Making bootprints with @SEE_AG


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.

farmlab sign

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.

And that is good for everybody.


#ElNino tests our #Soilbuilding efforts

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.

#sugarbeets revisited

We’ll be trying something new in our covercrop this winter. Or perhaps I should say something old.

Sugar beets were once a staple of our local economy. The city of Oxnard is named for the brothers who opened the first sugar beet processing plant in the area in 1897 and operated until 1959. But without local processing, sugar beets ceased to be a viable crop, and they disappeared quickly. Much of their former domain now yields strawberries.

We’ll be growing about an acre’s worth of sugar beets in our fig orchard this winter. Without a plant to process them, we have no expectation that they will be a profitable cash crop. So why are we doing it?

As part of the brassica family, they should make a nice rotational covercrop with our typical barley and rye. It’s good for the soil to mix things up. I could have opted for more familiar table beets or swiss chard… all are the same species of plant. But I have plenty of friends growing those already and the chefs I work with have all they need..

I’ve already mentioned the historical connection. Sugar beets played a big role in our community but are nearly forgotten. Not many locals know the difference between a sugar beet and a regular beet. Growing a few seemed like a great educational opportunity. I’ll be introducing a little living piece of local farm history to our neighbors of all ages.

Lastly, sugar beets provide a link to the realities of where our food comes from. A sugar beet is one of the ugliest pieces of produce out there. But it is transformed into something vastly different in appearance and flavor. That transformation takes work. It is possible to do it in a home kitchen, and I have a few friendly volunteers who will attempt to make a little local sugar and illustrate the process and uses for the public. I’ll share those developments here.

As for myself, I plan on using the sugar syrup form the first stage of processing to make some Meyer lemon marmalade. I like to encourage home canners, but it always bothers me a bit that this classic “homemade” food is so dependent on sugar from far, far away. Beet pulp from processing makes decent livestock fodder, the greens are edible for humans and livestock alike, and everything is compostable for a return to the fig orchard… helping to feed another ancient crop.

#ElNiño and soil

A Godzilla El Niño is coming. All the experts agree. Clearly we must have a lot to do to be prepared, right?

Actually, not as much as you might think.

Sure, we’re going to be doing some work on drains and ditches. We’ll even have some sandbags prepared. But our real ability to weather the coming storm lies in our soil. For the last decade, we’ve been building up our ability to absorb and retain water. Our mulch and covercrop practices have given our farm the ability to absorb 2,600,000 more gallons of water than our soil had in it’s natural state. So we’re really not approaching the El Niño that much differently than we approached the last few years of drought. We’ve been getting ready for years.

The same soil that absorbs water in a deluge retains water in a drought. No matter the forecast, soil structure is paramount.

Last season's barley and rye covercrop will help with this year's El Niño

Last season’s barley and rye covercrop will help with this year’s El Niño

I don’t eat (or drink) the #barley

Once upon a time, barley was the top crop here in Ventura County. For decades, sixty to eighty thousand acres were grown here.

2015-04-03 09.48.11

Today, barley hardly shows up in our county at all. I happen to grow a little. But I don’t eat it. I don’t even harvest it for our friends in Ventura’s growing microbrewery scene.

I know this seems wasteful. There’s a drought on… I’m aware of that. Yet, I’m growing a crop with no intention of harvesting it. Crazy.

Perhaps, but perhaps not. We grow barley as part of our orchard covercrop, along with ryegrass. As a covercrop, it is there to support our cash crops: lemons, avocados and figs. An orchard floor is a tough place… it gets walked on, driven on, mowed… it’s working land. So one reason I don’t harvest the barley is simple: not that much survives until it would be ready to harvest.

But that unharvested barley and rye are not wasted. They return a few thousand pounds of biomass to every acre of our orchard every year. That biomass is essential to the carbon content of our soil, which has been improved through farming, not depleted. The increased organic content of our soil and open structure improves water infiltration and retention. We are more efficient users of water because we have the “unused crop”, not despite it.

Unharvested grains reseed themselves more economically than sowing new seed every year. In short, the barley I grow is worth more to me as seed than it is as food. Natural reseeding also allows the soil structure to remain undisturbed for two or three years at a time.

There may be a day when orchard covercrop barley will provide the malt for my favorite brewers…that would be fun, but for now, I need the barley to nourish the soil, not me.

#Soil Carbon in Saticoy

I’ve been doing some reading recently on the topic of soil organic matter, most notably in the book The Soil Will Save Us, by Kristin Ohlson. There’s a lot of discussion about sequestration of carbon in the soil, and what agriculture has done in the past and may do in the future to affect that amount. But much of the discussion relates to large-scale Midwestern farming – rangeland grazing and grain production. It doesn’t speak to Ventura County agriculture. How are we faring?

At our farm, we have had a covercrop program going in our orchard for 10 years, and it made me wonder… was there a good way to see a measurable difference for our efforts? Subjectively, we’ve been very happy with our results. Our program has prioritized erosion control and soil structure. We’ve never worried our soil carbon content. But a big part of a soil’s structure is determined by the organic material within, and organic material is a pretty good proxy for carbon. (Direct measurements soil carbon are apparently expensive and not that reliable.) Since we’ve been trying to add biomass, we must be adding carbon, right?

Out of curiosity, I decided to take a look at some numbers.

We haven’t regularly tracked our soil organic matter, but a fairly recent lab test shows us ranging between 5.5% and nearly 7%. (6.94% to be precise.) Unfortunately, we took no baseline measurement before starting the covercrop experiment, but I was able to find a figure to represent our soil in a “natural” state. According to the Web Soil Survey of the Natural Resource Conservation District, the Pico and Mocho series soils such as those at our Saticoy farm typically have only 2.5 – 3% organic matter.

5.5 to 7% sure beats 2.5 to 3%!

It would seem that we are holding twice the organic matter (and presumably twice the carbon) in our soil that existed in nature. I’m actually not that surprised to see an improvement, although double was unexpected. Orchards, even without covercrop, have much heavier vegetation than would exist here naturally, thanks to irrigation. That plant material that my family has been producing over 130 years is reflected in the organic content of our soil.

I’d love to have figures for other orchards in our area, and better data on our soil circa 2005, prior to the reintroduction of covercrops on our farm. If I were writing a PhD thesis, I’d need more data. But for a farmer looking for validation of his practices, this looks pretty good to me.

A day spent planting covercrop

2014-12-01 09.00.33

Not a very engaging title, is it?  Yet it is descriptive, and that’s what we’re going for. Pictured above, you’ll see the Gator loaded with seed. What seed, you ask? We use a blend of barley, rye, and crimson clover as our mainstay covercrop mix. It comes from a local supplier (S&S Seeds in Carpinteria), and is great biomass for the money. The clover should add a little Nitrogen, but frankly the vigorous rye and barley usually crowd it out. If we’re looking for N, we plant that separately, but that’s a different story.

One of the most important elements to our covercrop program is timing. We want the cover in the orchard rows to grow without reliance on the tree’s sprinklers. Sure, they’ll pick up a little, but the goal is to dryfarm the covercrop. To get things started, we want to plant just before a rain. And we’re picky… too little rain causes the seeds to sprout and die; too much might rinse them away, along with some of the topsoil we’re working to build. We want 1 to 2 inches or rain after most fall orchard operations are over. And yesterday, conditions were perfect. Cool, overcast, and a 100% chance of rain today.

2014-12-01 08.55.08

Step 1: Prepping the seed bed. To protect the topsoil, we rarely disc the soil, but opening it up to get the covercrop seeded is one time we make an exception. In the picture above, Carlos handles the discing. Doesn’t that soil look nice?

Much better than the pictures below… These were taken along the edge of the orchard that fronts CA 126. We don’t cover this strip every season, and it is indicative of what our orchard soil would be looking like if we didn’t cover at all. Note how the disc has only scratched at the surface of the hardened clay.

2014-12-01 19.10.542014-12-01 14.59.32

Now check out two more. See the difference? Much more crumbly, more organic matter, and darker color. The color is partly from the soil quality, but mostly because it is holding moisture… Exactly what you want your soil to do in a drought.

2014-12-01 08.53.30 2014-12-01 08.58.01

The rest of the day looks pretty much like this, with the exception of breaks to empty 50 pound sacks of seeds into the hopper. Up and down, up and down, 80 rows of trees. Ah, the glamour of farming.

2014-12-01 10.47.38

But it does feel good when everything works as planned. Today’s rain arrived as expected and this season’s covercrop is on it’s way!

2014-12-02 09.34.26

This picture from February 2013 gives a good idea of what we will can expect in February 2015. Lots of biomass. We don’t have a practical way to measure it, but it should be 3000 to 4000 pounds to the acre. 90 pound Otto is included for scale.

2013-02-07 13.01.15

Two Counterintuitive Drought Responses

The drought is on everybody’s mind and I get asked a lot what we are doing to deal with it. We changed to microsprinklers 20 years ago, and our “home aquifer”, the Santa Paula Basin, has had pumping restrictions for about the same length of time. In general, we have already done what we can… farming like there is a drought is normal for us.

Which is why two of the actions we’ve taken surprise people… More trees and bigger sprinklers. How can that be a good thing?

Let’s start with the bigger sprinklers. When we devoted several acres to figs 4 years ago, it was in part motivated by a desire to add a more drought resistant crop to our operation. But we also knew we had some soil issues there. So when the figs were planted, we actually went to oversize sprinklers. This wide water pattern encouraged the young figs to develop a big root system… exactly what you need to reach out to every bit of water in the soil. It also allowed us to sustain a summer covercrop, helping to build the soil structure needed to better withstand a drought. We did use a bit more water in the short term, but today we have much better soil, better water retention, and stronger trees. As I write this we are irrigating… it’s September and we’ve had no rain for a long, long time. But some of our figs are going without water this cycle. Even on a very warm September day, they simply don’t need it. We’re saving about 1500 gallons an hour today.

We have also responded by planting more trees; in this case Meyer lemons replacing avocados. As very young trees, they have small root systems and can get by on much less water. Each tree gets a sprinkler that uses about a quarter of the water that the avocados used. Since Meyer lemons are smaller trees than avocados, even when grown, we have planted about twice as many per acre, but even so, we will use a good deal less water for the next 4 years. Once they are grown, their water use will be similar to the avocados. But in the spirit of making lemonade out of lemons, we are using the drought to replace old trees with young ones that will serve us for the next 30 years, and saving a little water while it’s critical.

Cover crops and conservation

I’ve been thinking a lot about cover crops and conservation his week while putting together a blog piece on the topic. And then I spot this very thoughtful comment from my friend Bill Bartels:

When we conserve it is from a position of limited amount.  “We Conserve…”  When we foster sustainable system, we conserve from a position of process, collaboration, and outcome that allows the continuance of a system or community.  In that, I am wondering is conservation is the right place to stand?  The land demands complexity to remain productive and healthy.  So, in fact, are we fostering complexity?  That is an interesting definition of conservation.

Admirable though conservation is, isn’t it just a nice way to describe postponing the eventual depletion of a resource? Doesn’t that seem to be setting the bar a little low? With respect to our cover crop program, I know our goal is to build soil, not conserve it. I’m still going to write this other piece, but since Bill framed the issue  so well, I felt compelled to share his insight.

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.