How often do you think about where your food comes from? Chances are, not that much. However, sustainable food supply is becoming increasingly important. Like the other products we consume, the foods we eat also have individual carbon footprints. Products that travel long distances from farm to the table have a higher carbon footprint due to transportation and packaging. Proximity to a food source can also impact the nutritional value of the product. Local foods are healthier because they are fresher and picked at optimum ripeness. Since produce begins to lose nutrients soon after being picked, local produce loses fewer nutrients as it travels only short distances.
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For many years John Chester, a filmmaker, and his wife Molly, a traditional chef, lived and worked in Santa Monica, California. Through her work, Molly realized that the nutritional content of her food was influenced by the distance from its source and the caliber of farming practices on the farm. In light of this, the Chesters embarked on their journey to start their own farm in 2011. Their goal was to grow healthy produce in harmony with the natural environment. They moved from Santa Monica to a plot of land in Moorpark, California, where they founded Apricot Lane Farms.
Related: A Unique No-Till, Regenerative Farm Is Here in California
Setting up the farm
When the Chesters started working the land, the soil was completely degraded due to unsustainable farming practices over the past 50 years. Under the mentorship of Alan York, the team was able to restore the ecosystem and its biodiversity.
Currently, the farm grows over 200 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. They also raise poultry and livestock, including cows, sheep, chickens, ducks, guinea fowl, and pigs. The team incorporates various farming methods and philosophies that best suit the environment. In doing so, they maintain a synergy between the agricultural practices of the farm and the flora and fauna of the revitalized ecosystem.
Grow the farm
Over the past decade, ALF has obtained several agricultural certifications. They are part of California Certified Organic Farms and have achieved Demeter Biodynamic Certification International Standards. In addition, the farm is certified regenerative organic. This means they meet the highest standards for soil health, animal welfare, and farm worker fairness.
Over the years, the farm has grown to encompass over 250 native plant species. Although not all are harvestable crops, they serve to support the ecosystem and provide habitat for various animals, including badgers and barn owls, all of which help maintain the natural environment. This also includes the pond, which is a certified wildlife habitat. Likewise, the vegetable garden is a CWH that attracts various insects, including pollinators like bees and butterflies. These further support the farm by maintaining production levels and supporting native species through pollination.
Improve nutrition and harvest
Apricot Lane Farms focuses on soil health to maximize the nutritional value and flavor of its products. By emphasizing the quality of the soil, the well-being of the ecosystem is put forward. The Farm Fertility Center is one of the key spaces on the farm that focuses on this initiative. The space includes a large worm bin with Red Wiggler worms that mimic the soil’s natural building process. Worms create vermicompost (i.e. worm poo compost) using food scraps, manure, and wood chips. This is then poured into mash vats to exponentially multiply the levels of fungi, bacteria, and protozoa. As a result, these microorganisms enrich the soil by increasing organic matter and nutrients.
An example of how ALF’s nutrient-rich soil improves the flavor and taste of products is its avocados. The avocado orchard includes 15 varieties of fruit, allowing for year-round produce throughout the year. Additionally, the team harvests its Hass avocados in peak season and cold presses them in cooking oil.
One of the key principles on which the farm is based is diversification. This is evident in The Fruit Basket, Apricot Lane Farms’ largest orchard. The Chesters and their team planted 75 different types of fruit, including stone fruit and citrus, among others. The orchard is planted on a contoured site to reduce rain and loss of topsoil. About four years into their efforts, the orchards became infested with snails, which began to pose problems for plant health and seasonal harvests. To combat this, the ducks on the farm feed on snails and keep snail levels manageable.
Strengthening the ecosystem with the cover crop
Between grow spaces, ALF uses cover crops to further improve soil quality and ecosystem biodiversity. The farm’s cover crop includes what people might generally think of as weeds, including herbaceous plants and grasses that can be grazed. This layer of vegetation prevents soil erosion, sequesters carbon, and prevents rainwater runoff.
The cover crop is maintained by sheep and cows that graze and fertilize the pasture section by section. Cows primarily graze and trample grass to promote healthy regrowth. During this time, the sheep nibble the lower leaves of the lemon trees. This serves as a pruning service for the farmers and a natural method of de-worming for the herd.
After the sheep and cows have moved to the pastures, the chickens are brought in. They feed on the protein-rich fly larvae in cow manure, allowing them to produce nutrient-rich eggs with beautifully colored shells. Meanwhile, manure from the chickens serves as nitrogen fertilizer that enriches the soil. Thanks to the various animals that make their way through the pastures, the humus of the soil increases, allowing healthy topsoil, and sequestering water and carbon.
A common question asked of the farm team is why they raise animals for meat. Currently, using only animals to build the ground is not an option for the farm. As animals age and become ill, they need more support and resources to live. This becomes unsustainable as the farmer must maintain constant levels of resources and energy to keep aging animals alive. In addition, the farm sustainably breeds endangered livestock species. This includes the Red Wattle heritage sow breed, a species that Apricot Lane Farms has worked to conserve.
Inspire the wider community
To inspire a love of nature in future generations, ALF has set up a one-room schoolhouse. Children are allowed to explore their interests and learn through organized experiences on the farm. This allows them to grow and learn from Mother Nature.
In 2018, the Chesters produced a documentary titled “The Biggest Little Farm” which featured the story of the creation of Apricot Lane Farms and its growth from 10 acres to a bustling 214 acres. In October 2022, the first ALF cookbook is expected to be published. It features over 130 seasonally inspired recipes developed by Molly Chester, each celebrating farm-fresh ingredients.
Through their multi-faceted approach, the Chesters and their team transformed Apricot Lane Farms from a degraded and over-harvested plot into a thriving and biodiverse ecosystem. Their varied farming practices ensure that they maximize their harvest in a sustainable way while having minimal impact on the environment.