Stewardship is all in a Day's Work in California's Countryside

Published 2/1/08 by Jim Morris and Christine Souza

Craig McNamara with a classAt Craig and Julie McNamara's farm in Solano County, it's not uncommon to hear the pitter-patter of feet. These aren't little feet, mind you, but instead are the tromping of Nike, Converse and Adidas tennis shoes, worn by eager urban teenagers who are often getting their first experience of what life is like outside the city.

"Today's youth are incredibly bright, incredibly open to new ideas and incredibly challenged," McNamara said. "Author Richard Louv coined the term 'nature deficit disorder' and it is occurring across our nation. Young people and many adults are disconnected from nature and have no idea where their food comes from."

To try to rectify that, Craig McNamara, 57, has turned a 325-acre portion of his farm, Sierra Orchards, into the Center for Land-Based Learning (CLBL), where high school students play a cameo role of farmer and land steward.

The McNamaras' farm is an outdoor classroom where hundreds of students come each year to learn about sustainable farming practices. Like other farmers and ranchers across California, they are not only feeding the world but they are doing it in a way that helps this state remain productive and pristine.

Students who visit the Winters site are part of this ambitious educational effort, making compost and hopping on tractors to plant cover crops that help build up the soil at this organic operation. They also study soil health by taking samples in a trench 5 feet underground. And they learn integrated pest management--how good insects can thwart crop-destroying bugs.

"Our students are our seeds," McNamara said. "They will be making decisions that will affect our future. That's why this investment is so important."

The students' learning curve is not unlike McNamara's, whose unconventional path to the plow helped make him a crusader for environmental preservation.

McNamara's father, Robert, served as secretary of defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and cemented his place in history with his decisions about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. His mother, Margaret, started the Reading is Fundamental Program, which through bookmobiles and book giveaways has helped foster greater literacy in America.

"Both my mother and father have instilled in me the wonder of participation and giving back," McNamara said. "They are the models I grew up with. It was incumbent upon me to do something for our larger society. I live it every day and enjoy it every day."

That path, however, was at times a rocky one. Filled with ambitions and independence, McNamara shocked his parents by dropping out of Stanford University to pursue farming--a profession he had no experience with but felt compelled to undertake.

That wide-eyed enthusiasm is still evident in this passionate leader, who has learned valuable lessons since he began as an apprentice on a farm in Dixon in 1977 and then purchased his first farm three years later. He primarily grows organic walnuts.

"Life decisions are often neither black nor white," he said. "Many fall into the gray zone in between. It's more of, 'Which direction should we take our life?' To accomplish this, I often ask myself, 'How can I be a positive force for change?'"

McNamara achieves this goal by educating high school students and raising crops that improve the land they inhabit.

Every year, he and his crew hang 40,000 devices throughout his orchards, which have a natural scent that confuses and thwarts a major walnut pest, the codling moth, without using pesticides. He utilizes composted table scraps from San Francisco restaurants to build up the soil. He also has set aside a patch of highly productive land to capture water before it leaves his property, ensuring that no unwanted materials such as sediment will be emptied into what will eventually be drinking water supplies for millions of Californians.

In addition, McNamara has spent copious time and money to maintain native oak trees, encourage beneficial insects, make his land a paradise for birds and restore a crown jewel on his property--a long stretch of Putah Creek, which he hopes to one day open up to the public for their enjoyment and education.

Fortunately, McNamara is one of many stewards of California's countryside, which provides sustenance, shelter and beauty for consumers and critters alike.

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