A tour of Sonoma County farms gives students a glimpse at a possible food systems transformation.
May 10, 2022
By Justina Robinson, BFI communications assistant
Earlier this spring, on an early March morning, a group of 21 students, Berkeley Food Institute co-associate faculty director Tim Bowles, and a few members of the BFI staff boarded a charter bus for Sonoma County. Their destination: Singing Frogs Farm and EARTHseed Permaculture Center and Farm — two farms that would provide the students with an experiential learning opportunity and challenge their perspectives of what constitutes food production.
As the bus left the urban environs of the East Bay for the hilly, agrarian landscape around Sebastopol, Professor Bowles asked the students to visualize, according to their own experiences, what a farm looks like and who farmers are. Based on their answers, most of the students understood farming through an industrial lens: extensive monocultures, operated according to conventional farming practices. “On the way to the tour, I thought of large industrial farms that you typically see in the media, usually run by men,” said Kriti Sondhi, an MBA student at the Haas School of Business.
Singing Frogs Farm and EARTHseed Farm, however, represent a transformation in the hegemonic agri-food system, in more ways than one. “I was so pleasantly surprised to see two women leading the farms we visited,” said Sondhi.
At Singing Frogs Farm, the group was met by Elizabeth Kaiser, who has operated the farm with her partner Paul since 2007. After a stint as Peace Corps volunteers in The Gambia and earning advanced degrees in international development and public health, Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser started Singing Frogs Farm with a commitment to farming principles that support biodiversity and built up soil health. In a tour of the 8.8-acre property, students learned how Singing Frogs Farm has been a living experiment of soil management through no-till vegetable production, hedgerows, and other regenerative practices. Elizabeth explained that over the last decade, these practices have helped quadruple the total microbial life in the farm’s soils, increase native bird and bee populations, and reduce water usage per crop — all while being profitable enough to support the salaries of a small year-round crew.
“The Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol was the first farm that I have visited that utilizes no-till farming for commercial purposes,” said Maria Amter, a master of public health student focusing on nutrition. “It was eye-opening to see a group of farmers, who didn’t grow up as farmers, growing food similar to what you might encounter at a farmers market.”
But the visit at Singing Frogs Farm didn’t end with the tour. Students had the chance to get their hands dirty by weeding and flipping garden beds to help prepare the fields for planting. In the process, they heard the abundant bird and insect life that flourishes around this biodiverse farm; its name comes from the “singing frogs” that sometimes congregate around the farm’s pond.
Afterwards, the group enjoyed a delicious lunch prepared by Ryan Peterson, a UC Berkeley alum of the Masters of Development Practice program and BFI’s Farm Bill seminar. He is also a former line cook at Chez Panisse and experienced chef committed to ingredients sourced through regenerative farm practices. Ryan served up a vegan lunch of carrot and parsnip soup, citrus salad with greens provided by Singing Frogs, and toasted sourdough bread from Berkeley’s Acme Bread Company. Ryan accompanied the lunch by sharing his own experience of transitioning from a career in finance to educating the public on the tenets of regenerative agriculture through his delicious meals.
After lunch, the bus took students just a few minutes north to EARTHseed Farm, where they met founder and land steward Pandora Thomas. EARTHseed is a 14-acre solar-powered organic farm and orchard rooted in Afro-Indigenous permaculture principles. Pandora established EARTHseed, the only all Black owned and run farm in Sonoma County, in March 2021 — the latest project in her lifelong commitment to what she calls “earth stewardship” and centering the agricultural contributions of people of African ancestry. In addition to EARTHseed, Pandora has also co-founded the Black Permaculture Network and co-runs the Urban Permaculture Initiative.
EARTHseed’s orchard grows apples, pears, persimmons, plums, pluots, guavas, and mixed berries. The farm also hosts retreats for individuals and groups for “relationship-based ecological design,” demonstrating that land stewardship can serve as a healing experience for the land and the community of people and biodiversity the land supports.
For Genna Fudin, a senior graduating with a major in Environmental Sciences and a minor in Food Systems, the social impact of Pandora’s work at EARTHseed goes hand-in-hand with the ecological and agricultural. “Being able to learn from Pandora Thomas about Afro-Indigenous land stewardship principles and the importance of having safe and healing outdoor space for communities who have time and time again been harmed by settler colonial violence was a perspective that I hope UC Berkeley uplifts in their curriculum and teachings moving forward.”
Farm staffer Fernando Torres gave a humble explanation of how working at EARTHseed is different from working at a conventional farm. Expertly translated by BFI staffer Nathalie Muñoz, Torres explained his route to the US via Oaxaca, Mexico and why working at EARTHseed and slowly transforming the land back to an earth stewardship model has been so gratifying.
Both farms provide an alternative look into farming that students were able to witness and take part in. In a short survey sent to students after the tour, we asked them what aspects of the day were their biggest takeaways, whether personal or academic. Most of the students focused on the concept of hope for the transformations possible in farm spaces.
“The farms we visited deconstructed and reimagined what I thought was possible,” said Giselle Alvarez, a senior in Ethnic Studies and Education. “As someone who was born and raised in Santa Rosa, only 20 minutes away from those farms, I had no idea that this kind of work was possible.”
Thank you to Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser, Pandora Thomas, Chef Ryan Peterson, Professor Tim Bowles, and the rest of the farm crews at Singing Frogs Farm and EARTHseed Farm.
Read more about these farms and their principles and methods at their respective websites: