Peter and Mimi Buckley had no previous farming experience when they started a 110-acre organic farm outside Healdsburg four years ago. With careers in fashion, followed by founding nonprofits like the Center for Ecoliteracy and the David Brower Center in Berkeley, they wanted to apply their environmental ideals to agriculture.
“I was one of those Michael Pollan farmers,” says Peter Buckley. “I had a lot of opinions about farming.” The Buckleys and their staff have had to test those against reality as they launched an organic farm that epitomizes biodiversity.
The Buckleys are the only Americans who commercially raise Cinta Senese pigs, an Italian breed prized for prosciutto (see: http://bit.ly/1loBwh3). They grow grains like Floriani red flint corn, which makes an outstanding whole-grain polenta. They also grow produce like heirloom blackberries that larger farms won’t touch because of low yield or perishability, and make wine out of Rhone varietals.
“We’re trying to have our identity wrapped around diversity,” says farm manager Johnny Wilson.
The Buckleys ripped out old, untended vines in the flat part of the land for their new crops, and planted wine grapes and olive trees on the hillsides. And there are goats, beehives and sometimes chickens. The farm runs along the Russian River, which feeds its aquifer, so, for now, the drought is not a big concern.
The pigs are a 30-minute drive away, at Acorn Ranch in Mendocino County, where they wander in search of acorns, wild mushrooms, fruit from an abandoned apple orchard and, soon, chestnut trees.
“Pigs are naturally forest creatures. That’s where they celebrate their pigginess,” Buckley says.
Whereas American pigs raised for fresh meat typically live six months, in Italy the Cinta Senese aren’t slaughtered until 18 months for better quality. The first ones born at Acorn Ranch will reach that age this fall; the Buckleys will do salumi trials with the meat of younger animals first to see how it compares.
The trick is to integrate the two properties so the pig manure can fertilize the crops. But, manure from roaming pigs is hard to collect, so some of the pigs might come to Front Porch for a spell, and crops might be planted at Acorn Ranch.
“It’s like a microcosm of nutrient flows,” says Adam Hyde, who raises the pigs with his wife, Kaye Jones.
The Buckleys plan to start a community-supported agriculture program soon, where subscribers regularly receive farm products. But, for now they have what they call an RSA – “restaurant-supported agriculture” – a group of chef customers.
They also grow their grains primarily as a source for seeds for larger farms that supply Community Grains, the Oakland pasta and grain company. One of the newest grains is Senator Cappelli, an heirloom durum wheat for pasta.
“The piece of the puzzle that Front Porch has done is growing it in small amounts and giving us a chance to understand it,” says Community Grains founder Bob Klein.
The Buckleys also own a 500-acre blueberry farm in Oregon, a younger sibling to Front Porch. Profits from the Oregon operation help offset some of the costs from the two California operations.
As Peter Buckley says, “We’re trying to solve the puzzle of how do you make that ideal diverse farm, and how do you make that economically viable?”