WHISTLING A SUSTAINABLE TUNE: SINGING FROGS FARM TAKES ORGANIC FARMING TO NEXT LEVEL
When you first drive up to Singing Frogs Farm and are greeted by Wenge the dog, you feel as if you have stepped into an Eden. A small valley fans out below the 9-acre Sebastopol farm that is filled with flowers, animals and abundant, healthy looking crops.
Farmer Paul Kaiser, 38, and his wife Elizabeth, 35, have managed to create all this fertility without a plow. They are adamant that tearing open the earth to cultivate it is not only unnecessary but also causes ecological problems that include global warming.
What's more, their composting and transplanting methods have proven over the past six years to be more productive and profitable than even growing grapes.
The Kaisers have three full time, year round employees and feed between 115 and 120 families each week with Community Supported Agriculture boxes of their farm goods.
They also market their food at local farmers markets and supply two restaurants: Peter Lowell in Sebastopol and Backyard Restaurant in Forestville.
"Farmers usually have one or two crops a year," Paul Kaiser said. "We have between three and seven per unit of land. This is a Mediterranean climate.
"The average earning is about $3,700 per acre wholesale. Direct marketing farms do about $9,000 per acre per year. We are doing $65,000 to $75,000. That is three times what a vineyard does around here."
How do the Kaisers do it? According to him, they produce about seven times the amount of food. The have many crops in one bed.
"See the lettuce growing with the broccoli? The broccoli shades the lettuce, keeps it cool and tender. The lettuce crowds out intrusive weeds," he said.
They use compost. "We provide half of our own compost and buy the other half from Sonoma Compost. It's organically approved."
And they plant hedgerows, 3,000 in the past five years.
"That is critical," he said. "We use native plants mostly for our hedgerows. They are woody perennials with high pollen and nectar for pollinators which need them year round. They provide a windbreak and habitat for birds and snakes, and moderate temperatures. Tractors have killed the old hedgerow tradition."
Singing Frogs Farm won the 2010 North American Farmer Rancher Award for pollinator conservation. Bees are everywhere, with six busy hives working the Kaisers' land.
They also irrigate using their own pond rather than ground water, kept clean by a crop of domestic ducks as well as few wild ducks. A flock of hens they call "girlie-girls" live in movable pastures and supply eggs, but they don't slaughter hens who are past their prime. Other animals on the farm include seven sheep, a milk goat named Mocha and a guard llama named Charlie, who protects the smaller animals from predators.
While some of the land was first cleared with a tractor, Kaiser has since successfully experimented with laying down cardboard and planting in mulch piled right on it. He germinates seeds in a nursery rather than planting them directly into the mulch.
"Transplants mean the plants are stronger and more resistant to pests," he said.
Where did he learn his farming skills? At American University in Washington, D.C., where he earned a Master's degree in Sustainable Development and another in Natural Resources Management from the school's United Nations University for Peace.
Elizabeth Kaiser also holds dual masters degrees, in nursing and public health. They met in college, served in the Peace Corps in The Gambia, West Africa and worked for a year in Costa Rica.
Kaiser is a proselyte for no-till agriculture. "The Department of Agriculture says 31 percent of greenhouse gases come from agriculture," he said. "Tilling releases nitrogen and other things into the air. The organic compounds of the soil are destroyed by it.
"Before tilling, soil is 4-6 percent organic matter; after, it is as low as 1 percent. UC-Davis did a 10-year study and raised it to 1.2 percent. The Rodale Institute did a 23-year study and got soil to 2 percent. With what we are doing, we got ours from 2.4 percent to 6.6 percent."
UC-Davis was impressed enough to hire Kaiser to lead workshops. He speaks a lot, urging farmers to throw away the plow.
The message has taken hold with his children. Lucas, who is not yet 6, has his own garden and sells his produce at school. Now daughter Anna, at 3, is demanding a garden, too.
"We include nature, not exclude her," he said pointing to his private, fruitful Eden. "This is the web of life."
Singing Frogs Farm is located at 1301 Ferguson Road, Sebastopol, 829-1389, singingfrogsfarm.com.