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.

Frasier Farms

Frasier Farms

Frasier Farms

Mark Frasier, Frasier Farms, Woodrow Colorado. Credit: Mark Frasier.

I think historically a person would be hard pressed to say that the drought we’ve been in recently is any more severe than what my father experienced in the 1950’s or my grandfather in the ’30’s. When you look directly at any one aspect of weather – variability, precipitation, temperature, length of growing season – those are always in flux. In the environment where we live, 40 degree fluctuations in temperature are not uncommon any time of the year. Our precipitation comes in concentrated periods of time and it’s not necessarily predictable. There is an inherent unpredictability about our environment.

Mark Frasier

Frasier Farms

Southwest Region | Woodrow, CO

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 29,000 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Holistic management, dynamic stocking, cow-calf plus stocker operation, long-term weather forecasts, subsidized production insurance.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

Frasier Farms is a family owned and operated ranch that spreads across 44,000 acres of rolling native shortgrass prairie in Eastern Colorado, where the land is dry and the wind is almost always blowing. Brothers Mark, Joe, and Chris Frasier manage the ranch in two divisions, one near Limon and the other near Woodrow. Frasier Farms produces cattle with an 800 head cow-calf and stocker operations and offer hunting leases and custom grazing. The rolling hills of native grasses such as blue gramma and buffalo grass are managed using planned grazing practices that improve soil health and the health of the grassland, recycle nutrients and enhance biodiversity on the ranch.

Mark Frasier has managed the Woodrow division of Frasier Farms for more than thirty years. In addition to the calves produced on the ranch each spring and fall, Mark buys stocker cattle each spring to run about 5,000 head when fully stocked. The cattle are split into three large herds and moved through 125 pastures on the 29,000-acre ranch, leaving 90 percent of the ranch free of cattle at any one time. Cattle produced on the ranch are marketed to feedlots through value-added natural beef and source-verified programs. Mark also sells into higher value markets by planning production to catch seasonal high prices and retaining ownership of a portion of the cattle sent to feedlots.

Mark says that year-to-year variability in seasonal weather patterns, dry periods, drought and winds are the most significant long-term challenges to dryland ranching on the eastern Colorado plains. Particularly critical is the timing and type of precipitation through the year, because grassland response to weather conditions changes throughout the growing season. Mark explains, “Let’s put it this way: A two-inch rain in September doesn’t have near the value of two inches of rain in April or May. We just get a lot more bang from an earlier precipitation event. Spring rainfall tends to be a drizzling, all-day sort of affair in the best case. When we have the same amount of precipitation in the late summer months, it’s more likely to come in an afternoon thunderstorm, so it is not as effective in terms of capturing that moisture into the soil because there is more runoff.” Wind can also present some challenges to cattle management. “On the plains, especially in the spring,” says Mark, “we can have some very strong winds and we can have winds in the summer as well. If it’s hot, those summer winds can just whip moisture out of the soil and have a very great drying effect on the plants and the soil.”

Weather variability and extremes have always been a part of life in the Great Plains region, and Mark doesn’t perceive that there has been any change in these challenges in his lifetime. “Our operation is entirely native forages,” says Mark, “and the production that we get from that varies year by year per the growing condition that we experience. It has everything to do with temperature and the amount and timing of precipitation. In terms of first day frost, in terms of wind, in terms of how long the grass stays green, all those kinds of things vary year by year. No two years are the same and they never have been. So that’s really one of our challenges is trying to manage in a highly variable environment. We develop a plan but that plan has to have significant contingencies in it because the conditions will always change.”

Mark goes on to explain that the natural environment in eastern Colorado is well adapted to the weather variability and extremes typical of the region. “For example, the grasses are extremely opportunistic,” Mark says. “They don’t have a narrow window within which they need to grow or to put out seed or perform some other function. They will stay in near dormancy until conditions are just right and then they’ll just explode and we’ll have a significant amount of growth in a very few days. Plants have evolved in the sense that they are adapted to an environment that is unpredictable. Our environment is not ungenerous, but the plant has to be ready to grow when the conditions are right.”

This same kind of preparedness to take advantage of opportunity when it comes is a central feature of Frasier Farms management. “Personally, I don’t understand when people complain about not getting rain and then when it does rain oh, now it’s too muddy,” says Mark. “We constantly prepare for the next rain, because, generally speaking, our most limiting factor is soil moisture. If in everything that we do, we can create an environment that is receptive to precipitation, so that whenever it does come we can take advantage of it, we will just be that much more efficient and more effective. It’s an attitude or a philosophy that’s grown over time. It is something a person experiences in the sense that, after you’re unprepared a time or two, you begin to think ahead a bit more. So it’s just a function of maturing and management, I think, as much as anything else.”

Mark draws on many resources to enhance the capacity of Frasier Farms to weather variability and extremes, but the use of adaptive management strategies have proven key to his success. He explains, “I look at that key word, variability. You’ve got to have adaptive management to respond, both in terms of knowing how to respond, but also anticipating what a change will bring. Oftentimes making a timely decision is key, either in a cost-saving sense or in a sense of conservation of natural resources.”

Managing both a cow/calf herd and a stocker operation gives Mark the flexibility he needs to respond to changing weather conditions. “We have the two components.” he explains. “The cowherd is actually a smaller piece of what we do. We’re bringing in most of the livestock on the ranch. If conditions are not favorable for the growth of grass, we don’t bring as many cattle to the ranch or we can destock early or in some other way change the number of cattle on the ranch. That’s our control valve. We have certain performance expectations for the cattle. If conditions are not good, then we don’t meet those expectations, and on the flip side, if conditions are very good, we exceed them. It’s not a doomsday situation for us to pull the cattle from the grass because they’re destined for a feed yard anyway so the fact that they may be going to the feed yard forty-five days earlier than normal or weighing fifty or a hundred pounds less than what we expected is not good, but it’s not a complete disaster.”

Mark also uses some other tools to reduce weather-related production risk. He finds that long-term weather forecasts — one or two months ahead — can be helpful when making stocking decisions if conditions are dry. He is also trying out a new type of federally subsidized insurance that insures the livestock producers against a large deviation from normal precipitation. This “rainfall insurance” is a pilot program of the USDA Risk Management Agency and at present is only available in a few locations.

Thinking about the future, Mark is fairly confident that he has the resources needed to keep Frasier Farms healthy, productive and profitable despite weather variability and extremes, although his confidence is related to the particular situation, as he explains. “I’d say it is really situational. It depends on what the extreme is and when and how it presents itself. There are times when I feel very compromised just because there’s not much I can do at the moment. And there are other times that situations unfold more slowly and if you have the capacity to understand what’s happening, you can modify the resources you have or take advantage of opportunities to mitigate risks.” He feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn how to successfully manage grasslands and cattle in the more variable climate of the Great Plains. “I’ve seen extremes in almost every sense and so I know what comes next. I know what the end result is likely to be. I have been through it and I am prepared to deal with it. Although no one likes to be in that position, I’d say I’m comfortable with it.”

Mark is active in the civil life of his community and has provided leadership over the years to a number of community-based and agricultural organizations. He consults with other ranchers on holistic range management and is a regular speaker at agricultural events. Mark currently serves as the president of the Colorado Livestock Association. In 2003, Frasier Farms received the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Regional Environmental Stewardship Award, which recognizes the outstanding stewardship practices and conservation achievements of cattle producers across the United States. Frasier Farms was profiled as one of sixty model U.S. sustainable farms and ranches in the USDA-SARE publication The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation.

 

Rockey Farms

Rockey Farms

Rockey Farms

Brendon Rockey, Rockey Farms, Center, Colorado. Credit: Brendon Rockey.

For every research paper you read on global warming, you find another one saying it is getting cooler. I think weather cycles, but I don’t get too hung up on patterns because it is beyond my control. My whole focus is just creating a resilient system that can handle climate change, whichever direction it might be.

Brendon Rockey

Rockey Farms

Southwest Region | Center, CO

Main Product: Vegetables (table and seed potatoes)

Scale: 500 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift some cash to cover crops,  intercropped cover crops, insectory field  strips,  livestock integration.

This story is based on a 2013 interview, with a 2020 update.

Brendon and Sheldon Rockey are the third generation to grow potatoes on 500 acres of irrigated land in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. The Rockeys operate a farm and packinghouse near Center. Brendon is in charge of field operations while Sheldon is operations manager of the business which packs specialty potatoes for certified seed and fresh table use. The farm focuses on direct sales to commercial potato growers and the wholesale fresh table potato market. They also do some direct sales from the farm.

Brendon has successfully incorporated sustainable agriculture practices like cover cropping and companion planting into the production system to improve soil quality and conserve water. The increased soil quality that Brendon achieved with the new cropping practices improved farm profitability because he found that he could use less water and decrease or eliminate fertilizer and pesticide use while maintaining yields and improving crop quality.

Brendon Rockey says that concerns about water use on their farm pushed him and his brother into trying cover crops. Average rainfall in the valley is about five inches per year, so all agriculture there is irrigated. Growers pump from wells and that water is replaced each spring from the snowmelt, which flows down from the mountains to replenish the groundwater. During this drought, growers have been pumping more water from the aquifer than is being replaced by the snowmelt and in 2013 the aquifer level hit a record low. “Water has always been a huge issue for us out here in Southern Colorado. We’re in the middle of a drought like a lot of America, and it’s been going on now for fifteen plus years. It has really forced us to make some changes to our management practices, but it’s actually helped out our farm as a whole,” explains Brendon.

Longtime growers of certified seed potatoes as well as fresh market potatoes, the brothers decided to drop barley from their two-year potato/barley rotation about ten years ago and replace it with a mixed cover crop as a way to decrease water use. They reduced their water use by about fourteen inches, and the switch had some other significant and unexpected benefits. As Brendon explains, “Bringing in a diverse cover crop improved our soil health so much that it had a huge impact on the productivity of our potato crop.” The increase in soil quality reduced input costs and increased potato quality so dramatically that Brendon found it was more profitable to grow one cash crop every two years than one cash crop every year.

The cover crop success and the extreme drought in the Southwest has Brendon thinking about how to get even more out of his cover crops. As the drought continues unabated, Brendon is contemplating a polyculture designed to encourage beneficial insects and suppress pests in the potato crop. “We’ve seen so much positive impact from having the multi-species out in the cover crop that we are thinking about bringing more diversity into the potato crop. Next year I am planting a three-species companion crop and an eight-species insectary crop in the potatoes. I’m planting peas, chickling vetch and buckwheat in the rows with the potatoes. So I’ve got the two legumes out there for my nutrient management and the buckwheat attracting insects. I am also going to plant an occasional row of insectory mix in among the potatoes as well for the purpose of attracting predatory insects.” Brendon hopes to further reduce input costs and increase soil quality with the additional diversity added to his crop rotation.

Looking ahead, Brendon wonders about the future of agriculture in his valley. If the water supply becomes even more limited, growers will have no choice but to start taking acreage out of production. “I guess that’s the real scary thing. I’m hoping that we can get enough guys to do the right thing and save enough water that we don’t get to that point. It seems from the outside like it would be easy, but the attitude here is like, ‘I wish the neighbors would all cut back on the water so I can keep farming every acre I have.’ You just try and get a bunch of farmers together and get them to all agree on the same approach. It’s really difficult!”

Since 2013, the continuing drought in the southwest means that “water is still the number one stress factor for us in this valley,” according to Brendon. “It’s been business as usual since we talked last, no dramatic changes one way or the other in the weather.”  He has been pleased with 

Long-term drought, plus low barley prices, have encouraged more potato farmers in the region to replace barley with cover crops, a shift that both conserves water and improves the production of the following potato crop. Brendon thinks these benefits have helped to make cover crops a more common practice in in the valley.  “I’ve heard a lot of people say that even if water was no longer a concern, they would continue to grow cover crops because of the benefits to the potato crop.”

Crop diversity has continued to be a focus of Brendon’s farm management. “I cringe when I see a monoculture,” Brendon says, “because I can’t imagine that crop functioning at its peak when it’s a single species by itself. It just doesn’t make sense to me.” He has increased his companion crop mix to five species and has also expanded his insectory strip mix to more than 20 species to cultivate the long bloom time and complex plant architecture needed to support high populations of beneficial insects throughout the growing season. He has also done some recent trials to explore the potential of adding quinoa to his cash crop mix.

Perhaps the biggest change at Rockey Farms since 2013 has been Brendon’s decision to integrate cattle and sheep into his crop rotation through contract grazing of cover crops. “It’s funny when you look back, because when my grandpa started farming here, every single farmer had livestock. I’m not sure at what point we drew the line in the sand and said, ‘you can only be a farmer or a rancher,’ but it’s nice to be bringing the two components back together again because both parties benefit from it.” Neighboring ranchers appreciate the opportunity to graze their stock on high quality cover crops close to home, and Brendon appreciates the additional income from pasture rent which pays about 75% of his cover crop seed costs, plus the added soil health benefits of managed, multi-species grazing.

Looking long-term at the future of agriculture in his region, Brendon recognizes that challenges of the continuing drought, but points to the growing population along Colorado’s Front Range as a bigger threat. Thinking about the most recent attempt to pipe water from his valley to supply homes 200 miles away in the Denver area, Brendon says, “I finally decided, you know what? Climate change is not going to be the thing that ends agriculture in this valley. I am much more worried about people than I am about weather changes. It’s going to be politics and other people that will put an end to it, long before climate change will.”

Brendon and Sheldon regularly host visitors and lead workshops at their farm and Brendon is a regular speaker at farming conferences and workshops throughout the U.S. The brothers were nationally recognized in 2012 for their innovative potato production system as recipients of the Soil and Water Conservation Society Merit Award for promoting sustainable agriculture and soil health.  In 2015, the National Potato Council recognized their leadership with the Environmental Stewardship Award.

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

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!