Farmers Steve and Bernadette Howard, along with their ten-year-old daughter Isis, are represented as three oxen that give this farm its name. Their family farm is based on the fundamental philosophy of interconnectedness, and they treat their land as an ecosystem to be nurtured. Steve and Bernadette’s mission at Three Ox is not only to grow delicious and healthy foods for their community to enjoy, but also to improve and care for this ecosystem at every level—from the microbes in the soil to the native trees they’ve planted.
Steve and Bernadette achieve their mission by focusing on soil quality, preserving and creating animal habitat, and never using toxic chemical pesticides. Soil is built up through the addition of compost made on the farm—closing the loop so that plant waste is recycled to provide next season’s crops with healthy soil rich in organic matter. Neighboring horses and Three Ox’s own laying hens add manure to the mix. Hedgerows, nesting boxes, and a native plant insectory provide habitat for birds and beneficial insects, and lots of flowering plants attract pollinators. Isis lends her knack for entomology to helping her parents out with pest management—she identifies insects and studies up on the best habitats for attracting beneficials.
Lest you worry that amphibians were left out of the picture, groundwater swales are home to frogs and other amphibious friends. Steve and Bernadette have been careful to preserve habitat along their creek, planting native trees but keeping the crops well off of the riparian corridor. The luscious fruits and vegetables growing at Three Ox are just one element of the united ecosystem that inspires these farmers.
As Steve will tell you, farming has always been in his and Bernadette’s blood. For both of them, the introduction to farming can be traced back to their grandparents who gardened at home after immigrating to America. Steve’s grandparents came from the Portugal and Madeira Island, while Bernadette’s hailed from Spain and the Philippines. They both grew up watching food grown in their grandparents’ yards, and it kindled a connection to the land and to agriculture that is now fully realized at Three Ox Farm.
Twenty years ago, when Steve and Bernadette first purchased the land that is now the farm, it was five acres of six-foot high thistles. Over years they slowly transformed it, planting 250 trees and twice that many shrubs.
It was just four years ago that they decided they couldn’t wait any longer to put the land into agricultural production. They spent two and half years establishing the farm’s infrastructure—the fences, fruit trees, and animal habitats. Steve used his experience managing large-scale industrial facilities to take on farms’ many construction projects, emphasizing reused materials. Bernadette, having supplemented her years in her grandparents’ garden with University of California coursework in sustainable agriculture and permaculture, developed the farms’ artistic vision. She’s the reason you won’t find a lot of right angles in beds at Three Ox Farms. As for what’s growing in those beds, it’s pretty much a little bit of everything.
Steve, Bernadette, and Isis have also found that it’s wonderful to be a part of a thriving community of farmers and neighbors who support them. They’ve engaged with non-profit organizations like CAFF, Sonoma County Herb Exchange, and Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, furthering their role as stewards of the land who make connections between agriculture and ecology. They’ve known their customers since they first started selling at the farmers’ market last year, and by the end of this August they’ll distribute their first CSA share to half a dozen neighbors. These three oxen are looking forward to a future of expanding both the community of plants and animals on their farm, and the community of people who support them and love their products.
By Logan R. Harris