Farming In Harmony

Written by Laura Hilgers | Photography by Spencer Brown

Root Down Farm in Pescadero raises Freedom Ranger chickens, ducks, pigs and turkeys.

Facing the realities of climate change, three small coastal farms work alongside — rather than against — the forces of nature.

When the CZU Lightning Complex fire swept through San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties in August of last year, many residents packed a bag and evacuated quickly. For Dede Boies, owner of Pescadero’s Root Down Farm, the departure was far more complicated.

After making sure that her wife and daughter were safe, she had to relocate 200 heritage turkeys, 60 pigs and four dogs (one pig had a litter in the trailer the day after the evacuation). For three weeks, she returned daily to the farm to care for 3,000 pasture-raised chickens and put sprinklers on the roofs of her barn and outbuildings to protect them.

The fire licked close. It burned Butano State Park — across the street from her bucolic, 62-acre coastal farm — and down the valley to the south. Although Root Down escaped harm, it was a reminder of the baseline Boies lives with every day: climate change, wildfires and state-of-emergency drought conditions, with San Mateo County experiencing its seventh driest year in more than a century, according to drought.gov. It’s also why she and other coastal farmers have made such a deep commitment to regenerative agriculture, working in harmony with animals and the land to improve the environment, rather than deplete it.

Root Down Farm in Pescadero raises Freedom Ranger chickens, ducks, pigs and turkeys. Products are available at farmers markets in San Francisco, by appointment pick-up or via subscription box.
Root Down Farm in Pescadero raises Freedom Ranger chickens, ducks, pigs and turkeys. Products are available at farmers markets in San Francisco, by appointment pick-up or via subscription box.

She does this, in part, by raising animals in a humane way. Boies keeps a variety of chickens called the Freedom Ranger, which live and act more like chickens of a century ago than the Cornish Cross variety most Americans eat today. Her birds, and other meats, are sold at Fatted Calf Butcher Shop in San Francisco, the Sunshine in Pescadero and on Saturdays at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

Because Freedom Rangers grow more slowly, they’re healthier, have stronger legs and are better able to roam. Boies moves her flocks around to different pastures every other day. As the chickens eat bugs and grasses, they fertilize the land with their manure. That regenerates the soil and nourishes plant life, which then sustains the birds in return.

“It’s really important to me to raise animals not only in the setting they’re most accustomed to, but also to give them a humane life,” Boies says. “I feel like that’s overstated, but basically we want the animals to act like the animals they are.”

Doniga Markegard is out on a run to feed her Belted Galloway cattle, who graze on the 1,000 acres that comprise Markegard Family Grass-Fed’s Half Moon Bay location.
Farther up the coast, in Half Moon Bay, Erik and Doniga Markegard, owners of Markegard Family Grass- Fed, approach their grass-fed lamb and cattle in a similar way. They have 11,000 acres of ranchland, with ranches spread across San Mateo, Sonoma and Marin. In Half Moon Bay, their Belted Galloway cattle — a heritage breed from Scotland — graze on the rolling hills of a 1,000-acre ranch. They sell their meats through a “meat CSA” and also at the San Mateo, Sunnyvale and Palo Alto farmers markets.

Erik, a sixth-generation rancher, and Doniga, a former wildlife tracker, raise their herds to mimic the patterns of the wild elk and antelope that once roamed California’s grasslands. They keep the herds moving, careful not to overgraze. The manure the cows and sheep leave behind helps create healthy grasslands by regenerating topsoil, feeding plants and sequestering carbon in the soil — an important factor in mitigating climate change (and an offset to the methane emissions of the cattle).

It’s all in a day’s work for Doniga Markegard, shown checking her orders for delivery.

The Markegards are part of Point Blue Conservation Science’s Rangeland Monitoring Network, and the first ranch in California to receive the Audubon Society’s seal of approval. They work with these two organizations to test their soil for carbon sequestration and have had encouraging results. “The Audubon Society has told us that we’re building carbon at such a massive rate that if just 10 percent of the California rangelands were building at the same rate as our ranches,” Doniga says, “it would be the equivalent to taking two million vehicles off the road in one year.” The populations of at-risk grassland bird species, including the Grasshopper Sparrow and Savannah Sparrow, have also increased on their ranches.

Despite their passion for preserving the land, however, it hasn’t been easy for Dede Boies or the Markegards — or for most farmers along the coast. Even though agriculture is a $93 million-a-year business in San Mateo per the county’s department of agriculture, 46 percent of the county’s farms have disappeared since 1990 based on research by Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST). The coastal farms that once grew brussels sprouts, artichokes and leeks now often get snapped up by wealthy Silicon Valley buyers for private estates.

Doniga Markegard and her husband, Erik, also have ranchland in Sonoma and Marin.

POST has made it a priority to protect agricultural land. Since launching its Farmlands Futures Initiative in 2016, the Palo Alto-based nonprofit has invested more than $42 million to preserve farms and rangeland along the coast. “But there are very few farms and ranches that are owned by the actual farmer,” says Doniga Markegard. She and her husband lease their lands from POST and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. Boies leases her farm from POST and works closely with the organization on land stewardship.

Suzie and Jay Trexler manage Potrero Nuevo Farm in Half Moon Bay, where up to 20,000 pounds of produce per year are distributed to local low-income families.
One exception is Potrero Nuevo Farm, a 300-acre property in Half Moon Bay’s Tunitas Creek Valley that former San Franciscans Christine Pielenz and Bill Laven bought in 2008. The couple were ardent school garden supporters in the City. “They bought this farm with the mission of improving food access for low-income families,” says Suzie Trexler, who manages the farm with her husband, Jay.

In 2011, Potrero Nuevo partnered with Abundant Grace Coastside Worker, a nonprofit that helps people experiencing homelessness, to have its clients work on the farm. Four days a week, Abundant Grace arrives with a group of seven to 10 clients to plant, harvest and tend the farm’s 40 varieties of organic fruits and vegetables. Each worker is paid $50 a day. Potrero Nuevo then distributes its produce — 10,000 to 20,000 pounds per year — to low-income families in Half Moon Bay.

At Potrero Nuevo Farm, Shane Hardie plants, harvests and tends to a wide variety of organic produce.

Like Root Down and Markegard, Potrero Nuevo engages in sustainable practices. In 2015, they placed an agricultural conservation easement on the farm through POST, protecting it from future development. They’re working with the Resource Conservation District on a carbon farm plan. Because of the drought, they’re trying to figure out how to capture and store more rainwater. They’ve also scaled back on how much they grow.

Next season, Potrero Nuevo plans to experiment with dry farming, in which they plant while the ground is still moist from rain and blanket the plants with dry mulch to keep water from evaporating into the air. This method forces plants to send their roots down to the water table, rather than relying on irrigation. It also produces a lower yield. But Potrero Nuevo’s mission is not to grow as much as they can; it’s to extend their Abundant Grace programming for as much of the year as possible.

The peppers at Potrero Nuevo Farm are the fruits of Shane Hardie's labor.
The peppers at Potrero Nuevo Farm are the fruits of Shane Hardie’s labor.

As part of the farm’s work with the homeless, Potrero Nuevo offers a seven-week Farm Apprenticeship and a Conservation Crew program. Abundant Grace clients must apply to both programs to secure a spot. The Conservation Crew recently helped remove invasive species around a pond and plant native species in their place, so the farm can conserve water and capture carbon. But the effects went well beyond planting. “This has been a wonderful way to take people who’ve been coming to the farm for a long time and bring them onto these stunningly beautiful parts of the farm they haven’t accessed before, and work in a really physical way,” says Suzie Trexler. “But we also stop and have nap breaks and chill out and look at the ocean together and talk about what it means to take care of the land. Which is a metaphor for how we take care of ourselves, too.”

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