Summertime is the absolute pinnacle of life on the farm, the center of our whole year. The seasons leading up to summer have all been in preparation for right now, and the seasons to follow are to recover and prepare again. The energy on the farm is palpable; the intensity demands full use of every minute of sunlight, ensuring that jobs get done and projects completed.
The usual rhythm of summer on our farm involves mornings and evenings punctuated by the twelve-hour cycle of changing wheel lines to irrigate the alfalfa fields, whole days attending to the pigs out on pasture as the temperatures increase and shade is scarce, every morning assuring the gates to the berry patch open, and, well before sunset, friends and family lingering on the lawn, enjoying the pause from the summer grind.
Rumbling hay balers and four wheelers come and leave the barnyard, and additional seasonal workers, often high schoolers, buzz around at all hours of the day and night to ensure not a beat is missed during this critical time of growth and harvest.
California Heritage Farms is a result of a lot of hard work: learning-by-failing, tough transitions, constant growth, and determination. A family business is not for the faint of heart, but the rewards are immeasurable. My husband, Rich, grew up here in Scott Valley, a stunningly beautiful mountain valley just south of the Oregon border. While he and his three brothers all moved away after high school, it isn’t surprising that most of them found their way back after a handful of years and began a ranching enterprise of their own.
The usual rhythm of summer on our farm involves mornings and evenings punctuated by the twelve-hour cycle of changing wheel lines to irrigate the alfalfa fields . . .
Today, the farm is the centerpiece of our lifestyle and an ever-improving mechanism of self-expression. We take pride in raising the highest quality pork on our farm, giving our heritage pigs access to expansive acres, clean water and air, and free range to exert their naturally curious and social behavior. We sell our pork up and down the west coast, working with key partners to help get our delicious meat to consumers. About a thousand acres of alfalfa keep summers full as we continue to push ourselves to practice regenerative agriculture, improving soil-health and water use through cover cropping and alternative options to a traditionally resource-intensive crop.
Aside from pastured pigs and fields full of alfalfa, Rich and I and our four kids (Oscar, seven, Sam, six, and our twins Dutch and Ada, four) have our own mini-oasis on a three-acre u-pick berry and flower patch that we’ve spent the last five years elbow greasing it to make it everything we’ve dreamed of. It’s here that we host Farm School, our visionturned- reality of the perfect school for our kids.
We take pride in raising the highest-quality pork on our farm, giving our heritage pigs access to expansive acres, clean water and air, and free range to exert their naturally curious and social behavior.
At Farm School, we reimagine what school looks like by swapping four walls and echoing hallways for a three acres classroom filled with real-life examples of science, math, and art found in the farm, gardens, and livestock. We’ve spent the pilot year of Farm School building the plane as we fly it: creating our team, developing curriculum, forming new partnerships, fundraising, and doing so many course corrections along the way that I’ve lost track. This summer, we’re focusing on filling in some gaps in our foundation.
We’re forming a 501c3 charitable non-profit organization that will serve Farm School so we are better prepared to apply for grants and fundraise, and we are deep diving into developing our own curriculum to ensure that we achieve our mission and vision to the fullest.
My heart is full during the summer when our four kids spend their days outside, splashing in kiddie pools, dodging extra sunscreen applications, plucking fresh berries off the vines for snacks, and having free reign over the fenced acres of the berry patch. Cousins pour in, dinner gets stretched into the receding light of day, and s’mores and sleepovers happen any night of the week, no occasion needed. Just like the farm, the kids don’t pause in the summer.
At Farm School, we reimagine what school looks like by swapping four walls and echoing hallways for a three-acres classroom filled with real-life examples of science, math, and art found in the farm, garden, and livestock.
Because of this, summer this year has felt strangely normal, yet completely different. We had all watched wide-eyed as residents in Wuhan, China, suffered from the first outbreak of the novel Coronavirus and then again when death tolls from Italy started filling our news feeds and, then, when cases hit close to home and we weren’t bystanders any more. I finished writing the spring article for this magazine precisely one week before the entire nation took shelter in their homes, shutting their doors to neighbors and family, donning masks regularly when forced to partake in an “essential” activity like grocery shopping. Indeed, spring 2020 is forever etched in our souls as the crumbling of “normal.” With mandatory stay-at-home orders, businesses have been forced to shutter and layoffs occurred by the millions. Schools closed for the remainder of the school year, scrambling to determine how to support and reach the families that depend on them for food and childcare. Supply chains came to a screeching halt and panicbuying cleared shelves of many staples.
And then just as fast, social distancing temporarily flew out the window as thousands poured onto the streets across the US in mass rage at the murder of George Floyd, its horrific video going viral, causing the perfect storm for rebellion, demanding voice and action from even the most rural parts of the US. While our small, close-knit community always feels somewhat isolated and protected from the “real world,” we are not completely sheltered from the blows of this crisis.
In response to stay-at-home orders and despite our small numbers and outdoor-based curriculum, Farm School pivoted immediately to distance learning, wrapping up our pilot year with packets of worksheets and Zoom conference calls that felt distinctly disconnected and wildly off-“brand” from what we set out to do. Our little family hunkered down and cut off interactions with friends and even with family down the road. I shifted to working from home, juggling homeschooling responsibilities for our two oldest and finding a whole new rhythm to the beginning of our summer.
While our small, close-knit community always feels somewhat isolated and protected from the “real world,” we are not completely sheltered from the blows of this crisis.
Despite the entire world cracking open beneath our feet, in some ways our summer feels strangely undisturbed in the grand scheme of it all. Our kids have taken to spending their days entertaining each other, running freely outside, building bridges with wood rounds and planks, setting up elaborate make-believe games, turning the vacant schoolhouse into their own private playhouse. When they get tired of their normal surroundings, Rich comes in from his day of ranch work and everyone boots up to go help Dad with pigs. In the early evenings we hop on the Kubota side-by-side and take our kayaks to the pond on the back of the field behind our house to enjoy a quiet sunset to ourselves.
How fortunate we are to have this life doesn’t escape me. We are grateful daily that we have a space for our kids to run free, for them to have the deeply bonded friendships with one another to keep them fulfilled, to live in an expansive rural community that feels like family, to have endless space and farm resources to grow our own food, and to already be so deeply rooted in a different approach to educating our children that our foundation remains intact through all of this.
Our farm has continued to be successful despite the circumstances; while we don’t know what the future holds, we do know that it feels like a great time to be a reliable source of quality food for people when they need it most. The benefits of a shortened supply chain—of ordering directly from the producer—have never been so apparent to so many people, and, like so many other small farms, we are working hard to connect more people directly with the origins of their food.
The berry patch has paused opening this summer until we feel more confident about bringing locals and out-of-towners to our home; it was a hard decision but one we feel supported in. Strangely, Farm School was impacted in just the right way for where we are in developing our program. While it forced our extra-fast-whirlwind-growth to slow with the cancellation of a summer packed full of fundraising events, we appreciate the deep breath and breathe that extra life into our gardens. While there’s still so much uncertainty around school in the upcoming year, right now we’re leaning into the flexibility of the Farm School model and staying focused.
Our farm has continued to be successful despite the circumstances; while we don’t know what the future holds, we do know that it feels great to be a reliable source of quality food for people when they most need it.
It’s impossible to not take the time to reflect on our own lives, on things that we’ve been forced to change and won’t necessarily choose to revert back to, or things we might normally take for granted that we’re holding tight to today. While I always had a flexible work schedule, being home every day with kids, especially during this busy time on the ranch, has changed the rhythm of our days. Our mornings are slower and more calm, my time is more flexible, and our gardens are getting more attention. When we think about a typical “work day” in the future, maybe this whole experience will allow for more flexibility, more time for us collectively to prioritize differently. It will take some time for us to figure out how to thoughtfully integrate into our lives the changes now so clearly urgent. I don’t think we’re alone in looking forward hopefully to permanent change in some of our most foundational systems and cultural norms, sure to emerge on the other side. We are straddling both the past and the future. We have the gifted opportunity to shed that which wasn’t serving us and forge ahead with thoughtful intention and grace.
We have the gifted opportunity to shed that which wasn’t serving us and forge ahead with thoughtful intention and grace.
This is the fourth and last 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. Says Niki, “I have so much gratitude for the opportunity to share these glimpses into our life with all of you readers and to document these special years and historical moments for my family in the years ahead. It’s truly a gift, and I would not have otherwise taken the time to write, so thank you for reading along.”
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.