Rodeo customers don't tend to look for an organic sticker, but that doesn't mean Peters isn't committed to sustainability. The reason he chose the Corriente breed was because it is best-suited for his high, arid land.
Over the past four years Peters has become an advocate of sustainable grazing practices, befriending one of the most well-known experts in the field, Alan Savory. "Ranching has been demonized by so many," said Peters. "I agree that ranchers have destroyed land through unsustainable grazing, but cattle can also be used as a tool to heal the land."
He rotates his animals through different areas, allowing his grass a generous re-growth period after each grazing season. If grasses are given time to recover, the nutrient stores in their roots are recharged and the plants can be grazed again without negative consequences. So far, so good on Rancho Los Ciruelos, says Peters. "There's a lot more grass out there now than there was when I started."
The Winter Cache Project considers itself "beyond organic," a term that has become popular in small-farming circles. Although there is no official definition, "beyond organic" usually means adhering to even stricter environmental practices than the federal National Organic Program (NOP) dictates, but without official certification. Some growers see the "beyond organic" label as a protest against the NOP standards, which many believe are not stringent enough. Others use the term simply because the organic certification process is expensive.
For Perkins and her partners, it is a bit of both. While the cost of organic certification is prohibitive for them, they also don't feel it is necessary. "The people who are eating our produce are not looking for an organic label," Perkins said. "Because our system is so local and we give people the opportunity to actually come out and see what we're doing, they trust us."
In just one short year, Sol Food Farm has established itself as one of the must-visit stands in two different farmer's markets, Occidental and Sebastopol. Perhaps it has to do with Neale's quirky, outgoing personality or the meticulous care that she and her partners put into arranging their wares. But Neale likes to think it's the food itself. "People comment on how vibrant our food looks and how our stand puts out such a positive vibe. It's nuts. I've sold produce before and never in my life have I received so much praise. I think it's because all of our produce is so insanely fresh, harvested literally hours before."
Their offerings have been such a hit that supporters are demanding a Sol Food community-supported agriculture venture (CSA) this year. For a prepaid seasonal fee, members will receive weekly baskets of produce, brimming with juicy dry-farmed tomatoes, fragrant herbs, broccoli, kale, and beets.
Marketing in rural Maryland isn't nearly as dreamy. In his first organic season Armiger grew a crop of soybeans. He worked tirelessly, battling weeds and pests through the spring and summer months, only to come up against an even bigger obstacle: finding a buyer for his sizeable crop.
After much research, Armiger thought he'd found the answer in White Wave Foods, makers of Silk soymilk. The company was interested, but there was a glitch. White Wave wanted Armiger to get the soybeans all the way to Texas. Lacking a combine of his own, Armiger said "The cost of harvest and transportation was too high for me to have made much of a profit. So I ended up just plowing it all into the ground. But that's what it's all about, learning as you go and making mistakes."
This year Armiger plans to sharecrop 60 acres of grain with another farmer who has more experience and better equipment. This arrangement will not only be valuable as a learning experience for a young farmer but also a way to share some of the risk.
The Winter Cache Project is not a profit-driven enterprise. For Perkins and her partners, farming is more about sharing their ideals than about making money. "From the very beginning," Perkins said, "our intent was to empower people to have access to year-round, locally, and sustainably grown foods regardless of their economic situation."
Instead of seeking cash to cover expenses, the project relies on the age-old practice of barter. With Weir and with other local farmers, Perkins and her volunteers trade their labor for use of land and access to surplus harvest. "Almost all of the organic growers up here are in need of labor, so they are very open to building these relationships," said Perkins.