Earth Management Without Data

“I don’t need to know anything more. I know all I need to know.” This is how most of the key people around us approach Earth Management. Is that frightening?

Santa Cruz County has a lot of conservation lands, and those lands are critical for our prosperity. 20% of Santa Cruz County is conservation land. We rely on those lands to provide us water, clean air, and geologically stable slopes. Conservation lands also support recreation, giving County residents reprieve and healing. Open space supports life that is intrinsically valuable and will sustain an elevated quality of life for people on this planet for generations to come. Natural area parks attract tourists, fueling an annual $1 billion income for businesses and supporting 14% of local jobs.

Does Park Management Matter?

It matters how conservation lands are managed. If natural areas recreation is mismanaged, studies have shown that wildlife will disappear, degrading parks visitor experience and the quality of life for county residents. In the long term, collectively these declines endanger the future of humans. Poorly managed recreation also makes for less safe and less pleasant parks user experiences. Mismanaged conservation lands result in eroding trails, increasing safety risk for visitors, reducing the water holding capacity of the land, and degrading habitats including filling wetlands and waterways with sediment. When conservation lands managers mismanage fuels, many are endangered by increased fire risk. If they don’t correctly manage timber operations, livestock, or farming on conservation lands, there could be increased fire risk, more spread of pathogens and weeds, erosion, and degradation of plant and animal life. Problems originating on conservation lands are a burden to surrounding landowners who are threatened by fire, weeds, reduced water quality, trespass, and poorly managed wildlife. Conservation lands were often targeted for acquisition to conserve rare species, but if those species aren’t well managed, they will increasingly deserve State or Federal endangered species status; this increases the regulatory burden of private property owners whose land has habitat for those species.

So Little Data…

Very few people make the decisions about how to manage the County’s conservation lands…these folks don’t have the necessary data to inform their decisions…and one wonders whether they want more data. There are fewer than 30 people in decision making roles for all of Santa Cruz County’s conservation lands. None to very few of those people have formal training in conservation lands management. When the folks planning the North Coast section of the Rail Trail were gathering data for recreational use of North Coast parks, they discovered that there were no reliable data for the adjoining 45,000 acres of conservation lands. They couldn’t find data about how many people were using parks where or when. They found no data on the repair status of the infrastructure (parking lots, trails, restrooms, etc) supporting those parks. Of the dozens of rare and endangered species on that landscape, only a handful have been regularly surveyed so we have no idea of the health of most species’ populations. There are no data on what visitors hope to experience versus what they actually encounter. This leads me to ask…do conservation lands managers want more data…how would we know?

The Elusive Need for Data

The first place one would expect to find conservation lands managers’ expressed data needs is on the web pages of their agencies. For example, California State Parks maintains a statewide ‘natural resource management’ webpage. On that page, the agency curiously notes: “California State Parks…supports scientific studies by universities and other researchers who use state parklands as sites for conducting studies designed to help us understand the ecological health of a park.” Note that this verbiage avoids stating that such research could help inform management. Nowhere on the webpage can you find out how Parks supports science. I have not been able to find a publicly available list of prioritized data needs nor science plans that would help to guide data collection prioritization for any conservation lands managers in the County. The Bureau of Land Management, managers of a sizeable conservation property, Cotoni Coast Dairies, apparently does not intend to complete a science plan, which is mandated for all such National Monument designated lands. With a region rife with research institutions, why would conservation lands managers not outwardly seek assistance with data collection and analysis?

The Few, The Proud

I am reflecting on the many conversations I’ve had with conservation lands managers about their priorities, or lack thereof, for data and analysis to inform their management. Many lament the need for more financial resources to support research within their agency; many have also shown suspicion about research that they do not tightly control. In the most recent conversations, two conservation lands managers told me that they had all the information they needed to manage thousands of acres of Santa Cruz County land. Their swagger suggested that they were experts and that they would notice if there was something awry with their management; if they needed to make any changes, they would know what to do. A few years ago, when another manager claimed something similar in a group with which I was a part, a wise colleague responded that humans have thought they knew the right thing to do for thousands of years only to be eventually proven wrong as science progressed. This know-it-all attitude is reflected in reports and programs such as this publication and another one from a central support organization for State Parks, where it is supposed that it is merely necessary to disseminate ‘best practices’ or to train parks employees to implement ‘tested approaches for management.’

Twisted Logic

Try to make sense of the following logical framework, which local Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conservation lands management leaders have publicly stated. Although BLM has sufficient information to inform their management…the questions they might have for researchers…whatever they might be (not stated/published)…are not expected to overlap with the interests of researchers. But, even if they could find some overlapping interest, researchers would likely not produce information that would be salient for BLM’s management.

A Beacon of Hope

As a stand-out exception to these trends, the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network, a consortium of lands managers working throughout the region, recently completed a data-driven climate adaptation project. But it is not clear if any particular land management agency has officially adopted the project’s findings, which largely either contradict current management or suggest the need for much more study/work before alternate management actions might be considered. So, perhaps there is some hope…

Support What’s Right

Meanwhile, how can we help advocate for better progress with scientific approaches to stewarding the precious conservation lands of Santa Cruz County? Your most likely leverage point is through advocacy organizations. Don’t support an organization that doesn’t align with your values. For instance, Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks has a mission that purportedly supports ‘thriving’ parks and ‘conservation’ – support them only if you find that science-based land conservation is a priority. It would be great if other groups were able to help State Parks with their stewardship issues. The California Native Plant Society has a great reputation as having a science-based approach to assisting with conservation lands management through advocacy and partnership. Occasionally, Audubon California will help with such issues. The Nature Conservancy has long been a leader helping other conservation lands managers to be more science-based and data driven with their stewardship work.

As always, please vote for the environment. Ask candidates about how they will help conservation lands managers be more scientific with their approaches to stewardship. These issues touch on elections at every level: city, county, state and federal candidates should all have clear environmental platforms for conservation lands assistance. Hundreds of thousands of acres of Santa Cruz County depend on smart practitioners of Earth Management! Let’s help move that forward.

Golden Crowned Sparrow Returns to Central California

GoSp

Bold markings on this golden crowned sparrow indicates a ‘powerful’ individual.

Weary Willie’s distinctive call is waking up our neighborhood for the first time in five months. Last week, following an unusual big early storm sweeping in from up north, the first Golden Crowned Sparrows arrived here in Davenport from their migration to British Columbia or perhaps Alaska.

Nicknamed ‘weary Willie’ for their call – “I’m so weary,” – this sparrow is our wintertime friend here, with ~20 bird flocks returning to exactly the same small shrub patches they inhabited last year here at Molino Creek Farm.  Well, at least SOME of the birds return, and some of those with their young which were born perhaps as far north as the ‘Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.’  Way up north, the a male feeds his mate as she incubates eggs.  Between flying back and forth, making a nest, feeding each other, fledging and raising young, they’ve been very busy since they left.  I’m fascinated with them because of their social structure and their tendency, like me, to be ‘home bodies.’

Bruce Lyon, a professor at UC Santa Cruz has been studying flocks at the UCSC Arboretum.  He finds up to 50% (or more!) of the birds returning in fall migration.  He has confirmed what many have noted – ‘high site fidelity’ – with the Arboretum birds.  Bird banding makes all that possible; I wish I could recognize individual birds well enough to do that from memory.

Individual birds are recognizable, and their plumage can tell you how high on the pecking order they reside.  Lyon has also noted that the size and color of their golden crowns, the patches of yellow on their heads, varies with their status in their flock.  The bigger and more striking the yellow, the more dominant the birds…including yellow patches on females that are dominant over duller males.  Taking the time to distinguish and even name individual birds in our flock is fun and helps me to understand a little of what is going on in the yard.

In past years, I have noticed that the birds ride the first winter cold fronts around Fall Equinox, perhaps taking advantage of the winds to help carry them.  I also wonder if they migrate more during the darker moon phases that intersect with those cold fronts, though last year they arrived during Full Moon.  I understand that many birds migrate mostly at night to avoid predation.  A small group of us sometimes place bets on first rain date as well as first golden crowned sparrow arrival dates.  This year, they came right on time…

Welcome back Golden Crowned Sparrows!

I’ll keep track of arrival and departure dates (with a few notes) from various years here, starting this fall:

Arrival: 9/21/15- first posted this post on that date.

Arrival: 9/21/21, full moon, day before Equinox, directly after N Cal atmospheric river event

Arrival: 9/20/22, right after a big unusual winter storm swept down from up North and brought the first significant rainfall to our area. Moon phase: waning crescent.

Apples

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about apples and want to share a bit about what I know about this wonderful fruit.

A Rose by Any Other Name

Apples are in the same plant family as roses. When you are eating an apple, you are kind of eating a rose hip, only sweeter. Check out an apple flower and you’ll see a wild rose – five petals and a big bunch of stamens. An apple orchard in flower gives off a dusty rose smell. We’re lucky apples don’t have thorns. Other fruits are in the rose family, too: cherries, apricots, plums…

Apple Blossoms with Honeybee

Apple Lore

Wild apples are found in their genetic birthplace in southern Kazakhstan in the Tian Shan mountains. Apples were domesticated at least 1500 years ago from the wild species Malus sieversii. Bears and people spread that wild thing around far and wide and then folks started messing with it to make better fruit. The result was a cultivated variety with different species names, such as Malus pumila, Malus sylvestris, Malus communis or Malus domestica. If you don’t have a favorite variety of apple, there are plenty to try. Worldwide, there are 7500 varieties grown. Locally, you can try more than 70 varieties at the annual apple tasting at Wilder Ranch. This year’s tasting is on October 8th and hosted by the Monterey Bay Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers.

Gala Apples – a favorite!

Our Region and Apples

Our region is famous for its apple cultivation. Martinelli’s Gold Medal apple cider has its history in Watsonville. There are still around 2,000 acres of apple trees in the Monterey Bay area and almost all of those apples go to Martinelli juice, which is made primarily of the apple variety Newtown Pippin with some Mutsu (aka Crispin) mixed in. With the many juice taste tests I’ve participated in, Newtown Pippin wins easily, but Mutsu is a close second.  Martinelli is now offering organic apple juice, reminding me of one of the reasons organic agriculture got its boost.

Organic Foods Movement and Apples

One of the earliest boosts for the organic foods movement was due to apples. The Natural Resources Defense Council published a peer reviewed scientific study demonstrating the carcinogenic danger of Alar, a synthetic spray used on apples and found on apples in the store. The news show 60 Minutes caried this story in 1989 and the public quickly stopped buying apples. Lawsuits followed and Congress passed legislation, and then the organic food movement got a big boost.

Growing Apples

It’s not easy to grow any apple for profit but growing organic apples is even more difficult. The labor alone is a wonder. I figure that an organic apple is handled 6 times before you pick one up at the market.

  1. The first touch: fruit thinning

Touch one: fruit thinning. If the farmer is really good, they only touch the fruit a single time when thinning fruit. There can be up to 6 flowers per cluster, and it is best to thin that cluster to one fruit or there are all sorts of problems. Lack of thinning makes for smaller fruit, not a problem if you want juice but a big problem for sales. If you don’t thin enough, there’s too much weight for the apple branches and branches break. Also, without sufficient thinning the tree makes more seeds using more nutrients that then don’t get invested in the next season’s buds. So, you get a tree that bears every other year: aka alternate bearing.

  • Touch two: harvest

Someone has to harvest the fruit from the tree. These apples go into harvest bags that have to get hauled to the sorting table.

  • Touch three: the sort

Apples need to get carefully sorted. You make sure that any insect damaged fruit doesn’t go to the store and that the right sizes are in the right boxes.

  • Touch four: the boxes go into the truck for delivery
  • Touch five: the boxes go off of the truck at delivery
  • Touch six: the apples go on display

Apple Soil

Many of us believe that the key to success in apple growing is good soil stewardship. Apple trees grow best in close association with soil fungi also known as mycorrhizae. The tastiest fungal associate of apple trees is the famous morel mushroom, but I don’t know anyone who has successfully and purposefully grown morels and apples together…it’s a dream. Mostly, the fungi that collaborate with apples don’t make tasty mushrooms but they can help the apple trees absorb nutrients and water. There is also evidence that apple trees are healthier if they are aided by their fungal associates. I’ve learned lots about apple growing from the author Michael Phillips. He swore that placing piles of hardwood chips made from the fine branches of trees was key to a healthy orchard as fungi love that kind of wood and, in turn, feed the trees.

Well-thinned Mutsu Apples: good for cider or sale of large apples

Growing Apples and our Climate

The native habitat of apples is not at all like California, so we have to think carefully about how we manage apples in our climate. One major issue is that California has a hot, dry summer. Kazakhstan’s mountains have moist summers, so either we irrigate apples or plant trees where their roots reach moisture deep in the soil throughout the summer. Full sized apple trees have roots that reach 20’ down; dwarfing rootstock is smaller. Full sized apple tree also try to reach their natural 40 feet height, so despite the deep roots the height of the tree can be a real problem. Shorter trees and dwarfing rootstock means more thirsty trees.

The other problems with growing apples in our region have to do with heat. Many apple varieties need enough ‘chill hours’ to be healthy; a chill hour is one hour less than 45 degrees while the tree is dormant. We don’t get a lot of those right around here (especially with warming winters) and areas south of us on the coast are nearly impossible to grow many types of apples because of that. The other temperature issue is hot roots. Apples don’t like warm roots- too warm and the trees aren’t as healthy. The answer is to keep the understory watered and mulched.

Apple Friends

If you grow an apple tree, you are bound to attract critters. There are always birds wanting to eat the fruit: I get acorn woodpeckers, California scrub jays and Steller’s jays pecking away at fruit. Fallen fruit feed gophers and mice. Gray fox harvest fallen fruit or fruit right from the trees. If you are in town, you might also get opossum, rats, and raccoons doing the same. One of my favorite butterflies raises its young on apple leaves: the California sister. But, there are many other species of butterflies and moths that do the same. Finally, you need to watch an apple tree in blossom to appreciate the number of pollinators that celebrate apple blooming season.

Your Apple Tree

I hope you can appreciate the apple tree a little bit more and maybe you’ll be inspired to help care for one. If you don’t want to grow one yourself, perhaps you can help care for one through many of the community orchard projects happening all over town. At the very least, when you see that apple at the market, now you may appreciate the life that it had before it made it to the sales display table. Each fruit has its own story, but apples have a special place in our local history.

-this post originally published by Bruce Bratton on his extraordinarily useful BrattonOnline.com weekly blog

Heat Breaks, Monsoon #4

Heat fades. Cool nights. Cloudy, muggy days. Clouds scatter northward – tattered remnants of Hurricane Kay make for spectacular sunsets and less intense sun. This was the fourth odd monsoon of the season.  Most years we have no monsoons. Global weirding.

Apple Love

We were so proud to last weekend to pick up a whole season’s fallen and thinned apple fruit, ~700 pounds. But the heat wave triggered mass fruit shedding. Big fruit now litter the orchard floor. So, we must go again – only ~300 pounds this time. Perhaps we will save these windfalls for pressing. And, perhaps we will add Molino’s first hops to the juice.

The cool nights should help the Gala apples get sweet and floral, so that we can send the harvest to markets next week. Two Dog Farm will be carrying boxes to their markets for the first time in a long while…we have a big crop.

Each apple type is coloring up with varietal distinction. Braeburns are deeper red, mutsu medium apple green, fuji – grayish green-red, cheery red and yellow striped gala, maroon esopus spitzenberg, cheery red and green wickson crabs, and so on, and on….we have so many varieties. The colors of help gage (subtly) ripeness…in the right light. Apple growers benefit from expert color memory. There are plenty to taste test.

On Cherry Hill, Around the Avocado Bowl

A similar heat wave ushered in the CZU Fire in 2020, destroying our cherry orchard and one big block of older, bigger avocado trees. In 2021, the California Certified Organic Farmers organization sponsored their employee Drake Bialecki to take a sabbatical to work at Molino Creek Farm helping us with fire recovery. Drake’s steady hand, nurtured by years of fine pottery, graft-healed the cherries and avocados, patching buds onto cherry stems, matching new shoots to avocado root sprouts. A year later, we have 6’ tall, big bushes of avocados and 4’ tall vibrant starts of recovering cherries. Phoenix orchard blocks. We envision dense cherry tree shade sheltering families with giggling children raking in UPick sweet fruits in just a few more years.

A big bush from a 2021 graft: phoenix revival of burnt up avocado trees

Return of the Cool

Cool nights in the upper 50s, contrasted with heat wave nights in the upper 70s to mid-80s. Waves of low clouds, like a wall over the near ocean, send occasional arms inland and wisps of fog lick treetops.

The nocturnal cricket chorus is much muffled and seems more distant. Owl hoots less frequently. Everything needs rest after a week of extreme heat stress and all the work that entailed.

Wildlife

Some critters appear, others disappear. Each week there is change. I frequently encounter a huge antlered buck sometimes near the female and her young, sometimes alone. He holds his head high, three points on each side of a big set of antlers. Some bucks with these many points are barrel chested and bulky; this one is more graceful but still strong. He bravely moves only a little bit away from people. Deer always seem to be browsing.

For a long while, I could spot fresh snake trails every day. Seeing gopher snakes was normal. Now, no snakes and few snake tracks. Where did they go?

Sky the kestrel is back to being always around the farm, as is the red-tailed hawk. There were for a moment two Coopers hawks: we hope both stay – one is normal. The kestrel fusses at the others, screeching and dive bombing them.

Blue bellies and alligator lizards are easy to find. Baby blue bellies- 2” long- are commonplace, nervously scurrying to the lips of gopher holes as we walk by.

-originally published in my blog for Molino Creek Farm

Summer Flies

Conservationist Mike Splain coined an appropriate measure of the summertime population level of face flies in Big Sur: ‘apocalyptic.’ Many readers who spend any time outside in the summer away from the immediate coast will know the insects of which I speak. They are small surprisingly fast flies that specialize in buzzing into facial orifices. My friend Catherine suggests we call them ‘eye ear nose and throat experts,’ a nod to ENT medical specialists. What they are officially called, in Latin, remains a mystery to me. No one seems to know. When asking friends recently what they call them, I got “dog pecker flies” and a suggestion that they are officially called “eye gnats.”

Face Fly Season

These flies only recently emerged in numbers in the hills above Santa Cruz. The heat seems to explain their population explosions. This past weekend, I was surprised to be bothered by them at sea level in Big Sur. I avoid all inland Big Sur areas after late Spring until well after the first rains when they disappear. Cool rains are their antidote. Once they become numerous, it is impossible to have an outdoor conversation without what we called back east the ‘New Jersey wave’ – an attempt to shoo the flies away with a constant back and forth motion of the hand, especially near your ears. They seem to love jumping into your ear holes.

Secret Bites

This fly bites. You can’t feel their small bodies land, except in your ears, nose, or eyes…but they will land and bite you anywhere that’s exposed. They don’t bite quickly and easily scare away before they bite. If they do get you, they leave a small welt that, for me, is itchy and persistent. If you watch wildlife – deer and rabbits – you’ll see they are suffering greatly from these flies. Deer ears wag back and forth, bunnies blink a bunch.

Mosquitoes

During the summer, in a fair trade for the profusion of obnoxious face flies, we don’t have to be attacked by mosquitoes, which are nearly absent in our Mediterranean climate. You have to be near water in the summertime to have mosquitoes around these parts. Estuaries, like the Elkhorn Slough, have summertime mosquitoes. If you are lucky enough to have a pond to swim in, you will also have mosquitoes. We are most familiar with mosquitoes that have larvae in the water, but we’ve got another type. Once the rain re-wets the soil, a swarm of certain types of mosquitoes emerge which are able to have a life cycle in moist soil.

Horseflies

My second least favorite biting insect (after face flies) is the horse fly, aka deer fly aka doctor fly. At least I know what these are officially called. Not that knowledge is power. We seem powerless against this troupe of pests. In the family Tabanidae, naturalists call them ‘tabanids.’ Country folk from the south through Central and South America call them doctor flies because they are surgeons, painlessly piercing a hole in your skin through which to mop up blood. They hurt when they leave you because their two parted cutting blade proboscis is barbed and those barbs hurt like the Dickens when they pull out…but then it is too late to get even as they fly quickly away.

I once asked someone in Costa Rica if the doctor flies were bad in the forest and he said ‘in places.’ Somehow, both doctor flies and face flies are clustered in distribution: bad in certain places and not so bad in others. When hiking, it seems you walk into packs of horse flies that, like packs of feral dogs, take advantage of your distraction in swatting one so that another can stab you for her meal. Yes, I said ‘her’ because, like mosquitoes, females need protein in blood to make eggs.

Conversely, Fly Friends

Most folks know what a dragonfly looks like but underappreciate the similarly useful predator called the robberfly. Draggonflies grow up in the water; their larval stage fiercely devours other aquatic life, including small fish, mosquitoes, etc. After they emerge in their winged form…the beautiful things we are more likely to recognize… adolescents move far away from water so we see them many places. Dragonflies zip about catching other insects on the wing, controlling things like face flies, mosquitoes, and horseflies.

Unlike dragonflies, Robberflies are arid environment specialists; but, similar to dragonflies, they are aerial predators controlling many of the insects that we would rather do without. As larvae in terrestrial habitats, robberflies prey on all sorts of other life they encounter. As adults, robberflies eat wasps, bees, dragonflies, each other, mosquitoes, and lots of other flying critters. Robberflies are aerial acrobats with relatively long bodies and wings folded over their tops. I find them most recognizable because of their long legs which they use to grab onto prey.

What Good are Flies?

Clouds of face flies… hovering wining mosquitoes… fleet attacks of horseflies…darting dragonflies and the assassin-grabbings of robberflies…just a few examples of the diverse strategies of our invertebrate relatives at making life work.

Why should we like flies? Think of flies as the aerial wildlife that they are. Right there in front of you, all around Santa Cruz, you can observe an aerial ecosystem with prey and predator interactions. Those insects emerge from aquatic or terrestrial systems and can be used as indicators of ecosystem health.  Bugs feed bats, frogs, and birds, critters that most people want in their lives. Certainly, farmers want those bug eating animals doing their crops a favor.

Bug Friends

There are many ways to be bug friendly: don’t go ballistic over the face flies! If I find out what the face flies are…and how folks approach their control…I’ll let you know. Most folks don’t much care about mosquito control as they are close to nonexistent. No one I know has ever figured out how to control horse flies and they aren’t so numerous as to warrant much effort. With time, we may learn how to nurture robber fly populations.

We also want to support organic farming practices that avoid synthetic pesticides which continue to impact the insect world far from farms. As opposed to Europe, the United States still allows neonics, aka neonicotinoid, a type of pesticide that is used in most corn and soybean crops and which has been shown to negatively affect honeybees, so probably also impacts other non-target insects around those vast croplands.

As we are thinking about how we can use fewer pesticides around our homes we can also avoid electronic bug zappers. Seemingly intelligent people are still powering up the UV lights that attract many insects to an electrical killing screen, a bug zapper. The UV light doesn’t attract biting insects but rather kills a host of other insects giving the owners a sick sense of success as the machine makes the zapping noise over and over as more and more insects are fried on the electric screen.

More Bugs!

Think about what you can do to attract more, not fewer, insects around your home: nurture native plants, especially wildflowers that blossom in all seasons. Coyotebrush, an easy to grow shrub, is blossoming and full of insect pollinators right now, in the dry depths of summer. Diverse native plants including ones that blossom at all times of the year will contribute to native insect diversity. If you are a generous donor type, give funds to the Xerxes Society, an incredibly successful and efficient nonprofit group devoted to conservation of invertebrates.

-this post originall published in Bruce Bratton’s amazing weekly blog BrattonOnline.com

Hot-Hot, Hot!

Extraordinary heat roasted Molino Creek Farm and much of California these past many days. Wilting heat. Obliterating heat. Maybe if you come from Death Valley you might say ‘that’s nothing!’ We’re pretty sure it was something like 109F for hours at one point, what was it…Sunday? The scorching affects the memory. Every day it has been well over 90F inside with no way to cool down. Water out of the tap was warm out of the supposedly cold side. We’re not used to anything much over 80 outside. Normally, cool nights help chill the house and the bodies. Nights didn’t get under 80. Day after day everything solid has been heating up. It will take days for things to cool down again. They say that coolness comes back this weekend. With each consecutive heat wave, the next warm spell is worse because everything is that much drier. We hope that this is the last heat wave, but we typically have heat waves through even November these days.

Heat Signs

The night time cricket chorus got much louder, more constant and the chirps quicker. Midday bird song is nonexistent; dawn chorus is muted…there has been no dusk bird chorus. The quail calls don’t seem to have changed, though they seem much braver. Most birds are braver- not wanting to expend much energy running or flying away if they don’t have to. All bird beaks are wide agape all day, panting.

We’ve had smokey sunsets. No fog. Odd stillness or weird winds. Off shore tiny slow breeze. So still for so long and then yesterday a big pushy wind from the southeast for almost an hour, then occasional breezes from that same direction for a bit…warm breezes!

A young coast live oak bent over ninety degrees, perhaps from 2020 fire damage. A still hot afternoon and another oak was shedding leaves more rapidly than a deciduous tree would on a windy day in fall.

The black walnut trees hang wilty and droopy, just ripening their crop of fruit.

Molino Creek Farm is rife with black walnuts growing without irrigation

Dust hangs in nearly still clouds after a car passes by.

The moon shines a muted pale orange from California’s wildfire smoke.

Bug Days

Besides the crickets, our most entertaining of insect buddies, there are others. There were eight dragonflies zig zagging above the upper orchard the other warm evening. Below them there was a buzz of yellow jacket wasps, finally building a population back to devour damaged apples. Maybe the two were related: dragonflies feasting on yellow jackets. But, maybe the biomass of insects supported by our lush organic, regenerative orchard is providing more diverse insect fare. Yellow jackets also feed on insects…they might be mopping up pests like scale, aphids, mealy bugs, coddling moth larvae, etc. It is nice to see so many predators in the orchard helping with pest control and feeding the birds.

Bearing heavily, Molino Creek Farm’s Community-managed regenerative orchard

Changes in Birds

The swallows are gone. I’m not sure when they left, but there are no more barn swallows to wake up to, I already miss their long sentences of chortling squeaky chirps. Off they went to the south land for the winter. Any bets on when the golden crowned sparrows return from their Alaskan haunts? One morning I’ll awaken to that three noted sad song some say is ‘I’m so tired’ and realize that they are back for the winter. Usually, this occurs on the Equinox. There’s an annual betting pool for their return date just like there’s a betting pool for the first significant rain (>1” in one ‘event’). Want to join in with your bet?

One by one the quail are getting eaten by the Cooper’s hawk: piles of feathers keep appearing. A couple times this week, I heard that hawk screaming, terrorizing other birds in the larger vicinity.

Crop Update

Two Dog Farm tomatoes are starting to ripen. They are also producing a bunch of really fine looking (and tasting) peppers. Their dry farmed squash are chugging along- they like the hot weather, apparently.

The apple crop is getting ripe and burning. Gala apples though not quite as sweet as they should be but have dark brown (not quite black) seeds, so almost ripe. They’ll put on some sugar in the next couple of weeks and we’ll be hauling them to market. The heat wave made some apples burn on their sunny sides. A few years ago when the Fuji apples burned, they regained their color and it wasn’t so shocking. Let’s hope for the best or we’ll just have some visually scarred apples for cider not sale.

A sunburned Gala apple

-published originally on my blog at Molino Creek Farm’s facebook and webpage

Loud Crickets, Warm Nights

Ripples and waves of peachy color-brushed fog flows downcoast at sunset, cloud tops at 400 feet elevation, well below the Farm. As darkness sets in, it is one of the rare handful of warm night opportunities to immerse in outdoor sounds. There’s a fullness to the cricket chorus, with windows wide open all through the night. The crescent moon barely shines, a dull orange from high altitude smoke once again blanketing the West. There’s no wind tonight and it won’t get below 70F. Hooot Hoot hoot-hoot hoot hoot calls the great horned owls. Tiny animals make small curious noises as they scurry through dry leaves. All the night noises filter clearly indoors tonight.

Heat Wave

Maw and Caw the raven pair hop and pant, beaks wide open midday. They are trying to scare up grasshoppers around the farm fields, patiently pacing. Big black birds have a particularly hard time with heat waves. 

Today was the first of a predicted weeklong heat wave. We hope for the sometimes unpredicted fog to roll in and provide relief. Already, near mature apples have burned-bleached skins on the sunniest of fruit sides.

Fall Color

Grass and weeds have turned the dusty, tired gray-brown tint that is typical of late summer. Early bearing stone fruit – apricots prunes, and plums – have leaves that are turning fall color (yellow, orange).

Stone Fruit Fall at Molino Creek Farm’s Community Orchard

In the wildscape, poison oak fall creates bright red patches on the hillsides, its early fall with big leaf maple coloring creeksides yellow. The last flowers of summer have reached peak: silver-gray foliaged sagebrush holds up spires of tiny nodding green flower clusters…female coyote brush is also displaying –  furry flowers buzz with flies and bees, flutter with buckeye butterflies.

Last of the wild flowers…coyote brush, a female shrubs fluffy fur

Deer!

Momma deer still has her two small adolescent offspring. They are well fed plump but in good muscular form. She teaches her young not to panic when I walk by, sauntering relaxedly. ears alert, nibbling and walking to keep a little distance. There’s a long dark straight scar down her belly. The whole family has dark brown-gray fur, summer coats grayer than the blonde-tawny winter coat…or maybe they’re just dusty dirty- the color closely matches Molino Creek Farm’s soil.

Fox

The One Fox has become at least two…each time encountered on the uphill edge of our property, mostly with late night driving. Lower the headlight beams, give them time to find a way off the road that isn’t in the stickers. We beckon them to migrate further in…closer to our gardens and farm fields where their rabbit and mouse eating might help us with our plight. It is a Big Year for gnawing damage, crops and ornamental plants suffering.

Pests

Two Dog Farm workers draped rows of bird netting over their Chardonnay this week. The vines and their first dime-sized fruit hanging in sporadic thick clusters are now obscured by green netting, but birds still cheep and flit among the open rows, between the netted vines.

We won’t have to net the avocado trees, but they will be a few years before they bear much fruit. Nevertheless, the young trees look healthy and are putting on their second wave of growth.

2021 planted avocado tree…healthy and sprinting upwards

-this post originally from Molino Creek Farm’s web and facebook pages.

Grazing Goats for Fire Safety

One of the more common questions I’m getting these days is: what do you think about all this goat grazing for fuels reduction? I suspect the questions are coming to me because folks want to hear about my ecological perspective about goat grazing effects. There are other concerns, and I try to wrap those into this essay.

Goat Grazing Benefits

Grazing goats can produce many benefits from food and fiber production to wildfire fuels reduction, invasive species control, ecological restoration, and endangered species recovery. Goat meat is popular in many different people’s cuisines, and raising goats locally reduces transportation costs and resulting greenhouse gas emissions. Many have criticized the beef industry for greenhouse gas emissions impacts, this might be a better solution for those who desire meat as part of their diet. Goat hair (angora, cashmere, etc) is a useful fiber in place of sheep’s wool, and goat skins are used to create and repair drums and banjos. Is anyone doing these kinds of things with the herds of goats used for fuels reduction?

Goat herds are mainly being used for reducing the fuel loads that could make wildfires more catastrophic. Goats are useful in this way as they readily eat brush as well as grass. Sheep, cows and horses mainly eat grass, though they’ll nibble at shrubs, too.  Goats like to eat shrubs so much that they will get on their hind legs and pull at branches as far up as they can reach. They’ll even climb trees!

Properly managed goats can help to reduce the cover and reproduction of invasive plants, including shrubby species. Goats can reduce thistle patches, mow down infestations of invasive grasses, and tear up French broom. These things qualify as ecological restoration, but goats can do more than just this…

By properly managing goats, we can help to restore evolutionary grazing disturbance regimes on which ecosystems and endangered species depend. By reducing the growth of grasses, or the thatch that grasses make, goat grazing can facilitate the germination and survival of wildflowers, which also helps restore pollinators. By grazing brush, goats can keep coastal prairies more open, conserving habitat for grassland dependent birds, such as black shouldered kite, burrowing owl, and grasshopper sparrow. When livestock reduces thatch in grasslands, grasses are less competitive and wildflowers flourish; so, endangered butterflies like Bay checkerspot which depends on wildflowers can thrive.

Cautions about Goat Grazing

Note that I’ve said ‘properly managed’ a lot. Saying ‘goat grazing is good’ is like saying ‘weather is good’ – both statements are nonsensical without details. The four variables to control with livestock grazing are seasonality, intensity, duration, and frequency. Grazing in the winter growing season can help reduce the growth of cool-wet-season grasses and so favor wildflowers (and thistles!). Putting many, many goats in an area is more intense than just a few. Putting many, many goats in an area for a long period of time is more impactful than a short period of time. Returning a herd of goats to an area more- versus less-frequently makes a difference. I just witnessed a recently goat-grazed public park area near San Rafael where there was almost no grass left and the oak and eucalyptus trees had been moderately damaged by goats gnawing through bark. Grazing goats in the early summer certainly made sense to reduce the potential for soil compaction and erosion on the steep slopes I was visiting. But, on the ungrazed adjoining areas, native tarplants were in blossom – I’m not sure if those will come back in the goat grazed area so that pollinators will have something to visit. Small oak trees that had goat munched bark scars from the previous year were dying or dead. I questioned not only the need to graze the ground so hard as to negatively affect native trees, but I also questioned the health and welfare of the animals: was it necessary to make those animals very, very hungry to eat the grass down to near dirt and then start gnawing on tree bark?

Other cautions about goat grazing I wonder about: flies, manure, and weeds. Do communities near goat grazing areas get more flies, even biting flies? Does the manure wash off the grazed barrens and into streams and cause pollution? Are the goats transporting weed seeds onto the property from an area they grazed right before they were temporarily transported for fire control? All good cautions to ask about when reviewing the costs vs. the benefits of goat grazing.

The last caution I have is about training mountain lions to eat goats. I’ve heard too many folks raising goats blame the mountain lions for the loss of their animals when the fault almost certainly lies with careless livestock managers. Proper protection includes guardian dogs, electric fencing, and lion-proof night pens. When folks don’t properly protect goats, mountain lions figure out a way to eat them…and then become accustomed to those easy meals. At that point, the human has effectively trained the mountain lion to eat livestock and then there’s a problem.

Challenges Ahead

It seems that goat grazing is an expanding enterprise for fuels reduction, so how do we make it work better? Part of the solution is already on the table: all livestock grazing programs must be approved by a state-licensed Certified Rangeland Manager. This is a parallel program to the Registered Professional Forester who signs off on any timber production in California. A Certified Rangeland Manager has the skills to outline a plan to maximize the benefits and minimize the problems of a goat grazing operation.

Even with a good plan, there are significant challenges ahead for goat-led habitat and fuels management. For instance, given the oversight needed for each herd, how do we afford the shepherds and still affordably manage goats? Goats are escape artists, so shepherds are necessary to keep them contained and well supervised, if only to assure that areas don’t get overgrazed and the goats stay healthy and safe. We need to find the right way for shepherds to have a good standard of living and decent working hours in an economy that already has a difficult time paying a living wage. If we can find and keep the labor, how do we train enough people to pay enough attention to the nuances of habitat management so that we restore habitats instead of destroy them while we seek a more fire-safe landscape?

In Conclusion

Next time you see goats arrive to do some work, I’m hoping you ask some of the questions I posed above. Only by having respectful dialogues about these issues can we hope to find the ‘right’ place for goat powered fuels reduction and habitat restoration. Such conversations can elevate the intelligence of all parties as we seek a better way to live on this super biologically diverse, fire prone landscape.

-this content originally published at Bruce Bratton’s wonderful weekly blog: BrattonOnline.com sign up now and save on the already low, low price of nothing (donations welcomed).

Caring about Public Land Management

What’s going on with public land management around you, and what are you doing about it?

Most citizens of the U.S.A. state that they want healthy wildlife populations and clean water for their communities and for future generations to enjoy. And yet, repeated surveys of Santa Cruz County residents suggest declining efforts to learn about wildlife so that individuals could take action to protect assure wildlife conservation. We can see this decline also reflected in our activism and politics. When was the last time you heard about an environmental activist group taking a stand to protect local wildlife? Which politician can you name that had environmental conservation as a major portion of their platforms? Have you looked at the agendas or minutes from Santa Cruz County’s Commission on the Environment or Fish and Game Commission – both advisory bodies to County Supervisors? I challenge you to find any evidence of solicited or unsolicited advice to the Supervisors. In short, our County, at the top of the nation’s biodiverse counties, is effectively asleep while their precious natural heritage is being rapidly eroded by neglect. I frequently hear how much Santa Cruzans appreciate the wildlife, the open space, and the natural beauty of this area. If we take these things for granted and do not make efforts to be involved with conservation, I think we know what will happen to these values: they will decline, whither, and disappear altogether with time. It is time to make a shift, and the shift is best focused on our public lands management.

One of the most important things we can do as citizens of this county is to be involved with the management of the public lands around us. There are many ways to be involved in wildlife conservation on public lands throughout the region: volunteering for stewardship, rallying political support for increased conservation on public lands, and supporting environmental conservation organizations. There are three main threats facing nature conservation public lands: changed disturbance regimes, invasive species, and poor management of visitor use. I discuss each briefly in the following and present ways that you might be involved in solution for improved public lands management.

With climate change and increased development encroachment on natural areas, natural disturbance regimes, such as fire and grazing, are rapidly changing presenting a high degree of danger to nature conservation. With climate change, fires are expected to be more frequent and more severe; this is exacerbated by increased human interactions at the Wildland Urban Interface where accidental fires more frequently occur. Likewise, we have removed tule elk and pronghorn and it is becoming increasingly difficult for natural areas managers to use livestock to mimic natural grazing regimes. With both fire and grazing, public lands managers need more public funding to increase their ability to manage natural systems. There needs to be more public outcry and support for both funding and expertise within those agencies to improve lands management. Those kinds of support are also important for invasive species management. A different kind of support is needed for better management of natural areas in the face of poor visitor use management.

Badly managed visitor use in natural areas is a major cause of concern globally for nature conservation, and locally this seems to be nearly entirely ignored. The most glaring evidence that this is a problem is the nearly ubiquitous and unquestioned philosophy that increased access to natural areas is an important goal for nature conservation. Look carefully around our local parks agencies and you’ll also notice that there are no personnel trained at managing the conflict between nature conservation and visitor use, the field of study necessary to assure nature conservation in parks. The most recent planning effort for visitor use in a public park was with the BLM’s Cotoni Coast Dairies property, a real disaster in public process with recreational infrastructure development proceeding apace despite an active and unsettled legal appeal by a very small of citizens who have seen too little community support. Of the many larger, environmental groups in the area, only the Sempervirens Fund has offered publicly stated concern”Important details remain to be determined and we look forward to working with BLM to resolve them.” For the grave impacts to nature from visitor use in natural areas, there seems to me to be a need for a fundamental shift in both public perception and in the public lands management agencies to better recognize and address this issue. The following section outlines some actions you can take to help this process forward.

There are many ways, big and small, for you to be more involved with the paradigm shift needed to better address the serious issues surrounding visitor use management in natural areas. First and foremost, many more of us should become educated about the science documenting the concerns and how those concerns are addressed through social and environmental carrying capacity analysis and adaptive management. Social carrying capacity analyses define the limits of acceptable change from visitor use conflicts: conflicts between different types of uses (for instance, mountain bikers vs. passive recreational use of families with children) or conflicts due to overcrowding. Ecological carrying capacity analyses define the limits of acceptable change for soils, biota, or other natural phenomenon (for instance, amounts of trail erosion, wildlife such as cougars that are easily disrupted by visitors).

Another thing we can do to help the situation of poor visitor use management in our parks is to advocate for improvement. We should tune our senses to notice negative impacts of visitor use and then aim our activism towards change: make formal reports of issues to natural area managers, follow up on those reports, and also message higher level administration, commissions overseeing those agencies, and politicians who are invested in agency oversight. Persistence will help. Let’s also vote for politicians who promise to help. And, let’s support environmental groups who promise to work on these issues. Finally, many more people who care about these issues need to be involved with public lands management planning. Currently, mainly exploitive and well-funded non-passive recreational users are organized and vocal during these processes (i.e., Outdoor Industry Association funded groups like mountain biking advocates). Meanwhile, traditional conservation groups like the Sierra Club and Audubon Society have shied away from such issues due to either controversy or co-option. We need a new group or need to sway old groups to take these issues on.

-this article originally appeared at Bruce Bratton’s weekly BrattonOnline.com If you haven’t subscribed, I recommed it: “The last great news sources of Santa Cruz.”

Monsoonal Moisture

It poured down rain yesterday and thunder rolled across the sky. This was the third warm, wet monsoonal system to whoosh up from the south across Central California this summer: very unusual for this era of our climate. With the rain came petrichor, the complex sweet odor of freshly moistened soil. For a few hours, there was no more dust. Coincidentally, this storm came on the anniversary of the 2020 fire. The weather prediction centers know our memory and assured us that this system was not like the one two years ago. Nevertheless, many people watched the sky carefully. Fire spotting helicopters combed the hills. No fires have yet erupted, but sometimes they smolder for days after a lightning strike awaiting a heatwave…

Best Weather

Inland, it has been hot but cooler on the coast: several days were in the low 80s this last week at Molino Creek Farm, but the evenings were cool and so on balance the weather has been glorious. This is the longest stretch of the most beautiful weather we’ve seen in a long, long time.

Organic, Community Orchard Grown Gala Apples – weeks from ripeness, and growing sweeter/bigger by the day

Good Pears, Apples Coming

Apples like warm days and cool nights. The pears are ripening. After a sprint from small to medium sized fruit, apples seem to have taken a break in enlarging, but perhaps it’s our patience- it will be some weeks before they are ripe. On the other hand, we literally can’t wait for the pears now: it is a race to pick them before they get too ripe on the tree. Three harvests from the Big Comice, one week apart each: the first two picks have been delicious, but the third pick is sporting many ‘water balloons’ with overripe, brown and fermenting centers. It is an art to recognize the correct coloring of each type of pear in order to know when to pick them. Fruit separation strength should also be a clue that we might heed. Live and learn! Community orchardists can’t take enough pears home, so understory fruit fall critter feasting is heavily underway. Some homes are abuzz with dehydrators, others’ fridges are stuffed with pears, counters crowded with bowls overflowing.

Bowls of Bartletts

Future Fuels for Fires Falling

Today, there was a CRACK and an extended rushing crash: another huge burn-damaged tree fell on the hillsides above the farm. It is dangerous to walk in the forest. This one fell with no breeze, just a still warm late afternoon. The hundreds of fire-killed trees are starting to fall. Their crisscrossed trunks will pile up across thousands of acres awaiting the next conflagration, which will encounter this fuel and roar hotly, cooking the soil and all life nearby. No number of termites or unusual monsoonal rains will be enough to rot those downed trees before the next fire.

Wildlife Mysteries

The mother deer who had two young not long ago is all by herself now.

The Cooper’s Hawk is still terrorizing the birds. The orchard remains quieter than normal- not so many acorn woodpeckers and jays calling as they were constantly before. This bird killing hawk has been very effective at changing the tone of the birds across the farm.

Something is assiduously killing paper wasp nests. The huge one hanging in the pony trailer- torn apart and no more wasps. Three ground dwelling paper wasp nests dug up and dead as soon as the mower cleared around them. Its funny, we don’t smell or see skunks…maybe foxes do the same? What got the hanging one?

Flowers

For now, only the goldenrod is blooming in the natural areas around the farm. The bright yellow tall pointy clusters of fuzzy blossoms bow and sway on 2’ tall flexuous leafy stems…only a few, here and there- not a very common plant and not enough to help feed the hungry bees which now swarm onto rotten fruit and into the crop fields where tomatoes, squash, and peppers are loaded with pollinators.

These Still Nights

The silent night brings out the darkness creatures. Early evening is dark and moonless. And out come the nocturnal ants- big shiny ones with a bit of dark rusty brown…also tiny shiny ones all black and with elongated sections. A gauntlet of black widows still occupies gopher holes in the unimproved roadbeds. There’s a harvest mouse sitting in the dusty road, ducking silently into a gopher hole. Black field crickets. Brown crickets. Tiny cockroaches. A barn owl screeches overhead now close, then far away. The still cool night makes clouds when I exhale. Distant waves crashing, a rhythmic pulsing, though muffled in the nighttime air.

Hoping these still quiet nights bring peace to your restful sleep.

Dark Prunes A’Ripening

-This post originally published at my weekly blog at Molino Creek Farm’s webpage and on that Facebook site