These days, you can’t talk to anyone involved in California agriculture without talking about water. Spoken or unspoken, the reality is that the natural conditions upon which agriculture was established in our state have changed, and they continue to change. Small farm and ranch businesses live this shifting reality every day.
Our challenge is to help make conservation and climate-smart practices economically viable for the farmers and ranchers we serve. That’s why public funding for conservation is important, so farmers can invest in conservation that has a longer-term payout than the farm would otherwise be able to afford. California FarmLink’s loans can help farm businesses to harness conservation programs that might not be accessible without our financing.
Recently we learned from one farmer working to reinvigorate an orchard not far from the crossroads at Somerset, California. At an elevation of 2400 feet lies Hummingbird Ridge Farm and its 18 acres of dry-farmed English walnuts. It’s a small operation in the care of Ryan Bell and his partner Skyla, who works in soil testing and management while Ryan starts an orchard management service. Together they share extensive experience in agroecology and ecological approach in their business model.
Ryan talked with California FarmLink about his work to reinvigorate an orchard. It had been mostly neglected for the last three decades of its 80-year history. Its age and their water situation have resulted in a small annual crop, but enough to find ways to invest in its future.
“The primary reason [for small yields] is that the trees are old,” Ryan explained. “But secondarily, the amount of water that we’re getting in California these days is really impacting us pretty heavily.” Their historical average rainfall at Somerset is around 38 inches, and last year they had less than 17 inches of rain. “And this year so far we’re at 13 inches,” Ryan added.
Searching for solutions
With those realities Ryan and Skyla set about creating goals: build soil organic matter, improve the soil’s capacity to absorb and store water, increase the nutrients available for the trees, and decrease runoff during heavy rainfall events. When looking to invest in conservation practices to meet these goals, they found the state’s Healthy Soils Program (HSP) as a potential source of financial support. “It’s brilliant but, it also puts all the stress upfront on the farmer,” he points out that larger farms can probably front $10,000 or 20,000 in expenses to launch their HSP conservation practices, and then get paid back by the state some months later. “For our farm,” he said, “that was pretty difficult to do.”
In planning his conservation practices for HSP, Ryan came up with a three-year project and a request for $42,000 to support compost applications, intensive cover cropping and the installation of hedgerows and riparian buffer plantings to support better absorption of rainfall. Ryan feels good about his HSP experience, “The HSP project has helped a lot because we’ve been able to apply compost and put the cover crop in, which are two of the primary things we were looking to do….and I think we are building enough revenue over the last few years to be able to support those practices going forward.”
But when planning the project, Ryan determined that he would need to come up with enough additional funds to meet the program requirements, money that would be returned to him after the state verifies that the project is complete. That’s where California FarmLink’s conservation bridge loan was crucial, he explained, “We were able to get $10,000 from FarmLink to put in native plants, cages [to protect them from deer], and water infrastructure to be able to actually plant everything out. But we didn’t have enough revenue to do all that.”
“You all are super easy to work with, and that made the process really easy,” Ryan explained, ”I just called a couple people, and we worked through things, figured out what you all needed, and was able to basically cover that $10,000 upfront. That gave me time to get that check back from the state and that way I could pay off the loan entirely.”
Exploring the potential of building soil biomass
With the orchard not having been actively managed for about 30 years, Ryan’s actions opened up possibilities to recover and improve the condition of the soil and trees. He proceeded with a growing passion. “I developed my own cover crop,” he explained, “I could geek out on this all day long. I have eleven species in my cover crop mix,” and he quickly listed them: oats, wheat, barley, rye; legumes including clover, bell bean, field pea, vetch; and forbs including radishes, turnips and one native species. “There’s a reason why I decided to do that…Ray Archuleta’s research out of North Carolina…basically if you can get over a certain threshold of species in a cover crop mix, you’re likely to increase the amount of biomass production that you’re going to get.” The threshold, Ryan explained, is to combine eight or more species in the cover crop mix. “Something happens in the soil and in the interactions where the biomass all of a sudden clicks, and you get way more production of biomass.” It’s a more elaborate approach, and a more expensive choice, that the HSP grant and FarmLink’s bridge loan allowed him to take to start influencing the orchard’s health.
Looking ahead; working in partnership
“We’re hoping that we get more water, obviously,” Ryan explained. “And then also trying to figure out…if there’s anything we can do to improve our water holding capacity on the farm, to improve our resilience in the face of climate change.” While Ryan works to grow his orchard management service, Foothill Orchard Care, he’s aiming to bring his family orchard’s production up to 10,000 pounds of in-shell walnuts, or about 4,000 pounds shelled. That level of production, he estimates, might make it possible to hire a full-time person to manage the orchard and organize the harvest, packaging and direct sales, perhaps one day creating maple-glazed walnuts as a value-added product.
Ryan then discussed how the farm business and the orchard care business might be integrated, and he acknowledged that there will be careful planning required. That’s one of the core elements of our Resilience program, and Ryan recognized how that could be a valuable learning experience: “That’s kind of my favorite thing about FarmLink. You have so many resources that farmers actually need, that’s kind of rare… you guys fit this niche perfectly. It’s super helpful.” He concluded, “You know, this is about as easy of a loan or a process that I’ve ever gone through. So, I’m just grateful that you all exist and are able to work with me.”
Hummingbird Ridge Farm’s certified organic walnuts are available by mail order.
Photos provided by Hummingbird Ridge Farm