Monday, April 19, 2010

Organic Farming From Hell

I'm in a bit of what I call "Blog Clog" at the moment. I have too much material and not enough time to do it justice. So I'm breaking it into smaller pieces and sharing bite size morsels easier for me to produce and for you to consume.  I know the pictures take time to load on a dial up.  I hope you'll find them worth the wait and do click on them for larger views.

On April 11th, I visited Quail Springs permaculture project at the edge of the Cuyama Valley in eastern Ventura County.  I'll publish a portfolio of pictures and podcasts for you ASAP and share the good news about building sustainable community in a semi arid region.  In the meantime I've got to share some scenery from the trip and some bad news about organic farming run-amok in an out of the way corner of the county.

You Can't Get There From Here

There is no such thing as driving a straight line from the grassy foothills and coastal plain where I live to the semi arid high desert of the inland part of the county.  The road runs south and the east through coastal mountians...
I drove south on US Highway 101, to California 150 East to Ojai and then on to California Highway 33.
The route winds through gentrified (and eternally cosmic) Ojai and then runs north.  The road runs through tunnels blasted through solid rock (a depression era road project) into Wheeler Gorge.
I snapped these pictures on an overcast Sunday morning where coastal fog was meeting overcast skies and a Pacific Storm on the way in from the north.
The hills were in bloom with spring wildflowers and shrubs like the pale blue ceanothus.  I get a little goofy about this stuff but I've spent a lot of time on hiking trails in the mountains.
I had to stop the car several times to snap photos of our wild lupines, growing out the side of bare dirt hills and chaparral at about 2500 feet. It seems so improbable and I wanted to share this picture with my PEI friends, for whom the big friendly and colorful lupine is a summer visitor and even a sometime pest.

It's Spring and the Topsoil is in the Air!

Life is both more fragile and more committed the further east you go from here.  On the other side of the next mountain range or two you arrive in the Mojave Desert which stretches all the way to the Colorado River and beyond into Arizona.  Here in the Cuyama River Valley, years of farming, cattle grazing and irrigation in this semi arid region (figure less than 12 inches of annual rain fall) has taken their toll.  And that leads to the title of this post.  In the picture above the roadside flowers pop out of a backdrop of soil blowing in the wind. 
This is the view from the highway of land tilled for spring planting. The ground is very sandy and there is hardly any kind of organic matter in it.  Low moisture/dry air makes breaking down organic cover or natural soil building take too long for these farmers. So they essentially plant in the dust and irrigate using energy to pump water up from the fossil riverbed beneath valley floor.  Overdrafitng this water supply could eventually end all farming in the valley.

Farming here is being done on leased ground and much of the production here is now certified organic.  Lot's of those cute little "baby" carrots (which aren't really baby carrots) come from here.  And lot's of them carry the USDA organic label.
This picture really tells the whole story of Organic Farming From Hell.  The wind is blowing at about 40 mph. The top soil is literally blowing away and there is no cover visible for miles. The foreground shows tilled soil that looks sterile.  And the middle distance shows overhead irrigation using fossil energy to pump water into the wind just about an hour before at least half an inch of rain began to fall.  Now I can't say for sure that this field is certified organic, but the point is that a lot of the fields here are and they all look identical.  They may be organic but they are certainly not sustainable.  Calling conventional ag by any other name doesn't make it better for the land. 

I won't mention the name of the largest ag company that's currently leasing and farming the majority of this area.  I'm thinking they wouldn't appreciate me showing you how they operate. I'm just pointing to this real world example to let you know that organic is not the ending point it's the beginning point. We have much more work to do to make our agriculture and by extension our communities, sustainable places to live.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Eat Your Landscape!

Our Organic Yard Features Edible Landscape  

Over the time that we've lived in our Santa Barbara home we've worked to create beautiful and edible landscape.  The climate (and drip irrigation) allow us to grow a variety of plants that produce food and beauty.  In this post I'll continue our tour of the edible landscape around our home.

The bench under our avocado tree creates a private space where Susan and I meet at the end of every day.

The fig tree is just outside our kitchen window. It produces sweet figs that fruit eating birds love.  We see a variety of birds including western tanagers and hooded orioles.

These are loquats, an Asian fruit distantly related to apples.  They were imported here from southeastern China.  Local history suggests they may have first have been brought across the pacific by the Spanish during our colonial period.   

We have two macadamia nut trees. This particular tree is very healthy and a heavy producer.  Imagine - macadamia chocolate chip cookies!  Yummmmm.

This dwarf navel orange tree in the front yard is a fine producer of nice large, sweet, eating oranges.     
Citrus does well here. We have a blood orange tree, mandarin orange, bearss lime, bearss lemon and...

tangerines!  This dwarf tree is a crazy producer.  It lives happily near our backyard compost corral and has been the beneficiary of lots of mulch over the years.


Our compost corral is where we put the yard trimming and kitchen waste we generate to work feeding worms and bugs. We water and turn the pile while adding to it.  In the winter, when the yard goes dormant and the rain comes, we find the pile works quickly and by spring we're ready to harvest almost a cubic yard of fine compost and worm castings.  After years off application in the yard we can really see how the compost corral feeds nutrients and biological benefits into the yard.  Compost can create a problem with mice and rats.  Our cats do a fine job of eliminating that problem.
We'll be offering our home for long term rental this year and would like to have a family that would enjoy living in the garden and would continue to enjoy the benefits of a yard that's healthy and good enough to eat.     

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Goodbye God...

This story comes from the California gold rush and a young girl in San Fransisco. Her family was moving to the eastern slopes of the high Sierra Mountains on the Nevada border and the rough mining town of Bodie.

On the day she left, the little girl walked about her home and said, "Goodbye grass, I'm going to Bodie.  Goodbye sky, I'm going to Bodie.  Goodbye God, I'm going to Bodie."  Well some people say that's not what she said at all.  Some people believe she said, "Good, by God, I'm going to Bodie!"

It's spring in California. Our edible landscape lives in a yard of less than a quarter acre.  The above photo is of the blossoms on our apricot tree, a 20 year old tree that is surviving an oak root fungus attack with pruning, natural mineral fertilizer and compost.

We've lived here since 1993.  And in that time we've replaced the ornamental shrubs and trees with a wide variety of edible and food bearing plants. Our goal was to limit the irrigation and labor required by plants that produce work, but not food.

Here are our "wild" artichokes, which live in a mix of ground cover under a Mexican Fan palm tree that was planted by a scrub bluejay some years ago.  We preserved the tree and continued to compost mulch the garden beds.  You'll see ginger plants in the foreground mixed with the artichokes that are about to produce  edible flower buds. 

These are avocados on the tree.  If you buy avocados in North America, chances are they are from California, Mexico or Chile during the winter.  Imported avocados are pumped full of water and picked early for shipping.  These early avocados turn bad as they ripen, and even if you get a "good one" the flesh is hard, watery and bitter.

Our avocados, when ripe, are the texture of warm butter with a mild, nutty flavor.  Raccoons will break into our yard this time of year and get fat on these "alligator pears".  Not everyone is a fan of guacamole, but I can tell you that fresh guac. is about as good as food gets. You should try adding slices of avocado to your bacon, lettuce and ripe tomato sandwich.  Here in California, you can even get bacon and avocado on your cheeseburger...that's something you won't forget!

Now if you are making guacamole, drinking a cold lager beer, or craving a marguerita, you need fresh limes.  Most people don't know that ripe limes are yellow.  Green limes are bitter. The picture here is of our Bearss lime tree,  which provides limes for the foods we love.

This tree is tucked into a bed near our dwarf navel orange and our Jerusalem artichokes.

Every region has it's own special benefits.  Our yard in PEI produces pears, cherries and sweet apples that we love to harvest.  The point is to use your yard to feed your family the expensive fresh delicacies you love in the climate where you live.  These plants are beautiful and nurturing. The idea of decorative shrubbery is a luxury that many of us can't really  afford.  You'll either spend all your time in the yard trimming shrubs and bushes or you'll harvest supper for your family.

I'll have more photos from our edible yard in Santa Barbara and share how that influenced us to plant our kitchen garden at the farm in PEI,  a place where we can walk a few steps out the kitchen door and harvest fresh, organic food for supper.