News From the Farm | August 17, 2020

Lightning in the hills south of the farm on Monday morning  —  

It has been some time since I have taken time to write a Beet. In the middle of August, on a quiet Sunday, it seems a good time to change that. Yesterday, Saturday the 15th, we had temperatures reach 112º by early afternoon. Temperatures experienced by those picking in the rows of tomato plants were probably many degrees higher.  We get our crews out of the fields when we experience those high temperatures, an environment in which it can be dangerous to work.  This next week, we will be starting earlier, drinking more water, taking more frequent breaks, getting the pick done as early as possible and bringing crew inside to pack in the shade while watching one another for signs of heat stress.

We are fortunate to have a crew that is acclimated, having worked in heat now for the past months or with many years of experience. As crops ripen, they choose to be here each day to labor, sweat, drink water, harvest and care for the crops we grow. Their resilience and safety are built on being mindful of their crew mates’ wellbeing – being part of a team, having a plan and being able to speak up if something is not right. There is no perfect response to the challenge of farming in the heat, we adapt daily and do our best to be safe. 

Early Sunday morning we had an unanticipated windstorm driving a front that brought thunder and lightning with a smattering of rain, snapping limbs on large trees, knocking to the ground near mature fruit and nuts. That front and overcast sky dropped the high heat by more than 20º today. The same wild ride is expected through the upcoming week. The temperatures are record-setting for the interior valleys and challenge those who farm and have ripe crops that need to be picked. Our small loss from high winds is offset with other crops that ripen later and others that are resilient enough to withstand the quirks of August heat or wind.

Along with the wild weather that same night we had a Mountain Lion visit the farm, jump an electric fence and harvest a mature ewe. The lion scattered our flock of 90 ewes from their enclosure and they spent a nervous night circumnavigating the farm until we found them in the morning.  For now, we have double penned the ewes so that any lion would need to jump 2 fences and most likely get zapped by the fence and be dissuaded from the taste of sheep for a while returning to hunt the deer that live along the farm edges. The shock from an electrified fence is momentary and yet strong enough to make an impression on coyote, lions and other predators. There is no perfect plan when neighbor to a wild edge.  And now as I sit here typing, there is a huge bobcat that is stalking chickens in the orchard outside the house – huge pointed ears– maybe 30-inches long looking to all the world like a mini-mountain lion – beautiful. Oh yea, living with the wild as a neighbor… a wild edge…

Last Monday, a windstorm called a ‘Derecho’ damaged nearly 14-million acres of Iowa farmland, leveling crops, impacting an estimated 37 million acres in the Midwest with hurricane force winds. The wind toppled grain storage bins leaving hundreds of millions of bushels of corn exposed to the elements. That is a lot of corn…. For farmers there, the damage includes a string of heartbreak that includes years with widespread flooding, disruptions from Covid 19, depressed markets, overproduction and trade disruptions. I cannot imagine their pain or the seeming impossibility that a new farmer may feel when faced with these challenges – ditto that for older farmers.  Their difficulties are ongoing – a long story of an economic model and a production system that consumes the people who farm with the low prices that are a result of their own productive success. The migration of farm people leaving a beautiful life but impossible economic paradigm continues as a loss to us all.

Charles Massy in his book Call of the Reed Warbler tells of the many examples of Australian farmers who have, in a relatively short time span reengaged positive and productive biological cycles on their lands, healing their farms (and themselves) and discovering the emergent properties and abilities of ecologies to self organize, thus becoming more resilient to the risks and extremes of nature.  He talks however about creating ‘emergent minds’ connecting them mentally and spiritually to the recovery of the deep and profound connection of all people to land.

When we talk of a healthy food system, we must empathize with and support those facing a more raw exposure to the elements, to wild edges, who labor in singular effort when the harvest is their goal, where that goal may be easily unsettled by so many factors, human made and occurring as forces of nature. The farmer’s knowledge and investment in making food should not be diminished or lost – so many of them are on the edge without a bridge to a healthier model.  We need to care about their future as it is intertwined with our own. Whether farmworkers, farmers of color, farmers on the edge, indigenous farmers, beginning farmers, or those who labor to grow more corn or soy in a sea of millions of acres of the same, our lives are intertwined, they as the caretakers who absorb uncertainty, we as the choosers who fund and shape their well being.

All of this is loosely constructed to say that when the lion approaches, sometimes it is necessary to find a strategy that uses the tendencies of the lion with the fences and changed design to outwit the problem.  When the heat is stifling, one needs to take care and design strategies to get things done in the safest way possible with care being a shared responsibility and benefit. We often legislate to deal with a problem, and the result is compliance within a paradigm that inadvertently supports more of the same thinking. Rather, we should be looking deeper and solve for a pattern of health and renewal, building on models of the good rather than insisting on the perfect. We need to do these things with affection and care, with love and appreciation of our power to make good or better in a spiritual connection that is intimate to our humanity.

Our days are so full here, so much to pick and plant and plan and care for…. I spend (a very little) time wondering how we here at Full Belly could have fit in planning and carrying off a Hoes Down Harvest Festival this year. We will miss the chance to have you all here to acknowledge our partnership and dance and celebrate the generosity of this land. We miss the school groups, the farm campers and visitors that became intimate with our place, practices and mission. One of the greatest losses in this pandemic is the connection – direct, physical, tactile and place-based. We are but stewards here with the mission to feed you the best that we can grow, while sharing feet on the ground experience of the lives of people who farm.

By the way, I could have written about 9 new piglets; tall beautiful clover in the almond orchard; continued good work with the Real Organic Project (support them, look ‘em up and check out some of the farmers who are challenging the watering down of Organics by the USDA and some certifiers); Rye and Becca expecting their 3rd child in November; popcorn harvest this week; ongoing almond tree shaking; a newly formed Capay Valley Agrarian Commons (part of Agrarian Trust, looking for funding to purchase a farm in the valley that has been farmed by Riverdog Farm for the past 25 years to hold it as a community resource); great advances in our trials with minimum till crop growing; great interns and their stories – so many things going on….

With affection, thanks for your continued support.

— Paul Muller

Tomato Field in August.