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.
The 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.
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.
And that is good for everybody.
We all know this tired old aphorism. I don’t know who came up with it, but it sure wasn’t a lemon grower. Since I can’t have the expression banned from the English language, I suggest we take a look at it instead.
I understand that it is meant to inspire us to make the best of a bad situation, but frankly, if free lemons are your biggest problem, you’ve got it pretty good. I have to work for mine.
Yes, lemons take work. A lot of it. As well as risk, patience, and sometimes a little luck. A surplus of lemons doesn’t sound like hardship to me. It sounds like Christmas.
The same can be said for avocados, figs, oranges and any other crop I’ve ever been associated with. A chicken farmer, almond grower, or cattleman will tell you the same thing. I don’t mean to sound as if I’m taking it too seriously, but I think this expression is emblematic of our society’s disconnection from our food. Do we really think so little of our food that we consider a surplus of it a hardship?
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.
Farming has impacts. As much as we might like to pretend that agriculture can exist in a perfectly natural state, that simply cannot happen. Growing crops is not natural. We change our environment to favor a small number of species that are particularly useful to us. This is the essence of agriculture, whether large or small, “conventional” or “organic.” I know that this is an uncomfortable idea for some people, but it is the plain truth.
Impacts are inevitable, but they can be positive as well as negative. These days we are quick to think about negative impacts: habitat loss for wild species, pollution, water use… the list goes on. We occasionally need to be reminded of the positive impacts. Most notable among these are food production and employment, although those should be obvious to anyone who works or eats.
There is plenty of debate about the “right” way to farm. High yield? Local? Organic? GMO free? What does good look like? In my view, good agricultural stewardship is a simple question of impacts.
A good farm minimizes negative impacts, and contains them to the farm.
A good farm maximizes positive impacts, and extends them beyond the farm.
As simple as it is, that’s my formula… any farm that meets this test, regardless of size, location, cultural practices, or business model is a good farm in my book.
You know, I’ve never liked the term “agribusiness”. Business has always been a component of agriculture. Yes, it entails land stewardship, and crop science, and just good, old-fashioned hands-in-the-dirt work. But those of us who do it for a living have no reason either to feel apologetic for wanting to make a profit, or feel inferior because we don’t wear expensive suits in a glass and chrome office. “Agribusiness” is useful for vilifying corporate farming, or for making insecure farmers or businessmen feel more important. I’m not much interested in either.
What I am interested in is a return to grass roots, bottom up, entrepreneurial farming. And while I appreciate the support and enthusiasm of foodies, academics and policy wonks, what we really need are people who have an enthusiasm for this business. In the part of my life spent in Silicon Valley, I observed an ethos that changing the world and making a profit did not need to be mutually exclusive. In fact, it was generally felt that making the world a better place was precisely what entitled you to significant financial rewards. (I’ll grant that some people in the Valley got a little bit drunk on this Kool-Aid, but I still like the philosophy, at least in moderation.)
This is why I was very happy to read a piece that Rob Smart posted on Civil Eats. Real change will not come externally and it will not come with a single lightning bolt from on high. Farms and small businesses will be the ones that create the models and the relationships and the innovations that will transform our present food system, just a bit at a time, until we have something much better than we have today. While I hope the pace of change will be rapid, I do believe it will be evolutionary, not revolutionary.
Let’s imagine the food system we want as being represented by a chicken.
Small. Adaptable. Friendly. Managable. Chickens are the embodiment of local scale. There is a reason that they are the iconic emblem of the idealized happy barnyard.
But what is the ancestor of this chicken? The fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Huge. Predatory. Not very pleasant to interact with, I would imagine. A good representation of today’s food system perhaps? I think so. How did we get from T. Rex to the Rhode Island Red?
Despite the occasional meteor or ice-age, it happened just one little innovation at a time.