February on a California Farm

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By Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm, courtesy of Capay Valley Farm Shop

It is a fine Sunday morning. The sun is shining on a windless, cloudless blue sky.  The light frost last night kissed crops with the cold they need to be sweet and slow growing.

Late December and early January are historically our biggest roll of the farming dice. Deep freezes during this period can kill some crops outright. While some years we have ended up with empty pockets, so far 2012 has proven that the gamble of planting fields in November was a good bet, with dry and mild days. We picked our orange crop the day before the mid month freeze of 24 degrees. Although the oranges weren’t perfectly sweet, we were able to harvest some beautiful fruit. We are probably pushing orange production here, as the farm lies in a little bit of a cold spot in the winter. Other crops have come through the cold looking green and healthy. Spinach, baby lettuce, greens, beets and carrots held steady. Sugar snap peas, asparagus, alliums (onions, green garlic and leeks) and broccoli passed through the cold nights and will also help fill your boxes in the spring.

The year has started as a contrast to last year. Because of low rainfall this fall and two very dry months, we were changing pipes and irrigating our fields and orchards for much of December and January. This is the first time in 30 years that we have had to push water — two months of changing 30-foot aluminum sprinkler pipe. Frosty nights and cold dry days desiccated plants as they struggled to keep up with the drying conditions. Cover crops, hay crops and all of our vegetable crops were thirsty for a bit of moisture. Orchards require winter rainfall in order to have the deep moisture to sustain them in hot July weather. Even melons or tomatoes show stress when there is a lack of deep winter moisture. Until the last rain 10 days ago, we had the driest period on record. We get our water from both deep wells and directly from Cache Creek on the eastern border of our farm. Both systems are stressed at this point. There is a great deal of winter still to come and we can collectively hope for a very wet February or March.

In the larger picture, it will be difficult to make up the deficit in rainfall and snow pack that has left the Sierras far behind in the moisture needed to fill reservoirs, scour out streams and keep waterways healthy. The implications are profound. It is at this point, a year of growing uncertainty for Central Valley farmers about water supplies and shortages in an already over-allocated system. This requires mindful conservation on everyone’s part.

The dry December and January allowed us to do things we frankly never have done in these months. We had opportunities to disc fields, eliminating weeds and making soil ready for February plantings of greens, potatoes, lettuces and the whole variety of spring crops. The soil was dry and the tilth was perfect. We cultivated all of the growing crops to keep the fields weed free. The three acres of flowers are clean with the first tulip blooms popping open to signal the start of a riot of color. January has been a remarkable start for 2012.



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