Fillmore Farms

Fillmore Farms

Fillmore Farms

The Fillmore Family, Fillmore Farms. Credit: Fillmore Farms

Ryan Fillmore

Fillmore Farms

Southwest Region | Gridley, CA

Main Product: Fruits & Nuts

Scale: 230 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to organic, added cover crops and winter irrigation.

STORY COMING SOON!

 

Ela Family Farms

Ela Family Farms

Ela Family Farms

Steve Ela, Ela Family Farms, Hotchkiss, Colorado. Credit: Steve Ela.

“I used to say it would be one year in ten we would expect a really bad year, maybe another two or three years we would have some frost. Now I would say we have frost every year. The one-in-ten year with a 10% crop, that still holds, but now we’re having 50% crops many other years. When I say this was a frost-free area, it used to be that growers didn’t need wind machines and other frost protection measures and they got though just fine. Now we have the whole place covered with wind machines.

Steve Ela

Ela Family Farms

Southwest Region | Hotchkiss, CO

Main Product: Fruits & Nuts

Scale: 100 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to direct markets, diversified fruit cultivars, added annuals and on farm processing, added frost protection and more water.

This Story is based on a 2013 interview.

As a fourth-generation fruit grower on the western slope of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, Steve Ela is proud to carry on a family tradition of innovative orcharding more than a century in the making. Ela Family Farms is a hundred acre farm with eighty-five acres planted in twenty-three varieties of apples and twenty-nine varieties of certified organic pears, peaches, cherries, plums, and tomatoes. Located near Hotchkiss, it is in the “frost-free” region known for having the best conditions for fruit production in Colorado: 300 days of sunshine, low humidity, ample high-quality water, warm days and cool nights and a relatively long frost-free period.

Steve and his parents work on the farm with the help of four employees year-round. They also employ up to eighteen people during the height of the growing season. Ela Family Farms produces about 1.5 million pounds of fruit each year, virtually all of it distributed in Colorado through direct markets as fresh fruit or value-added products such as applesauce, fruit butters, jams and cider. Farm products are sold through the Internet and a CSA, at farmers’ markets all along Colorado’s Front Range and to specialty food stores and gourmet restaurants throughout the state.

When Steve returned to take over the management of his family’s farm after completing college in 1990, he began thinking about diversifying into direct markets and transitioning to certified organic production to improve profitability and environmental quality. He also replaced the existing furrow irrigation system with more efficient sprinkler and drip irrigation, to reduce water use, and began transitioning to new varieties of fruit trees better suited to organic practices and direct markets. Steve can’t say for sure if the weather changes he has noticed are just normal variations or a sign of climate change. What he does know is that more variable weather and a lengthening growing season have required him to make some significant changes in production practices to maintain the productivity and profitability of Ela Family Farms.

“The farm is in what was once known as a relatively frost-free area,” Steve explains. “Historically, it has been in fruit trees since the 1920s, but in the last decade we have had some spring frost damage every year now. Five or six of our earliest bloom years have been in the last ten years.” He has also seen the fall season lengthen noticeably. “There are some varieties of apples, like Fuji, a late-season apple that ten years ago we weren’t sure we could grow here. Now we commonly pick them two weeks before the end of the season.”

Although the lengthening growing season has improved growing conditions for some apple varieties on the farm, production risks have increased, particularly in the last decade. “We’re experiencing earlier springs and more variable temperatures in the spring,” says Steve. “As an example, in 2013, on April fifteenth we were at 13 degrees. That is more typical of February or March temperatures. To get below 20 in April is crazy, and we had two nights below that. So it’s not just early blooming, but late, abnormally cold temperatures. April and May are the huge frost months for us. Peaches bloom mid-April, apples bloom toward the end of April. Any sub-freezing temperatures during that time are pretty destructive. Spring temperatures control whether or not we have a crop.”

Variable spring frosts also create a lot of uncertainty in orchard management, because fruit trees are managed to reduce the number of fruits and to evenly space the fruits on a tree to increase fruit size and quality. The final crop load — the number of fruit remaining on the tree to mature — determines the season’s yield potential. “Not knowing from year to year how much frost damage we are going to have means it’s much more difficult to manage crop load,” Steve explains. “If you’re in an area where you’re not going to have much frost, you can prune and thin in the fall with confidence, because there is a low risk of losing additional fruits to frost damage. Now, we never know from one year to the next how much winter and spring damage we are likely to get, so we have to leave a lot more fruit out there during pruning and early thinning. If it turns out we don’t have frost in the spring, then we’re behind the curve getting it thinned off in the spring. It’s this not knowing which way to jump that is really difficult.”

Steve has also noticed changes in summer and winter weather that have complicated management over the last decade. Warmer and wetter summers have increased disease management challenges. Over the last several years, the hottest time of year has shifted from early August to June, when temperatures regularly reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes day after day. Rainfall patterns also seem to be changing. It used to be common for no measurable rain to fall between the end of May through late August, but now consistent light rains in July and August are common. This rain is not enough to water the trees, but leaves them moist enough to increase the risk of disease damage. And winter low temperatures have become more extreme. Recently, Steve had to purchase propane burners and use his wind machines to try and buffer extreme cold temperatures. “Peaches are very sensitive to cold temperatures in the winter,” he says. “We bought our first wind machines in 1991, but I’ve never run them in the winter until the last two years. We have been below critical temperatures for peaches in the winter the last three years, at some point or several times.”

Steve has made other changes on the farm to reduce increased climate risk. He has added more wind machines, makes use of microclimates, and is considering adding protected growing space. Steve explains, “We had a couple of wind machines in ’91. They cost twenty to thirty thousand dollars a piece, so we didn’t buy them all at once. We probably put the last one in about eight years ago to finish covering the whole property. We have a hundred acres, so we have eleven of wind machines.” The farm is on a hill about three quarters of a mile long with a number of swales and other landscape features that influence temperature. “I say we live in a frost-free site, but on some cold nights we can have a four-degree difference across the farm,” explains Steve. “I have some ground out there that has historically been planted in trees, but I will not plant trees there now, because it is a cold pocket and the risk is too high. I’m looking at the warmer spots on the farm and that’s where I put my most sensitive crops.”

Steve is also careful to select frost-tolerant varieties, particularly of peaches. “Within peaches, some varieties are more susceptible than others. When evaluating which peach variety we’re going to use, keep or re-plant, I’m looking at that frost sensitivity. We’re certainly finding varieties that are more likely to come through a spring frost than less likely, even though that means we may have to do more thinning.” Steve is also considering adding frost protection structures to his cherry orchards, because of increasing risk of frost damage in the crop.

Asked about his confidence in the future, Steve notes that he is still in business in an area where fruit farms have declined by 75 percent over the last twenty years. He puts a lot of that down to his choice of direct markets. “We started changing that in 2000 because of bad economics and now we direct market 100 percent of our fruit. We’ve completely changed our business model in twelve years. Fortunately it’s worked, we’re still here. But we’ve made a conscious effort not to play in that international or even national commodity market. We have access to a little higher value market, where we have more control.”

The high returns possible with direct markets have buffered the increased production risks the farm has faced over the last decade. Steve notes that direct markets have also opened up new opportunities for him to diversify crops, because his customers are willing, even eager, to try something new. According to Steve, “With the direct marketing, we have a little more control on price, which means we don’t have to hit a home run every year to still be viable. I’ve looked at the marketing as a way to mitigate some of that crop production risk. Can we still make money if we have a half crop versus having to have a full crop every year?”

He goes on to explain some other benefits of selling his crop this way: “Direct marketing provides some additional risk management because it also means we can pick more varieties that maybe aren’t suitable for wholesale markets, but maybe have characteristics we can handle in direct markets — for example, a variety that’s frost hardy but doesn’t ship well. So we can pick and play with some of those varieties that we haven’t been able to before.” Steve believes that the uniform product requirements of industrial commodity markets increase risks in fruit production because growers are not free to select varieties best adapted to their particular farm conditions.

But there is a downside to direct marketing — it takes a lot of time and some additional skills and it keeps Steve out of the orchard. “I now spend 50 to 60 percent of my time marketing,” he explains, “whereas ten years ago 80 percent of my time was growing. I have become a worse grower because I have to spend my time marketing. As a farm, that has been a good trade-off. We are doing much better than we did before. But I would rather be a grower than a marketer. I’m a decent marketer, I don’t hate it, but I would still rather be a grower. Choosing this marketing avenue that takes a lot more of my time is in part about risk management, which is in part about weather.”

Like many growers in the Southwest, Steve has grave concerns about the future of his farm’s water supply, which is renewed each year by snowpack meltwaters. “Water management is always a concern for us because we’re dependent on irrigation. We’re going to look at the snowpack each year to determine how our water management might have to change. Every year it is different. Our average rainfall here is ten inches, and it does not necessarily fall in the summer when we need it. I’ve had people say to me that with climate change, it gets warmer, and you guys will be set. No, climate change is more variable, which doesn’t help us, and if it’s warmer, we have less snow. We’re absolutely dependent on irrigation water in the summer. And if that regularly becomes less, it will definitely put a crimp on what we can do.”

Steve has leased a neighboring farm purely as insurance against drought. “On this farm we’re on we have adequate water rights in average years,” Steve explains. “In dry years we’re short, so we lease a neighboring farm that is largely fallow right now, mostly for the water, just because it keeps me from getting more gray hair. It’s an insurance policy, that’s what it is. And if other water rights that we can access come up for sale, I’m going to be right in there trying to buy them. Water in the West has always been competitive. If it decreases, and especially if we continue to have population growth, there’s going to be greater and greater pressures on that water for domestic use. It’s going to get ugly.”

Because tree fruits are long-lived, Steve is hopeful, but concerned about the nature of the climate risks facing the farm. “We’re investing a lot of money into planting new trees. It costs somewhere around eight to twelve thousand dollars in the first year to plant a new acre of trees and it’s a ten- or twelve-year payback period if we do everything right. So any time you put more risk in that equation, it’s scary. It’s a dilemma. You can’t really quit planting out of fear, because if you don’t renovate, plant and keep moving forward, pretty soon you’re going to have a bunch of old trees, with nothing coming up beyond them to support the farm. It’s a catch-22 and that is unnerving, and that worries me. It’s certainly something I’ve thought about quite a bit. I feel confident that we have access to some of the best tools and information out there, but does that mean we’re going to successfully manage it? I’m not confident of that at all. Ultimately it’s going to come down to what is economic and what makes sense.”

Steve served as board president of the Organic Farming Research Foundation from 2004 to 2009 and regularly collaborates with University of Colorado researchers on organic fruit production research.

 

Lundberg Family Farms

Lundberg Family Farms

Lundberg Family Farms

Bryce Lundberg, Lundberg Family Farms. Credit: Paolo Vescia Photography

It just seems like we used to have a lot more regular storms that would come through. They weren’t five or six inches of rain or ten feet of snow type storms, they were just regular, consistent rain patterns. Now it seems like there isn’t such a thing. It’s either really wet, or really dry.

Bryce Lundberg

Lundberg Family Farms

Southwest Region | Richvale, CA

Main Product: Grains

Scale: 1500 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to shorter season cultivars, increase field equipment, purchase production insurance, carbon farm planning.

“‘Leave the land better than you found it,’ was one of those phrases we heard often when we were younger,” says Bryce Lundberg, a member of the third generation of his family to produce, process and market rice in the Sacramento Valley of California. Bryce and his brother Eric, together with their wives Jill and Heidi, have grown rice on about 1,500 acres since 1985. Today, they are one of about 40 local farms who produce rice for Lundberg Family Farms on about 20,000 acres near Richvale.

Lundberg Family Farms supports a network of growers using organic and eco-farming practices that cultivate soil health, enhance biological diversity and reduce or eliminate the need to use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.1 These practices include crop rotation, cover cropping, innovative water management and soil incorporation of crop residues. Lundberg Family Farms growers also use practices that benefit wildlife, for example, by salvaging the eggs of waterfowl nesting on their farms in spring2 and flooding their fields in winter to provide rich overwintering grounds for waterfowl.

These efforts to promote biodiversity extend to the diversity of rice varieties — 17 at last count — currently produced by Lundberg Family Farms growers. “Some are easier to grow than others,” Bryce explains. We like to have the farms take a mix of varieties to spread the risk around of the hard varieties and the easier varieties. Some varieties just want to jump right out of the water, and other ones you really have to watch them a lot closer to make sure they’re going to come out of the water.” In any given year, Bryce grows a mix of red and black rice, Arborio, Jasmine and Basmati and also a variety of sushi rice called Calhikari. Bryce follows his rice crops with a winter cover crop mix of oats, vetch and fava beans.

Want to read more? You can find the full version of this story in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture, available for purchase here.

Straus Family Creamery

Straus Family Creamery

Straus Family Creamery

Albert Straus, Straus Family Creamery. Credit: Straus Family Creamery

In 2020 and 2021, we have not had any significant rain at all. It’s been the driest year on record. It’s never happened before that we haven’t had any rain, and it looks like we’re going to continue to have extreme shortages into the future.

Albert Straus

Straus Family Creamery

Southwest Region | Petaluma, CA

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 500 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to intensive grazing, add processing/retail marketing, growers’ network, carbon farming.

Albert Straus returned to his family’s dairy farm in the late 1970s during a time of dramatic change in the dairy industry. Small family dairies were under increasing pressure to either get big or get out of the business. Returning home after earning a Bachelor’s degree in Dairy Science, Albert thought he could see a third option, one that put new best agricultural practices to work saving the family farm. In the early 1980s Albert and his father, Bill, implemented no-till seeding of crops to prevent soil erosion and reduce fuel consumption. They were already farming without herbicides or chemical fertilizers.

Despite these innovations, falling milk prices continued to threaten the economic viability of their dairy business and Albert wondered if the growing consumer interest in organic food offered a solution. He began to imagine a new kind of market for his milk, one that reflected the true costs of production, promoted responsible land stewardship and offered a viable, principled and sustainable business model for small dairy farms. Albert realized that going organic would allow him to fully embrace his deeply held belief in land stewardship, while also addressing the challenging economic realities of family farms in an era of intense industrialization.

Inspired by these ethical and economic considerations, Albert transitioned his farm to organic production in 1993 and founded the Straus Family Creamery in 1994. “How do you create a viable farming system?” Albert asks. “That’s the challenge we’ve tried to address with certified organic production and collaboration with the 12 family farms supplying our creamery. What I’ve tried to do is create a sustainable organic farming model that is good for the Earth, the soil, the animals and the people working on these farms, plus helps revitalize rural communities.”

Want to read more? You can find the full version of this story in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture, available for purchase here.

Full Belly Farm

Full Belly Farm

Full Belly Farm

Judith Redmond, Andrew Brait, Dru Rivers, and Paul Muller, Full Belly Farm, Guinda, California. Credit: Paolo Vescia.

A lot of our practices are focused on conserving water. How do we capture the water that does fall on the ground, so it doesn’t run off, so that it goes into the soil? How do we make the water that we have go further? Water is the critical piece here in California.

Paul Muller

Full Belly Farm

Southwest Region | Guinda, CA

Main Product: Vegetables, Flowers

Scale: 400 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Diversification, water conservation,  drought-resistant cover crops, farming seasonal edges, riparian restoration.

This story is based on a 2014 interview, with a 2022 update.

Full Belly Farm, in the Capay Valley of Northern California, is a 400-acre diversified organic farm raising more than eighty different crops, including vegetables, herbs, nuts, flowers, fruits, grains and livestock. The farm landscape is home to a diverse interweaving of perennial orchards, annual crops and pastures, plus hedgerows and riparian areas managed as habitat for beneficial insects, native pollinators and wildlife. First established by Paul Muller and Dru Rivers in 1984, Full Belly Farm has involved an active partnership since 1989 among four owners who live in three households on or close to the farm: Paul Muller, his wife Dru Rivers, Judith Redmond and Andrew Brait.

Full Belly Farm was designed to be ecologically diverse to foster sustainability on all levels, from healthy soil to content consumers, a stable, fairly compensated workforce, year-round cash flow and an engaging workplace that renews and inspires everyone working on the farm. The productivity of the diversified organic system is based on the use of cover crops and the integration of sheep and poultry to capture and cycle crop nutrients and water, maintain soil health and prevent losses from pests and disease. Virtually all of the production on the farm is irrigated, mostly with water from Cache Creek, which runs along one side of the property.

The farm sells to a diverse mix of direct and wholesale markets in the San Francisco Bay area that includes restaurants, grocers, farmers’ markets and a 1,500-member CSA . Full Belly also supports a number of outreach programs to help create awareness of the importance of farms to all communities.

According to Paul Mueller, three years of extreme drought coupled with dryer and warmer winters, longer and more variable spring and fall seasons and greater weather extremes have created both opportunity and challenge on Full Belly Farm. “The last couple of years we have had the driest January and February on record. That’s the time of year we normally get the moisture that goes deep in the ground, the moisture that serves as the reservoir for our crops that come in the spring. They get their roots down deep and draw on that water. The last couple of years, it just hasn’t been there.”

Declining water supplies have made growing the cover crops so crucial to building soil quality and providing nutrients for crops more challenging. Increased weather variability has made planning and conducting fieldwork more difficult by reducing the periods when work can be done without damaging soils and crops. Paul explains, “Normally we can’t prepare ground for planting in February, but it is so dry now that we can. The challenge is that you’ve got to get your groundwork done as early as possible and when the time is right. We used to get light rains in fall that moistened things up and made large windows to prepare ground, but now variability has narrowed windows and made them less predictable.”

The longer, more variable springs and falls have complicated crop management, but also created opportunities by increasing the length of time the farm can produce valuable spring and fall crops. “The way I look at it is, we are gambling more on the edges. Summer temperatures have been relatively stable, so we can hit our main summer season, but now our main season shifts a couple of weeks forward or backward but those summer crops — melons, tomatoes, beans, peppers — remain the same. If spring weather is unseasonably hot, our spring will end sooner than we thought. If our summer is unseasonably long, then tomatoes will go longer, but the fall crops won’t do quite so well because we did not get them planted early enough. And maybe in mid-winter, the January, February crop mix, if it’s unseasonably warm, we’ll harvest more crops in those months than we normally do. Our crop mix is not changing a lot, but we’re more conscious of how we plan for the edges.” Paul goes on to say that increased weather variability means the edges can have “bigger bounces” and more extreme swings, but that the farmers can push the edges, and sometimes they do really well.

Although water conservation has always been a management focus at Full Belly Farm, heavier rainfall, longer dry periods and continuing drought have encouraged even more thinking about sustainable water management. Paul says that the management team is considering changing up their crop mix to include more drought-tolerant cover crops and is exploring potential cover crops that do better on less water or produce more with the same amount of water than their current cover crops. They are also looking at ways to use cover crop mulches to conserve soil moisture and are weighing the costs and benefits of more water-efficient irrigation systems such as drip and microsprinklers; these involve significant initial investment and add management challenges because they require filtered water, which the farm does not need now.

The managers are also working on landscape-scale improvements in water management. The main water source, Cache Creek, drains a large watershed above the farm. The low fields near the creek are kept in winter cover crops to reduce soil loss in the event of a flood, which would be most likely to occur during heavy winter rains. The farm also actively manages riparian zones along the creek so that when it overflows its banks, flood waters will move over the lower parts of the farm without damaging production areas.

Looking to the future, Paul expressed a number of concerns about the lack of coordinated planning for agricultural adaptation to climate change in his region and elsewhere. He also believes that the recent spike in farmland prices in Northern California is related to climate change. “Investors and growers are moving into more water-secure areas if they can. Other growers are trying to secure water access in other ways. For example, many are investing in deeper wells, even though that reduces water available to other farmers. There is a collision of interests that farmers are starting to pay attention to.”

He suggests that Northern California could reap huge dividends from an investment in a coherent rangeland management strategy designed to improve the health of the regional water cycle.

According to Paul, the new FDA food safety rule conflicts with current water recycling programs and could further restrict water availability in his region. “A lot of the FDA food safety rules are predicated on the assumption of an abundant resource, a stable water supply and a stable climate.” Paul would like to see more programs with NRCS to look at climate threats and develop strategies to create a balance of ecological health and farm protection. “There was a study from Stanford a number of years ago that said that agriculture is being overlooked as a sector that, one, has the largest impact on land use in the country, but two, doesn’t have a coherent strategy as to how they address rising CO2 levels. So maybe under that corn in the Midwest, there could be clover growing, so that as that corn’s done, the clover’s there. And it’s sequestering carbon all fall, and into the spring it starts again. And maybe we invest in other equipment that will allow that to happen, rather than just using herbicides. Let’s take a serious look at polycultural systems and other multilayered systems that provide greater ecological services in terms of sequestering carbon and enhancing climate resilience, and let’s pay farmers for using those practices.”

In the years since this 2014 interview,  Full Belly’s focus on food and farming designed to promote the health of land, people and community has served the farm well through a series of unprecedented disturbances and shocks: continuing drought, wildfires and a global pandemic.   Judith Redmond stepped down from active management of the farm and Paul and Dru’s children, Amon and Jenna Muller, have joined the partnership team.  Paul has continued to explore soil management practices that sequester carbon and enhance climate resilience, most recently as a recipient of a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant to explore no-till management options for the farm. 

In a January 17, 2022 News from the Farm blog post on Full Belly Farm’s website, Paul shares some of the questions ahead in the new growing season. “This week on the farm,” Paul writes, “talk is turning to planning as we begin our annual cycle once again.  We will meet for collective crystal ball gazing and we will go over each crop for a thumbs-up or down, mapping a strategy for this year’s production. Plans are also being mulled over for cover crops, soil improvements, new biological fertility amendments and strategies to enhance our farm’s resilience. This week we try to hone quantities to plant, project market changes that include CSA numbers, and determine the balance between sales to wholesalers, restaurant and local stores and direct to customers.” 

“We must balance that prognostication,” Paul continues, “with the anticipation of crew size. We realize that our 80 or so core workers are all are a year older with changing capacities to be physically able to plant, tend, harvest and pack. There are new labor laws increasing minimum wage and rules changing overtime for farm workers that need to fit into both plans and budgets. These laws are just and past due, but they certainly complicate the budgeting for a farm where labor is near 40 % of our annual expenses. We always add workers returning here in the busier summer months, yet there are fewer farm workers to do the jobs of harvest and stewarding California’s fields, making competition for field workers a critical unknown.”

The farm’s co-owners have collected numerous awards over the years for their success in creating an exemplary model of sustainable agriculture. In 1999, Paul and Dru were named Outstanding Farmers of the Year by the University of California Small Farm Program. Full Belly Farm has been recognized for their leadership in sustainable and organic farming with a 2005 Steward of Sustainable Agriculture or “Sustie” award from the Ecological Farming Association, the 2006 USDA Patrick Madden Award , a Growing Green Award from the NRCD in 2009, and the Leopold Conservation Award in 2014.