A guest blog by Coastal Science and Policy Scholar Mali’o Kodis
There’s a garden spider whose habits I have gotten to know quite well this summer. She spins her web anew every day. Just after nightfall, she comes out from some little nook and collects all that her web has caught that day while she slept. Then, she dismantles the web, recycling the precious silk through some miraculous ingestion process, and begins again. I stomach my lifelong, severe arachnophobia and channel Mary Oliver to keenly observe.
Watching this spider every day has become a touchstone of sorts through all that I am learning and experiencing this summer as an agroecology researcher with Pie Ranch. Pie Ranch is an educational farm off Highway 1, about 45 miles south of San Francisco. After I say goodnight to the arachnid weaver, barks from the colony of elephant seals at neighboring Ano Nuevo State park echo up the hill to my sleepy ears.
For 14 years, Pie Ranch has run a farm internship and apprenticeship program as well as offering educational tours and partnerships with local schools and organizations. Pie Ranch recently acquired the lease for a neighboring 418-acre farm, Cascade Ranch, that has been in operation since the mid-1800’s, when the Steele family established a large dairy on the land. Before that, for over 15,000 years, this land was managed by the Ohlone people and their relatives, who actively stewarded the coastal prairies and dripping valleys of redwoods. The Pie Ranch Team, led by lifelong farmer and educator Leonard Diggs, has big plans to transform this land. I’m here to help.
I’m working this summer to bring to fruition a vision for this land to host cohorts of next-generation farmers, who will learn regenerative agriculture through participation in a landscape-scale project at Cascade Ranch. Regenerative agriculture is a collection of practices that actively work to improve land while it is being farmed, rather than the repetitively extractive cycles of post-industrial monocrop agriculture that dominate the American food system. There is a growing movement of scientists, farmers, and activists advocating for regenerative agriculture as a means to improve our food system, combat climate change, and build resilience into local agricultural economies. As the American population of farmers ages out of the industry, there is a growing need to train and empower the next generation of farmers, especially women and people of color, who have been historically disenfranchised from land ownership and management.
Across the country, there are many farm “incubators,” where each farm operates independently on as little as a half-acre with the primary goal of economic viability. At Cascade Ranch, we will create a program where multiple farming operations can grow their business to scale (up to 100 acres!) with subsidized access to land, equipment, and infrastructure as well as mentorship and guidance. What sets this program apart is that we envision a collaborative model that integrates regenerative principles at the landscape-scale. This will require that farmers participate in a carefully planned land-rotation, as well as stewardship practices that provide ecosystem services such as pollinator habitat and runoff reduction -- all while providing food for local communities.
When Leonard and I look out over the rows and rows of dark green brassicas descending to the ocean at Cascade Ranch, we imagine a future landscape where native grasses form hedgerows between parcels farmed by a broad diversity of people. There are chickens, sheep, and cows on portions of the property, part of an intensive grazing system where hooves aerate and manure fertilizes soil, and the chickens peck grubs out of the manure. The land is much more colorful – perhaps one incubator is a flower farm while another is growing leeks, squash, onions and artichokes. The fields are not perfect squares; they’re fitted into the topography in a model that optimizes for drainage, soil type, and minimal erosion.
In this vision, farmers on this land are trained for the next generation. Electric tractors charged by solar panels are just one part of a plan to be carbon-neutral, with ambitions to be carbon negative. The farmers work cooperatively because it is central to regenerative tenets that land use rotates every few years; stewardship is a collective operation. While 418 acres is no small undertaking, we see incredible potential for this model to scale up and down the California coast, particularly on properties owned by organizations vested in conservation outcomes, like California State Parks and land trust nonprofits. At even larger scales, system change will inevitably require policies that redistribute the massive subsidies that currently support many monocrop lobbies; indeed, many are advocating that the Green New Deal prioritize regenerative agriculture to address many societal and environmental problems worsening with climate change.
Between the elephant seal chorus at night and visions of an agrarian utopia, it can be easy to be mesmerized by the idealism of it all. It is a huge undertaking because there is a massive need for reform in the way that our farmers are supported, our food is farmed, and our land is stewarded. To bring together the minds, money, and elbow grease to heal this landscape and the communities that rely on it, Leonard and I return again and again to the metaphor of the web. We bounce ideas off of experts and each other, and I collect data about the land from historic files, government databases, and local ecologists – morsels of information that inform the radiating reach we aspire to. Sometimes, we weave anew. It is a constantly iterative process. There is urgency to our work, but there is no rushing.
I devoted myself to this work this summer because after years of building computer models to better understand ecosystems, and reading peer-reviewed papers about places I had never set foot on, I craved the perspectives that come with immersion in a place-based project. I needed to know the faces of the families whose lives are built on and into the landscape that I was working to understand.
And now, I do! Jose is a rosemary farmer in Pescadero who has berry fields where people can come and pick their own. The U-pick operation isn’t a big source of income for R & R Farms, but Jose does it because it’s the best way to get people out of their cars and engaging with his farm. Jose, or other farmers like him from Pescadero might be some of our earliest participants. Vero and Cole just got married; they and Cristobal, one of the farm managers at Pie Ranch, are the first pilot farm to incubate at Cascade. Their cucumbers are plentiful and they’re always laughing.
In my future, the one in which climate change accelerates extreme weather and sea level rise, where corporations are monopolizing power and social divides rupture communities, I also see a future where people exist in close relationship with each other and the land that feeds them. In this future, the landscape is full of colorful crops and people, and a healing, regenerative web is woven anew, again and again.
Mali’o Kodis is a Master’s student in the Coastal Science and Policy Graduate Program at UCSC.