The Backyard Stories, Dispatch Four: Nick Brown
In the fourth installment of The Backyard Stories, we travel to Southern California, to visit trail athlete and fruit-grower Nick Brown at his family’s farm, in an ecosystem where increasing wildfire is a reality.
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The Backyard Stories is a new podcast and written column, in partnership with Protect Our Winters (POW), following athletes and local food advocates who are deeply invested in their home ecosystems – their backyards. Read the introduction here.
This story is about where the coastal mountain ranges of Southern California meet the Pacific Ocean, south of Santa Barbara. The land between the top of the mountains and the waves crashing below is a tangle of orchards, highways, vineyards, densely populated urban areas, sprawling estates, and trails.
These are some of the best trails I have ever run.
Last year, I was assigned a story featuring farmer Nick Brown, whose family has been growing subtropical fruits on the foothills of these coastal mountains since 1871.
What struck me about Nick’s story was the way he wove together what being in agriculture means for him: the physical and financial risks, the sacrifice of time, the unending joy he takes in fruit, and what it feels like to work under the raging power of nature. As if hearing a myth unfold, he told me stories of earthquakes, mountain lions, class 3 scrambling to fix irrigation pipes, and most suspensefully, wildfire.
This stretch of coastline is a place that brings up memories of my own athletic striving. In 2015, as an emerging trail runner, I came to know this area as a proving ground, while also a source of injury and acute illness. After a few strong races in my home state of Wisconsin, my husband and I packed up the truck and drove our family to the west coast so I could race on dry trails in the winter, our only time of year we could be gone from our farm. With my second baby still nursing, I got my first out-of-state podium finish at the Sean O’Brien 50K. We went back four years in a row for the 50-mile and 100K events, which included a win, a DNF, and a solid attempt at a Western States Golden Ticket. The fifth year, wildfire engulfed the course, and I haven’t raced there since.
When I asked Nick about his backyard, he told me that, technically, he doesn’t have a backyard because he lives in an orchard. We agreed that Los Padres National Forest could be considered his backyard, which borders the farm on one side. This 1.75 million-acre stretch of public land is the third largest National Forest in the state of California, with elevations that go from sea level up to nearly 9,000 feet.
Nick owns and operates a direct-to-consumer fruit delivery business called Rincon Tropics, with fruit harvested from the 600-acre family orchard he helps manage. Rincon Tropics took off during the pandemic. His family’s farm has been very active in farmer’s markets in Southern California, but when the pandemic put selling in-person on hold, Nick shifted to a home delivery service. He had no idea the amount of support he would get from his farmer’s market customers, chefs, restaurants, and food writers. And that is how I met Nick.
Lost in a Botanical Maze
I went to stay at Nick’s farm in April. My plan was to visit during a slow time, but there isn’t a downseason in his fruit production, the tree varieties were strategically selected to keep the farm operational year-round.
Nick put me up in a bedroom in one of the family’s original farm houses, my window overlooking the front porch where his guinea hens and a flock of chickens peeked through the panes of centuries-old glass.
“When I was younger, I would be handed a machete and sent on a mission to chop down bananas from the tree that had the most mature looking cluster. I would make forts in the banana trees, climb the cherimoya trees and look for ripe avocados for snacks,” Nick shared. He told me to make myself at home, to eat all the fruit I wanted when I woke up, but that he would be gone early the next day on the far side of the orchard.
The next morning, I woke up and put on my running shoes to explore a bit. Row after row of handsomely round trees tumbled past my eyes as I darted in and out of the geometry of it all. One row of cherimoya towering overhead looked like the next. Shorter rows of trellised passion fruit gave me visibility to rows of avocado trees. The orchard rolled in waves, the smells, sounds of buzzing bees, and glaring botanical beauty almost too much to bear. I was completely alone being swallowed up by an orchard. As I wandered back to the farm house, Nick’s dog, Levi, dropped an avocado at my feet for me to throw for him.
Drought and wildfire are a constant concern in Southern California. For those who make their living from the landscape, such challenges are a double-edged sword. While the Mediterranean climate of Southern California is ideal for fruit production, wildfires and access to water are primary issues for farmers.
“We get very little rain here. The annual average is changing rapidly, but it historically has been between 15 to 20 inches of rain. So we’re well below our normal threshold for this year,” Nick said. Climate change has catalyzed these extreme conditions. According to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), wildfire season is starting earlier and ending later due to record-level heat and drought.
In 2017, the Thomas Fire burned a third of Nick’s family farm. As we sat in the living room of the farmhouse he recounted the drama of the event. “We could see it coming the day before and it was just coming down the mountain burning its way towards us. And then it was here.”
In fire mitigation, working vegetation into the ground is a way too slow or stop fire. “We were prepping for it for several days, doing whatever we could, disking (a tractor implement that looks like a lot of pizza cutters) the weeds to create barriers and disking all of the dry grass fuel into the soil so that there were 20- to 30-foot buffers of little to no fuel,” said Nick. “But ultimately it didn’t matter because the winds kicked up.”
Nick’s farm gets water from nearby Lake Casitas. During the fire, their backup generators that pump water into their tanks failed. “When we were ready to turn on the irrigation to try and wet things down, but the lines were dry. We had no water. In fact, the only water that we did have was in a little 50 gallon tank on the back of an ATV with a little squirt bottle emitter, so essentially nothing,” he said.
Earlier that day as Nick was showing me around, we had come up on a burned out truck on a far side of the orchard. “Our water truck was filled up and ready to go, but the fire moved so quickly that by the time we got to it, it had already caught fire and exploded. And so we had a tank full of water and no way to move it or tap into it.”
Wildfire damage goes beyond actual flames. The region suffered landslides from loose soil, biodiversity loss in plants and wildlife, and agricultural loss even in areas that weren’t burned. “It was pretty devastating, with some total crop loss in areas,” Nick said. He went on to tell me that it is not only direct fire that causes damage, but smoke as well, “The smoke releases a lot of ethylene gas which ripens fruit. So there was a lot of fruit that fell off the tree before it was mature. And it’s taken quite a few years to build the orchards back.”
Trails as Ecological and Chronological Layers
Nick left the family farm for Colorado to attend college. When he came back he didn’t begin farming right away. He was a trail guide as well as surf and kayak instructor. Adventure sports have always been really important to Nick. When he became a career farmer he was forced to reconcile what caring for his body really means. After a mountain bike accident in 2019, Nick had no choice but to confront the fact he needs his body for farming.
“I went over the handlebars and fractured my collarbone and elbow, and that was the first time I had broken bones. It put me out of commission for about three months. This is all while I was full-time on the ranch and farming.”
When I asked Nick to take me up into some of his favorite trails, our time kept getting pushed farther out into the day: orders needing to be packed, irrigation lines needing attention, meetings with the farm crew popped up. Eventually Nick pulled out a map and pointed to a switchback trail behind the nearby town of Carpentaria. He loves this landscape and knows the trails like a close friend, but on this day, farming is a job that can hijack plans. I know this very personally.
“There aren’t that many roads into the mountains because they get vertical so quickly,” he said as he ran his finger over The Franklin Trail. I put together my pack and headed for the trailhead. After passing terraced neighborhoods, avocado and lemon orchards, I emerged onto rolling fire roads. Charred trees from the fire dotted the trail, while billowing views of the Pacific stretched out below.
Next I headed to Romero Canyon Trail. Oak groves and deep ravines opened up to sweeping walls of chaparral covered mountains. This area too had burned. On the trail I came up on a National Forest worker wearing a hardhat and tools strapped to his pack. He told me about what the Thomas Fire meant for the trails.
“The fire virtually wiped out all the vegetation on all the hills in this entire canyon and the surrounding canyons,” he said. “Then we had four inches of rain in one hour. This sent a torrent of water down to the canyon floor and whipped out everything in its path.”
After the fire and flood there was a year and half of work to reopen the trails. The ecosystem is still so fragile here that it gets washed out every year. As I worked my way up the canyon, I thought about the amount of time and labor dedicated to getting these trails beneath my feet into a stable place.
Goats and Horses for Wildfire Mitigation
Wild and domesticated ungulates have been part of the Southern California ecosystem for millenia. While wildfire is also a natural part of the landscape, without animal populations to eat the underbrush, wildfire has become far more intense.
Nick and his family began integrating goats into their wildfire mitigation strategy after the Thomas Fire. “It’s a very different model of land management,” Nick said. “If you have rotational grazing, they can do a fantastic job on a plot. Within a couple months it looks healthy and leafy and green and lush again.”
Nick took me over to a hillside that was being grazed by a herd of goats. As they climbed a wall of low shrubs to reach for the bites they wanted, I saw the goats as living, breathing brush-clearing machines.
“The goats manage the brushy steep canyons that we just can’t access, even by foot, which is the perfect playground for a goat,” Nick told me. By putting a herd of goats on land that is both unproductive for cultivated crops and an ideal grazing area for goats, creates multiple solutions. “We are moving in this direction to help with any future fires, and still have the soil stabilizing plants there and to keep the brushiness down to a more manageable level.”
Horses have had a place on Nick’s family farm going back generations. He took me around the property on horseback my first full day on the ranch. “There’s historic grazing on the property with cattle, sheep and horses, but what my parents have done over the years is partner with Los Padres Outfitters and their herd of horses and mules,” Nick said.
The horses we rode around the farm that morning were part of the partnership with Los Padres, and I could see the perfect symbiotic relationship between land and grazing horses. “The animals graze these pastures to keep the brush down to limit any potential fire hazards while their manure is enriching the soil. And it’s beneficial for Los Padres because it’s feed for their animals and space for grazing.”
Fruit Is a Long Game
Orcharding is a multi-generational endeavor, not only in the familial sense—because knowledge passed through the family only strengthens the orchard—but also in the way that orchards work on a scale of decades. Nick’s family farm grows dozens of varieties of fruit, but the lion’s share of their production comes from multiple varieties of passion fruit, cheremoya (a creamy, tangy fruit from South America), mango, and avocado. These are perennial trees, too, which means they are planted once and develop year over year, rather than being planted annually.
“Most of the crops that we grow take about five to seven years until they’re seen as producing,” Nick told me. Stretching this out over years or decades makes even one wildfire catastrophic. “We have to expect and invest five to seven years’ worth of water, mulch, pruning, and overall maintenance before that investment starts to pay off. It’s a very long-term plan.”
The orchard rolled in waves, the smells, sounds of buzzing bees, and glaring botanical beauty almost too much to bear. I was completely alone being swallowed up by an orchard.
When farms like Rincon Tropics consider the ecosystem holistically, the way we interact with food becomes whole again. Planting multiple varieties that the farmer commits to over years creates resilience, rather than monocultures designed for maximum annual yield, which creates a system of fragility. Farmers working in tandem with wildlife and environmental pressures are in direct opposition to the direction our consolidated food system is headed.
“There are so many different facets to being a farmer: You’re a scientist. You’re a chemist. You’re an economist, a business person, a gambler, among many other things,” Nick told me. Farmers have been in a never-ending partnership with nature for millennia, and it is up to those eating their food to be part of the story as well.