News From the Farm | January 18, 2016

The gentle rains of the past two weeks soaked deeply and filled the soil of our farm as if it were a 400-acre vessel. The soil itself is probably the most under-appreciated reservoir in the water cycle. We often think of water in terms of ‘blue water’, or stored water – rivers, reservoirs, groundwater or lakes that can be tapped for irrigation and drinking through California’s long dry summers. 

The under-appreciated part of the water cycle is sometimes called the ‘green water cycle’ of infiltration, evaporation, transpiration, plant-water efficiency, and the micro cycle of water that is dew or fog capture by growing plants and trees covering the soil surface.

This year, the Rocky Fire and the Valley Fire in our upper watershed torched near 140,000 acres. Much of the damage was in the upper Cache Creek Watershed. The western border of our farm is on Cache Creek. We are feeling more optimistic that we have dodged a major bullet. Heavy early rains would have meant intense flooding and the potential for heavy silt loads traveling down our creek. Living next to the creek is like having the best neighbor who can turn treacherous with sustained heavy rainfall. The rainfall in December and this early part of the year has allowed the regeneration of grasses and a soft green cover over the burned areas – a living buffer against the potential impacts of heavy rainfall. 

The lessons of protecting soil and the potential harvest of rainfall through living cover crops is being lost by the developers of thousands of acres of new orchards in the Sacramento Valley area. The ‘fashion’ of these developments – perceived beauty and order – is a practice by the developers of what is euphemistically known as ‘chemical mowing.’ Many of these techniques come directly from the southern San Joaquin valley, following developers from an extremely arid area, bringing their practices north toward water. They plant trees after soil is ripped deep and all vestiges of life other than the new trees are destroyed with herbicides. What is left is bare ground – with trees of course – and bare edges, herbicided clean. This is now seen by some as good farming practices for orchard development.

These orchardists calculate that water applied responsibly with micro irrigation is the pathway to water use efficiency for the maximum crop yield. Lost here is the fact that Yolo, Sacramento, Sutter, Yuba, Placer, Solano, Glenn and other northern California counties, where farmers and landlords are smitten with the nut-planting bug, average near 30 inches of rainfall. That rainfall is like money in the bank if it is harvested. Gentle rains may percolate deep, but rains that come hard seal bare soil and run off the land, becoming the orchard’s loss and someone else’s problem.

These new orchards are managing for crop yield – that is what they get paid for – but what is lost is soil health and the ecological potential of farms. The deeper potential for harvesting much more than the crop is forgotten because often it is simpler to think in a paradigm that can control variables. Clean is easy – focus on the trees. Nutrients can be added by dissolving them in the water. Hawks, turkeys, ground squirrels, snakes, and lizards are not crops, and more likely are pests. Flowers and flowering plants are good for insect ecology and honeybees, but we can import hives. Soil fertility is not a cycle of the potential harvest of carbon, nitrogen and microbial life with cover crops – oil is cheap, so fertilizers are likewise cheap and easy to apply.  These new orchardists have lost touch with the responsibilities of long-term ecological stewardship. 

For many, the freedom to buy land equates with the freedom to put in as deep a well as they can afford and the freedom to manage their land as they see fit. I have a hard time criticizing farmers, and there are many farmers who are great stewards. Yet, freedom implies restraint and a wide look at the responsibilities of ownership.

John Milton defined and described freedom in a way that may link practices, water, stewardship and ownership. “To be free,” he wrote,“ is precisely the same thing as to be pious, wise, just, and temperate, careful of one’s own, abstinent from what is another’s and thence in fine, magnanimous and brave.” The power of capital, and its freedom to do what one likes on one’s property will always be constrained by the biological, ecological and social responsibilities of stewarding land and water for the long term. With the pursuit of profit, the responsibilities of land stewardship will not be secondary – as time will be the judge.

–Paul Muller