Here at Pacific Roots Magazine we are dedicated to ongoing coverage of vegan farms around the world and were grateful for the opportunity to interview Joel Thompson, owner of Fereira Forest Farms, whose great grandparents originally established the farm after immigrating from Portugal to the USA.
Fereira Forest Farms is an organic and veganic farm on the Mendocino Coast in California, about 3 hours north of San Francisco. The farm was originally established in the early 1900’s and later re-established as a vegan farm in 2014. As Joel noted in our interview, “Mendocino County is an agriculture based community, famous as a wine region and for the back-to-the-lander inspired mom and pop cannabis farms. Mendocino County is also well known for its timber industry which encompasses about a half million acres.”
Read on for more about Fereira Forest Farms history, Joel’s thoughts on the current state of vegan farming as well as future potential, advice for those interested in veganic farming and gardening and more.
Interview with Joel Thompson of Fereira Forest Farms
We would love to hear more about the history of the land and farm which extends back to your great grandparents who were Portugese immigrants. Has the land been with your family since and functioning as a farm?
Joel: We use about one acre of the fourteen acres that our farm is situated on, with plans to expand. Part of the land is dedicated to the fast growing coastal redwoods that can grow 8 feet per year. My Great Grandparents originally came from Madeira, Portugal in the early 1900’s. They arrived by boat, after a long layover on the Hawaiian Islands. By then, the Portuguese community had laid itself as a firm foundation in early California farming. After marriage in Hayward, the young couple ventured north to Mendocino County, in search of the best farmland.
My Great Grandparents and their seven children farmed vegetables, on 4 flat acres along the Noyo River, mostly growing potatoes, onions, and cauliflower. There’s an old story about how after the farm was flooded from an extreme weather event that it was left covered in seaweed and kelp and in that particular season they yielded massive sized heads of cauliflower. They also farmed redwoods and are famous for having built their home using a large tree stump as the foundation. They delivered veggies to town via horse and buggy and became an important part of the community, as most produce took a long time to arrive via boat from San Francisco.
They passed away in the late 1950’s and then the farm was purchased by my grandmother from her siblings. As a single mother of four, my grandmother opted for city life and rented the land to a local vegetable farmer for several years. Later on the land was home to two horses but since my grandmother’s passing, with the help of family and friends we’ve transitioned it back to a vegetable farm.
Did you & your team have experience with farming prior to establishing Fereira Forest Farms?
Joel: I’ve been working in agriculture since I was a young boy. I spent time alongside my Grandmother in her garden. Grandma kept a wonderful outdoor garden and I was also in charge of taking care of the garden and family orchids (when she was on vacation) which required a large indoor growing room with skylights and other equipment. My grandmother loved orchids but the purpose for growing them was to assist my uncle who operated an AIDS charity event where the proceeds of orchid sales would go towards fighting AIDS.
I started working for a large local winery at age 17. My first official job in agriculture was off loading and processing 10 and 20 ton trucks full of wine-grapes and working on the wine making team at Fetzer Winery. I was also responsible for writing a critique for each load of fruit, judging the quality of appearance and taste. At the winery, I spent a lot of time dumping the remnants of the grapes in an empty field. The large mounds of grape pomace, seeds, leaves, and grape-skins were piled high, in order to make compost for spreading on the grape vines as a compost fertilizer for the following growing season.
Grape pomace was the main fertilizer for the original Italian wine grape growers. In the early years of California wine grape growing, most farms were operating on a closed loop system or using a regenerative agriculture model. In the 90’s, after trial and error with chemical fertilizer and modern farming techniques, many farmers in the area started to return to organic farming. The vineyard manager and owner at Fetzer Winery, Bobby Fetzer, and other local growers started using bio-dynamic and organic practices, with great success. After reading up on the subject and seeing the benefits of organics, it deepened my curiosity for organic farming. The quality of harvest from the organically grown grapes was unmatched. I’ve continued to work in the wine industry and also on various farming projects since the late 90’s. During this time, I’d experiment with organic farming, using mostly grape pomace as a base soil conditioner and nutrient, with further success.
Can you share more about your story and team? What brought you to farming and specifically veganic farming?
Joel: Our farm is the result of community and family support. The eventual transition from organic farming to veganic farming came through experimentation with best yields and also flavor of produce. It just didn’t make sense to keep using animal waste as fertilizer, and also as part of living a vegan lifestyle. It didn’t make sense to use blood meal or feces, as a compost for growing vegetables. The flavor of animal waste fertilizers, like fish emulsion, can uptake into the produce, during the growing cycle. Soil additions like sea weed and grape pomace or basic compost items like banana peels and coffee grounds make the best plant nutrients and are also more forgiving when it comes to over fertilizing.
Are you actively involved in veganic farming networks locally, nationally or globally?
Joel: We’re involved with the Veganic Mapping Project and are part of a research project about veganic agriculture. Mona Seymour, Environmental Studies Director at LMU has come to visit and do research on the farm as part of a project to study the process and create empirical data about veganic agriculture. I’ve advocated locally and online, promoting veganic agriculture.
What is your perception of the current state (perception and prevalence) of veganic farming in North America?
Joel: Veganic farming has not yet spread to the masses like organic farming has. Veganic farming is considered to be a new technology but in reality we only have to look to the past to see its prevalence. Before the domestic animal trade was established in the Americas, most crops like corn, potatoes, and squash were produced mostly veganically. Wildland grains and vast forests all grow with very little animal inputs and without the need for industrial livestock waste, or chemical fertilizers. As the vegan movement progresses, as a whole, so naturally will veganic agriculture. We’ve seen an increase in veganic farming, recently. With the environmental concerns related to agriculture, information sharing via the internet, and getting the curriculum into schools, veganic farming will soon take over.
What are your thoughts on the future of veganic farming?
Joel: We’ve got to get away from animal agriculture and plastic! Over 50% of methane emissions in California comes from livestock, mostly from dairy farms. Factory farms and petrochemical companies pretend our environment is expendable and that their pollution isn’t harmful. Plant-based and cell-based food is set to drive the future markets and hopefully veganics will follow in popularity.
With veganics, there’s a natural release and uptake of nutrients and no pollution from manure-sourced run off. It’s healthier for us, because animal waste can be tainted with insecticides, heavy metals and other harmful substances that can cause longterm ground water contamination and create a health hazard. Cutting out traditional animal agriculture makes us more sustainable and eco-supportive.
There are a lot of things we need to do to save our environment and getting away from animal exploitation and plastics are things everyone can support. Veganics is not something everyone is familiar with yet but in the future its use will become the by-product of plant-based foods and cell-based animal agriculture. Even though we can now grow meat-like mushrooms, I believe that vegan chicken wings and the Beyond Meat concepts make traditional meat and dairy obsolete, (meat is obsolete). The future of humans health relies on a healthy environment, compassion toward animals and the environment is really just compassion for future generations and our own quality of life.
What are you growing in different seasons?
Joel: We grow in a coastal environment in Northern California. Our average temperature is about 53° F. Some of our summer crops are zucchini, squash, pumpkins, potatoes, basil, sunflowers, rhubarb, blackberries, plums and apples. Year-round we, have kale, mizuna, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and we forage and try to promote the growth of wild growing things like native lemon balm, bay leaves, foxgloves, and mushrooms. This year we plan to add artichokes and put some time into our mother cactus mound that we’ll use for future sales of cactus cuttings.
Many people are not aware that veganic farming is possible, much less that it actually exists and that people are successfully doing it. For those reading and interested to perhaps apply these principles to an existing garden or to even possibly establish a vegan farm of their own, what is your advice and your tips?
Joel: Veganic farming is the most natural way of growing a garden. The most viable nutrients for any plant is the composted plant matter of that particular plant. So a tomato plants leaves and stems are actually the best food for a tomato plant and the same for an oak tree. The leaves fall down and give the plant nutrients throughout its life and nourish the giant tree.
There are other things at play like the soil microbacteria and bio-nutrients which are different in a soil-less mix. If you’re interested in growing veganic in your backyard garden soil then just concentrate on adding plenty of things like, grape pomace, coconut fiber, rice hulls, cocoa bean hulls, straw, alfalfa meal, sea weed, wood chips, kitchen waste, mushroom compost, leafy debris and mulch.
Can you share any resources for those interested in learning more about veganic farming and/or gardening?
Joel: Most of my acquired knowledge of veganics comes from literature on basic organic farming. Masanobu Fukuoka has been an inspiration, the Japanese farmer who practiced an original form of farming! His method was developed through scientific experimentation that revealed a less involved system of farming that utilizes the natural vibrance of the soil. Fukuoka also saw natural farming as a metaphoric guide to living a spiritually fulfilled way of life.
Stories of Chinese Buddhist Monks who lived by vegan principles and maintained vast gardens in order to feed the monasteries occupants have been an inspiration, as well.
The “Veganic Farming community” group on Facebook is also a good resource and offers support from fellow veganic farmers.
I understand that the farm is currently closed but that you will be starting back up again next year. What will this entail? Do you also sell at local farmers markets or provide weekly veggie boxes?
Joel: We have been farming commercially since 2014 but we had to close for the 2019 season, due to a serious health concern. We plan on returning for the 2020 growing seasons. Our produce will be available for bi-weekly orders and local delivery online via, the Mendo-Lake Food Hub: (https://mendolakefoodhub.org/) a food distribution hub for local farmers in Mendocino County, in Northern California. The food hub is primarily supported by local restaurateur and grocers but also by canning enthusiasts and bulk veggie buying groups.
Your farm employs a “strict veganic methodology”. Can you share the basics about what this means for readers?
Joel: I mentioned a strict veganic methodology, meaning that I’m a strict, longtime vegan and I consider it to be a very important part of my lifestyle to be able to uphold the same practice at work. I take care not to import any animal waste onto the farm, or chemical nutrients, or insecticides, or anything that’s not organic or plant-based. I’m also more compassionate towards any insects or any living beings on the property. It’s quite amazing, the symbiosis and connection to nature, when farming takes on an air of compassion, like this. The pollinators, the deer, the osprey, the owl, even the gopher become friends and allies.
How has local reception been to your farm and the awareness and reality of successful veganic farming?
Joel: Local reception to the farm has been great. Consumers are happy to know that their produce is organic and some of my fellow farming friends have reduced their animal inputs, or transitioned to veganic or regenerative practices. We’re located in a rural, agricultural community and the vegan movement is slow to take hold here. There are many people here who want to try their hand at raising animals for food and people who shun the idea of veganism but when they have at it (breeding animals) for a few years they see the complexities. Whether it’s hauling and buying feed, providing water, maintaining the animals health or paying for the slaughtering and refrigeration, it ends up being more of a barbaric charity of sorts than some grass fed green dream that they hoped to satisfy. Farmers are always looking to increase yield and quality. When they realize that’s what veganic farming offers, most organic farmers will transition to veganics.
Visit Fereira Forest Farm online at Facebook here and write to them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Feature & Interview by Annika Lundkvist at Pacific Roots Magazine Editorial Desk