Riverdance Farm: Cynthia Lashbrook and Bill Thompson
Overview of Farm Business
|Location:||Livingston, California. North of Merced in northern Merced County.|
|Crops:||Certified-organic walnuts, almonds, pecans, blueberries, cherries, pomegranates,
persimmons, cut flowers, lavender, and, in the winter, oat hay
|Employees:||2, plus the owners|
|Primary Sales Outlets:||
|Contact Information:||Cynthia Lashbrook and Bill Thompson
12230 Lingston-Cressey Road
Livingston, California 95334
In 1996, Cynthia Lashbrook and Bill Thompson started farming in Livingston, a small community along the Merced River in northern Merced County. Riverdance Farm has since expanded to 74 acres and a multitude of crops, including walnuts, almonds, pecans, blueberries, cherries, pomegranates, persimmons, cut flowers, lavender, and, in the winter, oat hay. Their farm has been certified organic from the beginning. In the future, Cynthia and Bill want to open their farm to the public to give visitors a view of sustainable agriculture in action.
Cynthia and Bill also work as independent pest-control advisors through their own business, Four Seasons Agricultural Consulting. They work with other farmers who want to reduce their use of chemical inputs and incorporate the use of cover crops and beneficial insects. Their own experience as farmers has been invaluable to this work and even prompted Cynthia to start another business in 1992. After she had such a hard time finding cover crop seed, beneficial insects, and other supplies for her own farm, she formed Living Farm Systems to offer these products to other farmers.
Cynthia and Bill’s commitment to ecological land management practices extends beyond the borders of their own farm. They are active in the East Merced Resource Conservation Board and the Merced River Stakeholders Group. They also welcome the many deer, foxes, bobcats, and species of birds that pass through their farm. Riverdance Farm is also home to the elderberry beetle, an endangered species. They say that some farmers would be afraid to find endangered species on their property for fear of the potential land use restrictions. Cynthia and Bill, however, are pleased to have the beetle on their farm and are helping it to thrive by cultivating more of its habitat, the elderberry plant.
Riverdance Farm sells most of its harvest via wholesalers and you-pick sales. Their almonds are packed out through a local grower and the walnuts are sold through another farm. Their organic oat hay is sold to a local organic dairy. In order to expand their marketing opportunities, Cynthia and Bill are building a facility at the farm that they can use as both a packing shed and a fruitstand. They are interested in doing some of their own packing and increasing their direct sales.
This year Riverdance Farms’ blueberries will be sold through Pacific Organics and two annual you-pick weekends. Cynthia and Bill have hosted informal you-pick weekends in the past, but this is the first year that they will open the farm to the public. They will host you-pick days on Memorial Day weekend and the weekend after July fourth and hope to have at least 60 visitors at each one. Six acres of blueberries and two acres of cherries will be ready to harvest and another three acres of blueberries will be ready next year. In the future, they would also like to offer flowers, stone fruits, and pumpkins on a you-pick basis.
This year Cynthia and Bill will advertise their you-pick days at local events, through friends at farmer’s markets, at the annual Heartland Conference, and perhaps through the local newspaper. Since the fruit is best picked in the morning, they will open for you-pick visitors from 8:00 to 2:00. Cynthia and Bill are still working out the prices for their you-pick days, but they may charge both a flat fee for the day and a price for each pint of fruit. The flat fee would be set to cover the tasting and snacking of their you-pick guests as they pick. Cynthia and Bill will provide buckets for the customers to use as they pick and ask them to bring their own containers and coolers to take the fruit home.
Cynthia and Bill were originally interested in hosting you-pick events to bring people to their farm and share their beautiful spot along the river. In addition, blueberries are a great you-pick crop. They are easy to pick, the fruit does not lie too close to the ground, and the plants have no thorns or prickly parts. In addition, the combination of the wholesale harvest and the you-pick days works out very well for the farm. When the fruit is mature, Riverdance first picks blueberries for Pacific Organics. With this pass, they take the fruit that is easiest and fastest to pick, keeping their harvest costs lower. Then the you-pick guests come in and pick the blueberries that are left. The fruit is just as good, but it takes a little longer to pick, which the visitors don’t usually seem to mind.
Cynthia and Bill have been active in a number of organizations dedicated to sustainable agriculture and their regional ecosystem. They are part of the California Farmers Union and the Ecological Farming Association and have been very active with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. In 1993, they were instrumental in the organization of the Biologically Integrated Orchard Systems (BIOS) project. BIOS—a collaboration between CAFF, local farm advisors, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and researchers from UC Davis—worked with farmers in Merced County to reduce their costs of production through less-chemically intensive pest control methods. The BIOS system has since been applied to a number of crops throughout the state and is currently coordinated through the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.
Cynthia also helped start and facilitated the Lighthouse Farm Network in Livingston. For three years, this CAFF project brought farmers together for breakfast meetings and field days where they exchanged information about their on-farm experiments with biologically-friendly farming.
Cynthia and Bill treasure their spot along the Merced River and are committed to the river’s restoration. They have been active participants in the Merced River Stakeholders Group, a collaboration between state and local agencies and landowners working together to restore the river. Cynthia is also a director of the East Merced Resource Conservation Board.
Cynthia and Bill identified two main challenges for their farm at the moment.
New USDA Organic Regulations. It is increasingly more expensive for small-scale farms to be certified-organic growers. Cynthia and Bill have found that small farms now face higher certification costs through California Certified Organic Farmers under the new USDA National Organic Program. She is also concerned that the small growers who blazed the trail in organic agriculture are going to be forced out of business by the bigger growers that have followed them.
Economic Squeeze. This is a difficult economic climate in which to be a farmer. Cynthia and Bill just found out that they will pay 40% more for workers’ compensation coverage this year. This means that for every $100 they earn on orchard crops, $26 is diverted to paying for workers’ compensation insurance for their two employees. In addition, commodity prices are falling as larger almond growers enter the market. Smaller-scale almond growers are having a harder and harder time staying in business.
California Certified Organic Farmers
California Farmers Union
Community Alliance with Family Farmers
Ecological Farming Association
The Heartland Conference
Merced County Farm Bureau
Merced River Stakeholders Group