Bus ride yields cornucopia of
innovative farming ideas in action
The manager of a large-scale raspberry farm proves that nature knows best, converting a third of the 500-acre operation he oversees to organic while scaling back chemical use on the rest; and the manager of a 20-acre biodynamic farm tells how he keeps a crew in business, and customers in produce nearly year-round, all while giving back to the land.

By Dan Sullivan

Hilo’s raspberry revolution

Virgilio (Hilo) Yepez runs the 500-acre Dutra Farms in Watsonville, Calif., where he and a crew of up to 430 grow and process conventional and organic raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, mostly for export to Japan and Hong Kong. Both as a Hispanic who has risen the ranks from illegal immigrant field worker to U.S. citizen and farm manager, and as a recognized leader in organic and IPM berry production, softspoken Hilo stands out as something of an anomaly.

Through more than 20 years of observation, trial, and error, Hilo has managed to wean his entire operation—even the conventional side—off most chemicals. When you rely on these chemicals, Hilo says, your dependence on them increases exponentially with the size of your operation.

“I’ve been learning ways to grow my berries more natural,” Hilo tells the crowd gathered for its third stop on the Eco-Farm bus tour 2004. “They are good berries, healthy and strong and with good taste.”

Working for a large producer (Dutra Farms grows for Well-Pick), it hasn’t always been easy to convince the higher-ups that chemical dependency is not always the smartest road, Hilo says. His own consistent results finally did just that, though, and for nearly a decade now he’s been on his own to make his own decisions.

“A lot of people involved in this business think that chemicals guarantee your berry,” says Hilo. “That’s not true and I proved it several times.”

"A lot of people involved in this business think that chemicals guarantee your berry,” says Hilo. “That’s not true and I proved it several times."

For about five years now, Hilo has been increasing his organic production, which today accounts for about 30 percent of Dutra Farms’ overall operation. And as he’s learned from this successful organic model, he’s been able to cut back on the use of chemicals in his conventional fields by a whopping 80 percent. Cover crops hold a major key to his successes in both facets of the business.

Hilo and his crew grow two raspberry crops in an 18-month cycle, then, for the next 18 months, the field is turned over to a soil-building leguminous cover crop mixture. A cover crop row is also grown between each row of raspberries under production.

“I remember when I used to use fertilizer because the plants didn’t give good fruit sometimes,” Hilo recalls. But these results were mixed, he says, and sometimes the fruit was junk. “I don’t have that problem now. Mother Nature is not so bad. Now I know.”

And Hilo knows plenty. He knows that his mixture of oats, vetch, peas, and sorghum-Sudan grass works to deliver organic matter, recycle nitrogen, and smother weeds. He knows that the cover crop rows staggered between his raspberries encourage water delivered from a single drip line to track to the expansive root system of each fruit-bearing plant. He knows the cover crops help shade the ground and conserve this water. And he’s also observed that these cover crops create a microclimate that causes his raspberries to set fruit early, a tool he now uses to stagger his harvest.

The cover crops planted between raspberry rows will be turned under—with a special disking tool invented by the farm crew specifically for this purpose (see Tool Time)—once they’ve grown to 5 to 7 feet and “before they start shading the berries,” Hilo explains. The disked cover crops then become walkways between the berry bushes.

You can either work with nature’s cycles or against them, Hilo says, explaining the senseless cycle that farming with chemicals puts into place. “If you use one then you’ve got to use another one for something else that’s a consequence of the first one you used.”

Another of Hilo’s innovations is growing blackberries in hillside hoop houses in order to get early fruit that brings a premium price. He’s also experimenting with native hedgerows in order, in part, to encourage more beneficial insects.

And just what do Hilo’s neighbors think about these left-turns from conventional agriculture? The smarter ones are beginning to imitate him.

Blue Heron Bounty

“We’re very, very intensive, and the soils are very forgiving to the type of work we put them through,” says Tim Voss, a partner in Blue Heron Farm, where 20 leased acres in Corralitos, Calif. are home to a biodynamic operation cranking out 30 types of vegetables—including nine varieties of lettuce—nearly year-round.

Voss, a doctoral candidate with a background as an antinuclear activist who has endured his share of protest marches and civil disobedience, said he turned to organic farming because “instead of working against something, I wanted to be part of a positive alternative.”

“I came into this filled with a lot of high-minded ideals…and have become more and more cynical every year since then,” he offers with a wry smile.

“We’ve specialized in the greens market, with a couple of exceptions,” Voss explains as the sun sets on this last stop on the Eco-Farm tour. “We’re growing more in the winter lately, to keep ourselves in the marketplace and also to keep people employed.

“I think of it as a big market garden or a small truck farm. And it’s so highly diverse, with small patches of many things.” A few beds of each crop are planted out weekly, Voss says, so customers know that their fresh favorites—whether they are basil, broccoli, lettuce, or carrots—will always be available.

Inherent in that patchwork scheme, Voss says, is a blended agroecological and economic plan. “It’s about ecological considerations balanced with economic realities,” he says.

The soil never remains fallow, supporting either a market or cover crop year-round. And a constant rotation is taking place so that beds are never planted with the same crop consecutively. “It turns out to be a very effective strategy in pest and disease control and also building soil fertility,” Voss says.

"All farming is actually skilled work,” Voss insists. “There’s this sort of preconceived label among the American middle class that it’s unskilled labor, and it’s not true.

“Actually, it’s an endurance sport.”

“The quality of our product begins with our soil management practices, our rotations, and our cover cropping.”

Blue Heron Farm’s recipe for success also includes a compost made from turkey and cow manure and grasses from nearby farms inoculated with biodynamic preparations, or as Voss explains, “micro-organisms which help digest the material and bring it to ripeness for spreading,” applied at a rate of about 7 tons an acre.

Cover crops are disked into the soil after being chopped down with a flail mower and before the compost is spread. “Then we follow with a spading machine, which mimics double-digging,” Voss says. “This leaves us with a very nice matrix for either seedbeds or transplants.”

Starting most plants in the greenhouse and then transplanting them when the ground is ready gives the young seedlings a jump on weeds and also helps maximize production space, Voss explains. Some vegetable varieties—such as carrots, beets, cilantro, and basil—are direct seeded with Planet Jr. Seeders. Aside from harvesting, Voss says, the most labor-intensive aspect of running the farm is weeding.

Cut flowers are also a big seller for Blue Heron Farm (and, of course, they bring in the pollinators). A drip system works best here, Voss says, because delivering water to the base of the flowers rather that the leaves helps cut back on water-borne diseases.

About 50 percent of what is produced at Blue Heron Farm is direct marketed to customers through farmers markets (6 to 8 a week) and the rest is shipped north, mostly to the San Francisco produce district. “Because we’ve been around for a long time and have established a reputation for very high quality, we’re usually able to sell what we grow if it’s in surplus at the farmer’s markets,” Voss says. “We don’t let anything leave the farm unless it’s A-1 quality.”

The first cut happens in the field, where a professional picking crew from Jalisco, Mexico knows from 10 years of experience just what the Blue Heron standards are. “The standards come sort of second nature to all of us that work here together,” Voss says, adding that keys to maintaining a good farm crew are providing a livable wage, building relationships, and rotating tasks to dissuade monotony.

“All farming is actually skilled work,” Voss insists. “There’s this sort of preconceived label among the American middle class that it’s unskilled labor, and it’s not true.

“Actually, it’s an endurance sport.”

While farmers market customers tend to be a little more tolerant of some variability in appearance, Voss says, by and large most customers want produce that’s attractive and displays some uniformity. “Earlier [organic farmers] didn’t pay attention to that and so got the reputation for being funky.”

“We’re really detail-oriented, and we take a holistic approach. We look at the farm as an organism that you’re trying to keep healthy. It gets boring and repetitive year after year, but there are still new ways we can refine what we do and make it better.

“The first principal of organic farming is that you take care of the soil and not mine the soil,” Voss says, alluding so some of the details behind the farm’s perfectly balanced biodynamic compost, such as hitting upon the right carbon to nitrogen ratio to maintain just enough heat and even the right smell. “[Alan] Chadwick said the nose was the gardener’s most important tool,” Voss offers.

While some folks still consider many biodynamic practices “namby-pamby and airy-fairy,” Voss says, “it’s also kind of a philosophical approach in terms of the farm as a living being and you’re part of that, always on the side of non-harming and avoiding abuse and really trying to build up the land and not taking more than you give back.”

Standing in the middle of this patchwork quilt that is Blue Heron Farm as afternoon gives way to evening on this balmy January day, it’s easy to know exactly what Voss is talking about.