Monday, November 2, 2015

Farms and Forks (in the road)

Kingbird Farms began as a large homestead-style garden feeding friends and the hungry (via the local food bank). Over the past 13 years we've successively layered on WWOOF hosting, sales to local cafes, and direct sales to local families via a web store, while greatly expanding our growing areas. Three years ago, we ramped up operations with the addition of a "Farm Manager" who received intensive mentoring, took all profits, and was responsible for everything from planting to sales to the care and feeding of "wwoofers." Each step had its pluses and minus, satisfactions and frustrations, but overall it's been an emotionally rewarding journey for the two of us. We've helped grow farmers (hosting over 150 wwoofers), helped build an appreciation locally for real food, and achieved a high degree of regional visibility through our collaborations with Slow Food and other organizations. And, perhaps most importantly, we've built good soil, created a model for farming with and in nature, and built the infrastructure (including solar irrigation system) for continued high-intensive growing at Kingbird.

As rewarding as this has been, Charity and I - who both celebrate 65th birthdays this year - have decided that it's time for a new chapter in our lives. We have no intention - yet - of leaving our little paradise, but we have decided that we need more freedom and flexibility in our lives and less involvement in the day to day work of running a farm and managing people. Beginning in 2016, therefore, we'll either be handing the keys to the farming operation to a tenant (Scenario 1) or scaling down to a large kitchen garden (Scenario 2). That's how we've defined our current "fork in the road."

To implement "Scenario 1," we're working with California Farmlink, an organization dedicated to matching up farmers seeking land with landowners seeking farmers. Farmlink also has the technical skills and experience to facilitate solid lease agreements and we will be relying upon them for advice.

The Farmlink posting is pictured below. To access it online and respond requires a $15 membership. We're happy to provide more information and engage in a dialog by email (email to kingbirdfarms at gmail), but applications will need to come through Farmlink.

What kind of person(s) are we looking for? The following are important: some farm experience; ability to manage complex variables without frustration; a facility with social media; basic book-keeping and record-keeping skills; good people skills; the ability to work hard and at the same time draw and adhere to hard boundaries to protect personal time; and an appreciation for the aesthetics of farming and the beauty of a special place.

The farmer (or conceivable a couple) will be expected to reside in our comfortable studio apartment and will be provided with the basic tools (BCS tractor with implements, greenhouse, walk-in cooler, seeder, etc.) for growing and marketing. (The tenant will need his/her own vehicle.)

We'll remain deeply committed to the success of the farm and envision doing the following:

1)  Providing advice and input and perspective on everything from soil to seasons to seed varieties to markets and marketing but otherwise staying out of the way except as desired.

2)  Helping out with physical labor.

3)  Providing "respite care" for the farm so that the farmer does not need to be on duty 24/7/365.

We have high standards and we may fail to find the perfect farmer for the place. In that case, we'll move to  "Scenario 2" and look instead for a long term tenant for our studio apartment, ideally one (or a couple) who would trade rent for some basic house- and farm-sitting services. We have not devoted any time to brainstorming about this yet, but the setting could be ideal for the right person. An independent consultant doing largely internet-based work? A writer tackling the Great American Novel? An artist? Stay tuned ...

In the meantime, please feel free to forward this link to anyone who might be interested or who might know of others who might be interested. And please be generous with feedback and advice. We value your perspective.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Fallout from our warm winter

The photo hints of apples to come, but it also depicts an oddity - a 3/4" baby apple on the same limb as emerging apple blossoms. What's going on there? We're actually seeing quite a bit of that this year, a function of the very warm winter that we had. Fruit trees need "chill hours" (in widely varying amounts) and when they don't get what they're best suited to the fruiting buds come out of dormancy erratically - some early and some late. On this Granny Smith apple tree budding began about 60 days ago and still continues. It looks like we'll get a decent crop.

The only downside? Several rounds of thinning the baby fruit, instead of the usual once-through to reduce the load on the branches and assure better size.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

If a tree falls … ?

We're awakened at 4-ish on the 3rd by a whoosh and a crash which I groggily process as tree-fall. This morning we venture out to find it and discover that a giant old live oak about a quarter mile from the house has yielded about a third of its mass to gravity. The rest of the tree shows no sign of demise any time soon. The severed third will gradually soften and decay, living on in insect, bird, and soil - a gift back to all that nurtured it.

We wonder on the way back why tree- or major limb-fall isn't a more frequent occurrence here, surrounded as we are by oaks. We count this as only the third major incident within a half mile over the past 14 years. That's probably an under-count, but still, why not more frequent? It suggests a young (or relatively young) forest, not yet at the point where annual deaths = annual births.

But it's definitely not a second-growth forest, because there aren't a lot of stumps. There are a few - widely and randomly spaced, very old and decayed like the one pictured to the left - of what had been mid-size valley oaks, but not more than a dozen or so. So what's their story? Selected because they were of a good size for firewood-harvesting, big enough to yield a major return but small enough to be saw-able and transportable in larger segments, and destined for homes to the east? Or are they relict of the time a hundred years ago when oaks were harvested to power the steamboats of the Delta and the Sacramento River? Were these trees dragged by horse team down to the navigable tidal zone, about a half mile to the southwest, and floated from there to docks or depots that served as wood collection and trans-shipment points?


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Soar like a pelican

We awake to egret outrage this morning - honks and grunts of protest from a large congregation in the wetlands to the west - and as expected we see American white pelicans as well. The pelicans, now breeding mostly in Nevada and Utah, have dropped in to scour the drying ponds and lagunitas west of the Cosumnes River for stranded fish and crayfish, as they have been doing - no doubt - for thousands of years. The egrets take exception to what they must see as looting by outsiders and assemble with the pelicans in a frenzy of feeding. The egrets make a lot of noise; the pelicans are silent birds. The conflict must seem more than a little ritualized after all of these years.

White pelicans are North America's largest bird; only the (lighter) condor has a larger wingspan. But they soar seemingly effortlessly, working the thermals to gain altitude, large cohorts gliding quietly in coordinated flight.

Yesterday, a mixed cohort - many older, only a few younger - gathered in Sacramento to memorialize my first boss, a "small giant of a man" (to quote one participant) who had played a key role as lobbyist for the Sierra Club in securing enactment of all of the major natural resources legislation of the 1970s.* John Zierold had died in December; he would have been 89 years old last Friday. As remarkable as the man was the group drawn together by his memory, a staggering amount of collective achievement and intelligence in a medium-sized room.

The speeches and reminiscences were exceptional, some of them tracing threads of policy and politics back 60 years. One participant asked reflectively, "Was it John? Or was it the times?" The answer, of course, was and is "yes" - one person can make a profound difference, but only when the context is right, and only with group support. John had the quiet leadership skills, a gift for strategy and tactic, an amazing network of collaborators, and a large well of public concern to draw upon.

The largely unacknowledged elephant in the room yesterday was the reality that the 30- to 35-year period since the flowering of the environmental movement in California has seen isolated victories but generalized defeat. John Zierold's passion was for protecting what he called "Earth's life-support systems." Today, those systems, from soils to oceans to atmosphere, are eroding and being poisoned and acidifying and warming and altering in composition in ways that fundamentally threaten future life on Earth. Many of us have worked hard to reverse those trends, but without meaningful success.

"Was it us? Or was it the times?" I hope that the cohort that we've mentored will be as generous in framing a response to that question at some time in the future as we were yesterday.

*The personal tribute to John that I read yesterday is here.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Buckeye chickens

These somewhat prehistoric-looking creatures are 5-week old Buckeye chickens. We recently acquired 30 of these birds at 2 days old from a small-scale breeder near Merced. He (Tom Dinwoodie of Central Valley Buckeyes) is a part of a small but significant grass-roots effort to reestablish local breeding flocks of heritage varieties, and to "breed to the standard." Breeding to the standard means selecting from among your flock those individuals who most closely embody the traits described for that breed in the American Poultry Association's Standard of Perfection, the poultry breeder's "bible," and letting those birds reproduce. The indiscriminate mass breeding that goes on in large hatcheries means that most commercially available birds have slipped considerably from the Standard of Perfection.

The Buckeye was developed a hundred years ago by a woman in Ohio named Nettie Metcalf, whose goal was a hardy, large dual-purpose (meat and laying) bird. Developing a new breed is a slow process involving decades of work. Metcalf crossed Buff Cochins, Barred Plymouth Rocks, and game hens and produced her first genetically stable Buckeyes in 1896. Buckeyes were listed in the Standard of Perfection beginning in 1904 (and Netcalf is the only woman credited with the development of a breed). As a dual-purpose bird Buckeyes never had a large commercial presence and were in danger of extinction at one point. They are recognized on the Slow Food Ark of Taste.

These Buckeyes represent the evolution of our thinking about chickens. While we've always treated our birds humanely, giving them access to plenty of pasture, cover crops, and crop residues, we've never given a lot of thought to where they came from or how they were transported or the implication of large "mega-hatcheries" for animal health and welfare. That changed dramatically when we met Jim Adkins of the Sustainable Poultry Network at this year's EcoFarm Conference. Jim and colleagues are committed to restoring heritage breeds through distributed small-scale breeding farms, usually focused on a single species. Central Valley Buckeyes is a small enterprise inspired by Adkins. We don't intend to become a breeding farm (selling chicks) but we do intend to hatch our own chicks henceforth, either using a small mechanical brooder or the natural way using broody hens.

In parallel with this change in course we're pursuing certification of our laying flock as "Animal Welfare Approved." This certification is available to pasture-based operations that provide humane living conditions for the chickens and full-time (except at night) access to sufficient pasture to provide an ongoing source of natural feed (insect and plant-based) to meet most of the animals' nutritional needs. "Animal Welfare Approved" is the only meaningful certification available to egg producers in the U.S. because "free range" means only theoretical access by thousands of birds to a small bare patch of ground, "organic" can mean tightly-confined with no access to natural feed, and "pastured" can also be used without reference to the amount of pasturage actually available. The very specific "Animal Welfare Approved" standards are enforced through annual site audits.

We passed our AWA audit about a month ago and expect to be officially certified soon. It's exciting, because for consumers interested not just in animal welfare but in getting the best possible egg, nutritionally and taste-wise, it's the current gold standard.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

turn, turn, turn

We have pluot blossoms two weeks early. And we have rain three months late. On Friday we finished the last bit of pruning, planted the last few of a couple of dozen new fruit trees, and fertilized and composted the new trees in a sprinkle of light rain. It felt like a change of season and lifted our spirits. It had me humming one of my favorite Pete Seeger songs.

The rain is timely for our cover crops, fava beans, the lettuce, spinach, and other vegetable crops, and the new (and old) trees. It will also help significantly by greening up some of the dry pasture that the chickens feed on.

But the rain leaves us still significantly in deficit and with a forecast for the balance of the month and early March that is not encouraging. Have I become the kind of farmer for whom complaining about the weather is a constant refrain?!

It is what it is, and we will get through it. Let's be thankful for lives lived as fully and generously as Seeger's. This land is your land!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Cry, California

The annual EcoFarm conference, which we attend biennially, took place last week. On the way down to Pacific Grove, we drove 100 miles of the Interstate 5 corridor, past vast acreages of almond trees. On the way back we noted a change - thousands of pallets of bee hives had been delivered and parked on the edge of the orchards. That means that blossoming is just days away, fully 8 weeks before the spring equinox.

The enormous monocultures of almonds in the San Joaquin Valley leave no room for biodiversity - no hedgerows, no remnant patches of native flora, thus no native pollinators. The almond trees are 100% dependent on honeybees for pollination, and the value of the pollination service is such that 90%-plus of the honeybee hives in North America are lured to the valley while the almonds are in bloom. Some have speculated that the stresses of transport, the sharing of parasites, and the restricted diet while on almonds have been a factor in the the widespread collapse of bee colonies across the country.

"EcoFarm" - the 34th annual - was as always both inspirational and overwhelming, an intense, compressed learning experience and large social gathering.

We return to just-opening blossoms on our earliest apple, pictured above, and to continued dryness which will mean daily irrigation somewhere on the farm henceforth unless by some miracle we get significant moisture this winter. That possibility seems increasingly slim as dry day follows dry day.