Have you heard about the new farming certification? Probably not, because I just made it up and I haven’t told anyone until now. I’m unofficially calling it “Respectfully Grown.”
Organic, Biodynamic and Fair Trade are nice terms. But how shall we measure the farmers whose good deeds transcend the legal standards of these certifications? Where is the certification for the farmers who share a family brunch with workers after harvest? The olive oil producer who publishes open-source solutions to fix bottling equipment? The rancher who invested to create a mobile harvest unit to help smaller ranchers? The vineyard that tries to keep its seasonal workers employed year-round because it cares about their quality of life?
Meet Kiler Canyon Farm, Kiler Ridge Olive Farm, Flying M Ranch and Tablas Creek Vineyard, the first recipients of my unofficial “Respectfully Grown” certification. These are four real examples of producers in the Paso Robles area who go above and beyond. They are by and large in line with one or several certifications already. Many of them agree that certifications are important to give veracity to the quality and ethical origins of a product. However, each of these producers goes beyond the letter of certifications to embody a spirit of respect for land and people, whether or not it earns them points on a certification scorecard.
Here are portraits of these people and practices who demonstrate truly respectful growing.
KILER CANYON FARM
Location: West Paso Robles
Innovation: community-supported agriculture (CSA) program
Farmers: Chaponica Trimmell, Kayleen Perlich, Quill and Dan Chase, Keren Ram
The saddest story I ever did hear was of a rice farmer who grew for the commodity market. He sold unmilled rice to a larger processor that finished it before it could be consumed. He never had a chance in 40 years of farming to taste the fruit of his labor. If that’s a sad story, then Kiler Canyon Farm is by far the happiest—all the farmers eat their own produce every day of the week, choosing from an exceptional diversity of greens, tomatoes, okra, beets, radishes, potatoes and herbs along with fruit from a small orchard and flowers for decor.
Kiler Canyon Farm features many aspects of sustainability not reflected in their Organic Certification. Only a small fraction of the farm’s 150 acres is under cultivation—the rest remains for the wildlife. They innovatively recycle used materials, such as repurposed doors to create their greenhouse and packing shed. They produce most of their own food on the land where they also live, including cheese and meat. Their cornucopia of produce is also enjoyed by CSA subscibers and in lovingly packed in returnable wooden baskets, which besides being lovely and rustic actually help keep the produce humid and fresh. Did I mention that they have peacocks?
Above all, the farm exemplifies a livelihood at the human scale—the families take great pride in operating every aspect of the farm themselves. Therefore, you won’t find the Kiler Canyon produce at any store or farmers market. Instead, Kiler Canyon sells directly to consumers through a community-supported agriculture harvest subscription program. Prepaid subscribers receive a weekly basket of produce. This model provides predictability in labor and a steady income not undercut by middlemen or fluctuating markets.
Kiler Canyon is taking pre-orders for its 2014 CSA. Visit KilerCanyonFarm.com or call 805.239.9503 for more info.
KILER RIDGE OLIVE FARM
Location: West Paso Robles
Innovation: zero net energy production facility
Farmers: Audrey Burnam, Gregg Bone
All good farmers are by necessity jacks- and jills-of-all-trades. Gregg and Audrey of Kiler Ridge Olive Farm bring a new meaning to this saying with successful backgrounds in engineering and health care. Now, Gregg and Audrey are on a mission to create an olive oil that is as good for the body as it is good for the Earth. And they are using all their skills and training to make it happen.
Kiler Ridge doesn’t farm olives, it farms polyphenols—natural antioxidants abundant in pre-ripe olives. The polyphenols have several functions: They not only help to preserve the olive oil, they also act as a natural medicine. Moreover, they give the olive oil a “Tuscan burn”—a spiciness absent from anything found in the store.
Gregg has designed and built a custom olive press housed on-site so that his olives are fully processed in less than four hours after picking. Kiler Ridge oils are authentic extra- virgin oils as they use a press instead of toxic solvents to extract the oil. Since there are no laws regulating the use of the term “extra-virgin,” many oils sold in the U.S. are mislabeled. Gregg and Audrey can teach you to smell and taste the difference. Their product is only retailed on-site and in select stores that allow customers to taste before buying.
The visual centerpiece of Kiler Ridge is its straw bale tasting room, kitchen and processing center. Utilizing ambient temperatures, the facility requires little heating or cooling. The processing equipment, however, uses a lot of electricity. A nearby array of solar panels offsets 100% of its energy demand. Gregg uses open-source software and hardware to run a portion of the facility and shares his innovations online.
For purchase, tour and tasting info, visit KilerRidge.com or call 805.400.1439.
FLYING M RANCH
Location: West Paso Robles
Innovation: mobile harvest unit
Rancher/Farmer: Greg McMillan
Greg McMillan has no use for the sustainability lingo that fits neatly on labels and packaging. He doesn’t retail his products (olive oil and beef) in any store anywhere but only sells through word of mouth, mostly to people he knows. Having had only one address his whole life—he was born on the 580-acre Flying M Ranch—his respect for the land is a given and extends to all of creation.
Another jack-of-all-trades, Greg spent most of his life as a pioneer in straw bale home construction, which he viewed as a solution to many environmental crises. He built the first state-permitted straw bale home with Ken Haggard. He also built the aforementioned Kiler Ridge Olive Farm facility. His own straw bale home is off the grid, using solar power and passive heating and cooling.
Greg’s olive oil is mellow and mild, almost buttery, while his cattle are wild animals. He keeps only 20 on 400 acres so that they have ample grass even in the driest of years such as this. Due to his light footprint on the land, native bunch grasses are returning in an area historically used to dry-farm grains.
One of the main barriers to small cattle operations like Greg’s is the difficulty of harvesting the meat. Most small operations truck their animals to far-away processing facilities, which incurs financial costs for the rancher and stress for the animals. To overcome this, Greg worked with a group of ranchers through the nonprofit Central Coast Grown (formerly Central Coast Ag. Network) to create the first and only USDA-certified Mobile Harvest Unit in California. The 28-foot truck is currently operated by J&R Meats and allows for small ranchers to reap the benefits of low-cost, on-site processing.
To inquire about purchasing beef or olive oil, write email@example.com or call 805.238.4820.
TABLAS CREEK VINEYARD
Location: North West Paso Robles
Innovation: care for livelihood
Executive Winemaker and Vineyard Manager: Neil Collins
Owned by the old French Perrin family and managed by the Haas father and son team, Tablas Creek Vineyard is a family affair. When it comes to running the operation Neil Collins is the man on the job. Voted 2013’s SLO County Winemaker of the Year by his peers, Neil invests care in the process beginning to end, from growing organic and biodynamic grapes to overseeing the winemaking.
While some vineyards appear to be little more than factories, barren except for grapevines, Tablas Creek clucks, oinks, bahs, hums and heehaws with life. Neil actively incorporates animals into the production of the grapes, running chickens, pigs and a herd of sheep guarded by llamas and donkeys (Fiona and Dottie) to keep down weeds and improve soil nutrients. A constructed wetland treats water from the winery. The vineyard utilizes a Yeomans plow to keyline, a practice that conserves water and reduces erosion. Neil is experimenting with dry farming as well.
Much of the work in vineyards is seasonal, which has deep social repercussions. Many vineyards hire masses of workers for the few months they are needed and fire them when the season ends. Tablas Creek works hard to retain as many workers as possible, giving workers less critical tasks in the down-season to keep them employed. The results are beautiful: stone walls and animal shelters have been built from native Adelaide rock; a natural straw bale barn was constructed; barley is grown between the vine rows and harvested by hand to provide off-season fodder for the animals.
For wine or a tour, visit TablasCreek.com or call 805.237.1231