When I left off last time, Kyle was just gathering a group together for a tour. I walked up as he was describing how they’d started off with just the avocado grove that’s in the background of this shot. Taking that crop to a farmer’s market was the beginning of what’s turned into a 10-year adventure for Michele and Kyle. (You can see from the browned leaves that the trees suffered some in last winter’s freeze; Kyle said the waiting after the freeze to see what the damage was had been a tense time, but that despite some damade, the trees seemed to be rallying.)
Their farm, while diverse in terms of crops and managed without synthetic sprays or pesticides, isn’t certified organic. "We’d rather be certified by you folks," Kyle said at some point during the tour, indicating their openness and willingness to discuss and explain their cultural methods. They use practices you’d expect on an organic farm – soil-building with organic matter and companion planting being two examples, and in general, Kyle said, continuously explore better ways to farm while getting the best out of their seven acres and reducing the impact of their practices on the land. Some of those practices will be visible in the images to come.
From the patio and the avocado grove, we headed down the hill to the orchard. Along the ridgeline, a group of citrus trees stood sentinel; younger companions of the same crop are at the foot of the ridge, accompanied by beans.
On the other side of this row were the first of their 45 peach, plum, nectarine and apricot varieties. They too, were accompanied by a row of beans with beautiful scarlet blossoms. Kyle didn’t note the variety, that I remember, but said they were an heirloom type. On the right-hand side of this shot you can just see some peaches peeking out from underneath their leaves.
At this point in the season, the peaches weren’t ready yet, of course – we were still in the midst of cherries – but the peach and nectarine trees’ leafy canopy was well developed. That canopy was being put to ingenious use here.
There’s not usually something growing in an orchard aisle like this, or if there is, it’s a cover crop that’s just meant to replenish the soil and isn’t actually harvested. But here, what’s growing out of that row cover is a healthy crop of pepper plants.
This is ingenious because the San Joaquin Valley is a tough place to grow pepper plants. We get an incredible amount of sun – which is great for the peaches and nectarines growing on these trees, as it’ll give them beautiful splashes of red on their yellow skin – the fruit equivalent of a suntan.
Pepper plants, on the other hand, want some sun, but we have so much of it and in such strength that if unprotected, they’ll develop sunburn. T&D Willey Farms, my CSA farm, puts shade cloth on their peppers, at great expense, in order to protect them. Utilizing the natural shade of the orchard is another inventive way to go at it.
As I mentioned, it was cherry season when we were there, and as we walked on toward the row crops, we passed their several cherry trees on the right, laden with yellow-red and red fruit. These were Kingsburg Gold – the red ones might have been Tulare, but I might not be remembering correctly.
Kyle welcomed us to have at anything we could reach on the cherry trees. (I had a private little chuckle to myself when he said that, having been taught by a seasoned stone fruit field guy that the best fruit on the tree is the stuff you have to reach above your head for and anything higher than that.)
We moved on down toward the row crops. "You’ll notice that the rows aren’t completely straight," Kyle said. "Well, we plowed ‘em straight, but then it rained, you know, and they got all crooked." He winked. The rows aren’t quite straight, but it doesn’t affect how well the plants grow.
Kyle told us they keep about 60 rows under cultivation year round, using compost and pelletized chicken manure (75 tons a year!) on the soil before planting. They do use row cover (the black plastic that was underneath the peppers and that’s also here on the left side of the image) – he said he’s not crazy about doing so, just because it’s plastic, but that they just couldn’t keep after the weeds to keep them from outcompeting the crops if they didn’t. Furthermore, he said, rather than pulling the row cover up after it’s used once, they plant through it twice, thereby cutting in half the amount they use. They also use their t-tape – that’s the irrigation tape that goes under the plastic – twice, he said At this point, someone else on the tour piped up and said that there was an agricultural recycling place that had recently opened up in the valley that accepted row cover. Good news, I thought – there’s a lot of it in use.
Here’s the first example of one of the ways they get the best they can out of the land they have. This is intensive planting of corn.
"These are supposed to be much further apart, but we can grow more corn in less space and use less water this way," Kyle explained. "We do this sort of planting on a lot of things. We don’t follow the planting distance specifications and it still grows fine."
Moving on – from left to right, purple basil, intensively planted onions and fava beans here. This is just one small portion of their onions – Kyle said they spent six full days planting them. They grow red, red torpedo, white and sweet onions, plus leeks and shallots. I’ve been having a great time with their shallots lately.
As we came upon the tomatoes, Kyle said, "Some years ago we used to shoot the birds for coming after the cherries. Then at some point when we were harvesting the tomatoes I noticed how many bird droppings there were on the stakes holding up the plants, and I realized that there were always birds up there.
"And then it occurred to me why we never had any tomato worms. The birds were eating them. Well, we stopped shooting them, and now I just figure that we pay the birds in cherries for eating the worms."
We were just coming up to the squash plants, visible on the right-hand side of that shot above – they grow 14 varieties. Indeed, the Zephyr type that Michele brings to market might be my favorite summer squash ever. "The little round ones we plant a row of for our dogs," Kyle said. "They love them."
We wandered past kale…
And fennel beginning to go to seed…
At this point it was starting to feel pretty hot and I was starting to wear out from all the walking. The last thing I captured was this baby arugula…
…which later ended up in a salad that even later ended up in the July 4, 2007 issue of the Fresno Bee. At that moment, Kyle said more excitedly than I was comfortable with as an herbivore, "Okay, anybody want to see how you catch a gopher?" Having been privy to this instruction previously, oddly enough by the same guy who taught me where on the tree to pick fruit from, I decided to take a pass and headed back up the hill toward the house.
In the final installment, coming soon, the wonderful farm-born refreshments that awaited us after the tour, the farmers themselves, and a few final thoughts.