News From the Farm | December 5, 2016

About 32 years ago, we started farming the fields that make up Full Belly Farm. In each of those 32 fall seasons, we have taken time to reflect a bit on the year past and think about ways to tweak our program so that we can do better in raising the quality of the food that we are sending to you – our farm supporters.

2016 was indeed an eventful year… There may be too many moments lived where summary doesn’t do them justice – but of course we can try.

We celebrated Rye and Becca’s beautiful wedding under the deep shade of our walnut orchard; introduced some young full bellies into this life – Hazel, Clementine and Waylon; sent Ellis off to the University of Wyoming; purchased land adjoining the farm which we had been farming for years; held farm dinners; made pickles and olives and bouquets; hosted guests from around the globe; became an overnight camp for big-eyed third graders and chaperones; saw our truck driver, Pancho receive a new kidney and return to work 6 months later; planted trees, cover crops, sheep, cow and chicken feeds, new asparagus; and managed to get through it all with but a few bumps and bruises.

We spent time enthusiastically advocating and promoting organic and regenerative farming; educated ourselves about new rules – labor laws, soil humus, organic standards, worker protections, food safety, bar codes, air and water quality rules, local ordinances and many other new rules that we are supposed to interpret and integrate into all of the rest of the work we do.

We hosted French farmers, Danish farmers, Bulgarian farmers, Swiss farmers, Chinese students, UN delegations, farmers from all parts of the United States, high school students, Japanese students and teachers, executives from Whole Foods, FFA State Officers and many others. The boards of the National Corn Growers Association and the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance came to visit, arriving as skeptics about organic agriculture. After a tour, talk and plying them with our farm food and plenty of wine, they left with a different perspective on how a farm might approach economic and ecological survival… We walked and talked with many new aspiring farmers, French film crews, Environmental groups, USDA folks, local county supervisors, researchers, and many others. We found that feet on the ground and a few words translate the complexities of a working farm better than a thousand pictures or any virtual tour.

The farm became a place for celebration with nine weddings, company meals, birthdays, farm dinners, camper skits and a Family Camp weekend. The Hoes Down was another great weekend of dance, workshops, circus, straw fort, farm tours, camping, breakfast for 1,000 and great organic food! It is our annual open house that allows guests to crawl over and through the farm, examining its ongoing evolution and dancing to make vibrations that feed our earthworms and celebrate our harvests. Thank you to those of you who came, and the more than 400 volunteers who helped out. It was a wonderful fundraiser that benefits many local rural groups and statewide non-profit organizations that do good work in our region.

2016 was a year with its curves. Weather curved in a good way last winter, and we had enough rainfall in a couple of storms to charge our underground aquifers and raise our well water levels. We had a couple of plantings of melons fall victim to cold weather that came after planting causing poor germination. We had some blossom problems in our early tomatoes—perhaps we rushed things too much or perhaps we are too intent to have those crops early and hurried our soil before it was warm and dry enough.  Rain at the wrong time doomed the almond crop, but a wonderful walnut crop offset that. On balance, the year was again abundant and filled with blessings far beyond the challenges.

But we had flowers – lots of flowers – and we had a florist blossom along with those beautiful blooming bouquets. Hannah with Full Belly Floral did more than 40 events in 2016, a wonderful new enterprise for the farm. The flowers brought bees in abundance, beneficial insects in bumper numbers, butterflies, songbirds, hawks and owls, even spiders, as the beauty of a bloom enhanced the buzz of a living farm. This life fed on daytime color while our bats worked all night to corral insects and feed on the night fliers. It is a wonderful example of the resilience of life. Making a place for diversity attracts life and vitalizes a place… We just need to provide that life with a home and the food it needs to be here.

There were new lambs and new calves and new piglets and many young hands that visited the farm to pet, milk, feed, collect eggs, and commune with the lives of the four-legged (and two legged, two winged chickens) – oh, those babies start out so much on the cute side…. We had UC Davis researchers out to study if animals can be safely incorporated into a vegetable operation. There were other researchers studying dung beetles, spiders, avian life, and soils. We are learning all the time as we begin to understand that there is a balance between what we do and what we restrain ourselves from doing and then see who shows up – first of all, do no harm.

We had a spring of flat-out days filled with too many tasks to finish in a day, and a summer with more tasks than that – just when you thought that you were working your hardest there was another task… (made possible by a few more hours of daylight). Central to those tasks was a great crew, dedicated to all of the processes that make this farm work. We sent out more than 86,000 csa boxes, representing about 17% of what was picked and packed.

We have many employees who have been part of creating this farm for many years. We are thankful for their dedication and knowledge – and their relentless good cheer. Our model here is a labor-intensive farm where we finish all that we do and grow to its highest value. A farm of 400 acres can productively employ many with steady work. Those employment checks are spent locally and help to fuel a regional economy.

We also had some great interns who helped out here on the farm. We are intent on growing more farmers. They ‘learned by doing’ the many tasks that a farm like this undertakes in a year. They spent some chilly time at night looking over new piglets and doing lamb check at 3 AM. They loaded, washed, marketed and weeded vegetables, flowers and fruits. They started for farmers market early and returned 14 hours later. Our interns overcame the initial ‘deer in the headlights’ look and developed the skills and judgement to feel the initial singe of ‘seasoned’. I think that they all learned that farming can be what you put into it. Our interns became our friends and we were fortunate to have their enthusiasm and energy here. We will graduate a few new farmers, some activists and all who know how to pull a stuck piglet from under a sleepy sow at 2 am, or how to listen in the dark for a new mother ewe on pasture bleating to its newborn and checking on them both to see if all is okay.

Where we are headed would depend upon who you asked here on the farm… We are subject to the laws of entropy in that equipment gets older, bones get older, and things fall apart. So there is a lot to fix and keep running. Some would say that we aren’t growing enough flowers, others would like more chickens – maybe a few meat birds. Wheat is now turned into pizza dough, tomatoes to sauce, fruit into pastry, wool into yarn, red and green and blue corn to cornmeal, pomegranates to juice, and green grass to beautiful eggs. We learned that our farm children have become adults invested in seeing this place become more interesting, diverse, and creative in ways we never would have imagined some 32 years ago.  A larger community will now determine new directions over time.

This time of the year is our time to reflect and line out changes and improvements for the coming year. When we started many years ago, we had little inkling that the farm would be what we are living today. This next year, we are looking to close some of the nutrient loops and grow more indigenous energy though more vibrant soil microbiology. We hope to tailor our cover crops to our field’s biological needs. This is another amazing frontier that we will explore in order to deepen our understanding of this complex universe under our feet. Our task is to feed this universe and understand how to store more carbon in the soil.

We are grateful for those of you who were part of the year. We thank you for your commitment. The real economic change that the CSA movement represents is part of a larger awakening of the richness that can be lived when we take control of the simple act of choosing what we eat. We thank you for choosing Full Belly. Our enduring commitment to this planet is to make a place that is vibrant and healthy, a small part of a much larger healing. Thank you for your being a part of our whole.

—Paul Muller