Preserving Family and Farming: Skyelark Ranch
By Gianna Banducci, Kitchen Table Advisors
September 22, 2016
Isla Robertson is the youngest farmer in her family. At seven months old, she spends the majority of her days outdoors, sharing in the work of running Skyelark Ranch with her parents and fellow farmers, Alexis and Gillies. In addition to her budding interest in leaves and birds, Isla is learning what it means to be part of a small livestock farm—raising animals humanely, attending farmers markets, and cultivating direct connections with local food.
There’s a lot to understand and even more to do on the ranch, but, for the Skyelark farmers, sharing this work as a family is what sustains their business.
A Conservation-Focused Vision
Before Skyelark Ranch and Isla were born, Alexis and Gillies focused their efforts on environmental conservation. After crossing paths in a geography class in Tasmania, the two returned to the U.S. together to explore farming via internships. Gillies’ one and only season picking carrots in the rain confirmed for him that he was definitely not a vegetable farmer. Instead, the couple’s shared background in conservation drove them to pursue livestock management.
Skyelark Ranch is a pasture-based livestock operation located in Yolo County’s Capay Valley. The farm is home to Berkshire pigs, California Red sheep, and a variety of chickens (both broilers and layers). Alexis and Gillies had a strong vision of conservation and habitat preservation from the start. Rotational grazing, carefully selected livestock breeds, and low tillage are among their methods for raising their animals in alignment with their environmental values. The animals spend their lives outdoors, grazing or foraging in one field before being moved to the next. Not only does this approach make for happy and healthy animals, but it also spreads nutrients across the ranch, building soil fertility and supporting forage regrowth.
Alexis and Gillies’ commitment to conservation extends to another major resource on the ranch: water. Starting their farm during one of California’s historic droughts greatly (and not surprisingly) influenced their irrigation plan. Quite simply, the farmers don’t irrigate because there’s no water to do so. “We have to adapt our management approach to what’s going on in the landscape,” explains Alexis. “With the below average rainfall of the past six years, we’ve learned how to farm in drought and know no differently.”
Limited water, fickle animals, and uncertain weather can amount to enormous challenges for first-time farmers. Still, for Alexis and Gillies, some of the most significant hurdles they encountered lay outside of nature. “The hardest part of getting started was access to capital,” says Alexis. Six years ago when Alexis was finishing a master’s degree and Gillies was working full-time, they struggled to get a loan to start their farm.
They relied on credit cards and paychecks to piece their operation together, growing slowly and thoughtfully. “In hindsight, it helped us learn about scale and what’s sustainable for this piece of land,” Alexis reflects. “We were more intentional about what we grow and what the land can support.”
Eventually, the couple got connected with California FarmLink and was able to secure a loan to lease their farm. While the 60–acre ranch continues to be a cherished home for the young family, their ultimate goal is land ownership. As fervent environmental stewards, Alexis and Gillies view land ownership as an opportunity to build sustainability and resiliency into their farm’s ecosystem.
In preparing for this next step, the couple expressed gratitude to California FarmLink and Kitchen Table Advisors for helping them chart a course toward ownership. Kitchen Table Advisors is advising them on budget development, preparing the farmers to search for properties based on what they can afford.
“Why is this bacon so expensive?”
Whether sharing about their capital needs or speaking to the unending drought, Alexis and Gillies remain as transparent as possible when it comes to their farm, for two reasons. It is deeply important to the couple that their customers know them as their farmers and understand that they are the only ones behind the food being produced. “I really want people to know that we are a true family farm. Every time you buy from us, you are supporting us directly,” Alexis emphasizes.
As customers get to know Alexis and Gillies, they come to understand the realities of their work. “Why is this bacon so expensive?” is a constant question the couple receives from customers at farmers markets. The question makes for the perfect opening into a discussion about running a small farm business and the real costs of conscientiously produced food. Alexis particularly enjoys talking about the often-overlooked finances of small farming, as she wants customers to recognize that this is their family’s sole livelihood.
Selling at farmers markets has helped facilitate these open and honest conversations. For the past three years, the family has attended Oakland’s Jack London Square Farmers Market on Sundays. With CUESA recently taking over the waterfront market, Alexis already feels a change, translating to more opportunities for one-on-one conversations. Owing to the scale and diversity of sales they’ve been able to achieve at farmers markets, the couple is now adding another sales channel to the mix—wholesale.
Generations of Family
Amidst the many twists and turns of farming, Alexis and Gillies find motivation and connection from their tight-knit community of growers. Speaking about the older generation of farmers, Alexis recognizes Full Belly Farm, Riverdog Farm, and Fiddler’s Green Farm for their pioneering work establishing sales channels and educating customers on local food.
Gillies also expressed appreciation for the multi-generation farmers and their profound expertise in traditional production methods. “Even though our operation is slightly different than theirs, they’re still willing to help us with advice and equipment,” he says. “We’re lucky to live in a community with these resources. And most of the farmers still answer our phone calls!”
From one family farm to the next, the farmers’ shared experiences and cooperation are what preserve the art of producing food. Alexis and Gillies do not know yet if Isla’s future will be in farming; however, their commitment remains to building a farm that can support them. In turn, the family of three can then reach so many more with the food and farm they’ve grown.
Find Skyelark Ranch at CUESA’s Jack London Square Farmers Market on Sundays, alternating with Casa Rosa Farms.
This article is a part of an ongoing series highlighting CUESA farmers and ranchers mentored by Kitchen Table Advisors. Together, CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors are supporting the economic viability of the next generation of sustainable small farms by offering critical market and promotion opportunities and in-depth business and financial advising. You can read more articles about businesses supported by CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors here.
Photos by Skyelark Ranch and Caitlin Crow, Orange Photography.