Last week, I was preoccupied with water. As I flew into the Sacramento airport, I looked down with wonder at the vast array of interconnected canals and waterways outlining the edges of California fields. The flooding made the national news, but being in the middle of it, in the wake of a ten-year drought, was poignant.
Our hosts at the Center for Land-Based Learning said the flooding shouldn’t cause any issues, but to expect mud. These moments of extreme weather make our conservation and soil health choices visibly apparent, even from the road. Standing water on bare fields, fluffy black mud under almond trees … or green blankets of cover crops and pastures.
As part of the Land Ethic Mentorship program, we had the opportunity to take 25 beginning farmers to Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley of Northern California. The farm has been fully organic for over 40 years. Paul Muller, and his partners at the time, Dru Rivers, Andrew Brait, and Judith Redmond, won the 2014 California Leopold Conservation Award, in recognition of their excellent regenerative and conservation efforts. Now they farm over 400 acres of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, flowers, with a diverse range of livestock, including sheep, goats, chickens, and a few cows. The second generation of farmers is now integrated into the business, expanding the operation into value added products, agritourism, weddings, and catering. With over 80 full-time employees, the business is impressive in its size and complexity.
Paul, who serves as a mentor in the Land Ethic Mentorship program, showed us fields of cover crops, including the almond orchard that one of Paul and Dru’s sons, Amon Muller, manages. The fields were dense and green. Despite the rain, there was no standing water. Paul described himself as a sun farmer, and told the group of new farmers that, if they didn’t have something growing on the ground, they were losing energy and money. His cover crops were creating carbon in the soil, supporting the microbial life, and creating the soil sponge that allowed his fields to soak up and hold the intense rains that the region had just experienced.
We came back from our field tour and enjoyed a lunch prepared by Amon. After spending several years working in San Francisco restaurants, he and his wife returned to the farm and created space in the business by “minimizing waste” of the existing operation. They built a kitchen and an event space, and started creating value-added products and catering special event dinners on the farm. Amon made delicious pizzas for us, with sauce canned during tomato season and dough made from Full Belly flour, milled on site. The pizzas were dressed with fresh basil and a touch of orange zest that had been chopped up with capers.
Amon spent time answering a barrage of questions, and talked about how they shifted their model during the COVID shutdown. He explained that there is a certain scale that is desirable for them, and that they had chosen basic kitchen equipment that could serve multiple functions, allowing them to pivot production, based on available produce and the market. We sampled his tea cakes (citrus, for the current season) and Amon brought out pickles, kitchen-cured olives, and candied orange peel for us to sample. We toured his kitchen, and participants peppered him with questions about his dehydrator and profitability. Amon met the questions with grace and generosity.
After lunch, Paul took us to see the processing area, where they were going through dried flowers and preparing cut flowers for market. He talked about their financial decisions, and their efforts to minimize debt. In flush years, they expanded. In tight years, they didn’t buy new equipment. Tractors, coolers, and other implements were bought used and repaired or repurposed. For Full Belly Farm, the focus is on environmental and economic sustainability. For Paul, farming is not an individual endeavor. He emphasized the importance of the on-farm, neighbor, and consumer communities.
Around 3pm, we boarded the bus and headed back to Woodland, where we had planned an evening dinner and panel discussion with the Center for Land-Based Learning (there may have been napping on the way back). The dinner included wine donated by 2006 Leopold Conservation Award recipient, Lange Twins Winery. The Sand Point wine was especially appropriate, since a portion of the profits from this wine goes to support work of the Center for Land-Based Learning. Lynn Giacomini Stray, of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co (2013 California Leopold Conservation Award recipient) joined us for the panel discussion and also brought a generous assortment of Point Reyes cheeses, which made a delicious accompaniment to the Sand Point Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc
The dinner and discussion were part of the Center for Land-Based Learning monthly speaker series, and we invited a great panel of Sand County Foundation folks to share their wisdom.
Nita Vail, former CEO of California Rangeland Trust and current SCF Board Director, shared about her lifetime of experience ranching in California, and the importance of mentorship in her own development.
Tiffany Schillings of Sunset Ridge Vineyard in Oklahoma, who is a beginning farmer and Land Ethic Mentorship participant, spoke of the lessons learned working with NRCS to implement conservation practices on her own land.
Doug Berretta of Berretta Family Dairy (and the 2022 California Leopold Conservation Award recipient) talked about the struggles facing California farmers, and encouraged the audience of beginning farmers to get involved in their local government to keep well-intentioned policy reasonable and effective for farming and conservation efforts.
Lynn Giacomini Stray of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. focused on her family’s decision to diversify the dairy and develop a cheese business.
The evening was beautiful. We had amazing food and thoughtful community under a clear, perfect California spring sky. Thanks to the Center for Land-Based Learning for hosting us, as well as Full-Belly Farm and our outstanding panel of farmers and ranchers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nikki D'Adamo-Damery leads the Sand County Foundation's work with historically underserved farmers and ranchers, primarily through the Land Ethic Mentorship Program. Throughout her career, Nikki has worked to align practices with values, especially as they relate to governance, operations, engagement, and ecology. She helped to operationalize the first community land trust in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia, created a cross-sector network to address community food security in central Appalachia, operated a small grazing operation that included stocker cattle, heifers, sheep, and pastured poultry, and supported limited resource farmers in southern Alabama with Heifer International. She is based outside of Richmond, Virginia.