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.

 

Visit the Biggest Little Farm

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Apricot Lane Farm is located in Moorpark, CA in Ventura County just minutes from Simi Valley.

You may have watched The Biggest Little Farm documentary in theaters, on a plane or now streaming from Amazon, or Google Play. You can actually visit Apricot Lane Farm in Moorpark, California. They have a couple of public tours each month and typically sell out quickly, so for your best shot, sign up for the newsletter to receive ample notice of the next set of tours.

I had the opportunity to participate in a private tour organized by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for their employees. The goal was educational because Apricot Lane Farm is an example of a regenerative farm. Conventional farming uses chemicals to achieve yields, and tills with tractors, and leaves ground bare. These practices mine the soil and lead to release of carbon into the atmosphere. Sustainable farming is a step in the right direction. Like organic farming, it stops some activities and maintains others. It does not do as much environmental harm as conventional farming but it doesn’t revitalize life in the same magnitude as regenerative farming.

Regenerative farming is about returning life to the soil and in so doing, growing food that is bursting with health and nutritious minerals, and doing so in a way that sequesters carbon and uses less water.

This Kiss the Ground video explains it better than I can:

This is the first in a two-parter about regenerative farming and Apricot Lane Farms.

 

 

Penguin Place At Last!

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I saw my first Yellow-eyed penguin from the hide at Bushy Point, but I was at least a hundred meters above the beach and even with binoculars it was hard to appreciate their unique size and markings. Several times I tried going on a Penguin Place tour and couldn’t fit it in with the Little Blue Penguin experience at the Royal Albatross Centre. I was determined to make it work this time!

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Two Yellow-eyed penguins/hoiho recovering from injury at Penguin Place. Hoiho do not do well in captivity and these two males will be released when ready.

Located on a private sheep farm on the Dunedin peninsula, Penguin Place is dedicated to the conservation and welfare of Yellow-eyed penguins/hoiho. Their efforts to restablish habitat and educate the public also benefits Little Blue penguins. I went in the winter months (April-September) so they only offer one tour a day at 3:45 p.m. In the summer months (October-March) there are 90 minute tours running from 10:15 a.m. to 6:16 p.m.

One advantage of going in the winter is the tour group is more likely to be small. There were just a half dozen of us as we bumped in the bus, through the sheep ranch, and toward the trails that lead to the network of hides.

We had plenty of time to ask our questions as we waited in the hide and looked out at the beach waiting for a Yellow-eyed penguin to return. A large sea lion was hanging out on the beach probably sending “stay away” vibes to penguins. We were not disappointed though. There were two Yellow-eyed penguins who stayed on land all day. One was just a few feet from the hide and another was some distance below the hide but away from the beach and visible to us. We also saw several single and pairs of Little Blue Penguins in their wooden hutches along the trail.

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Female hoiho stayed home to prepare her nest.

All of the money from the penguin tourism goes back into rehabilitating penguins in the hospital and conserving the breeding grounds. In spite of the extensive efforts by people and the NZ Department of Conservation, the numbers are shrinking. When I first took an interest in hoiho there were 400-600 breeding pairs on the NZ mainland, and now there are just 266 breeding pairs. There is also a sex imbalance with three males for every female. It is hard to state with certainty what is causing the decline but it is likely warming oceans and changing food supply. Participating in this guided tour is a small way to do your part for the species. And we need to all make changes to address the climate crisis.

EcoWinery: Yealands in Marlborough Wine District

IMG_9397One of the other themes of my New Zealand Adventure 2019 is eccentricity. I have been loving meeting or learning about wonderfully eccentric Kiwis. In case you think being eccentric is a bad thing, I mean it as a compliment. Especially because most innovation and out of the box thinking comes from eccentric people who are themselves without a care for what others think (or at least not enough to let them stop them). In some places, like Oamaru, where there are more eccentrics per capita (unverified theory of mine), it seems that people taking the path less travelled congregate. (Hmm, if everyone is taking their own path, how did they all end up in Oamaru?)

I’ve often thought that Kiwi culture is more likely to allow for an autodidact to gain expertise and do something original than say, American culture. One such person is Peter Yealands who figured out that the area around Seddon (in the Marlborough wine district) could successfully grow grapes. He started by buying up sections and planting  grapes that ultimately this led to this winery.

Yealands Family Wines is now largely owned by the local utility district (long story of financial troubles), but Peter’s eccentricity is still evident as the winery strives to be carbon neutral. They have an entire roof of solar panels, turn their trimmed vines into clean energy, host chickens to control grass grubs, and breed a particularly small breed of sheep to mow their grass cover crop.

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Merino sheep mow the cover crops until the vines begin to leaf out. Then the sheep are removed because they eat the leaves and early fruit. Yealands shorter sheep allow the sheep to mow year round, saving fuel for mowers. This idea hasn’t caught on yet.

I learned from the Davisons that the cover crops on the all the vineyards in the district are not because of some enlightened soil management but because it invariably rains just before harvest and the machinery used for harvest cannot get into the fields without the grass everywhere between vines and fence lines.

You can tour this winery and enjoy a free tasting. There is also a self-drive tour you can make in your vehicle called the “White Road Tour.” Open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Yealands Estate Wines are located at 534 Seaview Road, Seddon, Malborough.

 

 

Monarch Butterflies at Risk

One of the themes of this New Zealand adventure is species at risk. It as though all of the “sky is falling” warnings of those enviro “Henny Pennys” are finally coming home to roost. As I travel I am encountering fewer birds that before, and therefore fewer penguins. I was hoping to see a Kea on my southern sojourn, but alas, friends say that their range has contracted to Arthurs Pass.

Monarch butterfly populations are crashing in North America, and it seems they are in the southern hemisphere as well. We can do more than wring our hands or just wish for a different outcome. We can plant the species of native plants we know provide food and shelter for Monarch butterflies and other pollinator insects.

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Swan plants at Paripuma in Blenheim, NZ

Whilst I was in Blenheim I learned about the swan plant, the preferred plant of the Monarch butterfly in New Zealand. Similar to the milkweed in North America, it has a milky substance in its stem and flossy flowering pods. The plant is the preferred place to leave its eggs or form a chrysalis.

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Many plants attractive to pollinators also appeal to humans.

My experience with planting milkweed seeds in my home garden has been one of frustration. They never seem to germinate. This year I was able to transplant some dormant milkweed from a native plant garden about to undergo renovation. So far they are slow growing but responding. None of mine look as magnificent as Rosa Davison’s swan plants. Also, if you want to do the Monarchs a favor–stop or greatly reduce using any chemicals including fertilizer in your garden.

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In California you can visit a special grove in Pacific Grove where the Monarch’s overwinter. Their numbers have been shrinking. Similarly in New Zealand, Butterfly Bay in Northland’s Whangaroa Harbour is an overwintering site. They have also seen a dramatic decline in butterfly numbers.

You can learn more about planting a pollinator garden for butterflies, or donating to promote butterfly habitats:

North America—Xerces Society http://www.xerces.org/monarch

New Zealand–Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust http://www.monarch.org.nz

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Bernadette

I saw the trailer a few months ago and made a mental note to see the film. Cate Blanchett is completely believable as a genius architect who has become a social menace. I was rooting for her the whole way. All of the actors were excellent. Although you have to wonder, when Billy Crudup plays another self-absorbed man, if in fact he’s playing himself.

I had not read the book, by the same name. book

My mom and I like to go to the movies together. We generally like the same kind of films: No violence! This takes out 80 percent or more of the options. We prefer lively plots involving well-developed characters. Good acting is a plus. Even with such liberal requirements we can go months without a movie worthy of our entertainment dollars. We thoroughly enjoyed this film.

I also loved the penguins! The film begins with Bernadette in a kayak in Antarctica, so I don’t need to worry about creating a spoiler. I enjoyed the details about the science focused cruises they book, the reality of seasickness on Drake’s Passage, and the new design for the South Pole research center (shown during the credits).

Screen Shot 2019-08-24 at 8.21.53 PMI got to thinking about my own goal to visit Antarctica with my grandson when he is old enough (must be over 8 for most cruises). How do we visit responsibly? The climate crisis is hitting some parts of the world more than others. And we watched this movie while the news of the Amazon rainforest fires broke. I appreciate how Afar travel magazine tackles these hard issues. Should we travel at all, and especially climate-impacted places, if our travel might hasten the crisis (excerpt of 8-23-2019 article by Michelle Baran above)?

First, you might choose to go because the areas where Amazon eco-tourism is available is not threatened by fire; however, as a Californian with experience dealing with megafire smoke, I have to warn anyone with lung issues that the smoke can be a serious health threat. The photo of Sao Paolo in darkness at 2 p.m. must be taken seriously by anyone with asthma. Smoke also creates a really depressing environment for a vacation.

Second, there is a case that Afar makes to go ahead and visit the more sustainable ecotourism providers to strengthen the case to local governments that the rainforest is worth more as a tourist and environmental resource than it is for its short-lived timber or cattle production. Other ethical suggestions include: 1) Look for carbon neutral travel providers; 2) Eat only locally produced grassfed beef; 3) Do not use tropical hardwoods in building and furniture. My initial reaction is this is insufficient.

At the same time, I am not traveling just to increase my status as a someone who goes to the hard to reach places, and I am willing to share why these places need to be managed differently on this blog and other places. If I am willing to grapple with the accompanying socio-economic issues, and educate my network of family and friends, then maybe I can justify the impact.

I will write more on ethical travel…