A Kiss the Ground Farmland Program member
Local to Southern California? You may be familiar with Fat Uncle Farms’ delicious flavored, roasted almonds, a fan favorite at farmer’s markets from Santa Barbara down to Los Angeles. The exceptionally crunchy almonds are flavored with herbs and spices like rosemary and sea salt, or cinnamon with a sprinkling of sugar. The almonds are grown differently than most California almonds. At one time, they were “dry-farmed,” meaning they grew without any supplemental irrigation (instead, just rainfall and whatever moisture can be gathered from the atmosphere or subsoil).
But today, Fat Uncle’s almonds are part of a larger picture: a holistic, experiment in regenerative agriculture in California’s Central Valley. Founder of Fat Uncle Farm, Nate is a fifth-generation California farmer, based in the Bakersfield area of the Central Valley. His farming philosophy started off “totally conventional” – he studied plant genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles and according to him, he “never saw a live plant” during the entire course of his studies. It wasn’t until he was in the field that he formed a critical eye of the current system – one hot summer day working on a farm Nate paused for a break and had a zen moment, thinking, “This isn’t sustainable. There’s something wrong with this system.”
He started picking up books covering alternative methods of farming. He recalls Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture, a pivotal turning point that taught him an ecosystems-based approach to farming. From there, he never looked back.The Central Valley is notorious for its degraded farmland, chemical use, and hot and dry weather. It’s an area of stark contrasts; in 2017 the USDA reported that Kern was the most productive agricultural county in the nation at $7.25 billion, while a Food Research and Action Center report, from the same year, designated Bakersfield (the biggest city and county seat) as the “Hungriest City in America” with a food hardship rate of 23.2%.
The Central Valley is notorious for its degraded farmland, chemical use, and hot and dry weather.This means that they are big growers, but none of the fruits and vegetables stay there for the residents. This discrepancy has inspired Nate to stay in the area and grow healthy food – he hopes to expand community access to his crops as his operation grows.
Nate has farmed all over the state of California, but he recently returned to Wasco, where he grew up, to participate in a groundbreaking regenerative almond growing experiment funded by Ben & Jerry’s. About three years ago, in collaboration with Lauren Tucker from White Buffalo Land Trust, Nate started brainstorming methods of regenerative almond production for the Central Valley. He and Lauren designed a plan, and as luck would have it, the owners of the farm that his wife grew up on were willing to rent him the property for the experiment. Ben & Jerry’s signed on to fund a five-year project and Nate and his wife have been managing the experiment for the past two years. The property spans 18 acres of almond orchards; 13 of which are dedicated to the project. It’s a unique experiment; there’s a considerable time period involved, so they have the freedom to experiment with multiple variables, including compost application, cover cropping, animal integration, water limitation/deficit irrigation, compost tea application, and more.
Research institutes doing similar work often lack the opportunity to layer functions, but with the funding, Nate has been able to try every iteration of regenerative practice on a section of the almond orchards.
For example, he’ll experiment in one section by just applying compost, in another he’ll apply compost and plant cover crops, in another he’ll plant cover crops and integrate animals but won’t apply compost, etc. A third of the almonds grown for the project are given to Ben & Jerry’s for their dairy-free line of products, and the rest are used for Fat Uncle Farms’ products.
Setting up the experiment involved a lot of trial and error. They found themselves asking baffling starter questions like, “Where do we get sheep to graze such a small area of land?” (Now, he hires Basque shepherds to bring sheep into the orchard when he wants them to).
The kinks have been worked out for the most part, and Nate can focus on manipulating the variables for the best effect. He hosts volunteer days to help with setting things up and collecting data, and he says the goal of the project is to create a farming system that doesn’t lose any more water than they would to evapotranspiration. In fact, to be regenerative, they would actually need to do more and create a system that refills the aquifer at an equal rate that it’s lost. Nate calls this regenerative aquifer-based farming, or water-cycling farming. At the end of the five-year project, he hopes that some of the methods they’ve learned can be applied to other valuable crops for the region. Nate envisions the property transforming into a silvopasture or agroforestry model. He plans to eventually place a bid on the property they’re leasing and will swap out the almond trees for mulberries, figs, agave, argan, grapes, persimmons, and more. They’re not replanting almonds now; instead, they’re diversifying the tree crops, planting grain in between, and intending to fully integrate livestock over the next few years. This way they’ll have more flexibility and will be able to adapt to changes in climate; for example, where and when they graze may depend on the amount of winter rainfall they receive in any given year.
“Ultimately? Keep the food we grow inside our community,” Nate says. This mindset informs his decision on which crops to plant next. He plans to have a u-pick set up at the farm for his neighbors to stop by and purchase produce, and he’d like to sell animal products as well. Whatever they don’t sell he’ll donate to local food banks.
Nate also grows organic heritage grains, including Sonora wheat and wild rye, and cotton on other properties in southern and northern California. He and his wife just submitted their organic application for the almond orchards in Wasco. Because they’ve been managing the land for two years, they will likely receive a transitional certification because there is a three-year minimum for organic management. His “day job” is with the Rodale Institute, as the West Coast Consulting Manager; he advises farmers on integrating regenerative practices, offers technical assistance, and helps them apply for certification through the Regenerative Organic Alliance. He recognizes that finances are a major barrier to entry for regenerative agriculture. When Nate was in high school, his family’s farm went bankrupt, and without that experience, he says he doesn’t think he would realize the value of owning land.
“Regenerative agriculture doesn’t make sense if you don’t consider what it means to own land,” he says, referring to how being regenerative involves a return to how the land was originally stewarded before it was considered a proprietary commodity.
In a way, leasing land for the past ten years has only enriched his connection to the land by forcing him to think critically about why he would want to own land, and what the implications of ownership are.
Today, he takes an active role in connecting with the Yowlumni tribe, also known as the Yokits tribe, the original stewards of the land he now manages. He has taken his daughter to learn their language so they can call their land by its real name. Although farming has felt tenuous at times, Nate seems to have found a niche in offering support to other California farmers and dialing in regenerative methods for growing important Mediterranean crops like almonds.
It’s truly inspiring to see the evolution of Fat Uncle Farms and to hope that more companies like Ben & Jerry’s will support transitioning their supply chain to a regenerative model that supports the land and the people indigenous to that land.