The crops grown by Whiskey Hill Farm are unusual for Santa Cruz County. Passionfruit vines curl around greenhouse beams, providing shade for turmeric plants. The farm recently added wasabi to its annual crops.
But that’s not the strangest part about this five-acre property.
Compost piles decompose on top of water pipes. As the plant matter breaks down, it gives off heat, which the pipes carry around the property to several solar panel-topped greenhouses.
Stepping into one of the greenhouses reveals a cattail pond, a catfish pond and signs for frog habitat among heirloom tomatoes. The cattails purify water and produce plant matter for biofuels, the fish provide organic fertilizer and the frogs eat insects off the crops.
In the center of the property, a small bio-refinery turns excess food waste products into food-grade carbon dioxide and alcohol. The CO2 feeds plants on the farm, and Monterey Bay Renewable Fuels uses the alcohol for products like sanitizers and biofuels.
Whiskey Hill Farms, Monterey Bay Renewable Fuels and Blume Distillation—the company behind the bio-refinery system—have worked for eight years to make the operation a closed loop.
“Sustainability just isn’t good enough anymore,” says Tom Harvey, the vice president of Blume Distillation. “We can’t sustain, because that means keeping things the way they are for the next seven generations. And the problem is: what we have isn’t going to last seven generations.”
He motions to the greenhouses and bio-refinery before saying, “We’ve got to improve things dramatically.”
Whiskey Hill Farm acts as a sort of idea incubator, he explains. People from different backgrounds come together to find ways to improve small-scale agriculture and share the techniques with the community.
The farm recently partnered with the Sustainable Systems Research Foundation (SSRF) to host workshops for local farmers.
“Many of these farmers have two jobs. One is farming, and the other is some other job that allows them to do the farming,” says Ronnie Lipschutz, a UCSC emeritus professor and the president and senior analyst at SSRF.
Lipschutz and his SSRF co-founder Kevin Bell wanted to focus on local sustainability projects. One of SSRF’s first projects is the sustainable urban food initiative. It aims to make small farms more economically viable and create a network of sustainable growers.
SSRF hosts hands-on workshops and discussions with Whiskey Hill Farm. The topics they cover range from hydroponics and natural pest control techniques to daily organic farm management.
Whiskey Hill has also set aside test plots in its greenhouses so that participants can try growing things they wouldn’t usually plant.
The program includes a Spanish interpreter, and the curriculum evolves with the interests and needs of the farmers.
The organizers want to “respect what [the farmers] know as forms of knowledge,” rather than telling people how to do things, says Lipschutz.
“It’s trying to figure out how what people are doing might be able to fit together with some of these techniques and practices that Whiskey Hill is working with,” he says.
Harvey thinks one of the biggest takeaways for participants will be changing the way they view waste products.
“One visit here, and you never look at waste the same way,” he says. “There’s literally, in our world, not a use for the word ‘waste.’ Everything is just an underused asset.”
Whiskey Hill and SSRF will host their next workshop on Dec. 11. They operate partially on a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture but hope to raise more funding through Santa Cruz Gives to cover the rest and support farmers directly.
Santa Cruz Gives, bigger than ever and now in its seventh year, is GT’s holiday crowdfunding campaign that aims to bolster nonprofits countywide. There are several other Gives nonprofits focused on sustainable and regenerative agriculture, as well; here are three more seeking to improve the way we eat and farm.
Farm Discovery at Live Earth
Farm Discovery started at Live Earth Farm with the goal of bringing people of all ages closer to their food. Students and families visit the farm to learn about regenerative agriculture through field trips, camps and farm walks.
“Our overall mission is to provide space and opportunity to connect with the food system and to create equitable opportunities for that,” says Lucie Ashley, the director of education.
But at the start of the pandemic, the organization also began donating large amounts of produce to local food distribution programs.
First, they got a call from Pajaro Valley Loaves and Fishes, whose fresh produce had all been diverted to the National Guard. So Farm Discovery started gleaning produce from Live Earth Farm to donate.
“Gleaning is recovering produce that’s still good but will no longer go to market,” says Ashley. “We started delivering that to them every week. And then the word spread throughout the community that we were doing that, and other organizations reached out.”
Farm Discovery now also works with Encompass Community Services Transitional Age Youth Program and Holy Cross Food Pantry. They plan to add Pajaro Valley Community Health Trust and Camphill Communities to their list of partners.
In addition to gleaning, Farm Discovery volunteers grow food using regenerative agricultural techniques like no-till and partners with other small farms.
“Since April 2020, we’re at almost 106,000 pounds donated,” says Ashley. “Now, we’re just looking to grow more food and keep up the program.”
California Certified Organic Farmers, known as CCOF, started in Santa Cruz in 1973 as one of the founders of the modern organic movement.
“Together with other farmer-based organizations across the country, we helped write the original organic standards,” says Jessy Beckett Parr, the CCOF Foundation director.
“Today, we represent 4,500 members in 43 states and three countries: the United States, Mexico and Canada,” she says. But the organization still works locally, too.
In 2002, they created the CCOF Foundation—a nonprofit that offers education and support for organic farmers.
They founded the Bricmont Hardship Assistance Fund a few years later, with the intention of supporting small farms through disasters.
“It was really meant as a gift back from the organic community for folks that experience extreme hardship—floods, fires, illness—for lack of a better word: fire and brimstone,” says Beckett Parr.
“Over the years, we’ve given away just over $450,000.”
The fund helped support Sea to Sky Farm last year, after the CZU fire destroyed facilities.
“100% of the donations that we received for the Bricmont Hardship Fund go directly to organic producers to support them through their hardship,” says Beckett Parr.
“Farming is really hard,” she says. “It’s hard to make a living doing so and even harder when you’re choosing to be organic. So, every little bit counts.”
Safe Ag Safe Schools
A sustainability mindset doesn’t just affect how people tend to land. It also includes protecting farmworkers and communities.
Safe Ag Safe Schools (SASS) is a coalition of individuals and organizations in the Monterey Bay area working to reduce exposure to harmful pesticides.
SASS grew out of Californians for Pesticide Reform, a group that lobbied to ban pesticides such as methyl iodide and establish pesticide-free buffer zones around schools.
Currently, the group wants county agricultural commissioners to “say before they spray.” Growers must alert the commissioners 24 hours before using certain restricted pesticides, but the plans don’t become public.
“The Ag Commissioner could very easily post that online, and that has been our demand in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties and now throughout the state,” says Mark Weller, organizing strategist for Californians for Pesticide Reform. “We at least want to know when and where, so we can close our windows, close our doors, keep vulnerable people inside, avoid the places where the applications are occurring.”
The United States lags behind much of the rest of the world when it comes to banning dangerous pesticides.
“There are 72 pesticides used in the country that are banned in the European Union,” says Weller. “And most of those are applied in Monterey and Santa Cruz County.”
But Weller feels optimistic about recent progress. The department of pesticide regulation announced this year that it will begin planning a state-wide notification system.
“The people are making their voices heard, and the process has started,” says Weller.
Still, he worries the timeline will drag. The current planning is scheduled to wrap up by mid-2024.
“We can’t wait years,” he says. “Especially for something as easy as posting information they already receive online.”
Santa Cruz Gives is presented by Good Times in partnership with the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County and with support from the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County, The Applewood Fund, the Bud & Rebecca Colligan Fund, The Joe Collins Fund, Driscoll’s, Inc., Santa Cruz County Bank, Wynn Capital Management, Oswald Restaurant, the Pajaronian and the Press Banner. For a list of all nonprofits and to donate, visit santacruzgives.org.