A Second Generation Farmer Builds Healthy Soil Across California
Meet Paul Lum, a second-generation farmer who builds healthy soil around California.
When Paul Lum, AFT’s California agricultural specialist, first began farming with his father as a young boy, he never dreamed he would one day train farmers, landowners, and the public about California healthy soil practices throughout the state. Nor did he imagine he would grow up to record the economic and environmental benefits of these growing practices in case studies and farmer profiles, so other California farmers could see how these soil health practices help support a farm’s climate resilience and business viability.
It’s hard to overstate the technical strengths that Paul brings to AFT. For more than 30 years, he has owned a working farm near Vacaville. He has intimate knowledge of diverse crops, as well as a farm’s operational and financial issues. Paul holds a bachelor’s degree in plant science and agronomy from the University of California, Davis. Over the years, he has held leadership positions at the Solano County Farm Bureau, Solano Resource Conservation District, Solano Flood Control Advisory Committee, and was a technical specialist for Solano Irrigation District.
To get a better understanding of why Paul is so passionate about accelerating regenerative agricultural practices across California, I recently sat down with him to get the dirt on why healthy soil matters.
What led you into farming?
Paul: “I started riding around the farm with my dad in his truck when I was young. My dad was a very innovative and thoughtful farmer, and I liked the idea of working with him. Tomatoes were our main crop, which took a lot of care to grow during the summer. The planting and harvest seasons were busy but exciting times of the year. They were risky as well because fall rains can potentially ruin the crop. In high school I decided that I wanted to ‘follow in his footsteps’ and do the same type of work. I haven’t looked back since.”
Where’s your favorite place on the farm today, and why?
Paul: “I built a small farm pond at the corner of the ranch where I live. It’s ‘rough around the edges,’ but it’s my quiet place. I spend quite a bit of my spare time maintaining it and I have warm memories of planting native trees and shrubs there with my daughter.”
How did you start incorporating regenerative agricultural practices at your own farm?
Paul: “My Dad planted winter cover crops occasionally, which wasn’t a standard practice at the time, and he would say that in the spring the soil condition would be ‘like a garden.’ When I took over the farm I experimented with shallow tillage, which allowed for fewer tillage passes across the field. I discovered that crop yields were not adversely affected, and I observed the improved soil conditions first-hand on my own farm.”
What inspires you about working with farmers and partners on developing these soil health case studies and farmer profiles?
Paul: “I’m inspired by the passion and enthusiasm of farmers who have adopted regenerative farming methods and their willingness to share their experiences with others. I also appreciate that I learn as much from farmers as they do from me.”
As you’ve worked on these soil health reports, were you surprised by any findings that you learned?
Paul: “I was surprised that we have consistently found economic benefits from regenerative practice adoption. Our participating farmers have lowered their production costs significantly, especially through decreased synthetic fertilizer applications. I’m surprised the farmers applied trial and error techniques and found the most practical methods to ‘farm smarter’ for their operations.”
As a farmer, what would you like to convey to other California farmers about incorporating regenerative agriculture into their operations?
Paul: “The soil health benefits from regenerative practices are immediate and visible. By digging with a shovel, earthworms and soil insect activity are quickly apparent after practice adoption. Training farmers to understand longer term benefits that are less visible, such as microbial activity, nutrient cycling, and water-holding capacity are the next step.”
What excites you about what lies ahead?
Paul: “I’m excited about AFT’s expanded role in providing technical assistance to California farmers who are on the fence about adopting regenerative practices. I’m pleased to report high interest among farmers in assistance programs such as the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s EQIP, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s programs such as the Healthy Soils Program (HSP) and the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP).
I’m excited to personally provide technical assistance to farmers with AFT programs such as its Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Furthermore, it’s great to see farmers including my neighbors, who are adopting practices on their own.”
Learn more about AFT California’s Soil Health Practices Bottom Line program.
Apply for RCPP funding for various conservation practices before December.
Contact Paul at Plum@farmland.org to learn more about his work and participate in a future case study.