Meet the Burroughs Family Farms
Each year, farmers, ranchers, and forestland owners across the nation are recognized with the Leopold Conservation Award, named in honor of the renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, for their dedication to water quality, soil health, and wildlife habitat management on private, working land. The prestigious award is presented annually in California by Sand County Foundation, with support from American Farmland Trust, Sustainable Conservation, and California Farm Bureau Federation.
This year’s winner in California was the Burroughs Family Farms in Merced County. As the Sand County Foundation explains, “Ward and Rosie Burroughs and their children are co-owners of five diversified, sustainable farms in Merced County that produce organic almonds, beef, chicken and eggs, dairy, olives, and hay. Exceeding organic standards, the family continually refines and enhances their systems to reduce water use and improve soil fertility. This system prioritizes biodiversity and seeks to replenish groundwater aquifers, as well as enhance watershed and ecosystem health, while supporting their growing and diverse family enterprises.”
The Burroughs use cover crops extensively on the farms, as well as rotational grazing. For example, the chickens and sheep graze through the almond orchards during the spring until 120 days before harvest, which cuts the cover crops without mowing or pesticides. They make compost with purchased dairy manure, dried onions, and garlic skins to build soil health.
There are miles of hedgerows with lavenders, native grasses, butterfly bushes, and rosemary to serve as habitat for beneficial pollinators. Together with a variety of native plants and wildflowers, such as poppies and blue wild rye, the plants attract pollinators, birds, and wildlife. To save water, French drains direct any surplus rainwater into holding ponds until it can be used later for irrigation. Solar power generates the irrigation for the almond orchards and pastures.
Despite the farm’s efforts over the years, Rosie Burroughs admits the family almost did not apply for the award.
“My husband Ward is rather shy,” she admits. “But I convinced him the Leopold Conservation Award was a good platform for public education. We want to make the world a better place, and we believe that starts with taking care of the planet. We treat all life with respect, from soil microbes to bird species.”
Sharing their knowledge about regenerative agriculture is nothing new to the Burroughs. Burroughs Family Farms has had an ongoing educational exchange program with Brazilian and Japanese students for 55 years. In fact, three farms in Japan are named after the family farms. The Burroughs Family Farms have also offered online Zoom farm tours for different organizations and for students from schools and universities across the United States and internationally.
“Collaboration is so powerful. We thank all the organizations who came together to make this award happen. The awareness of the Leopold Conservation Award and your recognition of our farm have helped spread the message of regenerative agriculture far beyond California,” reports Rosie. “Recently, we did a Zoom call with two young Portuguese farmers about our farming practices. We believe very strongly in paying it forward. Other farmers helped us when we first started.”
Family Business from the Start
As young farmers, the Burroughs relied heavily on their growing family. When Ward and Rosie took ownership of the farm 45 years ago, they made a conscious effort to mentor and teach their children about farming and ranching. “We saw the region’s next generation of farmers being driven away, and we wanted to stop that trend with our own farm,” Ward recalls.
The family’s 4 kids and 13 grandchildren are now an integral part of the farm operations, according to Rosie.
“Our kids had the chance to see the miracles of life every day on the farm,” she explains. “They milked cows, grew up on horses, and drove tractors at a young age. They were fortunate.”
The actively farming family has tried to live life to the fullest, despite the long hours. “Once, Ward had to dive into a lagoon of manure and said, ‘I would never ask someone else to do that. It goes with the territory as a farmer. Besides, anybody who has been sprayed by a skunk knows that is a lot worse.’”
Some days are certainly better than others, admits Ward, who adds, “I am an animal person, who loves all the new dairy cow babies. It is like Christmas every day. In winter, when the rest of the world is dealing with the weather, the almond blossom season starts here. Then our grasses grow in for the cows, making the spring particularly pleasant.”
Rosie agrees farming has been a rewarding profession. “Personally, I have not met one person in farming, who doesn’t give his or her all. There is not a good farmer or a bad farmer. We should not continue this type of talk. It doesn’t contribute anything.”
So how can California encourage more farmers to adopt these types of regenerative agricultural practices? How can the largest food production state scale-up these growing practices, which reduce natural disasters, mitigate climatic change, and provide a resilient food supply for its citizens? The Burroughs family believes the state should focus on the positive aspects of these growing practices, as well as provide adequate technical support for the adoption of these practices.
“Life is lived in degrees,” adds Ward. “Success comes slowly. Farmers know in their hearts that regenerative agriculture is the right thing, but you should pay farmers to do this work. If they do this work, we all will see the impact.”
Burrough’s Family Farms Recommends:
Find out why farmers need more support for adopting effective regenerative agricultural practices.
Learn how AFT is providing economic and environmental case studies about regenerative agriculture to scale-up these practices nationwide.
See how AFT is supporting the next generation of farmers with its Farms for a New Generation program.