Originally published in Nevada County Grown's 2019 Food & Farm Guide
The sunshine has just started to touch the upper field at eight o’clock in the morning. Dew gathers on leaf tips as the plants wake up from their chilly slumber. It’s late October, but you would never know it from the abundance at First Rain Farm. Row after row of carrots, kale, chard, collards, turnips, radishes, and cilantro are bursting with energy, displaying every hue of green imaginable. Today is a harvest day and you can feel the electricity in the air.
It’s a semiweekly event: One harvest on Tuesdays for local restaurants and Briarpatch Food Co-op, and another on Fridays to get ready for the Farmers Market in Downtown Nevada City. Today happens to be Friday and the field hands are on the scene, grabbing large empty totes. Before long there are four workers in the field skillfully cutting, bunching, and banding – only stopping to deliver the punchline of an occasional joke, breathe warm air on hands chilled by the morning dew, or haul a full tote to the washing station. Farming is hard work, no doubt, but this is not a dreary scene. Everyone in attendance appears to be blissfully immersed in the task at hand, deeply connected to the earth and thankful for the autumn sun as it slowly rises higher each passing moment. This is Nevada County farming at its finest.
Tim Van Wagner, the owner of First Rain, has finished making his morning rounds and joins the group to check on the progress of the harvest. Tall, slender, and bearded with an old baseball cap shielding his eyes, Tim’s silhouette is striking against the wooded backdrop. At 34, he is one of the youngest farm owners in the county and a valuable member of the next generation of farmers that will shape the future of agriculture in the area.
Born and raised in the hills of Nevada County, Tim developed a deep love for its natural environment and highly supportive community at an early age. This connection to the earth led him to study “Environment, Society, and Design” at Pitzer College, where he dove head first into the world of sustainable farming - attending workshops, organizing community farms, and reading every book on the subject he could get his hands on. Asked about this chosen path, Tim replies, “I just found that agriculture and food kind of brought everything together like ecological, social, economic, and community issues. It felt like we were just learning about all the problems in the world, and seemingly not a lot of solution-oriented approaches that were having a huge effect.”
Armed with new knowledge and perspective, Tim re-turned to his hometown in 2007 completely on fire about agriculture and the local food system. He soon began a farming internship with Leo Chapman at Bluebird Farms (and current owner of Chapman Family Farm), who would become a lifelong friend and co-creator of multiple community building efforts. Tim and Leo went on to co-found Living Lands Agrarian Network, a successful incubator for hungry, young farmers that eventually joined with Live Healthy Nevada County and became Sierra Harvest, a local non-profit powerhouse that focuses on food and farm education. Around this same time, Tim and Leo (along with other local visionaries) worked together to start the bustling, vibrant Saturday morning Farmers Market in Downtown Nevada City.
A NEW, AGE-OLD APPROACH TO FARMING
Fast forward to today, Tim is now in the field grabbing and cutting bunches of cilantro, performing a sort of harvesting yoga pose only a farmer with years of practice could accomplish with grace. Each cut releases a fragrant explosion of herbal, bright, citrusy complexity while Tim describes his affinity for this lifestyle. “I’ve always been a hands-on person and for me it was just a natural fit to be outside working with my hands, working with people in that environment and just seeing how people responded to being out there in it.”
This down to earth philosophy is a stark contrast to the modern industrial megafarms Americans have known since the mid-20th century. The thousand-acre mono-crops of corn, soybeans, and wheat using heavy machinery, genetically modified seed, synthetic fertilizers, and chemical pesticides are so commonplace that these practices are now considered “conventional.” Once touted as a technological victory and boon to agriculture, the drawbacks of factory farms are becoming more widely recognized. These yield-based crop management systems are designed to achieve one goal: maximize profit, often by dominating nature to the detriment of land health and quality of produce. When farmers work against natural systems, they often create problems as quickly as they solve them. It is the agricultural equivalent of yelling in a conversation. Isn’t there a better way?
If industrial farming can be likened to yelling, this would be the equivalent of listening. It is the manifestation of the belief that farms are not separate and disconnected from nature, but are living, breathing parts of it.
Enter First Rain Farm, a shining example of regenerative organic farming. Instead of thousands of acres of mono-culture, Tim plants about an acre and a half of as many as 40 different crops throughout the season. He utilizes a crop rotation schedule to reduce nutrient depletion of soils and the accumulation of pest pressure. At this scale, harvesting is done manually, or with the occasional assistance of a tractor implement, and the majority of produce is sold within ten miles of the farm. A large solar panel flanks the field, providing 70% of the farm’s energy needs and further reducing its carbon footprint. Because of its surrounding north-facing ridges and proximity to Brush Creek, the land has a cold micro-climate. Rather than fighting this characteristic, First Rain has decided not to grow most summer crops and specializes in mostly cool-weather crops such as bunched greens, carrots, beets, potatoes, and onions. If industrial farming can be likened to yelling, this would be the equivalent of listening. It is the manifestation of the belief that farms are not separate and disconnected from nature, but are living, breathing parts of it.
When Tim bought First Rain Farm (then called Steber Ranch), it had been fallow for years and overgrown with dense blackberry brambles. Coming onto the land with a goat herd and knowledge of managing it was invaluable for Tim to clear the brush and prepare the land for planting and other uses. “I always felt like goats were a really good animal for this land,” he recalls. “We’re in the hills so you have to take care of your land especially well or else you’re going to have eroding soils and goats tend to have a lighter impact than cows, although in the end it all comes down to management.”
“There’s just so many ways that the herd gives back to us. I think the main thing that sets us apart from a lot of other farms is having the animal component integrated into our production system. The goats are really the engine of the farm.”
Now that the farm is established, the herd is actively rotated throughout the land in order to gain access to a variety of forage plants and maintain a thriving habitat for native species. The Nubian breed of goats was chosen for its sweet milk and high butterfat content, a main selling point for First Rain’s ninety herd-share members. Each week during the milking season, typically April through October, members are rewarded with a quart or more of this delicious milk as well as the satisfaction of supporting a local farm that raises its animals with attention to how the land is being impacted and maintaining the best health of the animals.
The contributions of the herd don’t stop there. Nutrient-rich compost is a vital component of any thriving organic farm, especially one that incorporates no-till practices. “I’ve always asked myself, what does a sustainable farm look like? For me, it always comes back to incorporating animals into the system. Animals play a crucial role in harvesting fertility from the land, if managed well, and concentrate that fertility in the form of manure, which can then be turned into a rich compost for the fields.” Having a bountiful compost source onsite has allowed First Rain to fully transition to organic no-till, a philosophy that honors the importance of nurturing a living soil ecosystem to grow healthy, resilient plants and soil. Tim was quick to express his gratitude for the goats. “There’s just so many ways that the herd gives back to us. I think the main thing that sets us apart from a lot of other farms is having the animal component integrated into our production system. The goats are really the engine of the farm.”
SMALL FARM, BIG VISION
It’s getting close to lunchtime and the last harvest bins are filled, labeled, and moved to the cooler, ready for load-ing and transport to the market early tomorrow morning. For years, First Rain has established itself in farmers mar-kets, restaurants, and grocery stores, but Tim hopes to con-tinue to expand into agritourism and on-farm experiences. “We want to bring the community here more…even more than we already are.” In 2019, nearly an acre of blueberries and half an acre of raspberries are being planted with the plan of developing a berry U-pick. Another exciting addition to the farm has been Tim’s fiancée, Kat McClintock. Passionate about herbalism, Kat initially found herself at First Rain Farm to harvest nettles for HAALO (now Remedy Garden), a local apothecary where she used to work. After visiting, she was inspired to work-trade at the farm in the summer of 2016 and became a vital member of the team. Kat brings her own goat management experience to the table and plans on making that her primary focus, along with helping in the field, working farmers markets, and strengthening the marketing and online presence of the business. With so many projects in the works, there’s a lot to look forward to at First Rain and anyone that finds themselves on this farm will certainly find it hard to leave its rolling hills, enticing flavors, diverse life, and small-town charm. Buyers can also be confident that purchasing a product here is a vote for ethical practices that put people and the environment first. Tim consistently proves that being a mindful steward of the land and cultivating a thriving community are top priorities for the farm. “I think we can feed our communities with small, efficient and diverse farms and I think we can produce a lot more than just calories,” he adds with determination in his voice. “I think we can foster peoples’ connection to the land spiritually and emotionally and that’s what will feed community and sense of place.” So come for a visit with a hungry belly and a hungry soul. First Rain Farm is bound to feed them both.