Farming for the Future at Jalama Canyon Ranch
White Buffalo Land Trust Leads Regenerative Agriculture Project on 1,000-Acre Property
by Matt Kettmann | May 27, 2021
When imagining the quintessential Central Coast spread, it’s hard to conjure up something much more bucolic than Jalama Canyon Ranch, 1,000 acres of seemingly perfect beauty located a couple of turns off of Highway 1 about 10 minutes south of Lompoc.
Near the bottom of the property, babbling brooks trickle by rustic cabins, a tall barn, and barbecue pits, with grapevines and olive groves nearby. Cradled by hillsides of aromatic sagebrush, meadows of green and yellow are textured by weathered boulders, dark clumps of elderberry, and bushy fingers of willow, with foxes, wild turkey, and raptors at play. Atop the 1,600-foot ridge, past rare tanbark oaks and mossy live oaks fed by steady springs, the views spread over squatty manzanita and wind-whipped monkeyflower in every direction: from the space discs of Vandenberg Space Force Base to the coastal peaks of the Santa Ynez Mountains, inland toward Figueroa Mountain, and then back through the Santa Ynez Valley, settling on the chalky face of a diatomaceous earth mine just one rise away.
But recent tours through the property aren’t focused on such pastoral pleasantries. Rather, a visit today quickly turns into an exposé of everything that’s wrong with Jalama Canyon Ranch: the ever-eroding hillsides, the gaps in foliage between creek beds and oak forests, the milk thistle and mustard overcoming native grasses, and, perhaps most of all, the property’s underused potential for, well, almost everything, from appropriate agriculture and ecological restoration to educational opportunity and economic profitability.
Don’t worry. These tours of doom aren’t all gloom, because they’re accompanied by the antidote: regenerative agriculture, an increasingly popular system of farming and ranching that aims to repair ecosystems and fight climate change while building the business backbone required to ensure long-term viability.
“We want to engage in ecological restoration through agriculture,” explains Jesse Smith as we overlook a gently sloping pasture about halfway up the mountain. This will one day be home to an orchard of persimmons — a climate-appropriate, low-water crop — and the greener slump on the hill will be turned into a passive pond. Not only will that irrigate the orchard and limit the erosion, but it will become a year-round watering hole for wildlife and encourage the uphill creep of riparian habitat below.
These are just the earliest and easiest of ideas envisioned by Smith, who is the director of land stewardship for the White Buffalo Land Trust. The Summerland-based nonprofit, founded by investment advisor/conservationist Steve Finkel in 2018, acquired Jalama Canyon Ranch in April 2021 for $6 million as part of a complex and collaborative transaction involving the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County and many other supporters. They’re now focused on raising $4 million more by May 2022 to turn the ranch into a regional center for the global regenerative movement, complete with facilities to support education and research.
“Summerland is our flagship farm; it’s our living laboratory,” said Ana Smith, who is Jesse’s wife and the trust’s director of program and engagement. “Jalama Canyon Ranch is our opportunity to show regenerative agriculture at scale and to work with others who have those types of land holdings to show how a transition to regenerative agriculture is possible.”
The property provides unique opportunities to do so. Aside from a functional infrastructure and ongoing operations of vineyards, olives, cattle, and sheep, the ranch occupies its very own watershed. “All the water that lands on the property stays, and no other water comes,” said Jesse of this closed system. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate how behavior at the top of the watershed affects everything below.”
Jalama Canyon also shares more than a mile of border with the Dangermond Preserve — a nearly 38-square-mile nature reserve managed by The Nature Conservancy — and is home to prominent ecotypes found across the world’s Mediterranean climates, including grasslands, oak woodlands, and chaparral. That platform, said Jesse, “really provides increased leadership potential.”
The list of projects that the Smiths and Finkel list off while driving around the ranch is daunting: raising cattle, sheep, and goats and installing fencing for them all; growing persimmons and agave; converting the olive groves and vineyards to organic; fixing crumbling roads; building ponds and water tanks; hauling away dead oak; reconnecting riparian corridors; and so on. But the potential outcomes are incredibly exciting: ranch-raised meats, juices, teas, vinegars, liquors, oils, fibers, leathers, honeys, and even mushrooms; a place for all ages and interest levels to learn about where their food comes from and why agriculture doesn’t have to fight with nature; and an ecosystem that functions in a more harmonious way, with humans and animals fully integrated.
There will be a lot of experimenting, observing, and readjusting at Jalama Canyon Ranch, just as there is in every regenerative project — really, just as there should be in any honest endeavor. But two foundational principles struck me as we startled foxes and ogled at ancient trees on my tour: The first is that the notion of “letting nature take over” will almost never work in places that have already been impacted by human forces, which includes so much of the world; and two, that humans and animals must be part of the solution, not simply removed.
Finkel agreed. “People have been conditioned to think that our impact on land is always negative,” he said. “We reject that entire framework. A cow isn’t bad; a human isn’t bad innately.”
Recognizing as much connects this “new” regenerative movement with the “old” Indigenous ways, which ruled these lands for millennia through burning, composting, and other methods. “There is a deep amount of wisdom and knowledge to guide all of these choices — we’re not making it up as we go,” explained Finkel, referring both to Indigenous practices and relatively recent strategies such as agroecology and permaculture. “We’re not the first to do this. We’re just the first to put it together in this way here.”
Deal Went Down
If the plans for what to do with the land sound ambitious, consider what it took to buy the land in the first place: two years of negotiation between private, public, nonprofit, and lending entities; raising $6 million, much of it during a global pandemic; arranging for a conservation easement to protect against development forever; and tapping a new state agricultural conservation fund for the first time ever in Santa Barbara County.
“More than 100 people contributed in some way, so we feel it’s a community-wide effort,” said Finkel, who calls the “blended capital” strategy between philanthropists, government funding, and the private sector the “holy grail” for social benefit projects like this. He’s also finding that coalition-building tends to be a little easier around regenerative projects, which appeal to both right-leaning ranchers and coastal eco-elites. “This seems to become a safe space for all orientations on the political spectrum to find a common ground,” said Finkel.
He credits the property’s previous owners, Wayne Siemens and David Grotenhuis — who used the property primarily to run cattle, host events, and grow JCR Vineyard wines for about 17 years — with recognizing the good cause. “They got more flexible the more they learned about our goals,” said Finkel.
A significant chunk of the funding came through a nearly $1.8 million grant that the Land Trust of Santa Barbara County was able to attract from the state’s Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program. Called SALC for short, the program is managed by the state’s Sustainable Growth Council and funded by the Cap-and-Trade Program, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through carbon trading.
“This is the first time a SALC grant was awarded in Santa Barbara County,” said Meredith Hendricks, the Land Trust’s executive director. “These SALC funds are designed to protect viable and important agriculture that’s at risk of being lost to development in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote economically viable, livable communities.”
With that money, the Land Trust secured an agricultural conservation easement across the entire Jalama Canyon Ranch, allowing certain operations to foster and even some additional development to occur, but protecting the place into perpetuity. “Now the Land Trust holds the easement, and it runs with the land, regardless of who owns it,” said Hendricks.
This was the seventh round of grant-making for SALC, which has protected more than 90,000 acres statewide with 62 easements to date. Hendricks already has more irons in that funding fire. “Santa Barbara County is so primed for this kind of public investment because agriculture is such a vital part of our economy and because we are a county that is growing,” explained Hendricks, who wants to work with more landowners. “We can bring this money to the table and protect their agriculture forever, but it’s also addressing climate resilience issues and economic vitality. It’s like a triple bottom-line win.”
While conservation sits at the core, the Jalama Canyon Ranch plan also calls for “added farmworker and guest housing as well as meeting, work, and research spaces.” When I asked for comparative models, Finkel mentioned Stone Barns in New York and the TomKat Ranch north of Santa Cruz, both of which attract substantial media attention and visitors. And whenever anyone says “center” — as in the Jalama Canyon Ranch Center for Regenerative Agriculture — Santa Barbarans of many sorts, from remote ranchers to downtown dwellers, feel their hackles raise, so growth-averse is the collective DNA.
I wondered about that aloud to Hendricks as well as the Smiths and Finkel. Hendricks confirmed that the Land Trust reviewed any future build-out, explaining, “The conservation easement is specific about where and how much they can build and the types of facilities on the property.”
Finkel, meanwhile, said that he’s “always been a conservationist at heart.” He came to Santa Barbara in 1996 as a wildlife documentarian before actually making money in investment advising. He founded the White Buffalo Land Trust in honor of his wife, Lyndsey McMorrow, who died in 2018; for years, she’d taken care of two white buffalo that were given to her by the Oglala Lakota tribe. (One of the buffalo died in 2017, the other in 2020.)
Dedicated ever since to regenerative farming on the trust’s 12-acre farm in the hills behind Summerland, Finkel recognizes that the center’s full buildout may be a ways off. “I would call that a vision,” he said, believing that the community will support such efforts when they arise. “But can we do everything we want to do ecologically and educationally with existing zoning and entitlements? Yes.”
There’s a borderline fervor that comes out when passionate people talk about sustainable farming, whether biodynamic wine or front-yard permaculture or grass-fed cattle. That pitch approaches piercing with regenerative agriculture, where words like “holistic” and “engage” and “inputs” and “outcomes” get bandied about with abandon.
I’d say it’s okay to believe the hype. A steady string of regenerative success stories are emerging from around the country — the documentary The Biggest Little Farm about a property in Moorpark is probably the best-known example — and they’re even emerging from the most unlikely of places.
Take self-described “good ol’ boy” Will Harris, the fourth generation of his family to farm their land in Bluffton, Georgia, where his great-grandfather settled in 1866. Like his father, Harris — who was born in 1954 and speaks with the thickest Southern drawl I’ve ever heard over the phone — ran their farm, White Oak Pastures, “very industrially for 20 years,” explaining that he was “very heavy-handed with technology,” using all manner of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, and hormone implants on his monoculture of cattle.
“As a result, I came to see the unintended consequences — the impact on the land and the animals,” said Harris of his mid-1990s awakening and shift toward more diverse, sustainable farming methods. “I just started moving away from it.”
The Harris story was typical for American farmers after World War II, when the government redirected a petrochemical industry built for bombs toward agriculture and taught farmers that they could feed the world merely by adjusting soil chemistry. “That worked for a certain amount of time,” explained Allegra Roth, the food and climate program manager for the Community Environmental Council in Santa Barbara. “But with climate change, with ecological destruction, with species going extinct, we started seeing that food production isn’t the only metric. We have to produce food for the globe, but we won’t be able to do that if we ruin our ecosystems, and the climate is marginal, and climate refugees are moving all over the world just to keep their families alive.”
Harris must have felt that weight, because his decision was not an economic one. “I started making less money, but I liked it better,” said Harris, who went from just cattle to goats, sheep, rabbits, five poultry species, organic vegetables, honey, eggs, and more, with slaughterhouses and processing facilities all on-site. “It used to be very linear. Now it is very cyclical.”
The land got healthier, and then came the unexpected community benefits. “The only thing you could buy in Bluffton was a stamp — today, it’s a destination,” said Harris, who now runs a store, restaurant, cabins, and an RV park. He’s the impoverished county’s largest private employer, and he proudly provides real farm learning experiences for visitors. “Not corn mazes and petting zoos,” he laughed, “but educational stuff.”
He did all this before most anyone had heard of regenerative agriculture. “It was not yet a thing,” said Harris, explaining that no one was writing books or hosting conventions on the topic 25 years ago. “It grew up around us. We were not the only people in the country to start, but we were one of a very small number of people that started that early.”
Conventions now happen regularly, which is how Harris met Jesse Smith in June 2016 at a soil conference in Half Moon Bay. Smith now considers Harris a mentor, friend, and inspiration, and the feelings are mutual. “He is clearly a very bright, sharp go-getter,” said Harris, who is 66 and white, of Smith, who is 36 and half-Jamaican. “I was drawn to him. We were drawn to each other.”
Harris happily shares what he continues to learn with earnest farmers like Jesse. “The young people moving in this direction are not my competition,” said Harris, whose grandkids — the farm’s sixth generation — are growing up on his property. “My competition are the greenwashed products from big multinational companies that produce food pretty industrially and tout it as being different. Guys like these,” said Harris of Jesse and his ilk, “we’re all soldiers in the same army. I’ve just been on the trail longer.”
Harris laments the certifications that he once thought would fight greenwashing. “It has not worked out the way we thought,” he said. “Instead, a certification industry was born, and today you can get a certification for any production system you choose, from snow white to smut black. You pick your shade of gray. So the consumer is hopelessly confused about what’s a good certification and what is low-hanging fruit.”
Today, the only way to know whether you’re buying food from a regenerative-minded farmer is to know those farmers and their farms. That takes an extra step, but it’s usually not too hard.
“Transparency and authenticity are the shield and sword that we real producers have to use against greenwashing,” said Harris, who lets visitors to his farm see anything, “even the kill floor.” Combine that with social media, and Harris believes “someone would call bullshit if we weren’t doing it right.”
And yet he remains in a more precarious place than his industrially farming neighbors, who grow peanuts, cotton, and corn with protection from crop subsidies, insurance, and other government safeguards. “My business is far riskier,” said Harris. “One E. coli recall and it’s game over for me.”
That makes the diversified commerce side of his farm all the more important, which is the advice he has for Jalama Canyon Ranch. “Regenerative is absolutely necessary, but that’s step one,” said Harris. “You can have the most regenerative farm on the planet, but if you don’t have a plan in place to monetize what you produce, you’ll go broke.”
Cotton Can Be
Regenerative ideals aren’t just affecting our food system — check that fleece and your bedsheets, too. The bed and bath textile company Coyuchi was started 30 years ago by Christine Nielson, a pioneer of the organic cotton movement, right around the time that apparel companies like Patagonia tuned in to sourcing natural fibers.
“You hear about sustainable fashion all the time, but we actually use more textiles in our home,” said Coyuchi’s CEO Eileen Mockus. “Where our cotton is coming from is also the same land that’s growing food. We should all be concerned about that.”
The San Francisco–based company’s sustained success confirms that the sustainable goods market is reliably robust, and “value-based buying” saw a big uptick during the pandemic, said Mockus. “If the consumer is going to buy on their values,” she explained of their basic strategy, “we want to be able to align with their values.”
The company remains on the front lines of pushing for fair trade and, increasingly, regenerative practices, from California to India, where they buy 50 percent of their organic cotton. The company supported the Jalama Canyon Ranch purchase by creating a line of bandanas and napkins that sold out quickly last year, and its foundation also contributed to White Buffalo’s campaign.
“It’s a means for us to expand where we are getting our fibers from and the impact we can have on lands here and overseas,” said Mockus, who said that there is a lot left to learn about soil health when it comes to fiber farming. “What White Buffalo is learning, we’re going to be able to take that and apply it elsewhere.”
Whether around cotton or carrots, soil health is a critical component of regenerative agriculture, which seeks to return carbon to the earth (as compared to the atmosphere) and foster the underground ecologies that are just now being explored by science. “When I worked in Sacramento, no one was talking about soil health — that was just five years ago, so it’s pretty recent,” explained Allegra Roth of the CEC. “Now soil isn’t just about chemistry. It’s about biology. There are living organisms and ecosystems in our soil that we have barely begun to understand. It’s a frontier of science that is getting a lot of people excited.”
That’s what drives the state’s program of paying farmers to adopt regenerative, carbon-trapping practices. But gray areas are abundant.
“Depending on who you talk to, they have a different definition of regenerative,” said Roth. “It’s an existential question. How do we track regeneration? Is it just to implement this or that, and now it’s regenerative? Or do we have to see an increase in soil carbon, or a one percent increase in water infiltration? There’s ongoing debate about what it means to be regenerative and how to track these things, especially when we are trying to pay farmers to do this.”
She’s excited about Jalama Canyon because many prior regenerative practices have come out of tropical areas, whereas this property sits in an arid, drought-prone landscape — exactly like what more of the world is going to look like with a few more decades of climate change. “If we can demonstrate and test practices in this climate, it can be really helpful for countries all over,” said Roth. “People are keeping an eye on them.”
As we wrap up our tour around the ranch, Finkel starts rhapsodizing about biltong, a South African style of dried beef that’s eaten as a snack. It’s the second product that the White Buffalo team plans to release under their commercial food brand Figure Ate, which first focused on persimmon vinegar and grew to 43 retail locations around the Central Coast and Southern California.
The persimmon vinegar idea links back to Casitas Valley Farm, the property along Highway 150 between Carpinteria and Ojai where I first met and wrote about the Smiths in 2014. That too was an ambitious operation, raising pigs, curing cheese, and growing persimmons, apples, and avocado with educational offerings. But right after the Thomas Fire raged around the farm in late 2017, the property was sold.
Soon after, in what Ana calls “true Santa Barbara fashion,” the Smiths met Finkel as he was starting the White Buffalo Land Trust. They became some of the first members of the team, which now includes about eight employees. At Jalama Canyon Ranch, they’ve found a drum to bang ever louder, with apparent resources to pull it off.
“Having people be able to engage with all of their senses in a system like this is how people start to change their habits,” explained Ana of what will happen when their dreams grow into realities that people can touch and taste. “But we need people to have a glimpse of what’s possible.”
“Sometimes people don’t understand it,” said Jesse, “because they’ve never seen it.”
Join the Cause
To learn more about Jalama Canyon Ranch or contribute to the $4 million campaign to fund its growth, see whitebuffalolandtrust.org.
More Regenerative Ag Projects
Jalama Canyon Ranch won’t be the first property in the tri-county region to implement regenerative agriculture concepts.
The project’s parent organization, the White Buffalo Land Trust, is already doing so in the hills behind Summerland, as are places like Red Tail Ranch near Lompoc and Quail Springs near Cuyama. It’s quickly catching speed in vineyards too, from Solminer Wine Company in Los Olivos to Tablas Creek and Robert Hall up in Paso Robles. And the Center for Regenerative Agriculture in Ojai and SBCC’s Environmental Horticulture Program are constantly providing education on the practices.
But when it comes to major projects like Jalama Canyon, here are three more properties to watch, as detailed by Allegra Roth, the CEC’s food and climate program manager.
Ted Chamberlin Ranch: The Chamberlins became the first significant ranch in Southern California to implement a serious carbon farming plan in 2016 by adding compost to the family’s rangeland along Figueroa Mountain Road. “He found that, with a one-time application of compost, he was able to increase grass growth by 20 percent,” said Roth. “That means he can feed 20 percent more cattle per acre. That’s good for his pocketbook. I’m hoping to see that the soil carbon increased, which would be an indication of carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas offsets.” chamberlinranch.com
UPick Blueberry Farm: This farm along Highway 101 north of Gaviota is diverting food waste from grocery stores, turning it into compost, and experimenting with a liquid extract that can supplement synthetic fertilizer. “They’re looking at how to reclaim food waste and turn it into a biologically rich soil amendment as a replacement for synthetic fertilizer,” said Roth. “We’re still figuring out if that is the case, but that’s the research question.” santabarbarablueberries.com
Limoneira: This massive citrus company in Ventura County is studying the impacts of compost and mulch on citrus. “We’re looking at all sorts of metrics,” said Roth, from increased yields to reduced greenhouse-gas emissions. “They are a global citrus conglomerate, so if they are able to prove benefits on this ranch in Santa Paula, they could implement these policies globally and have a pretty scaled impact.” limoneira.com