A Kiss the Ground Farmland Program member
Nuss Farms is a 5th-generation family farm run by father Dave Nuss and his three sons Derek, Tim, and Tyler. The family has been farming conventionally in the San Joaquin Valley for nearly 50 years. While Lodi is known for its vineyards and orchards, the Nuss family is experimenting with regenerative farming techniques and growing annual vegetable specialty crops in the California delta.
Fifteen years ago Dave focused on scaling up their asparagus business, which was an important crop in the region at the time. They vertically integrated their operation and invested in equipment, processing infrastructure, and a sales agency. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect in 1994, the region saw a steep decline in acreage. High quality California asparagus historically commanded a strong premium in the market, however, with the introduction of a lower cost imported alternative, California growers struggled with margin compression due to higher labor costs and strict food safety regulations. “It made production of asparagus much, much cheaper to produce outside of the U.S.,” says Tyler. If you go into the grocery store today, you’ll find that most asparagus comes from Mexico or Peru. Today, very little acreage exists in California and the California Asparagus Commission has even suspended its operations. About 170,000 smaller scale family farms in the U.S. have gone under in the 20 years since NAFTA went into effect (Bilateral, 2016).
“This showed us the risk of investing in a single crop,” says Tyler. “Our dad had to slowly work his way out of that financial hit and pivot to lower value commodity crops.” Derek, the oldest brother, came back from college upon graduation to work alongside Dave on the farm and they have slowly been working the farm back to higher profitability, diversity, and scale. They are now focused on high value vegetable crops like garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, jalapeños, banana peppers, specialty grains, and organics.
In 2018, while developing their careers outside of the farm, Tim and Tyler started The Modern Acre Podcast as a way to integrate themselves into the ag community. Tyler says “the podcast has allowed us to talk to a lot of smart people; everyone from the business side to the ecological/farm management side.” By having conversations with innovators, entrepreneurs and thought leaders they started to be exposed to regenerative agriculture and considered if it could make sense for the family farm.
Through their podcast they connected with Farmers Footprint who encouraged them to apply to Kiss the Ground’s Farmland Transition Program, which kickstarted their regenerative journey. Over the past three years, the Nuss family has begun transitioning their system to regenerative management, as well as certifying a portion of their corn acreage to organic production.
“Our regenerative management has largely been done in trial phases on a crop-by-crop basis, not necessarily a steady increase in acreage. We are optimistic that focusing on regenerative principles will drive higher premiums, while also opening up doors to work directly with regenerative-focused brands,” says Tyler.
Tyler attributes their change in land management to their dad, Dave, attending Soil Health Academy (SHA), a training sponsored by Kiss the Ground. “Learning from Gabe Brown, Ray Archuleta, and Allen Williams at the event was a turning point for our dad, and really the whole farm. SHA was an accessible entry point for our dad to learn about regenerative ag from other farmers. The idea of using biology, not chemistry, to improve soil health made a lot of sense to our dad.”
“Our dad is an old school conventional farmer, but open to doing things differently and willing to grow and innovate,” says Tyler. “Most conventional farmers want to do right by their soil. They are not intentionally harming their soil. They want it to thrive to yield a better crop, they just don’t know how.”While Dave was sold at SHA, implementing regenerative in their context definitely presented some challenges. The biggest barrier is the lack of resources geared towards their specific crops and geography. Germinating cover crops, for example, is non-trivial and tied to other farm operations. Additionally, managing input use is a challenge integrating new programs with existing ones. They have had a lot of trial-and-error so far in their transition, and hope to build on some wins over the next 12-24 months.
In the Midwest, commercial scale specialty crop growers like Gabe Brown, Rick Clark, and others have paved the way for farmers in those regions. Specialty crop farming in California is a bit different; there isn’t necessarily a roadmap. They are hoping to be one of those farms that can help create a blueprint, so they have been doing a lot of experimentation with various regenerative practices, while also managing for the lack of off-season frosts, limited rainfall, annual crops that often require tillage of some kind, and the lack of case studies done on vegetable production at scale.
Germinating cover crops is difficult in the Northern part of San Joaquin County due to later harvest dates. Once the Fall weather pattern and shorter days start, establishing a cover crop becomes more challenging and weather dependent. Last year they broadcasted a winter cover crop and only about 10% survived. Seed drilling worked better, but was more time consuming to implement. Garlic, for example, they plant in December so there isn’t an opportunity to do an off-season cover crop. However, they can do a winter wheat cover in the off season before cucumbers and other crops. Building out a regenerative management system has a lot to do with the crop and context you are growing.
Nuss Farms also did a year trial with pasture raised poultry to help develop new coop technology that would rotate through their fields. “It took a lot of resources from our vegetable production and was a good learning experience, but not something that would be a great fit for our overall operation,” says Tyler. “As far as livestock integration goes, we see offseason grazing potentially making the most sense for us in the future. Farmers have limited resources to deploy certain strategies, so they have to be strategic in where they direct their time and energy.” This year, they are working with Advancing Eco Agriculture to focus on a nutrient management plan for tomatoes and cucumbers, moving towards biological solutions rather than chemical solutions to decrease nitrogen use, increase yield, and reduce pest and weed pressure.
Their customers are typically large processors, turning their crops into shelf stable food products for both retail and foodservice. While they continue to focus on these channels, Nuss Farms has been working on building relationships with CPG brands that are committed to regenerative agriculture and want to source directly from regenerative farmers. These smaller, regenerative supply chains are not easy to execute, but they believe food supply chains are going to begin to pivot to a more decentralized model.
Moving forward, Nuss Farms is building what they hope to be a model for other conventional, specialty-crop growers to follow. Scaling regenerative agriculture is going to require more conventional farms making the transition to focus on soil health and committing to innovation. The best way to follow their journey is to check out The Modern Acre podcast. If you are a regenerative-focused food brand, they’d love to hear from you to explore working together.