Ten years ago, Alexis and Gillies Robertson began raising sheep, chickens, and pigs on a small piece of land in the Capay Valley. They have since moved to the Northern California community of Edgewood and expanded onto a 50-acre free-range ranch. This move marked a junction in the road for the farmers. They’re growing their business in a new community while also recommitting to ecosystem rehabilitation on a new piece of land.
As a husband and wife team, Alexis and Gillies sit at the nexus of land management, growing food, and conservation. They’re continuously strategizing ways to create a more successful business without compromising the environmental conservation values that make Skyelark Ranch stand out among the rest.
CHALLENGES AND OBSTACLES OVERCOME
From the beginning, Alexis and Gillies have encountered a synergy of challenges in running a business that is aimed at sustainably producing quality food. They have needed to devise the best strategy for addressing these different challenges all while working towards earning a profit. The biggest lesson they have learned from their first 10 years of farming is the importance of being patient and allowing the business to grow slowly. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” says Gillies, “We are realizing these things take time.”
Raising animals on pasture requires a lot of land and a constant supply of water for irrigation during the dry months. It has been a major challenge for Alexis and Gillies to consistently have adequate access to irrigated rangeland at the right time and place. They have addressed this challenge by networking with their surrounding neighbors to gain access to additional pasture on adjacent properties and a continuous water supply from Bowles Creek. Gillies describes the relationship with their neighbors as a win-win situation because the areas that are grazed by sheep get a boost in fertility–the sheep do a good job as nature’s tool for nutrient cycling. “One neighbor was really excited about the potatoes he got from the recent growing season after our sheep had grazed on his farm,” he remarks.
In California, sustainable agriculture depends on climate-smart land management practices. Alexis and Gillies have been pursuing the best possible land management decisions for their farm based on the needs of the ecosystem where they are farming. Since moving from the Capay Valley to Edgewood, they have had greater options for using the land and resources around them in more environmentally sound ways. The main reason for this is the water supply coming from the foothills of Mount Shasta, which gives them the option of irrigating their pastures for their animals to graze without the consequence of taking water that is needed elsewhere.
IMPLEMENTATION AND MANAGEMENT
Running a viable farm business can entail using government funding and programs. California’s Healthy Soils Program represents one such source of funds for statewide farmers. Alexis and Gillies understand how critical it is to have the right kind of network and business savvy to practice climate-smart agriculture: “It’s not just about the agricultural practices, it’s also about running a business,” says Alexis. And small businesses like Skyelark are much more likely to remain successful in the long-term when they are supported by both government and non-government programs. The Healthy Soils Program, for example, has helped Alexis and Gillies plan for the long-term grazing rotations of their animals by providing them funding for a cover crop on parts of their land. This cover crop will feed the pigs while also keeping the ground covered, helping the soil retain nutrients and carbon. These small contributions all add up, supporting Alexis and Gillies in fulfilling their larger commitment to sustainable land management.
Adjacent to Skyelark Ranch is Bowles Creek. Alexis and Gillies have riparian rights to this water on certain parts of their 50-acre farm. Using flood irrigation allows them to grow green grass for more months out of the year, which benefits the animals that roam these pastures. These green pastures provide the chickens and sheep with a healthy, well rounded diet that also contributes to the quality of their meat.
Coming from a soil sciences background, Alexis explains why grazing on green pasture is also better for the environment in terms of climate adaptation: “You are able to bring more carbon from the atmosphere into the roots when the grasses are growing longer. They have a longer lifespan when they are grazed and allowed to rest, recover, and then be regrazed”. This system also allows native plants and perennials to thrive throughout the pastures and continually sequester carbon. In addition to promoting healthy grasses, the sheep help remove unwanted weeds such as starthistle, blackberry, and poison hemlock while returning a good deal of nutrients to the soil through their manure.
Since farming and ranching are long-term endeavors, maintaining a mindset of conservation can make a significant difference to a farm’s ecosystem. This is why Alexis and Gillies are investing right now in the quality of their land through the use of perennials and cover cropping to build soil health. In years to come, they will be able to reap the rewards of their hard work and investments, enjoying the benefits of a sustainable ranching operation that is rooted in a thriving ecosystem.