Gotta know when to mow ’em #covercrops

“The cover crop we grow with winter rain becomes the water-holding soil organic matter that gets us through our long, dry summers.”

This phrase is a staple of every farm tour and school visit that comes to Petty Ranch. But how does the winter cover become summer’s mulch? By mowing.

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Our cover crop usually includes annual grains, which die back during the summer. Winter’s green blanket of barley turns into a golden yellow mat of straw over the summer. This shades and cools the soil, retains moisture,  and inhibits dust.

How do we know the optimal time to mow? Confession time: We don’t.

It isn’t really possible to know the perfect time without knowing exactly what still lies ahead in terms of rain and weather. Without a time machine, we are out of luck.

But perfection is overrated. Farmers are often ruled by practical considerations. Do we need to allow a harvest crew to pick? Are gophers getting out of control while hidden by the greenery? Are the winter’s fig prunings brittle enough to chop nicely?

Most importantly: If it is time to water the trees, it is time for the cover crop to stop using water.

Cover crops do great things for the soil, but they do use water. That is why we like to grow them during the rainy season. When we stop getting water for free it is time to cut the cover crops off. Literally. Sadly, it looks like most of the rain for the season is now behind us. (After only 7.5 inches, making my prediction from December 4 more accurate than I would have liked.)

We started an irrigation cycle this morning that will run through Friday. Once it is completed, it will be time to start mowing.

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Making bootprints with @SEE_AG

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One of my Dad’s favorite sayings was the best thing a farmer could add to the soil was his bootprints. If we want our community to better understand farming, we might be wise to find a way to let our community put down some bootprints as well. That’s why I jumped at the chance to work with a local non-profit that has done a stellar job of reaching out to thousands of school-kids, parents, and educators.

Ventura based SEE-Ag was founded by Mary Maranville 8 years ago. In that time, she has created a resilient organization with a talented team of on-farm educators, and made Ventura County Farm Day a major annual event. A farm-based program that would reinforce Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curricula was the next logical step. We were very happy to be asked to participate.

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Today marked the official “groundbreaking” of Farm Lab at Petty Ranch.

“Groundbreaking” might be a misnomer… with a class of third graders on hand to learn about soil, beneficial insects, and plant a lemon tree and pollinator-friendly plants, it seemed more like a “Grand Opening” to me.

By my count, SEE-Ag should reach more than 7,000 people directly this year with their programs; many more will learn about their work through media. Thankfully, not everyone will need to set foot on our farm… we’re really not set-up for that. Not yet, anyway. Each of those 7,000 + will see their understanding of agriculture increased. A little bit in some cases; a lot in others. Maybe a few will even be inspired to make agriculture a career. But the distance between our rural and suburban worlds will be made just a little bit smaller with every trip.

And that is good for everybody.

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#Water saving

The year just ended was dry. Really dry. Our crops needed water, yet there is a strong incentive to conserve. So for 2015 we really tried to pull out all the stops, and got our water use down to just 1.25 acre-feet of water per acre (AF/acre). For those of you who haven’t committed water stats to memory (most of you, I’d guess) here are a few benchmarks.

2.23 AF/acre- The amount we are allocated as part of the managed Santa Paula groundwater basin.

2 – 2.5 AF/acre – The typical standard for citrus and avocados.

1.65 AF/acre – The amount we used in 2014.

1.25 AF/acre – The amount we used in 2015.

I’m happy to say that despite our stingy water use, our production was actually up a bit in 2015 compared to 2014. Can we continue the trend? If this El Nino delivers, we should. But as I write this, we’re coming off three days of Santa Ana conditions with temperatures over 90 and humidity dropping as low as 9%. There are only 60 days or so left in the rainy season, and nothing on the horizon for 7 to 10 days at least. The clock is running against us.

What’s new for 2016?

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We’ve added new technology from Acuity Agriculture that will allow us to be more observant. We can now see soil moisture in real-time, track soil and air temperatures, and even get a better handle on the drought’s less visible threat: soil salinity.

As happy as we are to see a healthier Sierra snowpack, this drought is not over, and it won’t be over this year. Not in Ventura County.