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Merced Farm Spotlight: The O'Crowley Family Farm

The O'Crowley Family on their Merced Farm

A team of five, the O’Crowley family, moved to Merced three years ago. The combination of respect for and a dream of farming developed through the accumulation of hard work, childhood experiences, and a wish for their children to grow up in a healthy environment and in the agriculture lifestyle they both grew up in and love.

Zack O’Crowley is a numbers guy. He earned an undergraduate degree in economics and mechanical engineering. Rather than sitting at a desk all day, he desired a tactile career and one at least associated with agriculture. Zach realized both his education and experiences were a great fit for the world of nut processing. Beginning with walnuts, he became very capable at processing and eventually moved over into almonds.

Montica grew up on a cattle ranch in Idaho that rooted her love for agriculture. She received her undergraduate degree in Fine Arts and found her favorite things to paint are landscapes… of farmlands. She particularly loves seeing the tangible side of farming; owning a piece of land and seeing improvements and observing the amusing happenings that exist between family, food, and the creatures on a farm. Montica has grown gardens and fruit trees at every rental they’ve lived in. Her dad used fish fertilizers and other natural means to increase health in his fields and ultimately in his animals. Montica has maintained this nature-health-priority into her continued efforts for the farm and family.

Since Zach and Montica got married, they have dreamed of owning their own land. They started saving in college, stayed out of debt, gained academic scholarships, and managed apartments with Zack doing maintenance on three apartment complexes. “We always have had our savings building up for this,” Montica mentions. That dream for a farm is now happening.

They have three children. A huge source of the drive for the family organic farm is the kids. They want the kids to learn about nature, the natural cycles of the Earth, and the animals that exist with humans and their reasons for being here. Ultimately, they want to pass down good principles and their nature gene to the three little ones. The family bought the farm already established in Almonds and started it into the organic process last year, citing health as a huge factor for their decision. They want to give their children a heritage of health, create a family-friendly space for a lifetime, and produce food that is healthful and life-giving.

The O’Crowley farm is now in the organic transition process, which takes at least three years. They’re incorporating a variety of regenerative soil building practices: cover cropping, rotational grazing, microbe restoration, and pollinator habitats. The trees are responding well to the shift in management and the soil seems to be exploding with new life and exciting root systems. The once bare ground is now growing vigorous healthy cover crops. Now, instead of just rows of trees, there are complete acres of plant life pulling carbon and nitrogen into their soil, cleaning the air and rebuilding their earth. In addition to more plants they are running sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys, geese and ducks in the orchard. A full cycle happens: the ground grows the vegetation, the livestock graze it and give nutrients to the soil in the form of manure, and the grass grows giving nutrients to the livestock. The farm animals cycle the nutrients while feeding the soil. Eventually they are planning to sell local grass-fed meat and eggs and organic almonds from the farm. It’s still an almond orchard and still the same number of acres, but it’s just doing more — there is more life and will continue to sustain more life.

Chickens roaming on the O'Crowley's Orchard Farm

Cover crops on the orchard floor

Katahdin sheep grazing on the orchard cover crops

When they decided to run sheep in the orchard, they did a lot of research to find the perfect fit. They decided on small Katahdin sheep. They sought out genetics that could solve some orchard-livestock problems, which required traveling all the way to Missouri and Idaho to source the small Katahdin sheep. These sheep don’t browse into the trees too high and are genetically selected on their parasite resistance, eliminating a need for chemical treatment. The other essential traits they selected for were sheep that grow well in heat and on grass without the need for grain or supplemental feed; this allows them to raise purely grass-fed sheep that can thrive in an organic system. Beyond genetics, they started looking at animals as how much manure they make; they laugh about being excited over “manure benefits”.

The kids also have a bunch of creative time on the farm; they have egg projects, help in the orchard, are fascinated by bugs, love learning about strengths and weaknesses of different animal species, and pour over the poultry hatchery magazines. They give and receive beneficial insect packs for birthdays and saved up to give their dad beneficial nematodes for his.

Pollination is huge for almond farming. Being a small farm and not being able to reach some of the helpful economy scales that larger farms have, anything they can do to offset costs are a big benefit.

A monarch butterfly found on an almond tree.

Bees are a big expense as well as a natural fit, so they started their own bee yard. They are planting flowers for the bees and hedgerows for other pollinators and beneficial insects. By creating a pollinator haven, they not only increase the health and strength of their own bees, but are supporting the native population of pollinators and beneficial insects. The pretty pollinators have been a happy, welcoming experiencing for the whole family. The kids love the bugs and it’s been fun for everyone to have friendly visitors such as ladybugs, lacewings and butterflies. Needing to plant flowers is a constant source of delight for Montica and the whole crew.

They have overall seen major improvements. By incorporating cover crops for the orchard, they’ve seen more effective water infiltration rates and nutrient cycling. By also implementing hedgerows, they’ve welcomed many beneficial insects. The relationship to weeds has also been an interesting experience for them. The first plants to come back after soil disturbance are early-succession plants which tend to be the nasty weeds – the grasses you want eventually come as later-succession plants. The earth wants to be covered and knows the soil’s needs, which is why certain plant species grow in specific soil conditions. The O’Crowleys believe, “Weeds can tell us lots of things about the soil. The roots have an infrastructure system via biology, so the more biodiverse the varieties, the more that nutrients can pass through soils.” The O’Crowley’s accept weeds, and use them as their binoculars into the nutrient party that exists underground. Currently, they’re seeing more grass develop as they patiently wait for the early-succession weed storm to pass through.

They’re a year into the organic farming process. Montica notes there is so much they don’t know, but that it’s all a part of the initial process. They are loving it and find delight in the successes and failures, and learning from it all. It’s a been rigorous schedule with so much to do and so much they want to do. Zack still maintains and loves his full time job in Almond processing and it keeps ends meeting where the expenses of doing things organic are high —the farm is coming together though. The organic matter has risen in the soil and the trees are growing. Life, birds, and butterflies are all exploding. Living on the farm comes with its obstacles, but it rewards you with a spiritual experience that surrounds you with health and life. Starting with a struggling orchard, the O’Crowley’s are already finding benefits from healing the soil. The O’Crowley’s goal is improved soil health and regeneration and thus more nutritionally-dense products, a healthier environment and family, and a livelihood that they love. Montica describes it as letting the Earth do its work while they act as assistants that manage the farm productively; some days that assistant job is tough but so worth it.

Picture Credits: The O'Crowley Family.


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