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!

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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.