One of the things I find fascinating about our FarmLab educational program with SEEAG is exploring kids’ understanding of agriculture. It comes as no surprise that many are unfamiliar with farming and plants, but it is interesting to see the different ways that lack of understanding is manifested.
I noticed a new one today. One of their activities was drawing a plant, after a discussion and demonstration of the different parts of a plat’s anatomy. They could draw any plant they wished. Most of them looked somewhat like this:
Yes, even after talking to them about food coming from plants, many ended up with something like a sunflower or daisy… no fruit. Sigh. But… what really struck me was that almost invariably the plant grew from the bottom of the page. Roots were often a hastily scribbled in afterthought. That suggests to me that we missed something… Roots are a vitally important, and often a sizable, part of the plant. We brought out this guy as an example:
The tap root on that sugarbeet broke off, but probably extends another 8″ or more into the soil, breaking up clay and scavenging nutrients. That’s the sugarbeet’s role in our orchard. Sure, they’re edible (in fact I just ate the one pictured above) but there’s more to it than that. Roots perform so many vital tasks for the plant and for the farm that I really want to make sure the concept sticks.
So as often happens, bringing the kids out to the farm for lesson resulted in a lesson for me. Next time…
Over the past few years, I’ve shared updates from our farm. Usually I like to share the moments and images that make farming a joy. Sometimes I post to give people an insight into farming that they might not otherwise have. Tonight’s post falls in the latter category.
Tomorrow morning we will be spraying the citrus trees in our Santa Paula orchard to help control the Asian Citrus Psyllid. The “ACP” is a vector for a bacterial disease called Haunglongbing (or “HLB”) which is deadly to citrus trees. More info on the pest and disease here.)
Picking some fruit for our household tonight before tomorrow’s treatment, I was able to spot multiple adult psyllids with my naked eye. I was even able to get this picture with my phone. This is an actual ACP, and that is my finger, in our grove today. 3/15/2016.
Usually farmers are reluctant to talk about spraying in a public forum. Why not simply let this pass unmentioned? Because it is too important. This pest/disease combo has destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of citrus in Florida because they were too late to stop it. We have been forewarned, and while the tools available to us aren’t perfect, they may slow the spread until some better options come available in the next few years. For now, Ventura County growers are voluntarily treating in a coordinated fashion to try to minimize the areas where ACP populations can flourish. Growers both large and small are part of this effort. All treatments are being done under the regulations established by the EPA, CDFA, California Department of Pesticide Regulation, and our Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner.
If I have generated any goodwill over the years, please believe me when I say that this is both important and our best opportunity to preserve California’s citrus trees for the future. This disease has spared no citrus… large orchard or small, backyard or commercial, conventional or organic.. it has not mattered in Florida. But we can still stop it here.
Last spring we successfully propagated a few cuttings from our heirloom fig tree “Harry“. One of these cuttings ended up having a pretty eventful year. Calling a 5 gallon pot home, this “harrito” made appearances at Farm Day, the Ventura County Fair, and many posts in social media.
But child stars eventually grow up and settle down, and that day was today for this little fig. Along with a few siblings from last year’s cuttings, he took his place in the fig orchard, giving up the travelling life for a more permanent home.
Of course, celebrities get special treatment… in his case, a gopher basket.
One of my Dad’s favorite sayings was the best thing a farmer could add to the soil was his bootprints. If we want our community to better understand farming, we might be wise to find a way to let our community put down some bootprints as well. That’s why I jumped at the chance to work with a local non-profit that has done a stellar job of reaching out to thousands of school-kids, parents, and educators.
Ventura based SEE-Ag was founded by Mary Maranville 8 years ago. In that time, she has created a resilient organization with a talented team of on-farm educators, and made Ventura County Farm Day a major annual event. A farm-based program that would reinforce Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curricula was the next logical step. We were very happy to be asked to participate.
Today marked the official “groundbreaking” of Farm Lab at Petty Ranch.
“Groundbreaking” might be a misnomer… with a class of third graders on hand to learn about soil, beneficial insects, and plant a lemon tree and pollinator-friendly plants, it seemed more like a “Grand Opening” to me.
By my count, SEE-Ag should reach more than 7,000 people directly this year with their programs; many more will learn about their work through media. Thankfully, not everyone will need to set foot on our farm… we’re really not set-up for that. Not yet, anyway. Each of those 7,000 + will see their understanding of agriculture increased. A little bit in some cases; a lot in others. Maybe a few will even be inspired to make agriculture a career. But the distance between our rural and suburban worlds will be made just a little bit smaller with every trip.
The year just ended was dry. Really dry. Our crops needed water, yet there is a strong incentive to conserve. So for 2015 we really tried to pull out all the stops, and got our water use down to just 1.25 acre-feet of water per acre (AF/acre). For those of you who haven’t committed water stats to memory (most of you, I’d guess) here are a few benchmarks.
2.23 AF/acre- The amount we are allocated as part of the managed Santa Paula groundwater basin.
2 – 2.5 AF/acre – The typical standard for citrus and avocados.
1.65 AF/acre – The amount we used in 2014.
1.25 AF/acre – The amount we used in 2015.
I’m happy to say that despite our stingy water use, our production was actually up a bit in 2015 compared to 2014. Can we continue the trend? If this El Nino delivers, we should. But as I write this, we’re coming off three days of Santa Ana conditions with temperatures over 90 and humidity dropping as low as 9%. There are only 60 days or so left in the rainy season, and nothing on the horizon for 7 to 10 days at least. The clock is running against us.
What’s new for 2016?
We’ve added new technology from Acuity Agriculture that will allow us to be more observant. We can now see soil moisture in real-time, track soil and air temperatures, and even get a better handle on the drought’s less visible threat: soil salinity.
As happy as we are to see a healthier Sierra snowpack, this drought is not over, and it won’t be over this year. Not in Ventura County.
Theories are great, but to be meaningful, they must be put to the test. For a little over ten years, we’ve been working on improving our soil quality. There are many potential benefits, but our capacity to weather the drought motivated our efforts. During the past few years of drought, I’ve tried to calculate our additional water holding capacity. Depending on what numbers I used, my estimates have ranged from 2.6 to 3.9 million additional gallons of water that could be retained in our soil. But so far, these numbers have only been theoretical. How much more could we really absorb? That remained to be seen.
This week’s El Niño powered storms gave us a chance to gather more data. There is a low point on our property that floods predictably after 1.5 inches of rain. Yesterday, it did flood. But not until nearly 4 inches had fallen in the previous day and a half. It seems we are retaining more water.
How much more? It appears that we absorbed at least 2 more inches of rain before flooding started. Time for math.
An inch of rain covering an acre of land is 27,154 gallons. 2 inches on 52 acres is 2,824,016 gallons.
This is a fairly crude “back-of-the-envelope” calculation, but it falls very neatly within the predicted range. Not PhD level science perhaps, but a nice confirmation that our work has been worthwhile.
Part of our motivation for the sugarbeet project was to showcase the actual process of raising a dry-farmed crop. As of New Year’s Eve, we have yet to plant the crop… and that’s a great example of what we’re trying to do.
Originally we expected to plant just before Thanksgiving. Traditionally that is a good time to plant covercrop. We prepped the soil to plant, but didn’t go for it when the rain system we’d been counting on failed to live up to expectations.
Not planting was the right call. We’ve only had about a third of an inch of rain on top of very dry soil. We’ve had dry, windy days and freezing cold nights. Had we planted on schedule, we probably would have lost the whole crop. As it is, the seed is safe in the barn while we look for the right opportunity to plant. We’re about 45 days behind schedule, but it looks like we’ll get our chance early next week.