Stories from the people who make our food system go.
Farmer/Owner at Red H Farm in South Sebastopol
Can you describe Red H Farm for us?
Red H Farm is a 1.3-acre diversified vegetable farm in south Sebastopol. The farm is split between two parcels. Half of the farm is on the piece of land on which I grew up and the other half is at the Permaculture Skills Center (PSC), where I am a lead instructor in Farm School. I grow a wide variety of crops, from greens, butterhead lettuce, and chicories in the spring to Persian cucumbers, baby summer squash and dry-farmed heirloom cherry tomatoes in the summer. I am constantly trying to streamline and narrow the crops I grow, but each year I get inspired by something new. This year it is artichokes and shelling beans from Spain.
The farm earns a modest income and is increasing in economic viability each year. I farm full-time and am primarily a one-woman operation, with intermittent help brought on for projects throughout the year and regular harvest help. I am also a contract researcher and writer for Food First, teach agroecology at Sonoma State University, sit on the advisory board of Petaluma Bounty, and organize a conference called Foundations and the Future: Celebrating Women’s Leadership in the Food Movement. My work on the land is inspired and informed by my academic work in the movement, and the reverse is even more true.
How did you arrive at farming?
When I was at U.C. Berkeley I took a course called political ecology. Though an anthropologist, I came to the course as a bit of a misanthrope because of the responsibility humans bore in the destruction of the planet. This course opened my eyes to the fact that societies around the world related to nature, to the earth, to ecology, in very different ways. Food and agriculture became a lens through which I began to understand people and cultures. It became a lens through which systems of power, intricacies of politics, and deep injustices throughout our world could be teased out. For me, it became the foundation. I began doing nonprofit work centered on advocating for small-scale farmers both domestically and abroad. Feeling the need to experience farming firsthand, I spent nearly a year working on a farm in Minnesota and then in France. The recession hit and jobs were scarce. I realized I had a skill set and access to a small piece of land, and I took hold of my bootstraps. I fell into farming without much planning, and it has been quite an adventure.
What specific agricultural practices do you employ at Red H?
I employ agroecological practices that focus on building healthy soil, creating integrated, biodiverse landscapes, and conserving water. Red H is a no-till operation relying primarily on hand labor. I build soil through cover cropping and the application of compost, wood mulch, and organic nutrient amendments when needed. At the home farm, the irrigation well collapsed last year leaving me without the capacity to irrigate; the land there sits low and collects tremendous amounts of water in the winter—it is very sandy loam, but with a clay layer several feet down that helps hold in water. Beginning in late winter, I am able to get several crop rotations planted and harvested before the land becomes too dry for young starts. In addition, I am able to dry farm many crops throughout the season on that land, including tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, winter squash, summer squash, chicory, beets, and chard. Crops requiring irrigation throughout the summer are grown at the PSC. The land there contains more clay, but the space is managed similarly to the home farm, using no-till principles that build soil and organic matter, while conserving water. Red H is thus a very low-water operation, even in drought years. This winter, I started establishing harvestable perennial hedgerows to compliment annual and existing perennial habitat. It is a unique challenge because of the incredibly wet conditions in the winter coupled with relatively dry conditions in the summer. I am experimenting with elderberries, blueberries, currants, hazelnuts, quince, pear, and willow. These hedgerows will have multiple functions, including providing food and craft crops, wildlife and pollinator habitat, soil erosion protection, and visual appeal. Developing this kind of integrated, holistic system is the true joy of farming for me.
Last year, you organized a conference centered on women in the food system at the Permaculture Skills Center. Why did you decide to focus on this particular topic?
I have been working in the food movement for more than 10 years. In my experience—and many colleagues of mine share this observation—women do a tremendous amount of work in the movement. In addition, women actually produce at least half of the food in the world. Despite this, the voice and story that prevails in the movement is very often male. Over the years, this has become a frustrating phenomenon. I wanted to create a space in which the extensive leadership provided by women in this movement is celebrated, and where knowledge and stories could be passed from one generation to the next so that the vast experience women have doing this work is not lost. The event was quite successful and many people expressed their hope that it would become an annual gathering. This year, the second annual symposium will be held on Saturday, September 30. The event is not just meant for women: All are welcome—it is a space for everyone to come together to celebrate those who are too often silenced and overlooked.
You’ve spoken in the past about how the cost of land and the related cost of living are two of the biggest challenges to newer farmers in Sonoma County. Can you talk about that? Do you see any real solutions going forward?
Having grown up in Sebastopol, I have both watched and personally felt the effects of rural gentrification. The cost of land and the cost of living in Sonoma County has become increasingly prohibitive to all but the wealthy. Part of the beauty and joy of this region is founded in its agricultural heritage—not just rolling vineyards. The open space of the ranchlands, the weathered apple orchards, and the diversified farms all come together to create this cherished landscape. The celebrated local food system, rich with farmers’ markets, farm-to-table restaurants, and local brews are all part of this community’s magnetism. Yet many of those at the foundation of this culture do not live in step with the broader community for whom we create this lifestyle. We live in converted garages, travel trailers, and tents. Very few of us are able to own the land we steward. Many of us question the logic of starting families on a farmer’s income. Accessible prime farmland is constantly enclosed by the development of things like luxury “country homes.” The prevalence of vineyards that are managed in a chemically intensive way further limit access to land where food can safely be grown free from chemical contamination through drift and runoff. All of this creates quite a conundrum for a community that holds deep values around having a local food system. How do we keep farmers here? It is a lot to ask farmers to maintain the foundation of the local food system, properly steward our landscapes, manage our environmental systems, and the most recent task assigned to small-scale farmers around the world—sequester carbon and be at the front lines of the fight against climate change. Further, the kind of investment that farmers need to make in the land to do all of these things is not always logical without land security through ownership: The capital investment is large. If you only have temporary access to land, chances are you might not reap the full benefits of your stewardship—whether it be the long-term agricultural benefits of building a healthy agroecosystem or the financial benefits of selling that land because it is yours to sell. Few other places in our financial system would we expect individuals to make high-cost, high-risk, low-return investments.
Part of the solution is continuing to build a system in which people value food and support these farmers through purchasing power. In order for this food system to benefit all members of the community—the wealthy, the farmers, and low-income consumers—policy will likely be needed. Farmers will likely need incentive to keep doing this work. Land for diversified agriculture will have to be prioritized from a policy level because it will rarely outcompete commercial development, wealthy homeowners, vineyards, or cannabis as the highest and best use of land from a financial/market perspective. Deeper investigation into community land trust models, the development of an agricultural commons coupled with financial incentives for growers (whether that be cooperative healthcare coverage, housing stipends, etc.), or development (commercial, housing, vineyard or cannabis) mitigation through land allocation to diversified agriculture are all potential tactics that could have an impact.
Do you see any big challenges coming up in terms of national and local food policy with the shift to the new presidential administration?
Local, national, and international food systems will all feel the effects of this transition of power in ways I can only begin to guess. U.S. agribusiness has had a tremendous impact on food systems and economies around the world. International trade policy has gutted rural economies in the global south, undermining communities and emptying out the countryside. These policies have also bolstered destructive industrial agriculture in the U.S. However, the threat of sudden, “America First”-focused changes to or attempts to quickly dismantle trade policy could exacerbate already fragile economic systems across the world. Simultaneously, those concerned about the environmental threat that agribusinesses pose should be alert as we face a period that will likely be defined by widespread deregulation and subsequent environmental catastrophe. Likewise threats to programs funded through the Farm Bill, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), one of our biggest social safety nets, should not be taken lightly. Focusing on local food systems and building resilient communities becomes increasingly important. However, it is also crucial that those of us privileged enough to live in a place like Sonoma County and have access to a thriving, local food system remember that not all communities are so lucky, and not even everyone in our own community has the capacity to easily participate (one in six people in Sonoma County are food insecure). Those folks absolutely cannot be abandoned in the name of focusing solely on the local.
How can people best support Red H Farm?
The best ways to financially support Red H Farm are to patronize our stand at the Sebastopol Farmers’ Market on Sundays or get in touch and make a contribution to the symposium we host, Foundations and the Future: Celebrating Women’s Leadership in the Food Movement. The best way to support the values we stand for is to remain politically engaged and fight for that which is most harmed by the industrial food system—our shared planet and our marginalized communities. And of course, if you have land you are hoping to bequeath to a local farmer, I am always in the market!