land stewardship, and how farmers like Alexis and Gillies need to focus on running their farm as a business AND build a network of support. It became apparent that all of us gathered together at the CalCAN Summit, standing in a circle around Alexis and Gillies in their pasture, were part of that network: seasoned farmers who provide advice and support; groups like the Capay Valley Farm Shop and Fibershed that market, aggregate, and distribute their product; non-profits like Kitchen Table Advisors and California FarmLink that provide business advising and financing; and organizations like CalCAN that advocate for policy solutions that create an environment in which farms like Skyelark Ranch can thrive. And we each rambled off into the lazy sun of the afternoon to go back to where we came from to play our part in this ecosystem.

Photos courtesy of CalCAN.

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.