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.

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New Venues, New Friends

This week will find some of our produce in two high-profile events for California diners.

“Savor the Central Coast” is being put on by Sunset magazine to celebrate the food and  agriculture of this region. Tonight, a sustainable seafood dinner paired Seafood Watch with our long-time friend Tim Kilcoyne from the SideCar Restaurant in Ventura. Some of our tree-ripe lemons will play an important supporting role on the menu. The citrus poached shrimp sounds incredible.

 Wednesday, October 6, will see “Good Food for All: A Taste of the Los Angeles Foodshed”, anchoring a conference on Food issues and policy organized by Roots of Change. 35 of LA’s top chefs and restaurants will prepare tasting menus built around ingredients from farms in our region. I’m really looking forward to it, and not just for the food. We will have the opportunity to pair with several partners. This could still be subject to change, but as of now we will be providing avocados to the Loteria Grill; Meyer lemons, and Star Ruby grapefruit and Black Mission figs to Cube Marketplace and Cafe; and lemons, Meyers and Star Rubies to the Water Grill. I’ll be attending this one, and I can’t wait to have the chance to work with some great people who are passionate about food and agriculture.

Elitist Foodie or Cheapskate Dirt Farmer?

Yesterday we had the pleasure of having some new friends from Santa Monica out for lunch on the farm. Seemed like everyone had a good time watching the goats and chickens. It was also nice to be able to serve a lunch that was drawn in large part from our own soil. For those foodies keeping score, home grown lunch items included:

A generous squeeze of Meyer lemon for the baked salmon;

A sanguinelli blood orange vinegarette dressing;

Chunks of Cara Cara navel orange  and shaved fennel bulb in the salad;

And sliced avocado served with some Meyer lemon, which was supposed to go into the salad. I forgot to add it, so it was its own “tasting course”.

I’m not really as much of a foodie as you might think from that description, but I do enjoy making the best use of the fresh ingredients that we have available. And while some people equate minor citrus varietals with expensive food snobbery, for me they are free.

So am I an elitist foodie or a cheapskate dirt farmer?

The jury’s still out,  but I’ll cop to either…

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?

Some good news…

I guess it is easy when writing about agriculture to get stuck in a negative vein. Certainly there are plenty of challenges and frustrations that have always been a part of the job. With today’s heavily regulated environment you can always look to the policy makers for some good material to gripe about. (And Will Rogers thought HE had it easy!) But it not only fair, but probably also good for my own mental health to take a few minutes to savor some of the pleasant surprises and positive events which keep me, like other farmers, coming back for more.

Some upside in a down year: Lemon prices were supposed to be pretty poor this year, and not surprisingly they are. But so far, they are holding up a little better than we had hoped. We budgeted on $9.50 per field box, but at the half way point of the year, it looks like we might be closer to $11. That’s a pretty nice bump, although it is well short of the $17-$18 we saw for the last two years. But with both a recession and a strong crop in every corner of the lemon producing world, this is pretty good news. It appears that we will hit or even slightly exceed our production estimate as well. Of course if these trends hold up, we’ll still just break even on the year. Much better than a big loss, though.

Speaking of production, our young Meyer Lemons are continuing to surprise us. We will have to replace some of the young trees due to a rootstock compatibility issue that was not well understood when we planted them. But even with half the block suffering from this chronic condition, we will get about 4000 pounds of fruit from this small planting… not bad for two and a half year old trees. We picked last Friday, but had to stop early to go get another bin. We’ll finish up this week.

We’ll be showing up in a few cool venues in the next few weeks as well. On May 30th, Kris Kristofferson is performing a benefit concert here in Ventura for Farmworker Housing. Our friend and customer, Tim Kilcoyne of the Sidecar Restaurant in Ventura, is coordinating the locally sourced meal, and some of our Meyer Lemons will be in the mix. Next month Tim will be the chef for an “Outstanding in the Field” dinner hosted by my favorite local rockstar farmer Phil McGrath at McGrath Family Farm in Camarillo. The menu is not final, but we may be there either in the form of fresh Meyers or bottled in Ventura Limoncello. Local distribution isn’t big part of our business yet, but the perks are a lot more fun than on the mainstream side of the industry. (Don’t get me wrong… I’m still a sucker for a Santa Maria BBQ.)

Today’s final bit of good news comes from our soil itself. Our lab report shows a huge drop in the need for supplemental soil Nitrogen compared to last year. Two data points does not a conclusive trend make, but is this an indicator that our covercrop program is paying off? We’ve been happy with other results from the program. Erosion last winter was nil and the bee population supported by the mustard has been huge, but the real payoff should be in the soil. Let’s hope the trend continues!

Hey, writing about positive stuff can be fun too! I’ll try to remember to do this more often.