Way out past Denair, a family farms in a way that could help save the planet

Seventeen years after it started to go organic, Burroughs Family Farms thrives in the foothills east of Denair.

The 2,600-acre spread produces almonds, beef, milk, chickens, eggs and olive oil without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Rosie and Ward Burroughs and their children have emerged as leaders in the movement.

The way they farm could do even greater good – helping to save the Earth from climate change. The family has curtailed the carbon emissions, from tractors and other sources, that have contributed to a general rise in global temperatures. And they have other practices that capture carbon in the soil and plant tissue.

“Everything is about regeneration, rebuilding and resilience,” Rosie Burroughs said during a tour late last month for The Modesto Bee.

It visited because the farm is one of three finalists for the statewide Leopold Conservation Award for 2019. It is named for the late Aldo Leopold, an early advocate for sustainability.

Way out Monte Vista

The Burroughs spread straddles Monte Vista Avenue about 12 miles east of Denair. It employs 26 people year-round.

The family irrigates its crops and pasture with well pumps powered by solar panels, instead of fossil fuel.

Federal organic rules require that cattle get at least 30 percent of their sustenance on pastures, rather than indoor feed troughs. The Burroughs animals get about 80 percent. And their manure supplies much of the fertilizer for the pasture and orchards. Conventional farms bring in nutrients made from natural gas and other non-farm sources.

The pasture also supports the chickens that the family raises for eggs and meat. The Burroughs birds get some corn-based feed, but they are free to nibble on sections of pasture that had recently been grazed by cattle.

“The chickens will go through all the cowpies and they’ll find all the worm larvae and the fly larvae,” Ward Burroughs told the Bee reporter amid the clucks of dozens of hens.

They lay their eggs in trailers that were converted from use in cotton harvesting elsewhere. The trailers are moved from spot to spot to allow the grazed ground to recover.

Conventional poultry farms look nothing like this. They keep the birds indoors and feed them corn and soy from the Midwest.

The fertility in the Burroughs orchards has several sources: Almond branches are ground up after pruning and decompose into the soil. The family spreads compost that includes onion and garlic skins from a processor in the area. They let cattle graze among the trees.

The orchards have diverse cover crops and hedgerows to capture yet more carbon. Their flowers attract the good bugs that prey on the pests, so no spraying is needed.

A family venture

The business dates to a dairy farm started in 1894 by Benjamin Burroughs. Today, it is run by the fourth and fifth generations.

Three of Ward and Rosie’s Burroughs children and their spouses help manage different parts of the operation. Son Zeb and his wife Meridith handle a dairy called California Cloverleaf Farms. Daughter Christina and husband Brian Bylsma run Full Circle Dairy. Daughter Benina and husband Heriberto Montes are involved with the almonds and chickens.

And then there are 13 grandchildren. Some of them were on hand when the Bee dropped by the Montes home, helping plant chard seedlings in the garden.

The Burroughs website has several products that can be ordered online, as well as a list of retailers carrying the goods. They include a gouda-type cheese, almond butter, olive oil and more.

The Leopold award carries a $10,000 prize. It is named for Aldo Leopold, who helped inspire the conservation movement with his 1949 book, “A Sand County Almanac.”

The winner will be announced at the December annual meeting of the California Farm Bureau Federation in Monterey. It sponsors the award along with the Sand County Foundation and Sustainable Conservation.

The other finalists are Philip Verwey Farms, a dairy producer in Kings County, and Rominger Brothers Farm, a Yolo County grower of fruits, vegetable and grains.

Sustainable Conservation is headquartered in San Francisco and has a branch office in Modesto. Its executive director, Ashley Boren, said the Burroughs family shows that organic farming need not be on a small scale.

“They have this commitment to improvement in the many years they have been farming,” she said.

The nomination came from Renata Brillinger, executive director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network. She noted that several researchers have used the Burroughs place to test sound ways of producing food.

Rosie Burroughs made one key point for the visitors from the Bee: A single teaspoon of good farm soil has more microbes than the Earth has people.

“Healthy soil equals healthy plants,” she said. “Healthy plants equal health for animals and people. And if we’re having healthy soils and we’re farming in a regenerative way, then we have a healthy planet.”

John Holland covers breaking news and has been with The Modesto Bee since 2000. He has covered agriculture for the Bee and at newspapers in Sonora and Visalia. He was born and raised in San Francisco and has a journalism degree from UC Berkeley.