golden crowned sparrow

Luscious Late Rain

After the driest first quarter of the year on record, rain sweet rain fell like no one had predicted this past Sunday. Mark Lipson recorded 1.18” of rain – enough to saturate the first foot of our kind of soil. Maybe some water leaked below that, but it was very dry much deeper than that recently, so the water helps the cover crop, which will quickly drink it up while growing a few extra inches.

The recent nights have been chilly. The breezes have been blustery. We had spring a while back but it then returned to winter, and then the fog today seemed like summer. Atmospheric mayhem.

Field Management

We are mowing. Field after field is getting treated to different mowers, flail or rotary, grinding up cover crop to a sweet-smelling pulp that is already getting eaten by earthworm and sow bug to soon enter the soil food web or at least somewhat cover the soil through the coming dry hot summer. We are retiring fields long farmed as Molino Creek Farm scales down for the first time in decades while we re-envision the next generation of farming the best of our deeper soiled flat land. How shall we manage fallowed fields? This, too, we must contemplate.  

Mowing commences – a freshly shorn field in the foreground of two of Molino’s Giant Mother Oaks

Orchard Haps

In the orchard, we are struggling to drop the irrigation lines, test the pressure, flush the pipes, and start up the long process of re-wetting the dry soil before the trees get thirsty. We had to set up irrigation in tall grass that we normally mow first- we must act quickly so trees don’t dry out as they burst into bloom and unfurl their sun-loving leaves.

Orchard understory cover crops, which were so disappointingly tiny, will now grow a bit more. The rain and irrigation spur the more lush growth of purple-flowered vetch, floppy bell beans, and pointy-leaved, thick stemmed oats. Before the rain and before the irrigation, the cover crop canopy was around 6”. Now we can hoo-ray and dance as it grows to more than a foot of valuable green manure to feed the pollinators and fertilize the earth.

Vetch with a Big Bumble Bee – cover crop doing double duty on Cherry Hill at Molino Creek Farm

Critters

The cold and rainy times chilled the turkey vultures or perhaps they were doing something more. Out there in one freshly mown cover crop field two vultures faced the freshly emerging early afternoon sun, lifted their lovely red fleshy heads and spread their giant wings out as if to soak in the rays. It always seems like such an effort to keep those huge wings held out parallel to the ground. Later, there were four vultures struggling to get altitude in the intermittent gentle breeze. Up and up they went and then there was an unusual sight- one after the other they folded their wings and jetted downwards at one another. Swoosh! You could hear the air cutting across their giant wings a hundred yards away. Playing? Mating rituals? Wow.

Speaking of turkeys, our road intersection hen was so fat with eggs 10 days ago that she could hardly walk fast. I patiently gave her berth as she walked up the Big Hill in front of my truck. Her feet seemed to hurt her, and she wobbled to and fro. After a long, long ways she (finally!) moved off the road towards her normal nesting spot. 4-17 eggs have been laid somewhere nearby. Expect the little ones to be fluffing around in about a month, just like every year for many. They are our welcoming party as you turn into the Farm.

A week ago this past Sunday, around 10 p.m., the slightly open window revealed the repeated bouts of screaming from a lioness not far from the house. That sound is always invigorating. She went on like that for an hour or so before quieting down. No noise since.

The golden crowned sparrows are still hanging around. Hummingbirds are diving and flashing. Quail coveys flock together.

Bright Spring Flowers

The rain will make the lupines even happier this Lupine Year. The bush lupines are in full bloom, big patches of green-blue velvety mounds with thick spired masses of checkered lavender and white flowers. There are two types of annual lupines- the tiny flowered bicolor lupine and the full flowered deep blue sky lupine (aka someone turned the world upside down lupine). These annual lupines are incredibly gorgeous. 10 a.m. in the North Orchard and you can bathe in the sweet scent of purple as lupine flower essence wafts downwards from 3 acres of flowers, floating towards Molino Creek Canyon.

Sky Lupines carpet acres this spring – very unusual profusion!

This post originally published in my regular blog at Molino Creek Farm’s website.

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