When you’re developing an experimental property like Front Porch Farm, you can count on a lot of science, a bit of gamble and, maybe, a whole bunch of crazy luck. Cradled in a bend of the Russian River on the edge of east Healdsburg, the 110-acre organic farm has been producing obscure produce, grains and livestock since 2010, varieties that much of America has never seen before.
Along the way mistakes have happened, and some, quite happily.
Consider the rare Cinta Senese, or white-belted pig of Siena, Italy, that Front Porch founder Peter Buckley raises. His is the only ranch in America to commercially raise the porkers, an endangered Italian breed prized for prosciutto. But a few years ago, a romance-minded wild boar broke into the pens, resulting in mixed-breed piglets.
This could have been a serious problem, as it took more than two years of negotiation with a Tuscan farmer just to get the first herd of 21 very valuable animals to Sonoma County.
“Except that was a fortuitous accident,” Buckley said. “One hundred percent Cinta is still the best pork for salumi products. But we liked the meat qualities of the new mix, so we have now begun a formal cross breeding program that has produced excellent pork for the fresh meat market.”
Wandering the secluded estate is like venturing into another world, where agriculture is art and a single head of broccoli has potential to change the way we eat.
Here, tidy rows sprout with Piracicaba broccoli, a newcomer developed for heat tolerance at the University of Piracicaba in Brazil.
“It’s a very sweet, low sulfur broccoli,” explained Buckley.
“We like that it stays sweet even when the temperatures go up, unlike other varieties. You can even eat it raw.”
Yet just as important as the boutique pork and brassica’s superior flavors, Front Porch is addressing climate change and figuring out systems to mitigate what Buckley calls the “problem of agriculture.” As the Earth heats up, the Piracicaba broccoli can adapt, for example, and the cross-bred Cintas require less resources to raise since, like their feral relatives, they forage naturally in the forest, preferring chestnuts, acorns, wild mushrooms and fruit.
“I’ve worked on environmental issues for decades and wanted to find work that was regenerative,” Buckley said. “Farming connects us with the seasons, land and life. We are a small farm, but big enough that our work could contribute solutions.”
It’s been a surprisingly successful learning curve, with food production doubled from 2014 to 2015. It is slated to triple for 2016 as a result of restaurant and market sales, which could result in the farm’s first profitable year.
The team, too, has mastered the long-held goal of biodiversity.
There are 12 acres of vineyards, but most of the land is planted to flower meadows, vegetables, alfalfa, herbs, berries, experimental seedlings, waving fields of heritage grain such as ancient einkorn wheat, and fruit, olive and nut orchards where chickens roam next to Boer goat pens, contributing natural fertilizer to the grounds.
The farm’s success is even more impressive when you factor in that Buckley and his wife, Mimi, had no farming experience when they dreamed up their project, following careers in fashion with Esprit Corp. and the founding of the nonprofit Center for Ecoliteracy and the David Brower Center in Berkeley.
Still, they knew that many heritage food varieties had been discarded in favor of types that boast large production numbers, good transport ability and long shelf lives.
“We look first and foremost for varieties that have the most flavor, then at how well adapted they are for our particular place and soils,” Buckley said of exotically named favorites like Musque de Provence winter squash, Tongue of Fire shelling beans and the Triple Crown blackberry that he says is “hands down the most intensely flavorful blackberry,” largely ignored since it can’t be stored long.
“If there is a story that goes with the variety, too, well, that often wins our hearts.”
Senator Cappelli, for example, is an heirloom Italian durum wheat that imparts extraordinary nutty, robust flavors to pasta. Marina Di Chioggia Italian sea pumpkin looks weird with its deep red or blue-green, warty rind but bursts with rich, silky sweetness.
Today, chefs such as Ari Rosen of Healdsburg’s Scopa swear by the farm’s Floriani Flint corn, an Italian heritage variety that Buckley’s team stone-mills for a deeper flavored rustic polenta prettily speckled in red and orange.
Chef Mateo Granados of Healdsburg’s Mateo’s Cocina Latina uses Front Porch corn for savory pancakes slathered in local honey and seasonal fruit, while Shed in Healdsburg carries retail products such as flour and Mimi Buckley’s homemade tomato vinegar.
And not only do his customers taste the difference, they absorb it in their bodies, Buckley insists.
“The flavor and nutrition of grains, especially wheat, got bred out in favor of shipping and milling characteristics,” he said.
“A lot of the flavor comes from the specific wheat type, but also how it’s processed. Everything we do is whole grain, that is, the bran and germplasm are part of the product.
“Almost all commercial wheat has the germ and bran removed. Sometimes they add back these components and call the product ‘whole grain,’ but it is simply not the same as milling the whole grain in the first place.”
The pigs, now numbering about 170 and currently foraging the hills of Buckley’s 2,000-acre Acorn Ranch in Mendocino, bring meat that is better for us, as well.
“They are very active, going uphill, downhill and home again,” Buckley said.
“The exercise produces a different muscle tone compared to confined animals, and the fresh green forage produces flavor that factory pork cannot get close to.
“Tests indicate that animals that eat fresh green forage have higher Omega-3 and other healthy components.”
At the end of the day, Buckley feels good, too.
“We have such a bright, hard working crew, and we feel lucky every day to be in a region that supports small, organic, diverse farms,” he said.
“Yet honestly, what I like the most about it is that I know all our critters have good piggy lives.”
Front Porch Farm, 2550 Rio Lindo Ave., 433-8683, Healdsburg, fpfarm.com.
Educational farm tours and wine tastings are periodically open to the public, such as the May 14 Rosé Release and Plant Sale, plus ongoing workshops on pruning, wreath making, flower growing and farm skills.