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Wine grape grower Phil LaRocca of Forest Ranch, Calif., almond producer Chris Baugher of Orland, Calif., and the rice growing Lundberg family of Richvale, Calif., were organic farmers long before they knew they were trendy.
Organic rice growers
The Lundberg family of Richvale is probably the most well-known organic farm in the state. Albert Lundberg was a Nebraska corn farmer who lived through the Dust Bowl era. He abandoned the Midwest farm and moved his family to Richvale in the 1930s where he bought a 300-acre rice farm. Richvale is just north of Chico.
He adopted conservation farming practices in the wake of what he had seen happen in the Midwest with short-sighted farming practices. He was the first to incorporate rather than burn rice stubble. In the late 1960s, the Lundberg family started farming organically.
Marc Breckenridge manages the 3,000-acre Pacific Farms, part of the 12,000 acre family farm where the fourth generation of Lundbergs is involved.
“We call ourselves the experimental farm because we are always trying new things and learning,” he said.
The major issue in water-seeded rice is weeds. Breckenridge said weed control is tackled with deep water, eight to 12 inches in depth. This also drowns out rice, and the family is looking at dry seeding rice.
The other organically challenging issue is algae control. This year he said the weather was a perfect storm for algae. Copper sulfate is used for algae control.
Nutrients come from chicken litter fertilizer and a purple vetch cover crop. “The cover crop came back as fast as you could mow it down with the rain we had this year.”
Weed control is perhaps the biggest challenge in organic farming, even though there are some new organic herbicides available today.
When Baugher started farming, there were only mowers and weed eaters to organically control orchard floor vegetation. He whacked away at it as best he could before the custom harvester arrived to shake and sweep his first organic almond harvest.
It was a long harvest as the equipment kept plugging. The custom harvester eventually finished the job, but told Baugher he was not returning to harvest the next crop.
Baugher said he struggled for a year, trying to come up with an economical and practical method to harvest his almonds. Driving beside a pasture one day, he spotted a pair of grazing draft horses.
Remembering that his grandfather once harvested almonds with mallets to knock the almonds into tarps spread beneath the trees and used horses to haul the nuts out of orchards, he wheeled into the stranger’s driveway for a bizarre visit.
When he told the horse owner he would like to rent the horses to harvest his almonds, the owner was surprisingly thrilled.
“The guy laughed and said he had gone to a cattle auction earlier where his wife had bought the draft horses he did not want,” explained Baugher.
Take the horses, the owner said: “Feed them; don’t talk to my wife and forget where you got them.” Baugher took him up on his offer. Someone spied the big horses in the orchard and asked if he could snap photographs. The pictures showed up on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. That brought more coverage from other publications and television networks.
“With all the publicity, all of a sudden I was getting phone calls from people wanting to buy organic almonds. Things happen for a reason,” he laughed.
Baugher has been using horses ever since. They continue to draw people to his orchard. A three-man crew harvested 180-acres of Baugher’s almonds in 22 days last season, poling and manually knocking almonds off the trees. He now uses Percheron horses he raises to haul almond laden tarps out of the field. “We shovel them into carts and haul them to the huller/sheller.”
Everything LaRocca, Baugher and Breckenridge do on their farms is to abide by their organic farming philosophy, as well as keep them in business. However, it is obvious that they are dedicated farmers and marketers on a very large commercial scale. There is little doubt they would be successful, regardless of how they farm. However, they choose to do it organically.