News from California

September 10, 2021

This time of year, the tomatoes are usually laden down on the vines, begging to be picked and turned into tomato sauce, sundried tomatoes, gazpacho, or just sliced and eaten with a pinch of salt. Late summer turning into fall, the garden is exploding, while winter crops and green-topped carrots grow patiently above and below the soil surface, promising continued nourishment in the dark and quiet months to come. However, on some small farms in California, there are no tomatoes to be picked, no vegetable bounty to carry to local farmer’s markets. The state of the drought is so severe that irrigation ponds did not fill up, or the local jurisdictions cut off water access to some farm properties. This is the case for Green Valley Farm in Sebastopol, CA, tucked into a valley among redwoods and nearby rivers and creeks, all of which have run dry. Here I am, leading a course about climate change and regenerative agriculture, bearing witness with the host farmers and eight participants to the very impacts we are seeking to better understand, adapt to, and mitigate.

We have been gathered here at the farm for 10+ days, working on the land in the morning in a variety of capacities (tending perennial beds, moving animals, milking cows, making cheese, harvesting herbs, lining new pond projects with clay to hold water that will hopefully come in the winter), and learning about climate change intersections with farming in the afternoons. It’s part of a new experiment in land-based climate change education, bringing people together onto a piece of farmland to connect the dots between farmers and non-farmers working to address the challenges of climate change. With veggies from nearby farms, meat, eggs and dairy products from Green Valley, and homemade sourdough bread in plentiful supply its not like we’re suffering here too much, but the realities and challenges of this drought year and fire season are ever-present on people’s minds, a backdrop to the pastoral and idyllic setting with bone dry grasses begging for rain.

“Climate change is a self-created problem turned opportunity that we must now embrace,” said one of our Climate Farm School speakers from a local Resource Conservation District, hosting a workshop on soil carbon. What does this mean for your garden? Intercrop, grow a diversity of things, incorporate perennials, incorporate animals even if they are worms or other insects demonstrating that there is life in the soil, and above all keep your soil covered! Put down a layer of straw or seaweed, or plant a cover crop of rye, fava beans, vetch, and oats over the winter. Put some garlic in the ground and straw mulch around it, so you might have some delicious garlic scapes and bulbs to harvest next summer.

What thrives in drought conditions? What survives? There are still grapes on the vines waiting to be harvested, apples and pears on the trees, though maybe a few less than a good year. Perennials can do ok, limiting their energy towards fruiting and leaf production and instead focusing inward, drawing strength from their deep root systems and stores of nutrients several feet below the soil surface. My Indian colleagues tell me to plant millets in California, because they are such a drought resilient and nutritionally dense form of sustenance. But we don’t have many millets in the farms around me in Sonoma County, or elsewhere in California for that matter; we have almond trees and alfalfa fields, and tomatoes and lettuce and other crops no longer suited for the changing climatic conditions and extremes, and water limitations we are facing across the state. How do we get back on course, back in planting rhythms that are more in harmony and taking cues from our regional climate and native ecology? What aspects of native plant science are still relevant, and do we need to look to native plant regimes further south for guidance on what should happen in a climate-changed future California? I would like to plant millets in my garden next spring, and maybe some amaranth and drought-resilient plant varieties saved from seeds of what did ok this year, under such challenging conditions.  

As the time draws closer to Carrot Day 2021, that day of the first frost when patient gardeners will pull frost-kissed carrots out of the ground and eat them in celebration of the soil’s fertility, I am especially grateful for the gift of carrots. I don’t take them for granted, because they might not be able to be planted every year, everywhere. The Green Valley farmers might not have their own farm carrots this year, but there are other farms nearby with better water resources who might be willing to share. There is community, and generosity of spirit, and so much strength in human relationship, and I suspect those relationships also increase in strength when there is soil involved. When people come together to plant, weed, harvest, and eat together, something amazing happens: we collectively experience the power and magic of our connection to the Earth, how good it feels to have our hands in the soil, and so much generosity and mutual support springs from that collective energy. That’s at least how it’s felt having the participants of the first Climate Farm School course here at Green Valley, digging and cooking and eating together, and forming a very strong sense of community and empowerment towards collective action on climate solutions.

This fall, as we prepare to focus inwards and slow down our activities in line with winter’s shorter days and colder temperatures, consider keeping a small book shelf alive with further readings on climate change and food systems, talk to your friends, family and local farmers about what it means to farm and eat “regeneratively,” and make a personal commitment to growing and sourcing food in a way that mitigates climate change by sequestering more carbon in our most vital natural resource: the soil. I’ll be heading back East to Rhode Island in another month or so, to check on my family’s garden plot in Tiverton and hopefully pull up some carrots and put in some garlic. I’ll leave a nice layer of seaweed on the ground and some cover crop seeds buried underneath. And I’ll look to start up some conversations about the Climate Farm School courses that could happen on the East Coast next year.

Enjoy those carrots pulled from the ground in another 6 to 8 weeks!   

Laney Siegner, Ph.D., Director of Academic Programs and Climate Farm School course creator at Terra.do

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