Do all local food experiments work out?

Of course not. A few years back, I tried a test plot of garlic. I had high hopes for it, since I knew I had some customers interested. But garlic turned out to be just too labor intensive for our operation. We weren’t manned for that level of cultivation, and the test plot was too small to justify adding extra manpower. A plot large enough to be viable would have required even more labor, and expensive changes to our irrigation system. That experiment fizzled.

A later experiment involved San Marzano tomatoes. I think these still hold promise, but that summer turned out to be one of the coolest and dampest on record. The soil never really warmed up, and the end of summer saw stringy little seedlings instead of the lush vines loaded with fruit I had been imagining.

This winter, I planned a trial of favas and garbanzo beans as an edible (and marketable) winter cover-crop. But weeks of dry weather set the favas back. And the garbanzos? My seed supplier wasn’t able to deliver on the order, so that will have to wait until next year.

I don’t like failure any more than anybody else. But as a small farmer facing an uncertain future, I know that riding our existing crops and business model into the ground is a guaranteed disaster. So I’ll make all the little mistakes I can, if it helps me avoid a big mistake down the road. Having access to a market for local produce doesn’t guarantee me success; there are no guarantees in farming. But it does allow me an opportunity.

I’ll take that.

Figs and a Stinkin’ Acre

August and September have been busy months. Irrigation is always critical this time of year, and we are just concluding picking and pruning the lemons. It was particularly busy in the small end of the business: With lemons delivered to Ventura Limoncello, Meyer lemons and figs to the Sidecar, and additional Meyers into “mainstream/niche” markets, September was our biggest month yet for local and specialty fruit.

The experience has encouraged us to try to branch out a little further, so too new crops will be added to the mix. Garlic and Figs.

Now, I know, I mentioned figs already, but let me explain. For the past two seasons we have sold figs to chefs and caterers, but they have all come from the big “family tree” which is 50+ years old and is presumed to be a black mission varietal. What will be new is that we will have a dozen trees of mixed varietals, including Kadota, Brown Turkey, and Desert King. We hope with some new varieties we may find some which really click with our customers, thrive in our microclimate, and fruit through a longer window.

Garlic is something we are going to try on a very, very small scale. I’ll be very happy if we have a thousand pounds of marketable garlic, and despite the title of this piece, we will be committing far less than an acre to it. But I have learned that local garlic is very hard to come by, so I’m going to give it a shot. It will be quite a change from tree crops. One thing I think is underappreciated about agriculture is the vast differences in knowledge and infrastructure to grow different kinds of crops. I try to be polite when sustainably-minded suburban friends suggest that we just grow X instead of Y, but I have a line rattling around in my brain about the difference between painting a portrait and painting a house. Like painters, not all farmers do the same thing.

Continuing in the vein of new crops, next spring should see our first harvest of Star Ruby grapefruit, Sanguinelli blood oranges, and Cara Cara navel oranges. Probably not enough for any meaningful contribution to the bottom line, but it will be great to get the chance to introduce them to our customers (and eat more than one or two.)

Sustainability and viability are always on my mind, and  these factored into the garlic and fig decisions. Citrus fruit in California is potentially threatened by the Asian Citrus Psyllid insect, which is a vector for Citrus Greening disease, or Huanglongbing virus. This has devastated much of Florida’s citrus industry, and as excited as I am about new specialty citrus varietals, I need to hedge our bets. Garlic and figs? Not affected by it. Avocados have had a rough ride the past few years, because as a subtropical fruit, the “extremes” of Southern California weather can push them to their limits. Will our weather be more extreme over the next few years, as it has been for the last three? It seems prudent to think so. Garlic and figs are well known to be capable of thriving with much higher highs and much lower lows. The fact that they have lower summertime irrigation requirements has got to help too, don’t you think?