Left - Frog Hollow Farm Orchard on Monday, Jan 16 2023
Right - Neighboring Orchard on Monday, Jan 16 2023
Look around after the long, rainy days we’ve had in California. If you drive through farm country, you’ll see wide puddles of standing water on top of the soil. What’s wrong with this picture?
In farming, water can’t do its job when it’s sitting on top of the soil. And it can’t do its job when it’s running off the land into the ocean. It can only do its job when soil can absorb it . And soil can only absorb water when it has the structure to do so. That’s why you won’t see much – if any – standing water in the orchards at Frog Hollow Farm. Farmer Al has been preparing for these epic rains since he started his regenerative farming journey in 1986. His commitment to building soil health has turned what would have been an enormous puddle into a spongy ecosystem that is resilient in the face of extreme weather patterns and climate change.
Where are we starting from?
Brentwood’s soil is a mix of clay and clay loam. Clay soils are heavy and the particles are fine. Clay has a high surface area – when clay soils are managed well, they have the ability to hold onto nutrients and water very effectively. When clay soils are mismanaged, they become compact. This can create flooding conditions and conditions that are hard for plants to grow in.
We are trying to farm in a way that maximizes our clay soil’s inherent strengths. We do this through regenerative farming practices:
- We don’t till the land. Tilling with heavy machinery opens up the soil for planting, but over time it can also compact the soil and shatter its structure. When soil is compacted, it may not be able to hold as much water. That’s because the soil’s pore space is reduced. Roots cannot survive well in compacted environments with little water, nutrients and air flow. Rain simply slides away when the soil does not have the capacity to hold any more. Compacted soil also contributes to standing water and runoff, which can lead to flooding. Furthermore, if there are chemicals or nitrate fertilizers in the soil, these chemicals travel with the water into the lakes, rivers and eventually, the ocean.
- We plant cover crops. We intentionally plant a mix of grasses and legumes, and we let volunteers grow wild and free! The root structures of these grasses wriggle into the soil, opening it to air, beneficial insects and… WATER! When the grasses get too long, we mow them and let the cuttings sit on the surface, where they eventually turn to mulch that feeds the soil. It’s Mother Nature’s magnificent cycle.
- We apply 20 tons of compost, per acre, per year. Compost feeds our trees with the carbon, nitrogen and microbes they need to produce delicious fruit. It also increases the organic matter in our soil, which increases the amount of water our soil can hold. For every 1 percent increase in our soil organic matter, whether it’s through cover crops or added compost, our soil can hold 20,000 more gallons per acre.
Where are we now?
Farmer Al has never seen this much rain all at once in the 46 years he has been farming in Brentwood.
- Brentwood receives an average of 9 inches of rain per year.
- From September 1 to January 16 , Brentwood received 18.85 inches of rain.
All this rain, and almost no standing water in our orchards. Our soil was ready for the storms. And now the rain will be stored in our spongy soil until we need it in the growing season. We generally start irrigating around March. With all this rain, and our soil’s capacity to hold onto it, Farmer Al says we may not need to start irrigating until May.
This is what regenerative farming looks like.