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High Ground Organics is an organic family farm in Watsonville, California. We (Stephen Pedersen and Jeanne Byrne) live on the farm with our two children Lydia and Amelia. Our top priorities are growing flavorful, nutritious vegetables and fruits to nourish our customers, and maintaining a vibrant, clean, and healthy environment on and around our farmland. We go to great lengths to prevent erosion, create a living soil, improve surrounding wildlife habitat, and conserve water and other resources on our farm.
High Ground Organics is perched above Harkins Slough, just outside of Watsonville west of Highway 1. We bought this land in 2000, after farming on leased land in the area for a few years. A local land trust (The Open Space Alliance) sold us the property after applying two easements that protect it in perpetuity. OSA recognized that preserving this land from development was vital to protect the sensitive habitat of Harkins Slough (a freshwater wetland bordering us on two sides.) The hillsides that lead down to the slough (about half of the 40 acres) are in a Conservation Easement and cannot be farmed or developed at all. The other half of the property is protected under a unique Agricultural Easement, that not only keeps it in farmland (prohibits development), but requires that it be managed organically forever.
Over the past few years we have planted out several acres of our land into apples, pears, and blueberries. This area is excellent for orchards, and Watsonville used to be one of the United States’ largest apple growing areas. The old orchards have gradually been torn up however, as apple production economics came to favor growers in Oregon and Washington. Bucking the trend, we wanted to plant some different kinds of apples than are normally found in the stores and we found some really wonderful heirloom varieties through a one acre trial orchard at the Redman House (see below). We’re growing one of our favorite old varieties that you may never see anywhere else—it’s called Hudson’s Golden Gem and it’s a large ugly apple with a wonderfully unique, crisp, pearlike flavor. Rubanettes and Waltannas (named after a couple named Walt and Anna) are two other favorites that we planted here. We also planted some Jonagolds–a currently popular variety with wonderful flavor. Of the six pear varieties we have planted, three are French butter pears (Hardy Beurré, Beurré Superfine, Easter Beurré). The others are called Harrows Delight, Warren, and Seckel. Seckels are an American variety, developed near Philadelphia at the end of the 18th century. They’re small and not suited for long distance traveling, but are fine textured, juicy, and syrupy—a perfect CSA fruit.
One patch of land on our farm used to be covered in huge concrete slabs from the farm’s old dairying days. A few years ago we had the concrete removed and began farming that area. The soil there is sandier than the other places on the farm and we decided that it lent itself well to growing blueberries, which like more acidic soils. We fallowed the ground for an entire year and mulched with redwood bark to lower the pH. Then we planted it into blueberries in 2009. The blueberries began to bear fruit in 2011.
Select the above images to view slide show of Home Farm.
Every piece of farmland has its own character, related to its soil type, topography, and local climate. The one shortcoming of our home farm is that it is very hard to get an early start when planting our spring crops. Because most of the soils are heavy clays and there is a naturally occurring clay pan underlying most of the farm, it takes a long time for things to dry out enough for us to get in with the tractor. As a result, we often experienced frustrating gaps in our vegetable production at a time when our farmers market and CSA customers were eager to buy fresh spring produce.
Also, as we put more of our home farmland into orchards and other perennials, we found we needed more ground for the row crops and for rotating our strawberry plantings each year. (In order to grow strawberries organically, it’s necessary to rotate the ground out of strawberries for several years before replanting them in the same field. This is because of soil-borne fungal diseases that build up in the soil under strawberry crops. These diseases are the reason that conventional growers claim they need to apply methyl bromide, methyl iodide or other chemical fumigants before they plant each year.)
Select the above images to view slide show of Lewis Road.
We decided to look for additional land. We feel that owning the land we farm allows us to manage it with a truly long term view, so when we discovered a 23 acre parcel of “vacant land” for sale in North Monterey County we had to check it out. We completely fell in love with this property, which had not been farmed in 25 years. The sandy, well-drained soil type and warmer location was the perfect complement to our home farm with its heavy clay and cool coastal summer fog. In March of 2010, after an arduous loan process, we purchased “0 Lewis Road” and spent the following year preparing it for farming. We put terraces on a portion of the land which will allow us to use high-tunnels to extend our production into the winter and early spring. We also put in settlement basins to catch any runoff that should occur. By early September 2010, we planted a cover crop which grew tall and lush. It was well established on time to keep the soil from eroding even with the heavy rains in the fall and winter. We worked that cover crop in the spring of 2011 to improve the soil fertility before we planted the first crops for the CSA. We are pleased as can be to have this addition to our farm.
Redman Hirohara House Farmland
For the past five years we have leased ten acres of good Watsonville farmland around the historic dilapidated Redman Hirohara House (that abandoned Victorian style house you see off to the right as you head south of Watsonville on Highway 1). It has proven to be excellent ground to grow strawberries, as well as carrots, cole crops, lettuces, winter squashes, leeks, green onions, celery, beets, turnips, radishes, and flowers.
Farming the property also allows us to sell our vegetables and fruits at the little farmstand located on the edge of the farm. We have really enjoyed being able to offer our vegetables to local Watsonville residents and Highway 1 commuters, who appreciate seeing the vegetables they are buying growing in the field. We’re delighted also that the native plant hedgerow that was planted there the first year we leased it (by cooperation with Sam Earnshaw at the Community Alliance with Family Farmers) is flourishing and provides a nice green barrier along the exit from the Highway.
The Redman property has an interesting history. A foundation of historical landmark enthusiasts purchased the property in order to save and restore the house at the height of the boom in property values. By 2009, however, they were unable to keep up with the payments and the property was foreclosed. They still have hopes that they will be able to work out some way to restore the house.
While our future use of this land is uncertain (we are now on a year to year lease), we will continue to farm it and operate the farmstand until further notice.
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