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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Putting our money where the mouths are

Over the last few months, I’ve made a couple of sponsorship commitments that are a little out of the norm for a farm.

One was for a food truck. The other is for a running team. Why would I spend dollars from the farm like this? It may be that I just wanted to see our new Petty Ranch logo more often. I’m proud of it and put a lot of thought into the design. So I admit… this could all be about ego.

But I’d like to think there is something deeper. Scratch is not your typical food truck, even now that food trucks are cool. It is the creation of Chef Tim Kilcoyne, and if you have followed his blog, you know he has been a champion of fresh, local and seasonal eating. With this truck, he is literally “taking it to the streets.” I’ve been a fan of Tim’s for a while, and he’s always done great things with the figs and Meyer lemons we’ve provided him. Have a look at the Kickstarter video here.

“Everybody’s Hungry” is a blog dedicated to food, health, education and the community, and its mastermind, Jason Hendrick, has been a tireless voice and volunteer. “Tireless” is an ideal attribute for someone with Jason’s pastime: distance running. Everybody’s Hungry Racing Team has been created to help illustrate the connections between food and health and lifestyle in a very tangible way. I haven’t known Jason as long, but the work he’s done for Food Share, Totally Local VC, and promoting local food and craft beers on radio has been exemplary. Read more about Everybody’s Hungry and EBH Racing here.

I am proud to have our logo displayed on the back of Scratch’s truck and EBH Racing’s jersey. And yes… I do believe it is about more than my desire to see our logo in print. These are two gents making a difference, and I’m excited to be a part of it. So if see me eating at the truck with Tim, or running at an event with Jason (albeit much more slowly), know that I’m having a good time, but also know that I’m trying to make a connection too. Food and Health and Community are important to these guys, and they’re important to farmers too. We want consumers to connect these dots, and we want to have Petty Ranch be a part of that connection.

More Food, Less System

I can’t grow an avocado or a lemon or a fig for less money than Hostess can produce a Twinkie. I don’t know how they can do it so cheaply, but they can, and I simply can’t compete with that.

Or perhaps I should say I can’t compete with that on price. I can’t play their game and expect to win. But I can play a different game, my game, and expect to thrive.

Value is about something more than the lowest price. There is incredible value in a cool apple, a sticky-sweet fig, or a tart Meyer lemon. These I can produce, and being blessed by geography, I can produce them at a reasonable price for customers who appreciate the value that they represent.

It may be a sad truth that not everybody appreciates good food. I’d like to think that the world would be a better place if this were otherwise. But I don’t need to wait for the world to be perfect, or even better. There are people who want what I grow, and I grow what they want.

We just need each other.

Now, perhaps this sounds like foodie elitism. Perhaps it is. But every trend starts somewhere. If good, fresh, flavorful food is just a form another of conspicuous consumption, maybe that is not a bad trend for others to emulate. If beet greens or fava beans or quince became as ingrained in American culture as formerly obscure espresso drinks have become, would we be worse off? I think not.

So if this elitism, I think we owe the elites our thanks. They are voluntarily subsidizing a grand experiment in creating a food system that places the emphasis on “food” and not “system.”

California Bountiful on Ventura Limoncello

My central strategy for marketing specialty fruit is a simple one: Work with people who make you look good. Anybody who has tasted Ventura Limoncello knows that they make us look Very Good Indeed. Press coverage, awards, promotional dinners… the Ventura Limoncello story is everywhere, and I’m proud to be a part of it. Today’s chapter comes from California Bountiful.