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Steven Lee | Quaker Oaks Farm

Farmer Steven Lee leads a group of 25 gardeners and policy advocates up a narrow path on the Quaker Oaks Farm in Visalia. As acorns crunch underfoot, Lee points out many areas of interest – the Mother’s Garden to nurture native plants, a newly planted hedgerow, the original pines from a Christmas tree farm founded in 1984 by the late Bill and Beth Lovett.

“The Lovetts used to have a favorite saying,” whispers attendee Joanne Dudley, a member of the Quaker Oaks Farm board. “It was, ‘We don’t own the land. The land owns us.’”

Embracing Diversity

On this late November day, the land took center stage for a daylong workshop on “Farmscaping to Build Biodiversity and Reduce Pesticide Use.”

The topic drew a diverse group, including: Trent David Ebaugh from Food Commons Fresno; Darlene Franco with her husband, daughter, brother and colleagues from the Fresno American Indian Health Project; Lety Lopez and a delegation from the Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety in Tulare County; Jesus ‘Chucho’ Mendoza Pineda, Fresno organizer for Californians for Pesticide Reform; Daniel O’Connell, executive director of the Central Valley Partnership; Byanka Santoyo of the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment in Kern County; and Ivanka Saunders, board president of the Freedom School Fresno.

“This is what Quaker Oaks Farm is for,” Lee observed. “We’re about diversity. Just look around this room and what do you see? Diversity.”

That’s not by chance. The workshop was co-sponsored by the Community Alliance for Agroecology (CAFA), which works with small farmers across the San Joaquin Valley to promote ecological balance, public health, and economic and environmental justice.

“When you’re a small-scale, minority farmer who wants to farm pesticide-free, it’s particularly important to build a network to learn and share best practices,” said Kassandra Hishida, CAFA coordinator. “One way we can help these farmers and promote sustainable agriculture is to partner with Quaker Oaks Farm to offer these hands-on learning sessions.”

Seeking Sustainability

The towering oaks on the property virtually have their roots in diversity. For generations the Wukchumi tribe lived in the area that borders the Kawaeh Oaks Preserve near the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Then in 1978, Bill and Beth Lovett bought these 25 acres east of Visalia – about a third grassland suitable for farming, with the remainder of the property considered wetlands and riparian oak woodland. They built a home, raised their children and worked as part-time farmers.

In 2007, the Lovetts asked Visalia Friends Meeting to take over management of the land. The farm was rebranded as Quaker Oaks and established as a non-religious organization dedicated to peace, justice and environmental sustainability. In 2015, the land was officially transferred to the local Quakers. Bill Lovett died in July 2018 at age 95; his wife, Beth, died a month later.

Their legacy still includes a working farm, managed by Lee, his wife Mary and their two sons. Lee holds down two jobs – managing the farm and working as a plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service.

“It’s not the Steve Lee show,” he insisted. “It’s the board show, for the Quaker Oaks Farm board and nonprofit. Part of being the facilitator is you take the ideas and the strategies and the goals and try to manifest them into the physical world.”

Planning the Farmscape

During the workshop and farm tour, Lee talked about his vision for “biological evenness” as he shared best practices for farmscaping, or the strategic landscaping of a farm.

A common farmscaping tool is to plant hedgerows – usually forming a barrier along field edges, roadways and fences – to attract beneficial insects, birds and animals. Increasing the diversity of these natural predators can, in turn, decrease the need for pesticides.

“Where we start is a land ethic that tells us the land is a living organism. To that end, we try to increase diversity at all levels,” Lee said. “When we talk about increasing diversity, we talk about increasing the evenness of species over time and space. Farmscaping allows us to do that.”

Getting Hands-On with Hedgerows

As the group gathered around him, Lee offered a step-by-step demonstration of hedgerow planting.

First, he fashioned a circular “basket” out of chicken wire – open at the top, with the bottom ends rolled up.

Next, he shook a deer grass plant out of its plastic container, wrapped the roots in a layer of newspaper, and set it into the wire basket.

Finally, he placed the plant-basket into a freshly dug hole and filled in with dirt.

As Lee explained to the group, the chicken wire helps prevent moles and other pests from eating the roots of the new plant, giving it a chance to establish itself in the defined hedgerow beside his vegetable field. The deer grass is a nod to the Wukchumni tribe, who use the plant for basketry.

Avoiding the ‘Nuclear Option’

“It doesn’t always have to be native plants. That’s just how we do it,” Lee said. “We want to draw in beneficial species because nothing’s really a pest until it rises over a certain threshold. Nature has a way of taking care of that balance. What we’re trying to do is re-establish nature’s balance without using what I call the nuclear option of chemical pesticides. Using pesticides means you’re not only killing pests but you’re killing other insects and invertebrates. We’re trying to increase competition in the landscape.”

Lee’s idea of “evenness” is just another way to explain the term “agroecology,” according to CAFA’s coordinator.

“A lot of people have trouble with the term ‘agroecology’ but Steven has found a way to define it and teach it in terms we can all understand,” Hishida said. “It’s all about giving nature the best chance to grow in harmony. It’s exciting to see so many aspiring farmers and policy advocates who are seeking nature’s balance.”

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