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Regenerative farming brings animals into orchards

Issue Date: March 9, 2022
By Lisa McEwen

Benina Montes returned to the family farming operation after graduating from college, and she joined family members in slowly changing the way it was run. The conventionally farmed almond ranch in Merced County transitioned to a diversified, organic farm using regenerative farming practices.

"This is farming for the future," she said.

Montes co-owns Burroughs Family Orchards in Ballico with her parents, Ward and Rosie Burroughs. They grow organic almonds, walnuts and olives. Additionally, she and husband Heriberto operate Burroughs Family Farms, producing organic pastured eggs. Completing the arc is Full Circle Dairy, an organic, grass-based dairy of 500 Jersey and Jersey-cross cows that is co-managed by sister Christina Bylsma and her husband Brian.

The family operations now span 1,200 acres, while using cover crops, no tilling, cattle and sheep grazing, diversified crops and hedgerows.

Burroughs Family Orchards is part of a research project led by the Ecdysis Foundation called the 1,000 Farm Initiative. Created by former U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Jonathan Lundgren, the foundation will complete research by 2023 that aims to quantify regenerative agriculture's potential impacts, with a goal of inspiring its methods nationally.

The principles of regenerative agriculture are similar to conservation agriculture: minimal soil disturbance, eliminating or reducing chemical use, avoiding bare soil by using cover crops that enhance plant diversity, and integration of livestock into the cropping operation.

That integration was highlighted on Feb. 17 as Burroughs Family Orchards hosted a field day to share insights on how farms and communities are impacted when these methods are used together—or "stacked." Montes said the turnout of 250 people underscored a strong interest in regenerative farming.

Lundgren of Ecdysis urged attendees to consider regenerative management practices on their own almond farms in the face of changing climate, loss of top soil, increased production costs and declining water availability.

"All of these problems we are facing are more personal than ever before," he said. "We all need to be more than what we can be if we're going to get out of this mess."

Lundgren is research co-author of "Defining and validating regenerative farm systems using a composite of ranked agricultural practices"—work published last year on the open research platform F1000Research. The project brought together scientists from California State University, East Bay; University of Minnesota; Purdue University; University of Nebraska; and South Dakota State University.

Lundgren said the research revealed healthier soil, higher plant and insect biodiversity and faster water infiltration rates in almond orchards employing regenerative practices. Crop yields and profits were similar to conventional practices, but with fewer inputs needed thanks to livestock that graze the cover crops.

"Most conventional farms abandon these inputs out of necessity," Lundgren said. "I encourage you to understand the ecology of your farm."

Montes said she began farming almonds conventionally with her father after graduating from California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, in 2001. By 2006, they transitioned to organic almond production and diversified into organic olive production in 2010, employing crop variety that is a hallmark of regenerative agriculture.

"I always knew I wanted to take over the farming, and I knew we needed to diversify because we were vulnerable otherwise," she said.

Montes' children, nieces and nephews represent the fifth generation of the family in California farming—more than 100 years. She said, "It has been exciting to see the changes on our farm, and I'm excited about what we can do with this kind of farming."

Cindy Daley of Chico State's Center for Regenerative Agriculture has been working with the Burroughs family since 2006, while incorporating climate-smart agricultural practices in the college's curriculum.

"It is the farmers leading this effort," she told guests at the field day. "It does take a psychological shift in your farming to embrace these practices. But that's why you are here today, to kick the tires and see what others are doing."

Farmers, educators, policymakers, salesmen, nut processors, funders and activists came together at the event to learn about regenerative practices. Research on soil tests, biodiversity and ecosystem resiliency was presented by experts from Chico State, University of California, Davis, and UC Cooperative Extension. Scientists from the Ecdysis Foundation also led a variety of in-the-field seminars that resulted in attendees tromping through cover crops in search of insects.

Four generations of the Jantz family convened at the event, with 5-year-old Levi sweeping for bugs in the cover crop. Levi's dad, Rylan Jantz, drove three hours from Colusa County with his father, Linwood, to delve deeper into regenerative practices, which he is using on his Chandler walnut farm. They met up with local farmers—great-grandparents Cleo and Twila Jantz.

"I came today because I want to learn more about how to integrate animals in the orchard," Rylan Jantz said. He added he was looking to network and find a lead in acquiring Katahdin sheep, which do not need shearing, for grazing in his orchard. Livestock are removed from regenerative orchards 120 days before harvest to address food-safety concerns.

Joe Gardiner, national sales and marketing manager at Treehouse Almonds, a Tulare County nut processor, also attended the field day to glean more information for himself and his growers.

He said he has some concerns about using livestock as part of the cycle and noted that a lush cover crop such as the one at Burroughs Family Orchards is likely not possible in Kern County, where he farms, due to different microclimates. Still, he said he was curious if he could benefit from regenerative practices.

"We have some of the best ground in the world, but we do need to rebuild our soil health," he said. "I'm here to see how these practices work and if we can adopt some of them. We are trying to do some of the little things that will help our operations."

(Lisa McEwen is a reporter in Exeter. She may be contacted at mcewenlisamarie@gmail.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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