Environment Food

Orella Ranch and Sustainable Farming in the 21st Century

Written by Zak Weinberg

Guner Tautrim, 37, sits casually in a wood adorned office in front of a microscope used to analyze compost for Orella Ranch, a sixth-generation farm along the Gaviota coast. Like the office, most the wood furniture at the ranch has a hint of Tautrim’s craftsmanship, from the tool shed near the market garden to the weather infinity deck that trails off the front of the property.

But Tautrim wasn’t always a wood-working farmer – a detail made clear by the oceanic trek he took after graduating from University of California Santa Barbara in 1997. Tautrim sailed around the Pacific for two-and-a-half years after college, with nothing but unchecked gallantry and a vision to protect coastal environments from westernization and development.

“I didn’t want these places being transformed into Guams or Hawaiis,” said Tautrim.

But after sailing to New Guinea, Australia and the small island of Tuvalu, he returned to the Santa Barbara coast and realized an eco-Odysseus sojourn on the Pacific wasn’t the best way to change the world.

“Hell, it was happening here too,” said Tautrim.

Orella is a physical extension of Tautrim’s homecoming epiphany from 1997 and through community enrichment and sustainable farming, Tautrim keeps alive the dream born on the salty deck of his 55-foot wooden sloop.

But Tautrim’s current journey at Orella is not easy, and at times he might feel more like “The Old Man and the Sea’s Santiago, than a brazen neo-Odysseus.

Tautrim’s most basic obstacle is defining sustainable farming – a heated topic among researchers.

“Sustainability is a chameleon word like good, but doesn’t mean much without indicators we can measure,” says David Cleveland, professor of world agriculture at University of California Santa Barbara. Professor Cleveland and a team of undergraduates researched sustainability, food deserts and Santa Barbara County food consumption last year.

Formerly Orella held cattle and traditional dry-crops, but over the last several years Tautrim suspended cattle production and transformed the ranch into an operation that relies on permaculture – a deliberate blend of organic plant and animal ecologies that provide for farmers’ needs. Permaculture is characterized by stacking functions, or rotations of different crops or animals.

“Each species should serve a different function that the one before,” says Tautrim.

Orella’s community garden was planted with fava-beans during its first season, for the dual purpose of producing food and increasing soil nutrients for future crops.

My interview with Tautrim continues in that small garden plot, a shin-high maze of pepper, eggplant, radish, and goose-berries, among other plants. Pulled weeds lay within the plot to decay and become plant food, or to mark pathways. Tautrim uses compost from other parts of the ranch to reduce waste and nourish the top-soil.

“If you see a snail smash it,” says Heidi Tautrim, wife of Guner Tautrim. “Or if you’re not comfortable with that give it to me and I’ll do it.”

Due to their appetite for seedlings, snails are not welcomed in the community garden or the five-acre plot that distributes food to farmers’ markets in Goleta and Santa Barbara.

Tautrim lives at the ocean-side ranch with his wife and two children. There are five other residences at Orella, as well as four businesses, including Tautrim’s wood-working company.

Orella ranch is part of a larger piece of land purchased by Bruno Orella from Luis Camarillo in 1866, the same Spanish land-holder for whom the city of Camarillo is dedicated. Fermin Orella, one of 11 children, inherited what is current known as Orella ranch. Fermin left the ranch to his cousin, Martin Eros, who is Tautrim’s great-grandfather.

In 2003, Tautrim began to think about how to integrate Orella with sustainable farming and environmental education.

Joel Saleton, featured in Michael Pollen’s “Omnivores Dilemma” and the documentary Food Inc.,   and Dr. Elaine Ingam, President and Director of Research at Food Soil Web Inc., lectured at Orella last year during an event called The Carbon Economy Series.

Ingam gave a crash course on soil and sustainability and other notable lecturers hosted workshops on a variety of environmental issues, all available to the Santa Barbara community over a three-day period.

“We didn’t want to do this thing in a vacuum,” says Tautrim, who hosted the series at Orella with help from Loatree, one of the four businesses at the ranch. Loatree organizes several of Orella’s outreach programs, and the company works with businesses and non-profits on eco-marketing and sustainability events.

Tautrim’s most recent frustration comes with his denied request to develop rain harvesting infrastructure at Orella, which would require rain ponds and the addition of native bunch-grasses on ten-percent of the property. Grasses help maintain soil structure and retain water, and some native grasses invite certain insects that protect plants from predators – an important key to a permaculture operation. The ponds capture rain water, which can be diverted to irrigate other parts of the ranch.

“The saying that sustainability is illegal is kind of true,” says Tautrim. “The process has been littered with hurtles.”

Those hurtles, however, are also in place to protect the region from commercial development and urbanization.

There is no long term assurance the coast is protected from development, in part because long term development plans are made by officials of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, who are elected every four years. There is no guarantee that development plans won’t change with each election cycle.

Tautram joined the Gaviota Planning Advisory committee last year, a task force responsible for making recommendations to the Board of Supervisors, who are working on a general plan for the Gaviota area.

Tautrim anticipates change on the Gaviota coast, and says “more people can live in a rural area if they live lighter on the land.”

The Gaviota coast, a region that starts at the north end of Isla Vista and stretches to Lompoc, represents fifty percent of California’s rural coastline. The coastal region is a nutrient rich mixing zone for cold and warm current along the west coast, which provides for a diverse and biologically active eco-system.

Endangered species in the area include the California Condor, the California Brown Pelican, the Southwestern Pond turtle, and the California Red-legged frog.

The most northern part of the Gaviota coast, which officially ends at Point Sal near Lompoc, is protected from development by zoning restrictions associated with Vandenburg air force base.

In recent years the housing bubble and economic recession have stalled some projects along Gaviota, including the addition of over twenty homes ranging from 4,000 to 12,000 square feet, situated on four-acre plots with private road access.

In the late nineties real estate costs along Gaviota were around $10 million to develop land for housing, and $30 thousand an acre for agriculture,” according to the Gaviota Coast Conservancy.

“Only the rich can afford property,” says Tautrim.

One of Tautrim’s long-term goals for Orella is to build permanent housing for people who volunteer at Orella ranch. Orella participates in the World Wide Opportunities for Organic Farms, a global network that links volunteers with organic farms. Sometimes work is exchanged for room and board, or university credits.

Despite Orella’s momentum, Tautrim doesn’t consider Orella a benchmark for sustainability.

“We’re not waiving any flag saying this it how to do it,” say Tautrim. “We just want to create conditions for change to happen.”



About the author

Zak Weinberg

Zak is a third year environmental studies major, and writing minor, at University of California Santa Barbara. In his free time he enjoys reading, writing, and staying active. Zak also founded a college website in Santa Barbara called Ole Today.