Orland-based almond ranch takes an old-school approach to organics
At Baugher Ranch Organics, in Orland, harvesting organic almonds with rubber mallets and horse-drawn tarps is not only the old-fashioned way, it’s the sustainable way.
Chris Baugher’s 300-acre ranch, at first glance, may look like an unkempt orchard with weeds covering the ground. The cover crop of seeded legume plants and natural grasses is knee high in some places between the neatly planted rows of trees. But Baugher keeps it this way on purpose.
Letting the plants grow fosters the biodiversity of the environment, providing birds and other animals that might eat nuts with something else to munch on. The technique is highly unusual when compared to conventional almond orchards, which typically are mowed and sprayed with chemicals before harvest, leaving bare dirt so that tractors and other machinery can more easily pick up nuts.
To accommodate the greenery, Baugher uses giant Percheron horses to carry his haul. In a method of his own design, the draft horses are harnessed to tarps that are dragged along the orchard rows as workers bang the trees with oversized rubber mallets, making the almonds fall onto the tarp-covered ground. Two sets of horses and tarps get the job done; one on each side of a tree ensures no almonds fall into the grass.
Baugher admits people may think it’s crazy to use four horses and a crew of men on foot, instead of mechanical tree shakers and sweepers. But the work gets done in a surprisingly short amount of time. Finished in early September, this year’s harvest of 185 acres was accomplished in about three weeks, 22 days to be exact.
“It’s real nice. There’s no dust. There’s no noise. There’s no diesel fuel. No oil dripping on the ground from a leaking tractor,” he said. “It just fits nicely into the whole organic thing even though it’s not required.”
When the greenery is eventually cut, it acts as a natural fertilizer for the orchard.
In the world of modern orga-nic farming, Baugher is a pioneer of sorts, having started long before its popularity. In fact, when he began selling almonds in 1985, no federal standard for growing organic existed. Back then, he proved to customers he was providing them with a satisfactory product by being transparent: giving buyers an open invitation to the farm.
“It was a trust thing,” he said. “They knew who I was, and they could check up on me to see if I was truly organic.”
Baugher’s interest in the practice was spurred long before then, when he witnessed an organic garden thriving amongst other gardens planted in the same soil conditions back in the late ‘60s.
Choosing the farming method also had something to do with what he calls the “hypocrisy” behind chemical sprays, such as insecticides, which some people claimed were harmless while others insisted some varieties weren’t safe to use. Plus, he had a desire to provide the best product in a pure and honest way.
Because no local facilities were dedicated to processing organic almonds (removing the hulls and shells), Baugher opted to put in his own equipment to protect the integrity of his crop.
“You spend all this time trying to grow this clean, pure food, and then it ends up going to a non-organic processing facility, and we just didn’t feel like it was right,” he said.
Baugher Ranch became officially organic in the early ‘90s and is currently certified by Farm Verified Organic and California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). The operation is also certified by the Swiss government—making it the only organic almond grower in the States that meets Swiss standards, said Baugher’s wife, Marcie, who helps run the family business.
“We feel like we’ve always been organic and we’ll continue to do so,” she said. “Our driving force has always been to exceed organic standards and to do well.”
A lot has changed since Chris Baugher started with 120 acres. With the help of the his three adult children and other hired hands, he now manages more than 300 acres, some of which have young trees not ready for harvest. The family also purchases almonds from 15 other organic growers around the state to sell under the Baugher name.
In 1985, the operation sold about 40,000 pounds of organic almonds. More recently, the ranch has sold about 2 million pounds a year in markets all over the United States, Europe, Canada and, occasionally, Japan. This year, the Baughers predict they will sell close to 3 million pounds—about half of California’s entire crop of organic almonds, says Baugher.
There are about 10 CCOF-certified almond operations in Butte and Glenn counties and probably others certified by other organizations, said Becky Witty, CCOF regional representative. The North Valley, she said, has seen a 20 percent increase in certified organic farming. Statewide, about 3,300 acres are planted with organic almonds.
Baugher remembers long ago when neighbors and other farmers didn’t want to talk to him when they heard about his practices, but the stigma once associated with his unconventional farming methods is going away. Over the years, interest in his ranch has grown, probably due to the operation’s growth.
Baugher downplays the success. “We want to keep an open dialogue with them [other growers],” he said. “We don’t want to make people mad or anything.”
Sometimes the general public wants to pit conventional farmers against organic farmers, but the Baughers don’t believe in such a dichotomy. For them, growing organically is a personal choice—one they happen to believe is best for the environment and for humans, Marcie said.
“We’re doing what we feel is right, and we’re not here to criticize,” she said.
The Baughers and their horses have brought attention to the small Orland farming community. The draft horses, for instance, have been featured in German and Japanese magazines.
The family’s efforts to be environmentally friendly extend beyond farming. Four years ago, they installed solar panels in the field next to their house to use renewable energy. The panels earn them credit with PG&E that can be used when the home is using more energy than the array generates, such as at night.
The three-bedroom house itself was constructed with straw bales inside thick walls. The stuffing creates a dense insulation, keeping the house cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather. Most of the house’s windows face southward, allowing more natural sunlight inside.
At 58 years old, Baugher said he is satisfied with the sustainable lifestyle he has created for himself and his family. He always wanted to be a farmer, and when he couldn’t convince his dad to farm organically, he went out on his own. Looking back, he’s glad he stuck to what he knew and believed in—fostering the natural environment.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in agriculture,” he said. “When I was young, farming was still mostly organic even though they didn’t know it. Then chemicals started being used, but I just remained being interested in the environment.”