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 Homegrown.org 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.

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!”

Figs and a Stinkin’ Acre

August and September have been busy months. Irrigation is always critical this time of year, and we are just concluding picking and pruning the lemons. It was particularly busy in the small end of the business: With lemons delivered to Ventura Limoncello, Meyer lemons and figs to the Sidecar, and additional Meyers into “mainstream/niche” markets, September was our biggest month yet for local and specialty fruit.

The experience has encouraged us to try to branch out a little further, so too new crops will be added to the mix. Garlic and Figs.

Now, I know, I mentioned figs already, but let me explain. For the past two seasons we have sold figs to chefs and caterers, but they have all come from the big “family tree” which is 50+ years old and is presumed to be a black mission varietal. What will be new is that we will have a dozen trees of mixed varietals, including Kadota, Brown Turkey, and Desert King. We hope with some new varieties we may find some which really click with our customers, thrive in our microclimate, and fruit through a longer window.

Garlic is something we are going to try on a very, very small scale. I’ll be very happy if we have a thousand pounds of marketable garlic, and despite the title of this piece, we will be committing far less than an acre to it. But I have learned that local garlic is very hard to come by, so I’m going to give it a shot. It will be quite a change from tree crops. One thing I think is underappreciated about agriculture is the vast differences in knowledge and infrastructure to grow different kinds of crops. I try to be polite when sustainably-minded suburban friends suggest that we just grow X instead of Y, but I have a line rattling around in my brain about the difference between painting a portrait and painting a house. Like painters, not all farmers do the same thing.

Continuing in the vein of new crops, next spring should see our first harvest of Star Ruby grapefruit, Sanguinelli blood oranges, and Cara Cara navel oranges. Probably not enough for any meaningful contribution to the bottom line, but it will be great to get the chance to introduce them to our customers (and eat more than one or two.)

Sustainability and viability are always on my mind, and  these factored into the garlic and fig decisions. Citrus fruit in California is potentially threatened by the Asian Citrus Psyllid insect, which is a vector for Citrus Greening disease, or Huanglongbing virus. This has devastated much of Florida’s citrus industry, and as excited as I am about new specialty citrus varietals, I need to hedge our bets. Garlic and figs? Not affected by it. Avocados have had a rough ride the past few years, because as a subtropical fruit, the “extremes” of Southern California weather can push them to their limits. Will our weather be more extreme over the next few years, as it has been for the last three? It seems prudent to think so. Garlic and figs are well known to be capable of thriving with much higher highs and much lower lows. The fact that they have lower summertime irrigation requirements has got to help too, don’t you think?

Dilemma or Delusion?

 I have followed with interest a debate which has been bouncing around between Facebook, Grist and the American regarding organic versus conventional agriculture.

Links to the relevant articles here and here.

At the risk of being attacked from both sides, I would posit that neither is quite right, and yet both are correct. Does that sound like a political BS non-answer? Let me dig my hole deeper…

 “Conventional” farmers and those on that side of the debate often claim that “organic farming can’t feed the world.” To date that is correct. But that does not mean that it may not be true at some point in the future. But first organic/sustainable food systems will have to overcome some very serious obstacles about scale, efficiency and distribution models.

Organic advocates often point out that agriculture as practiced today will be untenable for the next 100 years. This is also correct. But they miss the point that farming is no more likely to remain static in the coming century than it was in the last. The usage of no-till practices, covercrops, and highly efficient means of irrigation are on the rise, and these innovations are coming from the ag community.

It is my belief that we are in a period of convergence between the two. In Omnivore’s Dilemma, the book at the center of this particular exchange, Michael Pollan examines one transitional model: the so called “Industrial Organic.” I think that this a good example of the blurring of the line between the two camps. I also believe that there is another possibility… Let’s call it “Artisanal Conventional.” What of a farm that sells produce both into mainstream channels as well as to local consumers and food artisans, yet will still use a little conventional fertilizer when called for? (Disclosure to those who may not know me: this is my model.)

There are an awful lot of farms that fall into a gray area between the two poles, and at the further risk of seeming self-serving, I do believe that it is in the middle, and not at the extremes, that we will see the future. And I do believe it is one we will be happy with.

A final anecdote: Yesterday I was at a meeting of sustainable food systems types in Los Angeles. It was mentioned in passing that another member of the circle who was not present at the time was going to be attending a $1000 a plate fundraiser. This was accepted as proof that his organic business model must be working. Indeed it seems to be. But from my small semi-conventional farmer perspective it seemed to me that his ability to do this had more to do with an operation that is roughly 50 times my size, than the fact that his produce is organic. I don’t bring this up to complain: I cite it as evidence that the usual big/small, conventional/organic dichotomies that we so quickly embrace in these debates are not always that well reflected in reality.