Good stewards of the land
Federal, state officials tour SBC farms to learn sound environmental practices

By KYLE HULL Pinnacle Staff Writer

Paul Hain, wearing a hat advertising his farming philosophy, addresses the farm tour on his walnut orchard in Tres Pinos.

For walnut farmer Paul Hain, shedding the conventional farming practices his family had used for years was a matter of survival. His walnut trees were losing their vitality, and prices continued to rise for the chemicals and fertilizer with which he farmed. He decided to try farming organically, without the use of toxic chemicals and synthetic fertilizers. Today he builds up his soil naturally with intensive Cover crops of cayuse oats, purple vetch, fava beans and other nitrogen-rich plants on his orchard floor. Sown a few weeks ago, the low-growing plants will combat erosion, attract helpful insects and ultimately decompose to return valuable nutrients to the soil.

Haines farm was part of a tour Friday sponsored by the San Benito Resource Conservation District. The tour showcased three local farmers using exemplary land stewardship and watershed management practices. About 20 government conservationists, water officials and other land-management professionals visited the farms, which are located in severe watershed areas along Tres Pinos Creek and the San Benito River.

We learned that organic farming is more than just not growing with chemicals said Wildlife Biologist Dana Bland. was surprised how much they were in tune with the insect habitats. Beneficial insects, such as ladybugs and parasitic wasps, prefer the cover crops to bare earth. The beneficial insects help keep unwanted insects off crops, including codling moths that attack apples.

In addition to vetch, the cover crops on Janet Brian's 100-acre farm includes wheat and barley. Such plants may even hold an answer for the local problem of salt pollution in the San Benito water basin. Barley is really great for pulling up salts said Brians, an original member of California Certified Organic Farmers, which pioneered the organic movement in California. Her farm was the first to be certified organic in San Benito County 28 years ago.

Some organic farmers use mowers to cut down cover crops, but Brians uses a herd of sheep to keep under control the floor of her roughly 10 acres of apricot, apple and pomegranate orchards. The sheep also amend the soil, further freeing her from a dependence on chemical fertilizers. I grow grass to feed my sheep, and the sheep feed my grass, she said.

Brians said the cover crops help prevent erosion, including wind erosion that can make a dusty mess of her farm. We don't like our soil leaving, she said. Brians began planting trees when she bought her property. Her goal is to surround her nearly 100-acres on Shore Road with trees. She prefers her trees 50 feet tall in order to attract birds of prey. She said that her property is home to a pair of kites and red-tail hawks. The birds, in turn, help Brians with rodent control, helping her curb the temptation to use noxious chemicals.

There are less herbicides being sprayed, less fertilizers being applied, which means that thereís less of a chance of them becoming water pollutants, said Bruce Eisenman, a conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, one of many federal workers who participated on the tour. Terry Hall, a water quality specialist at the NRCS, said that seeing good stewardship in practice helps him educate other farmers and landowners. Theyíre more likely to do it if they hear it from the grower rather from us, he said.

Her wildlife-friendly ways, Brians said, has attracted pheasants, possums, skunks, and foxes č even the endangered kit fox. One animal that has been an unwelcome intruder, however, is the ground squirrel. They are a bane, she said. Our foxes had left, and the squirrels took off. Brians live-traps the squirrels, and in keeping with her whole system approach drowns them to use as feed for the foxes and cats living on the farm. They go back into the ground, she said.

A green carpet walking the ground gave tour-goers a first-hand glimpse of how nurturing the soil with organic methods helps soil absorb moisture and resist erosion. After days of heavy rain last week, the ground was muddy on Phil Fosters row crop farm in the San Juan Valley, which produces a variety of organic fruits and vegetables. In orchards where Foster planted cover crops and amended them with some of the 2,000 tons of compost he makes each year, the ground was relatively dry and easy to walk on. Where he didnít use such practices, the mud was thick and pooled with standing water. Even so-called weeds, such as mustard, with its long tapping roots, were allowed to thrive.

I think there are some benefits in opening the ground upon he said. The soil works better and the drainage is better Foster also plants hedges made from pepper trees, giant sequoias, redwoods and elderberry that help to keep soil from running into the San Benito River nearby. It also makes his property, where his family makes its home, more fun to look at. I like the idea of a large, living fence he said. The trees give his crops a buffer zone from adjacent fields that spray with chemicals They also protect his fields from wind erosion, and the wind block even helps protect the crops from wind damage. We have a lot better looking cucumbers he said.

Haines farm in Tres Pinos offered an innovative method to control flooding. Located in a flood zone next to Tres Pinos Creek, the El Nino storms of 1994 flooded his orchards with silt and destroyed trees. To restore creek beds and the land that washed away, Hain hauled willow and cottonwood trees that had washed downstream back to his property. He then placed the trees at 45-degree angles pointing downstream and anchored them with cables attached to railroad ties buried on the bank. The broken chunks of trees then began to re-sprout, sending down new roots and eventually holding enough dirt for other vegetation to take hold. Today the area looks completely restored with bushes and trees upwards of 20 feet tall, all keeping erosion down and protecting his farm from future flooding.

In the past, the bank was armored by scrapped cars from the 1930ís and 1940ís, a few of which are rusty but still visible today. I was lucky said Hain. I had a lot of this stuff downstream. You have almost instant bulk that is generating organic matter.

The erosion-fighting practices were a welcome sight to Katie Siegler of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Siegler said that what happens in San Benito County affects the water quality in the bay, and even though farms may not use chemicals that are as toxic as those used in the past, erosion control helps keep contaminants from migrating including DDT. They banned it, but itís still around Siegler said.

[The Pinnacle Newspaper San Benito County Hollister San Juan Bautista Tres Pinos]