In Sonora, California, we know that Blue Oak Farm means quality organic produce, and Katryn and Galen Weston are the farmers who make it happen. They live it, breathe it and happily work it daily. They met when Katryn was teaching at the local Sonora High School, and Galen was already a graduate of Stanford University with a degree in Earth Systems, which encompassed soil sciences, plants and biology.
“I wasn’t planning on being a farmer necessarily, it all just sort of fell into place,” Galen said. “When I graduated, I helped out on organic farms as an apprentice and I was just drawn to it.”
He and Katryn both grew up in Sonora, but neither knew the other until they met on the ski slopes some years later. They hit it off right away, and with the downturn in the economy in 2008, Katryn moved out to the family farm with Galen’s mother, Carol, stepfather, Mike, and Galen, who had already begun improving the soil and creating orchards and row crops.
When Galen got ready to start making a living at farming, he spoke with other local farmers who told him there was quite an untapped market for sustainably produced organic food in the area. Armed with these encouraging thoughts, he and Katryn began building their dreams in the soil of Blue Oak Farm.
“We are building soil constantly,” Galen said. “We still bring in amendments from local compost producers, in addition to our own sheep manure, and the health of the soil seems to handle most of the bug infestations because it makes the plants healthier in general.”
Their crop rotations are on two levels. Level one consists of moving the vegetable plot every four to five years from one location to another around the farm, and letting the previous plot become grains, pasture for the sheep or cover crops before being re-used for vegetables. Because the resting years provide a break in the insect reproductive cycle, they are able to forego most of the organic sprays that otherwise might be needed to keep the vegetables insect-free.
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The second level of rotation is the one most frequently recommended in organic growing—they do not plant any member of the same plant family in the same spot until four years have passed. The two rotations require good record keeping and a dedication to detailed organization, but the resulting nutrient-dense, unblemished fruits and vegetables make it worth the extra effort.
“Quality is what we focus on here at the farm,” said Galen. Katryn stated it best when she said their goal this last year has been to take better care of less. “Instead of planting every kind of pepper or okra, we only planted a few varieties we knew would do well here. We planted only the melons that sold the best and just had a smaller block of them, but cared for them very well. We actually did better economically, and we hope to continue with that philosophy.”
Special thought must be given to techniques that conserve water in California’s recent four-year drought. Galen and Katryn are farming on water from their well with no additional irrigation source, so no water can be wasted. Carol Weston also grows a large variety of cut flowers for the weekly Sonora Farmers’ Market, and water must be allotted for her beds as well.
The farm utilizes drip irrigation for all crops, including the orchard. The use of mulch and the compost in the soil helps hold moisture wherever possible. Water is pumped when the solar panels are generating electricity and then flows by gravity from a tank as needed. Shade cloth for peppers and delicate seedlings helps reduce evaporation and sunburn.
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They also manage an orchard at another location nearby on a lease basis, and they sell the fruit and their own vegetables at the orchard every Wednesday. They attend the Saturday Farmers’ Market in downtown Sonora, deliver to several restaurants on Thursday, supply the nearby Columbia Farmers’ Market each Thursday evening and coordinate their 40-member CSA each Tuesday. Any produce that is not sold at these events is donated to the local food bank.
“We never hold produce over and attempt to sell it the next day.” That would be contrary to the farm’s goal of providing quality produce for each and every customer, Galen explained.
Having a central location is essential now that Hazel is two and actively exploring all aspects of life on a farm. “Before Hazel was born, I had this vision of strapping her on my back and doing hours of chores, but I soon found out that just was not reality,” Galen said. Instead they have learned a few tricks that make raising a child and working full-time a bit less of a challenge. Grandparents are the greatest trick of all! Carol and Mike have been a huge help living so close, and Katryn’s parents, who also live locally, play a big role in Hazel’s life.
Another helpful trick has been to incorporate a small area into each farm plot, which is designed for Hazel to forage. “We planted peas, tomatoes and other foods that children love to eat straight from the garden, and Hazel will keep herself occupied 20 minutes or more in her little area, picking and eating.”
That gives Galen and Katryn enough time to harvest crops and bring them back to the house, where Hazel has the fenced porches available for play. Often Katryn and Hazel do the animal chores and other basics while Galen tends the orchards. Katryn told a cute story that shows how much Hazel feels she is a part of the plan on the farm. Galen asked Hazel the other night at dinner, “Hazel, are you going to be a farmer when you grow up?” And Hazel replied, “But I already am a farmer!”
Learn more about how the Westons are keeping it real and organic by visiting blueoakfarmsonora.com.
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This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.