Farming and Ranching

Farming for the community

December 29, 2011
Grow the mind to grow the soil to grow the food that strengthens the community.

That’s the mantra of Tara Firm Farms
in Petaluma. The farm was inspired by the same guiding principles that operate Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia, which was popularized in Michael Pollan’s 2006 bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  

After only two and a half years, owner Tara Smith is calling it a success. She hopes to start a farm school which she envisions as a nonprofit training program on how to farm sustainably and humanely — and make money doing it.

When Tara Smith read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, she was horrified by the state of the food industry. The bit about Polyface Farm intrigued her. She thought to herself, “I could do that.”

So, less than three years ago, on a newly purchased plot of 300 acres, Tara and her husband Craig Smith began their journey towards providing a reliable and healthy source of food to the community.

Like Polyface, Tara Firma Farms raises animals at pasture, keeping cows, chickens, and pigs in a constant rotation.  This system of rotation ensures the health of the grass, which is crucial on a farm with pasture-raised animals.

But there’s a crucial difference between the two. Polyface is in a four season East Coast climate. The Smiths had to improvise some of their own farming methods to cater to the West Coast’s rainy-dry seasons.

Just one example of this challenge lies in the ability of West Coast farms to remain in operation all year round.  Adjusting the farm to the not-quite-winter of California involved providing the right balance of shelter and pasture for the animals.  And during the cold months of the year, the farmers — and animals — are very much still at work.

“We have woods for the pigs to live in during the summer,” said Tara Smith.  “They eat walnuts, acorns, and bugs in the ground.  But in the winter we bring them out of the woods because it’s too muddy and slippery.  So in the winter, we keep them in the fields, and they’re digging up the ground, getting it ready for planting in the spring.”

Tara Firma Farms also serves as a community center.  Free farm tours are available every hour on the hour from 10-3 during weekends, and the farm store is open seven days a week for purchase of olive oil, honey, meat, eggs, and books, one of which, of course, is the book that started it all — The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It also hosts events in the barn, and doles out produce and meat to locals through CSA (community supported agriculture) memberships.

Now, Tara Smith wants to focus on education, to teach others how to grow healthy food as farmers, and how to make a profit along the way.

“We don’t have farmers because people think it’s hard and horrible and you don’t earn any money,” explained Smith.  “But you can do it.  You don’t have to be poor.  You can be a farmer and still go on vacations and have nice things.”

The mentality that farming means modest living is what Smith hopes to change with her upcoming nonprofit educational program.  The program, anticipated to kick off in March 2012, aims to raise future farmers, assist them in raising money to buy land to start their own farms, and teach them a business model and marketing skills that will enable them to grow food for profit.

During an age of increasing distrust in a turbulent global economy, this shift of mentality could be just what local food economies need to thrive independently, empowering individuals and communities alike.
About the Author

Liz Proctor is a Bay Nature editorial volunteer. 

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