The springtime is the best time to visit Paul Hain at his walnut ranch a few miles south of Hollister. His 40-acre orchard nestles close to the Tres Pinos River, the dark and barely budding branches making a striking contrast with the blue sky, green cover crops, and blooming yellow mustard. A wide strip of young cottonwoods and bushes along the river form a home for creatures and protects the low-lying orchard from floods. Bees hum in the air. This bucolic scene may look like it happened all by itself, but in fact it reflects the mind and management of a very careful farmer who uses natural tools to create a productive landscape. Paul planted everything in this picture. The walnut trees, the cover crops, the bees, and even the cottonwoods are all part of his plan. We asked him on a recent visit to tell us the story:How did you come to be farming here?
My great, great grandfather came to the area in 1837 and settled down in Bear Valley near the Pinnacles. They had dairy cattle, alfalfa, and fruit trees. We used to have apricots, but over the years it has gradually changed to walnuts. Iíve been working on the ranch since I was old enough to be somewhat responsible about it. I went to local schools and then to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. I graduated from there in 1976 and came back here with the intention of working on the ranch.Why did you convert your operation to certified Organic?
In those days it was all conventionally grown using fertilizers and chemical sprays. We had a lot of problems with Black Line disease in these orchards. It is transmitted by pollen and gets into the trees and kills the tops off. It was interesting because when my father and uncle were partners, they farmed just 70 acres. That supported two families. They put five children through university and they lived fairly well. Now I have more acres on two ranches, but costs are rising, and the economics of growing conventional walnuts has worsened drastically. In 1993 I noticed that people who were farming organically were growing walnuts that did not look very good, but they were making more money than I was. It became apparent that organic was the thing that I should try. In the beginning it was not about values, it was about money.What do you do that is different from conventional management?
Part of the whole organic process is not treating vegetation as an enemy but using it as a friend to the soil and using it to help to build organic content. My cover crop has a mixture of fava beans, field peas, and a couple varieties of vetch; the number one reason is to provide nitrogen, biomass and organic matter. It provides habitat for beneficial insects. Iíve noticed an increase in spiders, which are good general predators. I mow alternate rows and try to keep vegetation in the orchard most of the year in order to leave them good habitat. By not using commercial fertilizer I encourage worms that naturally aerate the soil.What about pests?
Pheromone control has not worked well in this orchard because of the variation in the age of the trees. It works best when there is a very uniform canopy where it can spread out evenly and form a blanket. It is also as expensive as conventional pesticide and very labor intensive. I have relied on beneficial insects and cultural practices to minimize insect damage. I have found in the central coast area that by using beneficial insects and establishing a more natural environment in the orchard the pests donít seem to get out of whack that much.You have a unique approach to flood control. What happened?
In 1998 I lost two acres of orchard to the Tres Pinos River. It was the year of El Nino and was the biggest flooding I ever saw. It probably flooded 28 acres several times that year. I lost twenty-five yards of orchard to the creek. It scoured out everything in a wide channel about fifty yards wide by six to eight feet deep right down to the gravel. But the way I look at it is that all this land is flood plain and sort of belongs to the river. I decided that filling it back in and planting it with trees was not a viable option, that the best thing to do was to give the river more room to live in and move the riparian buffer out away from the stream. This was the low cost way to do it. What I did was use a D-7 Caterpillar tractor to drag a number of big old cottonwood trees that had been washed down by the flood to my frontage and angled them in at 40 foot intervals with the crowns facing towards and down the creek. Then I brought in the backhoe and dug them down so that they made good contact with the ground. We anchored the stump end to the soil with cables attached to deadman railroad ties. So even if the flood comes again the trees will tend to angle towards the stream bank while staying anchored. In the meantime the trees have sprouted and you can see all the vegetation that has come up in their shelter. They trap silt during high water and are gradually building the riparian area back up to the level of the orchard. There is a great habitat for birds in here. I could probably plant some trees and plants that would be better for the birds - but they like walnuts.
The value for the farm is that I am getting riparian protection from periodic flooding which is a natural process. The plants also clean the water of silt when it does flood. If I had runoff the riparian border would also protect the stream, but since I am organic and water with sprinklers, there really is not anything for me to worry about.Do you see farmer attitudes changing in this region?
In the last three to five years there seems to be a different story coming out of the valley. The growers there are starting to get interested in organic matter and building their soils. They have been watching the organic farmers and they see the results. They see how they can transfer some of those ideas to their operations. They talk about it. Farmers are that way, I suppose. The big ones are often pretty reluctant to do something different.
I have been active during the last four years in the Central Coast Coalition of County Farm Bureaus addressing the water quality issues that were brought up primarily by the creation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and their Agriculture Plan. It has been very interesting to see the progression on the part of the Sanctuary in their view of the agricultural community, which at the beginning was not positive at all. But now it has turned around 180 degrees. With that turn around I think the response of the farming community has changed. There are now more people interested in water quality and in forming partnerships in order to improve things. We have had both (UC Cooperative Extensionís) rangeland water quality program here and the irrigated agriculture short-course for water quality. Itís a start.