Climate change at the Cloverleaf

We get asked frequently on tours of the farm about how climate change is affecting us as farmers. While we haven’t seen a lot of big changes yet, there are many small changes that add up. This year, the late rains led to much more brown rot and a much larger compost pile than we planned for – we doubled our compost bin size this year, but it is overflowing every week. The drought that ended last year meant that we were uncertain about our water supply, and resulted in a long-needed groundwater management act going into effect next year, but so far we have heard that the new act will put a lot of small farms out of business. In the winter, we are never sure if we are going to get enough chilling hours for fruit set, so we leave more fruit wood on while we are pruning, which results in more thinning in the spring. Local weather, of course, isn’t what climate change is about – this summer has been one of the coolest I can remember in Davis, but world-wide it has been the hottest summer on record. I watch the videos of the Arctic ice melt with dread.

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Sometimes it feels as a small-scale farmer that there isn’t much we can do about climate change. We have to drive pick-up trucks and vans to move the produce — one my least favorite things is to be stuck in a traffic jam with peaches in the van in the Bay area. We have made small changes: install solar panels on the top of the barn to power our water pumps, put in soil moisture sensors to reduce water use (see photo), use no-till farming to reduce our tractor use, and this year we made fewer and more efficient trips to the bay area. Still, I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent picking peaches feeling like we aren’t making the changes fast enough to fix agriculture and the planet’s problems. I feel like farmers are well poised to help with climate change if we worked together with scientists – farmers deal with food waste, water use, soil carbon, vehicle emissions, land use on a daily basis. This latest article in Science is some glimmer of hope – if the world planted a trillion trees (i.e. 132 trees per person), on top of reducing emissions, humans might be able to pull through this. Of course, that means that every person needs to have access to enough land to plant and maintain 132 trees. I know the Cloverleaf crew is fully on board with this mission – hopefully we will find enough land this winter to accomplish it!

Ode to the Ugly Fruit

Peaches are like people. They are born by their aging tree mothers arranged in clusters of commingling shapes and sizes. They grow and swell to maturity against the odds of climate change, disease, and an onslaught of ravenous wildlife and insects. The result of all these environmental pressures is an immense and amazing spectrum of difference. Us farmers spend our days combing over every little variability in every peach, often impressed and amused by the diversity. 

There’s the winking peach, who’s skin tightens up into a goofy gnarled toothless grin and looks like it might just spit into a spittoon. There’s the mini peach, often found in the leaf curl-ridden canopy of the trees or down in the shade in a cohort of mini peaches that bartered for limited nutrients in these restrictive growing conditions. There’s the split pit peach, who generously provides a home for a family of pincher bugs. There’s the pecked peach, who nourishes the red-breasted robin mothers of speckled blue eggs. There’s the outie peach, who, well, has an outie (see below). There’s the voluptuous peach, who somehow soaked up the sun before the rest and is already bursting with juices when the farmer arrives. 

Perusing the piles of fruit in the grocery store, the average customer wouldn’t know such diversity exists. Not unlike the lingerie stores that plaster airbrushed images of the bodies of models in a storefront window, grocery stores will only allow their shelves to advertise a particular shape, a particular color, a particular texture and a particular size of peach. The rest of these fruits find their way to feed the earthworms, the trees themselves, the squirrels, a snacking farmer, or maybe even an open-minded customer.

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Tuesday.

Well, everybody, here I am again.  Wait.  Am I?  Where is here?  Tuesday.  Yes.
One month of harvest season to go, and this is often where I find my mind these days.  It’s just… somewhere.  You all know the summer is hot.  That has a lot to do with it.  You also probably guessed that we climb a lot of ladders and carry a lot of boxes of fruit around, and that has a lot to do with it too.  Hmm.  A lot.  What is a lot, you ask?  Well.
 A while back, someone asked me how many peaches we pick every year.  We did a bit of farmer-math and came up with approximately 120,000 peaches.  Just peaches.  Add in the nectarines, and that might come out to about 200,000 fruits.  Add in the apricots, and we might be somewhere around… I don’t know… 400,000?  450,000?  Don’t ask about the figs.  Melons.  Tomatoes.  Raspberries.  Strawberries.  Et al.
That might seem like a big number.  But I’ve been considering lately how that number doesn’t even come close to the number of decisions that have to be made in order for our fruit to make it into your CSA boxes.  This is getting fun, now.  Let’s go back in time.
Step one.  In the spring, we ‘thin’ the fruit, meaning that we remove about 50-75% of the little baby fruits that the trees produce in order to reduce the weight on the branches and increase fruit size and quality.  Let’s say the average is 50%.  That’s 450,000 decisions.
Step two.  We pick each variety about 4 times as the fruit ripens gradually.  So, for each ripe fruit that is picked, that’s another 450,000.  But, as we go through multiple times, we also have to decide NOT to pick the unripe fruit.  I can’t wrap my sleepy brain around how to calculate that, so let’s just say 450,000 again.
Step three.  We sort the fruit into three ‘quality’ grades (perfect, semi-perfect, and ugly).  You guessed it, another 450,000.
Okay, so, arithmetic.  My calculator says 1,800,000 decisions.  Just to thin, pick, and sort the stone fruit.  Wow.  Maybe that has something to do with it.  Tuesday.  Yes.

Nooks and crannies

The days are long, hot and itchy. The summers are relentless and unforgiving. The fruit-laden branches demand your watchful attention lest they drop their fruit before you get your $2.85/pound. Regardless of how much you could use a hearty meal, a solid eight hours of sleep, or even just a few pages of a favorite novel, the cogs of the food system machine grind on. It’s so easy to get lost in it, to lose yourself. But outside of this tunnel vision, tucked in all the nooks and crannies of the trees and soil, there are a myriad of little hidden treasures to find. Sometimes we slow down just enough to notice. I captured some on camera for you.

An enchanted orchard:

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Fungal friends, such as this birds nest fungus.

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And creepy crawly buggos the size of your thumb.

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Lizards basking in patches of sunlight.

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Farmers’ best friends, of course.

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A creekside hideaway free of peach fuzz and direct sunlight.

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Wondrously large fruits of our labor.

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Joyrides in the back of Katie’s pickup.

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And some damn good peaches. Duh.

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Portrait

A while back, we met with our business advisor, Thomas (Kitchen Table Advisors), and he said something that has been rolling around in my brain a lot over the past few weeks. Memory is a funny thing, so I paraphrase, but here it is:

“A farm is basically made up of the people that work it”

You all know us by the fruit we harvest from the trees. The juicy peaches, the silky apricots, the vibrant nectarines. The succulent berries, drooping figs. And yes, by tasting them, you experience all of ourselves that we’ve poured into them through the year, over the years. But, of course, we are all more than that. So, in the name of the Local Food movement, in the name of Know Your Farmer, allow me to sketch you a portrait.

The trees are groaning with peaches. The quiet clang of boots on aluminum rings like muted bells as we climb up, and down, softer this time, gently cradling an armful of tender fruit. Eric plays Motown, and laughs brightly at every one of your jokes. Brianna whispers sweetly to the trees, and apologizes for bending their branches. Kyle wears Crocs, and quietly cracks a joke – his eyes twinkle when he knows you overheard. Tree is waxing poetic about fine wine and good food, and always finds something in common with everyone. Yurytzy is quietly observing, and never misses a beat. Kaitlin is talking about her feelings, and she wants to hear about yours too. Emma is getting us excited about her new idea, a brand new way to see the world. Neil is making sound effects, and offering to help. Daniel never stops smiling, and always has something positive to say. Mel is showing up to pack the CSA, and singing like an angel. Maria is dancing along, and offers to work out that kink in your neck. Jack has his mind on a hot spring, and yet, here he is, helping us out in yet another fruit emergency. I look on, buried in a warm, ripe Red Haven, and I can’t help but smile.

I Love Feeding You

I don’t know if it’s my Japanese heritage manifesting itself or if food is just my primary love language, but I have always loved eating, feeding and convening over food. Wanna get together? I’ll make you dinner. What’s my favorite part of any camping trip? Cooking over the campfire. It’s your birthday? Let’s go to brunch! So you can see why a career in feeding people appeals to me. 

Yet, for some strange reason, more than an entire year at Cloverleaf elapsed before I experienced the most gratifying moment of my people-feeding career. After a long day at a farmers market, I arrived home exhausted on a hot June afternoon, plopped down in a chair on my partner’s porch, and wrestled my boots off my aching feet for the evening. Moments later my partner’s roommate stomped up the front stairs, cradling a brown cardboard CSA box. Sitting on the porch, the boys gathered around and unlatched the cardboard tabs of their first CSA box to reveal the luscious red blush of Zee Diamond peaches contrasted starkly against the radiant orange of Robada apricots. Within seconds, a flurry of lunging limbs and outstretched hands snatched up the pieces of fruit, followed by explosions of juice and shortly after, a chorus of guttural moans and belly-deep satisfaction. Half the box had disappeared.

When you’re teetering on the top of a ladder in the midst of a heat wave in the midst of fire season or wondering how your barely above minimum wages compare to the probably salaried farmers market customer berating you for your prices, it can be really hard to remember why you signed up for all this bull shit. It can be damn near impossible to convince yourself that you can continue doing this at all. But when you see your partner, your mother, your neighbors, a five-year-old, or even a total stranger go wide-eyed and lose their fucking mind over a peach, it all becomes very clear.

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Soil health at the Cloverleaf

Fall is the time for getting things ready for the next year. I love the feeling of putting the farm to bed, covering the garlic with straw, planting cover crop and peas, and bringing  the final harvest in. We are so glad that the rains have finally come, putting out the Camp Fire, and germinating the cover crop. The tiny green shoots are coming up and in the spring, we hope to have a lush cover crop we can mow down and let the earthworms munch on.

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We have an interesting soil prep method we’ve been playing around with at the Cloverleaf – no-till no-chemical organic farming! We mow the cover crop, spread compost directly on top of it, and then cover with a reusable landscape fabric. We let the ground mulch for at least a month, ideally 2 or 3 months, and then remove the fabric and plant. When we plant our strawberries, we just leave the fabric in place and cut permanent holes in the fabric, and then plant into the holes. The landscape fabric can get used again and again — so far it’s lasted 5 years and it still looks great!

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We got a Healthy Soils grant from CDFA to look at our no-till soil practices and also to plant two new hedgerows at the farm. We are going to soil sample every year to look at organic matter, soil chemical properties, respiration, compaction and evaluate whether the health of our soils are improving over time. We’re excited to be measuring this and we will share the results here as we learn them!

U-pick this Saturday (July 16th)

The Cloverleaf is hosting our second U-pick of the season this Saturday (July 16th) from 8 AM to 3 PM. We will have peaches, apricots and nectarines for sale – peaches at $1/lb and apricots/nectarines for $1.50/lb. No U-pick on the blackberries. Please bring your own container if possible, we will have some boxes there but probably we could use more. The weighing station will be in the orchard (north side). We might have one more U-pick, or this might be the last one — it is a great week for some awesome nectarines! See our website (http://thecloverleaffarm.com) for more information on directions and parking.

The address is 9055 Olmo Lane – parking will be at the north side of the orchard or our strawberry patch.  To get to the north side of the orchard where the peaches are, first take Kidwell exit off of I-80. Then follow the frontage road along the north side of the freeway, until you see a wooden sign that says “Journey’s End.” Take a left and then head right at the fork to the big red barn. Pass the barn and turn left at the T. Head past the fenced strawberry field on the left (or park there at the overflow parking), and then past the netted field and you will see the orchard. The weighing area for your fruit will be in the peach orchard and Katie or Emma will be there to greet you!

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U-pick this coming Saturday!

We are having a U-pick at the Cloverleaf orchard this coming Saturday, June 25th from 8 AM – 3 PM. We have a lot of peaches (Red Haven and June Pride varieties) which will be $1/lb per pound for the U-pick as well as Independence nectarines and Brittany Gold apricots for $1.50/lb. If you can bring your own box, that would be great – if not, we will have some there.
We will also be offering that U-pickers can pick an extra box of peaches that will be donated to the Yolo Food Bank. We will deliver all the extra peaches people pick on Monday.
The address is 9055 Olmo Lane – parking will be at the north side of the orchard or our strawberry patch. Overflow parking will be on the south side of the barn. To get to the north side of the orchard where the peaches are, first take Kidwell exit off of I-80. Then follow the frontage road along the north side of the freeway, until you see a wooden sign that says “Journey’s End.” Take a left and then head right at the fork to the big red barn. Pass the barn (where the overflow parking is) and turn left at the T. Head past the fenced strawberry field on the left (or park there), and then past the netted field and you will see the orchard. The weighing area for your fruit will be in the peach orchard and Katie will be there to greet you!
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The price of a peach

We decided to try a new CSA funding system this year – CSA by donation! Our prospective CSA members were asked to donate for their CSA box anywhere in the range of $210-420. The idea is that we could have members who might not be able to afford the CSA box otherwise, while members who felt they contribute could help make up the difference.

First off, the background – why did we try this? Back in November, I went to a presentation by Ryan Galt on his statewide CSA survey. Two facts stuck with me – first, that the average price of a CSA box was around $25 (while we had been charging $20 for all our fruit box). And second, that the lowest income CSA members reported being the happiest with their CSA boxes statewide.

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We had been told by other farmers and friends that our CSA boxes were priced much lower than alternatives on the market. We don’t like undervaluing our produce, partly because we are still working on making a living wage at the farm. But also, if we undercut other farmer’s prices, then produce loses value overall, and all farmers will have trouble making a living wage. It seemed like we needed to raise prices. But we also don’t like that many people are unable to afford good quality, local, organic produce. And the people that wouldn’t be able to afford our produce would actually be the happiest with it, had they received it.

So we wanted to raise our prices, but we also wanted to recruit more lower income members. Major dilemma. We first thought of doing a sliding scale rate based on income level, but it made us really uncomfortable to ask CSA members to report their income levels (and we thought they wouldn’t want to either!) Then we thought of honor system marketing – supposedly, when a customer feels they are being trusted (ie. in a farmstand with a cash box and no employee on staff, where it is on the honor system to pay for your produce), they will get an endorphin boost and actually contribute more!

We talked to some members and other farmers, and some people thought we were crazy, but other people were really, really interested and want us to report back whether this works. So the results! The average price was $300.63 for 14 boxes, or an average price of $21.47 per box. So our members actually contributed more than last year, of their own volition. What is also interesting is that our returning members donated more ($314.66), while the new members, who really have no idea what kind of tasty fruit they are getting into, donated less with $256.57. Also, interesting — we had 4 members at the very upper tier, who really contributed to making the whole system work. The data nerd in me wants to know how the donation amounts correlate to income, but I’m pretty sure there are some outliers — the top 4 donation amounts are returning, super-supportive members, one of whom is a grad student.

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I’m feeling pretty happy with the new system, and it was really exciting to see how it worked out. We also got a lot of great advice over a homemade dinner from a new CSA member, Ariana Brill, who studied cases like these in economics classes, so we’ll be improving the system in future years. Thank you so much to our CSA members for participating in this experiment!!