Coming to a Vineyard Near You!

Summer movie season. Along with millions of other Americans, I’ve seen my fair share of summer movies, especially Michael Crichton movies. I’ve read a number of his books, too. Frequently he drops a character into situation about which he knows nothing, even though the situation has been developing for some time. This forces other characters to explain everything to him. The adventure begins even as the brief explanations continue. (Somehow the hero always arrives the very moment that things really begin to happen.) It’s a nice little plot device.

Sometimes I feel that way in my role as a Boardmember with Associates Insectary. I’ve only been on the scene a couple of years, but the “situation” is one that has been 80 years in the making. And like a character in a Michael Crichton story, I feel like I have arrived just as things are really beginning to get interesting.

I’ve already written about one instance in which the Insectary was able to work with local FFA students to locally produce the squash used for insect production. But other innovations include:

Recycled electric vehicles: When the County retired some no-longer serviceable electric service carts, the Insectary was able to acquire them at salvage value. Using our in-house capability for vehicle repair and maintenance, they are being returned to service, replacing fossil-fueled carts. Movie concept: Mad Max meets Inconvenient Truth

Mites that eat “Fresh and Local”: Most of the predatory Californicus mites raised commercially are fed a food compound that is cheap, easy and convenient. Insect fast food. Ours are raised hunting live prey produced on-site. Does a fresh, healthy diet lead to a more active, healthy mite? Apparently it does. Movie concept: Food, Inc. vs Arachnophobia

A Two-pronged defense of winegrapes: Vine Mealybug is spreading throughout the 480,000 acres of California’s wine producing regions. We are already the leading domestic producer of the Cryptolaemus beetle, a voracious consumer of mealybugs. But this summer, Cryptolaemus will get a new partner: the parasitic Anagyrus wasp. The combination two proven methods of biological control does not bode well for Vine Mealybugs. Movie concept: Pretty much every cop buddy movie ever.

So you see what I mean… I even feel like I’m starting to write a movie trailer. Cue dramatic voiceover:

“In a dangerous world, two unlikely cops partner up to take a bite out of pests. Cryptolaemus is predator, Anagyrus is a parasite. And that’s bad news for Mealybugs…

Coming this summer to a vineyard near you!”

For Marty…

A very good non-farming friend of mine has significant concerns with respect to global climate change, and more specifically how it may impact Ventura County agriculture. It has usually come up in the context of other related issues, but I’ve never been able to deliver a more complete accounting of the steps that our family farm has taken. So Marty (and anyone else interested in hearing about it)… this one’s for you.

Quick background: The “home ranch” is a piece of ground in Ventura County that has been in the family since the 1870s. Today it is primarily planted to lemons, but has seen oranges, walnuts, apricots, lima beans and sugar beets during our stewardship. The “Santa Paula ranch” is the baby of the family: my wife and I purchased it in 2001. It is primarily planted with avocados. Mostly I’ll be refering to the home ranch in this piece.

“Sustainability” is a recent term, but in the context of 130 years on the same piece of dirt, I think we have a few ideas on the concept. Sustainability Rule Number One for a farmer: stay in business. You can’t make a difference if you are not in the game. For us, regular changes in crop mixture has been one key. The other has been that in our family we have traditionally left the farm for higher education and pursued an outside career before returning. This has allowed us to bring fresh ideas, energy, and (yes) capital into the business on a regular basis. But once back on the farm, we have tried to remain pretty focussed on the day to day. I echo my Dad’s sentiment that the most valuable soil amendment is the owner’s footprints.

When we first moved into citrus in the 1930’s, we automatically became members of Associates Insectary. At that time the Insectary worked for the citrus co-ops, using benefical insects to manage pest levels in members orchards. Later membership became  farm by farm; we elected to remain with the Insectary. Eventually what they did would come to be called Integrated Pest Management, but back then it was just considered common sense.

Grinding pruning wastes to improve the soil has been done here at least since the 1960’s, probably earlier. But in the 1980’s we began to work with local tree trimmers to take some of their prunings. This extra organic matter has been a great addition to the soil… I only wish we had distributed it more evenly around the property. Some areas have really fantastic tilth, others are lagging.

We got after water conservation relatively early, converting the home ranch to microsprinkler from furrow in the early ’90’s. This not only reduces water usage by one-third or more but also allows for more precise and safer application of fertilizer, reducing total chemical load as part of the deal. And of course in California, water is energy, so energy expended to pump water goes down as well. When I converted the Santa Paula ranch from furrow to microsprinkler my energy usage dropped by 20,000 kwh per year. The figure for the home ranch is probably twice that, but we no longer have energy use data from before the conversion. They say that no good deed goes unpunished, and our early conversion to water saving technology was no exception. In 1996 water pumping from our groundwater basin was adjudicated. Because of our lower historical use, we recieved a smaller allocation of groundwater than some smaller neighbors, some of whom still use furrow irrigation to this day. So it goes…

In the last few years we have adopted covercrops primarily as a way to build our soil and get out in front of new regulations on run-off from agricultural land. Added benefits seem to take the form of improved weed supression and water infiltration. On the downside, we have more difficulty controlling snails and gophers. It also means that we are producing several extra tons of green biomass per acre, which has to be a plus in the  carbon equation, but I admit that I have not figured out how much. We should eventually see some improvement in soil nitrogen, but have not yet. If realized that would also reduce the need for commercial N fertilizer.

We have never really stopped looking at possible alternative crops. We didn’t jump on the Kiwi and Chermoya wagon in the ’80’s (thankfully), but a few years ago we planted a few acres of specialty citrus. At the home ranch that took the form of an acre of Meyer Lemons. These are now in production. Many have gone to the Sidecar in Ventura, but we are now able to ship small commercial quantities through Oxnard Lemon. Although this is a commercial channel, I understand most are staying in the region. We expect to plant more in the future (5 acres in 2010?)

Changing weather patterns shaped my decision to plant an acre of mixed citrus varietals in Santa Paula. Citrus is a little more tolerant of extreme temperatures than avocados, and I reason that they would fair better in a shifting climate. Additionally some varieties flower more than once a year, so a single weather event might not wipe out a full year’s income. Given the small volume of fruit that I will produce in this test block (9 varieties in one acre) it will all be distributed locally. Too ealry to see much result yet, although my first few Cara Cara navels and Star Ruby grapefruit have been delicious.

How about land reclamation?  The Santa Paula ranch has an acre of rocky spoils left over from some serious ripping they did on the ranch in the 1950’s. I have been covering this area with mulch and cover crop (OK, mostly weeds), and grazing goats on it. It will probably take five years, but I’ll get a new acre to plant for my troubles.

Thoughts that have not evolved to actions include solarizing the barn at the home ranch (enough roof space to run our irrgation well as part of a grid tied system) and a fig, pomegranate, and olive oil operation on leased land near Piru (very low water use crops which could be very compatible with the neighboring Santa Clara Riverbed.)

Applied Sustainability

One of the things which continues to amaze me is the disconnect between advocates of sustainable food systems and the mainstream grower community. Often it seems as if people believe that sustainability is simply incompatible with production ag.

At yesterday’s annual meeting of the Associates Insectary, I was reminded once again how narrow that gap can really be. We covered a lot of information about our insectary operations, but the one data point that was really striking to me was the reduction in equipment hours per acre. Since the beginning of this decade, we have dropped equipment hours by one-third. That means huge reductions in fuel consumption, materials applied, fewer opportunities for accidental exposure to our employees or neighbors. That is a pretty big reduction for an operation that was running pretty tight to begin with.

Now perhaps Associates Insectary isn’t that typical. Since being founded in 1927, we (I’m a grower/member as well as a Director) have tried to balance natural, biologically based pest control with essential chemical treatments to maintain a healthy bottom-line both economically and environmentally. While we can look back at some of the practices of the past and shake our heads, the long-term, 81 year trend is one of constant improvement, whether we are looking at equipment usage as mentioned above, or rearing techniques for the Cryptolaemus beetles and predatory mites that anchor our biological services.

Over the next few months, expect to hear from the late Willard Beckley in this space. A UC Berkeley trained economic entomologist, Mr. Beckley managed the insectary from the depths of the Depression to late 1960’s. His writings, I believe, are great testimonials to the concept of applied sustainability, although that term would not come into vogue until years after his retirement. I’ll be reflecting on his thoughts in future posts.

Sustainability at the Bug House

Among other ag industry activities of mine, I serve on the board of Associates Insectary, a grower owned cooperative in Santa Paula. For 80 years, we have reared and released beneficial insects as part of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program for Citrus and Avocados. In 1928, the term “sustainability” hadn’t yet been coined. Neither had the term “Integrated Pest Management.” But we did it anyway, because growers in our area have always been quick to adopt a practical idea when they see it. Typically it is done without recognizing that we are employing “sustainable” methods… most Insectary members think of themselves as “traditional” growers, although our organic acreage is on the rise.


Tuesday’s meeting brought another great example of a project that we didn’t conceptualize as being sustainable… it just seemed like the right way to get the job done. In order to raise predatory insects, you must have prey for them to feed on, and the prey must have food to sustain their population. The preferred food source for our feedstock is squash. For part of the year, we are dependent on imported squash from Mexico, since there simply isn’t any available closer to home.


But we have been very pleased with results from a pilot program with the Fillmore High School FFA. We provided them with seed, and they have cultivated a great crop of squash for us in a window that we typically use imported squash. From their small plot, they have delivered 5000 pounds of squash, and they are still setting blossom. More squash is coming and we are looking to expand the program in the fall. This has been a great outcome for every facet of sustainability. High School kids learn about farming and earn a few bucks by selling us squash. The whole production cycle has lower fossil fuel usage and carbon footprint, no risk of spreading invasive pests, and keeps dollars in the local economy. The Insectary gets reasonably priced squash, improving the economics of beneficial insect production for our members.


It feels pretty good when something works out this well, and there are many more stories like this one than the general public knows. I’ll touch back to this topic from time to time, because the Insectary always seems to have something cool going on.


Next time: converting our yard vehicle fleet to electric.