Archive for July, 2008

My Noisy Opinions

Gold is beautiful, but the smart money buys aluminum. When you drape yourself with bling, you have to worry about the thugs in the alley that wait to yank the studs from your nose or twist the rings off your fingers. Aluminum has no glamour, and is perceived to be the metal of choice for the meek, shuffling street people that eke a living out of scavenging cans. But aluminum, like gold, holds its value through tough times. When I bought my supply of thirty-foot long, three inch diameter aluminum irrigation pipes ten years ago I spent $18 per joint. Every once in a while someone drives a tractor over a section of pipe by mistake and crushes it, and when that happens I can sell the damaged sprinkler pipe by the pound to recyclers and recoup my initial investment. In fact, the price of aluminum has gone up so much that if I wanted to buy new irrigation pipe I’d have to pay close to fifty dollars per joint. I can’t afford that, so I rent half the pipe I use for around twenty dollars a piece. Buy gold and you own gold. Buy aluminum sprinkler pipes to rent out and you’ve got a gold mine.

I’ve got a friend in the irrigation pipe business. When farms go bankrupt or farmers retire there’s always a farm sale. My friend goes to the auctions with his trailer and buys old sprinkler pipe, which he then retrofits and rents out to people like me. He’s crabby these days, because he finds himself bidding against guys in loafers, guys that can’t tell the male end of a pipe from the female end and aren’t curious to find out. They’re metal traders, not farmers. They know it takes immense amounts of electricity to turn raw bauxite ore into finished aluminum, and they know that energy costs are only going to rise. When it comes to prices, what goes up doesn’t have to come down. Pretty soon there may be so much quick money to be made scrapping aluminum that nobody’s going to bother going through all the work of repairing damaged sprinklers, replacing worn rubber gaskets, and hauling trailer loads of pipe to far-flung farmers like me.

Then there’s theft. It’s easy to mug a woman. But we farmers take comfort that most thieves are too lazy to drag thirty-foot lengths of pipe out of muddy fields in the night and haul them off. If the economy gets worse and hard working people turn to crime that could change. Already farmers have to keep an eye out for roaming thieves that steal the smaller, easily transported aluminum irrigation parts like gate valves, elbows, tees, and end plugs. Even worse, growers with fields and orchards near busy roads are discovering that their pumps and electric panels have been stripped of copper wire during the night. The farmer goes out at dawn and flips the switch and waits to hear the whir of a motor and the gurgle of water, but nothing happens: you can hear the birds chirp. Copper theft is an especially maddening crime. A thief may sell the stolen wire to an unscrupulous recycler for a few hundred dollars, but for the lack of water caused by a vandalized pump a farmer may lose a crop worth tens of thousands of dollars, to say nothing of the cost of replacing the pump. Not all fences make good neighbors.

To make my inventory of aluminum sprinkler pipes reach as far as possible I use them as little as possible. Once our fields have been planted out and the plants are established we put as many of our crops on drip tape as possible. Squash, cucumbers, basil, tomatoes, eggplant, sunchokes and peppers are all raised on drip. On my home ranch, where I have to cope with very limited water supplies, I raise perennial herbs, like rosemary, thyme, oregano, savory, nepitella, and sorrel using only drip tape. And we frequently cultivate the rows of herbs with our little tractor. As water evaporates from the earth it forms capillary pathways through the soil. Cultivation acts to conserve water by stirring up the surface of the soil and shattering these little capillaries that that would otherwise help wick subsoil moisture into the atmosphere. This is a very basic “dry-farm” practice.

In the Bolsa region along the upper reaches of the Pajaro River where I grow my row crops, there is no shortage of ground water. Nor is the Bolsa aquifer contaminated with salt water intrusion the way the Pajaro Valley is near the ocean, where farmers and town dwellers have overdrawn the aquifer for years. But if I have no urgency to conserve water right now, learning how to economize on irrigation use is always a good idea. It takes energy to pump water, and energy costs are going up fast. It takes workers to move the pipes around the field, and the cost of labor is going up. And with more people in California every day, and more people competing to use and abuse our state’s limited water resources, the time may be drawing near when urban voters strip agriculture of its traditional priority hold on water.

A gallon of water on a farm is worth a lot more that a gallon of water that goes down a toilet, washes a car, or keeps a lawn green, because a farm’s water creates the food and jobs that keep the towns humming. A lot of urban consumers don’t see things that way because the connections between popular culture and agriculture are a mystery to them. Maybe I should stop listening to talk radio, but every day I hear people say that farmers should pay more to their workers, and, by the way, food is too expensive. Everyday I hear people say that it’s a hardship for cities to conserve water, and the farmers waste it anyhow, and by the way, food is too expensive. Dams are evil, so let the rivers run free, and by the way, food is too expensive, especially wild salmon. Eat locally, except for cheese, because dairies stink, and they should be a long way from town so nobody has to smell them, and by the way, milk is too expensive. Only wine seems exempt from criticism, and the day may come when Two Buck Chuck is cheaper than the water it took to raise the grapes in the first place. For now, as far as the public is concerned, food, like water, just seems to flow, albeit with more turbulence every day. The political wars over water are at hand as different interests wrestle in a public arena over who gets priority for diminishing water resources. The old saw is evergreen; “a crisp Chardonnay is for drinking, and water is for fighting,” As we farmers make the pitch that we should have a priority claim on water we need to demonstrate by our conservative practices that we merit the supply we demand. Gold is golden, and so is aluminum, but water is life. It’ll be a real crime if we farmers have all the precious aluminum pipes we need, but not enough water to fill them.

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin || Photo above is of leeks at High Ground Organics, there’s a peek at an aluminum pipe with a joint on the end.

Field II: The Sequel

csy field circa 2008I’m enjoying the company of my new dog, Red. I didn’t expect to. I’ve worked on ranches where dogs were kept since I was a kid, but I never had a dog of my own. I never wanted a dog. I’ve always been more of a cat person.

Julia and I got Red to protect our sheep. Livestock guard dogs are different than herd dogs. Sheep dogs and cow dogs help herdsmen move herds, running back and forth behind laggard animals, barking, nipping, and urging them on. Herd dogs bond with human herd owners and learn to follow explicit directions. Guard dogs, by contrast, bond with the herds they guard. A livestock guard dog may lie on the ground like a sack of cement mix all day long, but when the need arises, it’ll rise up too and frighten off or attack any predators that threaten its friends. It is necessary that a guard dog’s owner be able to approach and handle the dog, but it is not the guard dog’s job to be friendly to humans. For a livestock owner, being overly familiar with a guard dog can even be counterproductive, since the dog will be tempted to switch loyalties to humankind and forget its herd. But I knew all this.

Red spent the first two years of her life in the Texas Hill country, guarding ducks. The duck owner grew old and no longer able to care for his farm. Via the internet, Julia learned that Red needed to find a new ranch home, and so did a Pyrnees pup named Blue. We have friends in Texas, Frank and Pamela Arnosky, who are innovative organic flower farmers. So Julia decided to take a road trip, visit the Arnoskys, and come home with the two dogs. Maybe Red could have developed into a good guard dog for our sheep if she hadn’t spent a thousand miles in a car with Julia, eating at roadside taco joints, listening to music on the cd player and bonding like Thelma and Louise. But by the time Red got to our ranch in Watsonville she had new mission in life. Forget ducks! Pyrenees hound-dog girls are on this earth to vigorously protect deserving farm wives!

Even if Red had been flown to our farm sealed in an oil drum it might not have mattered much. My sheep are a sprawling, brawling bunch of hard headed, hard hitting ewes, more like a girl gang in the Bronx or a dirty roller derby team than the sort of fluffy white creatures that Little Bo Peep might hang out with. When I first introduced Red to my sheep, Wuzzy, the boss ewe, was unequivocal. She opened her mouth and stuck out her big, black tongue. “Get lost, bitch!” she baa-ed. Then she came after Red like a hammer head shark looking for a nail. Red jumped into my arms and I staggered out of the corral under her weight. Back in the yard, Red practiced sneaking over, under, and through the boundary fences to make a mess on our neighbor Shirley’s lawn. I had to tie Red up. When night fell, she commenced to bark.

“Woof, woof!” she barked. “Red alert to Julia! A vicious deer approaches the south-west border of your ranch!” “Woof, woof, woof!”

“Quiet down!” I yelled.

“Woof, woof,” Red barked again. “There’s a bat in the sky at twelve o’clock high!” “Woof, woof, woof!” “ I’m gonna give it a piece of my mind!” “Woof, snarl!”

I couldn’t take it. “SHUT THE &*#! UP!”

But she wouldn’t. So I put Red in my van, which doesn’t have any seats in the back, and hoped she’d quiet down. Red looked wounded so I tried to make the floor a little softer by going to the barn and getting a saddle blanket that smells richly of donkey and spreading it out for her to sleep on. Then I got her a bowl of water and some chow.

In the morning Red was so happy she didn’t want to get out of the van, opting instead for breakfast in bed. I dragged her out and prepared to head off to the field. I have better things to do than ride herd on a guard dog, and I figured Red could stay home and keep an eye on Julia. But when I tried to drive away in “her new van” Red looked heartsick. So I took her to the farm with me where she met the guys, and enjoyed strolling the grounds, guarding the kales, radishes and squash. Now I have to take her with me everywhere I go.

I drive to our vegetable farm everyday down Highway 129. The other morning Red was fussing, so I pulled off the road in between the railroad overpass and the Pajaro River Bridge at Old Chittenden Road. Years ago, I used to farm a remote thirty acre piece along the railroad tracks near here, just up the river. I walked Red up the dirt road that serves as an access route for the Union Pacific maintenance crews along the railroad tracks so she could pee. My old partner, Greg, and I used to drive this road a dozen times a day going back and forth to the field, but since we split up our company and abandoned the field the road has grown over. Red didn’t want to stop, so we kept on walking. I hadn’t been down this road in nine years. Willow branches hung to the ground. Nettles reached up over my head. Red stopped to sniff a dead raccoon, and I was reminded of Ramiro.

When Greg and I first started farming out here the field was wild. Ramiro was our tractor driver and he helped us to break down the brush and rip the ground. For some reason the other guys called him “El Mapache,” which means “The Raccoon.” Ramiro and I were living together at the time, and one day he came home and said that he and Jorge had killed a javelí out at the field”.

I was alarmed. Javelí, or javelinas, are peccaries; small, omnivorous, pig-like animals that range over the Americas from the Gran Chaco in Bolivia, all the way to Arizona and Texas. I knew we didn’t have peccaries here in the Pajaro Valley, but Ramiro could easily have encountered a young wild boar, and that would be bad news. Since the field was isolated, our crops were vulnerable to being destroyed by herds of wild swine. Where there’s one pig, there’s always another.

“¿Mataste un puerco salvaje?” I asked. “You killed a wild pig?”

“No,” he said. “Un javelí.”

“But we don’t have javelinas here,” I said.

“Not any more,” he said. “We ate it.”

“En serio!” I said. “We don’t have javelinas here. They live in the desert. We have wild pigs. I mean, I’m hoping we don’t, but maybe you’re telling me we do.”

“It was no pig,” Ramiro said. “If you don’t believe me, I’ll bring you the feet!”

And so he did; four badger paws! Ramiro was a great guy, and not a bad cook, but he was no zoologist.

“We’re organic, Amigo!” I protested. “We can’t kill badgers. They’re our friends. They eat gophers like popcorn!”

“Ok, maguey!” Ramiro said. “No problem.”

Red was done smelling the dead coon and ready to move on. The last time I saw Ramiro he was taking his family back to Jalisco because he didn’t want to put his daughters in danger in Watsonville’s gang-plagued public schools. I heard he bought a ranch in Jalisco and raises milk goats. Red and I walked on.

We came to the field. Coyote brush stood ten feet tall. Red sat next to me as I surveyed the scene. I remembered a crop of chile peppers we raised out here. They were an aji type, a South American variety of pepper, red-orange, pointed, and hot as hell. Greg and I had the only seed in the US, as far as we knew. The plants grew and grew, but they didn’t flower until the end of the season, and then the plants got killed by frost before the fruit ripened. So we grew them again the following year. We were hard headed. We lost money twice before we understood that in vegetable farming it’s just as important to grow varieties of plants that are adapted to local conditions as to exploit openings in a national market. It wasn’t bad luck that the aji always froze; it was science! The breed of aji we were trying to grow had evolved at a different latitude and only flowers in the north when the hours of sunlight per day approximate springtime conditions back home. Nowadays I focus on conforming to my environment, not challenging it.

Red and I walked towards the middle of the field. The hemlock was so high we’d only gone a hundred yards before I couldn’t see the railroad tracks anymore. Wild rose and blackberry brambles tore at my pants. Red got tangled and we stopped. One morning when my son, Graydon, was little, I’d been out someplace right around here, working alone, picking carrots. He was with me that day, and he got bored.

“I wanna dwink,” he complained.

“Go get some water,” I said. “There’s a cooler next to the pick-up truck.” But the pick-up was at the end of the row, twenty yards off.

“I’m too tieowd!” he said. He sat down with a sigh like a dying bagpipe. Just then a train whistle sounded off in the distance. He straightened.

csy field circa 1998“You hear that?” I asked. We could hear the big diesel engines throbbing to the north. He stood up. Then another whistle sounded, sharp and clear, and a locomotive came around the bend on the north-eastern side of the field. “That’ll be the Coast Starlight,” I told Graydon. “Seattle to LA. Next stop Salinas, 11AM. And it’s not an hour early, either. More like twenty-three hours late!” But by then Graydon was already gone. The poor, tired child, too exhausted and thirsty to stagger to the cooler for a mouthful of life-saving water, was racing down the row, dodging clods and piles of freshly harvested carrots. When he got to the access road at the center of the field he turned and ran towards the train like his life depended on it.

“You ready to go, girl?” Red had finally peed. I picked up her leash. Graydon’s legs were so short back then that the speed he could move at was something to marvel over. He made it to the train tracks that day before the last passenger car had rolled past the field. These days Graydon’s feet are huge; bigger than mine. He’s thirteen. It’s time that moves fast now. It seems harder and harder to absorb or appreciate all the things that are going on. “When I get home,” I thought, “I’d better hug that kid while I still can.”

Red tugged hard. I’m no scatologist, but the fur-packed excrement she was straining to sniff at looked like bobcat shit to me. Red’s a good dog, even if she’s worthless at guarding sheep. I looked around. The sun was warm on my back. The sky overhead was as blue as a field of lupines and the grass on the hills beyond the railroad tracks was gold. It was time to get moving. I’d enjoyed playing hooky from my farm and taking a stroll down memory lane. It’s funny how it can take a turd-sniffing dog to help a man stop and smell the roses.

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

top photo is of the CSY Field, taken July 2008 with Red’s help.
bottom photo is the same CSY Field, taken about 1998, complete with the train!

The Field Part Pt 1 Andy’s first article about the field…

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