Organic Farm System: Phil Foster Ranches

eOrganic authors:

Doug O'Brien, Doug O'Brien Agricultural Consulting

Phil Foster, Phil Foster Ranches

Alex Stone, Oregon State University

Helen Atthowe, Oregon State University

Organic Farm System Overview

  • About Phil Foster Ranches and Pinnacle Brand Organic Produce
  • Farm Philosophy
  • Key Farm Design and Soil- and Habitat-Building Strategies
  • Soil Management System Overview
  • Insect Pest Management System Overview
  • Disease Management System Overview

About Phil Foster Ranches and Pinnacle Brand Organic Produce

Farmer: Phil Foster

Location: San Juan Bautista and Hollister, CA (Fig. 1. Area Map)

Crops: Mostly mixed vegetables, some fruit and nuts. Main crops are brassicas, onions, lettuce, and bell pepper.

Markets: Originally wholesale through grower agents until 1998. Currently, regional farmers markets (33%), retail to local stores (33%), and wholesale to distributors (33%) using the Pinnacle brand.

Years in organic management: Phil Foster Ranches (PFR) began in 1989 and was certified organic with California Certified Organic Farmers as of 1990. The Santa Ana Ranch (SA) in Hollister has been managed organically by PFR since 1989. The San Juan Ranch (SJ) in San Juan Bautista started in 1993 with one ranch. Additional ranches/fields were added in 1996, 2012, and 2015. All ranches were farmed conventionally prior to PFR's management and then transitioned to organic.

Total farm acreage: 200 acres in Hollister (Santa Ana Ranch), 95 acres in San Juan Bautista (San Juan Ranch).

Cropped acreage: 176 acres at SA, 85 acres at SJ. With double cropping, SA produces about 200 acres of crops per year, SJ about 125.

Landscape design: PFR is comprised of two ranches, each broken into numerous blocks and sub-blocks mostly of identical length and width. Fields are generally surrounded by roads or lightly-managed vegetation, consisting primarily of non-native weedy annuals, perennials, black walnuts, and native oaks. Several long, mixed-perennial hedgerows divide farm blocks. The San Juan Ranch is surrounded by conventional vegetable production, organic cane berries, and cattle grazing. The Santa Ana Ranch is surrounded by cattle grazing, dry-farmed hay, and organic-pastured goats and chickens.(Fig. 2 Santa Ana Ranch Map and Fig. 3 San Juan Bautista Ranch Map, Fig. 4.Habitat Map). 

Regional agricultural production: San Benito County's 2013 gross agricultural production was $330,402,000, with 70% from vegetable production and 30% from cattle, fruit, nuts and poultry.

Climate and soils: PFR's climate is semiarid (12 to 15 inches of precipitation) with a frost-free growing season of 275 days. Average last frost is early April, and average first frost is in November. Most precipitation falls between November and March. Summer temperatures reach the high 90s in Hollister and high 80s in San Juan Bautista. Winter lows are regularly several degrees below freezing at both ranches, but Hollister has some higher ground to the east which can be almost frost-free. Strong northwest afternoon winds are common, particularly in San Juan Bautista and during the summer. Soils on each ranch vary, but are mostly classified as capability class I and II by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and rated as "good" for agricultural use (Fig. 5: Santa Ana Ranch Soils Map, Fig. 6: San Juan Bautista Ranch Soils Map).

Farm Philosophy

Rather than treating specific crops, problems, or pests, PFR supports natural nutrient and biological control cycles, builds soil organic matter, manages ecological relationships, and minimizes off-farm inputs. Inquisitiveness and experimentation are key to the success of PFR, and new things are tried every year. PFR devotes considerable resources to on-farm research, both internal and in cooperation with university research and extension personnel. Each year, PFR hosts variety trials in cooperation with the local seed industry. Since 1997, pest management specialist and plant pathologist Doug O'Brien, PhD has scouted PFR fields three times per week.

Building community among employees and customers is a key goal. Profit sharing, above-industry wages, health care, and a commitment to team building means that a mostly long-term, year-round workforce is caring for the farm. PFR sales focus on the local community as much as possible, with a weekly farm stand and several farmers markets. Foster chooses the best-tasting crop varieties rather than the best yielding or most attractive. PFR has a strong commitment to sustainability, and practices water and energy conservation (see

None of the above would be possible if the business was not profitable in the short and long term. PFR pays close attention to personnel management and retention, crop management, recordkeeping, marketing, and food safety to ensure long term profitability and sustainability.

Key Farm Design and Soil- and Habitat-Building Strategies

  • Incorporation of cover crops: provides organic matter and nutrients, crop diversity, and disease and insect suppression, as well as keeping the soil covered year-round while providing shelter and blooms for natural enemies
  • Compost made on the farm
  • Reduced tillage: contributes to the maintenance of soil quality
  • Crop rotation (spatially and temporally), including between two widely-separated ranches
  • Conservation biological control: perennial and annual flowering plants that provide shelter and interspersed season-long bloom for natural enemies
  • Foliar and soil amendments and fertilizers, applied according to crop needs and as determined by ongoing soil testing
  • Intensive crop scouting and farm-developed action thresholds to minimize use of off-farm pest management inputs 

Soil Management System: Build Soil to Support Natural Nutrient Cycles and Grow High-Yielding, High-Quality, Flavorful Crops

PFR's goal is to optimize soil organic matter (SOM) and plant nutrients, minimize off-farm inputs, reduce tillage, support a diverse soil microbial community, improve alkalinity and salinity, and provide habitat for natural enemies. The soil management system includes:

  • Cover crops to add organic matter and nitrogen, and to provide constant plant and root cover and diversity
  • Reduced tillage to improve soil quality
  • Annual compost addition to increase soil quality, microbial activity, and fertility
  • Regular addition of gypsum to manage pH, salinity and crusting 

Since 1989, PFR has achieved most of its target soil health metrics, including increases in SOM of about 100% and 50% at Santa Ana and San Juan Bautista, respectively; a substantial increase in CEC (Santa Ana); mostly optimal levels of nitrate-nitrogen; adequate levels of potassium and copper; high levels of calcium and sulfur; and increased calcium as a percentage of cation balance. PFR has also maintained soluble salts levels below those that cause plant injury. Targets yet to be achieved include higher CEC (San Juan Bautista), lower phosphorus content, decreased magnesium as a percentage of cation balance, lower pH, and higher soil contents of iron, manganese and zinc.

Insect Pest Management System: Maximize Ecological Function and Minimize Off-Farm Inputs

PFR's goal is to design and manage a farming system that suppresses insect pests and requires few external inputs. PFR creates habitat for biological control organisms (e.g., insect predators and parasites, birds, bats, soil and foliar microorganisms) and also practices spatial rotation. The insect pest management system includes both system-wide and pest-specific strategies. System-wide strategies include:

  • Native habitat on field margins to enhance biological control organisms, such as birds and insect predators/parasites
  • Increased in- and around-field plant diversity to enhance biological control organisms, such as birds and insect predators/parasites
  • Insectary plants as rows within the crop (normally 1 bed/12 beds of crop), or as individuals (one every 50 sq. ft.): white alyssum, Dhani-ya cilantro (a rapidly-flowering coriander grown on the farm, not commercially available), regular cilantro, and white dill. (PFR is experimenting with pelleted alyssum that could be direct-seeded with lettuce or broccoli. Insectaries are planted in most crops except onions, shallots, and garlic. Insectary plant species vary with crop and time of year to match insectary flowering with plant phenology.)
  • Hedgerows: native woody perennial shrubs and small trees planted along roads (installed in the 1990s; trimmed with a tractor-mounted hedgerow trimmer)
  • Summer and winter cover crops
  • Compost tea applications to enhance or supplement Pandora entomopathic fungi for management of cabbage aphids
  • Reduced-tillage equipment (spader)
  • Crop placement and timing, including spatial management (e.g. planting serial plantings upwind)
  • Row cover to protect crops from root maggots, flea beetles, bagrada bugs, and cucumber beetles
  • Four-bed insect vacuum
  • Regular field scouting and farm-developed action thresholds for insecticide applications
  • Reduction in the use of insecticides and preferential use of materials with little or no impact on beneficial insects

Overall, crop yield and quality losses to insects decreased from 1989 through 2013, according to Foster and O'Brien. This observation is supported by reduced insecticide use documented in pesticide records, good crop yields documented in yield records, and insect pest severity documented in crop-scouting records.

Many insects common to the Monterey Bay area were never, or are no longer, significant; e.g., wire worm (Family Elateridae), root maggots (Delia spp.), turnip aphid (Lipaphis erysimi), squash bugs (Anasa tristis), potato aphid (Macrosiphum euphorbiae), and lettuce aphid (Nasonovia ribis-nigri)). Others are now managed successfully, so damage almost always falls within economically tolerable levels, such as tuber moth (Phthorimaea operculella), tarnished plant bug (Lygus hesperus), black bean aphid (Aphis fabae), onion thrips (Thrips tabaci), and cabbage worms [Imported Cabbage Worm (Pieris rapae), Diamondback Moth (Plutella xylostella) and cabbage looper (Trichoplusia ni)]. A few cause yield losses in most years, occasionally with a very significant economic impact: corn earworm (Helicoverpa zea), cabbage aphid (Brevicoryne brassicae), spotted cucumber beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata), striped cucumber beetle (Acalymma vitatum), and brassica flea beetles (Phyllotreta spp. and/or Systena blanda). Read more about the Phil Foster insect management system here.

Disease Management System: Create Conditions Unfavorable for Pathogens

PFR's goal is to avoid disease through system design, soil building, cultural practices, supplemental inputs, intensive crop scouting, accurate disease diagnosis, and recordkeeping. The emphasis is on prevention. Strategies are both system-wide (Disease Table 1) and disease-specific (Disease Table 2). Key practices include: 

  • Resistant varieties
  • Crop Rotation (See Disease Table 2)
  • Soil building to improve soil quality and suppress damping off
  • Soil amendments to maintain balanced crop growth
  • Irrigation management to reduce conditions favorable to pathogens
  • Intensive, regular crop scouting to identify problems early
  • Timely application of disease-management materials
  • Good recordkeeping to aid in management decisions

PFR's disease management system has been mostly effective. Many diseases common to the Monterey Bay area do not occur, or are sporadic and inconsequential. Several diseases are effectively managed. Four diseases remain chronic problems: garlic rust; downy mildew of cucumber; Verticillium wilt of watermelon; and Fusarium basal rot of onion, garlic, and shallot.

Read more about the Phil Foster Ranches disease management system and outcomes here.

This article was developed with support from USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture through the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program under grant number SW13-017.

Published December 27, 2017

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.