Putting Permaculture Principles Into Practice at Regenerative Earth Farm
By Nancy Oster
Photography by Leela Cyd
Leaning over a 300-gallon stainless steel vat, I’m up to my elbows in curds—feta cheese curds. This batch of feta was made yesterday, drained overnight and has just come out of the brine bath. Working next to me is cheesemaker Makaila Harvan-Thompson and across the vat from us is her cousin and marketing manager Ana Brush.
Breaking large curds into smaller curds releases the sweet fragrance of the rich organic cow’s milk delivered fresh yesterday from a small family dairy in Sonoma, California. As we pile the curds up towards our sides of the vat, the excess whey runs back to the center and out the drain. Makaila leaves to prepare the spicy blend of peppers that we will hand-mix into these curds to produce Spicy Feta (wearing gloves, of course).
I’ve arrived early in the morning on what promises to become a very hot summer’s day. Makaila and Ana have been working since 7am and probably won’t finish up the last batch of cheese until late into the night. They have 72 hours to transform about 1,000 gallons of milk into an array of cheeses. Some cheeses—such as the brie, the cheddar and a semisoft jack—will go into the aging room to sit on shelves among other fragrantly ripening cheeses. The fresh feta we are working with will be packaged for immediate sale or soaked in organic olive oil for flavor and longer shelf life.
Building a Permaculture-Based Model
Permaculture designer and teacher Warren Brush is the visionary behind Regenerative Earth Farm. As co-founders of Quail Springs Learning Oasis & Permaculture Farm and the Wilderness Youth Project, Warren and his wife, Cyndi, have spent the past 25 years teaching kids and adults to observe, learn from and connect with the world around them.
Permaculture design embraces three core ethics: 1) Earth stewardship, 2) caring for one another and 3) sharing and recycling surplus. With the help of a longtime friend and silent investor, Warren is putting his permaculture teachings to the test on this piece of land to prove the economic strength of the permaculture approach. Explaining why attention to the natural capital in our land is important, he says, “The savings account for our next generation is in the soil and nowhere else.”
Many farms along the road are for sale. Most farms, like this one, depend on wholesale mono-crops (usually avocados) as their primary source of income. Warren believes that diversification can revitalize and make these farms more profitable for the next generations of farmers.
A 2009–10 study by Professor David Cleveland and his students at UC Santa Barbara found that more than 99% of the produce grown in Santa BarbaraCounty is exported and more than 95% of the produce consumed here has been imported. “Export usually means large quantities of a single crop sold to distributors at wholesale prices,” says Warren. “Developing multiple enterprises allows a bad avocado year to be offset by sales from another crop or product.”
Selling directly to local consumers would boost a farm’s income, keep money within the community, build relationships and maintain access to fresh food even when imported food is not available.
With the creamery building and equipment already on the property, Regenerative Earth Farm chose to move ahead on this microbusiness, a project led by Warren’s niece Makaila and his daughter Ana.
A Family Enterprise
There are four generations of family living, working and playing together on the farm. This extended family brings a diverse set of skills and energy to the Regenerative Earth project.
During my visit to the creamery, family members drop in to see what is happening and to ask if they can help out now or later in the day. Warren’s wife, Cyndi, will come in the afternoon to make cheese, help clean up between batches and do some packaging.
Makaila’s and Ana’s grandparents, Michael and Sandy Harvan, live in a house near the creamery building. Michael is a retired chef. They frequently prepare family dinners and bring food during the day to the hard-working cheesemakers. Makaila’s parents, Tamara and Deron Thompson, show up at the creamery in the afternoon, after a day of work in town, to help package cheese. They also help with tastings on the weekends.
Their uncle Marc Harvan also lives on the farm with his wife, Alyssa Reginato. Marc has done most of the construction to update the creamery and helps tend the orchards. Ana’s husband, Jesse Smith, oversees market branding for the farm, shares creamery duties and works at the tasting table at special events. He also makes sure the spicy seasoning is hot enough. Even Makaila’s brother, Zachary Thompson, who is at school in Chicago, calls in to participate in family farm meetings. Makaila laughs, “We put him on speaker phone and prop the phone up in the breadbasket.”
A Walk Around the Farm
My first visit to the farm was last November, just two weeks after Warren took possession of the 49-acre property. Cleanup work on the creamery had already begun and plans were underway to increase the diversity of plants and trees growing on the farm.
I parked my car at the future site of a kitchen garden that now grows the herbs for Warren’s father-in-law’s herb seasoning, used in the herbed cheeses at the creamery.
Walking down the hill past a cluster of persimmon trees, Warren pointed to the sun-ripened fruit. He will send some of this fruit to a new local distillery to be made into brandy as a test product for the farm.
We reached the open area that will eventually be the market garden and Warren pointed out erosion gullies in need of repair.
“This valley is prime farmland,” he tells me. “We’re only 2.3 miles from the ocean, so close we can smell the seaweed. We’re above the fog line but protected by these hills from the intense heat of Ojai. This microclimate grows better summer vegetables than the coastal farms.” The soil just needs some tending.
“All economy comes down to the soil,” he explains. “To build soil, you have to have the bacteria and fungi working for you. When you get the soil biology right, you don’t need chemicals. Healthy soil microbiology contains millions or even trillions of extra workers.”
We turn left down a path. On our right is a grove of apple trees. Warren hands me a crisp juicy sweet Granny Smith apple wet from yesterday’s rain. One of the farm dogs trails behind us looking for handouts.
The avocado trees to our left grow up the slope of a steep hill. Warren explains that the trees at the bottom of the slope, where the mulch accumulates, have not been affected by root rot (phytophthora) and appear stronger overall than the trees higher up. With the help of his orchard manager, Loren Luyendyk, he plans to put straw wattles across the contour of the slope to hold mulch and water near the roots of trees higher up. He will pin the straw wattles with young citrus trees or mulberries that can grow under the canopy provided by the mature avocado trees. Then they plan to inoculate the miles of straw wattle with shitake mushrooms. They will experiment with other understory plants as well such ginger, cardamom, lemon grass, guava, dragon fruit, goji berries, comfrey and coffee.
The farm’s 22 acres of organic Hass avocado trees produce 250,000 to 300,000 pounds of avocados a year. However, a large proportion are grades B and C. Grade A avocados bring highest dollar sales, so Warren is looking into using a centrifuge to process the B and C grade fruit for avocado oil as a value-added product. This, like the creamery, could become a valuable microenterprise.
Pigs, Goats and Chickens
“We’re bringing back the pigs,” Warren tells me. “Back in the ’30s a man named Otto Hopkins had pigs here on Casitas Pass Road,” he says. “Most cities in America used a piggery system for recycling compostable trash.” Hopkins collected trash from local residents, sterilized and fed it to the pigs, then sold the fattened pigs to slaughterhouses in Los Angeles.
The young pigs will be moved around the property to clean up fallen apples, avocados, acorns and even poison oak. This will prevent pest infestations like coddling moth from developing in the decaying fruit and the pigs will fertilize the soil while they are eating. They will recycle the wastes from the avocado oil processing, cheesemaking and even the brandy wastes will come back to the farm for the pigs. Goats will be used to clear brush and chickens will provide bug control, fresh eggs and more soil-building fertilizer.
On a visit back to the farm later in the summer to get an update on the progress I can see immediate changes. The kitchen garden where I park my car is filled with herbs, chard, squash, strawberries and flowers. New varieties of apple trees have been planted in the orchard along with sweet white alyssum and orange California poppies to attract pollinating bees from newly installed beehives.
I’m greeted by Ana, Makaila and a couple of farm dogs. We sit at a table outside the creamery. The cheese tastings have been successful and the wholesale and online customer base is growing.
Makaila and Ana are strategizing how to balance supply and demand. The fresh cheeses have a shorter shelf life and the aged cheeses need five or six months to age, so they have to stay ahead of demand. Makaila is negotiating how much milk to purchase for the next batch and how and when it will be transported, knowing that this will continue to change as the business grows.
Ana says, “There are a lot of hoops to jump through. It always takes a little more work than you expect.” They would like to do more direct sales but since the milk is not produced on their farm, they cannot sell their cheese at any of the California Certified Farmers’ Markets, such as the ones in Santa Barbara. They could sell at the Ojai farmers’ market, but they are still working on how to meet VenturaCounty regulations. They are also working to get the permits for creamery tours and cheese tastings on the farm. In the meantime, they will start selling at local stores and at some farmers’ markets in Los Angeles.
“Recognizing and responding to challenges and change is an important principle of permaculture,” Ana tells me. First you observe the living systems in your environment and identify ways to work in harmony with them. Then you stand back to observe new growth and make improvements where they are needed.
A few minutes later on our way to visit the new piglets, orchard manager Luyendyk stops us. He is holding a foot-high walnut tree that has sprouted in the shell of a decaying walnut from one of the nearby black walnut trees. Seen through the lens of nature, this living sprout symbolizes precisely what the Regenerative Earth Farm project has set out to demonstrate: regeneration, resilience and hope for the future.
As a community we too can help to ensure the economic future and growth of local farms by paying attention to where our food is grown and consciously choosing to purchase whenever possible from within our local food system.
Nancy Oster didn’t grow up on a farm but she did spend a lot of time at large family gatherings preparing and eating food purchased from Santa Barbara farms. Her grandparents, who shopped at local vegetable farms, dairies, fish markets and poultry farms, would undoubtedly be surprised today to see how much rich fertile soil has been covered with asphalt and concrete.
Regenerative Earth Farm 805-649-8179; RegenerativeEarth.com
Casitas Valley Creamery Available at: Carpinteria Farm Cart: 5301 Carpinteria Ave. (W 2–6pm), Isabella Gourmet Foods in Santa Barbara, Pierre Lafond in Montecito, Rainbow Bridge in Ojai