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.)