A Conversation with Chris Hay of Say Hay Farms

This interview originally appeared in Certified Organic magazine, fall 2012, by Matt Boitano, CCOF Intern.

Most people think of mobile homes as a place to live, but not Chris Hay. He uses them for pest management on his eight-acre farm in Woodland, California, where he harvests a variety of fruits, vegetables, and chickens.

For the last two years, Chris has been running what he calls “an integrated farm,” in which each aspect of the land and its inhabitants is cultivated for multiple uses to maximize conservation and functionality. The mobile homes, for instance, carry around his hens, which he uses to feed on insects in his fields. This symbiotic relationship enriches the hens’ diet while providing excellent pest management for the crops.

Chris has much to say about his unique farming practices: “I integrate animal and vegetable culture on the same land, rotating them in a mutually beneficial manner.”

“Conventional farming is extremely heavy on inputs and incorporates a very top down approach. What I’m trying to do is an old-school style of truck farming, by bringing animals and vegetables together and building flavor from the ground up.”

In addition to maximizing the utility of his hens, Chris applies the same careful stewardship to his land and water use. In 2011, he entered into a three year Environmental Qualities Incentive Program (EQIP) with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, calling on their assistance for irrigation management, hedgerow installation, and mulching work.

“The application process was pretty straightforward,” he notes. “Since it is a government program, there is a fair amount of rigidity in the practices they are able to support, but the local reps were very helpful in explaining and navigating the application for funding of these programs.”

Due to technical and financial assistance from EQIP, Chris installed irrometers to measure soil moisture at different depths, thereby helping him to monitor irrigation and conserve significant amounts of water. “In my case, the irrometers had the biggest impact on crop yield and quality, which in turn affect profitability.”

“They enabled me to gain a better picture of our soil profile and make more appropriately timed irrigations in terms of frequency and volume.” Regarding his experience with EQIP, he declares that “their irrigation management was really helpful!”

Innovation at Say Hay Farms extends beyond chicken mobile homes and careful water monitoring. For last year’s season, Chris planted a sunflower hedgerow that shades the adjacent bell pepper crop, attracts birds to feed on pests in the field, and produces copious seeds that add to the hens’ nutritious diet. Together with NRCS, Chris has created a plan to rotate hedgerows and increase biodiversity on his farm. “The technical assistance with the hedgerow was quite extensive. They provided a detailed plan of which species in what intervals I should use. They also helped me source an affordable, local vendor.”

Chris also participates in the National Organic Certification Cost Share program, receiving a full reimbursement. The Cost Share program is designed for small operations like Say Hay Farms, where it can provide the most benefit to organic farmers burdened by certification costs. Chris describes the application process as “pretty easy,” and notes that “it’s a very valuable service.”

As a farmer, Chris is clearly unique in many respects. He’s young, having graduated college six years ago with a B.A. in philosophy from UC Berkeley. Such a phenomenon contradicts the growing national trend of young people deciding not to become farmers. On April 4, the Huffington Post published an article entitled “Average U.S. Farmer’s Age Rising, Young People Needed in Agriculture,” in which the author quotes USDA Secretary Kathleen Merrigan’s interpretation of the situation: “There is a challenge here, a challenge that has a corresponding opportunity.”

Chris seems to be of the same mind. The daily grit of farming does not faze him in the least: “We’ve had some challenges so far, but we’re doing well and I enjoy the challenge of it.”

Say Hay Farms is currently in the process of expanding from eight acres to 20, the result of Chris’ efforts paying off. In his words, “We are increasing production to meet the demand for our type of farming and our products. … Given that we produce 50 different varieties of vegetables and melons, grains, oranges, eggs, and soon, meat, the additional ground is a welcome relief.”

However, in this expansion, Chris does not see any significant changes in his farming practices. He remains committed to the quality of his water, his land, and his animals. Rather than simply surviving from harvest to harvest, he seeks to improve his work with each new obstacle, remaining committed to conservation principles: “If I reach my goals, our land, vegetables, and animals are in better health than the previous year with each passing season.”

“Conservation is the baseline. We as farmers are charged with stewarding resources and producing from them while not diminishing the capacity of future generations to do the same.”

Visit sayhayfarms.blogspot.com to learn more about Say Hay Farms and their CSA.