A Soil Health Legacy: Recapping the 2024 Burroughs Family Farms Regenerative Almond Field Day

An almond harvester in the Burroughs Family Farms orchards in Stanislaus County

A Soil Health Legacy

On February 22nd, Burroughs Family Farms hosted their 3rd annual Regenerative Almond Field Day. Growers, community members, and other agriculture professionals converged on their orchards for a day of discussions, demonstrations, and community building. The bluebird Central Valley winter day was the perfect setting for a field day, with rolling almond orchards in full bloom and rows of verdant cover crops framed by the snow-capped Sierra Nevada in the distance.

The Burroughs Family of Farms are among the most tenured and celebrated farms in the California conservation space. In fact, Rosie and Ward Burroughs had already been in business for 45 years before being awarded the 2020 California Leopold Conservation Award. This award, which Sustainable Conservation has the privilege of helping to administer each year, acknowledges their committed conservation bona fides. However, the Burroughs are not content to rest on their laurels, as they continue to push the envelope of conservation, regenerative agriculture, and soil health practices.

The Burroughs Family in 2020, after receiving the California Leopold Conservation Award. Photo by Paolo Vescia

Sustainable Conservation would like to thank our good friends in the Burroughs family for inviting us to share the work our programs do to scale groundwater recharge and further the implementation of cover crops and other soil health practices. Furthermore, events like these demonstrate the profound impact collective action and collaboration can have on building on the iterative and ever-advancing foundations of regenerative, resource-smart agriculture. Our cross-program team had a wonderful day of education, delicious food, and meeting new friends while catching up with familiar ones. 

At-Scale Cover Cropping

This winter marked the first season that cover crops were intentionally planted in every orchard row. Cover crops are non-income generating crops that protect and improve the soil between regular annual crop production or between perennial tree crops such as almond orchards. The benefits of cover crops include improved soil health, increased infiltration and water storage, decreased runoff and erosion, and nitrate retention — all factors that will only become more important as our climate changes.

One row of cultivated cover crops on the Burroughs almond orchards

The main event of the field day was a trio of demonstrations held in the Burroughs’ orchards. Co-led by the Ecdysis team and Benina Burroughs Montes, the Managing Partner at Burroughs Family Farms, the demos showcased measurements of cover crop biomass, water infiltration rates, insect and bird diversity, and soil characteristics, and how the Burroughs operation harvests, irrigates, and maintains their orchards.

Field demonstration by Ecdysis team of cover crop biomass density and water infiltration

The indoor portions of the day were emceed by Dr. Cindy Daley, Director and Co-founder of the CSU Chico Center for Regenerative Agriculture & Resilient Systems. First, Dr. Jonathan Lundgren presented insights from the Ecdysis 1000 Farms initiative — an effort to document key agronomic, ecological, and economic factors on 1000 farms in various stages of regenerative adoption. Other presentation highlights included UC Davis Professor Dr. Kosana Suvocarev’s research on water use in cover cropped almond orchards, which found that cover crop management in orchards can use equal or even less water than bareground orchards, and a grower panel where we heard from farmers on the leading edge of regenerative ag adoption.

Regenerative grower panel

“Informing our programmatic work with the anecdotal and empirical evidence of regenerative agriculture pioneers like the Burroughs is a pivotal connection to influence wider grower adoption and shape policy frameworks towards incentivizing sustainable agricultural practices like cover cropping, which have clear water and soil health benefits.” – Sarah Castle, Sustainable Conservation Senior Scientist

What’s Next at Sustainable Conservation?

Sustainable Conservation’s Solutions in our Soils team will release a paper co-written with a robust slate of researchers titled Cover Cropping in the SGMA Era. The report evaluates three main questions: 1) what are the impacts of cover crops on water cycles (both benefits and use), 2) how does SGMA management account for cover cropping and is it effective, and 3) how can we ensure that this practice remains available to growers where and when it makes sense?

Positive and effective at-scale cover crop implementation, like on the Burroughs’ orchards, can help validate our team’s recommendations, influence peer growers to adopt the practice, and sway policymaking to incentivize cover cropping. Stay tuned for the full report soon!