Lessons From a California Dry Farmer


John DeRoseir at his farm in Paso Robles, California

John DeRosier’s With the Grain farm grows a diversity of grains without irrigation during the winter and summer months, even when the temperature consistently tops 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Paso Robles, California. He is a dry farmer.

The concept was implausible at first. I asked him several times to explain, “How is it you can farm without irrigation while all the neighboring farms are drilling 1,000 feet beneath the surface?” I pointed to the surrounding sea of grapevines which clung to the soft hillsides.

“It starts with the cover crop,” he told me.

Only 3 percent of U.S. farms reported growing cover crops in the latest Census of Agriculture, and the practice drops with farms larger than 200 acres. Cover crop is important, as I learned from John because the decaying plant material from the cover crop feeds the microorganisms in the soil.


This process builds the soil organic matter (SOM). SOM can retain up to 10,000 times more water than soil without, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services. While his neighbors drill deeper wells to excavate water to irrigate wine grapes and almond trees, John’s crops grow with the moisture held between the granules of soil.

Last year, John wasn’t able to deliver grains to his CSA customers. “The margin of error for dry farmers is narrow,” he recently told me. “The winters are drier now. I have to plant  earlier than before.” In the fourth year of the drought, he will harvest 150 acres of grain.


Boycott Pesticide Food! Si Se Puede!

This article is written in honor of the life and legacy of Cesar E. Chavez.

“What is the light for?” asked my son Joaquin on a drive home from piano class. A large spotlight flooded rows of strawberries providing light for a tractor driver spraying pesticides. The driver wore the required protective suit that covered every inch of his body, his nose and mouth covered with a surgical mask. The night gave the typical sight an eerie quality. The light illuminated the thick chemical mist as it rose up from the ground like steam.

“Shouldn’t he be wearing a gas mask?” asked Joaquin.
Protective gear is essential when dealing with contagious viruses, or radioactive cleanups, but shouldn’t be a necessity on the farms that grow the food we eat. My proximity to conventional cropland in part influenced the decision to institute an “organic when available” family policy.


Strawberry field in Ventura, California

In 2011, 144 million gallons of chemical pesticides were sprayed onto cropland in the U.S. Pesticides are applied as droplets, each droplet lighter than dust. The mist scatters and drifts and settles on surface water and leaches into water tables. The USGS tested 1,412 shallow wells in agricultural areas and found the presence of one or more pesticides products in 60 percent. The same study found nitrate in all the wells, with 21 percent at or higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Maximum Contaminant Level.

It is impossible to elude exposure of chemicals. We breathe them, drink, eat and roll in the grass treated with them. Each of our bodies holds at least 700 chemical contaminants, according to EPA estimates. Farmworkers and farmers working on the 1.3 million farms have amongst the most intimate and chronic exposure. It is why Cesar E. Chavez fasted for 36 days in the summer of 1988. He understood chemicals to cause birth defects and cancer among farmworker children. It was his last fast.

Our food system is chemically dependent. The price is paid, by our water, our soil and our health.

Eat less water at the kitchen table. There is power in the collective!

eating is an agricultural act

Be well,


Click here for information on the award winning documentary Cesar’s Last Fast, available to view on iTunes.


Eat Different


This World Water Day I didn’t shave an extra minute or two off my shower, or forgo watering my potted plants. Instead, I shopped at the farmers’s market and mapped out the dinner menu for the upcoming week. As 7 out of every 10 gallons of water is used to grow and produce food the most powerful way to be water conservationist is to support farmers and food producers who are.


What is a water conservationist? I used to think that water conservation simply meant to use less water. I built a small business around this belief as a distributor of shower timers and other water saving products. But conserving water is broader than this narrow definition.

Supply and quality cause water shortages. Supply left over 1000 people without tap water in the small town of Porterville, California in Tulare County when their shallow wells went dry. Water quality explains why half a million people were left without clean drinking water in Toledo, Ohio for three days last summer.

The food in my kitchen impacts water systems around the world. The fruit, vegetables and grain I eat impacts well water levels of residents and farmers alike. Dairy and meat choices either contribute to nutrient runoff, causing toxic blooms like the ones flourishing on Lake Erie or encourage thriving soil that draws the water downward to replenish aquifers.

We are facing a frightening future, one rife with water shortages, referred to as water scarcity, caused by shortages of supply and diminished quality. Experts meeting at the World Water Forum in Istanbul in 2009 predicted 2/3 of the world’s population will experience water scarcity by 2025. It is a situation expected to result in an unprecedented rise in military conflicts. And while you, I, and our children may be among the fortunate, living far from a military zone, with a flowing tap of fresh, clean water, none of us will be untouched by a water-scarce world. At the very least it will change what we eat.

The farmers and food producers I’ve interviewed around the U.S. show me a different way to approach farming. One in synch with the surrounding environment. One that works to replenish the river not pollute it, one that serves to regenerate the soil, not lose it. But they need us to buy their food. To be engaged eaters. I’m convinced If we eat different en masse we will rewrite the story.

Eat less water at the kitchen table! There is power in the collective.

Be well,


FYI, you can find the recipes for several of the menu items pictured above here.


Before you report your neighbor for wasting water– read this

A Facebook friend posted a scathing description of her neighbor. The words, “selfish,” and “irresponsible” were used to describe him. His offense, he watered his rose bushes during a drought. Many of the 32 responses urged her to report him to the city. She posted she already had. I didn’t enter a response or hit the “like” button. While I’m glad water conservation sparks attention in the public conversation, these threads of public discourse are superfluous. There is nothing long-lasting about turning your neighbor in for watering his roses or God forbid, hosing down his driveway.


During each drought period, there is a heightened awareness of water. Articles printed in newspapers and magazines report low reservoir levels, dry wells, and fallow fields. From Texas to Tennessee, electric road signs and billboards read variations of “Save Water, Severe Drought.” And we each become unofficially deputized as water cops, deployed to report the neighbor watering his rose bush.


“Use what you need,” urged Denver Water during the 2008 drought.

 When the drought is declared over, news stories dry up; billboards replaced, and conversations move to the next crisis. And we remain in the same predicament; half the world population will experience freshwater shortages, referred to as water scarcity by 2030. Water scarcity is expected to result in the deaths of millions and an unprecedented rise in military conflicts. Of all the crises coming to a head– water scarcity is the least understood.


Clever Campaign to encourage shorter showers launched by San Francisco Water Power Service

I sold 80,000 shower timers before realizing I was saving water in the wrong room of the house. If 7 out of every 10 gallons of fresh water is used to grow food, then isn’t it logical to focus on the kitchen and by extension the farms that produce our food? This is why I became interested in water footprint. But as I’ve visited farms and researched for my book in progress, I’ve learned that water footprints tell a partial story. A richer story is told in color…or rather with the colors of water.

I choose food made from green water, that is rain-fed or dry farmed when possible. I buy organic because chemical fertilizers or pesticides are disallowed. Both kill microbes in the soil, diminishing the soils ability to retain water. When soil can’t retain water, it leads to more runoff, thirstier plants and stressed groundwater supplies. I wrote more on the subject in the article, Why American Soil Makes Us Sick.

Instead of reporting my neighbor for watering his rosebushes, I’d ask him over for dinner, and serve him less water at the kitchen table.

Eat less water at the kitchen table. There is power in the collective!
Be well,



Dr. Seuss Approved Green Eggs


My kids left for school in their pajamas. Today, the school cafeteria served green-dyed eggs and ham  to celebrate America’s favorite rhyming doctor. But I like to think Dr. Seuss, author of the Lorax, would prefer the green eggs I ate this morning.

The eggs I scrambled  came from a new vendor at the Oxnard Farmer’s Market. Before I purchased, I asked him about their farm practices. I was happy to learn he offered green eggs, as his birds are raised exclusively on rain-fed pastures in Kern County, California. Water footprint researchers assigned colors to water to help differentiate the types of water sources: blue, green and gray. Blue water is sourced from aquifers, reservoirs and rivers that scribble across the landscape.  Gray is water tainted with nitrogen, the run-off from fertilizer and manure. Rain water and moisture is green, thus not diverting water from its natural system.


Green eggs can be found across America. They are available for purchase at farmer’s markets and a growing number of grocery stores. Look for organic brands that say they are pasture-raised like the eggs from Organic Valley Farms  and Coyote Creek Farms.


Sam-I-Am urged us to try something new. Consider approaching your food in a new way too, and eat less water at the kitchen table.

There is power in the collective!

Be well,


Kurt Unkle shows off his soil at Cajun Grain Farms

Why American Soil Makes Us Sick

“How many families don’t have someone sick in them? We all have somebody in our family that is fighting obesity, high blood pressure, cancer, something,” said Kurt Unkle, Owner of Cajun Grain in Kinder, Louisiana.

A report released by the National Council and Institute of Medicine support Kurt’s observations. The study reports we, defined as male and female Americans, live shorter lives than other wealthy nations. In fact, we rank 16th on the list. And during our shorter lives we suffer from more diseases.

The cause for our collective sickness are attributed to many factors. They include the rise of a sedentary lifestyle as we spend more time in front of screens versus hunting and gathering, processed foods, our love for sugar and salt, etc. But there is another cause for our poor health rarely mentioned. It is the steady drop of vitamins and minerals in the food we eat.


According to the USDA nutritional composition tables, fruits and vegetables have fewer vitamins and minerals than they did in 1975. Broccoli lost 54 percent of its calcium, iron levels are down 60 percent in cauliflower and apples, and bananas have 48 percent less phosphorus on average. With a few exceptions, like carrots and pumpkins, our food is less nutritious than ever before. Even when we stay clear of processed foods, instead opting for the salad of fresh greens and assortment of vegetables, we are eating far fewer vitamins and minerals than the U.S. population did four decades earlier.

Why is food less healthy? The answer is in the soil according to Joe Miazgowicz from Crop Services International. He explains, “Microorganisms bring minerals to the plant. The plant roots then pull the minerals from the soil with its root hairs.” This natural delivery system is dependent on the presence of a thriving community of bacteria and fungi (microorganisms). “In the conventional system,” Joe explained, “The farmer and home gardener puts phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen in a soluble form like Miracle Grow on the soil. The salts from the fertilizer dry up the bacteria and fungi killing off the natural delivery system.”

With the absence of microbes in the soil, the plant is dependent on fertilizers to feed it the nutrients required for its growth. One can argue that this method works to increase yields, but as Kurt pointed out to me, “It’s cost us. We lost our soil, and we lost our health.”


There are several billion microbes in one handful of healthy soil

Kurt showed me the soil test results from Miazgowicz company Crop Services International (CSI). “You start getting the ratios right in the soil, thecalcium ratios, phosphorus ratios right, then the plant gets it right. When you eat it, you get it right. For us to be healthy the plants need to be healthy.” CSI tests for soil ratios rather than the traditional soil test that identifies only the elements available to the plant. A ratios test looks at the amount of nutrients available to the plant and the nutrients present in the soil. The goal is for the plant to thrive without fertilizers by recruiting the army of bacteria and fungi to bring minerals to the plant.

“Keep putting only nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium on the ground year after year it throws your ratios out of balance. When your ratios get out of balance you get more weeds, you got to put more chemicals, and the chemicals kill the bacteria. It is a chain reaction,” Kurt told me.


Kurt shows off his healthy soil at Cajun Grain farms

We need more water to grow crops in the system Kurt described. A report published by Soil Science found soil alive with microorganisms, also referred to as humus, holds water at 80 to 90 percent of its weight. Soil without humus is thirstier and fosters runoff of nutrients into waterways, which causes another chain reaction: unhealthy rivers, groundwater, and oceans. Like Kurt said to me, “Everything feeds off everything.”

The good news is there are farmers who are cultivating the microbes in the soil and producing more nutritious foods. Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege to meet with farmers around the country who are curators of the soil and water like Kurt. But if these farmers are to thrive like the army of bacteria and fungi in the soil, these farmers need our support by seeking them and purchasing their food.

Eat less water at the kitchen table. There is power in the collective.

Be well,



KIDmade Organic Cookies


A few months back I wrote about the importance of cultivating the next generation of mini-chefs in the post, Top Reasons Why Kids Need to be in the Kitchen. In the article, I made the connection between the outsourcing of food preparation to restaurants and drive-thrus’s and the deterioration of our air, soil and water quality. When we cook our food, we are in control of the source of our ingredients. As we become engaged with the purchase of each ingredient, we have the power to support farmers and food producers who are stewards of the land and water.

But…another good reason to teach our kids to cook is they eventually will cook without you.  As I spent a recent afternoon writing, my two eldest kids, Isabella (12) and Joaquin (9) worked as a mighty team to make two varieties of  cookies. Isabella called Joaquin, “the voice activated, Kitchen Aid mixer,” as his duties included holding the hand held mixer and fetching ingredients. Isabella was the chief pastry chef.  I placed the cookie sheets in my 70-year old oven, my only job.


Isabella (Chief Pastry Chef) and Joaquin (Voice-Activated Kitchen Aid Mixer)


Isabella and Joaquin made peanut butter cookies using the organic peanut butter made from freshly pressed peanuts at  Whole Foods. They used a recipe from My Nepenthe cookbook for the peanut butter cookies. They watched a youtube tutorial video on their school-issued iPad to make the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. For the oatmeal cookies, they swapped the white flour for the brown rice flour I brought home from Cajun Grain Farms in Kinder, Louisiana. They used the fair traded, organic chocolate chips I  keep in a mason jar in the pantry.

We wrapped small bundles of cookies in recycled parchment paper tied in twine to give to neighbors. Isabella added the final touch, a stamp that said, “Life is a great bundle of little things.”

Eat less water at the kitchen table. There is power in the collective.

Be well,