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December 4, 2023

Land Trust to help preserve Phil Foster Ranch through easement

Courtesy of the San Benito Agricultural Land Trust:

San Benito Agricultural Land Trust (SBALT) announces the permanent protection of 27 acres of Phil Foster Ranch, also known as Pinnacle Organically Grown, in San Benito County’s fertile San Juan Valley. The agricultural conservation easement was purchased by the Land Trust with mitigation funds originating from two housing development projects in nearby Hollister.

“Phil Foster Ranch is a stellar example of how local farmers care for the land while producing food and providing jobs,” says Dan Dungy, President of SBALT. “When we received mitigation funds from San Benito County and were charged with finding 27 acres of prime soils to protect with those funds, the Fosters were a natural choice to partner with us.”

“This agricultural easement doesn’t just conserve the natural resources that the Fosters steward so well – the soil, air, water, and wildlife habitat along the San Benito River – it also supports a local business that provides year-round employment to 50 people and access to fresh, organic produce for people of all income levels. It has been an honor for SBALT to work with the Fosters to preserve this farm that is such an important part of our community.”

Phil and Katherine Foster have been farming organically for 30 years. They produce about 60 different crops on 295 acres across two ranches, one in San Juan Bautista and the other in Hollister. They market their crops – including vegetables, fruits, nuts, and apple juice – at the farm on Saturdays, at farmers markets throughout the Central Coast and Bay Area, at local retail stores, and through several regional wholesalers.

The Saturday morning farmstand in San Juan Bautista enjoys a following among hundreds of San Benito locals, as well as customers who travel from as far away as Salinas and San Jose. As awareness about the farmstand has spread in recent years, mostly through word-of-mouth, the Fosters have had to expand the shopping and check-out areas to accommodate the crowds. One of the reasons, shoppers say, is that the produce is not only delicious, but affordable.

Photos courtesy of the Land Trust.

The Fosters are innovators and leaders among organic growers in the state. They participate in research trials to further understanding of effective organic practices and host frequent farm tours for growers, researchers, policymakers, and interested consumers.

Soil building is a key principle at Phil Foster Ranch. The Fosters plant cover crops and produce their own compost on-site, resulting in increased soil health. These practices benefit the farm and the climate by storing increased carbon in the soil.

The Fosters’ approach to pest control relies on pheromone mating disruption, native plant hedgerows, owl boxes, compost tea, and other methods which enable them to replace or reduce the use of allowed organic pesticides. The hedgerows also buffer crops from wind and provide habitat for beneficial insects, pollinators, birds, and other wildlife.

Other strategies at Phil Foster Ranch that have environmental benefits include water conservation and clean energy. A drip irrigation system reduces water consumption and protects water quality in the adjacent San Benito River by minimizing runoff. The Fosters also produce 50 kilowatts (kW) of on- farm solar energy, generating about 35% of the farm’s power needs from rooftop solar panels at the San Juan Bautista ranch. They generate an additional 100 kW from ground mount solar panels installed at their Hollister ranch.

Owner Phil Foster says, “The funds we receive for the ag conservation easement with SBALT on part of our farmland will be beneficial to the economic viability of our farm, and will aid in future transition of our farmland to employee or younger farmer ownership with the development value of the land removed.”

According to the California Department of Conservation (2015), between 1984 and 2014 as much as 1.4 million acres of California farmland was converted to non-agricultural uses. Of farmland loss during that period 78% was for urban development, and 49% of that was conversion of farmland classified as prime agricultural soils.

The San Benito Agricultural Land Trust works with landowners to provide financial tools to ensure their land continues to produce food and contribute to the local economy. The Land Trust has applied for a grant from the California Department of Conservation to partially fund the conservation acquisition of the remaining 24 acres of the Phil Foster Ranch in San Juan Bautista. The rest of the needed funds must be raised by the Land Trust.