#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.

A day spent planting covercrop

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Not a very engaging title, is it?  Yet it is descriptive, and that’s what we’re going for. Pictured above, you’ll see the Gator loaded with seed. What seed, you ask? We use a blend of barley, rye, and crimson clover as our mainstay covercrop mix. It comes from a local supplier (S&S Seeds in Carpinteria), and is great biomass for the money. The clover should add a little Nitrogen, but frankly the vigorous rye and barley usually crowd it out. If we’re looking for N, we plant that separately, but that’s a different story.

One of the most important elements to our covercrop program is timing. We want the cover in the orchard rows to grow without reliance on the tree’s sprinklers. Sure, they’ll pick up a little, but the goal is to dryfarm the covercrop. To get things started, we want to plant just before a rain. And we’re picky… too little rain causes the seeds to sprout and die; too much might rinse them away, along with some of the topsoil we’re working to build. We want 1 to 2 inches or rain after most fall orchard operations are over. And yesterday, conditions were perfect. Cool, overcast, and a 100% chance of rain today.

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Step 1: Prepping the seed bed. To protect the topsoil, we rarely disc the soil, but opening it up to get the covercrop seeded is one time we make an exception. In the picture above, Carlos handles the discing. Doesn’t that soil look nice?

Much better than the pictures below… These were taken along the edge of the orchard that fronts CA 126. We don’t cover this strip every season, and it is indicative of what our orchard soil would be looking like if we didn’t cover at all. Note how the disc has only scratched at the surface of the hardened clay.

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Now check out two more. See the difference? Much more crumbly, more organic matter, and darker color. The color is partly from the soil quality, but mostly because it is holding moisture… Exactly what you want your soil to do in a drought.

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The rest of the day looks pretty much like this, with the exception of breaks to empty 50 pound sacks of seeds into the hopper. Up and down, up and down, 80 rows of trees. Ah, the glamour of farming.

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But it does feel good when everything works as planned. Today’s rain arrived as expected and this season’s covercrop is on it’s way!

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This picture from February 2013 gives a good idea of what we will can expect in February 2015. Lots of biomass. We don’t have a practical way to measure it, but it should be 3000 to 4000 pounds to the acre. 90 pound Otto is included for scale.

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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.


Do we know how to fix farming? A recent post by Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests we do. Read it here!

A good article, even though the headline is undermined in the article when the author admits the reasons for lower yield on diversified farms are not well understood. At Petty Ranch, we have not seen yields decline since shifting to a more diversfied orchard with covercrops. Indeed, our lemon production from older trees has levelled out after several years of decline. We should not presume to know how to “fix” farming. Undue certainty in our methods is what got us into this mess.

But we do know where to start.

Why they farmed…

The good folks over at the “Why We Farm” blog at Homegrown.org have folded their tent. I followed their progress via their blog from time to time, and had always intended to provide a commentary on their progress. But last month they reached the point where they had gone as far as they could, and are leaving farming for more rewarding pursuits. I guess I need to write that commentary now.

I want to take a moment not only to wish them luck, but recognize their passing from the scene for what it is: A very real demonstration that the barriers to entry in agriculture make it nearly impossible for people of talent and commitment to succeed without an extraordinary amount of capital behind them.

We will never have a truly stable and sustainable agricultural economy if there is no chance for capable people to make a living. Neysa and Travis, you placed yourselves in the test-tube and conducted a three year experiment on yourselves. Thank you for that dedication. I hope that everyone carrying on has learned something from you.

I know I have.

True Cost of Food and the True Value of Farm Labor?

It is often taken as gospel that the higher prices of food that has been “sustainably” farmed is a reflection of the “true cost” of food. As for myself, I haven’t questioned this particular piece of dogma either.

Until now. Not that I am rejecting the entire proposition. But I am thinking about the implied corollary to this statement, which is that if “sustainable” food  captures the “true cost” of food, then it must be paying “true value” for all of its inputs.

Which is why this article caught my eye. I applaud the initiative of the people described in the article; indeed I can see myself in their shoes. (I traded a career and a chunk of home equity to get into the farming business at age 35, the twilight of “young”.) But the article describes them earning $7 to $9 per hour, and in one instance working a month for free, since the farm could not pay them.

What is striking to me is that these wages are less then is commonly paid in my corner of California for farm labor, most of whom it is safe to say are not college educated. So is $7 to $9 per hour really the “true value” of farm labor? If that is the case, than Southern California farmers are apparently benevolent, rather than exploitative as is often charged.

The difference is that these neo-farmers are driven by passion, while for most farmworkers, the job is just a paycheck. So the question becomes, does this really mark a path toward sustainability? Like any industry, agriculture benefits from new minds and fresh energy, so this is a good thing. On the other hand, this newly found source of cheap labor, while “renewable”, is probably very finite. Will this resource last? Will the many small farms that rely on this type of labor continue to be able to attract volunteers as their model is adopted on wider scales?

In the long term, we will have to come face to face with two unpleasant truths.

Firstly, farming is not and generally has never been, aspirational. Sadly the history of mankind is the tale of people inventing ever more clever ways to get away from the farm. (A more detailed reflection on this point here.)

Secondly, much of the toil in agriculture is confined to entry level jobs that require few skills, no higher education, and in some cases, not even literacy in the prevailing language of the region. Such jobs are unlikely ever to pay very well, whether the worker holds a master’s degree or a green card.

Agribusiness and Change: Or thanking T. Rex for your Breakfast

You  know, I’ve never liked the term “agribusiness”. Business has always been a component of agriculture. Yes, it entails land stewardship, and crop science, and just good, old-fashioned hands-in-the-dirt work. But those of us who do it for a living have no reason either to feel apologetic for wanting to make a profit, or feel inferior because we don’t wear expensive suits in a glass and chrome office. “Agribusiness” is useful for vilifying corporate farming, or for making insecure farmers or businessmen feel more important. I’m not much interested in either.

What I am interested in is a return to grass roots, bottom up, entrepreneurial farming. And while I appreciate the support and enthusiasm of foodies, academics and policy wonks, what we really need are people who have an enthusiasm for this business. In the part of my life spent in Silicon Valley, I observed an ethos that changing the world and making a profit did not need to be mutually exclusive. In fact, it was generally felt that making the world a better place was precisely what entitled you to significant financial rewards. (I’ll grant that some people in the Valley got a little bit drunk on this Kool-Aid, but I still like the philosophy, at least in moderation.)

This is why I was very happy to read a piece that Rob Smart posted on Civil Eats. Real change will not come externally and it will not come with a single lightning bolt from on high. Farms and small businesses will be the ones that create the models and the relationships and the innovations that will transform our present food system, just a bit at a time, until we have something much better than we have today. While I hope the pace of change will be rapid, I do believe it will be evolutionary, not revolutionary.

Let’s imagine the food system we want as being represented by a chicken.

Small. Adaptable. Friendly. Managable. Chickens are the embodiment of local scale. There is a reason that they are the iconic emblem of the idealized happy barnyard.

But what is the ancestor of this chicken? The fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Huge. Predatory. Not very pleasant to interact with, I would imagine. A good representation of today’s food system perhaps? I think so. How did we get from T. Rex to the Rhode Island Red?

Despite the occasional meteor or ice-age, it happened just one little innovation at a time.