Working with Nature to Honor Earth Day, Every Day, at Toluma Farms

Janet McGarry, Foodwise Volunteer
April 21, 2022

Earth Day is a time to celebrate farmers and policymakers working to improve the health of California’s agricultural lands and increase the state’s resilience to drought in the face of climate change. Toluma Farms and Tomales Farmstead Creamery is doing just that, in collaboration with nature, the farm’s working goats, and California’s Healthy Soils Program.

“Concern about the climate was our first and foremost motivation for applying for the grant,” says Tamara Hicks of Toluma Farms. They are among a number of Foodwise farmers, including Alexandre Family Farms, McGinnis Ranch, Oya Organics, and Sierra Cascade Blueberry Farm, who have used Healthy Soils Program (HSP) grants to adopt conservation management that sequesters carbon on their farms. 

Help from the Healthy Soils Program

Known for their award-winning cheeses, Toluma Farms is a 160-acre certified organic goat and sheep dairy and educational farm in Tomales. They have been prioritizing climate-smart practices since 2015, when they began working with the Marin Carbon Project to develop a Carbon Farm Plan. 

In 2017, the farm was awarded a HSP grant to implement the plan by planting a windbreak (a row of trees and shrubs that provides protection from the wind) and applying compost to their pastures. “The best time to plant a tree is yesterday,” says Tamara. “Sometimes it feels there’s not a lot to be hopeful for because of all the bad news, but there is something about planting trees that just feels hopeful.”

HSP practices, funded from the state’s cap and trade proceeds and the California Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection, and Outdoor Access for all Act of 2018, provide a myriad of environmental and public health benefits. For example, use of compost and cover crops on agricultural land improves soil’s ability to absorb and retain moisture, vitally important during the West’s most extreme drought in 1,200 years

Compost diverts organic waste from landfills, reducing the farm’s methane emissions, and can replace the use of synthetic fertilizers, which pollute air and water and are a significant source of nitrous oxide. Cover crops reduce erosion and can improve crop yields. Restoration of riparian (river bank) areas and planting native plants provides habitat for insects, birds, and other wildlife, much needed amid California’s biodiversity crisis

Win-Win with Windbreaks

With funding from HSP, Toluma Farms planted 500 native trees and bushes, including California coffeeberry, Monterey cypress, and coast silk tassel, creating two windbreaks that stretch a quarter-mile in length. In addition to sequestering carbon, the trees reduce water runoff and help retain moisture in the soil. 

“Because the farm is close to the ocean, it gets morning fog,” Tamara explains. “As the trees and bushes grow taller, they trap and hold the moisture coming off of the coast, allowing it to drip into the soil so all of the pastures around the windbreak will not dry out as fast when exposed to sun and wind. It’s incredible to see the difference in the health of the trees protected by the old windbreak versus the trees with no windbreak.”

In addition, the windbreak provides habitat for wildlife and flowers for pollinators. “We want to ensure that we are creating an amazingly diverse zone. We care about birds, mountain lions, coyotes, insects. We already have noticed a ton more birds. Several of our workers (Herdmanager Tina Trevino and Land Stewardship Manager Alex Goforth) are huge bird nerds so they are naming this season’s baby goats after California birds.” Goat names include Calliope (Cali) after the smallest California bird (a hummingbird), as well as Robin, Meadowlark, Snowy Plover, Chickadee, Towhee, Finch, Jay, and Mockingbird. 

The trees also provide a natural shelter from the elements for the goats and sheep: shade during the hot months and protection during the cold, windy months. And since goats have a healthy appetite for vegetation, they eat the bark and lower limbs of trees, and graze on hemlock, blackberries, and poison oak, which keeps them from spreading. 

Conservation with Compost

Creating healthy soil is also a priority for the farm. “We need healthy soil for healthy animals so they produce good milk to create good cheese,” says Tamara. “When you start farming, you quickly learn that farming comes back to the health of the soil. If you don’t get that right, nothing will be right and you’ll have one problem after another.” 

Toluma Farms used HSP funding to apply organic compost to grazing pastures where the farm had previously spread organic manure. “We really see a big difference. The grass grows earlier and lasts longer. We have to purchase less alfalfa [for feed], a water-intensive crop, which is terrible for the environment. It is a huge advantage for us financially and for the environment the more that we can grow our own feed,” says Tamara. 

Soil scientists have monitored and measured the changes in the soil on different areas of the farm to compare responses to applications of manure or compost or no amendments, calculating that the farm sequestered 5 metric tons of CO2 through their compost application. 

Scaling up and ensuring that more farms, ranchers, and natural resource managers can invest in carbon-sequestering land management is critical in confronting climate change. On March 22, Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) introduced The Natural Carbon Sequestration and Resilience Act of 2022 (AB 2649), establishing California’s first targets for sequestering carbon in soils and vegetation. The bill seeks to address environmental justice by allocating 50 percent of state expenditures to low-income and disadvantaged communities, including historically underserved farmers, to implement soil health and natural carbon sequestration practices. 

Working with Tribal Communities to Restore Native Plants

Toluma Farms recently started another project funded by a California Coastal Conservancy grant: planting willows to sequester carbon, reduce erosion, and provide traditional basket weaving materials to the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a community of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo groups. “We are just starting the work, which we hope develops into a long-lasting relationship with the tribe,” says Tamara. “We are learning how to care for the willows, which need to be pruned or grazed in certain ways so the branches can be used for baskets. In the last couple of years, there has been a resurgence of younger people wanting to learn from the elders. It’s really exciting.”

All these projects to restore soil health and natural habitat have also created a healthy environment for the people who work and live on Toluma Farm. “I’m a psychologist and my husband is a physician so human health is a priority on the farm. What we eat, how we take care of the planet is so important for our mental and physical health,” says Tamara. 

“When we are doing this work, we are always thinking about leaving something profoundly better for the next generation. We see our roles as just stewarding the land before handing it off to others.” 

Find Toluma Farms and Tomales Farmstead Creamery at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Visit the Climate Center for additional information and to urge your state Assemblymember to support the Natural Carbon Sequestration and Resilience Act (AB 2649).

Photos courtesy of Toluma Farms & Tomales Farmstead Creamery by Paige Green.

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