A Conversation With Emma Torbert From Cloverleaf Farm

We were fortunate to have the chance to speak with Emma Torbert from Cloverleaf Farm to hear about the unique structure they have and the sustainable practices that they use. Emma got her masters in Horticulture from UCD and worked for the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis for seven years. Cloverleaf is an 8-acre organic orchard and farm outside of Davis, California on the Collins Farm that specializes in peaches, nectarines, apricots, figs, berries, and vegetables. The Cloverleaf follows regenerative principles including no-till, rotational grazing, and cover-cropping. The farm is co-owned by Emma Torbert, Katie Fyhrie, Kaitlin Oki, Yurytzy Sanchez, Neil Singh, Tess Kremer, and Kyle Chambers; who all manage the farm together in a cooperative and consensus-based fashion. You can find The Cloverleaf Farm’s produce at the Sacramento Farmers Market on Sundays and at various grocery stores in Davis, Sacramento, and the Bay Area. 

Cloverleaf seems to break the mold of what a traditional farm functions like. Traditionally farms are passed down generationally within families, but all of your farmers come from diverse backgrounds, how did that model get started at Cloverleaf?

“We started out a group of four women and then the farm passed through a number of different partners. As different people were leaving we were realizing that for the sake of future transitions and the longevity of the farm operation a worker-owned cooperative farm would be best, although we are currently still structured as a partnership. There are currently seven partners right now.”

“We’ve been working with the California Center for Co-op Development for the last four years trying to figure out a way that everybody can own equal equity in the farm. 2014 was the first time that we started profit sharing and equity sharing. The equity sharing is not yet equal but that is what we are working with the CCCD on.”

“One of our core principles in our vision statement is working as a team. An important thing in thinking about farm management for us is recognizing everybody’s different skills and working together without an established hierarchical structure. We rotate who gets to be the crew leader every couple of weeks, so they are essentially the boss for those two weeks, which means everyone gets a chance to step into a leadership role.”

How do you limit your greenhouse emissions?

“In terms of limiting our carbon footprint, we do a number of things. In terms of the transportation of our food, we try to deliver as locally as possible. We purposefully choose markets that are closer and do not take our products further than the bay area. We are always making the decision to try to sell closer to home.”

“As for what happens in the field, all of our vegetables get grown no-till. Our orchards and all of our annual crops are no-till, which means that we don’t use a tractor very often at all. In doing that we use less fossil fuel. We’ve also put solar panels around the farm, and can’t wait until we can add more.” 

“Something else that really contributes to greenhouse gas emissions is water use. We use moisture sensors so that we use as little water as possible. We tread that fine line of watering as little as possible without stunting the growth of the trees in our orchards.”

What are your pest management practices?

“We are an organic farm so we don’t spray any pesticides while the fruit is on the trees. We do use pheromone sprays, which disrupt the mating cycles of a lot of stone fruit pests. We put out raptor perches and owl boxes. The main pests that we have trouble with are ground squirrels and gophers.”

How do you try to limit your food waste?

We’ve been trying lots of different things for many years and I feel like this year it’s all coming together, we have very little food waste coming from our farm right now. Our compost pile is pretty tiny right now considering the size of our farm.

“We have an Ugly Fruit club, which allows people to buy our third-grade fruit at a discounted price. We also create a lot of value-added products like jams and dried fruit, which allows us to still sell our less aesthetic fruit instead of wasting it.”

“Something else that we do is donate to the food bank, especially this year when we’re worried about our community being food insecure.”

More >>

What Is Biodynamic Wine?

There are many buzzwords that seem to surround our food; organic, sustainable, healthy, natural, the list goes on and on. Whether you have heard of the term biodynamic before or this is your first time encountering, you may feel the urge to view it as just another trendy term used to describe food. But the term biodynamic refers to a method of cultivation that aims to promote harmony between the natural world and those that live in it.

Biodynamics overview

Goats grazing at Frey Vineyards

Food plays an important role not only in our daily lives but in our culture and economy as well. But oftentimes getting dinner on the table takes precedent over wondering how it was grown and where it came from. This is unfortunate because pesticides, hormones, and over-processed foods are just some of the ills contributing to our and our planet’s health issues.

Biodynamic agriculture is a response to this issue. This style of cultivation has roots in the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, which asserts that a farm or vineyard is a living system in its own right. He emphasized the relationships between plants, soil, and animals as the lifeblood of a farm. The aim of biodynamic farming is to create a system that is self-sustaining, using compost instead of chemical fertilizers.

As a practice, this style of farming goes a step further than organic cultivation, not only avoiding pesticides but following the natural rhythms of the environment. The guidelines that Biodynamic farms must follow are quite strict; they must use self-contained composting materials, only compost can be used as a fertilizing material, and the use of plastic materials in the farm’s infrastructure is not permitted. Producers who wish to label their products as biodynamic must be properly credentialed by an organization called Demeter. In order to become certified cultivators must use eight mineral and plant-based preparations to activate soil life and plant growth on the land.

The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association defines biodynamic agriculture as “a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, gardens, food production and nutrition.” Biodynamic farming uses sustainable practices to ensure that the land is left in as good or better shape as it was found for future generations.

Biodynamic viticulture

Wild Mustard blowing in the wind in the Frey organic Cabernet vineyard, Spring 2019.

So biodynamic viticulture refers to using these sorts of natural and holistic practices to make wine. Biodynamic vineyards thus become a haven for local flora and fauna, barring a few select pests(e.g. gophers and insects) who would eat every grape before it ever graced a barrel if they had their way.

Gerard Bertrand, a world-renowned producer of biodynamic wines, characterizes biodynamic wine as possessing “more freshness, more minerality, and more complexity.” He asserts that the soil is what determines a wine’s terroir, and to use chemicals in the soil strips it of its unique characteristics. Because of the level of care biodynamic farmers use in their vineyards biodynamic wine is said to have a higher-quality taste than other types of wine.

We carry a variety of biodynamic wines here at the Co-op from producers such as Beaver Creek, Frey Vineyards, and Lunaria Orsogna.

More >>

Why Organic?

According to Jane Goodall’s book, “Harvest for Hope”, when chimps were given a choice between organic bananas and conventional bananas 9 out of 10 times they would choose organic!

Interestingly when only given conventional bananas the chimps would peel the fruit before eating it, whereas with organic bananas they would simply eat the whole thing, peel and all!

Top Reasons to Buy Organic:

Organic is Better for The People

Overall the standard of living for workers on organic farms is much greater than conventional farmworkers. Conventional farmworkers have much more exposure to toxic chemicals and also tend to have a worse standard of life.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified pesticide poisoning as a leading cause of public morbidity and mortality. 

Sadly, it is quite common for conventional farmworkers to commit suicide due to the stressful environment, and this is often done using the toxic synthetic pesticides themselves.

Globally, death from deliberate ingestion of pesticides claims more than 168,000 lives every year, which accounted for 20% of all suicides, and the majority of these incidents were reported from developing countries.

In addition, many organic farms are small family-owned farms, so when you buy local organic you can help support farmers in your community!

This is not always true of course as there are corporations switching to organic due to the demand from the public, and these farms, while still being better for your health and for the environment, may not necessarily be small and local.

However, if you do your shopping at the local farmers market or local co-op, the organic produce you buy is supporting local farmers!

Organic is Better for Your Health

Organically grown produce has little to no pesticide residue, so by simply buying organic produce you can drastically reduce your exposure to chemical toxins.

Organic foods may still have small amounts of chemical residue, mainly due to contamination from nearby conventional farms, as well as having trace amounts of organic pesticides.

Most organic pesticides are not synthetic and are derived from natural sources, such as minerals, plants, and bacteria.

Although organic agriculture still uses pesticides they tend to be much less harmful to humans and the environment because they are readily broken down.

In contrast many synthetic pesticides are known to persist in the environment as well as in people and animals too!

To better understand the difference between synthetic and organic pesticides it helps to think of a paper bag vs. a plastic bag. They are both bags, but the paper one is made of natural materials and the plastic one is made of synthetic, man-made materials.

If you were to take both bags, pour some water on them and leave them outside for a few weeks you will notice that the paper bag has been completely decomposed where the plastic bag hasn’t broken down at all and practically looks the same as it did weeks ago!

Organic is Better for The Animals

One of the biggest concerns with industrial agriculture is the horrific treatment of farm animals.

Chickens are crammed inside egg houses by the thousands without ever getting the chance to peck around in a field. Cows are denied open pastures and are instead confined to filthy areas where they have to live in their own feces. And pigs are kept in cages so small that they cannot even lay down.

Along with this cruel and unusual treatment, all of the animals are fed unnatural diets and are constantly pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics.

One option to prevent your money from supporting the companies that treat their animals like this is to go vegetarian or vegan, but for those who still want to have meat every now and then, there are more humane options.

One of which is to only buy organic animal products!

According to USDA Organic Standards, if an animal product is organic it is required that the animal is fed a natural diet that is 100% organic, not treated with antibiotics or hormones, and is allowed access to the outdoors year-round!

That means that when you buy organic you are ensured that the animal was provided with a more natural living situation, where chickens can peck and cows can graze.

Organic is Better for The Environment

Industrial agriculture is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation and climate change.

About 25 to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to conventional farming practices.

The ecological imbalance caused by monocultures and excessive use of chemicals has resulted in water pollution, decreased soil fertility, and enormous increases in pests and crop diseases, which farmers counter by spraying ever-larger doses of pesticides in a vicious cycle of depletion and destruction.

Organic farming is much more sustainable than conventional farming.

Many organic farms engage in a variety of sustainable practices such as no-till farming, crop rotation, biological pest control, polyculture, and the incorporation of hedgerows. These practices reduce erosion and soil depletion and help to encourage biodiversity.

Most of these practices are actually very old, traditional ways of farming that are now being embraced by organic farmers in order to move away from industrial agriculture.

Every dollar that you spend on organic produce is a dollar that is supporting the well being of our planet for all future generations to come.

More on Pesticides:

A pesticide is any substance used to kill, repel, or control certain forms of plant or animal life that are considered to be pests.

The World Health organization describes them as such, “by their nature, pesticides are potentially toxic to other organisms, including humans, and need to be used safely and disposed of properly.”

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Services, evidence suggests that children are particularly susceptible to adverse effects from exposure to pesticides, including neurodevelopmental effects.

Because of the widespread use of agricultural chemicals in food production, people are exposed to low levels of pesticide residues through their diets but may also be exposed to pesticides used in a variety of settings including homes, schools, hospitals, and workplaces.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for the Pesticide Data Program (PDP), a national pesticide residue testing effort achieved through cooperative programs with State agriculture departments and other Federal agencies. The PDP tests both fresh and processed fruit and vegetables, grains, dairy, meat, poultry, and other specialty food items such as honey, corn syrup, infant formula, fish, and nuts for pesticide residues.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for analyzing chemicals detected by the PDP and determining a “tolerance level”. These tolerance levels are established based on the LD50 (Lethal Dose 50) for each individual compound. The LD50 is a substance toxicity test in which a subject group (typically mice or rabbits) are exposed to a toxic chemical and then observed until the amount of that chemical administered causes 50% of the population to die. The EPA uses the LD50 as a tolerance reference in order to determine the maximum amount of certain chemicals that may legally remain on food.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is then responsible for the enforcement of these tolerances set by the EPA. This is done through the annual Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program in which a broad range of domestic and imported foods are sampled and tested for pesticide residue.

According to the 2018 PDP annual summary foods tested that violated the tolerance level set by the EPA included mangoes, asparagus, cilantro, cabbage, canned cranberries, raisins, and canned olives.

Low levels of environmental contaminants, pesticides that have been canceled in the U.S. but their residues persist in the environment, such as DDT were also found on foods such as cilantro, kale, frozen spinach, and snap peas.

But where do these chemicals go when eating them?

Studies have shown that pesticides tend to accumulate in the fatty tissues and reproductive organs of mammals where they can stay for a very, very long time.

The long term health effects of pesticides are still largely unknown, however, an ongoing study known as the Agricultural Health Study has linked pesticides to many health problems including childhood development, immune health, and the development of cancers and other diseases.

The truth

While it may be efficient to exploit certain crops for mass production, conventional agriculture is a major contributor to land degradation, biodiversity loss, and air and water pollution due to the immense amount of synthetic pesticides and herbicides that are used to maintain massive crop monocultures.

Conventional agriculture is not farming. It is an unsustainable food production industry in which the best interests of consumers and the Earth as a whole are overlooked in the pursuit of profit.

That being said, buying organic is by no means a perfect answer to health, climate, and social justice issues.

However, it is definitely a conscious step in the right direction!

Written by Rheanna Smith, Education Specialist

More >>