From the trenches of Eco Farm Conference 2015
Long-time member suziegruber has graciously offered to provide a live blog and daily accounting of her experience and the knowledge she gleans from the many great presentations and workshops being offered at this year's EcoFarm Conference.
We will be providing period updates to this discussion feed throughout the conference proceedings.
First, a little background on the conference. The EcoFarm Conference is celebrating its 35th year as a place that furthers the conversation on all issues related to organic and sustainable. This year there will be over 70 workshops attended by crop producers, policy makers, ag non-profits, retailers, educators and researchers. Opportunities abound for stimulating conversation.
Saturday – 1/24/15
Farmland Conservation & Land Access in California
- Misti Arias – Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation & Open Space District
- John Guardino – Le Reve Farm, Sebastopol
- Jaclyn Moyer, South Fork Farm, Placerville
Acquiring land is generally the largest barrier to entry for a beginning farmer. This talk highlighted Sonoma County’s efforts to preserve agriculture land through a county agency focused on land preservation of all kinds. A component of the agency’s work enables farmers in Sonoma County to acquire land at less than fair market value while also preserving its agricultural use. The issue of agricultural land preservation will be a hot topic in Sonoma County in the next several years because several urban growth boundary designations are up for renewal or expiration. This talk displayed the advantages and challenges of farmers acquiring and working land through conservation easement.
Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation is a county agency funded by 0.25 sales tax approved by Sonoma County voters in 1990 and renewed again in 2006 by 76% of voters so that the tax is in place until at least 2031. believes the voters approved agency creation and re-approval because Sonoma County residents value agricultural land preservation in particular. Over 40 different farms and ranches are protected, ranging from 8 acres to 7800 acres. They use conservation easements as a way to purchase development rights which restrict the amount and type of development that may occur on a piece of property. These easements are typically worth 30-70% of fair market value of a given piece of property, dependent on location, number of dwellings etc. The county agency purchases the easement from the property owner and the farmer purchases the property, making up the remaining value Sometimes farmer/rancher will pursue a conservation easement in order to receive funds to make improvements or to buy adjacent land in order to expand their property and viability. This is most common for ranchers. A farmer/rancher whose property is protected by a conservation easement must present a farm plan, showing how they intend to conduct agriculture on the property over the long term. Misti’s agency owns a few properties outright that they lease back to farmers, a less-preferred scenario because the county does not want to be in the property management business. There is a strong affordable housing component to these deals because they restrict the size of the house that can be built on the properties. If a property owner were to build a 5000 or 10,000 square foot house, even while maintaining an agricultural use overall, the improvement increases the property value likely making it harder for another farmer to buy the property in the future. Misti’s agency selects property based on its conservation value, development threat, i.e. is the property on an urban boundary or attractive to developers.
John runs La Reve Farm, an 8 acre farm in Sebastopol that produces apples and cane berries (raspberries, blackberries, currants, boysenberries). He worked with Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation to buy the land he now owns. He recommends that aspiring farmers talk to older established farmers to see what their succession plans are and if they might be planning to sell. He found real estate agents were not all that helpful because they want quick, profitable deals. La Reve was the first affirmative conservation easement in the history of Sonoma County, modeled after processes in Vermont and Massachusetts. It protects prime small farm property by creating an easement affirming agricultural use rather than restricting uses. The big question is how restrictive does the easement need to be to make the property value low enough for the farmer to afford. John’s easement accounted for 60% of the property value. There is protected marshland on the property which made the property more attractive to Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation because there are multiple reasons to protect the land . John emphasizes that any easement needs to permit the farmer and his family to have secondary income and trade as they get their business going. If John were to lease the land to another farmer, the conservation easement would pass to the lessee. John really wants to help other aspiring farmers by sharing advice about navigating this often complex process.
She and her partner lease 10 acres of land from a land trust and they operate South Fork Farm. The parcel is 280 acres in total and has additional preservation value because the property is the site of the first Japanese colony in the US. They found the land on Farm Link. Jaclyn highlighted many of the challenges that leased land affords. One of the biggest challenges is that many of the properties lack roads, utilities and water. The owners of her land spent $40,000 in improvements. Jaclyn and her partner also did a large number of improvements, building a retail space and a wood fired bakery. One of the big problems with this easement is that there’s no flexibility in the housing component.
Jaclyn has really been challenged to protect her business autonomy separate from the land trust. She had to spend her first year demystifying the beliefs in her local agriculture community that she was somehow getting the land for free from the conservancy, free labor etc in a conservative old time ag community. There is also the challenge of having 10 people on a board of directors as their landlord. Every time they want to change something they have to submit a proposal. There is also no opportunity to build equity in their business. She was even challenged to name the farm after the Japanese colony, a challenge she overcame. Although they have invested heavily in this property, hey are looking at other options. They have a five year lease and the conservancy is obligated to renew the lease as long as certain basic conditions are met related to agricultural use. Overall, Jaclyn would prefer to own (capital is a barrier) or lease from an individual in order to simplify her business operation.
Friday – 1/23/15
Pastured Poultry Conversation
On Friday morning about 30 people came together to discuss various aspects of raising pastured poultry. I went to this talk because it is very likely that sometime in 2015 the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will make it easier for county poultry farmers to raise a large number of birds (10,000 per year is the current target) and sell direct to the customer. This means sales at farmers markets and farm stands, not restaurants and stores which requires USDA involvement.
Knowing nothing about this, I learned quite a lot. One of the people who came had started a small egg business as a hobby for his daughters. His daughters are now in college and the business now sells pastured eggs to Whole Foods and other large outlets. They went from washing the eggs in their kitchen (300 per day) to using an egg washer (thousands per day). My favorite tip from this talk: when you harvest an egg and put it in an egg carton, the egg will last longer if you store it pointed side down. News to me.
Housing – Several people recommended using an old RV as a frame to build a moveable chicken house. They tear out the fixtures, furnishings and floor in order to turn it into a coop. While some folks advocated use of water nipples to provide water, others said adamantly that these devices are commonly used in confined poultry houses as entertainment for bored chickens. Additionally, because of the low flow and tendency to clog, water nipples cause kidney problems when chickens don’t get enough water. They recommended using a tub with a float on it. Coops are moved a couple of times a week.
Feed – Organic feed is $650-$700/ton from Grange Co-op in Oregon or Modesto Milling in the central valley of California. Only use oyster shell calcium when chicken egg shells are thin. Calcium is hard on the chicken’s liver. They will get gout. Supplement with kombucha to supplement amino acid needs and benefit digestion. Use food grade diatomaceous earth to combat mites. Mill worms also help. Flax isn’t good for chickens. Egg yolks get more and more pale as you supplement with brewery grains.
Breeds – One person really advocated for ducks instead of chickens because they are quieter than chickens and there is no issue with airborne predators harvesting them. She particularly likes Muscovy ducks. Regardless of breed, consensus was to keep laying chickens 1.5 to 2 years and then offer them up on Craig’s List. One person just let the predators get his older birds.
Predator protection – There was an in depth conversation about using dogs to protect the chickens. Many people emphasized the need to get a specific breed and specific dog trained for this purpose because the dog learns to attack anything that threatens the chickens. Consensus was that the Great Pyrenees from a breeder specifically breeding for this purpose is the best option. Some folks let their cattle and goats graze with the chickens.
Climate Change & Agriculture: Good News Stories
Paul Muller – Fully Belly Farm – $5million certified organic farm founded in 1983, 80 full time employees
Marc Los Huertos – Soil researcher, Pomona College
Renata Brillinger, CA Climate Change & Agriculture Network
What’s at Stake
First, Renata named climate-related changes observed on CA farms. Water scarcity, reduced chill hours, new pests & diseases emerging, changes in soil organisms, erratic & extreme weather events (predicted to become more unpredictable), heat stress. For example, cherries likely to leave CA Central Valley because they are no longer getting enough hours below the temperature they need to produce.
UC Davis predicts that the California drought will cause 17,000 job losses in the Central Valley
The speakers addressed three areas related to changes in climate.
Coping with drought
Paul – On Fully Belly Farm water use is being examined at every stage: application, soil moisture conservation. Groundwater stability in Central Valley is hugely at risk. Conventional farmers are dealing with drought by making the soil bare. Soil with more carbon can hold more water so organic farming is leading the way to teach conventional farmers how to manage water more effectively. Carbon sequestration and cover crops are key. Cover crops that grow and die in place so they don’t have to be removed. Reduce the amount of evaporation and increase the amount of water cycling in place to prevent moisture dissipation. Paul uses summer and winter covers. We must completely rethink agronomic practices related to soil in order to revolutionize water conservation. Original practices were based on abundance of water. New terms: “blue water” – water we know is available because we can see it, e.g. rivers, snow melt; “green water” – cycle of water within respiration of plants. Minute cycle that becomes important in maximizing water efficiency on the farm. We must acknowledge and work with “cycle of health.” Most soils have 30% – 70% deficit in carbon, minerals and organisms as compared to before soil was farmed. Diversity of organic farming system creates flexibility to make minute changes in response to in the moment climate events. Rodale is beginning to show scientific data that more carbon is better.
Marc – Universities are 10-15 years behind farms in addressing these issues. Seawater intrusion is a huge issue along CA central coast because ground water level is lower than sea water. Farmers are tracking water use on a block by block basis using new tech. Managed aquifer recharge site using ponds connected to the groundwater that is capable of storing the water. Important to do it in places where seawater infiltrates. We know the least about actual locations of groundwater recharge in a given aquifer. The key is good relationship between growers and the Resource Conservation Districts.
Reducing carbon footprint of farms
Marc – Nitrous Oxide
Tough to understand how nitrous oxide is emitted from soils. Difference between night and day (higher). Tillage, mowing, cover cropping, herbicide use increase nitrous oxide emissions. Event driven. Emitted under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions. Use soil modeling that combines ecological drivers and soil variables. Organic systems have lower nitrous oxide emissions per area and not per yield. Lower nitrogen inputs lead to lower nitrous oxide emissions. More soil organic matter leads to more nitrous oxide emissions. Cover crops can be either a sink or a source of GHGs. When you add nitrogen in a no-till system, there is less nitrous oxide emission. Recent study identified higher nitrous oxide removal with higher microbial activity in the soil. High soil bacterial diversity is good. All results are preliminary and unoptimized.
Paul offered two very relevant quotes:
Wendell Berry – We don’t know what we are doing because we don’t know what we are undoing.
Buckminster Fuller – You never change the existing reality by fighting it; you change it by making it obsolete.
At Fully Belly Farm they are trying to capture the greatest amount of sun they can. Close every carbon loop you can, e.g. How can they use prunings to cycle nitrogen back into the ground rather than burning them. Move the carbon deeper than a foot into the soil to stabilize the sequestration. He believes the response must be collaborative among all directly addressing these issues across generations.
Farmland protection as a climate protection strategy
Study showed urban areas produce 70 times more carbon emissions than farm land. This led to CA creation of Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program (SALCP) . Allocated $5mm this budget year for permanent easements and ag management incentives.
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Thanks Susie – great appreciate these notes from the eco-farm conference!
Great stuff, thanks for taking the time to share.
I appreciate your time & effort in your notes. Thanks, Joanne