By Ellen Shick
Farming on a floodplain certainly has its challenges. Every winter without fail, even in a drought year, Laguna Farm and its fields hibernate under water for weeks at a time. Kayaks become the mode of transportation. Yet according to Jennifer Branham, co-owner of Laguna CSA Farm, “Farming on a floodplain presents our biggest challenge and our biggest benefit.” Each flood deposits rich topsoil in the fields. Better yet, gophers don’t like the wet ground, which is always a huge plus for any farmer.
Laguna Farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) earned the Snail of Approval from Slow Food of Sonoma County for producing food that is good, clean and fair. The 25 acre farm nestles in the Laguna de Santa Rosa in Sebastopol and currently serves over 400 members. The idea behind the CSA is that regular subscribers allow the farmer to have a predictable steady income all year. The farm becomes a shared venture between farmer and members.
By farming organically and using cover crop instead of tilling, Laguna Farm is making an important contribution to the health of our planet. The Green New Deal presented by the U.S. House of Representatives is a movement to address climate change. One aspect of the resolution is for the U.S. to become carbon zero by 2050. It is a bold initiative and agriculture can play a role. An important way to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is to retain it in the soil. For more information, check out the Slow Food USA article on The Green New Deal.
A special family heirloom
Established in the 1980’s, Laguna Farm was the brainchild of Scott Mathieson. Scott’s passion for innovation and farming inspired him to turn his family’s lush acreage into a thriving business. He established the CSA and quickly built a strong member base.
Scott grew a thriving business and helped create the Sebastopol Farmer’s market. Many of his innovations are models of sustainability. For example, using an old meat freezer as a base, he built an eco-friendly walk-in out of hay bales and cob. In addition, a solar array provides power to run the farm. Sungold tomatoes and Scott’s famous mesclun, the French-inspried salad mix are the gold standard at Farmers Markets and helped put Laguna Farm on the map.
He build a vast legacy, and in 2011 Scott was ready to sell the business. He leases the land to Jennifer Branham and Ignacio Romero (aka Nacho). Jennifer used to run the barn, CSA and farm stand, and Nacho managed the fields, planting and irrigation, so buying the business was a logical next step for them. Jennifer and her family live in Sebastopol, Nacho and his family live in Rohnert Park, but the bulk of their time is spent on the farm.
The solar array provides energy for the farm
It’s easy to support your local farmer
Becoming a Laguna Farm CSA member is easy. Subscription choices include a weekly produce box with one of three delivery choices. Choose Farm pick-up for $20 per week, Drop-site pick-up for $25 per week, or home delivery for $29.50 per week. Each produce box contains salad mix, in-season vegetables, herbs and fruits OR a juice box specifically designed for juicing or smoothies. (Watch Jennifer’s instructional videos here on how to get the most out of your weekly produce box.) Each week brings a surprise as you open the box to reveal the bounty inside; for example, a box might include beets, radishes, gold or purple potatoes, dino kale, cucumbers and summer berries.
You can always exchange items in the produce box.
Weekly produce boxes in the ecological hay bale and cob walk-in
Jennifer and Ignacio work with other local CSA’s to fill out the produce boxes all year long. In addition, they work a piece of land located on Spark’s Lane, just up the road. Because it is on higher ground, production continues year round when the Laguna floods.
Beyond Organic: A lovely tour
Jennifer took some time out of her busy schedule to take me on a tour. First, we walked past the Grandmother Oak that provides shade for farm picnics and other events. This ancient landmark watches over the plants, trees and creatures. Across the plain, we see heritage plants such as Silver willows, various varieties of oaks, and hedgerows of wild Laguna roses. We hear the crickets, bees and happy insects who live on the farm, too. Just a couple of years ago, a new tenant moved in; a bee hive took residence in one of the twin oaks, bringing their gift of pollination to the farm. The bees know a good location when they see one.
Grandmother Oak keeps watch over the farm
Ignacio Romero: co-owner and organic farming expert
After twenty-seven years at Laguna Farm, Ignacio Romero can tell us a thing or two about organic farming. When I met with Ignacio on the warm June afternoon, he was getting ready to plant rows of cucumber in a large prepared plot of soil. He carried his simple seeding machine and a sack of seeds. He plopped his materials down on the verdant soil and adjusted his baseball cap as he answered my questions. We talked about the pros and cons of the heavy rains this past season. The overly wet soil postponed much of his spring planting, but he was glad for the rich topsoil brought in and the chance for some of his fields to rest and be replenished.
Co-owner and master farmer, Ignacio Romero
Pest control that works with nature
Laguna farm works with mother nature to control pests and keep plants healthy. Hoop houses are used to keep warmth and moisture in and deer out. Other pest control methods include Ag-fabric over new seedlings to keep out the beetles and provide protection from the sun. Raccoons can reek havoc on rows of corn, so Jennifer might put in some fencing if the problem gets out of hand. In addition, they use natural predators such as ladybugs and praying mantis.
Ignacio and Jennifer know that healthy plants grown in healthy soil are naturally pest resistant. They like to pride themselves on clean, nice looking fruits and vegetables, but every now and then there might be a nibble in a piece of lettuce. We really don’t mind sharing a bit with the local farm dwellers to keep everything in harmony.
Ag fabric protects new plants
Working at Laguna Farm CSA
An important aspect of the Snail of Approval is the work environment for the employees. Are they paid a living wage? Is the work environment safe and positive? Laguna Farm earns an A+ in this category. At Laguna Farm the employees are treated like family. One of the many benefits of working at the farm is the opportunity to grow and market their own produce. Of course, a huge perk is getting to take home free produce that the workers grow themselves. This is truly a win, win situation.
Helping those in need
Jennifer smiled when she told me about how Laguna Farm gives back to the community. Each week Food For Thought Food Bank and Ceres Project nonprofits come to the farm and get free produce. Both of these organizations benefit those facing health challenges. By eating foods grown in such nutrient-rich soil, each recipient has huge benefits.
After unused produce is past expiration, Jennifer donates it to the Wildlife Refuge to feed the birds and other animals.
In addition, there are four families who come to the farm weekly and get a produce box donated by other CSA members. Thank you Jennifer and Ignacio for your generosity.
You don’t have to be a member to shop at the farm store!
Laguna Farm is located at 1764 Cooper Road in Sebastopol. To learn more about subscribing, visit their website here. If you are in the neighborhood, stop by and pick up a few fruits and veggies to bring home. Take some time to look around, sit under Grandmother oak and listen to the sound of nature.
About Ellen Shick
Ellen Shick is a proud Slow Food member and is always on the lookout for ways to feed the world, one delicious meal at a time. Traveling through Italy has become a passion and life journey. Ellen’s blog An Italian Dish is her place to share travel adventures, recipes, photos, books, and stories about her love of Italy, the food and the people.