Thursday, October 27, 2022

 The Practice of Natural History as a Farm Management Tool

I don’t know a single farmer, regardless of the scale at which they grow- whether it be 400 acres or 40 square feet—that does not appreciate the nature they encounter every day on the farm. Unfortunately, too few of us engage those experiences and put them to work for the benefit of our land and purpose. Nature will impact our operations every single day and too often we neglect our roles in those processes. We can and should embrace nature on our farms through the practice of Natural History and employ our relationship with it as a farm management tool.

Tom Fleischner, Ecologist and Professor at Prescott College founded The Natural History Institute also based in Prescott, Arizona and defined Natural History as: “A practice of intentional, focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy.” He also taught me the importance of careful observation while I was studying Natural History as an ungraduated student at Prescott College. It was at this time, that I also learned that Natural History is the foundation of the Science of Ecology. Now, three decades later, as I work to build and support an ecologically functional farm, I have rediscovered the importance of Natural History and how my focused observation and receptivity can be employed as a farm management tool. Like a good pair of fence pliers, Natural History can be a tool that is employed in numerous areas of farm management. The practice of Natural History has benefited everything from my farms design and layout to soil building, pest and pathogen management and pollination. Even my post-harvest practices have been improved through my participation in Natural History on the farm.

The Practice.

My journey into Natural History began as a child. I would stay summers on my grandparents Southwestern Iowa Farm. Most every morning, right after a cup of coffee and the morning crop report on the radio, my grandfather would walk out to the edge of a field or pasture and scoop up a handful of Iowa topsoil and smell it. He would let it fall between his fingers and then nod his head and mumble some words of wisdom I did not, at the time, understand.

Decades later, I realized, that my grandfather was practicing Natural History by observing his place in the world. About the same time, I was studying ecological restoration and had the pleasure to work with Dr. Peter Bowler at the University of California, Irvine and remember Peter telling me that “we can only be lucky enough to get to know a small piece of land intimately.” The idea that we can ever really know an ecosystem or section or more, intimately, is not likely. My Grandfather knew his home well and that came from continuous observation, receptivity and recording what he saw.

I farm on rented land and may never be able to know a place like my Grandfather did, but I can try. I do so by observing regularly and recording everything. While at Prescott College, I learned to keep a Grinnell Style field journal and continue to use this “old school” method to this day. I have tried other types and styles of journals and have even taken my lap top out into the field to record digital data sheets but it has never served me as well as using this tried and true method created by the pioneering Naturalist Joseph Grinnell.

I carry with me a small pocket sized field note book. Usually this is a 2.5” by 4” or so top bound booklet. Most of these are swag I picked up at EcoFarm or some other conference and they serve me well. I record in these notebooks the bugs, birds, weather, and other observed phenomena using my own forms of shorthand. I also jot down the activities I participate in and experiences I have.

Later, when I have some quiet time, I transfer the information in my pocket notebook to a larger format journal in which I record, expand upon and even analyze what I encountered, engaged in and interacted with throughout my time on and around the farm. This is the very same process I utilized as a Naturalist and Wilderness Guide or a Restoration Ecologist while restoring wetlands and riparian forests along the Santa Ana River Watershed.

I have worked this transfer and recording of information into the daily “closing” procedures of my farm. Usually sometime after dinner and before bed I pull out my field notes and my field journal and transfer the days information into the small 3 ring notebook using the style and process first developed by Joseph Grinnell and utilized by countless Naturalists since. I describe the material, style and process of maintaining a Grinnell Style field journal below.

The 3-ring binder

I have previously described the pocket notebook, and as the field notes can be taken on just about anything, I will go directly to the actual field journal now. I use a 5.5 inch by 8.5 inch 3-ring binder. They are readily available at your local office supply store which generally carries paper this size also. In fact, I have found that I can get both plain unlined paper as well as college ruled paper at my local Staples. The Avery Mini Binder with a 1” binding holds up to 200 sheets of paper and can be purchased for about $10 at Target or Staples.

When transferring field notes to your journal and using the Grinnell Method, create a 1” margin on the left side and a 1” margin on top of each sheet of paper. Write your name (Last name) and year at the top left hand corner. Write the month and day just below that. Across the top margin, to the right of the left side margin, record location of observations. Be specific such as “Windy River Farm, Half Acre Field at 4th St. and Temescal Ave. Norco CA.” Label every page this way.

Record all of your observations in detail on the remaining 4.5”X 7.5” area. Write on only one side of the paper. Some sources suggest using the other side of the paper for sketches and pictures, however, I have found it simpler to use just one side for everything.

I have found it useful to underline species of plants and animals as I record them. I use a squiggly line when recording the common names of plants and animals and a straight line when recording scientific names of species. This process helps when returning to the journal later. For my feeble mind, it also helps me describe a bigger picture of the scene I am observing while still focusing on the details.

I also find it useful to record weather observations, times of day observations were made and activities going on at the site that day. I also record all of the tasks I completed or attempted that day. In other words, I try to paint as complete a picture of the world in my view at that moment as I can. Combining records of the natural phenomena with my actions and interferences, provides a more useful and holistic picture of my farms world.

The Application

Over time, the relationships between plants, animals, weather, people, seasons, bugs, and soil begin to tell a story. The practice of Natural History is learning to read that story as it unfolds in front of you.

I find that I now notice the little things in my space quickly. The nibbled edges of a bell pepper leaf, ants at the base of a Brussel sprout stalk, wet spots in soil that hasn’t been irrigated recently. These subtle events help me plan my integrated pest management program, irrigation management and compost applications.

I also see and understand bigger occurrences on my farm that help to paint a picture of time and space. I have come to expect the Fall arrival of Yellow-rumped Warblers in the live oak at the southwest corner of my field or the Spring emergence of the deep green shoots of wild Brodiaea in my front pasture. These kinds of events, over the past decade, have coincided with planting and harvest times, and now serve as reminders of seasonal tasks I must complete on the farm.

The reminders extend beyond on farm tasks. I know when my late-season Rubidoux Peaches ripen, its time to get out my battery powered lights for the farmers market booth.

Speaking of late season peaches, the practice of natural history has also helped me track differences occurring due to the changing climate. Over the past several years, I have witnessed earlier flowering and ripening of stone fruit crops. I have witnessed peach and nectarine varieties setting fruit and ripening almost a month earlier in 2021 than they did in 2014 and this phenomena has continued in the years since.

The Practice of Natural History is at the heart of my pest and pathogen management planning and implementation. Monitoring is a key element in all Integrated Pest Management programs and through my purposeful observation and recording of the life in my fields I have developed a strong IPM program. I have recorded the first occurrence of Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs in my fields, the annual emergence of squash bugs as well as the growing population of Green Lacewings and other beneficial insects. As I observed my fields over the past 12 years I watched the population of rodents (squirrels, rats and gophers) decrease as the population of screech and barn owls increased.

I have implemented the Practice of Natural History into all aspects of my farm planning, design and management. In fact, I have made the practice of Natural History, A core aspect of my life on and off the farm as a way to better understand, interact with and claim my place in the natural world. I will continue to add examples and experiences to this blog in the seasons to come.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022


Rethinking the Lawn!

A recent article published by Modern Farmer discussed the trend in rethinking our “lawns.” In southern California, the trend has been a push to convert monocrop grass stands to Native and drought tolerant, low water plant pallets. Decomposed granite, rocks and gravel highlight many of these pseudo-habitat installations. Although I love California’s native landscapes and the diversity of plants that make it up, and believe many of these installations are exceptionally beautiful, I think it is time to consider the importance of grass in home landscapes from a Natural History and Ecological-Agriculture perspective.

I can feel the faces of my Native Plant enthusiast friends and water managers all over turning red and getting hotter than the boulders in a new drought tolerant garden in August. But sit back and hear me out, please. Grasslands in California are a critically endangered habitat. When the plow or bulldozer isn’t turning them over, and fires are suppressed, scrub and chaparral habitats often encroach onto fertile grasslands.

I have a front “lawn” that totals about 7000 square feet. For years, I pleaded with my wife to let me convert it to flower and vegetable production space. She has always stood her ground and protected her lawn. However, I still have to care for and maintain it, so I have been approaching it from a slightly different perspective. I view it not as lawn, but as pasture and more accurately grassland. For the past 3 plus years, I have been conducting some informal research on the natural history of my front lawn with particular focus on biodiversity and forage capacity.

When we moved onto the property almost 12 years ago, the entire 1-acre land mas had been scraped clean of any vegetation except for the three century old Olive trees in the backyard, a gravel driveway and some tiny privet bushes that were planted to someday form a hedge. But as soon as some rain fell a few sprigs of Bermuda and foxtail began to appear. 

We watered the area a couple times a week, as my wife began to find therapeutic value in wielding a hose with her thumb over the end. We also own and operate a floral business on the property and our leftover water from storing flowers would be dumped onto the Lawn. It took about 5 years to fill in the entire area with vegetative cover. And every week or two depending on the season, I would mow the patches of green and gold. The collected cuttings were either added to the compost pile or fed to the cattle we had at the time.

If I let the mower rest for a week or two longer than my wife would like, I would begin to see other plants sprout. Erodium, also known as Heron’s Bill, Bi-colored lupine, wild oats and other grass species would appear, but always gave way to the mulching blades of my Honda mower. On occasion, when the mower wouldn’t cooperate, I would take the weed whacker or string trimmer to the taller plants and larger clumps of grass.

During one such season, I noticed something different about the outcomes of using a weed whacker instead of a mower. The cut had less uniformity over the spread of our lawn. In fact it dawned on me that using the string trimmer to cut my lawn, had an outcome much more like that of a grazing animal than that of a sharp even-bladed mower. 

Over time more new species were discovered and the diversity increased. Wild Brodea, Needle grasses, Silverleaf Nightshade and milkweeds began to show up. In all, my lawn contains at least 13 species of grasses and herbaceous plants. Some native and some not. Some are drought tolerant, others grow only where the water is more prevalent.

Gophers have also increased over time, though i have a couple barn cats, Western Screach Owls, Red-tailed hawks and other predators that keep them mostly in check. With the addition of living plants, and a little water, organic matter has increased and my soil has improved significantly over the past 5 years. My “lawn” is now sequestering carbon and feeding a soil ecosystem that further adds to the biodiversity of our little flower ranch.

So I agree with the idea that it is time to rethink our lawns. But that doesn’t mean taking them out in favor of a few drought tolerant perennials or succulents. Instead, lets turn our lawns into grasslands, meadows and pastures. Lets turn our lawns into carbon sinks. We can increase biodiversity, make hay and reverse climate change and save water. Yah! Lets rethink our lawns.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

 The Rustic Fork: Farm Fresh and Urban Trendy 

Last night my wife, son and I finally made it into the Rustic Fork. The fact that this, "Farm to Fork" trendy eatery is not located in the typical gentrified, urban center, but instead, rests on the outskirts of  Riverside in a  not so distinct suburban area, was the first impression that this place was different. 

The simple earth-tone building stands out because of the stencil-cut iron signage and the agave planted wine barrel landscaping but upon entering the establishment, an unasuming, environment takes over. Many of the elements one would expect in a standard foodie oriented restaurant are present. Chalk board signs, minimal decor and an open seating plan are the standards here. The kitchen is center stage  in this establishment and all the guests can watch as 3 cooks work together to fill orders through a single window. The two male chefs, complete with tatoos and stretched lobes, and one female chef seemed to work together quite well and their system was smooth. Two servers covered approximately 10 or 12 tables and one friendly host worked the door quickly greeting and seating guests without a wait. 

                                   The Rustic Fork located at 1355 Alassandro Blvd, Riverside

    The Menu was diverse, but certainly not cheep. Filet and lobster was $99. My son had the Cajon Shrimp pasta. My wife had a greens salad with Blood Orange and Pomegranite vinegrate and a kids size Mac and Cheese. Im not a fan of sea food so I didnt taste the shrimp but my son enjoyed it. The salad was good though it was heavier on the baby leaf chard than I would have liked. The dressing was awesome and really brought the flavors together nicely. The Mac and Cheese was a creamy smokey joy.

I ordered the Drunken Goat Burger and at the first bite it became my new favorate burger. The 1/2 pound Santa Carlota beef patty, grass fed and carrot finished, was an imediate stand out and was cooked perfectly to order. The Drake family farm goat cheese was a delightful addition and the marinated onions were a perfect topper. 

                                                                                  The Drunken Goat Burger with house made fries

The burger came with housemade fries that were cut thick, with the skins on, and cooked to a hot and crispy finish then sprinkled with a sweet and savory spice mix. I completed my meal with a 16 ounce Societe Brewing IPA which I enjoyed almost as much as the burger. 

Over all I was pleasantly fulfilled at the RusticFork and look forward to going back.Their attention to  local and organic was a great selling point to get me in the door. Their food will get me coming back regularly. 

I highly recommend the Rustc Fork and appreciate their contribution to local agriculture and the food system. 

Monday, January 17, 2022

Politics and Community

I am not a republican or a democrat and I frankly have been disappointed with the leaders both parties have put forward in the past decade. But it is precisely this focus on Washington DC that bothers me the most. I have seen liberals and conservatives, democrats and republicans, even Greens and Libertarians fall into a hole dug by the system and made deeper by each person who jumps in. We have allowed the political machine to turn us into all the things we despise. Cheap shots, vulgar slogans and a refusal to have mature, positive debate drives our behavior. We spin our wheels arguing about the things we cannot change, instead of protecting and promoting the things that bring us together.

 I’m a small farmer and I run a farmer training program which hosts a Farmers Market every week. We are a community market that provides an affordable outlet for local farmers, ranchers, artists and crafts people to sell their goods. No vendor at our market comes from further than 10 miles to sell what they grow or make. Most don’t drive more than 3 miles.

There are very few rules at our market as we want everyone to participate. We only ask that farmers have a valid Certified Producers Certificate, those selling food have a Cottage Foods License and that all vendors have a City business license which is offered at no cost. Oh, and all vendors must make or grow what they sell. We do not allow distributors or corporate representatives. Each vendor pays a small fee to help offset the cost of promoting and insuring the market.

Our Market is all about community and we have all walks participating. The market takes place on City owned property in a parking lot shared by a Veterans Organization and it is decidedly non-political, non-religious and totally about our small semirural community and the diversity of inhabitants that make it up.

We recently had a vendor who sells printed-shirts and was selling one with a political statement. We had some complaints and I had to ask her to remove the products from her booth. The statement, in my opinion, is immature and feeds divisiveness. Just more people turning their backs on community and jumping in the political cesspool. Many of the complaints about the product came from veterans who served our Country. Yes that’s right they served our Country, not a Political Party.

That vendor, who it turns out, doesn’t make her product, she just buys and resells it, has chosen to leave the market.  I am glad she has moved on and I wish her and her business much luck. But it is not the kind of business we want at the market. We are about building community, not tearing it down.

I look forward to the future of our market and our community. I look forward to working with people who are building small businesses that support community. I wake up daily excited to create a food system that provides nourishment for the bodies and minds of my community.

If your idea of community is limited to a political party, a particular candidate or politician, a single race, ethnicity or religious background then you have no place at our Community Market. Nature has taught us that diversity is strength. I for one look forward to building and maintaining a strong community through connection and support not separation on division. I hope to see you all at the next Farmers and Artisans Market as we build a community that stands together.

Monday, December 6, 2021

 Learning To Farm-The Ecological Agriculture Training (EAT) Cultural Center Way

So, as many of you know, in addition to operating Windy River Farm, I also run the Ecological Agriculture Training and Cultural Center. The EAT Center is a program of Five Keys Schools and Programs and serves as a gathering space where long-time, new and beginning and prospective farmers come together to learn, share and celebrate all things “Small Farm.” We offer a 10-month wisdom-based, science informed small farm apprenticeship where students combine classroom delivered theory with farm-based hands on practice. We provide in depth one day workshops and help local farmers and ranchers sell and distribute their products.

One thing I hear over and over is “you can’t teach someone to be a farmer,” and at first, I fought that notion. Mostly, because it damaged my pride and questioned the value of what I spent much of my time doing. Over time I have come to accept and even agree with the idea that you cannot teach a person to be a farmer.

Being a farmer or rancher takes a special kind of person. It requires determination, dedication and adaptation. Patience is a crucial element. It demands that every time you get knocked down, you get back up. It takes heart. Those things can’t really be taught, however, they can be learned. Some of us were lucky enough to have those traits instilled in us early in our life and others have the opportunity to acquire them as adults through experience and mentorship.

What can be taught, are practices that lead to good farming. We teach triple bottom line practices that sustain the natural, social and economic systems of the small farm and the farm community. We focus on soil health, biodiversity, conservation, direct marketing and community as the foundations of production models and systems. Cooperation instead of competition. We avoid taking political sides because neither the left nor the right seem to embrace the Whole Farm and Farm Community the way all of us would like.

We strive to teach more than a collection of tasks. Although, there are some critical and essential tasks that we know must be completed regularly. Livestock must be fed, crops irrigated, compost turned, product sold and bills paid for examples. We  teach and practice these tasks and more regularlyas part of our program. Yet, as I wake before the sun, sip coffee and write this. I know that, instinctively, there is so much more to those simple tasks then it seems on the surface. Through years of carrying out those tasks, and observing outcomes from what I put in, what my neighbors put in, and how the natural system responds, I change, redirect and adapt. It is this ability to react, that makes us good farmers.

As a student at Prescott College in the early 1990s, I studied Natural History. I learned the importance of observation. Today, I spend much of my time in the field observing. Observing what birds are where on my farm. Are they seed eating sparrows or bug eating blue birds[T1] ? What shade of green are the leaves on my bush beans?  How much has the corn grown over night? What animal tracks have crossed my recently formed beds? How well is the soil holding moisture? How much organic matter is in my soil? I record all of this in my field journal.

Through observation and recording I develop systems that work with the ecology of my farm. It allows each task to have the greatest impact with the most efficiency. It makes me a working member of the farm community, not merely the overseer or “manager” of a machine.

When we combine this system of ecological observation and cooperation of our piece of the planet with the basic tasks required to produce and provide a food, fiber or flower product, we learn to farm. I have been in and around the horticultural industry for 30 years and have run my own farm for more than a decade.  I continue to learn every day and this is what the Ecological Agriculture Training Cultural Center and Farm are all about.




Friday, July 23, 2021

 Highlighting the Family Business

Flowers, Farming and the  role of both in Community Events

The past 15 months have been crazy. Lock downs, social distancing, businesses closing and people filling hospitals and morgues. Faces covered with masks preventing real human interaction. We crowd into big box stores like Walmart and State Brothers to hoard toilet paper and mason jars, but we couldn't join with family to celebrate holidays, births and life's achievements or to mourn deaths. Our clans were dispersed and our tribes became fractured.

Nothing eased the pain of separation or healed the wounds of  a global pandemic like flowers! 

I am a farmer (and a naturalist, teacher and writer), but there is no question that our family business is FLOWERS. For more than 20 years, we have operated retail floral businesses. My wife has been in the industry for a bit longer than the rest of  us, as it was her first job at 16 and she has never looked back. She is a world class designer, creating the finest floral arrangements for rock stars, 5-star resorts and the rich and famous. Her specialty, however, is bringing smiles and sometime tears (of Joy) to our neighbors, friends and community. And that my readers is how we weathered the pandemic.

I mostly grow vegetables and herbs, but I have grown sunflowers, bachelor's buttons, baby's breath, zinnias and statice for use in our flower shop. I am now trying my hand at growing some greens and specialty items as a way to support our family business. Over the past year I have also set up a farm stand table outside the flower shop to sell my vegies as a way for the family business to support the farm.

For the past 18 months, our agriculture related businesses,  the flower shop and farm operations, have grown tremendously. The pandemic did a lot to drive us in one of two ways-- either to close our doors or to find new paths to success. We chose the latter!

We started doing no contact deliveries and added wire services to our line up. We began promoting flowers as way to connect with one another when we couldn't physically be together. And we reached out to our community which has always supported us and again stepped up. Business stayed strong, even grew. The entire family stepped in to help out and we even hired some help. 

Unfortunately, during the pandemic, funeral business excelled as so many people succumbed to the the coronavirus. It was, however, an honor to assist our  friends and neighbors, in bringing beauty and light to an otherwise dark and challenging time. 

As the flower shop business grew, I also added a CSA program as the primary sales avenue for my produce. This provided a direct source of locally grown food for our community and memberships sold out every season. I also increased production of  greens and fillers for the flower shop. I planted more statice, lavender and zinnias. I also started and orchard of pussy willow and curly willow trees to further support the floral ends of our family business. 

All of this happens on just a little over an acre of land in Norco, California and demonstrates our families efforts to create a strong, community based economy while supporting each other through Soil, Seeds, Sunshine and Soul!

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Staking Tomatoes 

When it comes to growing a caring for tomatoes, I don't over do it. Many of my colleagues trim and tie and care for their tomatoes plants much more than I do. I transplant my starts, which I acquire from The Farm on 7th, a local grower, and from Headstart Nursery which ships to me from Gilroy, California. Once I am sure those plants have grabbed their new soil abode, usually about 10 days in, I begin to place stakes and tie up support string. 

Many growers put up a stake every plant or two, however, for cost savings, I only place a stake at every 3 or 4 plants. Then I attach hay string between each stake along the row. The string is wrapped around each stake to provide maximum support. I run two or three lines along the row. One at about 12 inches above the soil surface and another 24-30 inches and so on as needed. 

Once my string lines are up I attach tomato plants to the stake and string as needed to hold the plants up and off of the ground. I trim the lower 8-10 inches of branches off of each plant to encourage upward growth and to allow for easier weeding and to prevent transfer of pests and pathogens from soil to plant. 

Scientifically Laying Out My Corn Rows- LOL

To most people, the picture above looks like tools laying on the ground. But to the select few who understand the mind of a farmer, this is in fact a scientific method for laying out rows of corn on flat ground in an environment that otherwise would be 30" raised beds. 
The Flathead shovel represents the furrows and is about 11 inches wide. The green leaf rake is 30 inches wide and represents the bed top. The rock rake, which is on top of the green leaf rake is 16" wide and represent the separation between rows of soon to be planted corn. You can see the black and blue loc-tight valves attached to the 3/4 inch poly mainline. These will soon have drip tape attached that will run the length of the 100 foot rows. 
This ridiculous, but effective measurement system allowed me to plant 4 rows of corn on the exact same space that will eventually make up two 30 inch semi-permanent beds without having to redo irrigation lay outs or remeasure the space nlater. This way, once the corn is done, I can simply use the flat head shovel to cut my furrows, add some compost to replace lost nutrients taken up by the corn and use the 30 inch leaf rake to level the bed top. replace the drip tape and plant. 

 The Practice of Natural History as a Farm Management Tool I don’t know a single farmer, regardless of the scale at which they grow- whether...