Matt Brunner grew up in an agricultural town in Southern California. His first job as a teenager was working for a rancher near his house who raised mules for mule racing and learning a couple of the most important farming skills: installing fencing and shoveling manure!
The two met at Humboldt State University (now Poly Tech University) and found their shared love for nature, animals, the outdoors, and each other.
At the time, there was a growing interest locally in pasturing meat animals and using rotational grazing techniques. Sarah and Matt were inspired by Joel Salatin, an influential West Virginia farmer. “He was our guru, we just fell in love with his whole style, and he makes it very tangible to the small-scale beginner farmer,” said Sarah. They followed his techniques to make a chicken tractor out of wood, but soon realized that in Humboldt County, where it rains almost every day through the winter, the wood rots quickly and is also quite heavy to move around. With farmer ingenuity, they taught themselves to weld and created some prototypes of metal tractors which ended up being lighter, stronger, and longer lasting. They still use these today.
They wanted to expand their chicken operation beyond their backyard, so they first leased land from Jacoby Creek Land Trust, then from a cattle rancher nearby. “He is very knowledgeable and had been practicing rotational grazing with his beef cattle for many, many years. We learned a lot from him about soil health, pasture health, range management,” said Sarah. It was here that the Brunners first put into practice concepts they had learned about symbiotic relationships between livestock. Sarah described how running pasture poultry behind pasture cows is one such relationship. Normally the cows leave their manure, flies lay their eggs in the manure, they hatch and become a problem to the cows as they bite and pester them. “By having chickens come in, they scratch up the manure and they eat the fly larva before it has a chance to develop into a fly. They break that cycle and at the same time it’s giving a ton of nutrition to the chickens. The cows graze the grass to a level the chickens like, so it’s this really great system. The cattle rancher was all about it,” said Sarah. Matt added that the chickens also added higher nitrogen levels to the soil with their manure, increasing the health of the rancher’s pasture. This mimics what would happen in a natural range system in the area, said Matt, with buffalo grazing then grouse following behind.
As their family grew, Sarah and Matt found 10 acres in Humboldt County where they could sink their roots deep. Flowers were destined to take center stage: a trial dahlia patch did so well that growing bouquets of cut flowers soon became the focus of the farm. They also continue to raise pastured meat chickens and laying hens, and added dairy goats, pork, Angora goats for their mohair fiber, and seasonal produce.
The Brunner’s farm is inspired by permaculture design, and I asked Sarah to explain what this means. “The idea is you’re designing your farm and homestead with the most closed loop system possible, so with the least amount of inputs and outputs nutritionally and otherwise. It’s very diverse, you’re not just monocropping, you’re having as many different diverse crops and animals as possible. You’re mimicking natural systems. Cycling manures into the plant crops and then feeding the plant residue back to the animals is a way of mimicking nature and keeping a closed loop system.” She added that the design of the landscape itself is also important and increases efficiency by centering around where you spend the most time. Permaculture design limits the amount of energy you spend traveling by centering around where you live and placing areas you go the most often (such as a kitchen garden) nearby with areas you go only a few times a month or year (such as an orchard) further away.
With organic farms come pests, and one nemesis for the Brunners has been slugs. “They are so nasty,” Sarah laughed, and Matt described pulling up a row of 100-foot-long weed fabric in the springtime and filling three 5-gallon buckets full of the slugs they found there. They solved their slug problem by getting ducks and changing their mulching practices. “We love the environment, we want to have the least amount of plastic in our lives,” said Sarah, “but we’ve tried mulching with natural materials, straw, woodchips, even compost, and because we’re in such a wet environment we are basically just breeding slugs. Slugs will come in and decimate a crop overnight. We found a biodegradable mulch made of cornstarch called Bio360 that helps us suppress weeds and doesn’t create a habitat for slugs.” Matt described the biodegradable mulch as a game changer since weeds on an organic farm can easily get out of control. “We mow down the cover crop [in the winter] and let that just break down on the beds and then put any amendments on there and just cover it. What happens is it gets really warm, all the weed seeds sprout and just die, the slugs can’t live under there because it’s too hot. Then come springtime you just pull that up and we don’t have to weed or till or do anything, we can plant right into it. It also keeps the nutrients in and it holds water so you don’t have to use as much water, you don’t have to use as many nutrients, the system just stays more balanced.”
Building community can be challenging, no matter where you live, and farming is often a lonely job. When I asked how they create community, Sarah and Matt shared that in the farming community there can be a competitive edge and a scarcity mentality that can drive farmers away from collaborative efforts. They’ve worked to counter this. “We have this mindset that we are better together. We’re actually all able to make a living, get enough customers, and have enough sales when we support each other. It’s a lot more powerful because you’re building the awareness in your community of the value of what you’re doing.” Sarah explained that with her flower business she can gain a certain number of customers by marketing alone, but “if I join with six other flower growers and we’re all together saying look at this amazing local flower network we have and how many flowers we are producing for our community, it’s going to shine, and light up more people that are going to be excited about that.” Having the attitude of not trying to replace a similar business but to develop unique styles allows farmers to maintain collaborative relationships and provides diversity in products that will appeal to more customers. “There’s a small cut flower community here and I just invited all of them over one day, I was like ‘let’s just talk shop, we all love the same thing, let’s learn from each other,” said Sarah.
The Brunner’s kept it real when speaking of the struggles of farm life. This past winter has been devastating for some crops due to the amount of rain, the coldness, and how long winter has lasted. Sarah and Matt make sure to include humor in their lives and not take everything too seriously all the time. “You can’t get down with failures,” said Matt. “You have to just learn from them and move on because it happens a lot. We’ve learned a lot you know, we’ve lost animals, we’ve lost crops, we’ve lost water through broken water systems, the list is endless. You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.”
“The constant motto of the farmer is ‘there’s always next season,’” Sarah added with a laugh.
Here’s to the Brunner’s and our other small-scale farmers, this season and every season, who are out there working hard and making a difference in our communities and food systems! Thank you for the inspiration.
“There is so much to learn with farming. Even after we have been farming for 20 years, every season I start out kind of like a baby, thinking what will I learn this year?”