Wednesday, March 31, 2021

 Growing A Small Farm In Norco, California

The Windy River Farm Experience March 31, 2021

So, as many of you know, I have been advocating for the creation of small farm community, a movement if you will, here in Norco, California. I have been running a training program and small farm education center (The Ecological Agriculture Training Cultural Center).  I ran for city council with agriculture as the foundation of my platform and have been working on an agricultural plan for the city that includes policy changes to encourage small farmers as well as recognition of Horse Town’s agricultural heritage.

We have an aging town. Our infrastructure and our population are in need of assistance. I will discuss the infrastructure some other time. It’s the population that most interests me here and now. Many of our older residents own larger lots and struggle to maintain them. As developers salivate at the possibilities, people like me dream of the opportunities to put that land back to work. Small vegetable operations, orchards, egg ranches and goat dairies are all viable operations here.

I have been growing flowers, raising chickens and making compost on my small ranch, and for the past year have been farming diversified produce on a neighbor’s ¼ acre. I recently received a grant from American Farmland Trust to increase the size and economic stability of my operation. This funding has also given me the opportunity to put my philosophical belief that Norco can be the epicenter of the Southern California Small Farm Movement to work.

I reached out to the community in search of land. And just as I thought, a longtime resident, who recently lost a spouse, offered her land for use in exchange for maintenance and care of said property. I will provide more details on the fine print and land use agreement later, but suffice it to say that our signed agreement is a win for all involved. The land is less space than I originally wanted at just over 1/3 of an acre, but the situation as a whole is more than I could have hope for.

Over the next several months and maybe longer, I will be documenting my process and experience on this blog. Enjoy the story, observe my world through pictures and please ask questions and provide feedback as you join me on this wild ride. 



Wednesday, March 17, 2021

 




Sometimes a Meal is as Much About the Experience as it is About the Food

So on March 15th I discovered Tio's Tacos (located at 3948 Mission Inn Avenue) in Riverside. My wife had known about this quaint spot but we had never gone there. I immediately fell in love with the space. Crazy cool artwork in every direction that just makes the experience intriguing every where you look.  The artwork is all original and mostly made from repurposed items including plastic bottles and metal debris. 

The food was decent Mexican food. I had the vegetarian burrito which included beans, rice, cheese, lettuce guacamole and salsa. The green salsa was quite good and I liked the lime and chili dusting on the chips. The service, during this time of Covid, was warm and inviting with pleasant staff that works hard to make sure your experience is a good one. 

If you find yourself looking for somewhere to eat in downtown Riverside, check this spot out!









Monday, March 15, 2021

Local Food Far Away and the Need for Small Farm Networking 


 So this past weekend, we decided to take a drive north. We opted to spend a night in Santa Barbara. My wife and I spent a weekend there when we were dating 24 years ago. We thought it would be fun to revisit plus we love the beach. 

Santa Barbara has a reputation for being laid back, hip and fresh. Some of the most influential small farms and restaurants in the west are located here or nearby. We got a room with a balcony overlooking the harbor and beach and then sought out food. Turns out that our experience was not terribly laid back, at least when it came to eating. And it was very different then we remembered it from two and a half decades ago. 

I am sure corona virus didn't help, as restaurants were limited to outdoor seating. There were crowds with long wait times at most eateries and the weather was chilly and windy. Finally we settled on the Bluewater Grill. I had the sirloin with scalloped potatoes and asparagus. My wife had shrimp tacos and my son, a cheeseburger with home made potatoes chips. 

Now, I should state I have wanted to be a food critic for a long time. I pretty much eat like a garbage disposal and probably look like I don't even take the time to taste what I am shoveling into my mouth. But I do. As a vegetable farmer I am always aware of taste, texture and presentation. I also want to know where my food comes from. Who grew it and what did it do for my experience. 

As we were looking over the menus at the Bluewater Grill, my wife noticed that there were "Rainbow Carrots" from Blacksheep Farm in Riverside. I was excited and perplexed all at once. Excited because I love to see that my home region is providing food to a place like Santa Barbara and that it is called out on the pages of a higher end culinary establishment. 

But I was perplexed because I didn't know this farm. Granted, as much as I think I know everything about everything small farm, especially in Riverside County, I don't. I perused "Local Harvest," Riverside Food Systems Alliance-Fresh and Local publication and other sources and came up with nothing. The name seems oddly familiar but then again it could just be that I like it. In any case, it got me thinking. 

There is obviously a need for greater networking and promotion of the farms in my region. I think now is the time for a Farmers Guild in Western Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. I will organize a get together to see what interest there is for other farms and farmers to get involved. I will find Blacksheep Farm. And I will let them know I saw their carrots on a menu in Santa Barbara. 

Now, as for my food at the Bluewater Grill, it was OK. My sirloin was quite good. More rare then medium but a nice piece of meat full of flavor. The asparagus was cooked perfectly though I would have liked more of it. The scalloped potatoes were a bit salty but otherwise creamy and good. My Cumulation IPA from the Topa Topa Brewery was awesome. Strong citrusy flavor with hints of spice and pine. A perfect compliment to my steak. My biggest complaint was the service.  Our server was absent most of the time and slow to bring refills after asking if we wanted them. As usual the busboys were a saving grace-- Fast, efficient and always moving.  




Monday, March 8, 2021

Community Supported Agriculture:


Supporting the Local                                                      Food System



 

So, as many of you reading this know, I run a small farm that operates a Community Supported Agriculture program. Almost every day I get asked what is “CSA?” So in the next couple of paragraphs I will attempt to describe the concept of CSA’s or Community Supported Agriculture.

A traditional CSA is a partnership between the Farmer and the Consumer, but I will describe that in more detail in a little bit. Today most people think of the many produce delivery programs as a CSA. They resemble one, but they really aren’t a true Community Supported Agriculture Program. Farm Fresh to You, Ugly Produce, Good Life Organics and many others are really wholesale purchasers that deliver produce boxes to individuals instead of grocery stores. They pay a reasonable price to farmers but its not what a farmer could get selling directly to consumers.

Farm Fresh to You is the one I am most knowledgeable about, and believe they are a good quality provider of some fresh produce. They actually began as a true CSA and grew bigger than they could support by themselves. But the truth is, for consumers in the southern third of California, Farm Fresh to You is actually further away than the farms that much of our produce at the grocery store comes from. This is not Community Supported Agriculture and it does not support the local food system any more than shopping at the grocery store.

Community Supported Agriculture is truly, Consumers buying into the risks and rewards of the farm. In my case, the Windy River Farm CSA currently has 12 members that purchase a share in my season. Each member receives the rewards of my labor, but also assume the risks of pests and pathogens, poor weather and other unforeseen catastrophes. Knowing how many shares I have in advance of a season allows me to plan for each members’ needs. It also gives me the upfront finances to purchase seeds, compost and other needed supplies. It is a true partnership between the farmer and the consumer.

And because the consumer must pick up their weekly basket at the farm, it ensures that they are community members. I in turn, purchase supplies and equipment inside this same community region further building upon the local food system. This is Community Supported Agriculture.

Monday, March 1, 2021

 

A Case for Animal Agriculture: How the Vegan Movement leads to animal cruelty and climate change

Behind every dish there is death  Alex Atala

 

I am a farmer. I grow vegetables and for more than 25 years I only ate vegetables and processed foods made from only vegetables. I wasn’t vegan, I love pizza and it just doesn’t work without cheese. I chose not to wear leather or fur and instead turned to cotton and synthetic materials believing this to protect animals.  I considered myself an animal rights activist and fought against vivisection, factory farming and the fur trade. I continue today to fight for the humane treatment of animals and that is why I am writing this paper that argues for the inclusion of animals in agricultural production and against the vegan lifestyle.

I believe that everyone should strive to live, causing the least harm possible to our fellow planetary inhabitants, to our natural and developed communities and to the planet as a whole. I love the business model demonstrated by Patagonia. It is modern, holistic, practical and mindful. I believe these are the traits that most vegans desire and believe they are achieving by maintaining an animal free diet. The reality is, however, veganism further separates humans from the food system and delivers control of what we eat to multinational petrochemical companies, International food conglomerates, tech labs  and the politicians they buy and sell.

When I was in college I thought I knew everything. I was enlightened enough to eat whole foods when possible and I argued against the use of public lands for cattle grazing. I believed that grazing cattle in certain sensitive environments like high elevation areas or arid desert landscapes was wrong, and I still do. However, I have learned that cattle play an important role in many landscapes and their removal can adversely impact the natural community and lead to the spread of invasive species and the deterioration of top soil.

Once, as a college student I attended a talk presented by the Cultural Anthropologist, Richard Nelson. He spoke of Indigenous living skills and stated that all of the meat he consumes he killed, cut and cured himself. Because I was “enlightened” and he, obviously, was not, I decided to challenge him for killing animals when the alternatives were so plentiful and obvious.

Nelson, having dealt with many college students, grinned and proceeded to ask me what my t-shirt was made of. I proudly exclaimed, “Cotton, no animals killed to clothe me.” His grin grew larger as he explained to me that cotton fields throughout the southwest were the cause of thousands of animal deaths. Deer, rabbits, fox, and many other species were terminally removed to protect the crop. And he continued, those animals did not go to feed anyone, their hides did not provide clothing and their bones made no tools. He concluded by stating that my cotton t-shirt was much more bloody than his subsistence diet.  Nelson died in 2019 after furthering our knowledge of indigenous life ways and schooling hundreds of college students like me. May he rest in the peace of knowing that he helped so many find connection to the land and to the natural communities that provide us with life.

Now some 30 years later I teach students how to grow their own food and provide food for others. I believe in doing this organically and in partnership with nature. Most of the cotton fields discussed by Nelson, not only destroy animals but they rely on chemicals to continue producing the crop that clothes us. Our food supply is no different.

I grow food in soil and I do it in partnership with animals and Nature. I have horses whom I ride for pleasure and to harvest their manure for compost and soil fertility. I raise chickens for their eggs and for their support in pest and weed control. They also provide manure as a compost and soil input. I raise rabbits as pets although I once thought I would raise enough to comb the angora hair into yarn. They also provide manure for my compost operation. Mix these animal “products” with green waste and kitchen and crop scraps and I have managed to build healthy nutritious and living soil on my farm that requires no chemical inputs.. I have increased the carbon and organic matter in my soil by nearly 5 percent over the past several years. On my front pasture that covers approximately 1/3 of an acre, I have increased organic matter immeasurably as it was once dry exposed mineral soil and now grows a mixture of forage grasses and native annuals with a 3 inch layer of soft thick organic top soil that has developed over the past decade.

In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. This ground breaking book documented the adverse impacts of chemical based farming on wildlife including frogs, birds and fish.  Many publications and studies have since documented the impacts of chemical agriculture on our environment including the industry’s contribution to Climate Change. Not to mention the toll it has taken on the human community. I lost my Grandfather and two uncles to cancers likely caused by years of exposure to Agricultural Chemicals.

These chemicals quickly infiltrate our streams and rivers, pollute groundwater and contaminate the atmosphere. The impact of agricultural chemicals stretch well beyond the fields and orchards and into the communities in which most Americans live. Increases in autism have been shown to have connections with increases in the use of glyphosate and common agricultural chemicals.

The plant-based diet, furthers the degradation of our ecosystems and causes irreparable harm to wildlife. Diversity is strength and that goes even for our diets. Meat is healthy source of protein when it is raised the right way. It is also good for the land by providing natural amendments that build healthy soil and feed the microbes that fight disease and improve water retention. It’s true that we probably shouldn’t have bacon at breakfast, a burger for lunch and a steak for dinner seven days a week. Vegetables remain the foundation of my diet, yet protein derived from animals diversifies my nutrient intake and allows me to eat food that I know is healthy and benefits the environment.

In fact, I believe Ranching is the number one best way to preserve grasslands, one of the most threatened natural communities in California and home to many imperiled species. Managed grazing supports, and in many cases even increases biodiversity. It improves carbon sequestration by building healthy soil and increasing organic matter on the surface. It also makes for naturally happy cows, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys and hogs. All these animals, qualitative and quantitative evidence suggests, are healthier and happier when raised on pasture or in open natural settings. Animals, that when left unmanaged, quickly damage landscapes, become unhealthy and spread disease into natural communities and wildlife.

I have spent the last 15 years around livestock producers and even raised a few head of cattle myself. I currently raise chickens and work with people who raise and care for every variety of livestock one can imagine. I believe that most Farmers and Ranchers raising livestock for food, care more about their animals than most urban dwellers care about themselves and their neighbors. I’ve seen cowboys cry at the loss or injury to a bull and a day later witness a full on brawl between city folk over a parking spot along a crowded city street. (One of the cars had a sticker that said “Love animals, Don’t Eat them”.)

If we want to protect animals, live healthy lives and improve our environment, turning our backs on animals, and separating ourselves from the food system is not the way to achieve these goals. Putting “farm” animals in “sanctuaries” is equal to the concentrated feed lots that vegans often use as examples of why we shouldn’t eat meat. If you want to improve the lives of animals, curtail climate change and be healthy, I recommend you eat a vegetable heavy diet supplemented with a diversity of meats and make sure that all of your food is produced locally and with the practices that we know are healthy and holistic! That’s how we can ensure that animal welfare and environmental protection are at the forefront of our diet.

There is death in every meal and on every plate. It is up to each of us to take responsibility for the death we cause. When we leave it to the mega-corporate machine, animals and humans suffer. The simple practice of connecting with your food and its producers can also reduce agricultural monopolies, wrestle control of our food supply away from big corporations and return it to the community where it is open to scrutiny and a relationship between consumers and nature can develop. That is better for animals and people alike.

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