Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Friends of the Noyo River Conservation Research Center: Stewardship and Farming on the Mendocino County Coast

The following is a submission from Joel Russell Thompson, the Executive Director of the Friends of the Noyo River Conservation Research Center, and a long-time friend of MendoFever’s.

The Noyo River [All photographs provided by Joel Russell Thompson]

Can you give a bit of background about Friends of the Noyo River? 

Friends of the Noyo River Conservation Research Center is located on the Mendocino Coast, north of the San Francisco Bay Area.  

Our location along the Noyo River serves as our conservation and research staging site. The land was purchased by my Great-grandparents in the early 1900s. They undertook a long immigration from Madeira, Portugal while in their youth, with their families, first to Hawaii, and later to Northern California. In about the 1920s, it was here — they began producing a large market garden for the local community during a time when importing vegetables was not as simple as it is today. Even so today, local vegetable farming is highly valued by our local community, and my father and uncle —who now own the estate have supported the idea of reestablishing a sustainable model of local vegetable production with a focus on environmental conservation and preservation of native ecosystems and everything that makes the area so special. The land is set along the Noyo River estuary, amongst second-generation old-growth coastal redwoods. Just east of us we are encompassed by nearly half a million acres of commercial timberland, and to the west the city of Fort Bragg, CA and the vast Pacific Ocean. 

What led you to farming and specifically eco-friendly-veganic-farming? 

I first learned about gardening from my grandmother. We cultivated fruit trees, vegetables, roses, orchids, and other flowers together. I’ve worked in the agriculture industry since 1997, when I was 17 years old, starting in the wine industry. My knowledge of farming was as much heavily influenced by local leaders and innovators in organic agriculture in the late 90s. From then on, I enjoyed the benefits of organic growing, and using a lot of plant-based amendments as well.  

In 2014, I broke away from using animal inputs, and I haven’t looked back since! Substituting composted wood chips, and leafy mulch for eco-destructive things like bone meal, and fish emulsion makes a lot more sense. I found so much more joy in the garden without the use of manure and other animal byproducts in my planting medium.  

We’ve found that using stock-free amendments gives us better-tasting produce, and higher yields too. An obvious benefit to stock-free/veganic gardening is there’s less chance of contracting animal-borne diseases through constantly touching and breathing in animal-based additions from domesticated livestock waste.  

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Not to say that our soil is void of life or bio-flora: our soil is always full of living worms and fungi, and of course the garden has many constant visitors, a plethora of insects, pollinators, snakes, birds, foxes, skunks, chipmunks, moles, and other wildlife.  

What was your motivation to transition from farming and begin Friends of the Noyo River Conservation Research Center, in 2021?  

The decision to transition to Friends of the Noyo River’s nonprofit model was to integrate environmental conservation and research into our work ethos, and to utilize eco-friendly agriculture, and eco-conscious environmental planning methodology for use in watershed restoration in the Noyo River; thus fulfilling the dire need for local stewardship to restore threatened native plants, and endangered salmon and steelhead populations. 

What are you currently up to and do you have any projects in the works? 

We are fortunately located adjacent to the Noyo River estuary. Here we have established a year-round pollinator garden, and a staging ground for our conservation efforts. The exhibition pollinator garden provides an oasis for a variety of pollinators. This year, we’re producing zucchini, three different varieties of arugula, blackberries, and native thimbleberries. With our research in the garden, we hope to establish best-use practices for eco-friendly produce gardening with an emphasis on producing high-yield, and high-quality foods. 

In an organic eco-friendly garden, and in all land-based agriculture practices — we should always do our best to reduce erosion, refrain from using animal-based fertilizer, utilize cover crops and sustainable plant-based compost, and create a safe habitat for birdlife and pollinators. 

Aside from our exhibition pollinator and vegetable research gardens, we recently planted 200 native willow trees this winter to help reduce erosion and benefit wildlife habitat.  

Seven hundred coastal redwood trees were planted in small containers, which were made from cuttings of special nearby redwood trees. We will encourage inland property owners to plant the redwood trees on areas of bare-rangeland to support native habitat restoration in the greater North Coast region. 

We have two new conservation research projects in the works: 

The Noyo River Salmonid Monitoring Project will use a sonar camera to help gain accurate fish counts of returning salmon and steelhead. 

The Noyo River Salmonid and Native Plant Recovery Project is set to begin in January 2024. The project will reduce sediment contamination and erosion in the estuary, and help provide improved habitat conditions for fish and wildlife. Both projects will conclude with a scientific paper that we hope will lay a pathway forward for salmonid recovery on the Noyo River, and possibly other similarly imperiled watersheds.  

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We also publish a monthly bird list for our ongoing bird observation project. The list typically contains numerous bird species including hawks, owls, osprey, and all types of waterfowl and migrating birds. You can find our bird list on our Facebook page. 

Do you have any words of wisdom for other land stewards and farmers who are interested in becoming more eco-friendly? 

The most important part of land stewardship is understanding the native ecology of the land. Soil erosion should always be a priority. Nutrient run-off can contaminate the air, local waterways, and groundwater supplies, so always be mindful of the amendments we are bringing into our farms and how we are affecting the natural environment.  

I always refer to this analogy from Environmental Planner Nicholas Carter, who reports that “one acre of cover crops planted for one year is the equivalent to twelve tons of poultry manure, in nitrogen content.”  

Iian Tolhurst, an award-winning organic farmer based in the UK yields 20 tons of potatoes per acre by simply amending with composted wood chips and cover crops, along with companion planting, and crop rotations.  

If something appears to be wrong with your soil, then plant cover crops, open the fence for wildlife, and let the soil rest. Rotating crops can be greatly beneficial for the soil structure, and the natural nutrient makeup.  

Recently, I’ve gifted redwood trees to friends in the eastern states with the advice that redwood trees once encompassed the entire globe, excluding the polar regions. Seeing a redwood tree growing in Utah, Illinois, or Texas — however foreign it may seem is completely natural and will bring happiness to generations of people and wildlife too.  

As land stewards, rewilding, planting fruit trees, acorn trees, willow trees, and native evergreens with attention to how the trees can benefit the surrounding landscape is probably the best things we can do for future generations and as a benefit for wildlife habitat as well. 

Everything is connected, every little thing we do in our land stewardship today is a statement to our prosperity and our legacy. 

Including conservation in our farming practices should be commonplace on all farms everywhere; as we should all strive for the highest levels of sustainability — because we are all connected and we are all reliant on the well-being of this great Mother Earth! 

Additional Articles and links: 

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Joel Russell Thompson is the Director of Friends of the Noyo River Conservation Research Center founded in 2021. In addition to directing Friends of the Noyo River, he volunteers with Youth for Human Rights International, Vegans of Mendocino, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

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    • It’s not a conventional outhouse, it’s a compost toilet system. Thanks for your inquiry! Although the three neighboring parcels use septic systems and are at even lower elevations, we feel that septic systems are obsolete compared to composting units, especially near waterways with high water tables. It does however draw the question of if the many bathrooms that are located in the harbor area draining to the estuary and if any of the old low-lying septic systems are contaminating the water. The outhouse at Big River Beach seems to be well-designed enough to prevent contamination, but a composting digester system placed there would be much better.

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