Unconventional Conversion: Cultivating Sustainability in Citrus and Avocado Orchards

Final Report for FW03-009

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2003: $7,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information



This project addresses transitional orcharding in Ventura County and methods that can be employed to revitalize nutritionally depleted land, boost income, and cultivate and promote ecological and financial sustainability.

In six years, we converted 5.75 acres from a money-losing industrial navel orange orchard into a solvent permaculture style farm harvesting nearly 100,000 lb. of navel annually with hundreds of other fruit trees just starting to come on line.

During that same period, local orchards were rapidly destroyed for development or conversion to high intensity row cropping or nursery production. Orchards, the dominant agricultural feature of this valley for a century, are rapidly disappearing. Unless one has larger acreage and one of the pricier commodities, it is a tough way to make a living and, increasingly, only economically justifiable on the most marginal lands, such as hillsides.

Innovative industrial orcharding can be lucrative, but it is always at a great cost to the soil, air, and water.

If one is coming from a conventional commercial grower’s background, it takes nothing short of a complete mindset change to accept permaculture and natural systems techniques and strategies. A natural attrition rate among whatever is cultivated must be embraced. Methods and elements that may at first seem novel accessories to a proper farm have been fine tuned to the property and realized as crucial components of the system. Other varieties of fruit diversify and spread out the harvest. Poultry employed as weeders and insect controllers diversify production while simultaneously enhancing the nitrogen cycle. Incorporation of native and other select trees and plants for the purpose of buffering against the elements, ballasting natural ecological systems and topsoil maintenance is necessary. Tasks that to industrial growers are carried out in separate and distinct operations, such as pruning, picking, weeding, and rodent control are continually worked on.

Although there is some initial expense, such as fencing or enclosures of some sort, young birds, etc., one must amortize these against their service or productive lives. Once in place, it is lower maintenance and less expensive than forcing change by chemical and mechanical means.


1. Restore the soil and a viable habitat for all types of beneficial organisms. Years of chemical maintenance left the subject soil compacted and deficient in many ways. Compost and other carbon and beneficial bacteria laden materials are necessary to turn this around. Native and other beneficial trees and plants are added to provide habitat for beneficial insects and animals as well as increase biomass and biostability.
2. Diversify production and markets. Reliance upon a well-known conventional packing house combined with the expense of industrial/chemical maintenance had this farm losing almost $1,000 per acre annually. Switching to a smaller, higher quality packer helped this farm to start making money, but it is the diversity of production and transitioning to direct marketing that make this a successful business.
3. Set up sustainable systems, methods, and infrastructure throughout the orchard. Utility poultry, mulch bearing non-production trees, beneficial groundcover, and the fauna attracted are examples. Systems are designed to benefit the farm as well as to minimize negative impacts of our operation.
4. Educate and inform producers and consumers about efficient sustainable methods and how to apply them to other properties. Division of agricultural operations into the two categories of “conventional” and “organic” is a misleading oversimplification. When the thoughtful consumer understands the ecological differences, buying at the highest level of sustainability one can find it makes sense.


Compost and mulch have vastly improved the soil. After removal of most unhealthy naval trees, approximately 700 of the original 970 remain. Poultry have proved to be incredibly useful in weed and insect control as well as other unexpected ways.

By promoting and setting up a variety of natural systems within the farm, I have created a lower cost, lower maintenance situation than most conventional or organic operations.

Overall field health is up. Production quality and income are up. My costs have been drastically reduced over those of conventional maintenance. What is less apparent is the decreased need for water in improved areas, the life within the soil, and the lower maintenance and expense of such methods.


Farms are a source of pollution that could be easily diminished. The lack of chemicals, lesser need for petroleum-burning machinery, and lower expenses are just the beginning. Current local industrial agriculture works directly against so many other ecological interests that it really is a burden on society as well as to the ecosystem.

Sustainable farms could use all the natural livestock manures, municipal green waste, wood chips, sawdust, and other organic garbage that local communities produce. Sustainably run farms conserve topsoil, improve air quality, and use less water. Sustainable farms create an inviting habitat for wildlife to use the natural checks and balances out there.

They are a “net gain” ecologically, actually cleansing the air and stabilizing the local ecosystem. If sustainably minded farming was a major component of local agriculture, we could expect cleaner water, air, and soil as well as better food and a more stable food economy.


Generally, some producers employ some sustainable methods, but never realize their full benefits due to other ecologically contradictory methods.

Many people inquire about our techniques and know of our farm. It does seem that there is a trend toward conservation and ecological improvement of nearby farms.


At first, other producers thought our birds were novel and attempting to compost and mulch my entire field was ridiculous. Now they are amazed by the weed control by the birds and impressed by our composing of the entire field with free, high quality materials.


Industrial growers don’t want to hear about the negative impacts of their methods, and surely they don’t understand it, or they wouldn’t do it. Thus, it is imperative to explain the extent to which they are needlessly damaging the ecosystem, and indeed, their own land in order to provide context for understanding the benefits of sustainable methods. Most importantly, they must be shown how to improve their bottom line earnings through a combination of saved expenses and higher sales prices.

While most orchards can be improved by techniques described here, variations would be different for different scenarios. Larger grazers, such as sheep can tackle tough weed problems and skirt trees in larger fields, so long as they cannot get at young trees. Each case must be evaluated individually, and there will always be some degree of trial and error.


Until now outreach has been mostly to neighbors and interested parties. Many farmers and travelers stop to inquire about my farm and the birds in particular. It is my hope that through the distribution of this report, more people will accept these sensible, practical techniques that run against convention.


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  • Pierre Constans


Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

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Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.