“He’s sort of a one-man university,” says Dru Rivers, co-founder of Full Belly Farm and board member of the Ecological Farming Association. She’s speaking of Carl Rosato of Woodleaf Farm, who was recently recognized with a Steward of Sustainable Agriculture Award, or “Sustie,” at the 32nd Annual EcoFarm Conference. “Our goal is to honor people who have made a lasting impact on sustainable ag, and it was Carl’s time.”
Each year, the EcoFarm board recognizes three outstanding individuals who have been nominated by EcoFarm’s community of organic farmers and activists. Since the awards began in 1988, recipients have included a veritable who’s who of the movement, with such pioneers as Will Allen, Alice Waters, Wes Jackson, and Vandana Shiva in the ranks. Ferry Plaza farmers Rick and Kristie Knoll of Knoll Farms, Warren Weber of Star Route Farms, Wendy Johnson and Peter Rudnick of Green Gulch Farm, and Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm have also been honored, as has CUESA’s founding executive director, Sibella Kraus.
“Carl’s been an inspiration for literally thousands of farmers through his farm and extracurricular activities for organizations,” says Rivers. “He does all these research projects, above and beyond farming. And he’s just a really amazing farmer—especially his orchard work. He’s been a mentor of ours [at Full Belly].”
Healthy Soil, Healthy Fruit
Like many organic farmers of his generation, Rosato started farming during the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s. As an orchard worker, he pruned trees and picked fruit, just earning enough money to subsist. He made ends meet by gardening at home and putting up his own food. During that time, he also experienced the health impact of farming with pesticides first-hand. He learned what he could about organic farming by visiting other farms, and eventually started his own grafting business. “As a farmer you really need a lot of tricks in your bag,” he says.
In 1980, he acquired the land that became Woodleaf Farm, 26 acres nestled in the Sierra foothills near Oroville. “I picked a piece of land that wouldn’t turn into a megafarm, and I wanted stay out of the Valley, even though I knew the soils would be better there,” he says. The farm now grows close to 200 varieties of organic fruit, including apples, pears, cherries, and peaches—the farm’s specialty. This year marks 30 years of being certified organic, and Rosato is proud to boast that 100 percent of the farm’s electrical needs are met by solar power.
Growing fruit in less-than-optimal soil and climate conditions has given Rosato many opportunities to put his organic farming knowledge to the test. He plants cover crops in his orchards and creates habitat for beneficial insects to keep spraying to a minimum. By mowing the perennial grasses and clovers and leaving the green waste, he adds at least four tons of compost per acre. True to the organic philosophy, Rosato doesn’t just grow food—he grows healthy, well-balanced, and lively soil. “When the organisms in the soil are happy, everything is able to do its best,” he says.
A Farmer’s Farmer
Rosato’s commitment to organic farming extends beyond Woodleaf through his work as a researcher, soil consultant, and teacher. In 1992, he was awarded a grant from the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) to study brown rot in peaches, which led to the development of an organic spray that proved to work as well as chemical fungicides. For more than 17 years, he has mentored other farmers, teaching at community colleges as well as on his farm. In 2003, he worked with California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) to help lead the Going Organic Project, offering mentoring and technical assistance to help conventional farmers in the Central Valley and North Coast transition to organic farming, while demonstrating how organic practices benefit water quality. He has also served on the boards of CCOF and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF).
Even as he grows and inspires new farmers, he remains humbly indebted to the sustainable ag community for his own farming education. “My mentors are all the farmers I ask questions of. Pretty much everyone has something to offer, so we’re all mentors to each other.”
With decades of farming wisdom under his belt, what does it mean to Rosato to be recognized as a Steward of Sustainable Agriculture? “Learning from the land is an important part of it for me,” he says. “But it’s also getting the word out that farming is important to keep the world vibrant. For me, that means teaching as well as farming. It means being interested in every direction.”
Currently, Rosato is looking to sell Woodleaf Farm, but he will continue to breed peaches, conduct research, and teach and consult farmers of all levels of experience. “Carl was at the first EcoFarm, and he’s one of the longest-time dedicated organic farmers I know,” said EcoFarm co-founder Amigo Bob Cantisano, who served on the nominating committee and presented the awards. “And he produces the best-tasting peaches I’ve ever eaten.”
This year, EcoFarm also bestowed Susties on the general manager of the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Paul Cultrera, and Cascadian Farm’s Jim and Harlyn Meyer. Dr. Ann López, founder of the Center for Farmworker Families, was honored with a Justie, which recognizes contributions to social justice in sustainable agriculture.
Carl Rosato can be found selling Woodleaf Farm’s famous fruit at the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market July through September.
Photos of Carl Rosato and Woodleaf Farm courtesy of Travis Williams/EcoFarm, Carl Rosato, and Barry Jan respectively.
CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs. Learn More »