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An Agricultural Legacy that Spans Continents
The Nuss’s can trace their family history in food production back five generations to their roots in Germany’s Black Forest region. The Nuss family left Germany in the late 1800s at the invitation of Catherine the Great, who had invited Germans who were under persecution to come and settle the Volga River in Russia. Dave Nuss, Nuss Farms owner and operations lead, remembers the story of his grandparents farm, “After they immigrated to California, my grandfather, on my mother’s side, was a cattleman and did a little grain farming. He did his apprenticeship work down in the Central Valley of California, harvesting wheat with a team of horses, before eventually starting his own farm.”
“My grandfather on my dad’s side came to California in the early 1930s and started out as a vineyardist also with some row crops. My dad joined him in the operation, I say joined, but really he had no choice as a youth. Since my parents both came from farm families, they ended up with two farms after their parent’s passed away: a cattle operation and some vineyards.”
When Dave was beginning his career in the family business, the farm was primarily focused on grains and alfalfa, eventually transitioning to vegetables. Now Nuss Farms grows 1500 acres of over 10 varieties of vegetables and grains. Along with his three sons, the Nuss’s are carrying on the family farm tradition, while continuing to evolve with the strengths that they each bring to the table. Derek works in farm operations alongside his father, Tim manages business development, and Tyler handles marketing and strategy. “It was kind of me by myself for quite a few years,” says Dave, “but having my sons along with me has allowed us to continue to grow and expand in different areas.”
Witnessing Struggle in the Business of Growing Food
“When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a farmer,” says Tyler when asked about his childhood on the farm. But after Nuss Farms had scaled asparagus production, only to have the rug pulled out from under them, Tyler was disenchanted by the struggle of agriculture. “Dad was kind of on his own at the time when he scaled up a pretty significant, vertically integrated asparagus operation. But with NAFTA in the 90s, it really transitioned and shifted production of asparagus away from the US. So, if you go into a Whole Foods or Trader Joe's right now, and you look for asparagus, it's very rarely domestically grown.”
Competing with imported asparagus became an economic impossibility for Nuss and other farms in the region says Tyler, “That really decimated the whole asparagus industry, which was massive in our area. It was really devating to the local culture and economy, and asparagus was basically wiped out.” But through the challenges of having one of their main markets disappear, the determination of his father to find the next right move, made an impression on Tyler, “Dad had to manage and figure out how to rebound and respond to that. And Derek came into the business and really helped dad to work out of that hole.”
Dave on Farming in the California Delta
“We’re located in central California about 60 miles due east of the San Francisco Bay Area. We farm on the eastern edge of what's called the California Delta. There are 1,000 miles of Delta waterways just to our west. It's also kind of a unique area because we're inland, but we get a bit of a coastal influence in the afternoons and evenings as the coastal breeze comes through the break in the mountains where the Delta empties out into the Bay. We’re not immune from heat waves but for the most part, we have pretty mild weather compared to other areas in the Central Valley.”
Water: The Perpetual California Issue
The most pivotal concern for farmers in California is water. According to the California Department of Water Resources, 80% of water used in the state is for the agriculture sector. Having been in the farming business for over 50 years, Dave has witnessed the evolution of the new water reality in the state. “We use surface water to irrigate. We have what's called a riparian right in the Delta, which is part of the California Water Law, where if you're adjacent to a body of water or a stream, you have the right to divert that water and put it to beneficial use. But in California, there has been no new storage built in probably close to 50 years and the population has doubled,” says Dave about Nuss Farm’s water access. To be a farmer in California is to keep a keen eye on access to water, because without water, production isn’t possible. Dave goes on to say that water scarcity ratchets up the tension on the water issue, “The pressure to find new water is intense, especially in a drought environment, which we are in right now. And it's really a difficult thing, because without new storage, the only place they can find "new water" is to take it from somebody that already has it. So we have to be vigilant to protect our water rights and make sure they're not encroached upon. And it does get more intense with every cycle of drought.”
What Does Regenerative Transition Look Like on a Vegetable Farm?
In 2018 Nuss Farms began to incorporate regenerative practices into their production. While there are several organizations that have created regenerative standards and certifications, some of the general principles of regenerative agriculture include keeping the soil covered year-round, minimizing soil disturbance, and integrating animal agriculture. Some of the benefits of regenerative practices are carbon sequestration, increased water retention in soil leading to less water runoff due to living root structure and soil biodiversity, and reduced need for soil fertility inputs.
In the case of Nuss Farms, implementing regenerative practices on such a large scale was a daunting task. Most larger scale regenerative models are on pasture-based systems, not cultivated vegetable farms. “Farmers have been no-till corn and soybean planting for many years. So the reduced tillage part of it is second nature. But we’re a California vegetable operation. I was talking to some of the pioneers in regenerative and they referred me to a couple of vegetable growers that had been successful, but on one acre. So, when I’m reading about spreading compost with a wheelbarrow, well, that doesn't really work on 1500 acres,” Dave says about the scaling up regenerative principals on his farm.
Tyler talks about how the size of Nuss Farms lends itself to some of the practices that are more easily implemented on their scale,
“We've experimented with cover cropping, and? we're going to expand that program this off-season and try to actually use to pretty substantial off-season cover, on hundreds of acres, potentially. We've experimented with animal integration, which is probably the toughest one. No one at our scale of vegetable production is even messing around with animals. For about a year, we trialed a pasture-raised poultry system. So that was an interesting experience for us all.”
While building organic matter in soil can take years, it has been intriguing for Tim to have early data to prove that the efforts on Nuss Farms are having an impact, “We're working with two different consultants on the regenerative front to really quantify how our soil is transitioning year over year. So we've done some pretty extensive testing the past couple of years that we'll continue to track so we can really measure the change in organic content of the soil.”
The Unscripted Journey in Production-scale Regenerative Vegetable Farming
Breaking trail in any industry, particularly in the agriculture space, is a path of resistance and experimentation. The Nuss’s are keenly aware that they have opened themselves up to criticism, financial risk, and unforeseen challenges on their way to building biodiversity on their farm. Tim talks about how stepping into the wild west of scaled-up regenerative vegetable production has been energizing, “I think we're all really embracing it. We view regenerative as a journey and it's not rigid like organic certification where it's black and white of the rules that need to be followed. It can really be a transition over time of incorporating what works for your operations.” Tim’s background in financial strategy has made the prospect of increased production yield and decreasing input costs something of a fun game, “It's a puzzle that we're putting together. We aim to be kind of the flagship farm for regenerative vegetables at scale and we can really create a blueprint for other farms in the state of how this can be done.”
Tyler’s mindset to the pressure that is on Nuss Farms as leaders is to come at the work with a land stewardship approach, “When the focus is on the soil, that kind of changes or shifts the paradigm. We're trying to do right by the soil but we're also trying to grow our crops effectively. So it becomes the question of how can we make the investments in the soil, to make investments in the family farm? It also becomes a matter of how much carbon we're pulling down. How can we do the best that we can and put these principles and practices in place to improve the soil? It is a journey that's not going to happen overnight.”
Tim on the Unexpected Emotional Connection to the Regenerative Path
“Telling our story and letting people know that we're making this regenerative transition happen, has connected us directly with food brands and companies that are really interested in a transparent supply chain. Trying to bridge that gap is a huge opportunity we see, where we can actually tell the story, bring people onto the farm and say these are your tomatoes that we're growing. This is why they're different. This is how you can feature them. We have our core business and longstanding relationships with current buyers, but are still looking at how we can innovate in the future, whether it's direct through FruitStand or working with local chefs. It feels important to be vulnerable and open to where we started and how far we've come and what we're looking to do in the future.”
“The thing we really think is interesting about FruitStand, is we're a fifth generation farm that has never sold our produce directly to a consumer, until now. And last season, we were able to do that with squash. So it was really cool to see our squash going up to Seattle and to Florida and all these different parts of the country - it was pretty cool to feel that personal connection to the people eating our food. And that's why we're super excited to expand the partnership with what we're doing this year.”
Why is Animal Agriculture Important for Soil Regeneration?
“This is a controversial topic,” says Tyler. “My personal opinion is that the current production model for animals raised for meat is inherently flawed. Most people in the regenerative movement unanimously agree that the current system is broken, it’s not working, it’s not healthy, and it’s not sustainable. But we do believe that there is a world in which you can have higher quality meat and do it in a way that is more caring to animals.” Separating CAFO (confinement animal feeding operations) from pasture-based systems has been challenging for ethical meat producers to communicate at a large scale.
Tyler and Tim have learned that building soil biodiversity is inherently intertwined with animals. The separation of animals from their natural food sources is a model created through agriculture specialization and efficiency at the cost of biodiversity. Nuss Farms' decision to use poultry rotations on their fields has provided soil fertility as well as an additional product to market, which creates economical sustainability through diversity.
“This whole journey of going down the regenerative path and learning more about the food system and ethical meat production has made me personally focus more on quality over quantity,” says Tim. Becoming part of the animal agriculture system has opened him up to the producers that he supports, “Sourcing from farmers that are using regenerative and ethical practices has definitely become a lot more important to me.”
“It's pretty interesting when you think about agriculture and how, originally, animals and food production or plant production worked together. For thousands of years animals have provided nutrition to the soil through their waste. So there was this harmony that happened in nature. Industrialized agriculture said No, we're going to segregate these two things. We're going to optimize how we produce food, we're going to optimize how we get meat produced at a very low cost. The prices of chicken in a store probably shouldn't be that cheap. That's been one of the key takeaways for me,” says Tyler. While the poultry model at Nuss Farms has been an integral part of their move into regenerative agriculture, Tyler is excited about the future, “This upcoming season we intend to incorporate animals in some capacity, most likely offseason grazing of the cover crops, in parallel to our overall regenerative transition. While we learned a lot about pastured poultry, I don't think dad and Derek woke up one morning and decided they wanted to be chicken farmers. Any animal integration should make sense in the context of our large-scale vegetable operation and complement it, not detract from it.”
Dave’s Advice for Other Farms Transitioning to Regenerative
“Advice? - I'd say patience. When Tim and Tyler encouraged me to take a look at this regenerative thing it resonated with me from the biological perspective. As a production ag guy, you're always basically attacking everything from a chemistry standpoint. And so I think my biggest thing is impatience. I want to get the soils to a certain level, that the biology is working in a symbiotic manner. It's really exciting for me to see how that adapts and influences everything from disease, to pests, to fertility.”
“So I think my biggest challenge is to be patient and making sure we're getting a little better every day at what we're trying and learning. I'm excited to get down the road in it, but realize I have to be patient on the front end. The whole soil health concept is not only transitioning how we farm, it’s transitioning how we do business, and that takes time.”
Learning About the Bigger Agriculture Picture Through Other Farmers
After the stress of the asparagus market collapse, Tyler decided to get away from the farm life, "I told myself I'm not going to be a farmer. I'm going to try to get away, as far away from the stresses and the variability of the ag industry. And so I went to college, studied engineering, and got into the tech industry. I was kind of the black sheep of the family."
A few years ago Tyler and Tim became more interested in what was happening back at the farm with Dave and Derek and decided to start asking questions about the family business. Tyler remembers how receptive Dave was to his renewed interest, “Dad, to his credit, brought us in, was open to having discussions and talking shop about things. Most farmers in his position that have two kids that aren't on the farm full-time would be kind of like, Okay, you don't know what you're talking about, which we didn't, but I think dad has a really good sense and basic willingness to talk through and think about new ideas that probably most guys of his generation wouldn't. And so, Tim and I jumped into the ag industry.”
In 2018 Tim and Tyler started a podcast, THE MODERN ACRE, to learn about the current state of agriculture and where it is headed. Inspired by their conversations with their dad, they have taken an authentic and vulnerable approach to learning about distribution systems, new technology, and the business of regenerative agriculture. “We started the podcast to dig in and learn how people are thinking about agriculture,” says Tim.
A Moving Target
The debate of whether or not soil has the power to save us from ourselves is ongoing. Regenerative agriculture is not a new practice but a return to ecological systems that can sustain themselves. Getting as many acres as possible into a carbon-negative state has become an environmental imperative.
Tim sees the trend of regenerative agriculture picking up speed, “You're definitely starting to see it at a global level. Organizations like Kiss the Ground and Farmer's Footprint are doing a good job of getting consumers aware of regenerative agriculture and taking a global stance on that. There are examples on every continent of what's happening. It really takes pioneers in those regions to test and try new things and innovate and be willing to take risks and make mistakes.”
For the larger regenerative movement to pick up momentum, Tim sees it as a collaborative leap of faith, “We really need farmers to commit to move in that direction. It's not going to happen all at once. We want to be on the forefront of that direction and go down the path and hope others are willing to follow - and for the collective good, start making these transitions happen.”
As Dave lists off the farm strategies going into 2022, you can see the excitement in his eyes,
“We're trial and erroring. We're going to do more cover cropping this fall. We’ll try to do a little no-till planting. We have looked at areas where we can eliminate certain tillage passes. This year we were able to cut out quite a bit of disking, which is a no-no in no-till in regenerative. We’re dabbling, learning what works, and what doesn't. I think the cover-cropping is going to be the low hanging fruit. Then ultimately working in some more animal agriculture and doing some adaptive grazing and rotational grazing in certain fields.”
Not only has Dave embarked on a new way of seeing production for Nuss Farms, he is preparing for a farm transition in the coming years. Ask a farmer who is approaching retirement age about their succession plan and you’ll, more often than not, get a stonewalled response. Not with Dave, he is fortunate to have Derek, Tim and Tyler to help build the next generation of agricultural innovation.