A day spent planting covercrop

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

Drought Op-Ed

I haven’t plugged someone else’s blog in this space before, but the seriousness of the water issue compels me to do it in this case. Michael Dimock’s comments also appeared on the Op-Ed page of the SF Chronicle. I don’t know what balance may be possible among the competing water demands of urban users, farmers, and the environment, but open warfare on the topic is likely to be a disaster for all.

http://www.rocfund.org/blogs/michael-r.-dimock-s-blog/response-to-drought-is-dry-run-for-a-response-to-climate-change

Shades of  theDust Bowl? Sadly droughts seem to have a sense for times of economic distress. While there can never be a good time for a devastating drought, this is a particularly tough time for California agriculture already.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but a few things seem clear. Recreational water use, such as golf courses and pools will have to face a great deal of pressure. Water reclamation and conservation must be taken to new levels. And while it may seem transparently self-serving for me to say so, we must ensure that agriculture receives an appropriate share. Forcing food prices through the roof, and compelling people to shift away from healthy fruit and vegetable options when they are already in economic distress will only compound the problems we face.

Perhaps this is a terrible yet timely opportunity for national food policy makers to recognize the role that California’s fruits and vegetables play in our food system.