Published: April 27, 2021

Lizzie Goodrich: Okay, so I’m curious to know a little bit more about how Full Belly Farm got started, I guess, in terms of what inspired you and how the owners got together and everything.

Judith Redmond: Well, I think in terms of the theme of Environmental Futures–looking back at what it was like, you know–gosh, 35 years ago, in terms of the organic agriculture movement that context is really relevant because it's changed a lot. And I think a lot of the changes are positive – organic agriculture has had a positive impact, so that's good. In some ways, when you see where we are at this moment in time culturally and you know, sort of environmentally, you can feel pretty desolate about it. But it is good to know that thirty years ago when we started the farm, organic was considered very, very fringe and there were very active efforts by traditional agriculture and the research institutions, land grant universities like UC Davis, which is where I went to school and at UC Berkeley, also a land grant, to undermine organic agriculture and to call it a fraud. And that's just changed a lot. I mean there's now sort of an effort to, in some ways, do the opposite, which is to have things claimed as organic which really shouldn't be.

In other words, everyone is trying to jump on that bandwagon. So yeah, I mean I think when we started, we were very idealistic. And I often encourage, when I'm speaking to younger people, I often encourage them to try and keep a little bit of idealism in their plans for the future. Because it's, you know, I mean gosh, especially now, where I think the pandemic has been harder in some ways on people like, your age, or younger people, than it has been on people like me, because it's sort of hard to figure out what the future needs. But I do know that before the pandemic, there was a huge pressure on young people to sort of make plans, to be realistic, to make lists, and have goals. And you know, if you're going to start a farm there was a sentiment of “get an accountant, and get a lawyer, and you know have a business plan; know what your structure is.”

We had camps here of high school kids and so forth that I would get a chance to talk to. And I just loved seeing the high school kids ask questions that showed that they were thinking about all the ways that agriculture can be a positive influence on the world, and you know showed us that they really cared about that.

So that idealism, I think was something that guided the people that started Full Belly Farm. We weren't doing it for money; we weren't doing it for fame; we did it because we felt like it was the only way to farm and that farming organically could contribute to environmental health and to human health. And we really wanted to be in a place that we could live and be outside, and farm together, unrelated individuals with common values. That's where we were, yeah, when we got started.

Sheep picture

Lizzie Goodrich: Coming off of that: so, you mentioned the importance of maintaining some of that idealism and everything, like that obviously there are practical sides (and I mean idealism can lead to you know practical moves and everything) but I’m curious what you sort of view, for you personally or for the farm as a whole, what do you view as some of your like most important projects?

Judith Redmond: Well, when I first thought about that question, I thought about some of the big projects that I've worked on here that have been important for the success of the farm. And so that would be one way to answer it. I mean, for example, I have worked a lot on our Community Supported Agriculture program which has certainly been really important to me and really important to a lot of our members. To people who, you know, feel like it's contributed to their health because it's changed their diet; it's made them better cooks; they spend more time with their family; you know, things like that. So, I think that would be one way of answering that question.

Another way to think about that question in terms of me personally, is just that the farm has a kind of unusual structure. I mean, we are a corporation, but right now we have seven adult owners, two of whom are people who grew up on the farm and then one other who is a spouse, who are sort of a second generation, and all have an equal voice in the business. And I think with that structure, it's just really important to have, well for us, the people that we are, to have some way of coming together, regularly to make good decisions and think about constantly improving how the farm is working, and how we work together. And you know, I think those are in some ways the challenging things in life–making good decisions with groups. And the fact that we’ve been able to hold on to our values through all these years, and changes, and challenges, I think the group decision-making has been really important in terms of the success of the farm. And I think that the fact that we make decisions together is kind of an unusual legacy that I hope, you know, continues. I hope that is lasting.

But then I can also answer in a third way. There's the Full Belly project way; there's kind of this contextual way of how we make the business work; but I think another way that is really relevant to the Environmental Futures seminar is that 20 years ago, when people started talking about climate change, they would never talk about agriculture–not a word about agriculture. It was, you know, about cars, and oil. It never had anything to do with agriculture and it was actually people connected to agriculture that worked on the legislation that created California's Cap-and-Trade program. I know the people who wrote that bill, AB 32, and the woman who wrote that bill worked at the Community Alliance with Family Farmers with me, before she went to the California legislature. So, she knew about agriculture and cared about agriculture.

And at that time, there was no–not even the foggiest idea–that agriculture was really a central player in terms of climate change. And the fact that now, people have realized that they really can't mitigate climate change without the participation of land-based industries like agriculture, and forestry, and ranching–that’s a huge change. And the reason that that happened, was because of, you know, farms like Full Belly Farm and nonprofit organizations like CAFF and CalCAN, that were at the table when AB 32 was written and passed. You know, Farm Bureau, every single other agricultural organization in the state of California, opposed that bill. And now they're sitting at the table trying to influence where the money goes, right. In other words, now, they're all talking about climate change.

I mean, I think it's really great that we have Farm Bureau and everyone talking about climate change and showing that they understand that agriculture is key. Agriculture is key, in terms of mitigating climate change. That's great. And that's just another thing, when you ask, what are my important projects, I would say that that's something that I've worked hard on. And so, it's also really relevant to your project and the theme of environmental futures–it's only grassroots organizations that have the big picture and aren't in it for themselves. They're in it for change. That's, you know, that's where it's at. I mean, no one may know how important it was that CAFF was at the table 15 years ago, when we're talking about climate change, and we don't really care that no one knows that. I think if you're studying environmental futures, it's really good to know that grassroots organizations matter.

Lizzie Goodrich: Right. Yeah, that's a great point. And I wanted to ask another thing: I think you said that you felt like it was an accomplishment that grassroots organizations made a difference. In addition to, you know, legislation being passed, do you mean also it becoming more known that these land-based industries and land-based projects are now being talked about in terms of the climate change conversation?

Judith Redmond: Yeah, talked about and involved. I mean, there are now programs at California Department of Food and Agriculture–there are now programs coming out of that agency that provide money to farmers to adopt practices that have been proven to sequester greenhouse gases. So, it's not just that we're talking about it; it's that California has a stronger program for agricultural involvement in mitigating climate change than pretty much anywhere else in the world.. California has given out millions and millions of dollars-worth of grants for improving the efficiency of water use, reducing greenhouse gases–three really major important programs that we're now trying to fund through a Bond Act, so that they’ll have money in the future. But it's, it's a lot more now than people just recognizing that agriculture matters to mitigating climate change. It's like okay, well, we better get busy because we're not gonna have a planet soon if we don't do something about all this.

Lizzie Goodrich: Yeah, that's certainly a huge project. And I think Full Belly has really been a touchstone, at least for a lot of people in the central and northern part of California. But in terms of dovetailing into our next question: I'm curious how off of that, right, in terms of thinking about the future, and thinking about how far we've come; you know, we have sort of the legislation side and everything like that. I'm curious how sustainability and expectations for the future have changed over the years. And in particular, maybe this hasn't affected or changed the farm's mission, but as somebody who's been talking about this since people weren't really talking about it as much–the climate and better practices for maintaining the land and everything like that–I'm curious what your perspective is, in terms of how that's changed, or affected the farm's mission. Or just for you as somebody who, who has been involved in this discussion for so long. Does that make sense?

Judith Redmond: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, well, I mean I think it's changed. In part, the farm’s sense of our own ability to continue has changed a lot over the years. Because when we started farming, I think we felt like financially, we were on extremely tenuous ground. We felt every year we just weren't going to be able to pay ourselves; we weren't going to be able to invest in the farm; we weren't going to really be able to continue, just financially. It was a big struggle.

And even as that started to become less true and we started to make money, we never really felt confident about it. And we really established a practice of constant investment in the farm and investment in the infrastructure and a sense that we had to be constantly improving and doing better year after year. And I think we're still cautious. But I think, now we realize that the farm does have a sustainable model, in terms of finances. And the farm does make contributions as much as we can environmentally. So that's all a really big change.

I think now, there's a little more introspection about the sustainability for the farmers themselves, because it's–the second generation of farmers isn't really expecting to, you know, devote every single second of every single day and night to their jobs. [Judith laughs] I mean, they just don't have that mindset. So, it's not that they don't value the farm. It's just that they don't want to, you know, farm the way the founding farmers do. So those are all kind of conversations and expectations that, you know, we're going to just continue to navigate as we absorb this second generation of farmers.

I think the other answer to your question, though, is that, well, another way that the farm has changed, I think pretty significantly, is that we're more and more aware that there are educational and research activities that we do here that are valued, especially by the founding farmers. You know, the effort to talk to our CSA members about policy issues or about what it means to, you know–what sustainability or what organic should mean. All of those things. I think we're more and more committed to the farm as an institution that tries to put out those values publicly and, you know, examine them and analyze what they mean to us. And it's really great to have a practical side to that discussion because we're farming and farming successfully, at this point we can we have some credibility in that discussion.

Lizzie Goodrich: Yeah, that's awesome. Thinking about the next generation of farmers and everything like that, and thinking about wanting to have a future, and, you know, everything like that; I think, maybe that goes into my next couple of questions, which the first one is: if you could say, what are some of the main lessons from living in a sustainable rural setting that you might want to share with those in less rural communities? Or maybe those who are hoping themselves–you brought up at the beginning of our conversation that the situation with the pandemic has, as much as it's been a devastating time in many ways, it's also maybe opened up some younger people like myself, and people even younger than me’s minds that maybe you should just go for it and think about being a little bit more idealistic or making some more change and everything. So just, I guess, what are some lessons or some interesting points that you would want to share with people who are interested in learning more about sort of this sustainable, rural lifestyle that you have on the farm?

Judith Redmond: I don't know. I mean, I think that what characterizes it for us is really taking care of land–unless you, you know, are able to just hire lots of people to help you, taking care of land is really a lot of work. And so, it doesn't make sense to be too idealistic about it. Unless you have money! I mean, there's definitely people that live on pieces of land and just have money and hire people to take care of it for them. But that's not the situation that we're in. I mean, we obviously do hire a lot of people, and a lot of people help us a whole lot. But we're basically working here every single day. And I think, yeah, it's just I would never choose any other lifestyle, actually. But the part about the work that we do, you know, with farmers markets and with CSA is that it's just so helpful to describe to people who live in an urban setting where their food comes from. And that it sort of takes a lot of water, and work, and land to create food. And I think that's something that not everyone really understands. In California, as such an urban state, land and water are getting scarce. And I think agriculture is going to probably be the first to lose out.

Lizzie Goodrich: Right. And sort of thinking towards that: I know that Full Belly is really known for your soil practices. I don't know if you would want to maybe share a little about that? I think people might be curious to know something of what goes into developing things like that. I know that you've studied agriculture and everything like that, but that's something that I think of when I think of Full Belly–a lot of actual, you know, farming practices that you all do are something that people could potentially learn from. So, I don't know if you want to say a little something.

Judith Redmond: We use a lot of compost–we put a lot of compost onto our soil as sort of a standard operating procedure to put compost on every field before we plant and then even more if we can as a side dressing, but the other thing that we really believe in are cover crops. We grow, on each piece of our land at some point during the year, a cover crop and that, again, adds organic material but also can help in bringing up nutrients from deeper in the soil profile to places where crops can use them.

These practices add to the nutrition that's available in the topsoil for plants, that are, you know, crops that we’re growing to feed people. And so, those are sort of building blocks of our soil fertility program. And then the third cornerstone of that program is that we have a herd of sheep that move through the farm in small pastures; perhaps eating those cover crops–rather than using a tractor–we’ll have the sheep move through a pasture and eat down cover crops and turn them, essentially, into super food for the microbes in the soil. So, I think those are the three parts of our soil fertility program that essentially feed our soil and our plants. We’re building healthy soil.

And we're also part of an ongoing research effort to help organic farmers try and figure out how they can reduce their tillage. Organic farmers, because they're not using herbicides, they have to deal with weeds. And there's also tillage involved in planting seeds and preparing beds for planting and so forth. And so, there's a research effort that we're part of that aims to reduce tillage because people believe that it would be really beneficial for organic soil not to till it. And also, it's beneficial in terms of climate change, because when you till soil, you tend to see organic material breaking down because it's exposed to air and water. Yeah, so those are some of the some of the things that we're working on.

Lizzie Goodrich: Yeah, that's super cool. Also, I just wanted to make sure to get a little question in here as well, my school is University of Colorado, so some people might not yet be familiar with Full Belly. I guess I would ask, what are some of your favorite things that you grow on the farm or cultivate?

Judith Redmond: Yeah, well, we grow you know, a lot of crops. The farm is very, very diverse. We have not just vegetables; it’s fruit, and nuts, and herbs, and flowers. And then we have chickens that we’re producing eggs. And then also the sheep produce lambs, which are turned into meat. So it's a really diverse farm. And it's sort of hard–it's really hard to pick a favorite actually, but you know, I eat–I'd say 90% of my diet is probably from the farm. We have milk that we don't sell, but that we have for ourselves. There's flour, so there's a woman that bakes bread here. There's yogurt–you know, I mean, I go to the farmers market to do sales for Full Belly and so the farmers market and the farm are basically where my diet comes from. So, I can't say that there's something that I choose right now as a favorite as much as just, you know, my diet changes with the seasons. I kind of eat whatever the farm is producing.

Lizzie Goodrich: Yeah, I think that's probably one of the coolest things about you know, living on a farm setting and everything like that. I feel like, you know, Full Belly is very important project to learn from. You all have had a sustainable organic farm for a long time here, relative to when, as we were talking about earlier, that became a more mainstream idea that now people are promoting. What are some of your hopes for the future? And I guess what would you as a farmer hope to see in the future in terms of ecology, land stewardship, sustainability, topics like that? I know, that's a really broad question. So just I guess, whatever you'd like to add.

Judith Redmond: I think it's pretty obvious right now: there's a really serious environmental crisis that we're facing. And in some ways, I feel like people that live in the United States are consuming the entire planet's resources really fast with their cell phones, and just their consumption. So this is hard to change. But I think there's ways that we can change our lives individually. So that that environmental footprint isn't so large. But I also think that we need to go beyond that individual response and change policies at the government level. So, I always really advocate, people changing not just their actions, but also the policies and getting involved in political action. I think that's really important in terms of turning things around.