Resilience & Regenerative Ag in the Time of COVID-19
By: Marianna Zavala
At TomKat Ranch, we have the immense privilege of operating as an educational ranch and non-profit organization focused on building healthy and resilient soils, communities, and food systems through regenerative land management practices. In the past six weeks, we have seen and experienced cracks in the food system that have grown into canyons, stretching it to its limits. These struggles have fortified our resolve in responding to this crisis, and we are grateful that through collaboration with local organizations, farmers, and ranchers we are doing what we can to provide immediate relief and resources to those who need it most. As an organization both deeply embedded in the food system and deeply invested in helping to create a better one, we also recognize the opportunity that exists at this moment to try and shape a more resilient and regenerative food system.
Much of what has been exposed in the food system in the past two months is consistent with the predictions of many in our field. For many, the virus has revealed the daily injustices that take place in the food system – from the disparity in access to resources largely faced by black and brown communities to the hypocrisy of labeling farmworkers – one of the most exploited and vulnerable populations in the United States – as essential workers, yet failing to provide them with adequate wages or housing. Our industrial agricultural system, a behemoth machine so tightly wound and fragile that it has little to no capacity for disruptions, is beginning to collapse under its own weight. Within that volatile space, small farmers, ranchers, nonprofits, and other community-based organizations are stepping up to fill in the gaps, creating support networks and providing food to their local communities.
In our community of Pescadero, a massive mobilization of resources is also taking place in order to support those the food system has left behind. TomKat Ranch is incredibly grateful to be working with a handful of partners and organizations providing immediate relief. Puente de la Costa Sur, a multi-service agency that has worked with the Pescadero and South Coast communities for over two decades, has spearheaded these efforts. A testament to their hardworking team, Puente has pivoted from managing resources for education, healthcare, and childcare programs to acting almost solely as a safety net organization in a matter of days. The non-profit is currently partnered with Second Harvest of Silicon Valley and is focusing much of their efforts on food procurement for the drive-thru food donation that takes place every Thursday from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. in Pescadero. Rita Mancera, Puente’s director, spoke to how critical this service has been for Pescadero’s community, which is largely made up of Latinx farmworkers, their families, and people who are 55 plus. “We knew that food was a big need, but the first day we held the drive-thru donation, we were taken by surprise by how many people lined up in their cars. Now each week we prepare for anywhere from 100 to 200 families to arrive,” she said. According to Mancera, 101 families arrived within 30 minutes on that first day, after which Puente had to end the donation early because they were out of food. Puente has also garnered support for funding that specifically helps undocumented workers and their families on the South Coast. Mancera emphasized the importance of supporting undocumented workers, who continue to work in essential sectors but will not receive stimulus checks or other government assistance.
Partnerships with local farms have proven to be invaluable, and assistance continues to evolve to match the needs of the community. Pie Ranch, a local farm focused on food justice through food education and farmer training, is one of the farms that has shifted their focus to providing immediate relief to the surrounding community. Two weeks ago they launched their Farm Fresh Food Relief Program in partnership with Fresh Approach, a non-profit that provides food education and fresh produce to underserved communities in the Bay Area. The initiative builds on the efforts of Puente’s food donation program; local produce is delivered to Pie Ranch, where it is then packed and delivered to families in Pescadero as well as families in other parts of the Bay Area. TomKat Ranch will also continue to donate grass-fed beef to the food donation program, sending 100 pounds of various cuts each week to families in need.
While local farmers and ranchers continue to show up for their communities, they too are at risk in this uncertain time. Shelter-in-place orders have shaken up local markets, restaurant sales have plummeted, and while some farms and ranches are equipped to handle CSA programs or online orders, many are not. These issues are compounded by larger obstacles in the supply chain, where the shutdown of several large meat processing plants has ranchers wondering if or when the same could happen to their processor. TomKat Ranch has reached out in support of its network of regenerative ranchers across California to learn more about how producers have adjusted their production, business strategy, markets, and more in order to continue providing food for their communities. Guido Frosini, owner and grazier at True Grass Farms in Tomales, reiterated the importance of local distribution models and community collaboration and hopes to impart with his customers the value of investing in local food. “We’ve been here raising grass-fed beef and lamb for 12 years and want people to know that another way of relating to food exists. We are our own abundance,” said Frosini. Guido also expressed his excitement about working with partners like (soon-to-be farmer- and employee-owned) F.E.E.D. Sonoma, a food hub launching a multi-farm weekly vegetable box (including local meat) that will distribute healthy food directly to customers throughout the North Bay. Frosini, who is a producer on the transition committee for F.E.E.D. Sonoma, said “This is an opportunity to set standards, to promote transparency and education, and is very much a conversation that we as producers are going to guide. And in the meantime, I still have cow shares to sell!”
It is these stories and efforts that continue to inspire us and the work we do as ranchers, scientists, and advocates. TomKat Ranch believes in the better future that regenerative agriculture can help build, and the mountain of support for local communities that has come from the efforts of small regenerative farmers and ranchers attests to that. We also recognize that there is work yet to be done. We have to prioritize creating equitable opportunity for regenerative farmers and ranchers to work successfully within local communities, supporting the viability of local food hubs, and addressing head-on the exploitative and unsustainable nature of the current food system. In the words of our founder Kat Taylor, “We believe this planet requires and deserves a food system that helps each and every person thrive, that grows more resilient each year, and fosters a beautiful and diverse ecosystem. Advocates like us may not know the exact way there yet, but we are confident of the destination and value of the journey”.
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