July 18, 2018

Growing a Better Environment for the Future

Farmers are the original environmentalists, stewards of the land and protectors of the open space. Those who tend to our crops understand the symbiotic relationship between healthy food, healthy soil and clean water and air. The overwhelming majority of farmers operate with a single overriding objective: to sustainably manage our land so it can be farmed for future generations, just as it has been farmed for generations before.

As knowledge of the interplay between agriculture and the environment deepens, farming practices have evolved to not only grow more with fewer natural resources, but to farm in a way that enhances the environment. Terranova Ranch and Bowles Farming Company are two examples of farms growing a better environment for the future.

Don Cameron of Terranova Ranch has been an innovator in on-farm groundwater recharge. During last year’s historic rains, with excess surface water that would have otherwise been shunted to the sea, Cameron began flooding his pistachio fields and grape vineyards—sometimes to a depth of a foot-and-a-half. He did this for several months straight to build up their groundwater stores. All of his trees and vines survived and continue to produce their expected yields. At full capacity, this project is able to recharge up to 1,000 acre-feet of groundwater per day, which will help immensely during drought periods to prevent setbacks with production.

This year, Cameron is embarking on yet another innovative project on his farm—he is building a monarch and honey bee habitat in collaboration with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). In a mutually beneficial endeavor, Cameron is using funding from the EDF to plant two varieties of milkweed, which is favored by monarchs, as well as a wild flower mix. In addition to providing habitat for native pollinators, which are critical to the crops at Terranova Ranch, the vegetation will help to prevent erosion of the levee that borders the farm.

“We want to make mistakes now and learn from it so we can figure out what to do on a larger scale,” said Cameron. “Having the habitat will hopefully be beneficial long-term for us.”

Because Terranova Ranch is only in the early stages of this process, Cameron knows it will be a learning year. Eventually, he would like to expand the project several more miles down the side of the levee. He also wants to add perennial flower plants to have additional habitat and flowering shrubs to attract bees year-round. His goal is to build up native pollinators but also see if he can make this location a successful habitat for monarchs. Monarch numbers have declined over the years and if this proves successful, then monarch butterflies will have a home to reproduce, feed and raise additional species.

“We hope to improve relationships with the environmental community and show that farmers care about the environment as much as other people do. We are willing to put time and money into developing habitat on the farm,” said Cameron.

The diverse habitat at Terranova Ranch goes beyond monarchs and bees. The preservation of wildlife is important to Cameron, who has partnered with the Audubon Society to place owl boxes throughout the fields, which helps with pest control (they constantly have problems with gophers eating the irrigation drip tape). Since adding the boxes, the owls have been extremely successful in controlling the gopher population while adding diversity to the local environment. Additionally, Cameron maintains a four-acre wildlife refuge that houses a variety of wildlife from egrets and frogs to ducks and hawks.

Cannon Michael, with Bowles Farming Company, is another pioneer in incorporating environmental sustainability on the farm. As a steward of the land, Michael recognizes that his farm plays a distinct role in ensuring the long-term health of the environment. He is committed to investing in conservation efforts just as he is investing in his crops.

“Amongst our sustainable landscape goals is the desire to continually improve the quality of wildlife habitat throughout the farm and its surrounding landscape,” said Michael.

In recent years, the Bowles Farming Company has broadened its habitat footprint through collaboration and partnership with local agencies and conservation organizations. They have worked closely with partners including the Wildlife Conservation Board, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon Society and Nature Conservancy. These partnerships helped develop the Bowles Pick Anderson Habitat Project, which is a four-mile restoration effort and enhanced riparian habitat alongside the San Joaquin River.

This effort is making a home for the terrestrial and avian species in the area. So far, they have 17 acres restored, with more than 2,500 potted plants installed and nearly 300 pounds of native seed drilled. They also have drip systems in place to keep the native species watered and healthy.

“As the habitat develops, benefits to wildlife are already revealing themselves. Even within two years of restoration, bird use has seemingly responded to the improvements in habitat quality. Accompanying accounts of long-tailed weasel, river otter, and monarchs, Point Blue’s monitoring efforts at the Bypass note 49 different bird species utilizing the area,” said Michael. “Such wildlife use on our projects encourages us to continue taking advantages of opportunities to build a healthier landscape.”

Bowles Farming Company executives believe it is important to have good data to go along with the work they are doing, in order to demonstrate value and find partners who will help them in their conservation efforts. Technology is that crucial piece that gives them the data they need to help make improvements across the farm. Where they have put in native grasses, shrubs, and trees, they are also incorporating a data management system similar to what they use in the field for their crops. In this way, they can have good data to help them make decisions on how to continue and improve these types of sustainability efforts.

Terranova Ranch and Bowles Farming Company are but two in a growing list of farms partnering with environmental organizations to improve their conservation practices, proving that farmers and environmentalists can have a shared interest in protecting the land and its resources. As part of the broader story it is trying to tell as an industry, agriculture must continue to seek out and engage in these types of productive relationships, which will allow it to more credibly communicate the full extent of its collective environmental stewardship.