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.