News From the Farm | October 26, 2020

Verdant beauties graced by tender pinks!  Maria Grazia Romeo  —  

Outside the wind is howling on this Sunday evening, tonight gusts are expected somewhere near 50 mph. The massive Eucalyptus tree that hovers over the north side of our house is always a concern during powerful winds. Its huge boughs are each themselves an enormous tree. We sleep on the far side of the house out of respectful caution.  As I write here at the kitchen table, under that enormous tree I am thinking that if you are reading this at home dear customer, then I probably made it through -as did the tree.

I heard that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago so that one could be now enjoying the shade- while the next best time to plant a tree is today.  The act of planting a tree is one of hope and love with a bit of activism. It is part of asserting your hand in design for the future- a shady spot that, while it is absorbing heat and carbon, is also cooling and making a great location to build a kitchen under (for example). This tree outside the window was planted near 1900 and was seen bending to the right and left- touching the ground as it was roiled by the 1906 earthquake. It has provided a great home for tree house dwellers- kids with an occasional dog or small goat, rope swings, Northern Harrier hawks, visiting great horned owls and other avian migrators. It has also provided shade for a kids area during nearly 30 Hoes Down harvest festivals.  Long ago planting a tree became an act of love and foresight that we enjoy nearly 120 years later.

Reshaping the thinking about farming here at Full Belly has been central to the partners and hands here over 40 years . Back as far as 1980 we became committed to Organic as a principle that precluded what was seen as commonly accepted science and technologies for growing crops. By ruling out the use of certain tools- herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, GMO’S or generally synthetically compounded materials, the emerging practices of good organic farming were built upon the principles of minimizing harm; asking new questions about strategies for dealing with problems; diversifying the ecology of the farm with new thinking about integrated design; accommodating more layers of life in each field; building healthy soil and making healthy plants; integrating animals into our rotations; creating more beauty with flowering plants and year round habitat for pollinators;  thinking and enhancing the biological life that we have a hand in managing; and being open and transparent about what we do through clearer partnerships with our customers.  

Organic farmers were sometimes criticized as romantic dreamers who chose to invalidate all of the technological progress that had marked modern science by merging biology with chemistry on farm. We were the new Luddites- denying technology and choosing to again metaphorically smash the machinery of modern food production.  The accusation of being a Luddite became a pejorative term for those of us who would condemn half the world to starvation by being against technology. Perhaps this charge requires due consideration or perhaps what we have been doing, in making a productive farm, is designing balance between our biological constraints and ecological potentials.  Or perhaps being a Luddite has been misunderstood historically as ‘technological progress’ has continued to stretch its muscle dismissing other ideas as threatening or backwards….

In a 2011 Smithsonian Article (which I found with a google search), Richard Conniff writes about the Luddites:

“The label now has many meanings, but when the group protested 200 years ago, technology wasn’t really the enemy.”

In an essay in 1984—at the dawn of the personal computer era—the novelist Thomas Pynchon wondered if it was “O.K. to be a Luddite,” meaning someone who opposes technological progress. A better question today is whether it’s even possible. Technology is everywhere, and a recent headline at an Internet humor site perfectly captured how difficult it is to resist: “Luddite invents machine to destroy technology quicker.”

     People of the time recognized all the astonishing new benefits the Industrial Revolution conferred, but they also worried, as Carlyle put it in 1829, that technology was causing a “mighty change” in their “modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.” 

     The original Luddites lived in an era of “reassuringly clear-cut targets- machines one could still destroy with a sledgehammer,” Loyola’s Jones writes in his 2006 book Against Technology, making them easy to romanticize. By contrast, our technology is as nebulous as “the cloud,” that Web-based limbo where our digital thoughts increasingly go to spend eternity. It’s as liquid as the chemical contaminants our infants suck down with their mothers’ milk and as ubiquitous as the genetically modified crops in our gas tanks and on our dinner plates. Technology is everywhere, knows all our thoughts and, in the words of the technology utopian Kevin Kelly, is even “a divine phenomenon that is a reflection of God.” Who are we to resist?

     The original Luddites would answer that we are human. Getting past the myth and seeing their protest more clearly is a reminder that it’s possible to live well with technology- but only if we continually question the ways it shapes our lives. It’s about small things, like now and then cutting the cord, shutting down the smartphone and going out for a walk. But it needs to be about big things, too, like standing up against technologies that put money or convenience above other human values. If we don’t want to become, as Carlyle warned, “mechanical in head and in heart,” it may help, every now and then, to ask which of our modern machines General and Eliza Ludd would choose to break. And which they would use to break them.”

I have always resisted the characterization of Organic Agriculture smashing the machinery of “Modern Farming,” and have always sought to convey immense respect for all who farm- no matter what technologies they choose. And in the 40 years of growing Full Belly, we have seen Science re-evaluate the tools of Farming and begin to appreciate the change in design that may be critical to tackle the increasingly sterile, productive and empty rural landscapes, and the deep existential problems of climate change. 

Conventional farmers are now engaged in new conversations about cover crops, water conservation with improved soil biology, soil health, new farmer support, integrated design for greater environmental benefits while production remains high. As Organic farmers, we have been looking to re-charge the potential vitality of rural areas with a different design- choosing technologies carefully, questioning appropriate tools and rebuilding healthy integrated rural landscapes. Change is slow, evolving, and at times threatening to those who cling to either a vision of a great past, or a feeling that their very set of moral principles are being challenged. 

This next weeks election is often characterized as an irreconcilable dichotomy- Rural/Urban; government as the problem/ government as our common construction; conservative/liberal, truth and openness/fake news- we can see how simple dichotomies divide and are exploited by those who seek power asking us to choose and dividing us into one camp or another.  

The tree of democracy planted years ago can be swayed by powerful forces and can come crashing down if the winds are fanned too strong and moral imperatives become too rigid. The roots thrive best when both sides are listened to and understanding/empathy/right relationships nourish the whole. We are proud to be your farm and hope that our efforts are a source of your connection to the earth and all that we share as the gifts of a generous land.  Plant your tree, chose carefully and enliven your activist self.  

— Paul Muller

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News From the Farm | April 13, 2020

Planting onions, social distance style  —

The many sad events of the last month include the sudden absence of restaurant and art venues in our communities, the massive unemployment, and the loss of the alternative weekly press in communities across the country.  That last is close to my heart as my sister and brother in law had to close their three weekly papers – incredible assets in Sacramento, Reno and Chico – when their advertising revenue disappeared overnight.

In the world of food, there have been disruptions up and down the supply chain.  Because half of the food grown in the US used to go to food service (restaurants, schools, cafeterias), many suppliers suddenly saw their markets evaporate and tremendous quantities of fresh produce and dairy have been wasted because the market channels couldn’t adapt quickly enough. There is plenty of food, but matching it to demand and getting it where it is needed is the priority.  Many of us note that this should have always been the priority — and has always been the weakness of our current global food system.  Food banks are facing massive need, and companies that provide on-line food purchases and delivery services are booming.  Schools are another part of the response, as many of them are providing emergency food, feeding thousands of children despite being closed.

Perhaps we cannot be completely sanguine about the supply of food.  Under pressure from state and local officials, several huge pork and chicken plants have closed recently because of illnesses among their employees. For example, Smithfield Foods closed a mammoth pork plant in Sioux Falls “until further notice.”  A plant owned by the Delaware chicken company Allen Harim has seen a 50% workforce decline and has reduced operations correspondingly.  In an interview with Fern’s Ag Insider, Craig Watts, a former contract poultry grower, said “Big is fragile.  We’re seeing it now.  When you have a problem, you have a big problem.”

Local Food activists have responded in multiple ways, with farmers markets reinventing themselves overnight.  In some states the farmers markets are going to on-line systems, customers are ordering in advance and produce is being placed in the trunks of cars as they drive by.  With the proactive response of farmers markets that Full Belly attends, it appears to us as if the markets might be a safer place to shop than grocery stores. The Community Alliance with Family Farmers has created a Farmers Assistance Fund to assist family farmers through the crisis. Flour, eggs and garden seeds are all in high demand, as families bake and garden at home. 

In March when Governor Newsom established the California Health Corps of retired health care workers and medical and nursing students he was planning ahead for when the coronavirus outbreak might peak in California.  Within days, sign-ups topped 70,000.  Reflecting on this, a friend of mine who is familiar with the shortage of labor on farms, commented that maybe we need a similar effort for farm labor.  During WWII in the US, women – many of them from urban areas – created Women’s Land Armies to provide labor on farms.  Declaring January 12, 1943 Farm Mobilization Day, President Roosevelt even delivered a nationwide address in which he underscored the important role to be played by American agriculture in winning the war.

At Full Belly we are grateful that we have been able to continue farming and filling CSA boxes, despite this being a time of year when produce is at its scarcest point in the farming cycle. We are grateful that we are part of a community that feels connected to the sources of its food. We are inspired by all the phone calls that we are getting as people struggle to figure out how to best support the food banks, local farms, and the elderly and vulnerable in each and every community.

Perhaps the massive fires and repeated electrical outages that have occurred over the last few years have given us warning that this is a time of upheaval. Because of the changing climate, all the lessons we can learn are likely to stand us in good stead in future. This moment may be an opportunity for building more resilient local networks and more lasting connections. We hope that you are enjoying cooking at home at the same time as we look forward to the day when the restaurants and art venues open back up!  

Blessings on your meals.

— Judith Redmond

One of our cover cropped fields (above) — the crimson clover thrives after mowing.

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News From the Farm | March 9, 2020

Beware the Ides of March?

For many years in a row I have been the “flower article” author, bringing to you news about Full Belly Farm’s flower growing and the upcoming flower subscription (starts April 1st everyone!). The weather is often a common topic, how it effects our flower growing, how it is unusually warm, or wet, or cold, or dry. 

It makes me chuckle to look back over the past 10 years of articles and read all the different weather reports that I have given during that time. To stay consistent on that road I will say that thus far in 2020 we have experienced the driest February ever recorded in California; but this February “was not just merely a below average month,” Dr. Swain, a climate scientist of UCLA said, “It was, in a lot of places in California, a completely dry month, which is truly extraordinary.” The Capay Valley, where our little farm is located, was indeed no exception and we ended February without a single drop of water falling from the winter sky. We started irrigating our flower (and vegetable) fields in the middle of February as the cold winds had dried out the soil and many of the plants were longing for a drink. We are very fortunate to have access to both well water and creek water for irrigation – many other farmers don’t share in that access and if things don’t change we may have a very difficult farming year in California.

Despite a warm and balmy January, a completely dry February and a beginning of March with little change, our flower fields are looking full to bursting. For those just joining our CSA, or reading the newsletter for the first time – our flower roots began as a small garden by my house over 30 years ago where we tried to bring some color and beauty to a new and unfolding farm. Some of the extra blooms were packaged up for the farmers markets in the wee hours of the morning and much to our joy were sold and enjoyed by our early customers.

Fast forward thirty years later and we see a farm that is dotted with flower fields everywhere. We are growing over 15 acres of flowers now and sell to stores, wholesalers and continue to bring them to the markets each week. One of our favorite outlets is to bring them directly to our CSA sites where people can order for a whole season or by the month. Each site is brightened up by buckets of pre-ordered blooms that change dramatically with the seasons – sunflowers, tulips, riotous mixed bouquets, cosmos, and chrysanthemums to name a few. In all we grow over 50 different varieties in an unparalleled color range from the beginning of February through the end of November. 

Full Belly Farm takes pride in the fact that our flowers are grown organically – having been certified organic since 1985. Our commitment to soil health and environmental stewardship is not just for our produce! Organic flowers are finding their importance in a market where more and more people are recognizing that local and sustainably grown is so important.

The month of March is such a hopeful month. It is a time of renewal and rebirth. Passover, Easter, Ramadan, Equinox.. all have roots in renewal.

With all of the troublesome news circulating around the globe let’s try and dispel the “Beware” the Ides of March idea for a moment. In fact, the Ides of March (or March 15th) in the Roman calendar once signified the New Year, which meant lots of celebrations and rejoicing. The notion of the Ides being a dangerous date was purely an invention of Shakespeare’s; each month has an Ides (often the 15th) and this date shouldn’t be associated with danger. I think we should all try and bring some joy and light into the world this Ides of March by giving flowers, or produce to our neighbors and friends.  It seems that everyone needs a little light and love in their lives right now. 

Let’s give it a try.

Dru Rivers – (born on the Ides of March!)

Please let us know if you would like to add flowers to your CSA box. Bouquets are $9 each (plus tax),  or $8.50 each if you pay for the whole 26 week season ($221 plus tax).

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News From the Farm | February 3, 2020

It is lambing season at Full Belly!  About 25 lambs have been born and we expect that there will be over 100 by the time we are done.  The weather has been beautiful and so far all has gone smoothly.  The photos show the pregnant moms and some of the lambs that were born in the last week. 

Understanding the mysterious powers of soil is a fascination shared by many farmers.  Activities in the soil are hidden away and under-appreciated.  Carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, for example go through transformations in the soil that are critical to plant and human nutrition. Organisms in the soil can extract nitrogen from the atmosphere, break down wastes and poisons, or sequester carbon thus mitigating climate change.  Soils with good structure and high organic matter can help to mitigate floods OR droughts, making healthy soil a high priority to all of us in California. The ways that soil organisms interact with plant roots to keep plants healthy is a process so choreographed and amazing that it is hard for scientists to unravel. 

Poor farming practices can degrade soils to the point that they no longer absorb water or hold together in a rain storm. The role that farming plays in caring for soils can be illustrated with a negative example — The Dust Bowl in the 1930’s resulted from a severe drought, the effects of which were magnified by poor land management.  The Soil Conservation Service was established in 1935, in part as a response to the soil health crisis.  But soil is still one of our least recognized resources, even though it is a pillar of the Earth’s capacity to support human life. 

Organic farmers often say that they strive to feed the soil more than to feed their crops.  The legal definition of organic agriculture reflects this in emphasizing promotion of “biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity.” (National Organic Program, 1995).  I am a member of California’s Science Advisory Panel which provides advice to the Department of Food and Agriculture’s environmental programs.  One of these, the Healthy Soils program, encourages the use of cover crops, composting, hedgerows, conservation tillage, and other soil-healthy practices. A critical component of the discussion hinges on climate change. Soils store more than half of the earth’s terrestrial carbon. Climate change threatens to increase soil temperatures which would accelerate the decomposition of soil organic matter, resulting in more CO2 in the atmosphere.  Conversely, many of us see the soil as a potential carbon sink, if only we can use science, on-the-ground experiment, and public programs to harness that potential.

This little ode to soil was instigated, in part by the debate raging in the organic community about the proliferation of “organic” hydroponic operations that grow plants in anything but soil, relying instead on a myriad of inputs for crop nutrition.  Simplifying the system is always the goal of those seeking profit and efficiency above all else, but calling hydroponic systems “organic” is a stretch.  

Here at Full Belly, we continue to host tours and research delving into the mysteries and complexities of soil.  We continue to grow cover crops on our land every year, trusting in the accumulation of stewardship to keep the soils healthy.  We continue to experiment with reduced tillage as a way to protect the soils and sequester carbon. We hope that the soils on our farm, managed for decades using organic practices, will serve communities living here for decades to come.

Thank you for entrusting us to care for your soils!  Many blessings on your meals.

—Judith Redmond

Above a new baby a little shy to wander too far from Mom.
Below Moms patiently awaiting their new arrivals.

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Taste of Capay

This event is the Annual Fundraiser for Capay Valley Vision. The event offers a cocktail hour, multi-course meal, silent and live auctions all while showcasing the beautiful Luna Lavendar Farm located in the Capay Valley. Guest chefs create delectable food using ingredients from local farms. Sunday November 3 from 2pm to 6pm at Luna Lavender Farms.  Purchase tickets here.

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News From the Farm | September 9, 2019

Produce cornucopia at Day in the Country  —  

Full Belly has been pretty busy lately.  First of all, we hope to put our best foot forward for the Hoes Down Harvest Festival on October 5th and with the summer focus on harvest and crop production, many corners of the farm have been overlooked and now need to be tidied up.  We hope that our CSA members are able to visit the farm for the Hoes Down since it is one of our favorite days of the year.  Note that your tickets have to be bought on-line in advance this year.  There will not be ticket sales at the gate.

This past weekend, on September 8th, many of us participated in the Day in the Country, an annual event of the Yolo Land Trust. Top chefs from all over the Sacramento region and the Bay Area, came together at River Garden Farms.  The chefs used donated produce from Yolo County to showcase the incredible diversity of products coming from this region.  The Yolo Land Trust works to conserve farming and ranching lands in Yolo County for future generations and the Day in the Country is their primary fundraiser.

Despite the many activities here on the farm, we still make time to pay attention to developments in agricultural policy and it seems important to keep our CSA members up-to-date.  A July comment by Under Secretary of Agriculture Greg Ibach caught our attention. He said that he was interested in considering gene editing as an appropriate technology for organic agriculture.  Since the comment was made at a House Agriculture Subcommittee meeting, it caught our attention.  It is unlikely that this was just a passing thought.

There are many reasons that gene editing and genetic engineering are not allowed in organic agriculture and we are’t going to go into all of that here. Gene editing, which is a little bit different that genetic engineering, has received a lot of favorable attention because scientists propose using it for things like editing mosquito genomes so that they can no longer carry the parasite that causes malaria, or creating dairy cattle that can resist a parasite that causes sleeping sickness in sub-Saharan Africa.  

The gene editing train already left the station in the non-organic food supply, when in November 2015, the FDA approved genetically altered salmon for food production.  This approval came despite concerns that the genetically altered salmon could damage wild salmon populations, and of course there was no requirement that the salmon be labeled as genetically manipulated. 

Perhaps the story of conventional plant breeding that has always focussed on high yield and cosmetic appeal provides a cautionary note. The unintended consequences of breeding for a few traits like yield or color has been the decline in the nutritional value of many of today’s fruits and vegetables. This was the result of an intensive conventional breeding effort over several decades.  Just think of the havoc that could result when breeders speed up the process.

Another cautionary tale comes from the Hornless Holstein cows.  When a U.S. startup devised a way to edit the genome of the cow to make sure that it didn’t grow horns, the resulting cows became celebrities. 

The company, Recombinetics, promoted the effort saying that the cows did not contain DNA from any non-cow species.  Gene editing techniques allowed them to breed quickly, resulting in a Hornless Holstein in two years instead of two decades.  They simply had to take out the unwanted genes, and put in the genes that humans want.  They said that the same result could have happened through “breeding in the farm yard” and they argued that FDA government oversight of the Hornless Holstein was unnecessary because no foreign genetic material had been introduced.  “There are no off-target effects.”

But then, in July 2019, FDA scientists accidentally found that the Hornless Holstein genetic sequence contained genes from the lab.  The lab material that was in the cow’s genome included genes that are resistant to antibiotics that are used to treat common cattle ailments.  It was clear that the genes came from bacteria commonly found in the lab and used for scientific purposes.  This unintended addition of DNA from a different species into the cow’s genome occurred during the gene editing process and was undetected by the company.  

Such unintended alterations speak to us of the hubris of human scientists and the lack of caution that has characterized the spread of genetically engineered organisms all over the planet.  After the discovery of antibiotic resistant DNA in the Hornless Holstein, FDA scientists reported that they think that gene-editing errors are under-reported and are a blind spot for proponents of the technology.

One concern is that the antibiotic resistance gene found in the Hornless Holstein could be taken up by any of the billions of bacteria present in a cow’s gut.   Superbugs —  antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA — are a major concern of infectious disease doctors, and overuse of antibiotics in agriculture is a contributing factor. 

Our recommendation to Undersecretary Ibach is to proceed with great caution when it comes to gene editing in the conventional food system and to simply stop trying to bring the technique into organic agriculture.  Scientists still have a lot to learn when it comes to editing the genomes of various species.  We wish that they weren’t using the food supply as their laboratory, and we say “HANDS OFF” when it comes to the National Organic Program.

—Judith Redmond

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News From the Farm | August 19, 2019

Here are a few photos snapped on a Saturday at Full Belly:

Leo bringing in the Jimmy Nardello peppers coming out of the field by the bin

Rye sorting Red Lasota potatoes

End of day Saturday, our cooler had 1,200 boxes of tomatoes ready to sort, pack and send home.  Having the tomatoes cooled down and ready to pack on Monday morning gives us a head start on the week.

Picking and packing fruits and vegetables was a big focus for many of us on Saturday, but an equally important effort took place in preparation for Fall.  Lettuce was transplanted by a crew of four, all day long (above).  Immediately after transplanting, the irrigation crew turned up to get the water going on the tender greens.  If you look closely (below) you can see that José is carrying and balancing 4 irrigation pipes at once as he walks down the narrow furrows.  He makes it look easy, but in fact it is quite a feat of strength and balance!

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News From the Farm | August 5, 2019

Our onion harvest is quite picturesque at this stage, with burlap bags full of onions lined up along the beds.  First we undercut the onions with a tractor blade, then we pick them up off the beds and fill up the bags.  We have about an acre of onions ready to be harvested, the question is, how to fit the onion harvest in between giving our attention to all of the more perishable crops that need our constant daily vigilance?

Even though it is the depth of summer around the Farm, next week it will be time to start planting our fall crops.  Soon we will even be transplanting fall vegetables into the soil that we have prepared. This feels like a leap of faith, since most of the crops we will be planting are cool weather lovers, but we know from experience when the timing is right.

Knowing that the harvest is at its height from June through October, we try to build out our capacity just so that we are ready to have all systems GO at this time of year, but even the best laid plans can go haywire at the most inopportune times.  That’s how it felt when in the middle of a deluge of logistical decision-making, long-working days and short-sleeping nights, we had 24-hours without any email. E-mail is one of the critical building blocks of our communication with customers and CSA members, so the need to change email providers in mid-stream rose to the top of the priority list for some of us pretty quickly. Thanks to the timely help of our IT team, the process, which could have really been a nightmare, went fairly smoothly, thank goodness!

Watermelons, basil, cucumbers, eggplants and tomatoes seem like the perfect complement to summer day.  We hope that all our friends are enjoying the summer bounty.  

Blessings on your meals.

—Judith Redmond

Sunset light on a summer day.

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