Apricot Lane Farms Looks Just Like the Movies

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Emma the Pig with her granddaughter enjoying a non-industrial pig’s life.

Have you been to Universal Studios or one of the other movie studio tours? I came awayf from my first studio tour marveling at how so many facades and stage props are so fake looking and yet look so real on film. I am happy to report that after seeing The Biggest Little Farm and then touring the real Apricot Lane Farms (the focus of the documentary), it is a match!

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Dorper sheep graze in this lemon grove to mow the cover crop and to fertilize the orchard. They also trim up the tree canopy providing some protection to the trees from fungus and snails. 

Located close to Simi Valley and the suburban development of Moorpark, you drive only a few minutes through orchards and hoop houses to reach Apricot Lane Farms. The contrast with the neighboring farms is most stark when you stand at Alan York Point (named for their mentor). On the next farm over there is nothing but bare ground as they clean up after an organic raspberry operation. The erosion on the hillside, the bare soil exposed to the Santa Ana winds, compared to a regenerative farm that is bursting with life.

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The view from Alan York Point. It is early October at the end of a long, dry summer and probably two months from any winter rain. 

Apricot Lane Farms is both California Certified Organic and biodynamic certified. They grow and sell seasonal stone fruit, citrus, avocados, pasture-raised eggs, vegetables, herbs, marmalade, lamb, pork and beef through four farmers markets a week, a couple of individual grocery stores, and a couple of chefs. They do not currently have a selling problem; they have a supply problem. And they uniquely have a Los Angeles based market that can pay for the increased quality ($16 typically for a dozen eggs). They want to expand to three more farmers markets.

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This garden was a horse arena before they regenerated the soil with compost and no-till. This produce is sold through farmer’s markets in the Los Angeles area including the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. 

Co-owner Molly Chester experienced some health issues that led her to become a traditional food chef in Hollywood. She is still the most active partner in farm operations (John Chester is a film maker foremost). Her interests led them to Apricot Lane Farms and together, with their mentor Alan York, adopt these five pillars.

Apricot Lane Farm’s 5 Pillars:

  1. Soil health is the foundation for everything else…
  2. Growing the healthiest food
  3. Treating animals ethically and evolutionarily appropriate
  4. Regenerating the land
  5. Building community

They quickly discovered that uncovered soil is dying soil, so the cover crops are key and tilling has been almost entirely eliminated. In the garden, they sometimes cover the ground with plastic. Today, the only bare soil is the roadways, and the soil fertility in the pastures and orchards has recovered. At the beginning the soil was testing 1-3% organic matter and after 8 years the soils are testing between 3-6%, and the vegetable beds at 11%. For each percent increase in organic matter they are sequestering 21 tons of carbon per acre per year.

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Key to the operation is the 40 foot worm bed to collect castings to brew a “tea.” This is then used to fertigate the orchards, providing an innoculant of micro-organisms for the soil and plants. Head of farm operations, Trevor, shows us the high concentration of worms.

Trevor is the manager of the farming operation, and John Chester described his job as integrating the six farming enterprises. There is essentially the pasture, cow, chicken rotation; the orchard, duck, sheep rotation; the pigs stand alone, and the truck crops. The composting operation undergirds it all. And 15 bee hives spread around the farm are among the pollinators. Ten percent of the farm is set aside for habitat (mainly in and around the pond) but they are expanding this to 15% and already count over 100 bird species and 215 native plant species.

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If you’ve seen the film, you would not believe the transformation in the pond. Now restored to a glorious habitat, it is no longer connected to the irrigation system.

It is a unique operation because it does have revenue from entertainment (movies, shorts, children’s books, etc.). This is why the buildings are built to be aesthetically pleasing as well as functional. And they have a 12 person people mover for tours.

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The packing shed for the farmers markets is very pleasing to look at, as is the design of the gardens and orchard.

Apricot Lane Farms uses less water than the conventional counterparts. When they purchased the farm, Ventura County was in severe drought and everyone in the basin had their water use curtailed by 25%, but then they’ve been able to use 15-20% less. In addition, the are able to infiltrate rain water back in to the aquifer. This past winter when they received an above normal 24 inches of rain, they had no run-off except on the roads.

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Maggie the Jersey Cow is looking very healthy and, dare I say, happy.

I easily geek out over agricultural stuff. You may be interested to know that the food grown on a regenerative farm is also more nutritional and tastier. It is also good to know that farming can be part of the climate solution.

 

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