Farmer Leader Profile: Robert Abbott, Abbott Ranch

Robert Abbott is a third generation avocado Robert Abbott spreading mulchand lemon grower working the same land his grandfather purchased in 1923. A true family farm, Abbott Ranch (also known under the name Hilltop and Canyon Farms) prides itself on ensuring that future generations will inherit trees and soils at least as productive and healthy as they have been in the past. The ranch lies in the southern coastal region of Santa Barbara County, an ideal climate for growing the subtropical fruits.

Robert and his father, Duncan, love to farm, but they acknowledge the many obstacles that today’s growers face: water and labor costs, pressure from new pests, competition from south of the border, a volatile market – and the vagaries of a changing climate.

Several years ago, Robert, an environmentalist dedicated to watershed protection in his community, grappled with a fundamental management choice for dealing with two of avocado growers’ primary challenges: weeds and a destructive “root rot” fungus called phytophthera. He realized they could either use fungicides and herbicides to keep the orchards clean and sterile, or adopt an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality. Ten years ago, the Abbotts transitioned to organic methods, relying on yearly applications of mulch that smother weeds and create a rich biotic environment in which phytophthera can’t get the upper hand.

Application of the coarse organic mulch, which can consist of avocado trimmings, yard waste, woodchips and manure, promotes a balanced soil rich with organic matter. The farm also obtains green waste from the municipality, what Robert describes as using “what is usually a community waste product to make things grow really well.” The mulch then acts as an organic form of nitrogen, suppresses weeds, and keeps the soil moist. In a region with expensive water – and at a time when the resource is becoming more and more scarce – reducing water consumption has economic as well as environmental benefits.

This is just one example of Robert’s commitment to stewardship and awareness of climate impacts when making decisions as manager of Abbott Ranch. “I’m really interested in figuring out how to farm sustainably and help address climate change,” he says. CalCAN wholeheartedly agrees. We hope Robert’s passion can serve as an example for others interested in the intersection of agriculture with the preservation of an environment that continues to provide good and healthy food for generations to come.

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