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!”


The Question

I’m really looking forward to almost everything about tomorrow night’s Outstanding in The Field Dinner at McGrath Family Farm. Phil McGrath is our local “local-food rockstar” here in Ventura County, and it might be unsettling to have to share his spotlight, if I didn’t already know what a great guy he is. Phil, I’m pleased to be your opening act.

I always look forward to any meal with Tim Kilcoyne from Ventura’s Sidecar Restaurant, so no issue there. I’m also looking forward to the event itself, since I have read and heard about the great job the Outstanding in the Field crew does.

I said “almost everything”, because the one thing I’m not looking forward to is The Organic Question. You see, I’m not an organic certified grower, and I don’t plan to be… certainly not by tomorrow night. For a lot of local food enthusiasts, though, organic certification is considered the entry-level criteria for sustainable agriculture. Given my penchant for complexity, I don’t see the issue as being nearly that simple. But tomorrow night, I will be asked The Question, I will answer truthfully, and I will watch the flicker of disappointment wash over the face of the guest.

So here’s the long answer that I will probably not have time for tomorrow night. I don’t believe that organic certification means that much in the context of sustainability, either in economic or environmental terms. Certification is about compliance with certain standards, which have some relation to (but do not define) sustainability. I’m more interested in the philosophy that guides sustainability, and on that score I feel pretty comfortable. I embrace the organic philosophy of feeding the soil, not the plant. In other pieces I’ve outlined our use of composting, mulching and cover-cropping, so I won’t repeat them here. We have utilized beneficial insects as part of an Integrated Pest Management program for three generations. With any chemical application that I may need to make, I give a good deal of weight to potential impacts on my own soil-ecosystem, let alone the larger environment. And it is my belief that a farm managed with natural or organic processes, with an occasional chemical boost when necessary is a perfectly justifiable and sustainable proposition.

It’s really all about moderation, isn’t it? I enjoy a cold beer (or colder limoncello) occasionally, without feeling like I’m risking alcoholism. A good cheeseburger from time to time is not going to be the death of me. Now if I lived my life on nothing but Slim-Jims and cheap whiskey, then I’d have a problem.

People typically think of the food world as being bi-polar: virtuous, small, local, and organic farms on the one extreme, and greedy, global, corporate factory farms on the other. In his book, The Ominvore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan explores a third option: the so called industrial organic model. In this model a conventional mindset and retinue of cultural practices is employed using organic inputs to create food that is legally organic, but is philosophically indistinguishable from conventional farming. It is this model that has made Wal-Mart the largest retailer of organic food in the world.

I’d like to think I’m part of a fourth model: organic and small in philosophy, but open to the benefits of conventional agriculture when needed. So if a little herbicide will knock down a morning glory patch without hours of hand tool and weed- whacker work, I’ll do it. And if a little extra nitrogen helps get young trees off to a good start before winter, I’m OK with that too.

Maybe if the wine really gets flowing, I’ll get to have this conversation about the deeper aspects of sustainability. But I might have to talk with my mouth full.

Summer Covercrops

In earlier pieces I have alluded to a soil problem in “Block A”, 5 acres of 15 year old lemon trees. These trees should be in the prime of their lives right now but this block has always struggled. In the past 2 years, nearly 160 (one fifth of the acreage) have crashed. Soil analysis has shown no pathogens.  Our prime suspect is a clay pan which has developed only about a foot down. For the past two winters we have used covercrops  to get more organic material into the soils. Barley and rye for biomass, crimson clover for nitrogen, and a blend of mustards for both their biomass and deep taproots.

The clover has been a disappointment. Hard to start, it has not shown signs of nitrogen fixing as we had hoped, and has been a minimal contributor to biomass, either above or below ground. On the otherhand, the mustard has performed quite well. Almost complete germination, resitant to brief heat, the blossoms  helped support a humongous bee population while our trees were in bloom. Where there are bees, I expect there are other beneficial insects as well, so this should be helping with our integrated pest management efforts. Root penetration isn’t quite what we expected, but with water trapped in or above the clay, they haven’t needed to.

This coming month we will take our first stab at summer covercrops. We will alternate between rows with buckwheat, red cowpeas, and black-eyed peas. Since we have some crimson clover left over, we will also try a little as a warm season cover. Buckwheat is pretty much solely a biomass generator, but the others, being legumes, should give us some N. We may even harvest some of the black-eyed peas. Not sure if we can find a market for them though… This corner of rural/suburban Southern California isn’t a big soul-food kind of place. Anybody looking for some locally grown comfort food?

This summer cover program will go hand in hand with a high density replant of Meyer Lemons in the effected areas. The soils will further get a boost from tilling in the winter’s cover crop, a little organic sulfur, and a few shovels of our homebrew vermicompost for each tree. My philosophy is to “exercise” the soil, instead of “working” it.

Wish me luck!

Sustainability at the Bug House

Among other ag industry activities of mine, I serve on the board of Associates Insectary, a grower owned cooperative in Santa Paula. For 80 years, we have reared and released beneficial insects as part of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program for Citrus and Avocados. In 1928, the term “sustainability” hadn’t yet been coined. Neither had the term “Integrated Pest Management.” But we did it anyway, because growers in our area have always been quick to adopt a practical idea when they see it. Typically it is done without recognizing that we are employing “sustainable” methods… most Insectary members think of themselves as “traditional” growers, although our organic acreage is on the rise.


Tuesday’s meeting brought another great example of a project that we didn’t conceptualize as being sustainable… it just seemed like the right way to get the job done. In order to raise predatory insects, you must have prey for them to feed on, and the prey must have food to sustain their population. The preferred food source for our feedstock is squash. For part of the year, we are dependent on imported squash from Mexico, since there simply isn’t any available closer to home.


But we have been very pleased with results from a pilot program with the Fillmore High School FFA. We provided them with seed, and they have cultivated a great crop of squash for us in a window that we typically use imported squash. From their small plot, they have delivered 5000 pounds of squash, and they are still setting blossom. More squash is coming and we are looking to expand the program in the fall. This has been a great outcome for every facet of sustainability. High School kids learn about farming and earn a few bucks by selling us squash. The whole production cycle has lower fossil fuel usage and carbon footprint, no risk of spreading invasive pests, and keeps dollars in the local economy. The Insectary gets reasonably priced squash, improving the economics of beneficial insect production for our members.


It feels pretty good when something works out this well, and there are many more stories like this one than the general public knows. I’ll touch back to this topic from time to time, because the Insectary always seems to have something cool going on.


Next time: converting our yard vehicle fleet to electric.