News From the Farm | November 5, 2018

Valley Oak acorns and galls ––– Every Fall, the abundance of native black walnuts and acorns falling from the trees on our property draw my mind to thoughts of the first Californians who harvested acorns and walnuts for food, each tribe employing specialized technologies for gathering, storing, hulling, drying, leaching, pounding and cooking this important staple of their diet.  Bear, deer and many other mammals and birds like feral pigs, pigeons, gray squirrels and woodpeckers rely on the acorn crop because it is exceedingly nutritious — much more so than modern varieties of corn and wheat.

When you live around oak trees, you notice that some years produce bumper crops of acorns, and 2018 is one of those — called a mast year. In the packing shed, the acorns make very loud pings when they fall onto the metal roof and we repeatedly have to sweep them off of the concrete pad below the oak tree. It’s interesting that in a bumper year, all of the Valley Oaks on our property produce bumper crops simultaneously.  This is because acorn production is strongly affected by spring frosts and fall rains, and the most important of these factors are spring frosts when the tender wind-pollinated buds are very vulnerable.  Note that the acorn crop is not just a reflection of the weather of the prior spring, but also of the previous fall, an entire year before. Heavy rain in the fall can be good for a great flower set the following spring.  So in order to understand why we have so many acorns this fall, we think back to weather both a year before and in the previous spring.

Of course the California oak woodlands of today are but fragments of their former glory, having been turned into lumber and fallen prey to development and the growth of cities. In the Capay Valley, we are very lucky to enjoy the presence of many an iconic oak tree, and at Full Belly we have planted them in hedgerows and field edges, imagining in our mind’s eye, what these tiny trees might look like 300 years from now, what animals they might shelter, and what communities they might feed. In a great many ways, working farms like Full Belly, on 43 million acres of land across California, play a critical role in ensuring that there will be trees like the 18 species of oak that grow in California, in our future.

There are a number of U.S farm programs that support farmers in caring for habitat on their farms. One of these is the Conservation Reserve Program which removes environmentally sensitive land from production and supports the farmer in planting things like oak trees that will improve environmental health and quality.  Another one is the Conservation Stewardship Program which provides financial assistance to farmers who are meeting threshold levels of conservation on their farm and who agree to increase or improve conservation across the farm during the five years of the contract. Finally, there is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program which provides financial resources to farms, and one-on-one assistance for improvements that lead to cleaner water and air, healthier soil and better wildlife habitat — this would include planting hedgerows that might include oak trees.

All of these programs are part of legislation known as the Farm Bill which Congress recently allowed to expire.  The Farm Bill is renewed every five years and deals with both agriculture and nutrition. The House of Representatives has proposed the elimination or reduction of funding for the conservation programs, and with the expiration of the Farm Bill, no new enrollment in these programs will be possible. The Farm Bill discussion will be taken up again after the upcoming election, and of course many things besides the Farm Bill hang in the balance — but here at Full Belly Farm, somehow the future of the oaks and the communities that they shelter matter a lot. Acorn woodpeckers and grey squirrels are likely going to spread many of this year’s bumper acorn crop, assuring that some of the seeds will sprout and grow. It is not only the wild animals and the weather that will determine the future of the oaks, but our continued stewardship over many decades.  Let’s all work to assure that some small number of those acorns one day become amazing trees.

— Judith Redmond

As the summer season fades, we have to clean up the fields.  For example, to clean up after 20-acres of summer tomatoes, we have to cut the tomatoes off the vine, pull up the stakes and stack them on pallets, and lift the buried drip tape out of the fields, as shown above.