#ElNino tests our #Soilbuilding efforts

Theories are great, but to be meaningful, they must be put to the test. For a little over ten years, we’ve been working on improving our soil quality. There are many potential benefits, but our capacity to weather the drought motivated our efforts. During the past few years of drought, I’ve tried to calculate our additional water holding capacity. Depending on what numbers I used, my estimates have ranged from 2.6 to 3.9 million additional gallons of water that could be retained in our soil. But so far, these numbers have only been theoretical. How much more could we really absorb? That remained to be seen.


This week’s El Niño powered storms gave us a chance to gather more data. There is a low point on our property that floods predictably after 1.5 inches of rain. Yesterday, it did flood. But not until nearly 4 inches had fallen in the previous day and a half. It seems we are retaining more water.

How much more? It appears that we absorbed at least 2 more inches of rain before flooding started. Time for math.

An inch of rain covering an acre of land is 27,154 gallons. 2 inches on 52 acres is 2,824,016 gallons.

This is a fairly crude “back-of-the-envelope” calculation, but it falls very neatly within the predicted range. Not PhD level science perhaps, but a nice confirmation that our work has been worthwhile.

#Sugarbeet update

Part of our motivation for the sugarbeet project was to showcase the actual process of raising a dry-farmed crop. As of New Year’s Eve, we have yet to plant the crop… and that’s a great example of what we’re trying to do.

Originally we expected to plant just before Thanksgiving. Traditionally that is a good time to plant covercrop. We prepped the soil to plant, but didn’t go for it when the rain system we’d been counting on failed to live up to expectations.

Not planting was the right call. We’ve only had about a third of an inch of rain on top of very dry soil. We’ve had dry, windy days and freezing cold nights. Had we planted on schedule, we probably would have lost the whole crop. As it is, the seed is safe in the barn while we look for the right opportunity to plant. We’re about 45 days behind schedule, but it looks like we’ll get our chance early next week.

Wish us luck!

#ElNiño and soil

A Godzilla El Niño is coming. All the experts agree. Clearly we must have a lot to do to be prepared, right?

Actually, not as much as you might think.

Sure, we’re going to be doing some work on drains and ditches. We’ll even have some sandbags prepared. But our real ability to weather the coming storm lies in our soil. For the last decade, we’ve been building up our ability to absorb and retain water. Our mulch and covercrop practices have given our farm the ability to absorb 2,600,000 more gallons of water than our soil had in it’s natural state. So we’re really not approaching the El Niño that much differently than we approached the last few years of drought. We’ve been getting ready for years.

The same soil that absorbs water in a deluge retains water in a drought. No matter the forecast, soil structure is paramount.

Last season's barley and rye covercrop will help with this year's El Niño

Last season’s barley and rye covercrop will help with this year’s El Niño

#sustainability metrics?

What does it mean to practice “sustainable” agriculture? That’s not an easy question to answer. But as I look at our operation, three numbers suggest to me that we’re on the right path.

130: Number of years that we’ve farmed the same piece of ground in Saticoy, California (Ventura County)

5.5: Percentage of organic material in our soil. (2 – 3% is the natural level for our soils type.)

1.65: The acre feet of water we used to farm an acre last year. (Our groundwater allocation is 2.23 AF, and the generally accepted number for citrus and avocado production is 2 to 2.5 AF.)

Ask me in a couple of years if we were doing everything right in 2015. I’ll probably laugh. We’ll get even better. There’s always more to learn, and hindsight has a way of making us see what we miss in the moment.

Accidental #potato farmer

Usually the addition of a crop to our farm is the result of a deliberate and lengthy (if not always scientific) process. But to my surprise, I find I am suddenly a potato farmer.

Volunteer spuds

Volunteer spuds

How did this happen, you ask? If you have read other pieces in this blog, you may have noted that we are big believers in the use of beneficial insects. We are fortunate to be near the home of Associates Insectary of Santa Paula. (Trivia: Petty Ranch’s history with them goes back to the 1930’s, and either my father or I have been on the Board of Directors since 1986.) Producing “good bugs” is a specialized process that I won’t detail here, but essentially it involves raising “bad bugs” to feed the good bugs. And since you can’t find “bad bug chow” at the grocery store, the Insectary must raise plants for them to eat, before they are eaten themselves.

A by-product of this process is “used” potting soil… often with a few surviving potatoes included. We add this soil to our orchard to help amend our soil, but this year in particular, we’ve gotten quite a nice little crop of spuds in the fig orchard out of the deal.

In the spirit of “whole farm eating“, rather than let these potatoes go to waste, we will be providing them to Chef Rachel Holst of Main Course CA to include in her Outstanding in the Field Dinner in June. I’ve boiled and roasted a few of these little guys, and if they are that tasty for me, I can’t wait to see what Rachel can do with them!

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.

Cover crops and conservation

I’ve been thinking a lot about cover crops and conservation his week while putting together a blog piece on the topic. And then I spot this very thoughtful comment from my friend Bill Bartels:

When we conserve it is from a position of limited amount.  “We Conserve…”  When we foster sustainable system, we conserve from a position of process, collaboration, and outcome that allows the continuance of a system or community.  In that, I am wondering is conservation is the right place to stand?  The land demands complexity to remain productive and healthy.  So, in fact, are we fostering complexity?  That is an interesting definition of conservation.

Admirable though conservation is, isn’t it just a nice way to describe postponing the eventual depletion of a resource? Doesn’t that seem to be setting the bar a little low? With respect to our cover crop program, I know our goal is to build soil, not conserve it. I’m still going to write this other piece, but since Bill framed the issue  so well, I felt compelled to share his insight.