Magic bus ride yields sustainable farms of many scales
From a modest hillside of kiwifruit, to hundreds of acres of organic and IPM raspberries, a sprawling ranch where holistically managed grass-fed beef cattle are raised, to a 20-acre valley of intensively cultivated vegetables, each farm—and farmer—has a unique story.

By Dan Sullivan

Four Sisters Farm

Robin and Nancy Gammons moved in 1978 to what is now their small (5-acre) diversified organic farm in the hills of Aromas, California. While the first thing they did was to plant a small hillside kiwi orchard in what had previously been marginal pastureland, their first successful crop by far was children—four girls in five years—hence the name “Four Sisters Farm.”

The farm has been certified organic since 1987, at first simply because certification was an effective marketing tool, the Gammons say. But the couple has always farmed without pesticide, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers, their core beliefs about good stewardship running deeper than any rubber stamp. In these days of many players, they say, certification serves to keep everyone honest. “I used to be naïve enough to think everybody was going to do the right thing, and what I’ve come to realize is we need these organizations to make sure the right thing is done,” says Nancy Gammons, who also manages the Watsonville Farmer’s Market.

“I believe really strongly in farmer’s markets,” she says. “There has to be a venue for smaller growers. People get to meet the growers and they get fresh food. It’s probably the most positive cultural and spiritual experience I’ve had in farming.”

Besides Kiwis—which Robin helped introduce to the area—the Gammons also grow cut flowers, avocados, apples, herbs, and specialty vegetables. They sell their crops directly to Bay Area restaurants, health food stores, and, of course, farmer’s markets.

“When we first got to this place we knew nothing about farming,” Nancy Gammons says, describing borderline growing conditions such as a sparse layer of topsoil. “We now have about 28 inches of topsoil from working organic matter back in and adding compost and everything else. It just goes to show you that you can build topsoil. It just takes time.”

Nancy Gammons began her flower garden modestly, choosing just 150 of her favorite varieties. Over the years she has whittled that down to the 60 varieties that seem to do best in her climate under organic conditions. Because industry stem-length requirements don’t particularly jive with her cultivating practices, Gammons sells the majority of her flowers as mixed bouquets. If you ask her “Why organic flowers?”, Gammons will get up on her soapbox (as she did literally during the tour of her farm) and expound passionately—her gentle voice somehow bringing more bearing to her convictions— about the interconnected web of life and how it makes no sense at all to poison any of its members.

As for weed control, “we’re pretty tolerant here,” she says with a quick smile.

“Our philosophy has been to incorporate as many native plants as possible. We’ve allowed the native vegetation to stay. Our vision has been to leave it as much alone as we possibly can, and that’s probably why we don’t have a big pest problem here.

“We’re not the doers. We’re just kind of putting an idea in place and then everything just kind of comes in and does it with us and for us.”

While the Gammons’ children’s involvement in the farm has been mixed over the years—some remain plugged in; others have now moved on to pursue other passions—the couple first took the leap of bringing in outside help by taking on an apprentice. For the past 10 years, they’ve had two full-time seasonal workers. “We don’t like to say they work for us, they work with us and we’re a good team, says Nancy Gammons. “It’s a big jump economically but once you get going it gets easier.”

It’s been a long row to hoe (literally) raising four children on what they can manage to eek out of 5 acres, but the Gammons seem to have no regrets. “When we started this we knew we’d never get rich, but we have a good time and we love what we do,” says Nancy Gammons.

Home on the range

Joe Morris is not your ordinary cattle rancher, though in full cowboy regalia he cuts a dashing figure straight out of Bonanza. But once Morris opens his mouth and begins waxing philosophical about his holistic approach to raising grassfed beef on the San Juan Bautista ranch passed down from his grandfather, all stereotypes fly out the barn door.

“What really sustains any civilization is its food production system and the management of its soil and other natural resources,” Morris tells the farm tour crown gathered on this clear, crisp-but-comfortable California winter day.

Every management decision made on the Baumgartner Ranch—and other leased properties for a total 7,500 acres—has to answer the questions: What would be the economic, ecological, and social benefits of a specific course of action, Morris says.

Like the decision to encourage the growth of wild perennial grasses over more traditional annuals.

“Perennial grasses capture more solar energy, they capture more water, they allow that water to move off the land more slowly, they provide for excellent rangeland in the fall,” Morris says, just warming up. “Perennial grasses are a great indicator of biological diversity, they live a lot longer, they are more drought tolerant.”

Holistic Resource Management recognizes six tools, says Morris: technology, rest (or lack of any disturbance), grazing, animal impact, other living organisms, and fire.

“We do periodic and planned grazing so that the animals are where they need to be at the right time and for the right reasons that lead us toward our economic, ecological, and social goals.”

Standing near the border of the Baumgartner Ranch, where lush diversity abounds and stately (and locally threatened) valley oaks sweep the landscape, Morris points to an adjoining, more desolate property that’s been allowed to grow wild. “There’s a societal pressure toward human intervention,” he says. “People seem to think that if human beings would just get out of the way, the land will return to a lush, biological wholeness.” That’s clearly not the case here, and Morris makes that point.

The key to good management is to know when to use which tools, he says. For instance, grazing takes place in accordance with the needs of the perennial grass plants, typically when moisture and warmth are at their optimum to allow for a quick bounceback over a 30- to 60-day recovery period. “Overgrazing is due to defoliation of the plant a second time before it’s had a chance to recover its root system,” Morris explains, likening the stark reality of an overgrazed field to a withering tree or houseplant that has been pruned too vigorously over too short a period. “The message is that overgrazing is about over-utilization. It doesn’t have to do with the numbers but it has to do with time—the amount of time that [the cattle] are in there.”

Planned grazing has other practical benefits, he says, such as keeping annual grasses at bay, and the “herd effect” of cattle grazing in close quarters—and at the proper time—actually cultivating the earth with their hooves so that perennial grass seed finds a hospitable home for germination. “The perennial grasses will come in and will last well into July, long after the annual grasses would have survived,” Morris says.

“There’s tremendous energy in a herd. Most of the time, people are worried how to dissipate it. You have to know how to use these herds. The key is to manage them properly.”

Next: Hilo’s raspberry revolution, and Blue Heron bounty.

Besides marketing beef raised on a diet of organic grass supplemented with minerals, kelp and salt, Morris works as a land management consultant to other farmers and ranchers and for the state of California (which is also one of his landlords).

“Grassfed beef is not that profitable in and of itself, but when it goes where it’s going to go, grassfed beef is going to be very profitable indeed,” Morris says, alluding to a future when systems dependent on heavy fossil fuel inputs will be obsolete. “All of our production and processing should be geared toward sunlight energy,” he says, “and if we’re not where we need to be in the next 30 years, we’re going to wish we were.”

To the inevitable question about mad cow disease, Morris offered this assessment: “It’s symptomatic of an industrial system that is detached from the health of communities.”