Orange County Produce

Orange County Produce

Orange County Produce

A.G. Kawamura, Orange County Produce. Credit: A.G. Kawamura

I would say that our weather is both “predictably unpredictable” or “predictably predictable.” We’re generally dry from April all the way until December. We’ll get a few storms every now and then, a kind of monsoon that comes up the coast in the fall, but generally we have some of the most predictable weather anywhere on the planet. In my experience, nothing’s changed that much.

A.G. Kawamura

Orange County Produce

Southwest Region | Irvine, CA

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 1000 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Urban soils restoration, precision mgt., growers’ network.

When A.G. Kawamura heads out each morning to check on his crops, his route is an unusual one for a vegetable grower. He drives into residential developments, onto military bases and through city parks, schools and abandoned orange groves to get to his fields. His family didn’t set out to be urban farmers, but they started farming early enough and stayed in business long enough that the city eventually grew out to reach them. “We are definitely urban producers or farmers in an urban area,” A.G. says. “It was a rural area when we started farming here. The city came to us and then it surrounded us. We’ve just never left.”

A.G.’s grandparents came to southern California from Japan around the turn of the last century and made their living in the agriculture of their new home. They did whatever work they could find in those early days, one set of grandparents picking and packing oranges, sharecropping and landscaping, and another grandparent starting a small fertilizer and farm supply company. After the Kawamura families were released from an Arizona internment camp in 1945, they returned home to the Los Angeles area to rebuild their lives. Over a decade later, the family moved farm operations to Orange County, growing and shipping produce in the area, which was well-known at the time for growing oranges, walnuts, tomatoes, lima beans, asparagus, along with other vegetable and horticulture crops.

As the area population grew, rising costs and skyrocketing real estate prices forced many Orange County growers to sell out. Those that remained continued to grow on ground leased from several large private landowners and military bases. “We don’t own any of the ground we farm on here in the county,” A.G. explains, “and that’s a challenge because we rent ground from the utilities, from a school district, from cities and counties, from the military and from private developers. We will farm any vacant lot that’s over four or five acres. If I can see the weeds are growing well, and I can see that there’s a fire hydrant or recycled water connection nearby, then we look at those as viable places to farm.”

Want to read more? You can find the full version of this story in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture, available for purchase here.

Monroe Organic Farms

Monroe Organic Farms

Monroe Organic Farms

Jacquie and Jerry Monroe, Monroe Family Farms, Kersey, Colorado. Credit: Jacquie Monroe.

We here in Colorado have been in and out of a drought since 1998 and more in a drought than out so water out here is everything. We have to irrigate in order to get a crop, so water is a huge problem especially since most of the fresh water is owned by the farmers and all the cities are taking that water away.

Jacquie Monroe

Monroe Organic Farms

Southwest Region | Kersey, CO

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 105 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Improve irrigation, add protected space.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

Jerry and Jacquie Monroe are the third generation to farm his family’s 20-acre “homeplace” in Kersey, Colorado, about an hour northeast of Denver. Monroe Family Farms is the oldest organic farm in Colorado. When Jerry and Jacquie took over from Jerry’s father in 1991, they went into the business of growing organic vegetables in a big way, adding 175 acres and starting the first CSA in Colorado in 1993, because they wanted to work closely with people who appreciated their farming philosophy. Today, the farm produces a hundred different kinds of vegetables and all the pasture, hay and feed grains needed to produce pasture-based meats (beef, pork, and lamb) and eggs on site — all of it USDA-certified organic. With the help of seven employees, Jerry manages the crop and livestock production while Jacquie manages sales and distribution for their year-around, 650-member CSA. The farm also markets to select restaurants in Denver and Boulder.

The Monroes emphasize soil health, water and energy conservation on their farm. They maintain soil health by integrating livestock into a diverse rotation of vegetables, alfalfa and feed grains. Irrigation has been upgraded from gravity-fed, furrow irrigation to more water-efficient pivot and drip systems and they use tailwater ponds to capture and return to the fields any surface runoff that occurs during irrigation or rainfall events. Produce for the winter months of the CSA are stored in dugouts, pits and straw-bale buildings, to reduce energy use. Jerry and Jacquie have succeeded with a philosophy of growing ample quantities of organic, life-filled and healthy foods while conserving and respecting the natural environment and to providing an educational experience working with Mother Nature for any CSA members who want it.

Sixteen years of extreme drought combined with higher summer temperatures, warmer winters, more extreme weather and a longer growing season have put the focus on water efficiency. “Water management has become huge,” says Jacquie. “Jerry has to keep track of how much water we have, how much he’s used. Everything has been flood irrigated here. Back in the day, they dug ditches and then had these pipes that went over the ditches and fields were just flooded to irrigate them. When you flood irrigate the top of the farm gets more water and the bottom of the farm gets less water and in the middle is the only part that gets the perfect amount of water.”

“Then we had to start conserving water because of the drought so we started putting in drip irrigation. I would say we have sixty acres of vegetables. When we first started with the drip irrigation, we put ten acres in. We’re up to probably forty acres of drip irrigation. And the rest of the crops are now under a new center pivot that we put in just this year because of the shortage of water. We want to make sure that we can continue to grow vegetables and the pivot and drip irrigation it puts that exact amount of water throughout the whole entire system. We are doing a lot more with water management. I don’t know that we would have done if our weather hadn’t changed and we hadn’t been so dry.”

Jacquie says that another change that has come with the drought has been more challenging weeds. “Weeds are starting to go crazy out here. We’re finding some of them are becoming very invasive. I can give you two examples. We’ve always had what’s called goatheads. It’s a small weed that grows very low to the ground and has a burr that sticks in your tires and in your shoes. It used to be only in certain parts of the farm, but now it seems to be going everywhere. The other one is sunflowers. We’ve never had sunflowers here before the drought. They are literally taking over all of our ditches. Anywhere that you can’t mow or get to they grow like trees and we can’t seem to get rid of them. These weeds are getting to be a problem for us. We’re trying to do a lot of mowing to try to keep them down, but the darn things adapt. They’re growing shorter now and growing a head and flowering close to the ground where the mower doesn’t hit.”

Like many other vegetable growers across the nation, the Monroes have also found opportunity in the longer growing season created by the changing climate. Jacquie estimates that in the last decade they have extended their growing season nearly two months with the help of some physical protection for frosts. They are in the field about a month earlier in the spring and can extend the fall harvest season about a month longer than they used to. “We’re picking things by the first of June and that’s never happened in our lives. That is crazy to think that we are able to produce something and harvest it by the first of June when our official last freeze date is May 15. We’ve extended our harvest season and our income has increased because of it.”

Jacquie and Jerry’s twenty-two-year-old son is weighing the pros and cons of joining his parents in the farm business. He would like to become the fourth generation on the farm, but competition for water in the region makes it difficult to imagine a lifetime in farming. “We are very concerned in the future about our water rights and whether or not we’re going to be able to get our water,” says Jacquie. “The cities are buying the water off the farms and taking it back to the city so people can eat, drink, bathe and water their lawns. Our elderly farmers are selling out. Once a person has gotten to a certain age and there isn’t a family member who wants to take over the farm, they sell their water. I don’t blame them. They finally have something of value that somebody wants and they’re paying them well for it, but it sure hurts the rest of us.”

“I’m to the point where I’m going to start asking at our annual water meeting that the farmers quit selling it, that they rent it to the cities for the rest of their lives and the rest of their children’s lives so that we can keep control of our water. That way the farmers can still have some kind of control over what’s going on out here. The cities are drying up our farms. They say that seven hundred thousand acres is supposed to be dried up in the next ten or fifteen years. It means that water will never go back to those farms. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

Fillmore Farms

Fillmore Farms

The Fillmore Family, Fillmore Farms. Credit: Fillmore Farms

Ryan Fillmore

Fillmore Farms

Southwest Region | Gridley, CA

Main Product: Fruits & Nuts

Scale: 230 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to organic, added cover crops and winter irrigation.

STORY COMING SOON!

 

Ela Family Farms

Ela Family Farms

Steve Ela, Ela Family Farms, Hotchkiss, Colorado. Credit: Steve Ela.

“I used to say it would be one year in ten we would expect a really bad year, maybe another two or three years we would have some frost. Now I would say we have frost every year. The one-in-ten year with a 10% crop, that still holds, but now we’re having 50% crops many other years. When I say this was a frost-free area, it used to be that growers didn’t need wind machines and other frost protection measures and they got though just fine. Now we have the whole place covered with wind machines.

Steve Ela

Ela Family Farms

Southwest Region | Hotchkiss, CO

Main Product: Fruits & Nuts

Scale: 100 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to direct markets, diversified fruit cultivars, added annuals and on farm processing, added frost protection and more water.

This Story is based on a 2013 interview.

As a fourth-generation fruit grower on the western slope of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, Steve Ela is proud to carry on a family tradition of innovative orcharding more than a century in the making. Ela Family Farms is a hundred acre farm with eighty-five acres planted in twenty-three varieties of apples and twenty-nine varieties of certified organic pears, peaches, cherries, plums, and tomatoes. Located near Hotchkiss, it is in the “frost-free” region known for having the best conditions for fruit production in Colorado: 300 days of sunshine, low humidity, ample high-quality water, warm days and cool nights and a relatively long frost-free period.

Steve and his parents work on the farm with the help of four employees year-round. They also employ up to eighteen people during the height of the growing season. Ela Family Farms produces about 1.5 million pounds of fruit each year, virtually all of it distributed in Colorado through direct markets as fresh fruit or value-added products such as applesauce, fruit butters, jams and cider. Farm products are sold through the Internet and a CSA, at farmers’ markets all along Colorado’s Front Range and to specialty food stores and gourmet restaurants throughout the state.

When Steve returned to take over the management of his family’s farm after completing college in 1990, he began thinking about diversifying into direct markets and transitioning to certified organic production to improve profitability and environmental quality. He also replaced the existing furrow irrigation system with more efficient sprinkler and drip irrigation, to reduce water use, and began transitioning to new varieties of fruit trees better suited to organic practices and direct markets. Steve can’t say for sure if the weather changes he has noticed are just normal variations or a sign of climate change. What he does know is that more variable weather and a lengthening growing season have required him to make some significant changes in production practices to maintain the productivity and profitability of Ela Family Farms.

“The farm is in what was once known as a relatively frost-free area,” Steve explains. “Historically, it has been in fruit trees since the 1920s, but in the last decade we have had some spring frost damage every year now. Five or six of our earliest bloom years have been in the last ten years.” He has also seen the fall season lengthen noticeably. “There are some varieties of apples, like Fuji, a late-season apple that ten years ago we weren’t sure we could grow here. Now we commonly pick them two weeks before the end of the season.”

Although the lengthening growing season has improved growing conditions for some apple varieties on the farm, production risks have increased, particularly in the last decade. “We’re experiencing earlier springs and more variable temperatures in the spring,” says Steve. “As an example, in 2013, on April fifteenth we were at 13 degrees. That is more typical of February or March temperatures. To get below 20 in April is crazy, and we had two nights below that. So it’s not just early blooming, but late, abnormally cold temperatures. April and May are the huge frost months for us. Peaches bloom mid-April, apples bloom toward the end of April. Any sub-freezing temperatures during that time are pretty destructive. Spring temperatures control whether or not we have a crop.”

Variable spring frosts also create a lot of uncertainty in orchard management, because fruit trees are managed to reduce the number of fruits and to evenly space the fruits on a tree to increase fruit size and quality. The final crop load — the number of fruit remaining on the tree to mature — determines the season’s yield potential. “Not knowing from year to year how much frost damage we are going to have means it’s much more difficult to manage crop load,” Steve explains. “If you’re in an area where you’re not going to have much frost, you can prune and thin in the fall with confidence, because there is a low risk of losing additional fruits to frost damage. Now, we never know from one year to the next how much winter and spring damage we are likely to get, so we have to leave a lot more fruit out there during pruning and early thinning. If it turns out we don’t have frost in the spring, then we’re behind the curve getting it thinned off in the spring. It’s this not knowing which way to jump that is really difficult.”

Steve has also noticed changes in summer and winter weather that have complicated management over the last decade. Warmer and wetter summers have increased disease management challenges. Over the last several years, the hottest time of year has shifted from early August to June, when temperatures regularly reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes day after day. Rainfall patterns also seem to be changing. It used to be common for no measurable rain to fall between the end of May through late August, but now consistent light rains in July and August are common. This rain is not enough to water the trees, but leaves them moist enough to increase the risk of disease damage. And winter low temperatures have become more extreme. Recently, Steve had to purchase propane burners and use his wind machines to try and buffer extreme cold temperatures. “Peaches are very sensitive to cold temperatures in the winter,” he says. “We bought our first wind machines in 1991, but I’ve never run them in the winter until the last two years. We have been below critical temperatures for peaches in the winter the last three years, at some point or several times.”

Steve has made other changes on the farm to reduce increased climate risk. He has added more wind machines, makes use of microclimates, and is considering adding protected growing space. Steve explains, “We had a couple of wind machines in ’91. They cost twenty to thirty thousand dollars a piece, so we didn’t buy them all at once. We probably put the last one in about eight years ago to finish covering the whole property. We have a hundred acres, so we have eleven of wind machines.” The farm is on a hill about three quarters of a mile long with a number of swales and other landscape features that influence temperature. “I say we live in a frost-free site, but on some cold nights we can have a four-degree difference across the farm,” explains Steve. “I have some ground out there that has historically been planted in trees, but I will not plant trees there now, because it is a cold pocket and the risk is too high. I’m looking at the warmer spots on the farm and that’s where I put my most sensitive crops.”

Steve is also careful to select frost-tolerant varieties, particularly of peaches. “Within peaches, some varieties are more susceptible than others. When evaluating which peach variety we’re going to use, keep or re-plant, I’m looking at that frost sensitivity. We’re certainly finding varieties that are more likely to come through a spring frost than less likely, even though that means we may have to do more thinning.” Steve is also considering adding frost protection structures to his cherry orchards, because of increasing risk of frost damage in the crop.

Asked about his confidence in the future, Steve notes that he is still in business in an area where fruit farms have declined by 75 percent over the last twenty years. He puts a lot of that down to his choice of direct markets. “We started changing that in 2000 because of bad economics and now we direct market 100 percent of our fruit. We’ve completely changed our business model in twelve years. Fortunately it’s worked, we’re still here. But we’ve made a conscious effort not to play in that international or even national commodity market. We have access to a little higher value market, where we have more control.”

The high returns possible with direct markets have buffered the increased production risks the farm has faced over the last decade. Steve notes that direct markets have also opened up new opportunities for him to diversify crops, because his customers are willing, even eager, to try something new. According to Steve, “With the direct marketing, we have a little more control on price, which means we don’t have to hit a home run every year to still be viable. I’ve looked at the marketing as a way to mitigate some of that crop production risk. Can we still make money if we have a half crop versus having to have a full crop every year?”

He goes on to explain some other benefits of selling his crop this way: “Direct marketing provides some additional risk management because it also means we can pick more varieties that maybe aren’t suitable for wholesale markets, but maybe have characteristics we can handle in direct markets — for example, a variety that’s frost hardy but doesn’t ship well. So we can pick and play with some of those varieties that we haven’t been able to before.” Steve believes that the uniform product requirements of industrial commodity markets increase risks in fruit production because growers are not free to select varieties best adapted to their particular farm conditions.

But there is a downside to direct marketing — it takes a lot of time and some additional skills and it keeps Steve out of the orchard. “I now spend 50 to 60 percent of my time marketing,” he explains, “whereas ten years ago 80 percent of my time was growing. I have become a worse grower because I have to spend my time marketing. As a farm, that has been a good trade-off. We are doing much better than we did before. But I would rather be a grower than a marketer. I’m a decent marketer, I don’t hate it, but I would still rather be a grower. Choosing this marketing avenue that takes a lot more of my time is in part about risk management, which is in part about weather.”

Like many growers in the Southwest, Steve has grave concerns about the future of his farm’s water supply, which is renewed each year by snowpack meltwaters. “Water management is always a concern for us because we’re dependent on irrigation. We’re going to look at the snowpack each year to determine how our water management might have to change. Every year it is different. Our average rainfall here is ten inches, and it does not necessarily fall in the summer when we need it. I’ve had people say to me that with climate change, it gets warmer, and you guys will be set. No, climate change is more variable, which doesn’t help us, and if it’s warmer, we have less snow. We’re absolutely dependent on irrigation water in the summer. And if that regularly becomes less, it will definitely put a crimp on what we can do.”

Steve has leased a neighboring farm purely as insurance against drought. “On this farm we’re on we have adequate water rights in average years,” Steve explains. “In dry years we’re short, so we lease a neighboring farm that is largely fallow right now, mostly for the water, just because it keeps me from getting more gray hair. It’s an insurance policy, that’s what it is. And if other water rights that we can access come up for sale, I’m going to be right in there trying to buy them. Water in the West has always been competitive. If it decreases, and especially if we continue to have population growth, there’s going to be greater and greater pressures on that water for domestic use. It’s going to get ugly.”

Because tree fruits are long-lived, Steve is hopeful, but concerned about the nature of the climate risks facing the farm. “We’re investing a lot of money into planting new trees. It costs somewhere around eight to twelve thousand dollars in the first year to plant a new acre of trees and it’s a ten- or twelve-year payback period if we do everything right. So any time you put more risk in that equation, it’s scary. It’s a dilemma. You can’t really quit planting out of fear, because if you don’t renovate, plant and keep moving forward, pretty soon you’re going to have a bunch of old trees, with nothing coming up beyond them to support the farm. It’s a catch-22 and that is unnerving, and that worries me. It’s certainly something I’ve thought about quite a bit. I feel confident that we have access to some of the best tools and information out there, but does that mean we’re going to successfully manage it? I’m not confident of that at all. Ultimately it’s going to come down to what is economic and what makes sense.”

Steve served as board president of the Organic Farming Research Foundation from 2004 to 2009 and regularly collaborates with University of Colorado researchers on organic fruit production research.

 

Lundberg Family Farms

Lundberg Family Farms

Lundberg Family Farms

Bryce Lundberg, Lundberg Family Farms. Credit: Paolo Vescia Photography

It just seems like we used to have a lot more regular storms that would come through. They weren’t five or six inches of rain or ten feet of snow type storms, they were just regular, consistent rain patterns. Now it seems like there isn’t such a thing. It’s either really wet, or really dry.

Bryce Lundberg

Lundberg Family Farms

Southwest Region | Richvale, CA

Main Product: Grains

Scale: 1500 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to shorter season cultivars, increase field equipment, purchase production insurance, carbon farm planning.

“‘Leave the land better than you found it,’ was one of those phrases we heard often when we were younger,” says Bryce Lundberg, a member of the third generation of his family to produce, process and market rice in the Sacramento Valley of California. Bryce and his brother Eric, together with their wives Jill and Heidi, have grown rice on about 1,500 acres since 1985. Today, they are one of about 40 local farms who produce rice for Lundberg Family Farms on about 20,000 acres near Richvale.

Lundberg Family Farms supports a network of growers using organic and eco-farming practices that cultivate soil health, enhance biological diversity and reduce or eliminate the need to use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.1 These practices include crop rotation, cover cropping, innovative water management and soil incorporation of crop residues. Lundberg Family Farms growers also use practices that benefit wildlife, for example, by salvaging the eggs of waterfowl nesting on their farms in spring2 and flooding their fields in winter to provide rich overwintering grounds for waterfowl.

These efforts to promote biodiversity extend to the diversity of rice varieties — 17 at last count — currently produced by Lundberg Family Farms growers. “Some are easier to grow than others,” Bryce explains. We like to have the farms take a mix of varieties to spread the risk around of the hard varieties and the easier varieties. Some varieties just want to jump right out of the water, and other ones you really have to watch them a lot closer to make sure they’re going to come out of the water.” In any given year, Bryce grows a mix of red and black rice, Arborio, Jasmine and Basmati and also a variety of sushi rice called Calhikari. Bryce follows his rice crops with a winter cover crop mix of oats, vetch and fava beans.

Want to read more? You can find the full version of this story in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture, available for purchase here.