Making bootprints with @SEE_AG

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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.

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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.

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“When life gives you lemons…

make lemonade.”

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?

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.

The Impacts of Good Farming

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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.

Agribusiness and Change: Or thanking T. Rex for your Breakfast

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.

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.

When Local Food will Work

Without making a conscious decision to do so, I have divested myself from major banks. I no longer own Citigroup stock, and I no longer use BofA for my business banking. I belong to a credit union, finance my farm within the Farm Credit system, and am a customer and minor shareholder of our local Santa Clara Valley Bank. With all the turmoil these days, many critics of our financial systems say this is the right approach to take. It is what we should do. But I didn’t do it to make a political statement or encourage an alternative financial structure for our nation.
I did it because it works. Today I enjoy all the technological conveniences that used to be the domain of the big banks. Online billpay and transfers, ATM access all over the world… you name it. But I get much better service from people who not only know my name, in some cases they even know my dog’s names. Such is community banking in a small farm town. I get the chance to talk with the bank’s CEO on a regular basis as we serve together on several community projects. I would have needed a lot of money on deposit with Bank of America to get that kind of access.
What does this have to do with local and regional food? Right now, a number of people advocate for a local and regional model for our food system. It is what we should do, they say. Very possibly they are right. But in food, as in banking and energy (the other tack I could have taken for this piece) , we don’t do things just because we should. We go with what works for us.
Currently, local food systems fall short. Sure ,we have the Farmer’s market system, and a few CSAs, but access is a real issue. A few consumers with the knowledge, extra time, and disposable income gain the benefits… they get to meet their farmer. But this system hasn’t yet shown the ability to rival the mainstream. But it is growing and getting better. You still need to make sacrifices to eat locally but not to the same degree as just a couple of years ago. So maybe the day is not far off, when this is no longer something we “should do”, but simply “do.”
That will be when local food works.