One year into the future of #avocados

Just about a year ago, I had a great visit with Nathanael Johnson of Grist. We toured the ranch and talked about the future of avocados in California and it resulted in an article that was pretty widely shared.

You should definitely check it out (and maybe even help out their spring fundraiser.) The TL,DR version is that I was apprehensive about the future, but our combination of climate, soil, and farming practices gave me confidence that we could figure it out. We would continue with our plans to plant more avocados in 2019.

Now that 2019 is here, what has happened?

smoke

Smoke from the Woolsey Fire passes to our South on the first day of the fire.

First off, the weather reminded me of the dangers of hubris almost immediately. July 5th brought a searing heatwave to the region. And while it did a good deal of damage to California’s avocado crop, our ranch in Saticoy weathered the 111 degree temperatures well. (Another orchard we farm was not so fortunate.) And fall brought another round of wildfires to our region, although once again our location in Saticoy kept us from harm.

Knowing that we can’t control the weather but we could control our soil, we went to work ensuring that the new trees would have the best soil we could offer. The lemon trees retired from the spot were ground up and returned to the soil. We added gypsum to improve it further and when fall came along, we planted a covercrop to add tons (literally) of biomass.

january

Covercrops capture winter rainfall and convert it to soil biomass for the hot summers ahead. January shown here.

For a change, the weather played nicely, delivering a winter of steady, evenly spaced rainfall. The blend of triticale, sunflowers and mustard thrived and by May represented a lot of organic material ready to be “banked.”

sunflowers

The same covercrop in May. It also provided some excellent pollinator habitat during avocado pollination season.

Soilbuilding is a central tenet of our approach to resiliency, but there’s more to farming than just the soil. There are a lot of details to work out before an orchard goes in the ground… After all, unlike annual crops, you don’t get a “do-over” for 35 years. Our new orchard will employ a higher density layout, helping us produce more avocados to meet continued demand. While the 25 year-old backbone of our irrigation system is unchanged, more efficient emitters will drop the water needed for each avocado we deliver. Better soil moisture monitoring technology not only saves water, but energy and fertilizer as well. And yet we still remember the soil. Once established, the new planting will include different covercrop blends better suited to the partial shade of the orchard floor.

mulching

Spreading mulch before planting

The trees are ready to go at the nursery, details have been finalized with our irrigation designer, equipment has been serviced, water filters changed. New hoses and drippers arrive Monday, followed in two weeks by the trees themselves.

I’m still a bit apprehensive about the future. Who wouldn’t be? But I feel like we are as well prepared as we can be. Avocados in 2050?

Let’s do it.

soil

What tree wouldn’t like soil like this?

 

Advertisements

To Blog or to Tweet?

The other day I noticed that I hadn’t published anything on this blog in a year. It didn’t seem possible; I feel like I’ve been interacting with more people in the farm and food world than ever.

And I have…. but mostly on Twitter.

Twitter has great attributes as a communication tool. It’s much easier to connect to an audience, especially those people with a follower base who can dominate the conversation. Feedback, for better or worse, is immediate. And the comments and RTs are sometimes as useful as the original post. (Not always, of course.) Using this medium I have been able to connect to a variety of people helping to shape the conversations we are having about food and farm issues and that is a great thing.

But the format dictates very brief, and often oversimplified statements. I appreciate the thought that goes into longer form writing, and can feel my own abilities in that area atrophying from lack of exercise.

I’m getting back to it. There is a lot going on with Petty Ranch right now that I want to share. Look for more output here. And of course, I will be using Twitter to share this blog more widely.

IMG_20190417_083841_628

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.

128

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.

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

102

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.