*Click on produce above for Recipes
Everyone around here has been hoping, waiting and watching for the promised rain of this last weekend of April, and we were rewarded with a beautiful Spring day with gusty winds and a few squalls. Droughts are part of California’s climate and we are now in a second year of drought. Our County, Yolo, has been declared by the folks that define these things, to be in an “extreme drought” which means that there is little pasture for cattle and livestock, reservoirs are extremely low and the fire season could be a long one.
The drought isn’t just in the Capay Valley. Most of California has been abnormally dry for several years. This water season was the third driest in California’s 101 years of rain recording. Only 1924 and 1977 were drier. And there isn’t much snow in the Sierra’s where we are at 30% of average, so we can’t rely on snowmelt into reservoirs as a way to keep the rivers running. Ecosystems around the state are very vulnerable in drought years, with fish, wetlands birds and forests all predictably suffering declines.
Our farm usually relies on Cache Creek for irrigation water during the summer months. Releases into the Creek have just started, but they won’t last beyond mid-June. In drought years, when there is little rain to irrigate crops, and when streams and reservoirs are low, those farmers that have wells, rely on pumping groundwater. Full Belly Farm is no exception. Deeper wells will potentially stay productive while shallower wells may run dry. Across the state there will also be some fallowing of agricultural land and again, Full Belly may also use this strategy, choosing not to grow quite as many crops on quite as many acres.
It’s hard to predict how future years will treat the Capay Valley in terms of water. Groundwater levels, on average in the County, have shown a pattern of ups and downs, depending on rain to send the level up and then going down again with pumping and droughts. The level fluctuates from a healthy high of about 20-feet below ground (and that was over 20 years ago) down to 75-feet below ground in the worst of droughts (and the last time it got THAT bad was in 1977). We are lucky in that the aquifer is sustained by recharge when we do get rain, so that groundwater levels do recover well after droughts. But we can’t be complacent that this healthy pattern will continue as there are more and more new wells going in, putting additional pressure on the groundwater resource.
One result of all this is that our irrigation manager, Arturo, who has worked with us for almost 25 years has been pretty busy. In a good rainy season, he gets a bit of a break during the winter. But not this year. The irrigation has been going non-stop and as he dashes from his car first thing in the morning, before the work day has even officially started, he waves distractedly at me and says, “mucho trabajo” — I’ve got a lot of work to do.
Sometimes we think of organic farming as the practice of agricultural arts — the arts of husbandry, horticulture, soil science, engineering and others. Perhaps the art of organic farming gives us less ability to schedule activities, less predictable sequences of procedures and more opportunity for creativity and exercise of intuition than in an industrial setting. Farming follows cycles rather than straight lines, and each cycle seems to bring its own challenges, like the challenge to farm with less water.
Farming here is also an art in that it is beautiful. The setting is beautiful, but so are the farm fields themselves. Spring brings beautiful colors, lovely birdsong and a rising sap of energy and rebirth. In hopes that your spring is also bringing you joy, here’s to blessings on your meals!
— Judith Redmond
An abandoned combine outside our sheep barn, inherited from farms past.
Broccoli – Roasting broccoli brings out a different set of flavors than steaming or sautéing and is an excellent way to enjoy it. You can combine roasted broccoli in a green salad with apples, or grain and bean salad.
Carrots – The variety of carrots we grow are a Nantes type carrot, known for their excellent taste and texture. They are great raw or cooked. You might just be eating them plain (a favorite farm snack!) but if you wanted to try out a recipe, you can make a carrot salad (Moroccan carrot salad or this “Sunburst carrot salad”) or a cooked carrot dish, like this Uzbeki dish. Separate the greens from the roots to keep them fresh and crunchy and store in a bag.
Mizuna: Mizuna is one of the more mild members of the mustard family and is often found in salad mixes and in Japanese cooking. It acts very similar to arugula in that it can be enjoyed raw or cooked, and when cooked, it wilts with light heat. It also pairs well with other produce in your box: bok choi (stir-fry), potatoes, and carrots (in a salad or using a mizuna pesto).
Potatoes – See our Recipe of the Week. These are freshly dug potatoes (the white ones are Bintje and the red ones are LaSoda) and should be stored in the refrigerator if not being eaten within a day or two. Always keep them out of the light to prevent them from turning green.
A set of baby chicks arrived last week and 6 piglets were born on Saturday 4/18! (Piglet photo courtesy of Julia Funk)
We are enjoying mild, beautiful weather here at Full Belly Farm, the warm afternoons and constant effort to get water to all of our fields underscoring everyone’s ever-present uneasiness that we are in a parched drought year. Cache Creek, usually a significant source of irrigation water in the summer months will benefit from reservoir water releases for only 45 to 60 days, so Full Belly, like farms all over the state, will be using more groundwater than otherwise.
Cottonwood trees on the banks of Cache Creek lining most of our property, are in their cottoning phase, and clouds of their seeds, which look like airy white puffs of cotton, are floating everywhere and collecting in corners and walkways. Red winged blackbirds, ceaselessly singing and chasing around are ever-present on the stalks of the tall, dense cover crops that we have left standing in a few of our fields.
The annual grasses are already turning brown and dying, and the Capay Valley has already seen its first grass fire, which was quickly put out by volunteers from the local Fire Department. After our experiences with fire over the last few years, and especially last year’s LNU complex fire, many residents are clearing brush and pruning dead branches away from their homes in hopes of being more protected. It was during last year’s fire that our Valley came to deeply appreciate the services of our volunteers who worked 36-hour shifts to keep the fire as far off the Valley floor as they possibly could. During that time, CalFire was unable to provide support because they were fighting fires started by lighting strikes, on so many other very dangerous fronts.
Many of the 15 Fire Protection Districts in our County are staffed by volunteers and many of them are challenged by a declining volunteer base, increasing call volumes and increased cost of operations. Our County (Yolo) recently completed an analysis of the situation and concluded that “these challenges pose a significant risk to the health and safety of the community.” It is unlikely that they would find many community members who would disagree.
The County came up with several proposals, all of which involved discussions of funds that the County receives from a one-half-cent sales tax that was approved by voters in 1993. All revenues from that particular sales tax are meant to support public safety activities and fire protection was repeatedly called out in the actual language of the law, however many counties (including Yolo) never allocated a penny of the funds to their fire departments. This is especially ironic given that right before election day in 1993, devastating fires broke out in Southern California consuming over 1,000 structures, one result of which was increased support for fire fighting capacity and for the Proposition itself. While seven measures were on the 1993 special election ballot, only two passed, including the tax measure, Proposition 172. The campaign for “Yes on 172” featured soot-covered firefighters. Voters thought they were voting to support their local fire departments.
In a number of counties, fire departments have sued to get a portion of the Prop 172 funds and won. The recent analysis by Yolo County staff does not endorse the option of disbursements to fire fighters from the Prop 172 Fund, pointing out that “the funding does not appear sufficient to address the full scope of staffing and equipment needs across the County.” On the other hand, at a meeting on the subject, a County staff person pointed out that some fire departments are “flush” — seemingly an opposite reason for refusing to allocate any of the funds. So for departments that are “flush” or for those that aren’t, the County is giving ‘no’ for an answer.
Capay Valley Fire Commissioners have been attending these discussions in good faith for several months, but at the most recent meeting they were told, “You are eligible, but you are not entitled to Proposition 172 funds” — leaving the impression that the County had dug in its heels and leaving the Fire Fighters frustrated. This column has covered Capay Valley wildfires all too many times in recent years and here we are again, still thinking about the subject as we enter this year’s fire season.
Thank you to all of our CSA members, buyers and farmers market customers, for your friendship and support. We are grateful for the Spring and for the farm’s abundance. Many blessings on your meals.
— Judith Redmond
The cover crop from Judith’s porch.
You can really tell it’s spring because we’ve already moved on to summer. Not actually – we are very much still in the process of harvesting spring vegetables. But we also are thinking ahead and taking actions now so that we’ll be ready when summer actually gets here. That being said, the weather forecast shows some pretty toasty temperatures next weekend and we’ve already had to do quite a bit of irrigation, much more than would be ideal this early in the year.
Last week we got our first tomatoes of 2021 in the ground! We also transplanted some melons, onions, and some other summer crops. As mentioned in a recent News from the Farm, we direct seed a lot of our crops but there are several things that we put in the field as transplants in order to give them a head start on the weeds and/or on the weather, or because they just do better that way. When it comes time to set them out in the field, there are two ways that it happens: by hand or with a mechanical transplanter.
There are many types of mechanical transplanters, ranging from the very small and simple to larger and fancier ones. See the photo below for a view of the tomato transplanting team as seen from the perspective of the tractor driver. Those three people lift each plant out of its cell in the tray and drop the transplants root first into rotating cups, one per cup. As the rotating part moves further away to the furthest away position, the cup opens and places the plant into the soil. The transplanter opens up a small furrow for the plant before it drops and then packs soil around it after. The other people in the photo are walking behind the tractor to make sure that the plants are going in at the correct depth and to fill in missing plants if plants get stuck in the cups. You can adjust the depth of planting and the distance between plants, up to a point.
*If this is all sounding confusing, there are a plethora of videos on YouTube showing mechanical transplanters at work.
Fun fact about our tomatoes: every couple hundred feet, we plant a member of the Umbelliferae family (dill, cilantro, or fennel) that we let go to flower to provide a habitat for beneficial insects, like syrphid flies and lacewings!
Mechanical transplanting doesn’t work for everything. We can’t use it for crops that need to be placed quite close together, or those that are more delicate or have an odd shape that will get stuck in the machine. For these, we transplant by hand. A few people lay out the transplants in the row with the correct spacing and then others come and quickly tuck them in before they dry out, making sure that the soil surrounding the roots is no longer visible. We transplant our onions this way and all of our flowers. It’s tedious work!
The work required to hand transplant makes me reflect on the true cost of our food and flowers. We think of onions as the staple of many of our dishes, and therefore expect them to be cheap. Produce can only be cheap if it’s easy and fast to grow and doesn’t require much labor. Onions actually grow pretty slowly (the ones in your box this week have been in the ground since mid-November!) and for most farms, including ours, they require a fair amount of labor to plant, maintain, and harvest. A diversified farms like ours can’t invest in too much specialized labor-saving equipment just to simplify growing one crop, unlike a farm that specializes just in onions or in a small number of crops. Just something to think about the next time you see an onion!
— Elaine Swiedler, CSA Manager
Asparagus crew —
Why did the sheep cross the road? To get to the other side!
Specifically, last week this year’s lambs and their mothers crossed from the fields next to lambing barn to our fields on the east side of Highway 16 to eat down the cover crops! The cover crops are at the right maturity to incorporate into the fields, and we need to get those fields ready for our summer plantings. To do that, we could use a tractor to mow down the cover crops or the sheep to munch them down. Both methods have their benefits and drawbacks. The sheep do great work, but they go through the field more slowly than the tractors, and there’s more left in the field after they head out, so we have to go back in to do some cleanup work. But when we can, we like to use the sheep. Unlike a tractor, they cut the plants and break down the biomass a bit via digestion making the nutrients more quickly available for the microbes and plants that will soon be growing there. The trick is making sure they have the right amount of space – not too much or too little. Putting many sheep on a relatively small section of land helps keep them from being selective with what they eat and leaving some plants behind. They’ve been moving through 1.5 acre blocks in about four days. See the photos for proof. And we also have to keep timing in mind – organic and food safety regulations prevent us from harvesting produce from fields that have been grazed for certain time periods.
Day 1 – Before the sheep enter Day 2
Day 3 Day 4 – After the sheep leave
But the sheep also might have crossed the road to get a better look at the asparagus! We’ve got two fields and one is not too far from their new home. And asparagus is worth crossing the road for; in addition to being delicious, it’s a very cool plant to watch grow. Asparagus is a perennial vegetable that’s a member of the Lilly family. You can plant it from seed, or by transplanting the crowns (roots). We started the seeds in the greenhouse, then transplanted them into the field and then waited until the third year to harvest. Once established, we’ll keep these crowns in the ground for about 12 years (they can produce for longer, but the production declines and the spear size decreases). The crowns stay in the soil the entire time and the part we’re harvesting are the spears as they emerge from the soil, like something out of an alien horror movie.
Asparagus growing in the field
And the spears are definitely emerging! They can grow fast (3 to 6 inches per day!), especially with last week’s warmer weather, so there’s a daily harvest where the team goes up and down the rows with special asparagus knives that cut just below the soil. They cut out the spears that are a good height and width and leave the shorter spears to grow more. If there are any that are too skinny, or too oddly shaped to be easily bunched, they cut them and leave them in the field, preventing the plant from wasting more energy on those spears, and saving our packing crew the trouble of sorting them out. The asparagus is brought back to our packing crew and are sorted, bunched, and trimmed into the neat, tidy bunches you’re used to seeing. It’s a lot of work, thus why asparagus can be so pricy, but we think it’s worth it.
In a few weeks, we’ll stop harvesting and the unharvested shoots will turn into tall, fern-like leaves for the summer which take in energy to store as food for the crowns. Then the ferns will die back, be mowed in, and after a brief period of empty-looking fields, the cycle will start again. But we’re not at that point yet – still very much in harvest mode.
Elaine Swiedler, CSA Manager