One year into the future of #avocados

Just about a year ago, I had a great visit with Nathanael Johnson of Grist. We toured the ranch and talked about the future of avocados in California and it resulted in an article that was pretty widely shared.

You should definitely check it out (and maybe even help out their spring fundraiser.) The TL,DR version is that I was apprehensive about the future, but our combination of climate, soil, and farming practices gave me confidence that we could figure it out. We would continue with our plans to plant more avocados in 2019.

Now that 2019 is here, what has happened?

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Smoke from the Woolsey Fire passes to our South on the first day of the fire.

First off, the weather reminded me of the dangers of hubris almost immediately. July 5th brought a searing heatwave to the region. And while it did a good deal of damage to California’s avocado crop, our ranch in Saticoy weathered the 111 degree temperatures well. (Another orchard we farm was not so fortunate.) And fall brought another round of wildfires to our region, although once again our location in Saticoy kept us from harm.

Knowing that we can’t control the weather but we could control our soil, we went to work ensuring that the new trees would have the best soil we could offer. The lemon trees retired from the spot were ground up and returned to the soil. We added gypsum to improve it further and when fall came along, we planted a covercrop to add tons (literally) of biomass.

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Covercrops capture winter rainfall and convert it to soil biomass for the hot summers ahead. January shown here.

For a change, the weather played nicely, delivering a winter of steady, evenly spaced rainfall. The blend of triticale, sunflowers and mustard thrived and by May represented a lot of organic material ready to be “banked.”

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The same covercrop in May. It also provided some excellent pollinator habitat during avocado pollination season.

Soilbuilding is a central tenet of our approach to resiliency, but there’s more to farming than just the soil. There are a lot of details to work out before an orchard goes in the ground… After all, unlike annual crops, you don’t get a “do-over” for 35 years. Our new orchard will employ a higher density layout, helping us produce more avocados to meet continued demand. While the 25 year-old backbone of our irrigation system is unchanged, more efficient emitters will drop the water needed for each avocado we deliver. Better soil moisture monitoring technology not only saves water, but energy and fertilizer as well. And yet we still remember the soil. Once established, the new planting will include different covercrop blends better suited to the partial shade of the orchard floor.

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Spreading mulch before planting

The trees are ready to go at the nursery, details have been finalized with our irrigation designer, equipment has been serviced, water filters changed. New hoses and drippers arrive Monday, followed in two weeks by the trees themselves.

I’m still a bit apprehensive about the future. Who wouldn’t be? But I feel like we are as well prepared as we can be. Avocados in 2050?

Let’s do it.

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What tree wouldn’t like soil like this?

 

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Time to put down roots

Last spring  we successfully propagated a few cuttings from our heirloom fig tree “Harry“. One of these cuttings ended up having a pretty eventful year. Calling a 5 gallon pot home, this “harrito” made appearances at Farm Day, the Ventura County Fair, and many posts in social media.

But child stars eventually grow up and settle down, and that day was today for this little fig. Along with a few siblings from last year’s cuttings, he took his place in the fig orchard, giving up the travelling life for a more permanent home.

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Of course, celebrities get special treatment… in his case, a gopher basket.

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.

#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.

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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.

#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.

#Soil Carbon in Saticoy

I’ve been doing some reading recently on the topic of soil organic matter, most notably in the book The Soil Will Save Us, by Kristin Ohlson. There’s a lot of discussion about sequestration of carbon in the soil, and what agriculture has done in the past and may do in the future to affect that amount. But much of the discussion relates to large-scale Midwestern farming – rangeland grazing and grain production. It doesn’t speak to Ventura County agriculture. How are we faring?

At our farm, we have had a covercrop program going in our orchard for 10 years, and it made me wonder… was there a good way to see a measurable difference for our efforts? Subjectively, we’ve been very happy with our results. Our program has prioritized erosion control and soil structure. We’ve never worried our soil carbon content. But a big part of a soil’s structure is determined by the organic material within, and organic material is a pretty good proxy for carbon. (Direct measurements soil carbon are apparently expensive and not that reliable.) Since we’ve been trying to add biomass, we must be adding carbon, right?

Out of curiosity, I decided to take a look at some numbers.

We haven’t regularly tracked our soil organic matter, but a fairly recent lab test shows us ranging between 5.5% and nearly 7%. (6.94% to be precise.) Unfortunately, we took no baseline measurement before starting the covercrop experiment, but I was able to find a figure to represent our soil in a “natural” state. According to the Web Soil Survey of the Natural Resource Conservation District, the Pico and Mocho series soils such as those at our Saticoy farm typically have only 2.5 – 3% organic matter.

5.5 to 7% sure beats 2.5 to 3%!

It would seem that we are holding twice the organic matter (and presumably twice the carbon) in our soil that existed in nature. I’m actually not that surprised to see an improvement, although double was unexpected. Orchards, even without covercrop, have much heavier vegetation than would exist here naturally, thanks to irrigation. That plant material that my family has been producing over 130 years is reflected in the organic content of our soil.

I’d love to have figures for other orchards in our area, and better data on our soil circa 2005, prior to the reintroduction of covercrops on our farm. If I were writing a PhD thesis, I’d need more data. But for a farmer looking for validation of his practices, this looks pretty good to me.