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#Fridaysonthefarm: Taking the High Ground and Farming with Nature

#Fridaysonthefarm: Taking the High Ground and Farming with Nature Web Header

Story by: Anita Brown, NRCS California; photos by NRCS and High Ground Organics Farm; posters by Douglas Gayeton, Lexicon of Sustainability. 

Each Friday, meet farmers, producers and landowners through our #Fridaysonthefarm stories. Visit local farms, ranches, forests and resource areas where NRCS and partners help people help the land.  CLICK HERE to view all #Fridaysonthefarmstories.

Perched on a hilltop sloping down to Harkin Slough, High Ground Organics Farm in Watsonville, California, has a unique ability to affect surrounding wildlife and water quality. This Friday, meet owners Jeanne Byrne and Stephen Pedersen who work hard to make those effects beneficial ones.

#Fridaysonthefarm: Taking the High Ground and Farming with Nature Web Map


A Natural Home for Wildlife

High Ground Organics rotates more than 30 crops — numerous species of leafy greens, other vegetables and strawberries — across 17 acres of their property to be sold at farmers markets and to members of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). 

The cropland sits atop a hill with four paddocks of native grassland downslope between the crops and the slough. The grassland is rotationally grazed by goats, as a management practice, to control nonnative species and improve opportunities for habitat.

Today there are many winged witnesses to Jeanne and Stephen’s success: white pelicans, owls, osprey and, recently, bald eagles patrol the slough below the farm.

“These are the first nesting bald eagles seen here in over 50 years,” Jeanne says.


How do they juggle this top-notch environmental stewardship with running a profitable farm? “Carefully,” Stephen laughs. 

“For us farming organically isn’t just about not using toxic chemicals. It’s an ethic — of working with the natural environment, not against it. Farming shouldn’t mean doing combat with nature.” 

From Gully to Habitat

Before they even purchased the farm, Jeanne and Stephen walked the property with NRCS and initiated plans to establish a vegetative buffer — called a filter strip — between the farm and the slough, to slow down and filter any runoff. 

“It was one of their first projects on the farm to ‘work with the natural environment,’ but far from their last,” says Rich Casale, the local NRCS District Conservationist.  Casale and NRCS support the projects through on-the-ground technical assistance and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)

#Fridaysonthefarm: Taking the High Ground and Farming with Nature Organic Poster

By Douglas Gayeton, Lexicon of Sustainability.  Download a larger version of the image.

That early project area concentrated on an eroded ditch that had carved a gully across the farm, threatening to carry valuable top soil to the slough. Instead, through a conservation practice called critical area planting, Casale recommended plant species well suited to the low-lying area that could fill in the eroded area and trap sediment while creating habitat for birds and wildlife.

Casale and the local Santa Cruz Resource Conservation District (RCD) have worked with Jeanne and Stephen since 1999. In that time, they have partnered on more than a dozen conservation projects.


Stephen says that working with NRCS and the RCD was particularly valuable in the farm’s early years. “The property needed a lot of work back then. The partnership helped us take on many projects we didn’t have the cash or expertise to do… the irrigation system, the hedgerow, the riparian buffer, and erosion control.”

Early Hedgerow Adopters

Today hedgerows are gaining increased popularity for their many benefits to farms, but High Ground Organics installed one of the early hedgerows in California.

Designed by Sam Earnshaw, with Community Alliance for Family Farms (CAFF) at the time, and funded by NRCS, the mature 15-year old strip of flowering bushes and perennials has provided pollination, natural insect control, erosion control, wildlife food and habitat and a buffer against wind for over a decade. 

“So many insects visit them,” Stephen says as he gestures to the variety of plants: ceanothus, elderberry, dogwood, coffee berry, coyote brush and more.


“We only irrigated the hedgerow for the first couple of years,” he says, “and it continues to provide pollination and pest control year after year.”


High Ground Organics Farm is also protected with two easements – one to enhance the slough’s water quality and habitat, and one that stipulates the land will be farmed organically. It’s a rare type of easement, but one that made it tenable for Stephen and Jeanne to purchase the farm in the area’s sky-high real estate environment.

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To learn more about organic farming, visit the NRCS organic website at, or USDA organics at

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