How we farm

Jim writes:  People in Ojai tend to see me a lot from January through May, when I’m selling at the farmers’ market. When I’m done with the market, a lot of folks will ask me, say in June or July, if I’m hanging out, waiting for the next harvest season.

Well…No. From May to December, as well as from January through May, we’re farming.

Churchill Orchard has been certified organic since 2007. That and the fact that we grow for flavor are what set us apart from most citrus operations. Growing organically means more labor is required for farming, but for me being organic and having the fabulous varieties that we grow are what make the whole enterprise worthwhile and fun.

The main jobs of farming at Churchill Orchard are, in no particular order:

  • keep the trees properly irrigated – enough, but not too much
  • protect the trees – against gophers, against freezes, against select insect pests
  • feed the trees – their main food is nitrogen, but they also need some minerals
  • keep the weeds under control
  • prune

The daily jobs include, for most of the year, walking irrigation lines and patrolling for gophers. The irrigation lines will get clogged up or some operation will break them or a coyote will either play with them or chew them to get at the water. Water here in Southern California is hard-won and expensive, so I want it to be appropriately applied. We have an instrument called an atmometer which tells us when and how much to irrigate, and we walk each irrigation block completely each time we run the irrigation looking for leaks and blockages.

Gophers A gopher will kill a mature tree if it isn’t caught, and it is very dispiriting to see a mature tree go down. So we hunt them, as well as ground squirrels and rats. Rodents are not our friends.

A lot of what farming consists of is moving heavy things around. The fertilizer, for instance, is almost always feather meal and we usually split a 22 ton truckload with another farmer once or twice a year. This requires a forklift for unloading, and then we distribute it by hand, using pickup trucks and wheel barrows and lexan pitchers to put it around the drip lines of the trees. A lot of lifting, carrying, walking.

Tangerines and avocados are both picked by hand, either into 1000lb bins (requiring the forklift again) or into 40 lb crates, requiring a lot of lifting, loading, and unloading.

Micronutrients – Zinc and Manganese – are applied foliarly to the citrus, meaning we have to fill the spray rig with water and the correct proportion of the material, and drive up and down the rows with the ungainly beast of a spray rig, refilling the rig until all the trees have gotten their dose.

Frost protection is a matter of monitoring the temperature until it’s time to turn on the wind machines. We generally aim to keep the air around the trees at 28º or better, and the wind machines help us accomplish this by creating air currents that bring down the warm air that during most freezes sits atop the inversion layer. The freezes where this layer of warm air doesn’t exist, we’re basically screwed, and out of production for at least a year. When you hear about an Arctic Freeze, that’s what they’re talking about ,and we dread them. The last time it happened was 1990, and all our avocados froze to sticks, and 198 of the 200 pixies we had planted in the spring froze and died.

We apply more mulch than you would believe possible. Three or four years ago when Mrs. Mercer took out her valencia orchard at the corner of Grand and McNell she had all the trees piled up and was going to burn them. We approached her and ended up paying to have them chipped and hauled to our place and have been spreading them ever since. The wood decays over time and turns into fabulous soil; along the way we get some weed suppression and a lot of rain water retention. Mike who does most of the farming here now swears he’s going to get it all spread this winter.

We grow insectary plants all over the orchard, to encourage a diverse population of beneficial insects.

We haven’t used herbicides since sometime in the 1980s. We never used to have to treat for insects, but the advent of the Asian Citrus Psyllid has meant that we have had to start. The ACP vectors a disease called Huang Long Bing which is fatal to citrus trees and for which there is no cure. The disease/insect complex has pretty much wrecked the citrus business in Florida, and California is determined to not let that happen here. Since there is no cure for the disease, the best available strategy has seemed to be to try to control the insect populations.When we treat, we use one of two materials approved for organic production, either Entrust SC or Pyganic.

A distinctive feature of our farming operation – one that Lisa and I imbibed from our families — is that we grow for flavor. This means that we are trusting that people will buy our fruit and pay us enough to keep going from year to year; we are essentially making money so that we can grow fruit, rather than the other way around. It’s not a common strategy but it has worked here so far.