WINTERS — Russ Lester takes the long view with his Dixon Ridge Farms walnut orchards, a view that extends well beyond his lifetime.
He wants to work the land in such a way that fertilizers don’t — over time — diminish the fertile soils. He wants water to still be available for farmers generations from now.
“Sustainable agriculture” is a phrase that has grown in popularity and Lester has his own definition.
“It’s a simple definition, to say we can continue doing what we’re doing for 1,000 years,” Lester said.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency Pacific Southwest Region thinks Lester is on the right track. It recently honored what it called 12 environmental heroes and named Lester its 2012 Sustainable Agriculture Champion.
“The winners, green heroes all, prove there are many ways to protect our air, water and land,” Jared Blumenfeld, the agency’s regional administrator, said in a press release.
Lester finds himself in the company of Zero Waste Advocate winner Adobe Systems of San Jose, Green Business of the Year winner Frito-Lay in Casa Grande, Ariz., and Educational Leadership winner Guam Environmental Education Committee in Guam. The Environmental Protection Agency region covers California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii and the Pacific Territories.
The Lester family has farmed in California since 1863, starting in the Napa area. When Lester was growing up, his father had a farm in the Santa Clara area, back when agriculture and not the computer industry was king there.
Lester went to UC Davis with no idea of becoming a farmer. But after looking at teaching and research, he decided he really wanted to farm after all. His parents had left the burgeoning Silicon Valley for the Winters area near Putah Creek in northern Solano County and in 1979 Lester and his wife Kathy bought the farm.
He started out as being more of a conventional farmer who used synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. But he also had a degree in plant ecology, with emphases in engineering and chemistry, and he decided to weld the disciplines together on the farm.
The transition to embrace sustainable farming practices took place over more than a decade, with the help of other people’s ideas.
Farmers at the time usually sprayed crops on a fixed scheduled. Lester around 1980 went to the integrated pest management approach of spraying only when needed, if at all.
He also began using a centuries-old idea, one that his father had tried to a degree. He planted legumes such as vetch and clovers in the walnut groves, given that they attract beneficial insects and also have a bacteria that puts nitrogen into the soils, acting as a natural fertilizer.
Lester describes his movement to sustainable agriculture practices as a progression. On some occasions, as neighbors sprayed, Lester worried.
“I’d wake up and think, ‘I’m not doing what I should be doing. I’m not spraying. Is it going to work?’ ” Lester said.
It worked, in Lester’s estimation. By the 1990s, Dixon Ridge Farms had gone organic.
Some walnut growers use chemicals extensively to get a higher yield of walnuts, perhaps three or four tons per acre to the two tons per acre at Dixon Ridge Farms, Lester said.
“The difference is, their walnuts are what I call trees on steroids,” Lester said.
He believes trees treated in such a manner will be spent in a few decades and have to be replaced at much cost. Dixon Ridge Farms has some trees more than 100 years old that are still producing quite well, he said.
Lester has approached sustainable farming from other angles, too. In 2007, he installed a biogas generator that creates energy for the walnut processing operation out of walnut shells, all without any visible smoke to pollute the air.
Dixon Ridge Farms has containers piled 24 feet high with some 720,000 pounds of walnut shells, enough to keep the generator going for a year. A company owns the generator and Lester pays a fixed price for power.
He soon expects to add an even bigger biogas generator to help power the walnut processing operation.
Lester has put 3,500 square feet of solar panels on roofs of buildings and expect to add more — by putting them on roofs instead of the ground, he avoids taking farmland out of production.
In addition, Lester put in energy-saving lights and added special insulation to a 12,000-square-foot freezer building.
Dixon Ridge Farms in 2007 set the goal of becoming energy self-sufficient. Lester expects that to happen this year.
Farms such as Lester’s are private enterprise and businesses. Taking steps to help the environment won’t work if the venture goes bankrupt.
“The bottom line is we’re making money,” Lester said. “We wouldn’t be staying in business if we weren’t.”
The question is whether Dixon Ridge Farms ends up being a niche or the future for farming. The Environmental Protection Agency views it as having lessons to teach the larger farming community.
Dixon Ridge Farms is “a model for true farm sustainability and a champion for small, family farms in California,” the agency said in a release.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929, or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.