Star Route Farms Empowers the Next Generation of Land Stewards

Selina Knowles, Communications Coordinator
January 28, 2022

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USF students conduct a stream survey at Star Route Farms. Photo by April Randle. 

With the average U.S. farmer age 57 and rising, it’s more important than ever for farmers to be intentional about passing on their farm and legacy. When farmer Warren Weber was ready to retire, his decision determined the future of the oldest continuously organic farm in California, Star Route Farms. In 2017, he sold the farm to the University of San Francisco, so that it could become a resource for the next generation. Today, students and faculty visit the farm for hands-on education and environmental research, while the farm continues to offer organic produce at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market every Saturday. 

Rooted in Sustainable Agriculture

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Workers harvest chard on the farm. 

Raised in Missouri and Connecticut, Weber worked on rural farms as a teenager. After completing his undergraduate degree in Agricultural Economics (and a PhD in English), Weber applied his learned wisdom and lived experience to the growing organic movement. In 1974, he founded Star Route Farms on five acres in the coastal community of Bolinas, California. 

In Weber’s words, “Organic farming is so environmentally important, and we really want to protect these practices to be able to live in a climate changing world.” Weber’s dedication to the organic movement laid a foundation for the farm’s growth. He served on many boards in the organic farming community, and was instrumental in the creation of Marin Organic Certified Agriculture (MOCA), one of the first county government certifiers in the country.

Star Route Farms currently spans 40 acres of organically farmed land and 60 acres of mixed woodland habitat. Using organic practices that build soils, conserve water, maintain habitat, and nurture productive farmland, the farm has earned its reputation as a leader in environmental sustainability. Weber operated Star Route Farms with care for the earth and for future generations, and after 44 years of farming, he was ready to retire and pass on the legacy. 

Turning a Working Farm into a Teaching Resource 

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The farm’s biodiversity and geographic features, such as the ponds, enable environmental learning.

Finding the right successor and caretaker for Star Route Farms was no minor undertaking. Not everyone was up for the challenge of managing the farm’s year-round production and complex business.

“It was a very difficult decision because I had been farming it since the beginning,” says Weber. “I realized I had to figure out how to transition the farm and I didn’t quite know how. My two children weren’t going to take it over, so the question was: who will we find who will be interested in it?” 

It took years of searching to find the right candidate capable of stewarding the farm, managing the business, and honoring its organic legacy. In 2017, Weber sold the farm to the University of San Francisco, with the goal of utilizing it for hands-on teaching and research. 

The university was an excellent match, according to Weber, because “the whole business itself didn’t have to change. They could stay with the accounts they had and the staff we had developed.” A member of the continuing team, Farm Manager Annabelle Lenderink echoes, “The idea was that the farm would remain a working farm and that as little as possible would change, so that’s turned out to be pretty true.”

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Annabelle Lenderink continues to manage Star Route Farms.

While maintaining the farm’s operations, the university began to host classes and research in 2018. The farm’s biodiversity and geographic features invite exploration and raise important ecological questions. Some classes that have visited the farm include Stream Ecology, Pollination Biology, Hydrology, Classical Studies, and Liminal Ecologies, plus several retreats and meetings. 

The farm has hosted nearly 700 academic visitors during the first three years under the university. However, during COVID, visits halted while students transitioned to online learning. After vaccinations became available, faculty and graduate students eventually returned to the farm with their focus on research rather than teaching. Academic coordinators took this time to strengthen the structure of learning opportunities in the long-term. 

Grant awards have allowed faculty and graduate students to apply for funding for projects on the farm. One award recipient, Associate Professor David Silver, worked with students in a Community Garden Outreach class to provide nutritious meals to students visiting the USF Food Pantry throughout the 2021-22 academic year. Silver supplemented the pantry, a crucial resource, with organic produce from Star Route Farms. 

Empowering the Next Generation of Environmental Stewards

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Faculty Researcher AJ Purdy and Undergraduate Researcher Jesse Carlson install a soil moisture sensor. Photo courtesy of USF. 

USF students returned to the farm in fall 2021, including Introduction to Environmental Science and Insect Biology classes. The former allows students to engage with the farm by collecting soil samples and studying soil characteristics and nutrients, with a particular focus on carbon sequestration. With students observing the close relationship between the soil and the crops, their research can also be integrated into the farm’s operations. 

Faculty Director of Star Route Farms April Randle is excited about the learning opportunities at the farm. Randle says “In this really challenging time, it’s really important to engage students in something positive, where they can feel like they’re making positive change to their local environment. They need to feel ownership of something, they need to feel agency, and they need to feel empowered.” 

According to Anastasia Vrachnnos, USF’s Vice Provost of Global Education, Immersions, and Strategic Initiatives, who oversees academic planning at Star Route Farms, “Educating students to make good change in the world means giving them the skills and tools to address complex real world problems such as environmental justice, sustainability, climate change, and food insecurity. Star Route Farms lets us expand the walls of our classrooms to include hands-on, immersive and collaborative learning on a working organic farm and provides our faculty a unique opportunity to generate research insights and datasets that can help the farm and the beloved community of which we are a part.”

Today, Lenderink continues to manage the farm with Nick Civetz and their crew.  She reports, “We’re pretty much the same farm that we were. We grow the same things that we have been growing for a long time and for the same people.” Organic produce production and wildlife continue to thrive, and for the first time, the farm recently saw three different types of salmon in its creek: Chinook, Steelhead, and Coho. Such variety is a vital sign that reflects the farm’s sustainable stewardship and care. 

Even in retirement, Weber keeps in touch with Lenderink at the farm and enjoys picking rights when he passes through with his family. By selling Star Route Farms to USF, he has contributed a powerful resource for future generations to learn about the impact of organic farming on the natural world. 

In his words, “People deserve to get the best food and the best produce. And I think these values that only organic farmers have had for generations now are still really valid and need to be protected and sustained.” 

Support Star Route Farms at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

 

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