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.

So why has Didar moved away from such a water and mulch conserving system? Over time, the water from the drip lines proved insufficient. Although the trees were getting enough water, they were not getting enough nutrients. Didar spreads 100 tons of compost over 13 acres every year. This compost provides nutrients for the trees via their root systems. But the growing root systems had spread to cover the entire landscape. Water is necessary for those nutrients to find their way from the compost down to the tree roots. There is no need to pinpoint water application to small root areas. Rather the whole area needs to be wet in order for the compost to break down. But the weather pattern in Northern California does not lend itself to compost decomposition. Compost continues decomposing when it is wet and warm. During the hot summer, there is very little rain to aid in decomposition. In fact, Didar said that it does not rain at all between May 1 and Oct 20 - not a single drop! During the wet winter, it is too cold for much decomposition. Didar's solution was a sprinkler system. Guru Ram Das Orchards now runs on a hybrid system - drip, sprinkler, fixed pipe, and mini-sprinklers.

Didar has been spreading compost on his orchard for over 30 years. When he started, there were many excellent reasons for such a fertilizer strategy. Synthetic fertilizer use in conventional, industrial agriculture is not particularly sustainable. The raw materials themselves are non-renewable resources. While the supply of atmospheric nitrogen is virtually unlimited, it takes natural gas to make synthetic fertilizer from it. With conventional agriculture, food production is dependent upon a non-renewable fossil fuel. On top of this, synthetic nitrogen tends to pollute. Only a small portion of the nitrogen from synthetic fertilizer is used by plants. The rest pollutes our waterways where it grows massive algal blooms, pollutes our groundwater that we use for drinking, and creates dead zones for aquatic life. It's hard to get your head around this, but consider the Mississippi River. It feeds a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that ranges from 3,000 to 8,000 square miles! Excess nitrates have been linked to many health issues, such as reproductive problems, urinary and kidney disorders, and bladder and ovarian cancer. The oxidized nitrates released from the application of synthetic nitrogen adds to smog, acid rain, greenhouse gases, and ozone destruction. Finally, when looking at the soil itself, the application of synthetic nitrogen results in low soil fertility and high rates of erosion. Don't get me started on phosphate. The bottom line is that even 30 years ago, compost was an obvious sustainable choice. Compost is a renewable resource, does not tend to pollute our water sources, does not cause health problems or air pollution when applied, and improves the soil.

We now know that it gets even better! Carbon released from soil exploitation is a major contributor to climate change. Deforestation and industrial agriculture have been major causes of increases to atmospheric carbon dioxide. According to the experts, applying compost and organic matter to the soil is one of the most effective ways to divert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into stable carbon that remains bound in the soil for long periods of time. To put it succinctly, harvesting crops removes carbon from the soil, but compost returns it. Composting combined with other regenerative farming practices may be a game-changer in our efforts to stabilize climate change.

Didar informed me that it truly gets even better than this. Didar buys his compost. It costs less now than when he started out 30 years ago. Surely this goes against some natural law. Didar feels this is one of the unintended consequences of mandatory organic waste recycling in San Francisco. Landfills are an expensive enterprise. Removing food scraps, grass cuttings and foliage from the waste stream reduces the need for landfills. This is one of the intended consequences of mandatory recycling. But it also brings down the cost of compost, for which Didar is thankful.

San Francisco compostables bin

An unintended consequence of Didar's farming methods are flocks of turkeys, deer, and quail. At Guru Ram Das Orchards, trees are planted in a somewhat haphazard way, which helps to deflect insect and disease pressures. It also results in uneven lengths of grasses in different sections of the property. Consequently different animals tend to make use of different areas. Although Didar doesn't raise any livestock, he does derive a small benefit from the scat of these wild animals.

Didar is supporting himself with his farm. But that wasn't always the case. In the beginning, he spent every weekend commuting from his home to the land. He had two partners. He poured his money and sweat into planting trees and keeping them alive. He obtained organic certification. After nine years of commuting, he and his wife bought out the partners and moved to the farm full-time. He started selling fruit. It was another nine years, before he saw a profit. He now has one year-round helper who works 30-35 hours/week and a second helper during the summer. He recently incorporated a photovoltaic array to generate electricity to pump the orchard's irrigation water. Didar happily reported to me that last year was, by far, his most profitable year ever. He grossed $128,000. In my book, Guru Ram Das Orchards is a success story. Didar even manages to fit in a vacation. And where does an orchardist go on vacation? Last year, he visited the United Kingdom and spent time with some spectacular trees. Here is a man who loves trees.

Didar Khalsa in his orchard

When I asked Didar if there was anything important that he wanted to let others know about, he surprised me with his answer. He could have gone on about the taste of a particular cultivar, how he entices bees to his orchard, or his winning marketing strategies. Instead, he asked me to promote his albums, "Rhymed Couplet" and "One-Eyed Man". He writes and produces music. You can listen to his creations at didarsinghkhalsa.bandcamp.com. Recently he finds he has become more prolific. Just like his trees, no doubt.