Archives for posts with tag: farming communities

When I was growing up in the Central Valley of California, I often eschewed the agricultural aspects of life there. My hometown of Davis is relatively large (if not the largest) compared to other towns in Yolo County and, more significantly, is host to a campus of the University of California, for which both of my parents worked. Yes, UCD is an ag school—it was originally known as the Farm—but for us it represented the intellectual side of life and it was in this direction that I was aligned.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to better appreciate the valley’s agricultural heritage. And since starting a backyard vegetable garden three years ago, my understanding of and appreciation for farming and the industry as a whole has been steadily increasing. So, while visiting my family this weekend (we were long overdue; see October 19, 2012; October 21, 2012; and October 24, 2012 for tales of our last trip), I decided to embrace my inner farm boy and take in a couple of the agrarian attractions that the valley has to offer.

Our first stop this morning—with my brother along—was the Heidrick Ag History Center in Woodland, the seat of Yolo County. Housed in two large warehouse buildings and connected by corridors at each end which create a central courtyard, the agricultural museum tells the story of farming in the valley through an expansive collection of farm equipment and associated lore.

The artifacts span more than a hundred years in age and include manual implements, horse- and mule-drawn plows and wagons as well as tractors and harvesters powered by steam or diesel engines. The steam-driven tractors are particularly impressive. One example has drive-wheels that are eight feet in diameter; its boiler is the size of a small shed and its chimney reaches almost to the ceiling. It must have been a wonder to behold when new.

The east building was chock-full of equipment, all impeccably restored and painted in bright colors. (The tractors would have been fun to climb on, had it been allowed.) The west building had previously housed a collection of antique trucks but its owners (who rented space from the History Center) recently moved it to another facility. Sadly (and inexplicably), I did not take any pictures.

Our second foray took us into the heart of the valley itself. The Yolo Bypass is a narrow but huge (hundreds of thousands of acres) strip of land running north-south between the cities of Davis and Sacramento. Parallel to the Sacramento River and surrounded by levees, the bypass acts as a detention pond for excess river flow that would otherwise flood the valley and its cities. After filling with water, the bypass slowly drains into the river downstream and thence into the delta.

Within the bypass is the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, almost 18,000 acres of protected wetlands which are home to a variety of aquatic and avian species. Wet is the operative word here because even during drought years (of which California is in its third straight), the bypass is periodically flooded, either to support the rice crops that are grown there or, in periodic fallow seasons, to support the wildlife.

In my memories of childhood, the bypass quickly filled and remained full—an inland sea, complete with waves and breakers—every winter. In more recent years (and, given the unreliability of my memory, probably most years), the water levels have been relatively low and the flooded areas distributed among the patchwork of rice fields that make up the bypass.

It rained all day yesterday (not great for visiting but a relief to everyone who lives here) and consequently, the ground was muddy and slippery. We could have parked the car and walked but, feeling lazy on a sunny Sunday morning, decided to drive the auto tour which winds its way along intermediate levees. It was dicey in spots and we could feel the car floating on a layer of muck. But had we chosen to walk, we would have sunk to our ankles, if not deeper.

It was calm and serene despite the fact that Interstate 80 crosses the north edge of the Wildlife Area on an elevated causeway. And lest we think that we were truly in the wilderness, the Sacramento skyline loomed to the east. Both the freeway and the city are good reminders of how California’s population is linked to the agriculture on which its success is largely based.

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While browsing through the local paper, Rachel noticed that Glynwood, a nearby farm center, was conducting a tour this afternoon.  Looking for an outdoor diversion on what had started out as a gray and dreary day but which was turning sunnier (if not exactly sunny) as the afternoon wore on, we decided to give them a call to ask whether they had room for two more.  It was short notice (less than a half hour!) but they told us to come on over.

We pass the turnoff for Glynwood every time we drive into Fahnestock State Park for a hike and, more recently, when we make a visit to Stonecrop Gardens.  So we were excited to finally make the turn and see where the road led us.  Their driveway is two miles long, a windy one-lane road that follows a meandering stream through the woods before reaching a large clearing (225 acres, we later learned) where the farm, fields and pastures are located.

When we arrived at the farm office, we were told that today’s tour was the last of the season and that we were the only guests.  Waiting for us was Donald Arrant, recently promoted to Farm Manager (congratulations Donald), who was pulling on his jacket and would lead the tour.  He was dressed in layers—clearly someone accustomed to working outdoors—and well-prepared for the blustery weather.  Fooled by the sun, I had only brought a light sweatshirt.  I would have to keep moving to stay warm.  Fortunately, our tour would be on foot.

Donald gave us a brief history of the farm and it turns out that it is no coincidence that Glynwood Farm, Stonecrop Gardens and Fahnestock State Park are located in close proximity to each other.  The surrounding lands—2,500 acres—were once owned by a conservation-minded family.  Glynwood Farm started as the family’s country house and Stonecrop was the home of one of their daughters.

When the last family member passed away, the bulk of their woodlands were donated to the State of New York to become a part of Fahnestock State Park.  The main family home was transformed into the current Glynwood Center, a working farm that develops policies for and promotes the establishment of farming communities to maintain local and sustainable food systems.  Stonecrop is now a demonstration garden and school of practical horticulture.  Originally united by geography and bound together by family, all three organizations still share the principles of conservation, sustainability, education and public outreach.

Walking downhill from the farm office, we passed Glynwood’s orchards, where flocks of chickens were enjoying the sunshine and a late afternoon snack of grubs and other insects.  Beyond the orchard is the original chicken coop, a long and narrow building that steps down the hillside.  (Although still functional, the coop is poorly ventilated and Donald would like to see it replaced.)  Turkeys share the building with the chickens, who also take turns grazing in the surrounding pastures from mobile coops.

Adjacent to the orchard are the vegetable gardens—Glynwood sells its produce through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program—and two hoop buildings.  The larger hoop structure is still half-full of tomato plants which will be protected from tonight’s expected freeze once the sides are rolled down.  Friday is the CSA’s distribution day and as we strolled past, members were arriving to pick up this week’s allotment.

Continuing our tour, we passed the pond we have often visited from the Fahnestock side, most recently on August 12, 2012 (we had previously thought that we were viewing Stonecrop Gardens on the opposite shore).  South of the pond are the pastures (the majority of the farm’s 225 acres) where Glynwood’s herd of cattle graze.  They were in a distant field this afternoon and because the terrain is hilly, we could not see them.

Our last stop before heading back to the farm office was Glynwood’s newest barn.  It is here that the livestock spend the winter, protected from the elements and kept warm in beds of straw and hay.  During the cold season, the accumulating manure is carefully managed and layered with fresh straw (and other materials, on an experimental basis) to produce nutrient-rich compost by the winter’s end.

After the animals move outdoors, the compost is removed and spread on the pastures and in the gardens.  This process takes the entire summer (the compost reaches a depth of about two feet over the entire barn floor) and its completion is celebrated with a gala Barn Dance in September.

Today, the barn was empty except for several huge bales of hay stacked in one corner and an extremely vocal—and adorable—herd of goats.  Besides providing entertainment, the goats are participating in a study of the efficacy of their grazing for controlling invasive plant species, such as multiflora rose, that threaten to overgrow the farm’s pastures.  It’s a simple concept but complicated in its execution (considerations include movement and feeding of the animals, impact on other plants and livestock, and control of parasites).

We were impressed by the smooth operation of the farm, its holistic and common-sense approach (backed by science) and natural (if not officially organic) farming and gardening practices.  As evidenced by Donald, the staff are very clear about, very consistent in and very committed to what they are doing and how they are doing it.  Their success is apparent in the healthy and happy plants and animals (and humans, too, for that matter).  We left in an upbeat mood, buoyed by the positive feelings around us and happy to have found another reason for loving where we live.