Gotta know when to mow ’em #covercrops

“The cover crop we grow with winter rain becomes the water-holding soil organic matter that gets us through our long, dry summers.”

This phrase is a staple of every farm tour and school visit that comes to Petty Ranch. But how does the winter cover become summer’s mulch? By mowing.

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Our cover crop usually includes annual grains, which die back during the summer. Winter’s green blanket of barley turns into a golden yellow mat of straw over the summer. This shades and cools the soil, retains moisture,  and inhibits dust.

How do we know the optimal time to mow? Confession time: We don’t.

It isn’t really possible to know the perfect time without knowing exactly what still lies ahead in terms of rain and weather. Without a time machine, we are out of luck.

But perfection is overrated. Farmers are often ruled by practical considerations. Do we need to allow a harvest crew to pick? Are gophers getting out of control while hidden by the greenery? Are the winter’s fig prunings brittle enough to chop nicely?

Most importantly: If it is time to water the trees, it is time for the cover crop to stop using water.

Cover crops do great things for the soil, but they do use water. That is why we like to grow them during the rainy season. When we stop getting water for free it is time to cut the cover crops off. Literally. Sadly, it looks like most of the rain for the season is now behind us. (After only 7.5 inches, making my prediction from December 4 more accurate than I would have liked.)

We started an irrigation cycle this morning that will run through Friday. Once it is completed, it will be time to start mowing.

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Emergency under our feet #soil #thomasfire

I wrote a little piece for UC Food Observer last week in which I noted the convergence of CA Soils Week and the Thomas fire. In short, I recognized the damage done to the soil by the fires, and the need to help them rebuild. Link here:

http://ucfoodobserver.com/2017/12/07/from-the-fire-zone-a-farmers-perspective/

Don’t soils come back on their own? Well, yes…. given time. But before they do, they are subject to further damage from both wind and rain. It is in our interest to give them a boost. If we do not, the consequences are clear: loss of topsoil in hillside orchards and grazing land, mudslides that threaten neighborhoods downhill, and sediment that impacts our waterways.

My good friend Margot Stewart has taken up the idea I suggest in the post. Laying in a stock of seed to distribute to farmers, ranchers, and hillside property owners will help us get out in front of this second wave of destruction that are sure to follow in Thomas’ wake. Link here:

https://www.gofundme.com/regrowventura

With the devastation around us, there are many ways that people can contribute. I know there are many demands for your attention and support and they are all worthy. But please don’t forget the emergency under our feet.

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The drought that never left

Last winter’s rains were wonderful and sorely needed. But it was easy to forget that they were about average. News coverage focused on Northern California’s record rains and the drama at Oroville Dam. But for those of us in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, the drought didn’t go away… it just paused. Groundwater and lake levels are not much different than a year ago. Soil salinity is inching back up. We had was a nice break, but break time’s over. The drought is back; indeed it never left.

20171128_CA_textThe odds of a reprieve this year seem slim. As I write this on December 4 we see no rainfall ahead; only a week of howling Santa Ana winds and single digit humidity. It is probable that we will see no measurable rainfall until after New Year’s Day. My estimate is that we are going to be short 10 inches of rainfall for the season.

I’d love to think this pessimism is misplaced. I look forward to spreading this winter’s covercrop so we can make the best possible use of the whatever rainfall we get. I hope we will have the chance to take our well offline for some badly needed maintenance, but we need a good rain event to allow a break in our irrigation schedule. We shall see.

The drought continues.

Farm Lab Returns

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Of all the things we did at Petty Ranch in the last year, none has given me more satisfaction than the Farm Lab program put on by our partners at SEEAG.  Working together, we were able to bring more than 2000 local students to visit our farm. These children, mostly 3rd graders, had the opportunity to learn about the insect life on a farm, the living structure of soil, the biology of the plants that feed us, and the journey that our food takes from farm to table. The half day curriculum is based on California STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) learning objectives, and here’s the best part:

The program is provided at no cost to the students.

Zero.

This is possible because of the generous support of SEEAG’s sponsors, but it is always a challenging task.  The hardest part? Transportation. That’s covered by SEEAG as well. A bus trip to Petty Ranch averages about $250. That’s about $5 a seat.

So here’s my pitch: Will you help? One seat for a local student? Two? Half a bus? A whole bus? Any help, in whatever amount, will make a difference.

Here’s the link to SEEAG again. Look for the “Donate” button.

Thank you.