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.

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.

Straus Family Creamery

Straus Family Creamery

Straus Family Creamery

Albert Straus, Straus Family Creamery. Credit: Straus Family Creamery

In 2020 and 2021, we have not had any significant rain at all. It’s been the driest year on record. It’s never happened before that we haven’t had any rain, and it looks like we’re going to continue to have extreme shortages into the future.

Albert Straus

Straus Family Creamery

Southwest Region | Petaluma, CA

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 500 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to intensive grazing, add processing/retail marketing, growers’ network, carbon farming.

Albert Straus returned to his family’s dairy farm in the late 1970s during a time of dramatic change in the dairy industry. Small family dairies were under increasing pressure to either get big or get out of the business. Returning home after earning a Bachelor’s degree in Dairy Science, Albert thought he could see a third option, one that put new best agricultural practices to work saving the family farm. In the early 1980s Albert and his father, Bill, implemented no-till seeding of crops to prevent soil erosion and reduce fuel consumption. They were already farming without herbicides or chemical fertilizers.

Despite these innovations, falling milk prices continued to threaten the economic viability of their dairy business and Albert wondered if the growing consumer interest in organic food offered a solution. He began to imagine a new kind of market for his milk, one that reflected the true costs of production, promoted responsible land stewardship and offered a viable, principled and sustainable business model for small dairy farms. Albert realized that going organic would allow him to fully embrace his deeply held belief in land stewardship, while also addressing the challenging economic realities of family farms in an era of intense industrialization.

Inspired by these ethical and economic considerations, Albert transitioned his farm to organic production in 1993 and founded the Straus Family Creamery in 1994. “How do you create a viable farming system?” Albert asks. “That’s the challenge we’ve tried to address with certified organic production and collaboration with the 12 family farms supplying our creamery. What I’ve tried to do is create a sustainable organic farming model that is good for the Earth, the soil, the animals and the people working on these farms, plus helps revitalize rural communities.”

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

CS Ranch

CS Ranch

Julia Davis Stafford, CS Ranch, Cimarron, New Mexico. Credit: Julia Stafford.

We have several rivers that run through the ranch and during all of my childhood and young adolescence the rivers were always flowing. You could count on them as a source of water for livestock. That has definitely changed over the last few years. The rivers now routinely dry up in stretches and that has been devastating in terms of pasture use. So we have had to really scramble to address our water system where always before the rivers ran through most of the pastures.

Julia Davis Stafford

CS Ranch

Southwest Region | Cimarron, NM

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 138,000 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Holistic management, dynamic stocking, shift to no-till and to multi-use perennial forage species in irrigated pastures, add local foods café in nearby town.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

The CS Ranch is located on 130,000 acres of upland shortgrass prairie at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northeastern New Mexico. Cattle and quarter horses have been the focus of production since the ranch was established by Frank Springer in 1873. Today, Julia Davis Stafford and her five siblings, Springer’s great-grandchildren, work together to manage cattle production and marketing, farming, hunting and quarter horse production.

Julia was raised on the ranch and has actively worked with her family to manage the cow/calf and stocker enterprises for more than thirty years. She takes the lead on strategic planning and water resource management for the ranch, and manages cattle production on the headquarters division near Cimarron. Julia uses planned grazing practices to raise cattle on native grasslands and improved hayfields, which are irrigated from the Cimarron River.

For many years, the cowherd numbered between 2,500 and 3,000 head, but fifteen years of continued drought have forced Julia to destock the ranch, and today the herd is down to about 850 head. CS Ranch sells cattle mostly into wholesale markets with some direct sales locally.

Over the years, long-term weather challenges on the ranch have included variability in precipitation, dry periods and drought. Because grassland production depends entirely on precipitation, either as rain or snow, dry periods and drought are challenging because the grasslands are so responsive to variations in precipitation. Wind also creates some challenges, because it tends to both dry out grassland through evaporative loss and cause soil erosion. Variability in winter snow is particularly challenging because the snowpack that builds up over winter in the mountains is the main source of river water on the ranch.

“New Mexico is very arid to begin with and cyclical drought is very common here, so what I think of as our average annual precipitation is about fourteen to sixteen inches of rainfall,” Julia explains. “That’s what we hope for. Most of our ranch is upland shortgrass prairie, and we have a little bit of irrigated ground along the rivers that we mostly use to graze and raise hay for winter feed. Keeping the hayfields alive in times of drought is really tough. So that’s led to us selecting varieties that are drought tolerant and trying to minimize tillage so that we can increase soil organic matter and develop better soil health to make the most of what moisture we do get.”

The hayfields used to be flood irrigated, but over the years water-efficient, center-pivot irrigation has been installed in most of them. The water supply on the ranch is almost entirely from surface waters fed by meltwater from the winter snowpack in the nearby mountains. “The winter snowpack has been slim to none over the past ten years,” said Julia. “Over the last decade of drought, the flood-irrigated areas have received water only sporadically. So a lot of the improved grass species, the bromes and orchard grass and those sorts of species, have disappeared, because we simply run out of water and can’t irrigate enough to keep them alive.”

Julia has noticed many other changes in weather in the past decade or so, particularly more variable precipitation and more extreme drought, warmer winters, and more wind. “Over time we tend to go in about ten-year cycles,” she explains. “But I think this drought has been longer than the last recorded cycle.” Julia has also noticed that winters have gotten warmer since she was a kid. “I couldn’t tell you exactly how much warmer in terms of degrees or anything, but it does seem that the winter temperatures have gotten warmer and we have less snow. Summer temperature is possibly warmer too, but that hasn’t struck me as being as noticeable as the wintertime temperature changes.” Winds, always a part of life in northern New Mexico, are different these days as well, according to Julia. “It seems like when I was a kid that wind blew mostly in the spring and the month of March was always very windy, but now it seems like the real strong windy times have increased and are more common throughout the year.”

These changes in weather have caused Julia to make some adjustments in production, most notably the reduction in herd size, but also in the management of the irrigated hayfields. “We’ve shifted very much over to a no-till type of approach under the center pivots,” said Julia. “Before, when we would plow up an alfalfa field, we would plant wheat and graze it periodically before planting a hayfield again, but we are going now to less and less planting or plowing, just less soil disturbance overall. We have shifted more to no-till and we are using perennial varieties that are good for both grazing and for making hay. The more that I’ve learned about soil health, the more obvious it has become that the less disturbance, the better. Having a permanent crop is better for the soil, better for the water, just better all the way around.”

Julia says that other ranchers in her community perceive many of the same changes in weather. Talking about the drought is “the first and automatic topic of conversation,” she says. “Everybody is bemoaning the drought. I would say that besides the drought being of tremendous concern, other ranchers also agree that that we just don’t have winters and the snowpack like we used to. And everyone is complaining about the wind. There is a very definite feeling of anxiety among other farmers and ranchers and townspeople around here about the lack of water, because many of the towns are facing water rationing and dwindling supplies and that sort of thing. People are leaving towns in this area and moving to metropolitan areas. I’m sure that weather is a factor in this because as agriculture decreases, business and prosperity in the area decline. There is definitely the perception that this is the worst drought that anybody has ever experienced.”

Julia says that the continuing drought has created some concern about the future at the CS Ranch. “I’d say there is anxiety over wondering, ‘Is this the new normal?’ There is just a real awareness that if you continue to destock, at a certain point, how can the ranch keep going with fewer and fewer cattle? We are also concerned about the impact on our livelihoods and on our employees. We haven’t really done any thinking ahead ten years and asking the question, ‘What are we going to do if things keep going this way?’

Thinking about the future, Julia feels fairly confident in the management practices she uses to reduce the risks of weather variability and extremes, particularly planned grazing, soil health, water conservation and the use of drought-tolerant forage varieties and cattle that are well adapted to the region. Julia says that if climate change continues to intensify, she’ll likely just continue to destock the ranch, figure out how to cut back on the need for irrigation and how to supply water to the remaining stock if surface waters were to fail.

Julia also plans to keep learning how to improve existing management practices and about new practices through participation in groups like the Quivira Coalition. “What is always tremendously encouraging to me is just the networking at these various agricultural gatherings, talking to people, and going to listen to them speak,” Julia explains. “Sometimes, particularly just after I get home from a Quivira Coalition conference, I feel we’ll be able to sort through this and go on just fine. And sometimes I feel really anxious about how we will keep going on if these same patterns — the drops in moisture and increasing temperatures — continue. If they continue to play out on those same paths, it’s going to be very tough in not very long.”

Julia has been actively involved in community-based governance of regional water issues for many years. She has served on the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, as a board member of the Cimarron Watershed Alliance and as a member of the Western Landowners Alliance. She is an active member of the Quivira Coalition.