Califonia Bountiful

Making a difference from the ground up

January/February 2021 California Bountiful magazine

Farmers and ranchers earn recognition for environmental stewardship

The Leopold Conservation Award, of which California Farm Bureau is a sponsor, celebrates the important role landowners play in their stewardship of natural resources. Photo: © 2021 Paolo Vescia

From restoring wetlands to generating renewable energy and embracing biodiversity, farmers and ranchers across the state work to make the land better not only for today, but for future generations. And each year, the Leopold Conservation Award celebrates the important role these landowners play.

Given in honor of distinguished conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award recognizes agriculturists who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife habitat management on private, working land. The 2020 award was presented to Burroughs Family Farms of Stanislaus County.

"We're always open to learning," Ward Burroughs said. "When it comes to sustainability, that's when our real passion for learning comes out."

Stemple Creek Ranch of Marin County and Philip Verwey Farms of Kings County were also finalists.

In California, the award is presented by the Sand County Foundation, American Farmland Trust, California Farm Bureau Federation and Sustainable Conservation. Additional sponsors are Farm Credit, The Harvey L. & Maud C. Sorensen Foundation, The Nature Conservancy in California, McDonald's and California Leopold Conservation Award recipient alumni.

Ward and Rose Burroughs farm with their family in the rolling hills west of Yosemite, producing products such as free-range eggs. Photo: © 2021 Paolo Vescia

Balancing economic viability with environmental sustainability

Being resilient, pursuing innovation and pushing the boundaries of conventional thinking have become the keys to success at Burroughs Family Farms.

"Our passion comes out in making the tough decisions and thinking outside the box," Ward Burroughs said.

For four generations, the Burroughs family has served as a model for environmental sustainability and economic viability on their 2,600-acre farm near Denair. Partnering with their children, Ward and Rose Burroughs own and operate California Cloverleaf Farms, Vista Almonds, B and B Pastures and Full Circle Dairy, and produce products including free-range eggs, organic milk, cheese, almonds and olives.

The Burroughs family has transitioned all of their operations to meet certified organic standards. In addition, rotational grazing of cattle and chickens in their orchards has reduced the need for mowing or burning—just one example of the holistic approach the family takes to farming.

Family members have worked throughout the years with a biologist who has helped them catalog the many native plants growing on their property. Through this work, they have found their grazing practices to be beneficial to those species, encouraging the family to continue their sustainable practices and share information about them with others. Burroughs Family Farms has hosted hundreds of educational tours for visitors interested in their ranching and conservation efforts.

The Burroughs family has also hosted a variety of research projects, including one on the benefits of reincorporating almond hulls back into orchards after processing for improved soil fertility. In addition, they irrigate crops and pasture with solar-powered well pumps, and their orchards have diverse cover crops and hedgerows to capture carbon and attract the good bugs that prey on the bad bugs.

"It's all about living systems," Rose Burroughs said. "It's about nurturing, protecting and preserving our most precious resources."

Loren Poncia, left, with daughters Julianna and Avery and wife Lisa, raise cattle on their ranch near Tomales. Photo: © 2021 Paolo Vescia

'A constant dance with Mother Nature'

Loren Poncia wears many hats, including that of soil farmer and cattle rancher.

"I love seeing the biodiversity on the farm and having high-quality soil. I also love seeing healthy animals," said Poncia, who owns Stemple Creek Ranch with his wife, Lisa. "With everything we do, it's a constant dance with Mother Nature. We're trying to dance with her, and not step on her toes."

The family has operated for nearly 120 years on the same land where Poncia's great-grandfather started a dairy after emigrating from Italy. Although the family's agricultural heritage might be rooted in history, it's their modern outlook that has gained attention.

The Poncias focus on working from the ground up, and to that effect, they practice pulse or rotational grazing. Once the cattle eat the nourishing grasses on one pasture and return the rich carbon to the soil, they are moved to another pasture to begin the process again.

And that brings us to another hat Poncia has added in recent years: that of carbon farmer. Because of the family's innovative agricultural practices, Stemple Creek Ranch was invited in 2013 to be one of the three demonstration farms with the Marin Carbon Project, a decade-long study of carbon-positive practices.

As a way to show off their passion for the land, the Poncias regularly invite guests to stay at their ranch near Tomales.

"To me, this (ranch) represents so much," Lisa Poncia said. "It's the love of our business and the love of our family. Being able to share it with others means I am swelled with pride."

Philip Verwey, left, and Frank Cardoza walk along a 10-acre covered-lagoon manure digester that generates renewable electricity. Photo: © 2021 Paolo Vescia

Forging sustainability, conservation and innovation

"We feel like we're in a position of gratitude and we feel like we'd like to leave our land for the next generation better than we found it," Philip Verwey said.

Although it may seem a simple sentiment, it's one he and his wife, Shelley, work tirelessly to accomplish. To achieve that goal, they run their 9,500-cow dairy in Hanford with three intertwined principles to guide them: take care of the land, take care of the animals and take care of the people.

"We know if we invest in the infrastructure and it is sustainable financially and environmentally, then the way I see it, why not do it?" Verwey said.

The farm features a 10-acre covered-lagoon manure digester, generating renewable electricity that in turn powers the dairy and irrigation wells on 2,300 acres of surrounding cropland—and provides power to the local community. The Verweys have also replaced diesel-powered feed mixers with electric mixing stations, which have increased efficiency and decreased air emissions.

Cow comfort and health are priorities at any dairy; here, the animals have round-the-clock access to food, water and a mattress.

When it comes to employees, the Verweys treat them as team members building a career, and encourage and support career growth.

"It gives us a great deal of satisfaction to know the healthy work environment we create for all and that we are providing healthy and sustainable products for people around the world," Shelley Verwey said.

Tracy Sellers

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