Juan Santana of Santana-Lepe Orchards (left) and Sam Earnshaw of Hedgerows Unlimited plan the hedgerow layout.
On a day in early November, the Wild Farm Alliance team watched the sun set over Livingston, a Central Valley agricultural town known for its sweet potatoes, grapes, almonds, dairy and poultry. That sun reflected across over 600 native plants growing to provide new habitat along the borders of the Santana-Lepe Orchards.
Juan Santana is an almond grower who Wild Farm Alliance has been working with since 2021, when we helped him design and install his first hedgerow. We met him through the California Healthy Soils Program (HSP). Martin Guerena of National Center for Appropriate Technology had signed him up to receive financial support for compost and cover crops for the orchards and to increase the habitat on his farm with native plant hedgerows. We and Caddie Bergen of UCANR had funding to help HSP growers like Juan install these practices. His main goal with installing hedgerows was to provide more habitat for bees, but also to add diversity that would support beneficial insects and birds. He shared how after the harvest, American Crows and Yellow-billed Magpies help him with removing the mummy nuts high in the canopy.
After much long-distance organizing of native plant orders and discussing the best way to get the site ready for planting, we first visited his farm in November 2021. With Juan, Sergio Castro, his son-in-law and backbone of farm operations, and a crew of four of us, we planted a 400-foot long hedgerow at the edge of his home orchard. Late that day, tired and happy, we walked the sites of two much longer planned hedgerows, to be planted in the fall of 2022. Here we talked about the where, why, when, and how of this next planting.
WFA's Jo Ann Baumgartner (front, center) helps with the 3,300' hedgerow planting.
Fast-forward to November 2022 and we have returned to Juan’s farm to plant 3,300 feet of hedgerows, but with the amount of work we needed to do, our small Wild Farm team was not going to be enough for the tight timeline. This is where the “Alliance” in Wild Farm Alliance comes in as we were able to assemble a team to make this project happen! Nick Filannino, who works for us as part of an AmeriCorps program called the GrizzlyCorps, was able to coax 11 other members of his program to come work with us. Then Cindy Lashbrook, a Wild Farm Alliance friend and owner of legendary Riverdance Farms in Livingston, helped by providing a place for everyone to camp on her farm along the Merced River, just two miles from the project site. Nick coordinated this effort, including putting together a potluck celebration cookout under the stars, with delicious food and much laughter.
Nick Filannino (left) and several GrizzlyCorps members help install the hedgerow.
Over three days, Wild Farm Alliance accomplished an incredible amount. On paper we installed about ¾ of a mile of native plant habitat. But we also provided a learning opportunity for 11 young professionals in the work of habitat conservation, we increased the number of pollinators and other beneficial insects and birds in the area for years to come, and we forged strong connections with friends, new and old in the name of wild farming. In the middle of our workday, Juan, his wife Sylvia, Sergio and his daughter, provided an awesome lunch for the whole crew.
The hedgerow planting crew enjoys an amazing meal cooked by the Santana family.
Working towards more resilient food systems for the future means highlighting and underscoring how important connections are. The difference between small patches of isolated habitat and wildlife movement corridors is connectivity after all, and Wild Farm Alliance will continue to create habitat for biological diversity, inspiration, beauty and practical solutions that work in synergism. By forging partnerships between different actors in our food systems, we inch closer everyday to a future where the Central Valley sun sets upon on a mosaic of agricultural fields and thriving native plant habitat.
To learn more about Juan’s Santana-Lepe Orchards, stay tuned for our field day in January, 2023.