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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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A Firm Believer in the Three P’s of Sustainable Growing, Craig McNamara Talks Walnuts, Water and Waste

March 14, 2013 |

Craig McNamara, president and owner of Winters, CA-based Sierra Orchards. Photo Credit: Sierra Orchards.

When it comes to sustainable agriculture, Craig McNamara, owner of Sierra Orchards, president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture and son of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, believes firmly in the three P’s of sustainable growing: planet, people and profit. Living in the organic walnut orchard that comprises the bulk of his farming business you could argue he’s living in and up to his principles.

McNamara began his career as a farmer in his late 20s. He began as a truck farmer, but soon found traditional produce was not right for him. “The marketing challenges of a truck farmer were very difficult. Being a small produce grower farming, harvesting, packaging and shipping my own product into the wholesale market was extremely challenging. I said ‘there’s got to be a better way.’ I’ve got to find a crop that has fewer harvests per year, is less perishable and a crop that I just have more control over and for me that was walnuts.” Sierra Orchards was founded in 1980.

Today, McNamara and his team manage the 450 acres of orchard with a variety of sustainable practices including pheromones for pest management, alternative weeding methods, sediment traps for water and nutrient conservation as well as zero tillage soil management. “Some people might think that organic or sustainable refers to lower tech agriculture and it is not,” shares McNamara. “If you do it the right way it requires high tech, high investment visionary work.” The stream on the property was aerated to provide healthy water for local fish and solar energy is utilized to run the farm pumps and power the walnut hulling area.

An olive grove, thought to be planted in the 1880s, offers a second source of income for Sierra Orchards producing a profitable quantity of organically grown extra virgin olive oil. When farmland has produced for over a century maintaining the soil is a vital aspect of a successful operation. Nitrogen producing cover crops improve soil condition. Green compost is created monthly to constantly maintain the nutrient levels in the ground. McNamara finds purple vetch and leguminous plants offer the best nitrogen retention levels.

Fortunate enough to have a natural aquifer, McNamara employs trickle and drip irrigation and micro sprinklers to reduce waste water on his property. He feels it is his responsibility to preserve the aquifer and the water supply for future growers. Always using best organic farming practices is a must for the folks at Sierra Orchards.

So many small organic growers believe breaking even is enough and making a profit an unexpected bonus. For Craig McNamara, profit plays a vital role in the world of sustainable agriculture. “… without an operation that’s profitable we can’t really go on and do the other sustaining work that we need to do in our lives which is to take care of family, take care of our neighbors, take care of our nation’s healthcare… all those important features of our day to day life.”

McNamara views sustainability as the key to maintaining organic farming in our society. “I believe ‘organic’ is a piece of a much larger fabric of what you and I would call sustainable farming. Its important, but for me it’s more important to be sustainable. It’s more important to have what is commonly referred to as ‘Big Ag,’ large conventional operations, incorporate sustainable practices into their operation. From field to fork, everything that we can do to nurture soil and create a balance in our ecosystem will benefit the land, the products we’re growing, the retail market and eventually the consumer.”

Land preservation, conservation and addressing California’s agricultural labor shortage are big issues for McNamara, but water shortage came top of his list of sustainable agriculture concerns. “Water is a very critical issue and we have very difficult decisions ahead of us in terms of dam systems around our delta and how to deal with a rapidly increased population. We are on our way to around 50 million people in California. A natural water system where we need to provide drinking water, safe water and safe water for agriculture.” [...]“There’s a motto one sees out here in California frequently: ‘ where the water flows, agriculture grows.’ We really need it and I think California and other areas have been leaders in conserving our water resources.”

In his role as president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, a role held since 2002, McNamara hopes to improve access to food in his state. “My personal focus has been on food insecurity. Food insecurity means when you do not know where your next meal is coming from. We believe 17 percent of our state residents face food insecurity and the majority of those, many of those, are children. And at the same time we have food waste. We’re wasting 40 percent of our food from farm to table. That is something I am very confident that we can change. So that’s my personal vision as to what we can do during my stewardship on the state board.”

On a federal level, McNamara believes there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to America’s farming policies. “We need a farm bill in place that continues to assist people who are facing food insecurity; who will provide SNAP funds, formerly food stamps, and also a farm bill that supports conservation across the nation,” states McNamara. “With regulation we need to ensure we maintain and preserve our environmental standards. However, I think we can work to remove the duplications in our regulations that make it very onerous for farmers.”

Like many independent producers, finding enough time in the day is a challenge at Sierra Orchards.

“…finding the hours in the day to successfully farm, to successfully be a husband and raise a family and successfully be involved in policy making really boils down to time management. I’ve been doing this operation now 34 years. We have a rhythm. We have a wonderful team. I couldn’t do this without a remarkable team of primarily men who work with me.”

McNamara has this advice for young farmers: “I think the most valuable piece of advice would be to recognize the opportunities that we have today. [...] consumer awareness, buy local, buy healthy [and] support farmers. This is something that has been growing over the last quarter of a century. Today, beginning farmers can take advantage of that and as many of the challenges we all face, I think the opportunities today far outweigh the challenges. Be very measured in your approach to farming. Be very thoughtful and be humble.”

Growing up in a political family in Washington D.C. may seem like a strange background for an organic farmer but McNamara disagrees. “… I think farming is very political. I think the production of food is extremely political actually; it brought me to agriculture. I did grow up in a family that was very engaged in policy. Becoming a farmer for me bridged what seems to be very divergent pathways. But I find farming to be one of the most satisfying things in my life.”

Craig McNamara and his wife Julie are the founders of the Center for Land Based Learning, formerly the FARMS program at UC Davis that provides educational opportunities for high school and college age students interested in farming. McNamara has received several accolades because of his land stewardship including the California Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award and the Leopold Conservation Award.

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