Full Belly Farm is no Disneyland. It is a busy organic farm with crops and sheep and dust and smelly chicken and warehouses and piles of cardboard boxes and cradles and dirt roads and loud engines. It is a demanding business, whose 70 employees put in 10-hour days, five days a week—six days a week for the four founding partners (Andrew Brait, Paul Muller, Judith Redmond, Dru Rivers).
Full Belly Farm is also an oasis of sustainable living—feet-on-the-ground, sweat-on-the-brow style. A lifestyle that over 6,000 visitors flocked to its grounds last weekend to celebrate during the Hoes Down Harvest Festival that it hosts each year with the contributions of other local, like-minded farmers.
Under a burning sun, the crowd had come to share in the simple pleasures of good food, live music and play. Anywhere I looked, adults and children alike were engaged in corn-husk doll making, apple bobbing, creek bathing, flower-crown weaving, farm-animal petting or pumpkin carving. Industrious young visitors flocked to vintage hand-operated machines to shell ears of heirloom corn and mill the multicolored grain. Nearby, a tortilla workshop was abuzz with activity as children turned corn flour to play-dough destined for the wood oven.
As you would expect, local beer and wine kept the crowd happily hydrated. Fresh food stands fed the multitude scrumptious plates of locally- and sustainably- sourced produce and meat.
Founded in 1985 in Capay Valley, a fertile area that lies east of Napa Valley between San Francisco and Sacramento, Full Belly Farm has emerged as a successful model of sustainable agriculture. « Our diversity is our insurance », founding partner Paul Mueller likes to say. With some 80 crops produced at any given time on its 300 acres, the farm is never at risk of having one failed crop jeopardize its business. Moreover, « our customers are our investors », explains Paul Mueller. In other words, the farm’s business model is structured so that the season’s produce is largely sold (to local restaurants and the 500 families who join its CSA program) before it’s even planted.
As a result, Full Belly Farm is a debt-free operation that provides a decent living for the families of its four founders and of their 70 employees. A remarkable performance in an industry that routinely relies on underpaid seasonal migrant workers. In fact, Full Belly Farm prides itself on its sustainable labor practices, including a stable payroll and health benefits for two-thirds of the employees and their families. « We’re blessed with a climate that keeps us busy year round », explains Paul Mueller.
Above all, sustainability means, at its core, nurturing the land so that each year leaves it more fertile than the last. Paul Mueller was born of a Swiss farmer and grew up on a conventional dairy farm in California. He was intent on developing a farm where soil, plants, animals, and the humans who live off them, would be involved in mutually beneficial relationships. Organic farming was to become his path.
As he takes a group of about 50 festival goers on a late-afternoon tour of the farm, he shares with them some of what he and his crew have learned and do practice year round : how the sheep and chicken fertilize the land ; how the former thrive on the cocktail of buckwheat, pea and Sudanese grass that are planted to enrich the fields on a rotational grazing schedule ; how the latter rid the apple orchard of a damaging apple-loving bug whose larvae lives in the soil ; how rows of flowers are necessary to attract pollinating insects, thus increasing yield ; how a lone lama in a herd of sheep acts as a watchdog and deterrent against coyotes. In a dynamic exchange, organic farming pioneer Amigo Bob Cantisano interjects with pointed questions and comments for the benefit of the audience.
« The more I learn, the more there is for me to explore », Paul Mueller tells us. Because the farm is financially solid, they can afford to experiment (and make the occasional mistake), one small accreage at a time. Next on the list: growing sweet peppers in the manicured walnut orchard since the plants do better in the shade than in full sun.
In Paul Mueller’s life, sustainability has even taken on a unexpected turn : at least three of his four children are beginning to get involved with the farm in their own way—cooking classes to help consumers fall in love with quality food, youth camps to introduce students to the magic and rigors of growing food, landscaping to enhance the beauty of the grounds.
As the sun sets behind the hills and the heat of the day recedes, some of us scatter to taste and pick cherry tomatoes, peppers and green beans at the invitation of our host. The air is light and smells of sweet dirt and hay. My feet are brown with dust. I can hear the sheep move about their fenced patch of tall Sudanese grass behind me. I take a bite out of a ripe sweet cayenne pepper. In the moment of suprise caused by its sweetness and rich flavor, I melt in gratitude for this land, its people and its tasty bounty.