Tuesday, March 24, 2015


I never was too impressed with the term “organic.”  Like “new and improved,” “lite,” “authentic,” “life-time,” “limited,” and now, “gluten free,” the term organic seemed tagged to a product simply as a marketing ploy.  At least that’s the way I saw it.  My spouse would buy organic vegetables and fruits and eggs, paying a little more, but when I went to the store, because of my built in cynicism and the fact at chemicals hadn’t killed me yet, I didn’t.

Recently, we ventured up California’s State Route 16 into the luscious Capay Valley.  It seems the first weekend in spring, or thereabouts, the Full Belly Farm has an open house. Berkeley friends are subscribers to a program called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) wherein Full Belly offers neighborhood delivery of fresh organic produce to customers in the Bay Area and Sacramento.  We plan a rendezvous with our friends at the farm.

Springtime in the Capay Valley is what God must have had in mind when Eden was created.  Rolling green hills are dotted with blue oaks and mantled in poppies and lupine.  Row upon row of blossoming stone fruit trees - almonds, peaches, plums - provide spring's signature fragrance while, against an azure sky, the sun plays hide-n-seek through puffy, fair weather clouds.

The highway twists through farmlands and pastures and into and out of bergs with populations that can be enumerated with merely two digits.  

I’ve ridden the road many times in all seasons of the year, always wanting to linger longer and dig deeper.  This day, I’d get to.

The Full Belly Farm is roughly 400 acres backing up to Cache Creek.  Salvaged from an aging almond orchard in the ‘80s, its four partner/owners employ 60 people year round.  Almost unheard of in agriculture, this employment model is only one of the enlightened possibilities availed by the philosophy of the ownership group: sustainability.   The walking tour with co-owner Paul explains it all.

We stroll past an apple orchard where Fujis are in blossom. “Other apples do better in this heat,” we are told….

…and a strawberry field.  Paul lifts the deer fence to let the children crawl under.  “Grab yourself a strawberry, but please be careful not to step on the plants”…

…on the way to a seven-acre plot of garlic.

“Small, diversified croplands,” he says.  “We can produce so much more and care for the land so much better.”

A flock of hens is penned by a temporary fence.  Inside the enclosure is a rolling hen house.  The hens scratch at the land by day repairing to the henhouse at night.  At regular intervals the fence and henhouse is moved to a new plot leaving behind the natural fertilizer than chickens produce.

In another area, sheep graze down tall grasses using their natural digestive processes to return nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil.

Beyond the rows of garlic, a field of lettuce varieties grows uniformly.  Seeds are planted between furrows.  When weeds sprout, “we smother them with dirt keeping the non-favored plant from getting sunlight.”

Natural oils are used to discourage some pest insects, but swaths of land with lush growth are reserved as insect havens.  “If you stop and look, you’ll soon see a lot of movement, hear a lot of sound. 

“Too many in agriculture treat honey bees like farm workers – and we shouldn’t treat our farm workers this way.  Traditionally we’d use the bees in the almonds, then put ‘em in a box and ship ‘em to the next job."

Paul points to a section of tousled, knee-high weeds and grasses.  “Here, we don’t have honey bee hives, but honey bees and other pollinators live here because we’ve set up environments in which they thrive.”

Among the mixed tangle of weed-like plants grows a variety with blue flowers.  “Flax,” we are told.  “We are experimenting with growing the plant for its fiber.”

And about that year-round employment?  “Because of how we do things - planting, harvesting and planting again, spring summer and fall, we have to have people here all the time.”  Then he adds: "Bees, too."

As we walk along, I begin to think of Benjamin Bloom (1913-1999) a preeminent educational thinker of the mid-twentieth century.  His taxonomy of learning processes is something we all studied as teachers. 

But finding examples of his theory actually put into practice are elusive.  Alongside farmer Paul, I suddenly realize I am walking alongside a real, live Benjamin Bloom. 

The success of this organic endeavor rests squarely in the farmer knowing how to employ Bloom’s hierarchy of thought.  Here’s what I saw:

Recall (or knowledge): The farmer knows the soil.  He knows the seed, the water, the exposure to sun, the heat, the cold, the seasons.  And the market.

Grasp (or understanding): The farmer understands what crops will be successful in which corner of the property.  He understands the strengths and weaknesses of a plant or variety.

Application: The farmer makes decisions about what goes where in concert with that grasp.

Analysis: The farmer gathers data, which may be as simple as measuring the yield of a particular product on a particular plot.

Synthesis:  The farmer marries what he’s learned about yields with what he’s learned about the natural benefits of sheep grazing and chicken scratching or reserving space for insects or allowing weed cover to mature in order to conserve moisture to enhance the chances for greater results in subsequent efforts.

Judge or conclude:  Experimenting with new combinations of exposure, water retention, micro-climates and poop, the farmer allows less productive practices to slip away to be replaced by those practices he judges to be more successful.

Perfunctory Old Truck Picture
Walking back to the farmhouse, I tell Paul he should be a teacher “…you know, if this farming thing doesn’t work out.”  Clearly there’s educational practice stuff he gets, I’m thinking. 

He chuckles, offering a very modest reply and then says something to this effect: It’s relatively simple to engage in all of those levels of thinking when you’re working with your hands in the soil day by day.  Our livelihood depends on it.  “Schools, I suppose, can’t do this too effectively because of cost, logistics…”

He’s right, of course.  Our students could receive a much more hands on – much better grounded – experience if schools could somehow be more like farms.  They would graduate with a less sterile but far more heightened sense of how things work and how those things work together.

It’d be organic.


Full Belly Farm is located just on County Road 43, off Highway 16 about a mile and a half north of Guinda.  They are open to the public on select days (see their website) and offer organic produce and fiber through farmer’s markets and their Community Supported Agriculture program.

Internships are available, school field trips are encouraged and there’s a summer camp for kids.

Check out their website for coming events and to learn more: http://fullbellyfarm.com/

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. I've been reading "The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food" by Dan Barber Goes really deep into sustainable farming. Sustainable vs just "certified organic" which, you are correct, has become an over-used marketing term.

    Would definitely love to take the kids to Full Belly Farm should the opportunity arise.

    1. We'll need to make sure the opportunity arises!