Full Belly Farm is back from our Winter break.
We wish everyone a Happy & Healthy New Year!
As you’ve hopefully heard, we’re fast approaching our annual winter break. We’ll be closed from December 13 through January 10 with just a skeleton crew making sure the plants and animals have what they need. During the break, we’ll be catching up on some much needed rest and we won’t be packing and delivering CSAs, making deliveries to stores and restaurants, or going to the farmers markets.
Until then we’ve got produce to harvest, transplants to get in the ground, and soil to prep. Some places on the farm have already started their break – our fields. After a summer being the home for tomatoes, melons, winter squash, eggplant, peppers, flowers, and more, they’ve earned their rest too. Some fields will be turned over to a winter crop right away but for those that we can rest, what’re our options?
Driving around Yolo County right now you see a lot of fields that recently had a crop and have been plowed, the rows have been shaped for next spring’s plantings, and they’ll be left as is until then. During the winter a few weeds will sprout, but they’ll largely stay as they look now, just exposed soil.
Fallowing is one option but it comes with significant risks and downsides and isn’t what we do. Instead we plant cover crops. They’re a key tool in the organic farmer toolbox and in many ways they’re one of our more important crops – so let’s explore what they are and why we plant them.
A cover crop is identified by its purpose not the plant type. A cover crop might be something that can be eaten but it’s grown to benefit the soil, not to yield a crop that will be harvested and sold.
If we don’t get paid for growing them, why do it? Cover crops can (1) slow or prevent soil erosion, (2) enhance water infiltration and water availability, (3) control weeds, pests, and diseases, (4) increase crop yields, (5) add nitrogen and other essential plant nutrients to the soil, (6) sequester carbon, (7) improve soil tilth and reduce compaction, and (8) create an ecosystem for beneficial insects and pollinators, and more. Over time, cover crops can increase crop yields and create better soil health. Soil is teaming with life that needs care and nourishment just like the plants do. While these crops don’t feed us, they do feed soil microbes and increase soil fertility. Cover crops are a long-term investment in health of the farm; often these benefits take a few years to reveal themselves. There’s a lot we do know about soil and the soil microbiome and the benefits of cover crops, but scientists are still uncovering more every year and the positive results have led the state of California to develop the Health Soils Program, which provides financial incentives to California growers and ranchers to implement conservation management practices, including cover cropping, that sequester carbon, reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases, and improve soil health.
If these benefits are so well known, then why don’t more farmers use them? A few key factors stand out. First, the cost – from the seed, potential irrigation, and the time and fuel used to plant and then eventually cut down and mow these crops. Then, the nutrients will not be immediately available to the plants, unlike synthetic fertilizers. Additionally, some plant species can act as a host for plant diseases and pests. And having to process the biomass from the cover crops can create scheduling and equipment challenges, especially in a wet year when the water-retaining skills of a cover crop can make a field too wet to work.
After weighing the tradeoffs, we think it’s worth it, as do many organic farmers, so we’ve got a decent chunk of our land planted in cover crops right now. What do we plant? We plant a cover crop mix, not just one plant. We use a mix of legumes (peas, vetch, fava beans, clovers), grasses or grains, and other plants like radish for the mix of benefits that they provide. Legumes will fix nitrogen, grasses add carbon, and large-rooted plants like radish break up the soil. We have cover crops going all seasons of the year, but we tend to do most in the winter since (in theory) rain will provide most of the irrigation.
So we’ve got a lot of fields that look like the picture on the left. By next spring, we hope it’s a tall, healthy cover crop (like the photo on the right). You’ll never see the cover crops in your box, but every bite of produce that you do enjoy is due in part to the cover crop that preceded it in the field.
A recently transplanted field of onions!
Every family has their own set of Thanksgiving traditions. One thing my family often does is go around the table and each of us reflect on something we’re thankful for. A natural pessimist, I appreciate the opportunity to look past all the things going wrong and instead focus on all that I have to be grateful for.
If you were to invite Full Belly Farm to your table this year, what would we say? On Friday, I checked in with some of the Full Belly Farm team to see what we’re feeling thankful for this year. There were a lot of similarities in our answers, lightly edited and condensed for you below:
And the thing everyone mentioned, from those of us that have been at the farm for 23 years or three weeks like me: that we are thankful not just to have a job in a time when so many don’t, but that we are specifically thankful to be working at Full Belly Farm. Why? Meaningful work feeding people, good leadership, good coworkers, doing tasks that we like, opportunities to learn and grow, and a collaborative, supportive environment where you feel cared for as a person.
Thanks to Andrew, Antonio, Bonafacio, Brenda, Francisco, Heather, Hector, Isabel, Jenna, Judith, Maria, Panchy, Paola, Shannon, and others for sharing. And thank you CSA members for your support of the farm! Wishing you all a healthy and happy Thanksgiving.
— Elaine Swiedler, CSA Manager
Every Tuesday – Berkeley Farmers
Market (2pm to 6:30pm)
Every Thursday – Marin Farmers
Market (8am to 1pm)
Every Saturday – Palo Alto Farmers
Market (8:30am to 12:00pm)
Becky and Elaine – Full Belly CSA Team —
The success of any project here at the Farm reflects the attention to detail and hard work of staff. When CSA members place orders and request changes in their schedule we do our best to respond. Every morning we let the harvest crews know what to harvest from the fields so that they can fill the CSA boxes for the next day. We keep the web site updated and keep track of all the add-on orders. We help members who are late to pick up their boxes or who have questions about pick-up logistics. We answer many questions from the public. We are making well over 1,700 boxes every week these days and we love it! It is our goal to provide the best possible service to our CSA members in hopes that they enjoy every aspect of the CSA experience.
Over the years, many of you have gotten to know our staff — Carol, Ben and Becky have been masterminding answers to your emails and phone calls. But with changes in everyone’s lives in 2020, staff have changed. Carol and Becky are spending more time with their families, and Ben is working on the harvest side of the farm. Becky is still in the office on Mondays, which provides an important sense of continuity and access to the deep knowledge about the CSA program that she has after 16 years of managing it. With the recent staffing changes, there has been a lot of temporary staff filling in between the cracks, but all the while we were hoping to find someone who would enjoy being our CSA Manager full time.
We have found that person in Elaine Swiedler. Elaine is passionate about seasonal, local food and flowers and loves sharing her excitement with others. Her family has been Full Belly Farm CSA members since 2006 and she credits her membership as giving her a profound connection to the local agricultural community and an appreciation for good produce. She has held positions with local farms, farmers markets and agriculture-focused non-profits. She has been involved with several other CSA programs and appreciates the relationship between CSA members and their farms and the mutual value and benefit that both get. She says, “Producing food can be a purely transactional relationship, but it is so much more meaningful when there is also a deeper connection and investment. That’s why I’ve so enjoyed being involved in CSAs and farmers markets where I can form relationships with customers and see the impact of my work.”
You will have the opportunity to get to know Elaine a little bit as the Manager of the Full Belly CSA — Welcome Elaine!
Citrus season is just around the corner!
What a great day today! By Maria Grazia
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
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.
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).
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.
Above a new baby a little shy to wander too far from Mom.
Below Moms patiently awaiting their new arrivals.