Time to put down roots

Last spring  we successfully propagated a few cuttings from our heirloom fig tree “Harry“. One of these cuttings ended up having a pretty eventful year. Calling a 5 gallon pot home, this “harrito” made appearances at Farm Day, the Ventura County Fair, and many posts in social media.

But child stars eventually grow up and settle down, and that day was today for this little fig. Along with a few siblings from last year’s cuttings, he took his place in the fig orchard, giving up the travelling life for a more permanent home.

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Of course, celebrities get special treatment… in his case, a gopher basket.

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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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Looking back at our water use in 2014

The traditional benchmark for water use in citrus and avocados is 2 acre-feet of water per acre per year. In a dry year, you expect the number to go up, and as we all know, 2014 was a very dry year. After completing my pumping reports for the United Water Conservation District this morning, I’m pleased to say that our usage at Petty Ranch was only 1.65 acre feet per acre… a great number for such a dry year, and about 15% less than I expected earlier in the year.

How did we do it? Most of the credit goes to my Dad, who had the foresight to move us to a microsprinkler irrigation system a little more than 20 years ago.

Our four acres of figs can make due with less water, and their irrigation was cut back a bit in October. These trees are still young, and this is the first time we risked stressing them, but I think we will be able to support them with less water in the future.

Covercrops played a role. Our soil structure has improved dramatically, which helps to absorb and retain water.

Despite the drought, we’ve replaced some of our older trees with new plantings. At least for a few years, they will be able to get by with less water than their predecessors.

So that’s it… nothing fancy, and frankly nothing more than is being done by many careful farmers in our neighborhood.

“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.

So why are there figs?

 

If fig season is over, why are there figs? Even though winter has come and the fig trees are dropping their leaves, there are still figs on the trees. Why aren’t they available?

The simple answ100_0803er is that a fig tree is a lot like a checkbook… Each fig is the equivalent of a blank check. But a check is only as good as the bank account behind it. Once the weather cools, the tree stops photosynthesizing… it is no longer putting money in the bank. So the figs left on the trees would “bounce” if you picked them. Actually, considering the stiff rubbery texture of an immature fig, that may be literally as well as figuratively true.