Ingredient:
Climate-Friendly Farming at Live Earth Farm

California Climate & Agriculture Network (CalCAN) recently completed a case study on our farm.  “You would be hard pressed to find a better model of biodiversity and climate resilience than Live Earth Farm,” was their conclusion. Click here for a PDF of the full profile

h-in lower fields feb 2015

What’s on your plate can make a difference

El Pajaro Dinner 1On Earth Day like on any other day most of us eat 1-3 meals. Eating a meal, this humble ritual, affects not only our own physical health and well-being but collectively, as a human community, it is arguably the most important activity affecting the health of our planet.

Most of us “Eaters” are so removed from the actual practice of growing and raising food that for the majority, food is nothing but a commodity– expecting it to be there when we want it, continuously produced on some unknown farm, by unknown farming practices, performed by unknown people.

Food for the most part is an abstract idea until we physically take it off the shelf or see it on a plate in front of us. This state of alienation has welcomed an industrialized food-system, focused on producing large quantities of food for the highest profit. It in turn has lowered the quality of the food we eat, diminished our quality of life, and degraded much of the natural environment that sustains us.

marketstandWhat nourishes our passion for farming is to share the results of our efforts as we pack them into CSA shares, offer them at the farmer’s markets or provide them to local stores and restaurants for people to enjoy. There is an inherent sense of gratitude and pleasure when it’s time to pull a mature carrot, red beet or potato out of the soil. The same is true when it comes to tasting a sweet strawberry, tomato, raspberry or apple picked fresh off a plant.

As a farmer I like all who enjoy the fruits of our efforts to know that growing plants for food, starting from seed, is a complex biological process governed by nature’s variable and often unpredictable conditions. To encourage a better understanding of farming, it has always been a guiding principle to open the farm to our community to experience and understand how and where their food is grown. It is why over the course of the season we offer many educational events and festivities to experience the seasonality of the crops.

I am ultimately hopeful that the way we choose to eat, building healthier relationships to both land and food, will make a meaningful difference in the well-being of our own lives and that of the planet.

 

New Beginnings without Winter Dormancy

We are delighted to welcome both returning and new members to celebrate our 20th anniversary of Community Supported Farming. As many returning members have noticed, we have taken the CSA in a new direction by introducing the entire membership to the more flexible and choice based program we offered on a limited basis last year. The decision to change was made because of the overwhelming positive feedback we received from participating members, and because it streamlines the management of the CSA as a whole. We are thrilled, and we hope you are as well, that the shared CSA commitment of eating and cooking with the farm’s seasonal bounty is now a lot more flexible and convenient.  (Click here for FAQs about our Shares)

Spring on the farm can be compared to the early phase of pregnancy: we are planting, planning and laying the groundwork for the healthy abundance to come. The freshly tilled soil smells rich and musky, and the first germinating seeds, transplants, and blooming orchards are brimming with the promise of bountiful flavors, smells and colors. I recognize the familiar Spring Season nervousness as I am asked to commit to nature’s irresistible embrace- to dance, once again, the seasonal cycle of fertility and nourishment.

With no rain during March, everything shifted into an accelerated schedule as the soil started drying out quickly. Field preparations, incorporating cover crops, planting, seeding, weeding, cultivating, irrigating all started much earlier. We finished apple pruning mid-March, just in time to get the farm ready for the Sheep-to-Shawl Spring kick-off celebration – which drew a record crowd of almost 400 people.

The farm has also sprung alive with lots of kids exploring the fields, orchards, and wildlife corridors. Besides the on-going programs with homeschool groups, “Food What” teens, and the longstanding Santa Cruz Montessori Wavecrest program, added school tours and overnight stays have kicked into high gear.

Earlier this week it felt like a temporary relief when the storm system a couple of days ago dropped almost 1 inch of much needed rain – a blessing for many of our early plantings of dry-farmed tomatoes, potatoes, summer squash, and green beans. While harvesting carrots in the pouring rain on Tuesday morning, I realized we really never had what one might consider a “normal” winter – one that is cold and wet for long enough to slow us down to rest. Now here we are at the beginning of the Main Season, ready for another journey together through Spring, Summer and Fall. Thank you all for joining us – here’s to another bountiful Season!

Every Seed Tells a Story

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” – Henry David Thoreau, The Dispersion of Seeds.

h-in lower fields feb 2015

Warm weather, last weekend’s replenishing rain, and days getting noticeably longer awaken the familiar urgency of Spring. Most of the seeds for the upcoming season’s crops have arrived, and we are once again busy sowing directly into field prepared beds as well as into seedling trays in the more protected greenhouse environment.

SeedtoDelivery3

Sowing seeds is an act of faith, and few things are more rewarding than experiencing the life cycle from seed to harvest. As a farmer I see them, of course, as the source of future plants and food, yet they each also contain a fascinating story of culture and history. Each seed encoded with its DNA tells a long, winding, and subtle story. It includes the history of how seeds have crossed human hands, how they have been cultivated, selected, and traded, often shaping the destiny of human civilization and cultures across the world.

For example, our popular dry-farmed Early Girl Tomatoes, sown in mid- January and growing well, trace their ancestry all the way back to wilder relatives in the highlands of Peru where Incas used them for cooking and religious ceremonies.  With the Spanish conquistadors tomato seeds got dispersed through the colonies all over the world, and the Early Girl Tomato was bred in France in the 1970’s. When they arrived in the United States they became an instant hit. For us, the Early Girls are the variety of choice since they are one of the very few varieties, if not the only one, that can be dry-farmed; meaning the plants grow on little or no added irrigated water, which gives them their unique, rich, sweet and tangy flavor.

Every vegetable and fruit you get in your CSA share has a story to tell. We all participate in shaping the story of these crops. They become part of our lives as we grow, cook, and eat them.  By choosing to eat with the seasons we tune into the story of food grown locally, the history of the land, and the living community we are a part of. It always amazes me to think that the food we enjoy is a gift that manifests through the living stories contained in each tiny seed we plant.

In the spirit of this “earth awakening” Spring weather I invite you to join us to celebrate Live Earth Farm’s still unfolding story now entering it’s 20th Growing Season. Throughout 2015 we will again host many fun-filled farm events and U-Pick days. The first one to kick-off our Spring Season is the Sheep to Shawl Fair on March 21 (Spring Equinox), so mark your calendars and I hope to see you here on the farm soon.

We are all in it together – From the Ground Up!

The soils that should be saturated from winter rains right now are drying out instead. I notice that the “itch” I get at the beginning of every season to prepare the soil and start planting seems too early. After rejuvenating rains in December, we haven’t seen any precipitation. January should be the wettest month of the year, and it looks like it’s going to be one of our driest. Similar to last year, this worrisome drought has forced us to keep irrigating.

The blue sky is beautiful, yet it means irrigating crops like the ones pictured here is an ongoing necessity.

Along with every other farmer in California, I am pondering how to plan, adjust and adapt to climate change and the continuing drought conditions. With the increasingly unpredictable weather, I look to our soil to help maintain a healthy and resilient farm organism.

soil in hand

I am convinced that soil and plants hold the key to rebalancing the high CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. Through photosynthesis plants absorb CO2, turn it into sugars which help them grow and, maybe even more importantly, feed the soil microbes, like bacteria and fungi, in and around the root-zone. These soil microorganisms serve to protect plants and help them access nutrients and minerals that roots by themselves can’t reach. The carbon that was in the air is suddenly transferred back and stored into the soil where it originally came from. There is a direct link between growing nutritious and flavorful fruits and vegetables and nurturing and growing a healthy soil.

The earthworms pictured here are part of a larger soil network that supports the crops growing in the fields.

We mimic natural soil building processes through techniques such as composting, rotating crops and using cover crops, mulching, adding soil amendments, and following careful tillage practices. These techniques allow us to grow and harvest food without depleting but instead returning carbon, fertility, and water holding capacity back to the soil. We still have much to learn yet increasingly we can point to regenerative farming practices that build and improve soil to heal the land and the atmosphere, and at the same time supply us with abundant and healthier food.

A couple of the farm’s compost piles that are almost ready to be spread over the fields.

You and me, we are all stakeholders. We all eat and sit at the same table to figure out this important challenge, maybe the most important – healing our current unsustainable relationship with nature. Our food decisions are meaningful ways to make a difference, whether joining a local farm’s CSA, shopping at the farmer’s market, making locally sourced menu choices at a restaurant, or simply cooking and sharing a meal at home, these are simple but interconnected food solutions that contribute to a healthier local and regional food web.

Winter Reflections

After a few weeks of relative quiet here on the farm we are excited to resume our weekly delivery of winter shares. My own rhythm has slowed considerably and mimics that of the farm. Plants move nutrients more slowly during winter, which results in often sweeter and more pronounced flavors. Carrots become crisper, and when temperatures dip into the 30’s brassicas, like kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and collard greens respond by converting starches into sugars, increasing their brix concentration (brix is a measure of solids and sugars in the plant’s sap). A higher brix level protects plants from freeze damage and sweetens their taste.

Pictured here is a field we are currently harvesting from – chard in front, red russian kale in the middle, and lacinato (dino) kale in the back.

While the earth is in its seasonal slumber I give myself permission to dream, reflect, meet people I normally don’t get to see during the growing season, and of course get a little more sleep. I ponder what the dance will be like for the upcoming main growing season. For sure we’ll have uncertainties and challenges to face, whether it’s unpredictable rainfall and temperature patterns, exotic insect pests like the new brassica loving Bagrada stinkbug, or an increasingly tenuous groundwater supply. While the world around us is filled with complexities and contradictions, farming is very grounding. The reality of farming with its ceaseless dynamic of change and uncertainty requires steadfast perseverance offering both hope and caution at the same time.

Winter is a time of cover crops and leafless (apple) trees.

Looking at the seed catalogs as we craft this year’s crop plan the farm is a beautiful canvas of possibilities, and that familiar eagerness to jump on new projects stirs inside of me. Soon the buds on the trees will start swelling, I already see the first flower buds forming on the strawberries, and the green house is starting to become active again. The dry weather allowed us to get some field planting done, and this week we started pruning the apple trees.  Before we know it’ll be spring and we’ll surrender once again to another seasonal call to tend to Mother Nature’s rewarding abundance.

Lettuce seedlings almost ready for transplanting.

These red russian kale seedlings are being “hardened off” outside the green house before they get planted in their field.

 

 

A Pause to be Thankful
barerootstrawberries

Bare root strawberries waiting to be planted.

We did it! Yesterday, almost all of the 80,000 bare root strawberry plants got planted by late afternoon, beating the arrival of this week’s anticipated rainstorms. All of us felt a sense of relief and well deserved accomplishment now that next season’s strawberry crop is safely planted.

After 20 years of farming, I still get nervous trying to time crop plantings in such a way as to achieve the best set of growing conditions while juggling the demands of so many other farm activities and priorities going on at the same time.   This is especially true right now as many preparations are underway with the seasonal transition and the weather becoming more unpredictable.

The challenge of growing food is to continuously improve one’s ability to listen to nature – respecting rather than exploiting the land we farm. We get all caught up in buying and selling things we consider our property, and thinking that ownership is progress and economic growth is the ultimate indicator of well being. In truth we don’t own any of it; we are just guests on this beautiful planet and the crops we grow are but a gift for us to enjoy. It would seem less stressful at times to view ourselves as the ones who belong to the land, instead of living under the false impression that the land belongs to us.

strawberryfieldNov2014

Newly planted strawberries for next Season’s harvest.

As we pause to celebrate Thanksgiving next week, I like to believe that the meals we prepare are more than just food but reflect the common thread that links us together as a community.

The Live Earth Farm team has worked tirelessly to care for and nurture this land, and I am filled with thankfulness for all who contributed to making this another successful season.

We are grateful for your commitment to this farm, and invite you to continue celebrating with us the journey of Live Earth Farm as we start our 20th Growing Season in 2015. Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Every Vote Counts – So does every Meal

Wednesday morning I was helping load the delivery truck and it made me happy to think of all our members who will receive their shares. Freshly harvested the day before, they will most likely be transformed into a healthy home cooked meal by the evening.

Most of you will agree that a weekly CSA share makes a small but not so insignificant difference in our daily lifestyle. To prepare and cook with the produce we receive takes time, it slows us down, and it creates a breather. In our family it’s a ritual to come together to prepare and share a meal at least once a day – usually dinner. Sharing food becomes the conduit for bridging time and space and renewing our bonds as a family. It’s a moment to catch up on what happened that day, an opportunity to complain, praise, reflect, laugh, and share the latest news about work, school, friends, and family.

It may seem like an insignificant and humble act how we decide to eat our meals and what we decide to eat, but I am convinced that collectively it plays an enormously important role. Most of us eat three meals a day and although we know food is grown on farms we don’t know what farms, what kind of farms, where the farms are, or what kind of skills and practices are involved in farming. Many in our society have grown so removed from the source of where food comes from that food is pretty much an abstract idea until it shows up on a grocery shelf or on the table. What motivates me as a farmer is to grow food that nurtures and reestablishes the intimacy of food and community. It is, I believe, a vital building block to a healthier and more peaceful world.

The election may be over and one might question how much an individual vote really matters in the current political spectacle, but outside of that spectacle I can’t help but be an optimist when I see so many people in the food and farming communities making a real difference in establishing a participatory nourishing food system for all.

A double rainbow at the Farm during Saturday’s rain storm.

 

Trick-or-Treat – Rain is on the Way!

The season’s first rainmaker is predicted to approach the Central Coast this Friday and Saturday. Although no more than 1 inch of rain is expected to fall, it is enough to give us some drought relief. After almost six months of harvesting every single day, we are tired and dream of slowing down a bit during the hopefully rainier months ahead.

Fuji Apples ready for harvest.

With the exception of a few more rows of Fuji apples needing to be picked, our apple harvest is done for the season. Soon all the apples going into our shares (mostly our sweet Fuji’s) will be taken out of cold storage. After this next rain the strawberries and tomatoes will also officially be done, plowed back into the soil with a winter cover crop planted in the fields to rest and recharge the soil. The only fruit still being harvested for awhile longer are the pineapple guavas and, starting in December, our Meyer lemons should fully yellow to be enjoyed in our shares.

Frosty Cauliflower Field

Since crops are turning their energy inward to form seeds or store their energy in roots or trunks, winter is a good time to sow slower growing root crops that store in the ground over several months. The winter shares are a wonderful opportunity to enjoy both the nutrient dense earthy flavors of many of the root crops we grow (parsnips, celeriac, carrots, beets, and turnips), as well as the unique crisp textures and sweet flavors brassicas develop when temperatures drop into the thirties during the frostier winter nights ahead.

When the rain finally starts falling I will walk the farm to breathe a sigh of relief, surrendering to the inevitability of the more sinister decay of the farm’s crop lifecycle. The rotting windfall apples and tomatoes on the ground, I recognize, are the secret of fertility and the regenerative power of our earthly existence. I wish you all a spooky and safe Halloween!!

Newbies on the Farm: a Bug, a Truck and a Cow!

Let’s start with the “bad bug” news. The prolonged heat wave we experienced last week may have extended the harvest of dry-farmed tomatoes, green beans and peppers for a few more weeks but on the flipside it also attracted a new exotic heat loving insect pest, a stink bug called Bagrada.

bagradapestThis African native has already spread to many parts of the world, and was first spotted in Southern California in 2008. With a preferential and voracious appetite for plants belonging to the mustard family (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts, chinese cabbage, arugula, bok choi, etc.) it has recently arrived in the Central Coast. Warm, dry weather provides the perfect conditions for it to quickly multiply and spread. Last week’s heat wave must have been the best opportunity for the Bagradas to pay us their first visit. We first spotted them on a broccoli plant in the Discovery Program garden, and yesterday we could also see them munching on our second and still young planting of brussel sprouts. Half of the field was already affected. Without natural enemies and no effective organic control methods yet identified, we are facing a challenging situation. Many farmers in warmer inland areas have reported serious damage, especially to young plants. Only colder and wetter weather, something we are all praying for this winter, is our best hope to slow down the Bagrada invasion.

bella2On a more positive note, last week we welcomed the arrival of Bella, our first Milking Cow. Bella is owned by a group of members, and lives in the pastures together with our ponies. I milk her twice a day, and she has been giving an abundance of delicious creamy milk. My wife Constance is right when she questions my sanity of adding another project to an already filled-out life. I always dreamt of having a milking cow, and now that I have reached middle age I don’t believe in driving a sports car or acting any younger than I should, so why not let unfulfilled dreams come true. Writing my part of the newsletter might be bit compromised, though. I like to write early in the morning, the same time Bella needs to be milked. I hope you all understand!!

LEFtrucksTalking of dreams – here is another that came true last week. The farm at long last has its own refrigerated delivery truck. It couldn’t have come at a better time. With farm deliveries happening almost every single day of the week, many going all the way to San Francisco, we now have both more flexibility in our schedules and, most importantly, our produce quality is less compromised. This truck, a 2015 Mitsubishi, is brand new. It gives us better gas mileage, has no harmful emissions (water vapor and Nitrogen), and replaces our older trucks which will retire to serve more local and on-farm hauling needs.

The new truck’s refrigerator unit can be run separately, allowing the shares to be stored in it overnight so there is more room in our cooler and the delivery team (Luis on the right, Victor on the left) can get on the road earlier since the truck doesn’t need to be loaded in the morning.