News From the Farm | December 2, 2019

Dru at the Farmers Market (photo by Lauren Betts)  — 

One delight of our Thanksgiving week was the remarkable change in weather. On Wednesday evening the temperature dropped to 28, freezing pipes, nipping the last leaves on the apples, peaches, walnuts and almonds; and frosting the last of the summer’s non-frost tolerant crops like potatoes and summer flowers. (Potato tops are dead and the spuds are resting in the soil until we harvest them later this winter.) All manner of summer frost-sensitive crops are now dark and done.

We had hustled to get our cover crops planted prior to the onset of the first rains. Our list of repairs for the winter is long and we have a lineup started at the shop needing attention. We are expecting a week of much needed rainfall, and as I write this on Sunday afternoon, a gentle constant rain is penetrating our fields and germinating winter-loving seeds. 

We can look back on this year as remarkable in the adaptation required to get to this point. We had an amazingly productive year, much of which you saw weekly in your CSA boxes. We can all recall the wet 2019 winter where California was gently pulled from the edge of disaster with abundant rainfall and snowpack that ended a 5-year drought. The wet weather proved challenging, slowing our ability to get into our fields and plant new seeds or find marketable crop to harvest. Rain and wet soil thwarted our regular schedule of planting. We started preparing spring seedbeds many times, only to stop as another wet system dropped more rain. Spring potatoes were planted a month late, wild mustard greens were picked to fill out boxes, and minimally tilling and transplanting into slightly used beds became one of our adaptive strategies. 

Our trees bloomed later this year than usual. Yet peaches were abundant, apricots and plums were large and sweet and the seduction of fruit was like love remembered.  Distress, when our pomegranates showed only a smattering of red blossoms well into the spring was sent packing when a riot of flowers showed up weeks late leading to a bumper crop of pomegranates. Diversity, fickleness and farming on nature’s calendar become a test of patience, trust and delight in the weather dependent variation taking place from year to year. Flowers went from looking a bit waterlogged in February to a pollen laden riot of color in the spring, lasting longer and blooming radiantly while becoming a pass-through motel for migrating birds and butterflies. 

Some fields were hurried along.  Our first and perhaps best tomato field followed quickly on the heels of a fall crop in one of the few fields that wasn’t rank with an all-too-tall cover crop. This experiment broke our usual pattern of soil preparation as planning was driven by a wet spring and 20,000 plants that needed to get out of a greenhouse and into the soil. 

This spring our cover crops were tall and dense. Those soil feeding, carbon accumulating covers included eight or more varieties that all loved the 40-inch rainfall year. Most grew to greater than six-feet tall.  It is difficult to find the balance in growing cover crops with more grasses like oats barley and wheat, with leguminous covers like clovers, vetches, bell beans and winter peas. So, we chopped, rolled, shredded, disked or fed off these thick walls of plants. It was quite a challenge, creating a good deal of frustration on the part of some here at the farm, and a wonder for others. Each of these fields easily captured and stored those 40 inches of water. We were managing water capture rather than water shedding. 

Our fall cover crop plantings this year reflect some lessons learned and another attempt to try new ideas. For example, this October, we put cover crops into next year’s early tomato beds, expecting them to winter kill (come to a halt in the cold weather).  The soil in these fields will be covered against winter rains, but there wont be too much material to deal with when tomato plants want to go into the ground next March.

My son Amon chose to plant a mix of tillage radish, clovers and just a few grasses in a slight tug of war over a father’s desire to see more carbon in the mix, but his concern is to have soil where the digestion of the cover crop in the spring doesn’t in turn consume the seed that he plants. We are planning our mixes of cover crop seed months in advance of the harvest.  We need to feed our soil as it works to feed all of us. We have some new ideas and experiments in our fields in an attempt to get closer to a resilient and regenerative farm.

Regeneration has become part of the discussion about a vibrant and sustainable food system.  It means creating and storing more total energy from farm fields than is taken in a crop year. Regeneration, like organic farming systems, works with the powers of nature rather than disregarding those processes. To make change requires study, memory and contemplation as we go season to season and year to year. We have not figured the systems of regeneration out, but we continue to explore 5 basic ideas:

1. How to power the farm with solar energy harvested primarily through living plants and photosynthesis that in turn feeds the world of microorganisms in the soil.

2. How to harness the water cycle by slowing water down, allowing greater infiltration and filtration, capturing more moisture in the soil and slowing evaporation through soil mulches and covers.

3. How to activate soil mineral release through the work of plants, root acids and the network of living fungal populations on and around plant roots. The plant feeds these networks and they in turn find what the plant needs – mutual affection.

4. Discover more about the dynamism of whole ecosystems, building more diversity of plant species, insect life, avian life, soil microbes, human and social intersections and witnessing a whole farm ecosystem – far more productive than a system broken when inputs are put together to try and make a whole.

5. Finally, we need to rethink the social and human responses to challenges – whether global climate challenges or the quest to grow nutrient dense food that is wholesome and safe. We are challenged to support both consumption and the fair pricing of that food as a key to the looming challenges of diabetes, chronic disease and farm failures. These issues highlight the responsibilities of consumers to demand and support such a system and producers to invest in regeneration as they produce their crops.

To make these challenges manifest will require both shared investment and shared responsibility. There is delight in going to new places and thinking through our relationship to healthier patterns of action.  As 2019 passes, we can now think back with affection about our successes and accomplishments and turn to the new year as time to try again to clarify values, support those things that are intimate to our health and mix it up a bit with new ideas, love and gratitude.  There is so much to do! (Maybe after a short winter rest.) Thank you for partnering with us!

— Paul Muller

P.S.  Some of our ideas for year-end giving to support sustainable agriculture: Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Real Organic Project, Ecological Farming Association.

Flower Fields (photo by Lauren Betts)