Many of California’s most innovative sustainable and organic farmer, ranchers, and other agricultural experts are using climate-friendly practices that reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon. These practices often also provide other health and environmental benefits such as water conservation, improved air and water quality, and enhanced wildlife habitat and biodiversity. Here are some of their stories.
With their children, Ward and Rosie Burroughs operate a diverse operation east of Modesto that produces organic and pasture-raised dairy and beef, organic almonds, cheese, eggs and more.
Unlike the majority of dairies in California that use corn-based animal feed with minimal access to pasture, the Burroughs’ cattle receive 80 percent of their nutrition from forage. They use a rotational grazing method called Managed Intensive Grazing (MIG) which allows livestock access to relatively small irrigated pasture areas for short durations, striking a balance between providing adequate nutrition for the animals and a recovery period for the grasses. Research indicates that MIG may enhance soil carbon sequestration, while also avoiding the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with growing and transporting conventional animal feed.
Also, we produced a short video about the Burroughs’ operation.
Russ and Kathy Lester raised their five daughters and built a model sustainable organic farm near Winters. The family farm itself totals approximately 1,250 acres, about half in walnut orchards. The orchards are home to approximately 40,000 trees, some of which are over 100 years old.
Dixon Ridge processes 1,500 tons of organic walnuts annually, most of California’s market. They are innovators in water-conserving drip irrigation, energy conservation and have installed a renewable energy generation system that gasifies walnut shells to make heat, natural gas and electricity. They are also experimenting with adding the biochar byproduct to their orchard soils to enhance fertility and carbon sequestration.
You can drive down almost any road in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties and you will see acre after acre, row after row of grapevines. You can visit beautiful tasting rooms and sample fine wines, but you will not find a vineyard that is a more evocative model of sustainability than Fetzer Vineyards, nor one with more heart and soul.
Fetzer is actively incorporates many climate-friendly practices such as soil building and carbon sequestration, renewable energy production, energy and packaging efficiency, conserving biodiversity and water conservation.
Al Courschesne—or as he is known by most, Farmer Al—started farming in 1976 on 13 acres of land in Brentwood, California. He started the farm out of a love of food and a desire to provide his community with a fundamental human need. The operation has grown into the 133-acre Frog Hollow Farm, producer of hundreds of varieties of fruits including cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, apriums, plums, pluots, Asian and European pears, olives, persimmons and apples. The farm is known not only for its produce and popular value-added products created by chef and co-owner Becky Courschesne, but also for its role as a pioneer within the sustainable agriculture community over the past thirty years.
John Anderson, founder of Hedgerow Farms, has been a leader in implementing and promoting farmland habitat restoration for the past 30 years. It started in 1974 when John was a practicing veterinarian at the UC Davis Primate Research Center. He and his wife Marsha purchased a 50-acre farm north of Winters as a place to live in the country.
John is an avid bird hunter and naturalist. In the late 70s he became aware of the decreasing numbers of wildlife and wildlife habitat on intensively managed farms. Clean farming practices were eliminating the plant bio-diversity, essential for wildlife populations to survive. Realizing that, he began working with wildlife agencies, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Yolo County Resource Conservation District, Audubon California, and many others to learn and identify re-vegetation programs that use native plant materials. He saw plenty of opportunity to use the edges and unproductive areas in the farmscape to provide both ecological benefits and services to farmers.
John retired from the University in 1996. Since then he has grown Hedgerow Farms into a unique and vital source of native grasses, wildflowers, sedges and rushes. He has also become a well-respected consultant to landowners, agriculture professionals, Resource Conservation Districts and environmental groups that work with producers. The canals, roadsides and field borders near his property are lined with vegetation that prevents erosion, increases water infiltration and groundwater recharge, provides habitat for beneficial insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, and beautifies the land. Hedgerow Farms grows, harvests and sells seed from over 70 California native species on 400 acres, mainly ecotypes from the California Central Valley, Valley Foothills and Central Inner Coast Range.
Farmland dominates huge acreage in the Central Valley and other areas in California. There is enormous potential to create corridors of habitat that can restore biodiversity and ecosystem services that can enhance the value of farms and the farm environment.
Hilltop and Canyon Farms/Abbott Ranch
Robert Abbott is a third generation avocado and 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.
On 150 vibrant acres in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, farmer Tom Broz grows a variety of organic fruits and vegetables and also maintains considerable wildlife habitat. Tom founded Live Earth Farm in 1995 on 20 acres, and from the beginning he integrated orchard and field crops into the native habitat. In 2009, he began a partnership with the Wild Farm Alliance (WFA) and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) to re-establish wildlife corridors, create hedgerows, restore habitat on marginal farm sites, and conserve natural landscapes.
Walking through Live Earth Farm, one is struck by the colorful array of row crops in the fields and the various perennials blanketing the orchard floors. Perhaps the most striking pieces of this richly diverse landscape are the hedgerows, native grass pastures, wildlife and riparian corridors, and the significant acreage left in its wild state. “It’s a good balance between farm pieces and where we want to protect and conserve,” Tom says.
In this short video, John Teixeira of Lone Willow Ranch in Firebaugh, California describes the organic farming methods he uses to build soil fertility, conserve water, protect water quality and store carbon in the soil to reduce climate change. He talks about using compost to add nutrients and cover crops for nitrogen, as well as owl boxes for controlling gophers. He benefits from the conservation programs of the US Department of Agriculture.
At the Midland School farm, which sits on 2860 acres of land in Santa Barbara County, students may do just as much learning outside the classroom as they do inside of it. With a strong institutional commitment to experiential education, the school’s on-campus farm and ranch offer students rich opportunities to immerse themselves in projects that often highlight the value of environmental stewardship and sustainable agriculture. Overseeing the farm operation is Ben Munger, ranch manager at the school since 2000 (and former Midland student himself).
Joe Morris is a grassfed beef rancher south of Hollister, where he operates a thriving direct market business along with his wife Julie. He serves as a CalCAN advisor and he is a founding member of the Central Coast Rangeland Coalition. By effectively using his cattle to manage the land for carbon sequestration, water infiltration, and wildlife diversity, Joe proves that agriculture—if properly managed—can provide solutions to some of our most pressing climate change challenges, enhance ranch resilience in the face of a changing climate, and provide multiple environmental benefits.
Joe comes from a lineage of ranchers stretching back five generations, the most recent of which was his grandfather who ranched into the 1980s. In 1991, Joe and his wife Julie moved to San Juan Bautista and have been managing the 200-acre family ranch ever since. Today, they lease an additional 7,000 acres and run 250 cows to serve their grassfed beef direct marketing business, as well as approximately 1,800 stockers.
Properly managed cattle grazing can increase grassland species diversity and productivity. It can also increase the soil organic content which sequesters carbon and also improves water penetration and retention, thereby reducing erosion and making more water available for plants which is especially important in arid regions like San Benito. In addition, there is evidence that livestock fed on high-quality forage instead of grain may emit less methane (a potent GHG) during their digestive processes.
At Pinnacle Organic Farm, Phil Foster and his wife Katherine have been farming organically for 25 years. They produce an average of sixty crops on 300 acres on two ranches near San Juan Bautista and Hollister, CA. Soil building is a key principle at Pinnacle Organic. Phil uses cover crops and since 1995 he has produced all of the compost the ranches need on-site. These techniques have dramatically increased carbon sequestration on the farm: between 1991 and 2011, soil organic matter doubled on one site and tripled on the other. In additional to building soil carbon, Phil uses a variety of strategies on his farm that have multiple climate and environmental benefits, such as planting hedgerows, using drip irrigation, and producing about 150 kilowatts of solar energy.
Red Rock Ranch
In the water-scarce Westlands District of the San Joaquin Valley, John Diener carries on a family tradition of farming in the Central Valley that began in 1929. He began farming Red Rock Ranch in 1980 in Five Points, just south of Fresno. He grows a variety of crops on over 4,000 acres including almonds, grapes, wheat, alfalfa, corn, peas, tomatoes, spinach, and sugar beets. Farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley face particular environmental challenges, including water scarcity and high levels of naturally occurring selenium and other salts in the soils that diminish the productivity of the farmland. The saline drainage water cannot be discharged into streams and rivers because it presents a danger to wildlife and the ecosystem. John Diener has approached these challenges with an innovative spirit, combining an “Integrated On-Farm Drainage Management” system with center pivot sprinkler irrigation and conservation tillage.
Debby Zygielbaum, farm manager of almost 200 acres of land at Robert Sinskey Vineyards (RSV) in Napa, CA, operates on the philosophy that the quality of a wine has as much to do with the winegrowing as it does the winemaking. And growing good wine, according to Debby, is fundamentally rooted in growing good soil. RSV’s use of sheep to graze vineyard floors is one way that they achieve this goal.
Weeds and cover crops compete with grapevines for beneficial nutrients and water, so they must be managed. Debby points out it is also important in early spring, especially during budbreak, to prevent unruly weeds and cover crops from raising the frost level up to the height of the cordon (the “arms” of the vine).
Sierra Farms Lamb
Mel and Mary Thompson raise an average of 650 head of pasture-fed White Dorper ewes and lambs on 700 acres of oak savannah south of Chico, California. They started the business in 1998, and direct market all of their products primarily to Bay Area customers.
During the 14 years Mel and Mary have been managing their land, they have greatly improved its productivity. This is evidenced by the fact that they are the only California sheep producers grazing sheep year-round on non-irrigated native grasslands and selling lambs 9-10 months of the year. Their forage quality is improving each year and even during the dry late summer months the forage requires only moderate supplementation. They accomplish this by prioritizing grazing and land management practices that assure water quality, water retention, forage diversity and soil health.
The Soil Carbon Challenge digs directly into the ground with the farmers, ranchers, and landowners who can manage land to improve soil health. Peter Donovan, a leader in demonstrating the connection between land management practices and increased soil carbon, founded the Soil Carbon Challenge—“an international prize competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter.” Peter has established an approach to scientifically showing (not just telling) the nexus of appropriate land management, soils, and carbon sequestration.
Albert Straus carries on the dairy business established by his parents in 1994 on the shores of Tomales Bay in Marin County. Straus Family Creamery is a family-owned and operated business, well-known in the Bay Area and beyond for their organic cream-topped milk in glass bottles, yogurt and ice cream. They were the first certified organic dairy west of the Mississippi River and the first 100% certified organic creamery in the United States.
Among other sustainable practices, the farm installed a methane digester that uses the gases produced from cattle waste to produce biogas that powers the milking barn and the farm’s electric vehicles. To learn more about their renewable energy project, watch the video…
Referring to his 125-acre vineyard as his “carbon management farm,” Jean-Pierre Wolff employs a combination of healthy soil practices, water management strategies and energy saving techniques. For example, he plants cover crop between his rows of grapes, applies compost annually, reduces chemical fertilizer application, manages irrigation with soil moisture monitors, efficient pumping (e.g., variable frequency drives) and gravity.
Jean-Pierre uses a unique tool, the yeoman’s plough, which causes minimal soil disturbance and provides for both increased carbon sequestration and soil permeability. Aware of the need to continuously adapt to his climate, on some of his grapes, Jean-Pierre has implemented a technique called “dry farming”, where he does not use any added water to irrigate parts of the vineyard.