Molino Creek Farm

The Quietest Whisper, Goodbye

– this is the last of my regular posts from the Molino Creek Farm blog for 2021, stay tuned for more regular posts February 2022.

A recent sunset, captured just below Molino Creek Farm along Warrenella Road

For now, I put down my farm tools and stow them oiled and sharp, ready for next Spring. In the orchard, we coil hoses, hang irrigation pipes among the branches high off the ground so they don’t get buried and inadvertently mowed. We cut free and pile remaining tree props and haul and spread the last of the chipped oak branch mulch.

Apple leaves slowly fall, holding on long with fading yellow beauty. The last of fall’s leaves won’t drop until January, the fruit trees revel in the cool moisture after being blown by dry air during the long summer. But the fading light of shortening days push the orchard trees into their necessary and healthy sleep. Even we feel this pull.

Togetherness

The long cool still nights descend rapidly, driving us indoors early to stoke woodstoves and await the roaring warmth. We shed clothes and gaze at firelight, relaxing into the many-hour evenings. It is time to gather sometimes with family, sometimes with friends. Some find these gatherings especially precious from a year spent in solitude and self-reflection. Sparkling eyes greet us, loving words spoken close to our ears during long greeting hugs. Some are no longer with us or will soon be gone. We feel the losses more keenly during the gatherings, close to the warmth of others…spontaneous hushed moments we dare not fill.

Whence the Feasts?

Sighing, we raise from our chairs and head for the kitchen, for this is a season of feasts. The food is from farms. Somewhere in our minds, we hope at least some of our grocery purchases support family farms…maybe that farmer’s market trip helped keep family farming alive. Sometimes it does!

Some say we need to be thinking about new farming models, cooperatives combined with higher wages and increasing food costs, where broader support helps free farming families from the 80-hour weeks that’s required to pay the bills, to raise and support children. For cooperatives to work, we need to find a way to get along, to work together, and we also need for people to be willing to pay more for food. We desperately need more young farmers.

As we eat our food, as we chew, imagine the people it took, the many jobs and steps it took to bring that food to your mouth. Picture the water…the rich soil…the sun that helped produce your food and the tender hearts of (aging) farmers who smile proudly as they reflect on each stage of growing their crops. The newly tilled field, and the sowing. The seedlings planted…eventually the first flowers, then the tiny new fruit. There’s also the watering, the pest control, the nurturing propping and pruning, and, eventually, the harvest. Right livelihood. Good food. Favorite recipes. Big feasts.

In Between, Walks

Those who are able, take walks between meals, enjoying the squinty-bright sun and catching the remaining fall color. Poison oak leaves still dot the hillsides with red, and a few maple leaves remain yellow on the ground. Across much of the wildland, there are no flowers- except in the chaparral, where the manzanitas have just the past few days burst with clusters of bloom. Hummingbirds move upslope to the manzanita patches, or feed on landscape plants; they are also spending lots of time eating bugs. Step carefully on your forest walks…there are slow moving newts moving around!

Wild Brethren

Like us, nonhuman animals are also resting between feasts. This is the break they get between periods of raising the young. I heard the peeping of a young begging towhee, the only young bird sound for the last month. The wild farm birds are the most frightened I’ve ever seen them because we have two Norther Harriers patrolling every hour of each day. When that pair are farther away, out come hundreds of sparrows, juncos, and goldfinches furtively feeding on whatever they can peck. Then, alarm calls and swooshes, they dive into the bushes to avoid the bird-killing Harriers, one right after the other. Silence. Long silence, watchful eyes, and then tentative peeps and the brave ones creep from cover to feed once again, the more cautious ones eventually following.

Nonhumans Alike

Like us, these critters are gathering and holding together with friends and family, loving each other. All day, they watch out for one another…peeping, chipping and singing their language of safety, satisfaction or danger. They go to roost early, an hour before sunset, settling into the thick cover of oak or shrub canopies for these long winter nights. There, with the quietist whispers they tell their stories, sharing their experiences after they sidle up snuggly and cozy to keep each other warm. Like us, they remember the voices of those lost, the uniqueness of the personalities snuffed by fate, taken by the Harrier or by sickness, or by old age.

Last night, two sister quails fussed about not having quite enough space on the most comfortable branch near the top of the thick canopy of an incense cedar. They chucked and chucked, whirring their wings against one another and into the surround branches, trying to make more room before eventually scrunching in and settling down. Tonight, there is more space on that, the best of the high branches, and a bobcat is curled in deep sleep with a full belly…a pile of feathers will take a while to melt into the grass and decay. The remaining sister misses her warmth and her stories but now turns to another of her kin for such comfort…listening closely to the familiar tone and pace of their murmurs, sharing meandering feelings at the end of their day, until the last low chatter brings sleep to the covey and the silence of the night settles under the dark and twinkling sky.

Dusk

– this another post from my regular weekly blog at Molino Creek Farm’s website.

A fleeting breath of the gentlest breeze brushes through the few remaining walnut leaves, so slight and brief as to barely rustle, plucking only one leaf to add to the fall. Then it is still again.

We inhale the moist air, walk on wet ground and change our clothes to the wavering between balmy and slightly chilly days. The air is thick with winter scent – the smell of fungus and fresh grass. The farm is becoming quieter with the shortening days and the winding down of harvest clamor. The still night silence is rarely broken and then mostly by startling echoes of owl hoots that soon abate – even the night birds are hushed.

The Muffling

The early, warm and ample rain sprouted millions of seeds, now a green blanket everywhere where just a month ago there was bare dirt or straggly dry dusty dead plants. This lush living cover muffles sounds like snowfall and allows my eyes to soften and relax, as I breathe easier for the cooler, cleaner air and the now distant fear of smoke and fire. We are all relaxing into the wet season, the down time.

The moon will soon be full- the bright nights might be adding to the stillness and quiet as critters hunker down in fear of being spotted by Great Horned Owl or Coyote. Great wings outstretched, the perched owls swoop in low arcs lit well by moonlight. Coyote is more frequently yapping and slinking around on the hunt.

The bright days have begun with fog here or below the farm. This late fall fog is not normal. Varied patterns of high clouds take turns with a clear cloudless sky. The sunsets have often been magnificent.

Chittering-chat

The cacophonous whistle, click and squeak of a sixty-strong (and growing!) mixed flock of blackbirds has grown into high entertainment. Like a mysterious whirlwind of blown leaves, the fluttering flock scatters 50 feet up and then settles again on the lush ground. They strut and chatter, shoulder-nudging one another or stab at things on the ground. Our attention is drawn to this great and complex social milieu – yellow eyed Brewer’s blackbirds and larger red-epauleted bi-colored blackbirds mixed and awaiting the arrival of some straggling very rare tri-colored blackbirds. The bustle moves across our farm fields; their departure returning the quiet and stillness as fast as their arrival had quickened our breath.

One of Molino Creek Farm’s many majestic black walnut trees

Yellowing Leaves

The 2-year-old vineyard is also showing that muted yellow fall color as the leaves slowly drop. There might be a few dozen apples left on the trees with leaves also quickly changing yellow. The orchard cover crop we sowed 2 weeks ago is two inches high, vetch unfurling tendrilly leaves, the oats poking up single thin-rolled leaves. The morning dewdrops hang on the tips of these sprouts well into the day.

Chardonnay Vines: a second Fall for 2 Dog Farm’s Vineyard

Winter Fruits

One of the Farm’s greatest ironies…just when the cropping seems done – the citrus ripens! Our 6 Persian lime trees are hanging heavy with large green fruit, the spikey Lisbon lemon trees also are bearing. The navel oranges are further behind and less fruitful this year. The tangerines are far behind but growing quickly as are the Meyer lemon trees. Citrus Hill is filling in with the 20 trees we planted 4 years ago joining some larger, older plantings by Chuck and others.

Persian Limes will be ripe in January

Coyote Calling

Another of my regular posts for Molino Creek Farm’s website

She stood in the middle of a field still strewn with winter squash, yipping her higher and higher trilling song, snout pointed upwards, sweeping her head to throw her voice across the hills and ridges. She stopped, listening and peering around before starting again, facing other directions. The echoing coyote song might have been another one calling back, and it seemed she wondered, too. But these were just echoes and there was no return call. No one came to join her. She kept singing her piercing high yowls and, in the long pauses between song, she mumbled widely spaced, low hoarse growling barks. This went on for 20 minutes and then suddenly stopped. Then she paced wearily across the farm fields, pausing to glance this way and that across the ground for sign of some small mammal that might be dinner. After a long while, with the failing evening light, I turned away briefly. Looking back, she was gone.

Adan told Judy that he saw two coyotes. That was the first one I saw or heard for more than a month. They seem to be passing through but not daily lurking. Same with a big healthy looking male bobcat: it slowly walks through a field and then is gone, sometimes for many days.

Hungry

There is less prey for these predators than anytime in memory. There is little sign of voles. Gopher throws are there, but not very thick. I haven’t seen a brush bunny in months. There were only ever a couple squirrels- now none. I haven’t seen a new wood rat house assembled anywhere around the farm since the fire.  So, coyote, fox, and bobcat must have to travel widely to get enough to eat right now. And the nights get colder, the ground suddenly constantly damp and chill.

Storm Consequences

Another storm swept in this past week. Winds rattled windows, threw foam from tall ocean waves, and took half of the leaves off of the walnut trees. Showers, sometimes heavy, pelted the North Coast, making puddles and rivulets in the fields and roads. The soil is wet enough to have woken up the earthworms: open holes surrounded by round globs of earthworm frass now dot the soil everywhere.

With the series of storms this early rainy season, the grassy areas have turned green and the creeks are running again. There is no still summer nighttime silence: now the farm is serenaded by the constant rush of waterfall splashing, accented by great horned owl hooting. Just one owl, though maybe it is answering one in the next drainage that I can’t well hear.

Harvest Fading

Orchard harvesting is winding down. We have been selling 200 pounds a week of perfect apples, which means a harvest of 800 pounds to sort through with apples also going to cider and the Pacific School lunch program. We get a month of that kind of production this year, even though the Fire had damaged the trees. We are lucky to have the volume of fruit we are getting- the proceeds will pay for compost and coddling moth control, maybe a soil test, maybe some other supplies. Next year will be much bigger…from this year’s 5000 pounds to 8000 pounds and we’ll be asking once again- what do we do with all the apples? And the reply will come: More Cider! There are 70 gallons bubbling away in either Bob Brunie’s or Jacob Pollock’s ciderlairs.

In years past, we would be picking olives right about now. But, Sheri’s not on the farm anymore; no one organizes a pick this year. The fruits are few and small, anway. But the trees are still beautiful and this silvery patch is home to many birds.

Still people comb the tomato rows, the plants mere skeletons but festooned with fruit. The sunflowers have passed, as have most of the cut flowers. String beans, zucchini, cucumbers, and peppers- all fading and melting with the chill nights and soaking rains. The farm pace is plummeting, the season winding down. To thwart any ambition, the ground threatens to eat tires. Long weed-scalped tire tracks tell of spinning tires and nearly stuck trucks. Ambition to drive threatens hours of unstucking. We pulled a tractor with a pickup and a pickup with a pickup, at least, so far. Any wetter, and wheels will get so buried that vehicles will stay until drier times: the bulldozer is dead and the ultimate solution is no longer available.

Thanksgiving normally marks the end of the farming season and the beginning of a much-needed break. The days are getting shorter, and we turned back our clocks this past week. There very nearly is no time at all past our desk job’s quitting hour and the last sunlight, so afterwork chores must be hurried. Anyway, there won’t be any harvest worth harvesting in a couple more weeks. There will be a month until we turn to citrus harvest. It will be nice to rest.

Falling Leaves with Swards A’Greening

from my blog for Molino Creek Farm

The meadows are turning GREEN: electric, eye straining, shiny, bright grassy green. It smells fresh and alive again. The sky seems a deeper sparkling blue and the stars shinier: it’s like the rain cleaned everything.

I’ve heard it said (with derision?) ‘back east’ – “California’s where Fall means the leaves drop and the grass turns green.” (Ironically, this is sometimes said by the same people that claim we don’t have seasons at all)

In the forest, yellowish fall colors, the scrublands dotted with brilliant red. Maples and hazelnuts are at their brightest fall pale yellow. Nestled into the mostly evergreen bushes of coastal scrub, poison oak glows brilliant crimson, leaves sometimes swirled with subtle purple or blushed with melon orange.

The honeybees have been getting hungrier as the last of the coyote bush flowers fade. A lone Australian import in my landscape, a white bell-shaped flowering Correa shrub, is now nearly being carried off by honeybees. I have never seen a single plant of any kind so buzzy.

Native wild strawberry, naturally established in our orchard understory…a rose by any other name (in a rose family orchard!)

Bonfire Time

It is bonfire time. Directly after the rain soaked the land, regulators lifted the ‘burn ban.’ With increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns, we know better than to wait. Even after running a chipper on many piles earlier in the summer, we have around 10 tons of brush remaining to burn.

Beautiful, guilty pleasures, bonfires. With the heating of the planet, we are torn about this torching of biomass. In the few years leading up to this wildfire, I told everyone I knew that there was no feasible way of composting wood around here. Any branch over an inch diameter, I said, is just waiting to fuel the next wildfire. What does one do with the trimmings, fallen branches and trees, in that case? In the ten-year interval we expect between wildfires, we would quickly fill all of our open space with brush piles…and then they would burn anyways (as they did in the last fire). If we place branches in the forest, the forest trees will burn hotter and be more likely to die. And so, we burn piles when it is safe to do so. That means burning every time a storm is blowing in. Two piles down….20 more to go…At least we can enjoy the warmth and cheer: friends join in…bonfires by request! (selfishly, this helps us tend the fires)

Non Human Farm Mammals

The mammals love the rain-fueled regreening, too. Last night, I heard the first caterwauling of a cougar in a long time. It was yelling from near the intersection of Molino Creek Farm Road and Warrenella Road. Her sounds freak many people out as they are somewhat similar to a screaming human. The lion in the area making those noises would explain the reason our neighborhood dog, Fiona has had a few long barking sprees recently! What a terrifying sound…what a brave guard dog! Ruff! Ruff! The fierce barking echoes off the surrounding ridge lines.

Some may recall my mention of the relationship between skunks and ground wasps, aka yellow jackets, aka vespid wasps. I have seen it so many years…the first rain and the skunks dig up the wasp nests. What an amazing and guaranteed service. After this last rain, where there were once dangerous zones of sure firey stings, now there are holes, soil thrown up with scattered torn up papery honeycombs, a few upset wasps still trying to make sense of their broken homes. Somewhere there’s a skunk with a very full belly (and lots of skin welts).

Scary (and curious) Birds

One recent dusk, I was dreamily soaking in the beauty of the fading colors and the wet scents of the newly moistened landscape when the oddest sound startled me. The noise was sudden and like the horror movie sound of a hundred attack raptors – coming right at me! I almost ducked, but then realized that it was a hundred mourning doves flying as low and fast as they could, over and all around me. Their wings make a sharp swooping air-cutting noise as they come towards you with only the slightest dove wing whistle after they pass. This pattern has been repeating every evening at dusk- mourning doves jetting at tree (shrub) level downhill across the whole farm to roost somewhere at lower elevation. The conservation of elevational clines, from high to low elevation, on the western slope of Ben Lomond Mountain may be important for undocumented and mysterious reasons…We saw robins doing the same thing (though less speedily) at winter solstice a couple years ago.

Our resident ravens started an unusual bout of extreme danger warning calls, and I left my desk to go outside to ask ‘what up?!’ Whoosh- right by my door-exiting body: a norther harrier. This big acrobatic predator hunted all day long Monday, all over the farm. Late afternoon and the ravens were hoarse from alarm calls and making sad and exhausted crows; I thought maybe they lost a friend, or maybe were crying in despair that this dangerous foe would set up shop more regularly around the farm. They were probably hungry for the day of hiding.

Then, right after the raven dirge…a screaming peregrine falcon lit up the soundscape! What a drag to be on the receiving side of bird-on-bird predators! Eternal vigilance…

A more genteel bird observed…late afternoon and I hear a persistent raspy squeaky bewick’s wren call. It is most persistent, too persistent. And then I saw it, on top of a columnar cactus under my house eaves- looking up at the 3-year-old wasp nest that it had used the last two winters as a winter roost, with a mate. That wren was squeaking and flicking its wings, twitching its tail upwards, and making quite a show, over and over glancing up at the wasp nest…for 15 minutes. What was on its mind??

Harvest Season

Giant Mutsu Apples, Just Getting Ripe

Our Two Dog and Molino Creek Farm crews are still at it: lots to harvest, still! Tomatoes are still holding out, a little. Winter squash still colors the ground. Peppers hang thickly. The flowers are fading…

In the orchard, the apples are mid harvest: this is late! The Gala apples are a distant memory, and we are halfway into the Fuji harvest. We are also picking Mutsu, Braeburn, Jonagold, and Golden Delicious. Those personally passing through the orchard can eat many other varieties…Arkansas Black, Esopus Spitzenberg, and many more.

We are going to have to be quite measured and tactical to sow the cover crop seed in the apple orchard- leaving harvesting rows to last but getting seed in wherever we can- and soon!

Besides the colorful and varied crop of rain-drenched, juicy, delicious apples…the orchard is giving us the longest most colorful fall. A long while ago already the prunes started changing flaming red and orange colors, now the aprium and other stone fruits are rapidly progressing into similarly spectacular colors. Some apple branches are giving it up to their signature yellow leaves. If the past is any indication, this slow fall will continue way into January until we have bare trees. The Wassail seems to happen right as they enter their leafless dormancy.

Fall flaming stonefruit, eye candy in the orchard

Wet Season’s Roaring Arrival

-from my weekly blog at Molino Creek Farm

The Landscape Color Deepened a Few Hues: rain soaked Molino Creek Farm, freshened and dust free

Roaring wind and driving rain sent everyone to shelter in their homes Sunday and Monday. The tips of thousands of tree branches now blanket the ground with fresh green mulch. More than five inches of rain wet the soil many feet down- it all soaked into the thirsty soil. But, water rushed down dirt roads moving dirt and gravel, flowing with eroding rivulets, dumping mud into ditches, carving through storm flung debris.

Everything is soaked – mosses and lichens hydrated and springing to life with winter’s fluffy dripping lushness. In the meadow patches around the farm, perennial poppies push up fresh blue-green ferny foliage. Storksbill germinates first with millions of tiny grass seedling spikes shortly behind. The first broad and bumpy primary leaflets of lupines flush from bare brown gopher thrown soil piles. Bunchgrasses push out a half inch of new green blades from the otherwise dry brown leaves from last spring’s growth. In the forest, thick oak leaf mulch is being quickly, hungrily devoured by furiously unfurling mushroom spawn. A month from now, with a bit more rain, we’ll have chanterelles.

Basket Weaver Wisdom

The weekend also delivered us ancient knowledge. Julia Parker and her family graced the farm with a workshop on the traditional basket weaving of the indigenous peoples of central California. Julia has long been demonstrating and teaching basket making in Yosemite Valley. 15 folks learned from 4 generations of her family with people gathered for a campout then retreating indoors when the rain started coming down. We made new friends and are already looking forward to Julia’s family returning when they can. Perhaps we will tend basketry plants as part of our production…a while back we had a troop coppicing willows for just such a purpose.

Julia Parker and Family teaching a workshop on basketry at Molino Creek Farm

Apples and Such

The gala apples are gone (except for the precious remaining ones you might buy at the Food Bin!), now its onto Fujis. Sweet, crunchy Fuji apples with rainbow colors- traditional seasonal salad apples to sweeten the arugula greens. The tomatoes are melting fast from the rains- so, we’re all out there raking them up for the last of the seasons processing- they are still going to market, but you better get them fast! Our Persian limes are swelling and dark green, a good harvest promised for January. Drake’s avocado grafts are taking off with rapid growth, giving us Great Hope in recovering our burnt avocado orchard.

Drake Bialecki Made it Happen: avocado grafts on root sprouts from burned up trees

Wildlife, Including Nut-Eating Corvids

Farm ravens Maw and Caw forage widely across the farm, scavenging farm crops. Their rounds include swoops down the driveways and entry road to see who might have run over a black walnut. These they quickly pounce upon, vigorously pecking at the solidly ensconced nutmeat, so sweet and oily. Sometimes they find a half walnut and retreat to a fence post to work at prying out food.

As hoped, the deer herd has devoured all the wormy castoff apples. In doing so, they have pounded bare the invasive Cape Ivy where we dumped the fruit: weed control while disposing of pests – no wasted fruit there! Mostly, we see deer prints, not the deer themselves, who are mainly hiding somewhere.

The turkeys have also disappeared- not even any prints, anymore.

Bob Brunie has something against chipmunks. Also, his new farm chicken flock complained loudly about the storm. (Yes, we have no squirrels)

Fall Schlogg

from my blog for Molino Creek Farm…

“How’s it going?” I ask my neighbors. The answer, ‘busy,’ is common. Everyone, especially since last year’s fire says just that. But this past week people answered ‘busy’ with a more heavy seriousness. For emphasis, one person shook their tense and invisibly full upward turned hands – exasperatingly exhaling ‘BUSY!’

With that answer, there are smiles. And humor. But our eyes are lined and worn. People move more slowly, a little more bent. Farmers are midway through the peak harvest, 6 weeks to go. Sharon our midwife neighbor just managed an unusually intense spate of births. Mark and Bob, furniture makers, are stretched with work. In two days, Ian will hit the second of the year’s tax deadlines. Family matters, health recovery, fire rebuilds, community business, job tasks…so much going on! And, household chores never go away: chopping, splitting, stacking, and covering the heating wood piles is a urgent priority. We all heat with wood and want warm winters.

Apple Toting Time

Orchardists are toting apples. 800 pounds picked and processed so far this season. We haul heavy shoulder-slung picking bags up the steep orchard hill. We climb carefully down tall ladders, lopsidedly laden and awkward. We roll apples from bags into sorting bins with a familiar, distinct soft percussive sound. Skilled hand-eye expertise helps dartingly sorting apples by size and condition. Only perfect apples for market. Small apples gifted to children. Blemished apples to ‘sweat’ in boxes for cider pressing.

Starting last year, Davenport neighbors and core community orchardists Mike and Charity have been taking our apples to schoolchildren. Emelia Miguel uses these and other donations, orchestrating nutritious delicious meals for the Pacific School in Davenport. Providing electric Tesla transport and endless labor, Mike and Charity have thus far this year gifted over 150 pounds (more coming!) of community orchard produced apples. Emelia’s crew cooked oodles of applesauce and packed pounds of “lunchbox” sized beautiful peak flavored Gala apples for the young down the hill in our greater community.

Putting Food Up

Industrious orchardists recently preserved a boat load of quinces, liberated from a wind- broken limb. Now there’s quince jam! Blemished apples are processed into dehydraters (schnitz!). Jacob, Eva, and John Brunie toiled last Friday to make a cider pressing…120 pounds of fruit to juice, including a bunch that turned out light yellow from quince…used to spice up the otherwise non-complex Gala juice in hard cider. I dried 30 pounds of seckel pears- after days of tending. Dried tomatoes, canned tomatoes, too!  Most recently we’re picking walnuts, keeping them tumble turned in open baskets for drying. Also, I collected the first small bowl of a mixed variety of hazelnuts, all shed this last week from bushes onto the ground; there will be many more next year as the bushes are getting big.

Squawking with Beak Full

While tending trees, I was attracted to a California scrub jay making the oddest squawk. Jays are known vocal tricksters, mimicking other birds, especially hawks. This vocalization was nasal and muted, but otherwise a normal alarm call. I searched about and finally spotted it: bobbing proudly up and down with each call from the top of an apple tree. Its beak was full of acorn! Like all those jays, once spotted with their catch, it ducked away. If they see you watching them bury their acorn, they dig it up and move it where you can’t see, always nervous about any others stealing their cache.

Other Birds

Our winter-only bird flocks continue to settle in. Thirty meadowlarks flush along our entrance road, down by the coast, if we startle them driving by. Sixty or so tricolor blackbirds are also flocking among the grazing cows down there. The nasal “squee” of the sapsucker is now common up here in our orchard- it is opening up rows of pecked ‘wells’ in the tree bark, again. The tally of band tailed pigeons: 14 in the farm flock. Hundreds of golden crowned sparrows and goldfinches still abound. Jen was delighted to encounter part of our flock of western bluebirds in her yard recently.

Morning Rainbow, offshore rain

Offshore Rain, North Wind and Sickle Moon

Rain skipped us again this past week, it is so very dry. Many people remarked about the offshore rainbows first thing one morning. That day it smelled like rain and looked like rain, but it didn’t rain. Then it blew, blew, and blew. For more than a day, wind shook our homes. Harvesting apples high int eh trees on ladders was difficult. We watched more soil blow away, our roads swept clean of any loose material. The walnut trees to show early yellow fall color were blown to bare branches. Overseeing the squalls and wind, low in the sky, a beautiful golden sickle-shaped moon was surrounded by bright fields of silver stars. The evenings darken early and the winter wet season looms.

Sweater Weather

The fall see-sawing between heat wave and chilliness continues, a pattern we’ve become used to through even the more typically hotter summer. This past week, the farm warmed for a few days into the mid-80s – unusually warm for us – with nights down to the high sixties. During the days, the lush carpet of white flowering clover in the orchard understory folded its leaflets, hiding out until cooler times and the apples rapidly brightened towards ripeness. Cricket song vibrated through the comfy nights. Then, yesterday, high thin clouds blew in, barely obscuring the sun and the temperature dropped – the arrival of fall “sweater weather.” Banter turned to expectations of rain. “I saw the tarantulas come out” I heard someone remark on a visit to San Luis Obispo – people believe this to be a sign of upcoming rain. A Bonny Doon person remarked that ants were moving inside…yet another sign that rain was imminent. No rain around here, though…but, it did rain in northern California a few days ago and there was a good downpour in LA recently. We’re stuck in the dry middle of the state with confused invertebrates feeling the weather fronts that don’t quite get here.

So, for the farm, dust season continues. The natural world looks drier and drier. Our last rain was months ago. Even in the areas that burned in the summer of 2020, the ground is covered by regrowth. Brown, dry thistle heads rattle across the hillsides in afternoon breezes. Resprouting coyotebrush presents deep green patches in the understory of the thistles – it reached a foot or so high this summer and will recover a closed canopy across many hillsides next year. The dust comes from the humans – it blows from our roads and fields in great arcs coating surrounding vegetation…redistributing nutrients across the landscape. It is the same through the more extensive agricultural landscapes – trucks running down dirt roads in the wide Salinas Valley create huge plumes of dust that carry for miles. “There goes our soil!” I’ve tried covering some of our farm roads with hay cut adjacent to the road, and road gets slick, hay quickly ground up by the many farm worker vehicles…maybe it helps? Soil is very, very slow to create and I fear wind and water erosion deepening the road ruts, making for bigger maintenance projects in the future.

Black walnuts are plentiful on our farm, Joe Curry grew these seedlings from our mother tree

 Fall color progresses. The many black walnut trees that dot the farm have yellow leaves, falling. The orchard’s prune trees have yellow-orange leaves starting to turn and the cherry leaves are changing to a distinct orange-red. Across the nearby slopes, poison oak has been turning crimson since August. In the moist canyons below the farm, big leaf maples are turning bright lemon yellow alongside similarly colored hazelnut bushes. During our cool spells, the crisp air smells like dry leaves and clean air from the North.

Lapins cherry trees, survived the fire, starting to drop colorful leaves

On one of my midday work-break irrigation hikes (turning off water, checking that the tanks were filling), I heard a frantic truck horn beeping. Luckily, it wasn’t the three long beeps that signal an outright emergency. Patterns of horn beeping can tell you a lot. It was evidently a less worrisome issue. Judy’s sky-blue Toyota pickup – her commute vehicle – eventually caught up with me. “The foxes are eating the cat food!” she exclaimed.

My farm neighbors have mixed reports about foxes. Some revel in the frequent sightings; for instance, a few neighbors report (with delight!) an adolescent fox at all times of the night at the ‘hairpin’ turn on the road closest to the farm. Others complain…chicken killing, cat food eating, fruit (or sandwich) stealing…etc. I was opposed to the introduction of “barn” cats onto the farm, but one picks one’s battles. People were unwilling to tend traps enough to reduce ‘problem’ rodents in the barn and believed cats would take care of the matter with less human effort. I cite the millions of songbirds needlessly slaughtered by domestic cats across the nation. Now, we have cat problems: how to feed the ‘feral’ cats without feeding the wildlife! The next bit of fun will be getting said cats to the vet for their routine vaccinations. Meanwhile, its foxes vs. cats – the ancient dog vs. cat battle continues on center stage at Molino Creek Farm. There are cat people…and there are dog people…and we’ve got both!

On the avian front, there are two bird songs making a crescendo: male quail calls and golden-crowned sparrows. After tentative quiet half-calls the past two weeks, this year’s new male quails are settling into more certain and loud ‘Chicago!’ calls…repeated all day long from whatever brush areas remain on the farm. They are filling out their puffy bodies, displaying elegant top knots from their heads, strutting and herding their coveys. These wild chickens have had a strong year of increasing their flock size with plenty of seeds to eat. Sprinkled across quail territory, the golden crowned sparrows are dense across the whole farm. It seems they landed just here on our farm two weeks ago as a staging area before moving farther south. Just 2 miles farther on (Back Ranch Road), they haven’t yet arrived. In prior years, it has taken them a month to arrive at the Elkhorn Slough, 25 miles south. Here, it took them a week after arrival (Sept 21) to start singing their characteristic winter song: “poor will-eee!” Now, this is the most constant bird song across the farm. If I had to guess, I’d say we have a thousand of these cute little friends. Another sign of coming winter: our tribe of Brewer’s black birds have returned. I’m saying ‘our tribe’ on suspicion…I don’t know for sure. But, for years they were shy around me and in Spring 2020 I spent some time hanging out with them…talking to them, answering their odd ‘click’ calls, and gradually getting closer and closer to their feeding flock. The flock that returned looks me in the eye and isn’t so quick to flush, so I think they still know me, so I posit this is the same flock.

A bit about the harvest. There are cases and cases of tomatoes ripening in the barn, tags on each stack noting the date of harvest. Two Dog Farm had a great big winter squash harvest, now curing in boxes awaiting sale. As I loaded two boxes of beautiful Gala apples into the van destined for the Santa Cruz farmer’s market, I spied many buckets of beautiful sunflowers. There are onions and peppers, and so much more coming out of the fields with very full tables at all of our markets – this is the season!

Apples! Ah yes…it is almost peak harvest time. The early apples, Galas, are at the height of their ripeness. We were debating the color of the flesh at last Saturday’s working bee: is the flesh a pure white…or is it creamy white…or….?? Please weigh in on this important debate. The skin of our Gala apples is red-streaked with a peachy yellow background with a bush of russeting. Our team also debated ripeness of other varieties. What appeared to be ripe with tasting suggests another week or so…we await Mutsu, Braeburn and Jonagold. Fuji apples are far behind. The slow ripening and benign weather is allowing us a great non-hectic prolonged harvest season. If you want a whole-case discount (~20lbs/25$) of almost perfect apples, let us know…we were eating schnitz for a year and suggest you consider making those – an excellent snack and easy to rehydrate for cooking.

Community Orchardists have well stewarded these gorgeous gala apples