Full Belly Farm grows over 80 different organic crops on 400 acres of land in northern California. With a sharp focus on biodiversity, the farm plants large swaths for pollinators and produces their own fertility on-site by cover cropping. Multiple generations share ownership and manage year-round labor on the farm. Listen as Paul Muller explains how the fundamental wisdom of organic lies in soil health. Read the full transcript below.
Full Belly Farm, Capay Valley, California
Hi, I’m Judith Redmond. I’m Paul Muller. My name is Hannah Muller. I’m Drew Rivers and I’m with Full Belly Farm.
Drew Rivers: I’m one of six partners here at the farm. We have a unique ownership structure; four principal partners and two smaller partners.
We’ve been farming here at this farm since 1984. We farm about 350 acres of certified organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains. We have a huge variety of things that we grow.
Paul Muller: We think about diversity from the soil up all the way through the system.
What this farm does is try to create more places for more layers of life to live.
Just in what you can see here, we have flowers, and in the flowers we will find a lot of bees that are out there pollinating, and beneficial insects. We try to integrate our farm in a kind of multi-storied way by having places for birds and beneficial insects and things that will migrate into our fields and provide us services, because we’re providing them pollen and nectar and food that they can eat. They become part of the whole approach as to how we farm and how we’re trying to provide a healthy place for more layers of life.
Underlying that is the soil that we’re standing on and the earth we’re standing on.
Judith Redmond: So to me, and to this farm, Full Belly Farm, organic is much, much more than a set of things that we do not use. Organic is a very proactive process.
Soil’s Important Role at Full Belly Farm
Paul Muller: As an organic farmer, one of the fundamental principles is that we are taking care of the soil because the soil is a complex universe that provides elements of health for all the pieces that come above that soil. So the health of our tomato plants are really dependent upon the health of the soil underneath of them. Their ability to resist diseases and insect attacks and provide us with the best tasting produce is related to the soil and our management of the soil ecology there.
Hanna Muller: I grew up here at the farm and some of my earliest memories are going out into the field with my dad and tasting the soil! My dad would bend down, and he would run the soil through his fingers, just to sort of test whether it was loamy, or was it too silty, or what was going on there. And then he would ask if I wanted to try it.
The first rain that comes down and the soil gives off this amazing aroma at our farm and my mouth still waters a little bit because it was like such a huge part of my childhood to get in my dad’s truck and go out to these fields and taste the soil that we are growing this produce from.
Drew Rivers: After every crop is harvested we always plant a cover crop afterwards. It could be either summer cover, which is this Sudangrass or a winter cover, which is usually rye and vetch. So we just really believe in the fact that we have to create soil fertility here at the farm. Every school group that comes, every visitor that comes here, we stress the importance of this, of our biggest goal: creating a healthy soil.
Everything comes from the soil and then goes into our bodies and then is creating us, as healthy human beings.
We can’t ever stress enough how important our soil is to us and as stewards of Full Belly Farm we really believe that it’s our responsibility to create a more healthy and vigorous soil for the future generations that will be farming here.
The Future of Organic Farming For the Next Generation
Hannah Muller: I am a seventh generation farmer. I am the second generation of Full Belly Farm. I think that a lot of second generation or third generation farms are struggling because I think that a lot of times people have this one idea of what farming needs to look like. And I think we need to crack that open and we need to sort of dissect that and say: “You know, we’re in this whole new generation and farming can look like so many other things now.”
It’s always felt really valuable to know that farmers don’t look a certain way. They can be women, they can be from minority groups and I feel like Full Belly Farm encapsulates that.
A really great thing about my family and the way that our farm works, is that it was never like we were supposed to come back and take over for our family’s roles. We were given a lot of opportunity and a lot of room for experimentation here. And so, my brother started a catering company using our food. And I do a flower business using our flowers. My brother has incorporated all these animals into our farm here.
And so it’s never felt like you need to follow in my footsteps. It’s more like walk in your own path; but do it your way and do it here because it’s a really amazing spot.
Organic Food Needs Strong Standards and Regulations
Judith Redmond: There’s a whole community of stakeholders who’ve had a very strong role in creating avenues for small and young farmers to get involved in organic agriculture and who have worked to create the organic label that we now have. So I really believe that organic farmers, young and old need to be actively involved in the future of our movement.
There is a huge institutional investment in the status quo and to change that, we do need regulations. Those regulations are inevitably going to be imperfect and even at times, completely ineffective. But we need to keep moving the needle. In addition, though it’s really clear to me from my experience with agriculture that those regulations aren’t effective and they’re not going to be enough.
So that we also need farmer to farmer educational efforts and incentives for agriculture that recognize agriculture as a very diverse industry with a lot of vulnerabilities and a lot of stress points.
And so any organization, like the Real Organic Project, that can help to represent an ideal and a vision, at the same time as being open to honest dialogue that recognizes the difficulties in agriculture and provides farmer to farmer exchange and educational efforts, will help to expand the umbrella of organic rather than to narrow it. And I think that should be our goal.
Noting How Far Organic Has Come And Where It’s Heading
Paul Muller: It comes to the question of where’s organic agriculture going? Organic has been amazingly successful. It’s from a small group of devoted believers that we can begin to remove some of these things from pesticides and other things from our system that we had questions about.
And a small group of consumers who believe that that’s what they wanted in their food.
It’s grown into this amazing industry where now everybody wants to have a piece of it. And that’s great. I think it’s something that’s cleaning up our food system. It’s something that’s allowing farmers to ask a new set of questions. And when you ask new questions you’re going to get new answers.
So we should celebrate the fact that organic’s growing and that there’s just a whole lot of new interest in creating clean food and healthy food systems. But any success attracts people who are interested in doing the minimum in order to achieve an economic outcome that may be beneficial for them, but misses some of the essential points.
I’ve decided that we really need to begin to look at where organic is now veering off a bit into becoming something industrial and commercial. And we need to bring it back some.
We need to celebrate our successes as an industry and as a group of farmers and a group of consumers to where we could have more confidence in the purity of our food. But we need to understand that we can’t allow ourselves to go to the “cheapest as best” paradigm.
At the heart of organic from the beginning was that soil health was critical to the health of all other pieces in that system. And I still believe that there’s something profoundly wise there. And so we have to be careful that we don’t separate, for economic efficiencies, our relationship to soil.
I’m a part of the Real Organic Project because I feel like we should not allow organic to be hydroponically grown or grown in a “medium” without the complexity of soil to be called organic.
I’m also concerned, when livestock isn’t integrated into the system, as livestock has plays essential role in making for more complex soil. We have sheep and chickens and some pigs incorporated into the whole dynamic of Full Belly farm. We feel like they can impart something into the soil ecology that’s very important.
So when animal welfare standards changed in 2017 and animals aren’t allowed access to sunlight and pasture and all the things that make their character essential to the whole ecology of the system, when that’s denied, and they are put in confinement situations, and then called organic, it’s again, a violation of the fundamental principles of animal welfare that are just key to the (USDA Organic Standards) rule as it’s written now.
The Rule says that animals need to have access to sunlight and a certain amount of pasture every year. This is for their health, and in turn, if you believe that the natural chain of relationships is that their health and our health are intimately tied together, it’s for our health as well.
The Real Organic Project is simply saying, “let’s not forget that whole chain of relationships there. Let’s not forget that the fundamental wisdom of organic is about soil.”