California Bio-Worm

Erosion and soil loss are history’s leading farmland killers, so we are always looking for ways to keep our soil right where we want it.

These pictures show a ditch stabilization project that we are undertaking with California Bio-Worm, a Santa Paula based startup. Elmo Iadevaia and his team have been great partners!

The next step is to backfill the wattles with compost. This will encourage root growth from the avocados and anchor a cover crop of mint to stabilize the bank.

A little more reconstruction of this ditch will widen it to slow the water, reducing erosion and improving infiltration into the soil.

We will also experiment with growing vegetables and cuttings directly into the soil filled wattles. But that is another story!

Do all local food experiments work out?

Of course not. A few years back, I tried a test plot of garlic. I had high hopes for it, since I knew I had some customers interested. But garlic turned out to be just too labor intensive for our operation. We weren’t manned for that level of cultivation, and the test plot was too small to justify adding extra manpower. A plot large enough to be viable would have required even more labor, and expensive changes to our irrigation system. That experiment fizzled.

A later experiment involved San Marzano tomatoes. I think these still hold promise, but that summer turned out to be one of the coolest and dampest on record. The soil never really warmed up, and the end of summer saw stringy little seedlings instead of the lush vines loaded with fruit I had been imagining.

This winter, I planned a trial of favas and garbanzo beans as an edible (and marketable) winter cover-crop. But weeks of dry weather set the favas back. And the garbanzos? My seed supplier wasn’t able to deliver on the order, so that will have to wait until next year.

I don’t like failure any more than anybody else. But as a small farmer facing an uncertain future, I know that riding our existing crops and business model into the ground is a guaranteed disaster. So I’ll make all the little mistakes I can, if it helps me avoid a big mistake down the road. Having access to a market for local produce doesn’t guarantee me success; there are no guarantees in farming. But it does allow me an opportunity.

I’ll take that.

Why they farmed…

The good folks over at the “Why We Farm” blog at have folded their tent. I followed their progress via their blog from time to time, and had always intended to provide a commentary on their progress. But last month they reached the point where they had gone as far as they could, and are leaving farming for more rewarding pursuits. I guess I need to write that commentary now.

I want to take a moment not only to wish them luck, but recognize their passing from the scene for what it is: A very real demonstration that the barriers to entry in agriculture make it nearly impossible for people of talent and commitment to succeed without an extraordinary amount of capital behind them.

We will never have a truly stable and sustainable agricultural economy if there is no chance for capable people to make a living. Neysa and Travis, you placed yourselves in the test-tube and conducted a three year experiment on yourselves. Thank you for that dedication. I hope that everyone carrying on has learned something from you.

I know I have.

Who’s Talking About Economic Viability?

I have always felt that the notion of economic viability gets glossed over in discussions of sustainable agriculture. That is why one of the first pieces I posted to this blog was “Defining Economic Viability”. No definition? No problem. I’ll make my own.

“Economic viability means that the real returns from farming operations, relative to the farm’s asset value and labor inputs, are competitive with other small business, career, or investment alternatives.”

I might smooth this out a bit, but it is a solid, comprehensive working definition. (Refer to the earlier article to see why.) Over the three and a half years since I wrote it,  I noticed that this article always got more traffic than others. Perhaps I should have been more curious, but I hadn’t googled the definition for some time.

Until last night.

I was surprised to see that my article was the #2 hit on Google for “defining economic viability.” OK, so that is the exact title… perhaps not a fair test. But what happens if you limit the search to “economic viability”? Still high up the second page. Note that neither search was restricted to the economic viability of agriculture. It seems odd to me that such a central concept is not better defined.

The Difference That Covercrops Make

The difference that cover crop makes.

Over the last several years, I have written several times about our covercrop program. I’ve been very pleased with our results, and this morning I can share some tangible proof of the change in soil structure that we have experienced. The “moon rock” on the left was typical of the soil in our “Block A” as of 2008. Very hard, compacted adobe.  I hung on to it to for future reference. The dirt on the left came from just a few feet away, but I scooped it up with a paper cup this morning. This is the difference of several years of managing for soil structure. It took some time, gypsum, steer manure and a palette of cover crops that included mustards, oilseed radish, clovers, vetch, barley, rye, buckwheat and fava beans. But the improvement is dramatic. I feel very confident in our ability to keep this soil viable for the next century of farming in Ventura County.

Grains of Time

It is not widely known that barley was once Ventura County’s top crop. In the late 1800’s more than 60,000 acres within the county were planted with it. Eventually, barley disappeared as a major commodity in Ventura County. Even in the 1890’s, it was tough to compete in a global market place with a crop that is priced by the ton. Today barley is experiencing a minor renaissance on local farms. We have planted barley the past five years as part of our rotational cover crop strategy to build soil and fight erosion. If it seems odd that we are growing a crop that never gets eaten, consider the following: Most grain produced in the United States is not destined for human consumption. Instead, it is used to “feed food” in feedlots and chicken houses. Our grains are “feeding food” as well, but they go right back into the soil where they were grown alongside the lemons, avocados or figs that they nurture. I wonder how consumers would take to a  “grain finished lemon”?

How Local Supports the Mainstream

I have often argued that “local” agriculture supports “mainstream” agriculture. One element of my theory is that specialty crops that are grown for niche markets and local channels find their way into the mainstream. Farmer’s Market growers validate new crops and create demand; Larger growers then take them to scale and introduce them to mainstream distribution channels.

Looking into Ventura County crop reports for another project, I spotted some data that appears to support this theory. In 2004, Tangerines accounted for about $882,000 in crop sales. By 2009, this had jumped to nearly $3,000,000. While unable to examine their source data, I think I can offer an explanation for this growth. In 2004, the sales are almost all attributable to the Ojai Pixie Growers. But by 2009, tangerine acreage was showing up around the county, destined to mainstream markets. Considering that these “mainstream trees” are still quite young, I’d anticipate that tangerine revenues will continue to rise sharply.

As finally, it is worth noting that our top crop in the County (strawberries), was a seasonal, niche crop when introduced to the Oxnard plain in the 1950’s… a plain still dominated by lima beans and sugar beets.

Why does a farmer care about the City of Los Angeles’ food policies?

Tomorrow I will be heading down to City Hall in Los Angeles to present the recommendations from the Los Angeles Urban-Rural Roundtable to the Mayor’s Food Policy Task Force. Why take most of the day away from the farm to talk City food policy? In short, I am going because the policies and attitudes about food and agriculture in Southern California will determine the destiny of our family farm. And if I want to shape that destiny, I need to go where the people are. (Actually the same reason I write the blog…)

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But when we talk about food, then a bite is worth a whole book. We need to be finding ways to expose more people to better foods. When we do, they will want more. Maybe not all of them, but enough to start a cycle. Where there is a demand, farmers and entrepreneurs will find it. When they will succeed, others will follow. More gain access to healthy food. Demand grows. The cycle continues.

I appreciate the irony that we will be having this meeting in a room where we can’t eat. I’m taking along some of our fresh citrus as a prop. I’d love to pass them out and let everybody try some, but we can’t. Rules have there place, even the rule that prevents us from eating in a City Hall hearing room. But rules can also restrict options, narrow choices and limit selection. To solve the problems that we face today may require some new rules. But more importantly it will require us to expand our capacity for innovation and creativity.

I’m not contradicting the spirit of these recommendations to note that the rules protecting us from our food have had the unintended consequence of disconnecting us from our food. We may have little idea what we are putting in our mouths. But we are comfortable and confident because we know somewhere there are libraries full of regulations and armies of white-coated inspectors with clipboards. We know our food comes in hermetically sealed packaging with plenty of labeling. We don’t read the labeling, but it all seems very sanitary… very safe. And it is safe. The food safety record in the US is pretty good. Instead, it’s the food which isn’t very good. We have done a good job of making our food safe, only to discover that our diets aren’t. We have tried to take the human element out of the loop when it comes to food. I think it is time to put the human element back. And who better to address that issue with policy makers than a food producing human?

So ultimately I am engaged in this effort because I believe that better policies (as opposed to “more policies”) will lead to more health and happiness for the residents of our region. Sure, in the long run it may help me sell more citrus and avocados. But that is good for my happiness.

Coming to a Vineyard Near You!

Summer movie season. Along with millions of other Americans, I’ve seen my fair share of summer movies, especially Michael Crichton movies. I’ve read a number of his books, too. Frequently he drops a character into situation about which he knows nothing, even though the situation has been developing for some time. This forces other characters to explain everything to him. The adventure begins even as the brief explanations continue. (Somehow the hero always arrives the very moment that things really begin to happen.) It’s a nice little plot device.

Sometimes I feel that way in my role as a Boardmember with Associates Insectary. I’ve only been on the scene a couple of years, but the “situation” is one that has been 80 years in the making. And like a character in a Michael Crichton story, I feel like I have arrived just as things are really beginning to get interesting.

I’ve already written about one instance in which the Insectary was able to work with local FFA students to locally produce the squash used for insect production. But other innovations include:

Recycled electric vehicles: When the County retired some no-longer serviceable electric service carts, the Insectary was able to acquire them at salvage value. Using our in-house capability for vehicle repair and maintenance, they are being returned to service, replacing fossil-fueled carts. Movie concept: Mad Max meets Inconvenient Truth

Mites that eat “Fresh and Local”: Most of the predatory Californicus mites raised commercially are fed a food compound that is cheap, easy and convenient. Insect fast food. Ours are raised hunting live prey produced on-site. Does a fresh, healthy diet lead to a more active, healthy mite? Apparently it does. Movie concept: Food, Inc. vs Arachnophobia

A Two-pronged defense of winegrapes: Vine Mealybug is spreading throughout the 480,000 acres of California’s wine producing regions. We are already the leading domestic producer of the Cryptolaemus beetle, a voracious consumer of mealybugs. But this summer, Cryptolaemus will get a new partner: the parasitic Anagyrus wasp. The combination two proven methods of biological control does not bode well for Vine Mealybugs. Movie concept: Pretty much every cop buddy movie ever.

So you see what I mean… I even feel like I’m starting to write a movie trailer. Cue dramatic voiceover:

“In a dangerous world, two unlikely cops partner up to take a bite out of pests. Cryptolaemus is predator, Anagyrus is a parasite. And that’s bad news for Mealybugs…

Coming this summer to a vineyard near you!”

LA Urban Rural Roundtable

This week will see the second convening of the Los Angeles Urban Rural Roundtable. While I have generally always supported strengthening bonds between urban areas and the rural, food-producing areas that surround them, I have occasionally had a concern with some of the ways “Foodshed” enthusiasts have sought to implement the concept.

In a nutshell, my concern has typically been that a heavy-handed approach might be imposed by well-meaning City officials that would serve neither the farmers nor the urban “eaters” they claim to serve. Some may view studies of how much areas like Ventura could contribute to the grain, beans and forage needs of Los Angeles as just an interesting thought experiment. I have worried that this data, while not too utilitarian in the best case, could form the basis of some staggeringly bad policy decisions.

And so when I was approached about representing agriculture on a panel that would prepare food policy recommendations for the City of Los Angeles Mayor’s office, I accepted with a frankly defensive mindset. I wanted to be there to nip any bad ideas in the bud.

After the first session, though,I was very happy to see that my fears were misplaced. The group assembled from all over Southern California has demonstrated a very practical sense of purpose. There is a desire to see that the types of fruits and vegetables that are typically produced around LA’s periphery make it to the consumers at LA’s center.

A few highlights from my perspective:

1) A general understanding that the food access issues that plague inner LA are not production problems, or even transportation problems… We grow the needed fruits and veggies and most of them travel through Los Angeles.

2) While the room held many critics of the “conventional food system”, there was an awareness that the often maligned, subsidized GMO monocultures are not representative of Southern and Central California agriculture.

3) A sense that whatever faults we may have, Southern California agriculture is a responsible environmental partner… less impactful that our sprawling suburban neighbors.

I know the Roots of Change Fund (organizers of the Roundtable) are concerned that relatively few farmers will be able to attend the second session. Some of this may be the Orange County location. But I think more probably, there is a certain sense that they do not need to be there to defend themselves. From this farmer’s perspective, that’s a pretty big accomplishment.