Each year, NRDC recognizes sustainable food pioneers across the United States through the Growing Green Awards. OnEarth is publishing blog posts from this year's four winners and two of the judges. All of the posts can be found here.
Farming is in my roots.
I was born and raised in the Valley of the Hearts Delight, or as most people now refer to it: the Silicon Valley. My dad, grandfather and many before them were all farmers, and I grew up working in their prune orchards. The prunes were conventionally grown, so that meant applying fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. It wasn't until my chemistry and botany classes in college, though, that I started realizing the potential effects of all these chemicals.
After college, I decided to follow in my father's footsteps and farm. In 1979, my wife and I bought a 68-acre run down almond orchard in Winters, California, and set to work getting the orchard back into shape.
Slowly, I began planting walnut trees, but the young trees left me with little revenue. With tight finances, I started working with pest control advisors to find a way to use fewer pesticides and herbicides. We began employing the new idea of Integrated Pest Management, reducing the chemicals used in our orchard, and were pleasantly surprised to see that it worked!
It was a tragic wake-up call that helped me decide to take the leap and transition our farm to organic.
In the late 80s, doctors discovered that my dad had Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Around the same time, we learned of a study linking this type of lymphoma to herbicides used in farming. Although research couldn't directly link my dad's cancer to the chemicals used in his prune orchards, watching his disease progress made me reconsider even the few pesticides that we still used.
My wife and I decided, for our young family's health, to take the next step. My father's death in 1989 marked the end of our use of conventional chemicals.
Not many farmers were going organic at that time, and I would be lying if I didn't admit that the journey was frustrating and challenging at times. With the help of forward-thinking researchers, entomologists and organizations, we were able to develop a whole-systems approach to our sustainable practices for Dixon Ridge Farms that we continue to improve upon today.
In our walnut orchards, we keep the soil fertile with a perennial no-till cover crop and composted manure. The cover crop and hedgerows attract beneficial insects and wildlife. Not tilling reduces (or eliminates) soil erosion and run-off, maintains earthworm habitat, retains soil moisture and reduces global warming pollution. A new overhead sprinkler system allows for our organic farming practices while delivering the even and efficient water application our trees need.
Some of our most exciting projects go far beyond the orchard. Organic walnut processing is better for the earth - we don't use chemical fumigants or bleach to prepare walnuts for sale - but it is energy intensive. We wanted to make our processing just as sustainable as our growing, and we started with the easy choices of using recycled materials in our packaging and putting solar panels on our buildings.
Then we took on the bigger (and more fun) challenge of reducing our energy use. With millions of pounds of walnuts processed each year, you can imagine the huge piles of shells we are left with. We're now turning those shells into electricity and gas, and using this energy to dry and process our walnuts. We are saving energy, cutting our costs and truly trying to sustain our work and sustain the land.
NRDC’s 2010 Growing Green Awards winner in the Food Producer category, Russ Lester is the co-owner of Dixon Ridge Farms, the largest handler of organic walnuts in the United States. Dixon Ridge has dramatically its reduced environmental impacts from its orchards to the
NRDC’s 2010 Growing Green Awards winner in the Food Producer category, Russ Lester is the co-owner of Dixon Ridge Farms, the largest handler of organic walnuts in the United States. Dixon Ridge has dramatically its reduced environmental impacts from its orchards to the final stages of processing, with the goal of becoming 100% self-sufficient by 2012. Dixon Ridge walnuts are grown without harmful chemicals, amid carefully selected cover crops and irrigation systems that minimize the need for tillage and reduce global warming pollution. Lester converts walnut shells into energy, reducing waste and creating electricity to be used in other stages of walnut production.