How often do you think about where your food is sourced from? Chances are, not all that much. However, sustainable food sourcing is becoming increasingly important. Like other products we consume, the foods we eat also have individual carbon footprints. Produce that travels great distances from the farm to the table has a higher carbon footprint because of transportation and packaging. The proximity of a food source can also impact the nutritional value of the produce. Locally-sourced foods are healthier because they are fresher and picked at optimal ripeness. Since produce starts to lose nutrients shortly after being picked, locally-sourced items lose fewer nutrients as they only travel short distances.
For many years, John Chester, a filmmaker, and his wife Molly, a traditional foods chef, lived and worked in Santa Monica, California. Through her work, Molly realized that the nutritional content of her food was impacted by the distance from its source and the caliber of the farm’s agricultural practices. 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 patch of land in Moorpark, California where they started Apricot Lane Farms.
Establishing the farm
When the Chesters began work on the land, the soil was completely degraded thanks 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 sustain synergy between the farm’s agricultural practices and the revived ecosystem’s flora and fauna.
Growing the farm
Over the past decade, ALF has obtained multiple farming certifications. They are one of California’s Certified Organic Farms and have obtained international Biodynamic Demeter certification standards. Additionally, the farm is Regenerative Organic Certified. This means that they meet the highest standards for soil health, animal welfare, and farmworker fairness.
Over the years, the farm has grown to encompass over 250 native plant species. Though not all of them are harvestable crops, they do serve to sustain the ecosystem and create a 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. Similarly, the market garden is a CWH that attracts various insects, including pollinators such as bees and butterflies. These further sustain the farm by maintaining production levels and supporting endemic species through pollination.
Improving nutrition and harvest
Apricot Lane Farms focuses on soil health to maximize the nutritional value and flavor of its produce. With an emphasis on the quality of the soil, the well-being of the ecosystem is put first. The Farm Fertility Center is one of the key spaces on the farm that is focused on this initiative. The space features a large worm bin with Red Wiggler worms that mimic the soil’s natural building process. The worms create vermicompost (i.e. worm-poop compost) using food scraps, manure, and wood shavings. This is then poured into brewing tanks to exponentially multiply fungi, bacteria and protozoa levels. As a result, these microorganisms enrich the soil by increasing organic matter and nutrients.
One such example of how ALF’s nutrient-dense soil improves the flavor and taste of the produce is their avocados. The avocado orchard features 15 varieties of the fruit, allowing for year-round produce throughout the year. Additionally, the team harvests their Hass avocados at peak season and cold-presses them into cooking oil.
One of the key principles that the farm is based on 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 and citrus fruits among others. The orchard is planted on a contoured site to reduce rain and topsoil loss. Around four years into their endeavors, the orchards had a snail infestation, which began to pose problems to the health of the plants and seasonal harvests. To combat this, the farm’s ducks feed on the snails and keep the snail levels manageable.
Strengthening the ecosystem with cover crop
In between the growing spaces, ALF uses cover crop to further enhance the soil quality and the ecosystem’s biodiversity. The farm’s cover crop includes what people may typically consider to be weeds, including forbs and grazeable grasses. 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 pastures section-by-section. The cows mainly graze and trample on the grass to encourage healthy regrowth. Meanwhile, the sheep munch on the lower leaves of the lemon trees. This serves as a tree-pruning service for the farmers and a natural de-worming method for the herd.
After the sheep and cows move through the pastures, the chickens are brought in. They feed on the protein-rich fly larvae in the cow manure, which allows them to produce nutrient-dense eggs with gorgeous, colorful shells. Meanwhile, the chickens’ manure serves as nitrogenous fertilizer that enriches the soil. Through the various animals that make their way through the pastures, the soil’s humus increases allowing for healthy, water– and carbon-sequestering topsoil.
A question that the farming team frequently gets asked is why they raise animals for meat. Currently, only using animals to build the soil is not feasible for the farm. As animals age and become ill, they require more support and resources to live. This becomes unsustainable as the farmer must maintain consistent levels of resources and energy to keep the aging animals alive. In addition, the farm sustainably breeds threatened livestock species. This includes the Red Wattle heritage sow breed, a species that Apricot Lane Farms has worked on conserving.
Inspiring the wider community
To inspire a love for nature in future generations, ALF has set up a one-room schoolhouse. Children are allowed to explore their interests and learn through curated experiences on the farm. This empowers them to grow and learn from Mother Nature.
In 2018, the Chesters produced a documentary called “The Biggest Little Farm” which featured the story of how they began Apricot Lane Farms and its growth from 10 acres to a bustling 214 acres. In October 2022, the ALF’s debut cookbook is set to be published. It features over 130 seasonally inspired recipes developed by Molly Chester, each of which celebrates fresh ingredients sourced from the farm.
Through their multi-faceted approach, the Chesters and their team have transformed Apricot Lane Farms from a degraded, over-farmed plot into a thriving, biodiverse ecosystem. Their varied farming practices ensure that they maximize their harvest sustainably while having a minimal impact on the environment.
Images via Apricot Lane Farms