by Elizabeth Archer
modern day photos by Ree Slocum
It’s a hot, still summer afternoon at Live Power Community Farm in Covelo, so named because it uses animals and humans—living sources of power— rather than fossil-fuel-powered farm equipment. Owners Gloria and Stephen Decater are resting in the relative cool of the house, and two of their workers, Mei Lee and Yeat Hing, here from Malaysia on an exchange program, are relaxing in the shade. The other two employees, Dylan Jones who works the horses and machinery, and Danny Brooks who works in the garden and does other general farm labor, are ostensibly hiding from the heat as well.
Gloria braves the sun to show me around. The dogs, Sophie and Zeke, lead the way as we tour the farm’s menagerie: 25 laying hens, eight ewes and their lambs, eight dairy and beef cows, four enormous draft horses, three lazy pigs, two recently arrived goats, and an ornery ram. We pick a few of the season’s first blackberries and admire, from a distance, the two acres dedicated to intensive vegetable production. Depending on the season, Live Power Community Farm grows up to 30 varietals. Beyond that, the farm’s 50 acres are divided into four acres of alfalfa, the occasional few acres of grain, and 35 acres of perennial and annual hay and pasture. Some things have changed in the more than four decades since the Decaters made Round Valley their home, but much has stayed the same.
Stephen Decater came to Round Valley in 1973 to work with the legendary Alan Chadwick on the erstwhile Covelo Village Garden (CVG). As a member of the first undergraduate class at UC Santa Cruz, Stephen worked with Alan on the Santa Cruz Student Garden, which started in 1967 when the school was just two years old. (Today, 51 years later, it’s still there.) When he heard Alan was moving to Covelo, Stephen didn’t hesitate before joining him. He says, “Alan was crazy enough to start another garden, and I wanted to help see it happen.”
After several years of fits and starts, including relocating sites after the first winter brought epic floods, the garden was well underway. Enter Gloria. After completing the Waldorf teacher training in Los Angeles and moving to Sonoma County, Gloria heard about CVG from a friend and came to Round Valley in 1977 as an apprentice.
The garden was situated in the northwest corner of the valley, backed up against Medicine Mountain. During its five-year tenure, many people came and went; they planted herb gardens, fruit trees, flowers, and vegetables. By the time Gloria arrived, there were some stubborn but indispensable animals on hand to help out. Ultimately, CVG didn’t last. “Alan’s vision was always to build a village of craftspeople, and it didn’t materialize in Covelo,” explains Stephen.
By then, Gloria and Stephen were living together on a cattle ranch. Stephen had been acting as caretaker for several years, and when the CVG ceased to exist, several apprentices started working with him and Gloria on the ranch. They had to do a lot to the property: reroof the house and barn, rebuild outbuildings, put up fencing, install irrigation; the list goes on, as it always does on a farm.
After planting relatively small areas on the ranch, Stephen had started live-power operations in 1975, after planting relatively small areas on the ranch. “My training was all by hand with a spade and a fork, but I wanted to cultivate larger areas,” explains Stephen. “I respect what fossil-fueled equipment can do, but I’ve never been excited about operating it. I don’t like the fumes, I don’t like the noise, and I don’t like what it does to the environment.” The solution? Live power.
He went looking for draft animals in Mendocino County and eventually found a pair of donkeys outside of Willits. Although donkeys can’t cover the same area horses can, they have certain advantages. Says Stephen, “Plowing with them was quite slow, but it was a good way to learn because they don’t panic like a horse.” They served other purposes, too. He didn’t own a car at the time, so Stephen built a donkey cart to go to town, earning him the nickname “Jackass Man.” The farm switched to draft horses in 1980, and the rest, as they say, is history—today, the resident powerhouses are four big, beautiful horses.
After the horses came three sons, born in 1985, 1989, and 1993, two of whom still live in Mendocino County. Gloria recalls that their second son, Christopher, was born the same day as the Loma Prieta earthquake, which caused massive destruction throughout the Bay Area. “It was the only week in 29 years that we didn’t deliver our CSA to the Bay,” she says.
The primary source of income for Live Power Community Farm is that very same robust CSA program which they have been operating for 30 years. Some members have been with them that entire time. “Our members are loyal because they support our principles and appreciate the quality of the food and care we put into the land,” says Gloria. After so many years they’ve started to simplify, discontinuing operations in the Bay last year and effectively reducing their membership from 200 to 100 families. “It’s still a lot of work to grow food for 100 families, and we had to make the hard choice to scale down,” explains Stephen.
They have also been teaching on-site classes to school-aged children for 35 years. “I love seeing what a powerful experience it is for the kids,” says Gloria. “Milking a cow, shearing a sheep, plowing behind a horse … they remember it forever, getting in touch with the earth, with their roots.”
“There’s some part of all of us that is yearning for that connection. In our small way here, we’ve tried to create the opportunity for people to come back to the earth, to be surrounded by creation speaking to them,” adds Stephen. Gloria says some of the teachers visited the farm themselves as children. “Sometimes they cry,” she says. “It’s very powerful.”
In order to maintain those kinds of experiences and to keep the land dedicated to fertile use, in 1995, after 20 years of being its caretakers, the Decaters decided it was time to buy the farm. The problem was, they couldn’t afford it on their own. Furthermore, they didn’t believe in private ownership. “Nobody owns Mother Earth,” says Stephen.
After a lot of research, they decided to institute a conservation easement to move all non-agricultural uses of the property into a non-profit land trust ownership. The easement states that the only allowable commercial use for the land is organic or biodynamic agriculture, and the farm operators have to demonstrate that at least 51% of their income comes from active agriculture. Once the farm income dips below that threshold, it triggers the option for someone else to buy the agricultural rights and use of the buildings. After a lot of fundraising for the land trust and a private loan secured by the Decaters, they purchased the farming rights and infrastructure, while Equity Trust purchased the non-agricultural uses.
They didn’t stop there. Stephen and Gloria understand only too well the affordability problem in farming, so they included conditions in the easement that require the appraisal process to value the property based on the income stream that can be produced from organic agriculture on the land. “Then it’s a matter of working backward from the income stream to determine the price per acre,” explains Stephen. “It should be recognized that food-bearing land is, in many ways, a public resource, and the people cultivating it should be able to make a living doing it.”
After decades of farming, the Decaters will leave behind a legacy of a permanent working farm. They have no plans to stop any time soon, but they would like to cultivate successors who want to dedicate their lives to the land in much the same way they have. “A farm isn’t something you build in a few years,” says Stephen. “It’s a lifetime. And we’re so grateful that the work we’ve done will survive past our lifetimes.”
Elizabeth Archer is an enthusiastic eater and promoter of the local food scene in Mendocino County. She