November 4, 2014

Drakes Bay Oyster Farm

I was relaxing at the end of my cross-country sustainable farm tour. Or so I thought. Then I heard about Drakes Bay Oyster Farm, a favorite spot to dine on freshly shucked oysters up in Point Reyes National Seashore. I had to go investigate. Aquaculture can certainly be a sustainable activity. But, I hadn't considered oysters and I didn't know much about them. There's the old wives' tale that raw oysters are an aphrodisiac for both men and women. It turns out that scientists have pinpointed some evidence this might actually be true. Who knew? Researchers didn't directly investigate eating oysters or the effect on humans, so plenty more research is needed. Then there are the warnings against eating raw or under-cooked oysters. This is an issue with oysters raised in warm waters. No worries with the cold waters of Point Reyes. But what interests me is whether or not this could be considered a sustainable activity. As it turns out, I am in good company. Between the National Park Service, local residents, regional restaurants, environmental groups, the farm, and Congress, there are a boatload of folks who have been evaluating whether an historic oyster farm belongs in a National Seashore.

First a little bit of history. People have been growing oysters in Drakes Estero for about a century. The Point Reyes National Seashore was established in 1962 in order to protect the landscape, including the oyster farm and nearby ranches and dairies then in existence, from development. Ten years later, the government bought the property that at the time belonged to the Johnson Oyster Company. The company retained a 40-year lease, which would expire in 2012. Whether there was an intention of renewing indefinitely is the subject of debate. In 1976, Congress designated the Drakes Bay estuary and the surrounding area a wilderness area, which the Park Service has interpreted to mean that there would be no commercial activity allowed. The current holders of the lease took over the business in 2005, well aware that their lease with the National Park Service was coming to an end. Then began the negotiating, community organizing, legal maneuvering, and political wrangling to extend/renew the lease.

Drakes Oyster Farm was at the middle of a debate pitting environmentalists against each other - those wishing to preserve "pure" wilderness versus those seeking sustainable seafood. That's a good debate to have. Instead, the National Park Service released a report claiming that the oyster operation threatened nearby harbor seals. I do not pretend to be able to sort out the science here. But after reading about oysters and speaking with Loretta Murphy at Drakes Bay Oyster Farm, I think this does not do justice to the oysters. Loretta told me that oysters require no feed, no fertilizers, no chemicals, and no cultivation. Now that's an incredibly sustainable resource! Every farm that I've visited requires fertilizer to continue producing food. But oysters require no fertilizer. Oysters are filter-feeders, and they feed on naturally occurring plankton. There is no need for external feed inputs. Most farms, even certified organic farms, apply chemicals to plants to keep pests at bay. But oysters require no chemicals. And they are a no-till operation. I was thinking that they might take up a lot of acreage to produce food. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Drakes Bay Oyster Farm produces 500,000 lbs. of shucked oyster meat each year on less than 150 acres. They estimate that it would take over 30,000 acres of pasture to produce the equivalent amount of protein on grass-based beef operation. But that's not all. Oysters can actually improve water quality, due to filtering out sediment and nitrogen. They also create three-dimensional habitat that is often colonized by a great diversity of marine life. Their shells may destroy my kayak, if I run over them, but many fauna call an oyster bed their home. Oysters appear to be a hands-down winner on the sustainability front. The National Park Service did a disservice to oysters focusing on a claim that they might harm harbor seals. And one report states that they spent more than $1 million in taxpayer money on this assessment.

Loretta Murphy, co-manager Drakes Bay Oyster Farm

Although Loretta left me with idealistic visions dancing in my head, I found my way back down to earth. Boats must travel these pristine waters to seed the oyster beds and bring back the harvest to the oyster shack. Loretta didn't have any specific info on such impacts. And there are infrastructure considerations. Some structures are underwater and some are needed on land to support the underwater operations as well as nursery activities, processing, and sales. All-in-all, these seem to be minimal impacts to me.

A boat is necessary to reach the oysters

Nursery operation to grow out the oyster seed

Given the low-impact nature of this oyster operation, I found it unusual that so much attention had been given to investigating these impacts. But even more unusual was that the oyster farm was able to get its preservation attached to the Federal Energy Production and Project Delivery Act of 2013. Had it passed, this Act would have also expedited the Keystone XL pipeline, gas and oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and offshore drilling along the California coast and the rest of the country. What does fossil fuel development have in common with sustainable food production? I would have thought that oyster farming would have more in common with renewable energy development. But this is politics. In this case, Big Oil and Drakes Oyster Farm all wanted special permitting from the government and, presumably, had decided to partner up. If an oyster farm could get the National Park Service to extend its permit, then perhaps that would be a wedge that Big Oil could exploit to increase their footprint in protected areas. With these politics in play, I can see why the National Park Service might slam the door in the face of the oyster farm. They did not want any precedents set concerning the commercialization and privatization schemes aimed at our National Parks by corporate polluters. I can support that, but as a practical matter, I don't think it would have been too hard to make Drakes Oyster Farm a "special case". Perhaps some very specific legislation or rule-making could have let only them continue their activities.

Area surrounding Drakes Bay Oyster Farm

The National Park Service and its current concept of pristine wilderness held sway; oysters and working landscapes lost out. It would have been nice to increase our understanding of the interaction of people within our natural environment - to have an in-depth discussion of the direction we should be heading with our public policy regarding sustainable food production. But that will have to wait for another day. The case to keep Drakes Bay Oyster Farm open went to the Supreme Court this year under appeal. The Court did not hear the appeal, and the farm will close by year end.

I was fortunate to spend a beautiful morning out by the Drakes Bay oyster shack before they closed their retail operations. The laughter from family gatherings filled the air. Children ran around freely as the adults shucked and slurped oysters. By noon, the picnic benches were all taken and folks were setting up their own tables. I gave up my table to some new-arrivals and wandered the grounds. Just beyond the picnic area I found large piles of spent oyster shells. It looked like a waste product to me, but Loretta set me straight. She told me that these are recycled to grow new oysters or they are donated to support oyster restoration efforts in the San Francisco Bay and to create habitat for snowy plovers and least terns.

Piles of oyster shell awaiting use in San Francisco Bay restoration efforts

On the East Coast of the United States, scientists are working to manage harvests, establish sanctuaries, and restore reefs to bring back the oysters. In the Chesapeake Bay, they found that the eastern oysters are necessary for the Bay’s health, with each oyster filtering and cleaning up to 50 gallons of water per day. In the striking image below, there are two tanks of water from the Honga River, an estuary of the Chesapeake Bay. The right-hand tank has filtered algae out of the water over the course of two hours.

Two tanks holding same water, one with oysters

Cultivating shellfish on 40 percent of the Potomac’s bottom would remove all of the nitrogen now polluting the river according to new findings. Ironically, in Point Reyes, an existing oyster farm is being shut down.

October 22, 2014

Guru Ram Das Orchards

Didar Khalsa bought 16 acres on a hillside in Esparto, California in 1981. He has been planting and caring for trees there ever since. Didar's love of trees has filled Guru Ram Das Orchards. The Orchard is home to peaches, apricots, plums, citrus, grapes, and more. Like Cliff McFarlin a few hundred miles to the southeast, Didar's orcharding practices have resulted in a diversity unheard of in larger operations.

Crop diversity brings with it a diversity of watering practices. I followed Didar as he moved sprinklers scattered about the orchard from one area to another. I am not talking about the large overhead sprinklers that you might expect on a large piece of land. Rather, he was using small sprinklers attached to hoses, much like you would see in a small suburban backyard. When Didar started out, he set up the entire orchard on drip irrigation. The trees were young, and a drip system was sufficient to water them and bring nutrients to their young root systems. With a drip system, there is little water loss due to evaporation and runoff. In mulched areas, water directly soaks the soil without washing away the mulch. And it can be tailored to deliver the precise amount of water required by individual plants. In many respects, drip irrigation is the most efficient method of providing water to trees and crops.

September 28, 2014

Grumpy Goats Olive Orchard

A very, very old olive tree

There are a few olive trees that are reputed to be the oldest non-clonal trees in the world. Local Lebanese folklore claims that these Sisters Olive Trees of Noah - yes, that Noah - are 5,000 or 6,000 years old. At 3-5 years of age, the olive trees I visited at Grumpy Goats Farm in the Capay Valley of California are mere babes in arms. At one ton of olives per acre, these young trees have a few years to go before reaching maturity, when they will produce 3-4 tons per acre. But according to Pamela Marvel, her trees are already producing olives for Best-In-Show olive oil.

Grumpy Goats Farm is Pamela's idea of retirement. She made the jump from information technology to olive-growing about 6 years ago. With her husband, Stuart Littell, she took a 20 acre hay field and transformed 8 acres of it to an olive orchard. Their olive trees are certified organic. They use native grasses as a cover crop within the orchard. They bring in organic fertilizer from nearby Jepson Prairie Organics. To conserve water, they installed a drip irrigation system.

September 21, 2014

How a Young Farmer Got Her Start at the Cloverleaf Farm

Emma Torbert of the Cloverleaf Farm
Emma Torbert started the Cloverleaf Farm four years ago. If it weren't for Rick Collins and the California FarmLink, it would not have been possible. Young people that decide to go into farming face a formidable financial picture. According to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), between 2010 and 2014, farms with less than $100,000 in sales incurred losses each year. You read that right. Farms with less than $100,000 in sales make up 81% of all farms. These smaller farms are operating at a loss. Yet with no land of her own, Emma Torbert is moving toward profitability.

The first obvious obstacle that Emma faced was that she had not inherited any farmland. Many of those who might inherit a farm are leaving farming regions in droves. This represents a major disconnect. Young people who might inherit a farm are choosing to opt-out of farming. The remaining farmers are older - average age 58 - and need to consider what will become of their farms. And people like Emma, when they are considering a farming career, can't afford to buy farmland. In fact the cost of agricultural land has doubled in the past 15 years, making it even harder to break into farming. See Trends in U.S. Farmland Values and Ownership for the complexities involved in understanding this trend. How did Emma acquire the land she needed? She made use of California FarmLink. California FarmLink connects landowners and farmers. At first, I thought it might operate like an online dating service. But, they go much further than helping farmers and landowners find each other. They help both sides negotiate strong leases. And, they help with the transfer of land. In Emma's case, with the help of California FarmLink, she found Rich Collins. Four years ago, Rich was willing to help Emma start the Cloverleaf Farm by leasing 1 1/2 acre of his un-irrigated, Sacramento Valley farmland for free.

September 11, 2014

Cliff McFarlin Organics

Cliff McFarlin on the farm

When Cliff McFarlin set out to find his place in the world, he chose to be a golf pro. But when his father called him back to the farm, Cliff became a 4th generation farmer. Later, when he secured his own land, he bought a grove of Valencia orange trees near Orosi, California. Cliff is up-to-date on the latest citrus varieties and research. As we drove around the orchard, he rattled off the different flavors, colors, and smells of the fruit he grows. For example, Cliff grows pomelos, which are believed to be the ancestor of the modern-day grapefruit. But he doesn't just grow pomelos; he grows several kinds. He especially likes a newer pink variety called Chandler. Have you ever heard of a Valentine? It's a cross between a pomelo and a blood orange. He grows those as well. Although it has not reached his area of California, Cliff was also up-to-date on the scourge of citrus greening.

September 1, 2014

KMK Farms Growing Jobs & Produce

Michele and Kyle Reynolds
Kyle Reynolds spins a great yarn about how he and his wife, Michele, grew their Central Valley farm, KMK Farms. It is a story of pluck and tenacity, but it also involves listening - listening to his customers, to his employees, and to his own passion. Additionally, in growing their farm, Kyle and Michele's decisions have added to the resilience of their local economy.

In the beginning, there were heirloom avocado trees. Like a zucchini plant in many a garden, when an avocado tree matures, most people can't figure out what to do with their bounty. With an avocado orchard, Kyle and Michele were giving avocados to their friends, family, coworkers, and eventually to strangers. Seeing their predicament, a friend offered his farm stand. Two of them sat out all day selling avocados at 4/$1. At the end of the day, they netted $6. Clearly, this was not the way to go. They gave a local farmers' market a try and haven't looked back since. Their first year, they were the only vendor selling avocados, so they made out okay.

August 27, 2014

Complications at the Farmers Market, Los Angeles

What are friends for, if not to show you a favorite farmers' market near them?  That's how I found myself at the Studio City Farmers Market with my friend Earl. I was pleased to note that many of the vendors were selling certified organic produce. The market was divided into two sections - California farmers who were certified and those who were not certified. This was baffling, since there were organic farmers in both sections. It turns out that being California Certified has nothing to do with being organic.  Rather California Certified means that the produce was grown in California by the farmer selling it. Do they do this to cause confusion?

August 18, 2014

Commercial Farming with Straw Bales

I probably should have considered the geography of the Grand Canyon and its environs, before looking for sustainable farms in northwestern Arizona. Once there, I was surrounded by a dry, rocky landscape. I was not surprised to stumble on an old gold mine.

As I descended from higher elevations, there were some irrigated patches of farmland surrounded by desert. Triple Farms in the Mohave Valley beckoned with a farm stand. At the edge of their parking area, pomegranates were growing out of straw bales.

August 11, 2014

Mrs. Boots Berries Farm & New Mexico's Democratic Acequias

Environs of Chimayo, NM
Mrs. Boots Berries is a U-pick raspberry farm in Chimayo, New Mexico. The drive up to the farm is relatively lush compared to the surrounding sandy, juniper-dotted hills. The farm exists on four terraces. Irrigation water flows down the hillside, watering the highest terrace first. That's where the raspberries are. The water is then "recycled", moving down to the next terrace, where young fruit trees grow. Doug Clark, who is giving me a tour of the farm, lives in a house on the third terrace. And the fourth terrace is boggy pasture land. Access to water defines the farming landscape here.

No water was flowing onto Doug's fields on the day I visited. But looking downhill at a neighboring property, water was flooding a pasture area. There were a handful of cows and a thin layer of water over their large grazing area.

August 5, 2014

Farming the Coldest Spot in the U.S.

Daniel Carmona
Cerro Vista Farm sits on 30 acres north of Taos, New Mexico in a spectacular Sangre de Cristo mountain setting. I spoke with Daniel Carmona who has been farming in the Taos area for 35 years. Not only is he experienced with the vagaries of growing food in a very cold spot, but he is eminently quotable. I asked him if his farm was certified organic. He responded that
"The only reason to get organic certification is if you want to sell to Whole Foods."
For Daniel, growing without chemicals and poisons is a no-brainer. It's where everybody should start. He ran the Taos Farmer's Market for ten years. During that period, only non-GMO produce that was grown without chemicals and poisons could be sold at the Market. To quote Daniel again,
"That's a death-wish - using chemicals and poison. I don't have that. I have a life-wish."