This article originally ran in the fall 2017 issue of New Farm Magazine, the magazine of Organic Farmers Association. All OFA members receive a complimentary issue of New Farm twice per year. Click here to sign up!
Hungry for Growth: Diversification and a unique partnership have helped northern California’s Full Belly Farm keep expanding and improving for more than 30 years.
by Ariana Reguzzoni | photographs by Nat & Cody Gantz
The view in front of Judith Redmond’s house on Full Belly Farm in California’s Capay Valley neatly contains the larger property’s vision in just a few acres. The rolling golden hills that surround the narrow 22-mile valley hover in the distance, while rows of stone fruit trees and perennial grapevines form the back border of the field. A healthy summer cover crop grows next to late season onions in the foreground, and the farm’s first hedgerow, planted by Redmond almost 30 years ago, is on the left.
“Just from one spot, you can see annuals, hedgerows, perennials, and an orchard. It’s a snapshot of diversity,” she says.
When Full Belly Farm first started in the 1980s, only two other organic farms populated this fertile valley, bordered by Napa County to the south and Lake County to the north. These days, more than 50 organic operations are producing a wide variety of crops in the region, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and livestock. Full Belly Farm has grown too, expanding from its original 110-acres to 400, earning organic certification, and continually innovating its practices.
The farm business, an early member of Organic Farmers Associaton, recently became an S corporation with a total of six owners, but two of them, Dru Rivers and her husband, Paul Muller, were the first to discover the property and see its potential. On a drive home from a long road trip in 1983, the couple passed the old rundown farm, whose only visible crop was a 10-acre patch of walnut trees. As Rivers recalls, she knew right away that it would be their future home. They started renting the land in 1984, when Rivers was pregnant with their first child, and aptly christened it with the name “Full Belly.” Muller, whose family runs a 10,000-acre commodity crop operation in nearby Woodland, vowed not to use pesticides on their new land, and they transformed it into a diversified fruit and vegetable farm.
When the property went up for sale, the couple reached out to their friend Redmond and her partner at the time, both of whom they had known from the sustainable agriculture program at UC Davis, and the foursome joined forces to push Full Belly to the next level. In 1985, they earned their organic certification through the state’s first chapter of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), based in Yolo County. In these early years, Rivers says, farmers were still certifying other farmers, and the rules and regulations were still being written. But the fact that farming sustainably was finally being officially recognized—especially in a region where canned green beans and bacon bits dominated the Grange potlucks—made a big difference then, and it still does now.
“Certification is more than just a technicality; the label means something to people,” Redmond explains.
It’s a way to identify, in the eyes of the public, that people “are doing what they say they are doing,” Rivers adds.
Thirty years ago, however, organic certification was primarily about avoiding pesticides, and for young farmers like Rivers and Redmond, any focus beyond that was reined in by their economic reality. Luckily, the scorching summers and mild winters made for abundant harvests of melons, sweet corn, tomatoes, and lettuce. This produce was enough to anchor the business in the beginning and allowed the team to expand over the years to grow 80 different crops. They’ve also been able to experiment with sustainable growing methods that go above and beyond the requirements of certification.
“People sometimes think being organic is that you stop using Roundup,” Rivers says. “It’s important but just one part of the equation.”
In fact, Full Belly Farm today is a place where the word “organic” is defined by more than just farming practices. Rivers’s dream certification would include labor practices that keep workers employed year round, energy and water conservation methods that mitigate drought and climate change, an emphasis on “whole farm systems” that recycle waste materials, planting techniques that help support biodiversity and increase wildlife habitat, and education that helps pass these values along to the next generation.
“It would be really cool if certification were more encompassing,” Rivers says. “But it hasn’t broadened because [many of these sustainability ideals] are still too controversial.”
This hasn’t stopped Full Belly from pushing through those boundaries. Today, the conversation on the farm about sustainability and the environment has moved beyond food. Rivers heads up the farm’s cut flower program, which not only provides its third best cash crop but also attracts beneficial insects and encourages biodiversity. The farmers incorporate animals into their systems as well, running a 200-head herd of sheep through the fields to eat crop residues and cover crops and increase soil fertility. Pigs, cows, and chickens contribute manure, food for the pork share (distributed through their 1,200 member CSA), eggs for farmers’ markets, and milk for families and staff who live on the farm.
Crop rotation, cover crops, and compost are other integral parts of the process. Production is never happening on all 400 acres at the same time. Instead, the fields are rotated between produce, pasture, grains, and year round cover crops. The farmers apply about 15,000 pounds of compost per acre, and although they are buying it now, they are working toward producing their own.
Earlier this year, following Redmond’s lead, the farm joined the California Farmers Climate Pledge, sponsored by the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. In response to President Trump’s announcement that he was pulling the U.S. out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, more than 80 farmers and ranchers signed the pledge to support the science, commitment, and goals outlined in the agreement. It was a somewhat symbolic step for Full Belly, since it has been on the forefront of climate friendly practices for years, winning a Leopold Conservation Award in 2014 and a Steward of Sustainable Agriculture Award from the Ecological Farming Association in 2005.
But like farmers everywhere, those at Full Belly face new challenges every year. They’ve set a goal to cover more soil with mulch and cover crops to prevent erosion and sequester carbon, so they recently initiated an experimental no-till (or reduced-till) 5-acre plot. It has decreased their need to mow and disc, saving energy and labor, and has created more beds that are permanent. To combat the constant challenge of weeds, the farmers invested in finger weeders—innovative tractor implements that mechanically weed between rows—instead of relying on hand labor.
After five years of drought, they have also perfected ways to conserve water. Several seasons ago, they transitioned from aboveground sprinklers to drip irrigation and microsprinklers. In recent months, they discovered that their use of black plastic mulch to protect against evapotranspiration had another unintended benefit. The unusually wet winter had not only prevented them from getting into the field to remove the plastic after the tomato crop was done but also made the bare soil too muddy for planting lettuce seedlings. So they transplanted the lettuce into the black plastic from the previous season, resulting in
two seasons of use for the plastic.
Crops like tomatoes and lettuce make their way to the farm’s produce hub—two open-air packing barns located between Rivers and Muller’s family house and the farm office.On any given day in the summer, the barns are buzzing with workers who are divided into crop-specific crews. They are experts at harvest- ing, handling, and packing melons, heirloom tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, and flowers—all of which are stored in various temperature specific coolers and distributed throughout 400 to 500 CSA boxes each day. Wholesale and retail orders are assembled and sent out to more than 50 restaurants and markets throughout the Bay Area. And while 90 percent of the farm’s produce stays within 150 miles of the Capay Valley, some of the crop is now being shipped to Washington State and even as far away as Minnesota.
This year, the four adult children of Rivers and Muller (and their young families) have joined the ranks of about 60 farm employees who earn good wages and have medical insurance. The majority of workers are employed year round. A director of human resources helps manage them and a cadre of four to six paid interns who spend a year living and working on the farm.
Ben Lindheim, 30, is one of the 300 interns who have worked at Full Belly over the past 30- plus years. The experience inspired him to return to work in the farm’s office and convinced him to pursue his own small farm business in the future.
“It’s not just a job—a regular nine-to-five. It’s a lifestyle,” says Lindheim, who plans to use meth- ods like cover crops, rotation with animals, and hedgerows on his own farm someday.
In addition to learning the ins and outs of field- work, the interns receive lessons in business planning every Friday and have the opportunity to speak with experienced team members at length on the weekly drives to three Bay Area farmers’ markets. If an agricultural internship’s success rate can be measured by the percentage of its participants who choose careers in that same field, this program would score big. Lindheim reports that former Full Belly interns are now farming all over the country. Even the current Full Belly farm manager, Jan Velilla, is a former intern.
This next generation has been instrumental in organizing and maintaining not only the farming practices at Full Belly but also the vision of community that the founding partners laid out. The farm has become well known for its events, including the Hoes Down Harvest Festival, which has benefited statewide nonprofit agriculture organizations for 30 years. Every October, thousands of people camp out on the farm to enjoy a weekend long festival that features music, agricultural workshops, and kids’ activities. A sense of community among Full Belly’s owners is another key to the farm’s success, Redmond believes. The partnership also includes Andrew Brait (who has been with the farm since 1990) and Rivers and Muller’s son Amon and daughter-in-law Jenna.
“We are building on that wonderful archetype of the family farm,” Redmond says.
The owners’ common commitment to the farm and its sustainability has made the partnership thrive. Working and growing as partners is sometimes “more challenging than the farming itself,” Redmond says, but none of them would trade it for another way of life.
Drip irrigation delivers water efficiently to vegetable rows, while “finger weeders” attached to the tractor keep them clear.
Ariana Reguzzoni is an organic farmer and journalist based in Sonoma County, California. Her work has appeared on PBS television and in publications including Time, Civil Eats, Grist, and local newspapers and magazines.