After many years of effort, Gary Romano’s Sierra Valley Farms is protected forever. In September 2019,  FRLT with support from its partners in the Northern Sierra Partnership, including The Nature Conservancy, purchased a conservation easement to protect this organic farm.

Organic vegetable crop rows at Sierra Valley Farms

The 65-acre Sierra Valley Farms is located near the town of Beckwourth at the northwest corner of Sierra Valley and is surrounded by FRLT’s Sierra Valley Preserve. The property includes a certified organic farm, rich wetlands, and upland sagebrush that provide habitat for a diverse range of species.  In warmer months, the farm is open to the public for a weekly farmers’ market and other special events. 

3 Generations Working the Land: ranching to organic farming

The current landowner, Gary Romano, is the 3rd generation of his family to work this land. Originally setup as a ranch by his grandfather in 1938, Gary acquired the property in 1989 and started a native plant nursery. Growing things wasn’t new for Gary, who grew up on his father’s 20-acre flower farm in the Bay Area. Around 1995, Gary began learning more about organic farming and decided to start experimenting with growing vegetables: 

Sierra Valley Farms owner Gary Romano with son and father
“I saw that organic farming was basically just growing things the way my parents and grandparents did. You know, we were a family of old-school Italians. We were cheap and didn’t want to buy fertilizer or pesticides, so we primarily used manure anyway.

I realized that the old corrals on the property had 50 years of composted animal manure in them and that there was a lot of organic matter available to me. I thought, I know how to grow flowers, why not try vegetables too?”

By 1998, Gary was hooked and started putting his full energy into the farming operation. The farm was certified organic in 2000 and remains one of the only certified organic farms in the region. Today the farm is a model for high elevation sustainable agriculture, producing a range of cool season crops like lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, and beets. Gary also manages four greenhouses on the farm where he grows asparagus, greens, and herbs all year round. 

Neighbors in Conservation: protecting water and wetlands

The property is surrounded by FRLT’s Sierra Valley Preserve and sits just 1,300 feet from the point where the wetland waters of the valley gather to form the Middle Fork of the Feather River, a nationally designated wild and scenic river. The upland area of the property, which contains the farm and homestead, serves as a buffer and helps protect water quality. Water is an important resource on the farm and most food is produced using water-efficient drip irrigation. 

aerial view of Sierra Valley Farms

The land trust had been discussing conservation of the farm with Gary for many years and it is thanks to his sincere commitment and patience, and the collaborative effort of the Northern Sierra Partnership that we were finally successful. 

"With the Sierra Valley Preserve next door and our agritourism events, it creates a nice space for education about organic farming, open space, and the history of ranching in the valley. Knowing that this north corner of the valley, with the water and river, has been preserved for future generations is something I’m pretty proud of. It’s a great feeling." 

With a neighbor in the Sierra Valley Preserve, the properties together form a contiguous protected area offering extensive wetland habitat for a great diversity of nesting and migratory birds including White-faced Ibis and Yellow-headed Blackbirds (a CA Species of Special Concern). The upland areas of sagebrush and dune habitat support spring wildflowers, native bunchgrasses, and species like pronghorn, American badger, Western Meadowlark, Sage Thrasher, coyote, and deer. No pesticides are used on the farm, making it an important protector of pollinators like Monarch butterflies and Painted Ladies, and their habitat too. 

Stewardship of Sierra Valley Farms: land and livelihoods

The farm remains in private ownership and as the conservation easement holder, FRLT meets with the landowner annually to review management plans and evaluate any potential impacts on conservation values. FRLT’s team also visits the property each year to ensure that the terms of the easement are being upheld. 

Setting the tables for dinner in the barn at Sierra Valley Farms
Gary's comments,

"I’m happy the land trust is working with farmers and ranchers who are already taking good care of their land. We’ve been doing it for years, and do it well, so these easements are a great way to promote local livelihoods while maintaining natural resources. That is a good thing.”

Visiting Sierra Valley Farms

Sierra Valley Farms is one of a few privately-owned properties conserved by FRLT that is open to the public on certain occasions. With its bright green fields and historic buildings, the farm provides an idyllic setting for a seasonal on-farm farmers’ market, summertime barn dinners, and other fun events. Check out the Sierra Valley Farms website to learn more about events on the farm. The property is located right next to the FRLT-owned Sierra Valley Preserve, which is open to the public for year-round recreation.

Photos 1, 2, 4 courtesy of Sierra Valley Farms. Photo 3 by Kristi Jamason

Friday, April 10, 2020