White Buffalo Land Trust Brings Regenerative Agriculture to Santa Barbara County

Their Summerland Farm is Only the Beginning

Soil enrichment is a main tenet of regenerative agriculture. | Credit: Courtesy WBLT

The concept of regenerative agriculture ― a system of farming principles and practices that rehabs old ag land and boosts production by naturally increasing biodiversity, enriching soil, and restoring watersheds ― has been around since the late 1970s. But only in the last decade has it really taken hold in different communities across the globe, and only very recently did it find its way to Santa Barbara County. 

Over the last 18 months, an ambitious team of permaculturists, researchers, educators, and big thinkers leading the newly created White Buffalo Land Trust has been transforming 12 acres of a legacy avocado orchard in the heart of Summerland into a fully integrated, symbiotic ecosystem of agriculture. That’s meant planting varied layers of shrubs (like coffee) and tubers (including ginger) to complement the natural growth cycle of the existing avocados, as well as putting down new crops like persimmons and pomegranates. It’s also meant bringing in a herd of grazing sheep, whose hoof traffic, saliva, and manure stimulate microbes in the soil, and producing compost to keep the holistic merry-go-round of growth in motion. The goals are to reduce and ultimately eliminate the need for fertilizers and pesticides and to remove toxins from the food system.

“We’re not the first to do this, but we’re the first to do it here,” explained Steve Finkel, the founder and president of White Buffalo Land Trust (WBLT). “Regenerative agriculture is based on global principles, regional practices, and local techniques. We’re taking the lead here, and we want to inspire others.” To that end, Finkel went on, the Summerland farm ― meant more as a demonstration site than a for-profit business ― hosts workshops and field days for curious farm managers. WBLT has also developed a pilot program with Santa Barbara Middle School ― which Finkel’s three sons have all attended ― for student electives. 

Just as important to the mission, Finkel emphasized, is the research element. “The whole thing is outcome based.” Their soil is regularly tested at UC Davis to track plant quality and yield, and to meet specific goals like better resiliency and irrigation efficiency. “There are decades of science to support all this,” Finkel said, pointing specifically to how regenerative agriculture pulls carbon from the atmosphere and deposits it back into the earth where it belongs. A crew of WBLT land stewards and project directors oversees operations, including husband-and-wife super-team Jesse and Ana Smith, who previously ran Casitas Valley Farm.

This Saturday, October 19, WBLT will host its “Roots of the Future” benefit event, where the Trust will talk about its current work and what lies ahead. The evening will include an auction, a raffle, and a major spread of food and wine, as well as discussions about how regenerative agriculture can help restore the natural balance of people, community, and their food. Major players in the regenerative movement ― like Wendy Millet of TomKat Ranch ― are expected to attend. The meal and drink providers include Barbareño, Sama Sama Kitchen, Cote Korean Steakhouse, Twenty-Four Blackbirds Chocolates, Bona Fide Brewing Company, The Good Lion, Sunstone Winery, and many others. 

As excited as Finkel is about Saturday ― and make no mistake, he’s excited ― he’s even more pumped up about a major piece of news for the organization. WBLT is in late escrow to purchase the Jalama Canon Ranch on the Gaviota Coast, a 1,000-acre slice of open landscape and vineyard that abuts the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve. It’s a perfect opportunity to illustrate how a farm can safely share a border with a preserve, Finkel explained, and they’ll show what can be done with former wine property. One thousand acres is still a drop in the bucket when it comes to food production, Finkel said, “but it’s a concrete next step in demonstrating the power and potential of regenerative agriculture.”

For more information, visit whitebuffalolandtrust.org.


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