Giving a face to our food: local farms, and their importance in our world 

Giving a face to our food: local farms, and their importance in our world 

Aidan Ideker, Staff Writer

In an era where the vast majority of our produce originates from farms that are hundreds if not thousands of miles away, it is essential to eat more locally sourced foods, in the interest of the environment and our health. A unique and vital component of local farms, one that large-scale operations hundreds of miles away can not achieve, is cultivating relationships with customers. In doing so, consumers are provided a window into how their food is produced, better connecting us with the earth and the realities of farming. In order to acquaint readers with some local, sustainable California farms, I interviewed Sonya Perrotti of Coyote Family Farms in Sonoma County. In this interview, she talks about sustainability, tips for gardening at home, and the relationship between climate change and farming. (learn more at http://www.coyotefamilyfarm.com/)

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Below is the interview transcript as it occured:

 

A: Alright, for our readers who aren’t familiar with sustainable farming, could you sort of explain the term for them? 

S: Sure, I think the term sustainable is used for a lot of different purposes by a lot of different groups. So I can explain kind of what I would think of when I think of truly sustainable farming. And then there’s kind of ways that I like to think about it that are maybe a little different. But the definition of something that’s sustainable is something you can keep doing, right? And so I think about it as farming in a way that is protecting your resources. So your land resources, your ecological resources, and your human and financial resources for the future to allow you to keep doing that for as long as possible. I think that it’s interesting to think about sustainability—so continuing to do things in more or less the same way—in a time where there’s so much change. And so being sustainable these days actually means being resilient and being adaptable. Does that make sense? It’s an important part of sustainability but maybe isn’t captured in the term.

 

A: No, definitely, that’s really insightful. ‘Cause I feel like a lot of people don’t associate the terms adaptable and sustainable, but really they go hand and hand especially in our changing climate.

S: Yeah! And I think that the word you hear a lot in regards to climate change—and I think agriculture in general, that’s more regenerative and holistic agriculture—is resilience. So the changes are already happening. Unsustainability, right, has tipped things to the point that we need to be flexible, and we need to be resilient in order to survive. And so that feels really important. 

 

A: Definitely! So could you tell us maybe a little about how you practice sustainability at Coyote Farms and maybe also talk about what your mission is, what you do at Coyote Farms…

S: Sure. So we have a very small kind of intensive produce and flower farm. It’s on a somewhat larger property, and so we do, there are other activities here like seasonal cattle grazing that we do to keep our fire danger down and to regenerate the pasture. So the land that we’re on was a former dairy farm for probably 60 or 80 years and then was derelict when we moved here, and so the pasture was very degraded, the buildings were all very degraded. Anyways, we do things like that for the health of the pasture, but the main business is the vegetable farm. And the soil here is pretty fertile but it’s very very rocky. And that was part of our choice to make the farm very small because it didn’t lend itself to machinery and tractors and large scale agriculture. It lent itself to improving the soil and getting the rocks out of a small area and just growing as much food as possible and making that area as fertile and well managed as possible, if that makes sense.

 

 

 

A: Yeah.

S: And so what we do as far as farming practices, we use a lot of compost that we make here as an input. We follow organic practices. We haven’t gotten certified mainly because we sell mostly direct to our CSA members and to people at the farmers market, and so, for the most part, in this area, that’s not as important to people. And so we’ve just put our energy elsewhere rather than just do the work of certification. But we do that. We grow a huge diversity of crops, and we rotate them through the field a lot. And we use techniques as much as possible that are going to be building soil; so we do do some tillage, but less and less. And we kind of try to just keep most of the soil working on the surface of the soil to reduce the loss of carbon and the loss of organic matter in the soil. We have a native hedgerow—a native plant hedgerow—along one long border of our farm between the farm and the road. And so that provides beneficial insect habitat, also a lot of bird habitat which is great, except that they’re our biggest pest this time of year. Little beautiful songbirds come, they just eat everything down to the ground, if you’re not careful. 

 

A: Oh my God. 

S: It’s surprising! So that’s kind of the basic, basic backbone of what we do. And we market as locally as possible. We do go up to about 50 miles away from the farm, but most of our produce is marketed either on the farm or no more than 10 miles away.

 

A: Cool! So how has climate change affected you as a farmer and Coyote Farms, and how do you think it will change the way that we produce our food in the future? This is sort of a deep question but please feel free to answer it however you would like. 

S: OK. So it’s hard for me to know how climate change has affected me as a farmer because I’ve never farmed without the impacts of climate change. I’ve only been doing this for about seven years. And so we’ve seen historic—maybe not historically wet years, but historic flood events. We’ve seen historic drought, historic heat waves all in the last seven years. And so I don’t really know what it was like before. But what I do know is that—going back to that term “resilience”—is we just have to accept that we don’t know. For now, we’re in certain parameters. Like I know it’s not going to get, it’s not going to freeze in July, or it’s not going to be a 100 degrees in November. Although it could be 90 degrees in November, and we’ve had hail storms in June before. And so yeah, I think that’s a big part of why I like to grow a diverse range of crops. It can be pretty complex, especially at a small scale because…you’ve got a few beds of this and a few beds of that, and so that has its own difficulties and complexities. But it’s nice because we always have something to offer and especially for a CSA or a farm share where people are getting just an amount of produce each week it’s a little bit flexible. And so I think we’re fortunate to have a good source of water, of well water, which doesn’t mean that we don’t have to be careful with it. But it does mean that we know that as long as we have electricity we do have irrigation, which is pretty important. Some crops can be dry farmed, but really if you’re talking about growing a range of fresh produce, that’s pretty hard. But I think we’ve just been paying attention to the patterns that are there and also understanding that they might shift really quickly at any time. And then, as far as what farming might look like going forward, I would hope that kind of the awareness of climate change and climate instability—and even situations like the pandemic right now… I’ll make it really clear that the current kind of centralized, industrialized food system is not sustainable nor is it resilient. There’s simultaneously shortages at grocery stores and thousands of, and probably millions of pounds of food being just buried, tilled into the ground or poured down the drain, which is just fundamentally not sustainable and not even meeting the needs of the community. And so I think seeing centralization into smaller, local kinds of food hubs and food sheds seems really important. Also, I know that there’s a lot of work—this isn’t something I know a lot about, but I do know a lot of people are working to sort of go to breed new varieties of crops or bring back old varieties of crops that are more resilient for things like drought and that are really adapted to a very specific area. For example, for us, we have a pretty temperate climate but more and more in the fall it’s been getting and staying hot and dry really late into the year. It used to be we’d used to have our first rains the middle to end of October and now it’s more like middle to end of November. And like I said, it could be 85 or 90 degrees, and a lot of the fall crops that you grow don’t really like that. And so it would be great if we had specific varieties of cauliflower or cabbage or leeks or whatever it is that were adapted to these kinds of specific peculiarities that we’re seeing more and more of with climate change. So I don’t know. I think getting things more local, regional, and just getting resources for farmers to be able to grow, even though we don’t really know what’s going to happen.

 

A: Yeah, definitely. “Resilience-” key term. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen. So we’ve got to be prepared for anything. That sort of sounds like the apocalypse. 

S: I’m sorry!

 

A: No no! It’s not you—it’s true! But I’m just curious personally—this is sort of hinting at how you run your farm. But do you use permaculture at your farm and would you recommend it to people trying to grow food at home?

S: Hahaha! I’m laughing because my husband and I both took some permaculture design culture and were kind of like in that world for a couple years before we started the farm. And we always just laugh because I think permaculture—if you think about it as like a design science, he’s like, ‘it’s just common sense.’ I’m like, ‘well kind of, but it’s only just common sense if you’ve been observing a system for a long time.’ And then we joke about things being permaculture like, ‘Oh… it’s an herb spiral, it must be permaculture!’ Or, ‘it’s like you put some cardboard and wood chips so it must be permaculture!” But joking aside, yes I think we do, but it doesn’t always look the way it might look if you’re studying permaculture, you know. Does that make sense? Our rows are STRAIGHT, they’re straight, they’re all 80 feet long, they’re all exactly the same width. And the reason we’ve done that is because it just makes things so much more efficient, which is just what we need to be able to grow food and be both financially sustainable and meet the needs of our customers. And not work ourselves to bone, which seems important. But yes, I think resilience is an important part of permaculture, too, and allowing the system to take on a life of its own. And to not work too hard forcing something into a mold that doesn’t make sense. So yes, I don’t know if someone was used to seeing permaculture gardens if they came to our farm if they would, if that’s what it would look like to them, but yes. 

 

A: Ok. 

S: Yeah, I don’t know if you have any specific thoughts about what it would mean, but I think just that triple bottom line thing—it’s not called that in permaculture I don’t think—but care of people, care of the earth, what’s the other one?

 

A: Oh, I’m not as informed about permaculture as you guys. 

S: Anyways so yes, yes and I think that whether you call it permaculture or not I think that that is the natural outcome of truly just observing where you are and observing the interacting parts of your system. And it’s not a magical formula, but it does make a difference.

 

A: So, yeah. How do you cultivate relationships with the consumers, your customers? I mean that’s an important part of local agriculture—giving a face to the food. 

S: So we… What do we do? We have… we’ve been going to the farmer’s market, a local farmers market in Santa Rosa for about four years now, I guess. So even though it’s kind of rotating, it’s always someone who works on the farm who works at the farmers market. And so they answer a lot of questions for people and people are just used to seeing us, you know, week in and week out. Right now, that’s not so much the case. The farmers market is open, but we’ve decided not to attend. We do kind of a limited amount of pre-orders so that’s hard. Mostly, it’s through emails to our members and social media presence where I try to just be as transparent and honest as possible about what’s happening on the farm and what it’s like for us. So we do that. We do have a farm tour once or twice a year for CSA members. It seems like it’s always being interrupted by something, though. Two years ago it was the fires in November, and it was too smoky, and people couldn’t come out. Last year we did have it. This year I don’t know what’s going to happen. So we definitely rely on digital forms of communication a lot and photographs. Also, we’re on a dead end road but there are at least several hundred people probably that live in the hills just behind our farm. And the farm’s right on the road and so people kind of know about us that way and stop by and are connected to us like that.

 

A: So, I have a question about that. How many people do you think, how many homes do you think your vegetables reach at the end of the day? 

S: Well it’s going to be a lot more this year because we’d already planned to grow a little bit so in previous years we had about 50 farm share members per week, and then I would assume we’d have… I don’t know, another maybe 100 customers at the farmers market -maybe a little more or less depending. And we also sell to a local, really small grocery market. So that’s another however many people per week. But this year we planned to grow from 50 members per week to 70 and then pretty quickly we were at 85. And I kind of stopped sign ups because I didn’t want to over sell, more than we actually had. So this year it’ll probably be more like a couple hundred families each week, I guess. Which really isn’t a lot. Just in our county there’s 500,000 people or so. That’s what we do. 

 

A: It’s a little dense. And it’s everyone’s responsibilities. So what is some advice you would give to readers in terms of gardening at home? What is some advice that you can take from your experience as a farmer and communicate that to people who are trying to grow their own food at home?

S: Mhmm. I would say if you can find someone who’s been gardening in your area for a long time, if you’re talking about growing food, or really anything, talk to them and find out when they plant stuff and any advice they have. It doesn’t mean you have to follow all their rules–you can experiment all you want–but they know what they’re talking about. Every year… you can plant tomatoes here at, say the end of March, but they’re not going to do very well, most likely. Maybe if it’s a really warm year, and it never gets cold again they’ll be fine. But people always do it and I’m like, “Just wait!” If you just wait until the end of April, they’ll be just as good and probably healthier than if you tried to hurry up! But yeah, I would say find sources of organic matter and work on building your soil. So that could be just compost in a bag if that’s all you can access, it could be straw mulch or wood chip mulch. Usually for vegetable gardens you don’t really want to put wood chips straight on the bed, but you can certainly put them in the pathway, and they’re just going to be passively, slowly building soil that whole time and creating really nice networks of fungi in the soil that are really important for plants. And I think plant a few flowers even if you’re mainly growing vegetables. They’re just really good for the health of the ecosystem, and they’re so beautiful. Those would probably be my main ones. And just remember that if you’re taking stuff from the soil you have to be adding stuff back. If you have a really healthy system it’ll…  the microbiology in the plants will produce some of that but you’re going to have…. you can’t just take a planter box, fill it with potting soil and then keep planting in that year after year.

 

A: When you said plant flowers I just thought of permaculture because it’s encouraging the diversity of your ecosystem.

S: Yeah.

 

A: I remembered my question finally. So it seems as though there is a huge demand for local sustainable farms, such as yours, as demonstrated with such a surge of demand for your farms shares this year. So why aren’t local, sustainable farms popping up everywhere if there’s such a huge demand?

S: Yeah, I mean, I think the fact is they are, to some degree, and it’s really hard to make a living farming, and especially farming at a small-scale. And I think that sometimes we can make the mistake of thinking that it’s only sustainable if it’s being done at this microscale. And I think more and more just from people I’ve been listening to and things I’ve been reading, realizing that that’s maybe not the case. Even if the farms are really small, that we need to be connected, and we need to be cooperating in order to actually represent a really viable alternative to big agribusiness. A bunch of little farmers just working themselves to the bone in their own little sphere is not going to do that. The other thing frankly is the price of land is out of control. Land ownership definitely is out of reach of most farmers—most small farmers in California in particular. And there definitely are opportunities for leases and stuff like that, and there’s some really good organizations that connect those things. But we’re in a time when there’s tons of information. Really practical, solid information that you can access about how to make a living on a small scale farm. But those things don’t really address the cost of a mortgage or the cost of a land lease in a place where there’s so much development pressure and so much pressure from vineyards and cannabis and things that are a lot more profitable than growing food. So yeah, I think that’s why.

 

A: Yeah I guess so I didn’t think about the price of land, but that definitely makes sense, especially here in California where land is ridiculously expensive. So for people who are concerned about the environment, who want to support local businesses, who want to eat healthier, but they maybe don’t have the means to support local agriculture… because it’s more labor-intensive, it requires more work, it’s more money. What can these people do do you think? To support local business or maybe even just for climate change?

A: Right. One thing is I would actually challenge the notion that local, sustainable, organic produce is that much more expensive, because I think it depends on what you’re buying and I think that if you are comparing the price of a grocery store bunch of greens on a farmers market bunch of greens, they are actually pretty comparable. And so if you’re eating vegetables at all, and this isn’t to say… I know it depends on exactly where you are and your access to food. And so I would say that to challenge that assumption a little bit. That just because it’s a CSA, or it’s a small local farm, or it’s a farmers market that it’s more expensive, because it’s not always. And so I think that getting to know your market and see where you can actually be doing that is great. Eating less meat is one… I’m not vegetarian, but I do certainly recognize that meat in general and meat at the frequency and quantity that we eat it in this country is something that uses a lot of resources. And it’s hard because I think I really don’t want to make prescriptions for other people about how they should be eating, but at the same time there are things that we know are healthier and have a lower impact on the environment, like just eating whole foods in general, eating less meat, choosing local products when you can. So I don’t know… I would say to start with those things, and I also think that this is not something I spend a lot of time on just because I’ve got two little kids, I’ve got the farm… but pushing for systemic change is really important and that’s something that’s free. Obviously it takes a lot of energy, and a lot of self education, but you can certainly do that. And there are so many people who are working on food justice and climate justice and that seems really important too because I think it’s a big burden for people to bear as individuals. We need to be making some systemic change.

 

A: It’s hard to know where to start exactly sometimes!

S: Yeah. And I’ve definitely heard the advice that you should pick one or two things—you can’t as an individual, can’t do it all. And so find the thing you know that you’re really fired up about or that you’re good at and just go from there. And you can support other people who are doing other things but we’re all taking a different tack.

 

A: So why did you choose to become a farmer? 

S: It felt like I took a long time. I circled around it for a long time. I always knew that I was interested in it, and I always knew that I was interested in farming food and kind of living on the land to some degree, living just in more connection with the outdoors and with nature. And I think I just didn’t really think it was possible or viable. And finally I circled back around to it. I was like, ‘that really is where I want my skills and my interests to combine.’ And I happened to be fortunate enough to have circumstances where we could make that happen. So yeah. I think it’s just it’s this incredible—it’s an amazing intellectual puzzle everyday on a number of levels. It gives you the opportunity to learn so much about so many different things like just delving into plant biology and botany and culinary stuff, like the food world and soil biology and the weather and construction. And it’s just, there’s just an endless opportunity to learn things. And I get to be outside! And more and as the farm you know grows and progresses, I spend more time inside in front of the computer, but still compared to any other job it’s maybe half the day, sometimes less sometimes more, and so it’s just so wonderful to be able to work like that.

 

A: I think that was going to be one of my last questions if not my last question. But oh my gosh, I think I have short term memory loss. It literally just evaporated into the air. I just have to capture it!

S: Take your time—I know the feeling.

 

A: Thank you. I think I just forgot it. It’s lost. But I’m just curious. I have a fun question—so I’m an avid gardener myself, obviously small scale, very very small scale. But what’s your favorite vegetable to grow? Or what the coolest vegetable you’ve ever grown?

S: Uggghhh. I can’t answer that question! There are too many. I do love growing tomatoes, I do love growing sweet peppers… You know what I love? Actually in the fall my answer might be different, but in the summer those serpent cucumbers—they’re also called Armenian cucumbers—do you know what I’m talking about? They get really long—they can be half as long as your arm and sometimes if you grow them on the ground they have curly shapes.

 

A: I’m writing this down. 

S: OK

 

A: That’s actually super cool! Like a Chinese long bean, sort of?

S: They look like cucumbers, but they’re kind of fuzzy. They’re actually botanically a melon, not a cucumber but you eat them when they’re immature and so they taste like a cucumber. But they’re never bitter, they’re really tender, and they just look so cool! Anyways I think that’s it.

A: And I will definitely look at that for personal use. Ok that sounds super cool, thank you! Do you have anything else you would like to say to people who may be reading this interview?

S: I don’t think so… I think… No you know what I do want to say, what’s been on my mind is that I don’t think… The world is full of buzzwords about food and farming and stuff like that and to kind of keep an open mind and don’t think that you necessarily know what a company is about or what a farm is about or even just what exactly is the right way to do things. Which isn’t to say you should care, but just that I don’t know… I feel like in our society we think in buzzwords and catchphrases a lot, and I think that can be really dangerous. And I think people doing good work in the world and good work around farming and sustainability and climate change might look different. So I would say just that: keep an open mind and keep learning.