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!