Spring. I toss the word around in my head and am caught off guard by the mix of emotions that rise to the surface. I am giddy with anticipation for long summer days, the warm weather that draws us all out to socialize, the smell of sunscreen and sound of kids squealing excitedly as they run through the sprinklers, and the hour they head to bed dirty, tired, and happy. Simultaneously, I feel my brow furrow as the weight of the amount of work ahead comes into sharp focus and I fight off the feeling that I’m already behind by the time the first real day of spring hits.
This is the time of year when tractors wake up from their long, cold slumbers and the entire valley starts rumbling as equipment engines fire up for the first time in months. Fields that surround the winding country roads start taking on a different shape; fresh soil comes to the surface as everyone prepares to plant alfalfa, and wheel lines that had been disassembled for the winter come back together to begin irrigation. Indeed, spring is here, and while the sun brings happiness and play, it’s also the indicator that our calm, cozy winter is over and it’s time to get to work.
This is the time of year when tractors wake up from their long, cold slumbers and the entire valley starts rumbling as equipment engines fire up for the first time in months.
The sentiment of “work to be done” echoes throughout our entire valley as everyone’s internal timers set to the same rhythm. Springtime production work at California Heritage Farms is varied, with a balance between planting fields of alfalfa and rotating pig pastures on the farm and delivering orders to customers on the road. While Rich and his three brothers founded the farming operation in 2006 with cattle and alfalfa hay, Richie’s varied passions and interests combined with my experience in sales and marketing brought our pastured pig side of the farm to fruition in 2012. Our pigs are pastured on various acres of resting hay ground, rotating in between plantings of alfalfa as a way to naturally improve soil health. Typically, alfalfa is planted and harvested for three years before it needs to be pulled to allow that ground to rest. Often, in between plantings, it is common to plant a different crop, usually a mix if oats, barley, and wheat, that is harvested over one to two seasons before alfalfa is replanted. We began pasturing our pigs on these fields, instead of planning a grain hay, which requires less water (to keep the pigs hydrated vs. irrigating a grain for harvest) and benefits the soil with nutrients from their waste. Pig manure is a natural fertilizer, containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, so the seeds that we plant in the spring benefit from the livestock and yield more alfalfa at harvest time.
Spring is a time for growth, and this year is no exception. While tiny alfalfa shoots begin popping up in the 100 acres behind our house, we are busily starting seeds for our garden, pruning back the old raspberry vines that surround our house, and anticipating the months ahead where our grocery list diminishes and our plates fill with garden-fresh zucchinis, crisp lettuces, juicy tomatoes, and sweet berries. We dust out our small market shed, stocking locally sourced coffees, jams, and flour, and set out the scale and money jar, preparing to open our gates to our community for our honor system u-pick berry and flower patch. By the time spring rolls into summer, we’ve ramped up, the farm is buzzing with a full crew of about ten employees, and the gears have quickened to full speed, right alongside the rest of the ranches throughout our community.
By the time spring rolls into summer, we’ve ramped up, the farm is buzzing with a full crew of about ten employees, and the gears have quickened to full speed, right alongside the rest of the ranches throughout our community.
ROOTED IN AGRICULTURE
There’s a sense of unity and pride that comes from living in the small town of Fort Jones, so deeply rooted in agriculture, and I think we all feel it, whether we make our living on or off the farm, and it nourishes our souls. Small waves and nods as we pass each other going down the roads, grace given to the neighbors whose cows escaped from their pasture, and a sense of closeness as we navigate the same ups and downs that working in agriculture brings.
It’s often an unspoken support and connection you feel with your neighbors here in Scott Valley, one that’s easy to miss unless you’re woven into the fabric of this community. It’s second nature to Rich and his family, who have lived here for thirty-five years and have roots that date generations back. For me, on the other hand, it didn’t come quite so naturally. When Rich and I first met, we were neighbors in college at Oregon State University, and I made my first visit to the valley during these years, a random whim to pull off at the Etna exit on 1-5 on my way home from Shasta Lake with my best friend. We ended up staying the night at Rich’s parent’s house and I distinctly remember waking up in the morning to homemade biscuits and gravy, looking out the large picture window in the living room overlooking the entire valley: the river winding through crisp green fields, the stunning mountain backdrop, birds soaring almost at eye level, and deer leisurely hopping over the brush.
I was awestruck by the beauty and completely confused by the lifestyle—no coffee shops, no stoplights, only one tiny grocery store, and certainly more cows than people. I could never have guessed that almost twenty years later, I’d share a similar view, just two miles down from that house, raising four small children and feeling intensely grateful that my life took that unexpected turn.
I’ve adapted to the rhythms of farming and the constant growth a new season brings. This spring, we are balancing our time between farmwork, Farm School, and home, with no real boundary separating the three.
I was awestruck by the beauty and completely confused by the lifestyle— no coffee shops, no stoplights, only one tiny grocery store, and certainly more cows than people.
FARM SCHOOL IN SPRING
Farm School is located in our old garage (now renovated into a one-room schoolhouse), which is located right next to our house in the middle of three acres of our u-pick berry patch. When our oldest was nearing school age, we dreamed of a creative schooling option for our kids that blended the best parts of public school and the best parts of homeschool. A place that feels like home, where shoes can be kicked off and kids can be their truest selves, where they interact with teachers and friends like family, learning through hands on exploration, creative play, and connection with their community. And, of course lots of outdoor time. Farm School launched in the fall of 2019 as an independent co-op in partnership with the local public school district, this year being our “pilot” year. We serve sixteen full time students ranging from transitional kindergarten through second grade, and we intend to grow a grade each school year.
This spring, Farm School implements big plans. In February, we erected our first greenhouse over half of our garden beds—more of a hoop structure, with plastic generously donated from the tree nursery down the road. We topped off the raised beds from the compost pile behind the hay barn, and children learned about soil health, compost, and worms, and how to start and transplant seeds. The curriculum is interwoven with hands-on activities throughout the farm, cultivating children’s unique passions and interests by creating an education model that connects the experience of school to the natural environment. Our goal is to increase student interactions with fresh, healthy food in the garden through curriculum that aligns with common core state standards and increases food production.
Here, our own creative spirits have free reign, too; it’s our open canvas to dream and play, right alongside the kids.
These three acres that make up the berry patch are just a small slice of our overall operation, but it’s my heart and soul on the farm. It’s where we are raising our children with a fierce sense of independence and where we have found a way, through Farm School, to offer that same sense of independence to other children in our community as well. Here, our own creative spirits have free reign, too; it’s our open canvas to dream and play, right alongside the kids.
This is the place where our gardens grow, wild and abundant and uniquely productive. It’s a protected space that is a test ground for new ideas and encourages questioning along the way. Where perhaps we peel back some of the layers of the systems that feel traditional to us all—food production, education—and breathe new life into these spaces. Where we honor our heritage not by doing things the way they’ve always been done, but by forging new paths, embracing an entrepreneurial spirit, and trying something new, aiming for an even better outcome.
This is the third in a four-part series, in which Niki Brown tells readers what’s happening on the family farm throughout the seasons. Niki, her husband Rich Harris, and their four young children operate California Heritage Farms in Scott Valley, California, where they grow hay, raise heritage pigs, berries, pumpkins, and flowers, and host Farm School.
Niki, her husband Rich Harris, and their four young children operate California Heritage Farms in Scott Valley, California, where they grow hay, raise heritage pigs, berries, pumpkins, and flowers, and host Farm School.