Saturday, November 12, 2011

California / the end

Forgive me readers, for I have sinned; it has been two months since my last update. My organic farming odyssey ended in California when I decided to come back to New Orleans and try and start a new life, and that’s where I am now. Let me fill you in.

I got to California by hitching a ride (through craigslist) with two fantastic young women, Nora and Amica. We made the drive from Albuquerque to Los Angeles in 12 straight hours in Amica’s father’s old forestry service Suburban, which they called the Beast.

Here are the Beast’s guts. That’s Nora adding oil and Amica helping out. Meanwhile I was shattering gender stereotypes by letting the women work on the truck.

My girlfriend Leah met me in LA, where we spent about a week cruising around in my uncle’s “green bomber” (thanks, Uncle Geoffrey!) and seeing the sights. We even saw Howie Mandel at Universal Studios, for some reason!

Here is Howie back around the time he was “Howie” on Bobby’s World. Unlike my photo of Ron Jeremy, I did not take this.

Things have gotten really bad in LA.

My hands are the same size as Sidney Poitier’s!

And Leah’s match Bette Davis!

After awhile we got tired of LA, so we decided to hop a train up the coast to San Luis Obispo, where we met up with my friends Kyle and Fanna and drove the rest of the way to Oakland. We hung out there for a while before Leah flew back to New Orleans and I had to head to my next farm.

Here we are somewhere on the PCH.

San Fran/Frisco/“the city” – Coit Tower from Lombard Street.

The Golden Gate Bridge! It was a little foggy.

Leah and I were unfazed.

After a couple weeks of goofing around in LA and Oakland, it was time to get back to the farm. I had decided on a certified organic olive farm in the San Joaquin Valley called Casa Rosa Farms. Even though I had been WWOOFing for three months and worked on a variety of farms, I had yet to work at a farm that was actually certified. I had also worked mainly on smaller farms, but hadn’t been anywhere that produced large amounts of any one crop. Casa Rosa satisfied both these criteria, and working with olives seemed different and interesting.

The farm is run by a second-generation farmer named Anthony and his wife Rachel. Anthony grew up on the farm, and his father still works an adjacent piece of land. The nearly 20 acres of olives are considered their main crop, but alfalfa, which is grown on another 33 acres, is actually their “cash crop.” They also just put in five acres of almonds, which are incredibly profitable, and are building on a small flock of about 40 sheep, which graze on another 12 or so acres.

Something like 25 acres was empty while I was there, but Anthony was planning on putting in more alfalfa. All in all, he and Rachel have about 90 acres of land.

Here is what 33 acres of alfalfa looks like. This was a week or two from being harvested. Alfalfa, especially organic alfalfa, was a boon to farmers this year.

The alfalfa doubles as food for the sheep. Right now Anthony and Rachel are focusing on breeding them to develop a dual-purpose meat and wool sheep.

The olives are grown in long rows and irrigated from a small canal on the border of the field. Anthony puts his organic fertilizer directly into the irrigation system, which saves a lot of time and effort that would be spent spraying.

Because it’s surrounded by “conventional” farms, Casa Rosa has to post warning signs like this – mainly to keep road crews from spraying Roundup on roadside weeds.

The San Joaquin Valley forms the southern end of the larger Central Valley of California, which is one of the most productive agricultural tracts in the world. This was not always true – the valley’s arid climate actually made for very poor farmland before the Central Valley Project brought the runoff from the Sierra Nevada down as irrigation. Dozens of dams in the mountains feed into canals, which branch out across the valley and are pumped by farmers like Anthony.

It doesn’t look like much, but torpid little streams like this one are the lifeblood of thousands upon thousands of acres of farmland in California. The almonds and pomegranates and avocados you may be munching on right now are all made possible by the snowmelt meandering through these canals.
Anthony used to work as a plumber when he lived in Oakland, so he designed and maintains his irrigation system himself. This is the pump system for the olives, surrounded by an unfinished wall made of recycled tires.

Here is Anthony, putting fertilizer into the olives’ irrigation system.

The alfalfa is irrigated by a separate canal, which is pumped by this monstrosity.

Most of the farms surrounding Casa Rosa grow one of two big cash crops: grapes or almonds. While the wines from the Napa and Sonoma valleys north of San Francisco are better known, the vast majority of the grapes used in California wines actually come from the Central Valley. Directly across from Anthony and Rachel’s farm are 80 acres of grapes, which had just been harvested.

Like the grapes (and nearly everything else in the Central Valley), almonds are harvested mechanically, and the almond harvest was in full swing while I was there. The harvest happens in two stages. First, a machine grips the trees at the base and shakes them, causing the almonds to fall to the ground. This also kicks up so much dust that in the autumn, the Sierra Nevada can hardly be seen. After the almonds have all been shaken down, another machine comes through and vacuums them up.

Here are some almond rows near Casa Rosa, between the shaking and vacuuming stages of the harvest. The ground is carpeted with nuts.

Pomegranates are another profitable crop in the area; this is a pomegranate field directly adjacent to Casa Rosa’s olive grove. Within a few miles of Anthony and Rachel, you can also find cotton, pistachios, cherries, and apples.

I wish I’d gotten a picture of these myself, but here is a pretty decent photo of a pile of almonds at a hulling facility. There are hundreds of facilities like this throughout the area, and during harvest time each facility has dozens of piles like this.

Besides the various crops I’ve mentioned, the Central Valley is also known for its dairy production. The land Anthony’s farm sits on now was a dairy farm when he was growing up, but with the advent of factory farming and feedlot operations, small dairies like Anthony’s father’s have been bought up or forced out of business by larger and larger companies. Anthony told me that a few hundred cattle used to be considered a sizable dairy; now, a farmer can hardly make a profit with fewer than 800 or 1,000 cows. To survive with fewer cows you have to be organic, and one of Casa Rosa’s biggest alfalfa customers is an organic dairy farm with only a few hundred cattle.

Anyway, how about them olives? I spent most of my time at Casa Rosa hand pruning the new shoots that come up at the base of the trees, which not only sap energy from the fruit, but also get in the way of the machinery used to harvest it. Anthony and Rachel grow two varieties of olive: a Spanish olive called arbosana, which is the majority, and a Greek variety called koroneiki, which is more bitter than the arbosana. They are combining these two to produce their own brand of organic olive oil, which can sell for anywhere between $18 and $25 per liter.

Here are some arbosana on the branch. The trees were planted three years ago and gave their first usable harvest this year. If it happened on schedule, that harvest should be finishing up right about now.

I also planted some new olive plants, which will act as a visual buffer near the sheep area; wrangled sheep for breeding and shearing; and helped Anthony adjust the irrigation system in the alfalfa field. In my spare time, I read, utilized Anthony and Rachel’s extensive DVD collection, and debated the merits of vegetarianism with Anthony.

And I decided that I was spending a lot more time thinking about New Orleans than planning for New Zealand. This place had gotten its hooks into me, and I had come to view the trip abroad as something I had to get out of the way before I could move here. After a little while I realized that there was nothing keeping me from forgoing the trip to the Pacific and making New Orleans my new adventure instead. Also, while I still technically had enough cash to get there and back and then make a new life here, it probably wouldn’t have been exactly comfortable.

So here I am. I don’t know what I’m going to do here – I’ve applied to a few volunteering and food-related jobs, and I can always bartend. In the meantime, I’m continuing to discover how much this place has to offer. This will be my last Peter and the WWOOF post; I hope it’s been informative and enjoyable. Thanks for reading, stay in touch, and if you’re ever down in the Big Easy, give me a shout!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Big Sky Country / Bodhi Farms

I’ve made it to the west coast! In the meantime I’ve hung out in beautiful southwest Montana, blitzed Yellowstone Park, and learned about permaculture in New Mexico. Here we go!

My original plan was to find a way through Texas and up to Santa Fe, but the only option seemed to be taking a 17-hour overnight bus with three transfers. Since I’m constitutionally opposed to supporting Greyhound at this point, I decided it was a better use of my time and money to take yet another detour up to Montana to visit the lovely and talented Lea Howe, who is currently a pioneering Food Corps volunteer in the town of Boulder.

Boulder doesn’t look like much so here is the more attractive landscape that surrounds it. Look at that enormous sky!

Food Corps began in Montana and is now a national program. The idea is to bring healthy, locally sourced food into school cafeterias and teach nutrition to students. While I was visiting her, Lea maintained a community garden, met with a high school film class about making a PSA on healthy eating, and sold produce and homemade granola bars (and other snacks) at a farmers’ market.

Here is the community garden. That’s Lea and her supervisor, Rochelle.

I worked there too, mostly wrangling Rochelle’s son Kael. Here I am trying to use him as a weed-puller.

Here is a sneaky iPhone photo of Lea presenting the PSA idea to a bunch of really enthusiastic, engaged high school students.

We also went on a lot of scenic drives, and I somehow managed to wind up working on a friend of Lea’s small homestead.

Here is another grand Montana landscape, on the way to the Lewis and Clark Caverns state park.

Here is the picturesque homestead of Lea’s friends Amy and Andy.

Here I am, sort of milking a cow while drinking a beer. Hard work on the homestead.

I had craftily booked my flight to New Mexico out of Jackson Hole, which necessitated a road trip through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. We didn’t have a lot of time, so what follows is what you can see in Yellowstone in a day. Which is a lot.

We went through the north entrance, otherwise known as the Roosevelt Arch. The inscription reads, “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.”

Here are some of the terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. Looks cool, smells terrible.

Here is Lea completely just cold disrespecting the law.

We saw a bison! Just one.

Old Faithful – one of about 12 trillion geysers and hot springs in the park. I had no idea Yellowstone was so thermal.

I flew from Jackson Hole to Albuquerque and took the commuter rail from there to Santa Fe, where I met my New Mexico host, Brian. His farm, Bodhi Farms, is in Las Vegas – a much smaller, poorer, less glamorous town than its Nevada counterpart. The town’s claim to fame is that they filmed a bunch of scenes from No Country For Old Men there, using it as a stand-in for Texas and Mexico.

Here is a hotel where they filmed a scene from No Country For Old Men. I’m pretty sure someone dies here. Just like in every scene in that entire movie.

Brian and his wife, Roxane, practice permaculture, a method of farming that focuses on the natural interaction between different plants and animals and their environment. The idea is to create a kind of agricultural ecosystem utilizing crops that naturally thrive in the climate.

Here is a view of most of the land Brian and Roxane are currently cultivating. This is about two acres – beyond the hill is another 10 acres not currently in production.

Bodhi Farms’ permaculture design consists of several gardens, hoop houses, terraced vegetable beds, fruit and nut trees, and egg-laying chickens. They use the same model for their laying hens as the farm in Texas used for meat birds. The chickens live in what Brian calls “chicken tractors,” which can be easily moved every day.

Here is a chicken tractor. Bodhi Farms has over 100 chickens in about 12 tractors. Each tractor is a little different, representing stages in the design and perfection process.

Inside, seven or eight chickens peck through the weeds and lay eggs.

As they’re moved around the property, the chickens take care of weeds and pests while fertilizing the soil. A lot of permaculture has to do with creating fertile soil and keeping it that way, using resources from the farm itself. Trees, crops, and chickens are all being strategically rotated or planted throughout the property to make it as productive as possible. It seems to be working really, really well.

Here is a view of some of the gardens, the first terraces Brian built (on the right), and a few chicken tractors.

Given that this is the high desert, a lot of effort is also put into slowing and controlling water. In the days of the cowboy, mule teams were used to dig out swales that would direct water into specific areas. This created patches of land with a much higher concentration of lush grass. The cowboys would know where to find these patches and run cattle from swale to swale.

Brian and Roxane have adopted a similar method for getting the most out of the water on their property. First, they have two gigantic cisterns that collect rainwater from the roof of the house. The cisterns are situated on a hill above the rest of the farm, so all that is needed is a hose to gravity-feed the gardens. Besides these cisterns, they are building terraces on their hills.

Here are the terraces they built last year, which are already producing more tomatoes than they know what to do with.

Here is the beginning of a terrace that Brian and I built on my first day.

Brian pruned the trees in the photo above, using the brush and branches to form a barrier. Straw bales were also added, and then we piled well-aged compost behind the wall we’d made. The combination will act as a dam, saturating the soil that will build up as the brush, compost, and straw all break down. This adds tons of organic material to the terrace, making it incredibly fertile.

Another day, Brian and I piled up compost to create a berm around a tree where, after a rainy night, Brian had noticed a significant amount of runoff.

Water was pouring down this hill and dispersing, carving a little gully to the right of the tree.

We piled up compost to redirect the water, then tested our little dam using a five-gallon bucket. As you can see, it went somewhere much more useful – to the base of the tree.

The last project I worked on was the early stages of a biochar company Brian is starting with a local lumber mill. Brian is a pretty savvy businessman, having been an executive at a software company before starting his farm and owning his own company before that. The idea behind biochar is to take waste wood from the lumberyard and burn it using a process called pyrolysis, which is the method of combustion used in charcoal production. The resulting char is mixed with compost and then added to the soil, making it much more absorbent and nutrient-rich.

We built a basic biochar retort. The design consists of a 25 or 30-gallon drum filled with feedstock and slotted into a 55-gallon drum. We used a blowtorch to cut the top off of the smaller barrel.

Then we drilled a series of holes around the bottom of both barrels, to allow air to flow and get a good blaze going.

Once all the holes were cut, we filled the small barrel with feedstock – waste wood from the lumber mill.

The small barrel is placed in the large barrel upside-down, then surrounded with more feedstock, which we light to get the process started.

Another blowtorch got the fire going.

Once the fire was started, we let it sit for about three hours.

The idea is that the fire surrounding the smaller barrel creates super-heated gases that break down the feedstock into charcoal without burning oxygen. Unfortunately we didn’t allow enough oxygen into the larger barrel to get a clean enough burn, so the first attempt didn’t produce much usable char. Brian was still working on the design when I left.

Honestly, I learned too much at Bodhi Farms to include here; it was one of the more informative farms I’ve been to, which is saying something considering I’d already learned a ton at four other farms before going there. As usual, I’ll close with a few photos that didn’t fit:

Brian also taught me some lumberjacking. Here he’s demonstrating a conventional cut.

The hens are very productive. Here’s a day’s worth of eggs.

Since Brian and Roxane sell their eggs to restaurants, they wash them in an organic solution first. Brian invented a cheap automatic washer to get it done quickly.

It’s basically an egg Jacuzzi with disinfectant.

Pumpkins! Perfect for making pie.

Unfortunately I won’t be working on the alpaca farm in Arizona after all, but I got to visit some in New Mexico. They’re like fuzzy aliens.

Of course, no blog post would be complete without the farm dog photos. On the left is Bodhi, the farm’s namesake. Behind him is Devo, and behind Devo is Sophie. To the right are Sasha, a chow mix, and Freya. Not pictured: Balder. Brian and Roxane have four Tibetan mastiffs and walk all six dogs at once!  

I’m going on a little road trip up the coast of California next, and then working at either an orchard or a goat dairy – maybe both. Until then, thanks for reading!