PHOTO: Lori Rice
In rural Hanford, California, there sits a bright green plot of land where chickens peck, goats graze and pigs root. It stands out because on all sides it is surrounded by expansive views of dry, dusty soil, a site that is familiar in California’s Central Valley. It’s difficult to believe that this green plot of land once looked like that, too.
The spot belongs to Combes Farms, a hobby farm run by Brian and Mandy Combes and their four children. “We had always wanted a place in the country to teach kids and let them run around,” Brian says. He and Mandy bought the land in September 2008. They felt lucky to have found the plot in the Central Valley considering the price of land in California despite the state of the economy at that time. The land along with the house would cause a few headaches and need some hard work before it was usable. “It was going to be a labor of love,” Brian says.
First, they focused on the house and creating a yard for their kids. Next came developing a small farm. “We wanted to be productive,” Mandy says. “We feel that if you have land, you need to be using it.”
It started with a large garden. Soon after that took off, they needed to decide how to best create a sustainable farm—animals or crops. They quickly realized their 3-acre plot of land was not large enough for farming crops in the Central Valley.
With the high concentration of agriculture in the area, most belonging to very large farming operations, they would hold no priority in getting the needed equipment and assistance. This was compounded by the realization that they couldn’t produce enough food to provide an income. That left them to explore animal husbandry.
They didn’t know it at the time, but they were headed for something much larger, with a much greater positive impact than simply providing nutrient-dense food for their customers. Their path was leading them to a long-term focus on regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture is often referred to as holistic land management. It involves practices that generate soil fertility and water retention. Regenerative agriculture contributes to carbon sequestration, a process of atmospheric carbon dioxide being captured and stored in the soil. This has the potential to improve global climate change through reducing the presence of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
For animal husbandry, regenerative agriculture requires well-managed grazing practices. These result in improved plant growth and land productivity. Soil fertility increases, as do insect and plant biodiversity. Simply put: It creates more sustainable grazing land that is green and lush for animals, and it’s accomplished in ways that are beneficial to the environment.
Its impact is promising. So much so that California State University at Chico launched a Regenerative Agriculture Initiative within the Institute for Sustainable Development in 2016. The initiative is in the process of becoming a center, and the group consists of an interdisciplinary team of faculty and farmers who recognize the ecological benefits of regenerative farming and who have come together to develop collaborative research and teaching strategies around the subject.
“We see regenerative agriculture as the future, a more sustainable way forward,” says Cindy Daley, a co-director and professor in CSU Chico’s College of Agriculture. “No matter size or scale, these principles apply.”
The Combes family’s efforts are a perfect example of how these practices apply to small farms and how they can be successfully adopted. Brian and Mandy began by adding egg layers to their farm through the help of their daughter, Lainey, who now manages their egg-layer production at the age of 14. While the eggs were plentiful, the management and health of the land didn’t appear to be improving.
They added Boar and Kiko goats. They had identified a demand for goat meat in the area, and this seemed like the right direction for their next step.
“Naive me—I thought you could put goats out there and they would fertilize,” Brian says. They quickly learned that wasn’t the case. There were multiple factors that led to problems with the pasture.
For example, they learned that goat urine is high in nitrogen, preventing goats alone from generating a flourishing field.
The Multispecies Solution
When they realized that the grass wasn’t growing, they knew they needed to dive more deeply into the research. Small farming that focuses on regenerative agriculture is not a common practice in the Central Valley, and they had few resources in the area to consult for guidance. That is when they turned to books by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, including Pastured Poultry Profits, You Can Farm and Family Friendly Farming, to build a stronger foundation of knowledge. These books, combined with internet research reviewing the trials and errors of others, proposed a possible solution to their dilemma—more diversity through multiple species.
“We tried to stay away from multispecies for a long time,” Brian says. “But it [single species] doesn’t work. It doesn’t pay, and it is not good for the land,” Mandy says. They had to make a change if they wanted to keep working toward their goals. Initially, they aimed to have the farm pay for itself. Now this goal has evolved to the hope that someday one of them can leave their full-time job to run the farm. They knew none of that would be possible the way things were going.
With multispecies, each type of animal contributes something different to the soil. “Chickens had the biggest impact for us,” Brian says. “Broilers are mass producers of fertilizer, and while this is beneficial, you must move them a lot or you’ll end up with burn spots. At the same time, layers dig into the soil and till it.”
They added Cornish Cross and Red Ranger chickens for meat production. Then they expanded their egg layers, mostly Red Stars, to the pasture where the birds could graze. Next they added Bronze Broad Breasted and Royal Palm turkeys.
Healthy pastures require that they rotate broilers daily and layers weekly. Goats and turkeys spend a little more time in each plot; they are rotated every two to three weeks, depending on grass pressure.
Another benefit of multispecies grazing is that different animals eat different grasses. Goats enjoy the malva (also known as cheese weed), something the chickens do not prefer. The turkeys are fans of the goosefoot. Chester Cross and Yorkshire Cross pigs were added to the farm in the fall of 2018, and they enjoy curly dock roots. Brian and Mandy were also pleased to find that the pigs focus on areas of no growth and act as natural tilling machines. “Nothing goes to waste now,” Mandy says.
Flexibility Is Key
They admit their plan has been modified several times. Small farming, a focus on regenerative agriculture, even pastured chickens were all new to the Central Valley, a land of large-scale agriculture, vast acreage and high yields. They have truly been pioneers in the practices for the area. This means that successfully reaching their goals takes longer as they learn from their mistakes and remain flexible and open to change.
“You have to check your ego,” Brian says. Frustrating for him was planning a fencing system and then realizing that the plan was a failure. From building new fencing to the necessity of drilling a new well during drought, their process has been a series of creating a plan, revising it, implementing it and often revising the plan again.
The obstacles have been frustrating, but setbacks and adaptations have also allowed them to serve as a voice of experience for others. “It has all been trial and error,” Mandy says. Brain adds that you have to be willing to change what you design and plan because there is no perfect plan.
Distinct Regional Challenges
The couple admits that big challenges exist when managing a hobby farm with multispecies while upholding the principles of regenerative agriculture.
At the top is managing inputs, especially when they both have full-time jobs. From feed and water to the time it takes to deliver it, they are all inputs that need to be successfully managed. Fortunately, they have the help of four responsible children with duties matched to the capabilities allowed by their ages.
There is still a need for irrigation in the Central Valley. For example, according to the USDA California Crop Weather Report, the Hanford area received less than 1⁄2 inch of rain the last half of 2017. Brian and Mandy share that irrigation is something that becomes more difficult to manage when you have different species, but it’s a necessity and worth the effort, given the differences you can see in the land and in the health of their animals.
Along with challenges have been plenty of triumphs. Asked about their greatest triumph, Brian says, “Not buying hay in the summer.” Grasses dry up in the Central Valley’s hot summers when temperatures can hover around 100 degrees Fahrenheit and higher for weeks. Through their regenerative agricultural practices, the Combes family has managed to extend its green pastures longer throughout the year. What used to begin drying up in June now remains green and lush until October. On top of that, the fields are diverse with thriving perennial rye, clover, barnyard grass, curly dock, soft chest brome, wild oats, malva and knotweed.
It took only a year for the Combes family to see positive changes in the pasture after adopting a multispecies farming model. The improvements in their property have been drastic over the past 10 years. Brian likes to describe it as them cooking the ground low and slow, much like a good slow-cooked meal. They can see changes from year to year and proudly share that one of the best places to witness the change in their greener pastures is through Google Earth, which offers an aerial view of the property.
They enjoy looking back through photo albums they created throughout the years. Images filled with their children playing also give a glimpse of the land and the arid plot that has been transformed into their successful small farm.
These results are a visible positive impact of their hard work and a testament to the benefits of putting the land and environment first in their farming practices. It shows in their farm, in the meat and eggs they sell at the nearby Visalia farmers market, and in the passion they share for sustainable land management. They find that opportunities to educate consumers in the area still abound, something they do via their farm dinners, which include a tour of the property.
Will their plan change again? It’s likely. Every step of the process, including the addition of new animals, fencing and irrigation, is another opportunity to learn.
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.