Lessons From a California Dry Farmer

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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.

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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.

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How to Eat Less Water-Article in California Health

The Winter Issue of California Health Magazine features an article on How To Eat Less Water in the Environment section written by Hannah Guzik. To read the article click here or request a free magazine at healthycal.org.

The article includes an informative piece on How to dry farm in your backyard, with easy-to-follow steps from dry farmer, John DeRosier, just in time for spring planting.

Eat less water at your kitchen table!

Be well,

Florencia

Eat Less Ingredients…as easy as 1, 2, 3 (Roasted Butternut Squash, Fresh Beans, Steel-Cut Blueberry Oatmeal Recipes)

It takes 29 ingredients to make mole, the thick chocolaty, spicy sauce that drowns moist chicken. Mole (pronounced moe-lay) is a recipe reserved for birthdays, baptisms, weddings…I personally have yet to attempt the recipe, the long list of ingredients overwhelms. I prefer the uncomplicated recipe that is both fast and tasty.

Each food ingredient has a water footprint. The shorter the list of ingredients the lower the water footprint. On a recent shopping trip, I needed pancake mix from my local market. I looked first for an organic brand with no luck. So I looked for the pancake mix with the fewest ingredients among my five choices.

We all encounter unrecognizable ingredients in our food. I bought Chinese Chicken Salad from the deli section at the grocery store for a quick lunch fix. After the first few bites I noticed how the sauce had the consistency of slime. I looked at the long list of ingredients printed out on the sticky label. My hardly edible Chinese chicken used 69 ingredients…many of the ingredients didn’t sound like food. Chinese chicken salad shouldn’t require more ingredients than chicken mole.

I have a few favorite two or three ingredients foods that are both quick and tasty.

Roasted Butternut Squash- one ingredient

The flavor of butternut squash stands alone. If you must, you can sprinkle salt and add butter but it really is unnecessary. It makes a great side dish for any meal.

To roast butternut squash set your oven to 400 degrees. Slice the squash length wise and scoop the seeds out. You can save the seeds and plant in your backyard garden. Place on a cookie sheet (flesh up) for about an hour or until supple.

Fresh Organic Beans- two ingredients

A pot of fresh cooked beans is my go to comfort food. The only ingredient required for this recipe is beans (any kind) and salt. Sometimes I add fresh cloves of garlic or in the summer months add chunks of tomatoes and cilantro as a garnish. But most of the year I keep it real simple.

To make a fresh pot of beans first clean them by sorting through the beans to find any dirt rocks (kids like this job). Place cleaned beans inside a colander and rinse thoroughly (I collect this water in a bucket in the sink and use to water plants outside).

My mother taught me how to make beans without measuring cups but if you prefer to be more exact soak two cups of beans in water overnight. When ready to cook use fresh water. Cover the beans with enough water to account for the expansion of the beans when cooked. Cover and bring beans to a boil and then simmer. Each bean variety cooks at different rates. Pinto and black beans for example take a few hours and lentils are done within an hour. Every 30 minutes check the water level. The beans will absorb the water and the water will need to be replenished. Once the beans are tender you can serve. Salt to taste. Freeze extra.

Beans can be cooked in a crock pot. I’ve done this overnight at low heat setting. Fill the crock pot 2/3 full of water. By morning the beans are ready.

Beans are nitrogen-fixing plants. What this means is the bean plant can convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into nitrogen for the soil. Healthy soil means several things for water. The top two reasons is that it eliminates the need for synthetic soils that encourage chemical runoff into fresh water systems. And secondly, healthy organic soils retains water at higher rates than synthetic soils thereby reducing the need for irrigation.

Steel-Cut Oatmeal with Blueberries- three ingredients

My crockpot is used almost exclusively for steel-cut oatmeal. Just before I go to sleep I combine the few ingredients needed for this favorite breakfast meal.

To make steel-cut oatmeal in the crockpot just add one cup oats to four cups water. I add about 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup frozen organic blueberries to the oats. Set the crockpot to the lowest setting. Sweeten with fair-trade sugar to taste. I also like to add dry-farmed walnuts that I buy at my local farmer’s market.

This recipe can be made exactly the same on the stove top, but requires some boiling, simmering and mixing. The crockpot way is so much easier. 1 1/4 cups of dry steel-cut oatmeal (plus 5 cups of water) easily feeds my family of two adults and three small children…so modify the quantity accordingly.

Other few ingredient food ideas….

Roasted unsalted almonds– I find these at my farmer’s market. They are dry-farmed, organic and have the best crunch around.

Organic salted popcorn– This is my go to snack. I pack it for school lunches and have popcorn ready for afternoon snacks. You can see our very serious popcorn machine pictured above (Christmas present from Grandpa Tony).

Fruits and veggies– Sometimes we have a tendency to forget the obvious. These are all one ingredients foods. Tis the season for citrus. I have tangerines and oranges in plain sight for quick, sweet, healthy snacks. Chunks of orange are a great addition to winter green salads.

Snap peas are also all the rage in my kitchen this season. I place a plate of them of the kitchen counter and watch them disappear.

One of these days I will attempt a mole dish for that special occasion. In the meantime, I will stick to recipes that use few ingredients and purchase foods that have less ingredients than mole.

Eat less water at your kitchen table!

Be well,

Florencia

Thanksgiving Preparations…Cook From Scratch (French-Style Bread Recipe)

Thanksgiving preparations are well underway in my kitchen. Tis the season to cook what’s in season and from scratch.

I started with bread. Bread is great to make ahead of time because it can be frozen and baked right before you serve your meal. I slightly under-bake the bread so when it’s out of the oven the second time it is perfect. Here is my favorite French-style baguette recipe.

French-Style Bread

[2 long loaves or 4 small baguettes]

2 cups warm water (100 to 115 degrees)

1 1/2 packages active dry yeast /or 2 tsp.

1 tablespoon organic sugar

5 to 6 cups unbleached organic dry-farmed or rain-fed white flour

3 tablespoons yellow cornmeal

1 tablespoons salt

1 tbsp. egg white (from a pasture-raised hen), mixed with 1 tbsp. cold water

 

Mix warm water, yeast and sugar.

Set the bowl aside for 30 minutes or until the yeast mixture proofs (when you see bubbles).

Combine the salt with the flour and add to the yeast mixture one cup at a time.

Flour a clean surface with flour and begin to knead. You want to knead the dough until it is no longer sticky and transforms into a smooth round lump of dough. You may need to add additional flour (only a small handful at a time).

 

Place round, smooth dough into a buttered bowl to keep the dough from sticking. Cover with a dishtowel to keep out drafts. Leave the dough to rise. The dough will double in size in about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

 

Punch the dough after it has risen (I love this part). Divide the dough into two equal parts. Hand form the dough ( fancy way to say just stretch the dough out to resemble the shape of a baguette) and place on a cookie sheet sprinkled with cornmeal or flour. Slash the tops of the loaves diagonally in two to three places, and brush with the egg wash.

 

Bake at 400 degrees for 35 minutes (25 minutes if you split the bread into 4 smaller baguettes) or until the bread has a hollow sound when tapped with a wooden spoon. Note: The original recipe calls for the bread to be placed in a cold oven. I have tried both with a cold oven and a pre-heated oven and found the bread to be great either way.

 

Variation: For a more tightly textured bread, after the first rising, punch down, knead for an additional 5-10 minutes. Return dough to the buttered bowl and allow to rise a second time before hand forming into loaves.

 

Based on the recipe from Beard on Bread

 

I made extra bread for the stuffing. I found a great recipe on the Food Network. It is a mix and match stuffing recipe which gives you the freedom to choose stuffing add ins that are local and seasonal. I’m adding dry farmed walnuts, pink lady apples and dried figs, all found at my farmer‘s market.

 

This morning before school my daughter Isabella helped me get a start on the pumpkin pies. I used leftover halloween pumpkins for the purée. Roasting pumpkins is as simple as sticking them in the oven at 400 degrees for an hour or until soft and mushy. Puncture the skin of the pumpkin with a fork, this speeds along the roasting process and place on a cookie sheet. The pumpkin pie recipe I used is from Simply Recipies. It includes directions for roasting pumpkins.

For the crust I used a recipe I found on Allrecipies. Pie crust can be made in advance. I rolled the dough and draped over pie tins. I tasted the crust with quiche, its buttery flakyness was divine. If your pallette is on the salty side use sweet cream butter otherwise stick to unsalted. I like my crust on the thin side so I split the dough in half and made two crusts instead of one.

When I cook from scratch I break the steps into parts so it doesn’t feel too overwhelming. This also lets me squeeze food prep into a busy schedule.

When I cook from scratch I control my ingredients. Each ingredient reflects my wish for clean and abundant water on the planet. I am rewarded with flavor and fragrance unmatched by anything purchased in a box, or out of a plastic bag…like in this moment the homemade pumpkin pie sings nutmeg and cinnamon.

Eat less water at your kitchen table this season!

Be well,

Florencia

Descendant of farm workers wants to “Eat Less Water”

By Hannah Guzik

Originally published in the California Health Report

 

 

Nearly every afternoon this summer, Florencia Ramirez drove past the strawberries and lima beans growing in the Oxnard plain, and each time she grew angry about what she saw.

As the plants gulped in the Southern California sun, high-powered sprinklers ricocheted over the fields, spraying water into the air during the heat of the day, when evaporation was at its peak.

In an area plagued with water shortages and droughts, some of the largest agricultural producers in the nation seemed to be using water with abandon, Ramirez observed.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “We live in what is technically a desert and I pass thousands of acres of farmland everyday that are wasting a tremendous amount of water.”

 

The Oxnard resident, who holds a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago, wondered if there was a better way. She began to research agricultural water use and stumbled upon the concept of dry farming — which uses only precipitation to grow crops.

“I found out that even here, amidst all these irrigated farms, there are a few people dry farming, growing wheat, olives, even apricots, with limited water,” she said.

Ramirez, whose friends aptly call her “Flo,” is now turning her anger at water waste into action. She’s writing a book aimed at consumers on how to “Eat Less Water,” a trademark phrase she uses to explain the concept of conserving the natural resource through farming practices and grocery-buying habits.

Dry farming doesn’t work in all locations or for all crops, but it can work successfully even in relatively dry climates, such as Southern California’s, she said. And many of the principles of dry farming, such as paying close attention to the weather and soil composition, can be applied to conventional farming to help save hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a year, Ramirez said. Those plants that require more water, such as lettuce or many vegetables, can be drip irrigated, instead of watered with sprinklers or by flooding a field.

Ramirez says water experts predict that by 2025, two-thirds of the world will be experiencing water scarcity.

“We live in this illusion that we have enough water, but most places, like right here in Oxnard, are experiencing water deficits, which means we are using more than is naturally replenished each year,” she said. “It’s not sustainable.”

The average American household uses 100 to 150 gallons of water daily, a huge amount compared to the four or five gallons an African family uses each day, Ramirez said. “But what we use on a daily basis really is a drop in the bucket compared to industrial use and the virtual water footprint of what we eat, drive and wear, which is 1,100 to 1,300 gallons per day,” she said.

Seven out of every 10 gallons of fresh water on the planet are used to grow food, “so if we’re going to have a true conversation about water usage, we have to talk about what we eat,” Ramirez said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic certification doesn’t include any stipulations on water usage, something Ramirez would like to see changed. Read more.

 

 

‘Sustainably Farmed’ Defined

“What does sustainably farmed mean?” I asked at the farmer’s market. The word sustainable is a word that is often thrown around to describe anything from food to underwear.

“Sustainably farmed means we don’t use chemicals when we don’t need to and use them when the conditions don’t allow for organic farming.”

“What do you mean ‘when the conditions don’t allow’,” I asked.

“Like if the weather is not good or if we get pests we use chemicals. It is difficult to grow good strawberries without pesticides, for example.” He pointed out the big beautiful strawberries on his table that were labeled sustainably farmed.

The definition of “sustainably farmed” didn’t sound much different from the description of conventional farming. A conventional wheat farmer shared with me that the conventional farmer doesn’t want to use more chemicals or fertilizers than they need to because it costs money. And if they don’t need to apply chemicals they won’t. “The stuff is expensive,” he said.

It is important to ask your food vendors questions. Ask what they mean when they throw words around like sustainable or all-natural. Be sure there definitions are in alignment with your own. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) published a 12 page guide defining sustainable agriculture by profiling farms across the country. It is available for free as an online download.

These are questions I ask to find out if the food is sustainably-farmed. It is easier to get answers at a farmers market setting than in a grocery store. This is a good reason to get out the aisles of your grocery store into the the farmers market more often. BUT all food producers need to be asked these questions. Call your favorite producers or ask question on their Facebook pages.

  • Is your farm organic or do you use organic ingredients (when it is a prepared food)?

If the answer is yes I move on to an irrigation question (see below). If the reply is no I move on to another vendor. If the answer is pesticide-free, I ask this follow-up question:

  • That’s great your pesticide-free. Do you use organic soil or synthetic soils?

Organic certification requires organic soils. Non-organic, petroleum-based soils 1) do not absorb water as well as organic soils and 2) leech petroleum and chemicals into water systems.

Irrigation questions:

  • How do you irrigate your crops?

Most farmer’s will be surprised by this question. Sometimes you will stump the vendor because they are not the farmer. When this happens, I asked if they can find out for me. The best answers are as follows:

  • Dry-farmed/ rain-fed- this means that no irrigation was used. Read more here. Leafy greens and berries will rarely be found in this category. Some crops require the consistency of water provided through irrigation.

Forms of irrigation from the best to worst in water efficiency.

  • Drip irrigation – BEST
  • Sprinkler
  • Flood- WORST

Five white canvas tents over from the ‘sustainably- farmed’ tent I found big, beautiful, sweet strawberries that were organic and irrigated with a drip-system. Those were the strawberries I took home with me.

Eat less water at your kitchen table!

Be well,

Florencia

Summer Pie with Crumb Top…easy, water-sustainable and delicious (Fruit Pie Recipe)

I am a big believer in Michael Pollan’s Food Rules on dessert. I paraphrase the rule but it something like, only eat homemade dessert.

Not only has this rule saved me hundreds of thousands of calories but it allows me to control the source of my ingredients.

I volunteered to bring dessert to a dinner party. With limited time and few ingredients I managed to put together a tasty pie with the taste of summer.

I keep pie crusts on hand in the freezer for such occasions. I used a whole wheat organic crust. One day I will get around to making my own organic crust and freezing them.

I had dry farmed peaches and nectarines in the refrigerator from my favorite vendor, Verni’s, purchased at the Oxnard Harbor Farmer’s Market. Verni’s dry farms fruit, olives and nuts on farm land in Clovis, CA.

I used a bag of mixed nuts I had in the pantry for the crump top. The nuts included cashew, almond, pecans, Brazilian nuts and peanuts. The result was a hint of creamy peanut butter. If you like peanut or cashew butters you will enjoy this slight twist to the pie flavor, otherwise stick to almonds, walnuts or pecans.

The recipe for a Water-Sustainable Summer Pie is as follows:

Makes one pie

1 organic pie crust

5 cups organic dry-farmed (ask around for a dry farmer at your farmer’s market) or drip-irrigated summer fruit. I used 10 medium sized peaches and nectarines.

1/2 cup organic sugar

3 tbsp. organic flour

1 tbs. Cinnamon 2 tbs. if you are big on this spice

Crumb top:

Slightly less than 1/2 cup organic flour (preferably dry-farmed or rain-fed)

1/2 cup chopped nuts

1/2 cup organic brown sugar

2 tbsp. organic butter from pasture raised cows ( I love Organic Valley Farms)

Mix the sugar, flour and cinnamon together in a bowl. Add in the sliced fruit and combine. Pour mixture into the uncooked pie crust. Before you add the crumb top, dot the top of this mixture with butter.

Next combine the dry ingredients of the crumb top. I used the same bowl. Less dishes…less water. Slice the butter into little pieces and mix together. Distribute evenly on top of the pie and bake.

Bake in preheated oven at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes and an additional 20 minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

For more decadence, scoop vanilla ice cream on top.

Enjoy.

The Grip of Severe Droughts

Ninety percent of agriculture worldwide is rain-fed, grown with green water. Rain-fed food requires no irrigation because the crop is sustained during the dry summer months with spring rainfall. But our global climate is moving us into unchartered territory. According to the United Nations World Water Report, our planet will warm anywhere between 2 and 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit within this century. Fred Pierce in his book, When the Rivers Run Dry, sums up the effect of climate change simply: “Wet places will get wetter and dry places will get drier.” Too much rain and too little rain will have tremendous impacts on agriculture.

It is anticipated that warmer temperatures will lead to about eight to ten percent more water cycling around our planet, enough to fill twenty Nile Rivers. We can expect to experience more intense rainfall events that will cause rivers to swell, widen, and spill ungracefully onto crop land.

Conversely, we can expect an increase of droughts and higher rates of evaporation that can reduce crop yields by up to one-third, causing farmers to use more irrigation, more blue water. If more crop acerage that has traditionally relied on rain is forced to utilize irrigation, what would that mean for already stressed water systems?

The uncertainty of our future climate makes the techniques implemented by dry farmers that much more significant. On a farm, tucked between a hillside and a vineyard, I learned that crops can be dry farmed like wheat, grapes, tomatoes, melons, olive trees, fruit trees, beans….and corn, the crop most devasted by the severe drought gripping the Midwest and Southwest. Dry farming is similar to rain-fed agriculture in that irrigation isn’t required, but dry farming involves more than just praying for rain. Dry farmers are able to farm in regions that receive scant amounts of rainfall, like Paso Robles, California.

To read more about dry farming read my past post Dry Farming and Water.

YouTube Video- How To Make Sustainable Pizza Dough

This is the first a series of cooking workshops. I had great fun making it, although it took much longer to film (shows how much I know about film making.) What I do know is how to cook using less water. In the film you will not only learn how to make great pizza dough but you will learn how the color of water, blue, green and grey, is important if we are to save fresh water resources on our planet.

I speak about dry farming in the workshop. My post Dry Farming and Water goes deeper on the subject. My post Pasta and Water is also a great post to learn more on the topic of wheat on water systems in general.

Click here for the Water-Sustainable Pizza Dough recipe plus some links and ideas for topping that will also save water at the kitchen table.

Be sure to post your own pizza success and/or pictures of your pizza on the Eat Less Water Facebook page.

Oxnard woman says water reduction is on the menu (original article printed in the VC Star)

By Hannah Guzik
Photo by David Yamamoto
Special to The Star
Original post March 7, 2012 at 5:48 p.m., updated March 7, 2012 at 6:22 p.m.

Florencia Ramirez is on the “eat less water” diet.

From her kitchen in Oxnard’s historic district, she serves meals made with ingredients grown on “dry farms,” or with limited amounts of water, and she’s teaching other local residents to do the same.

“Right now, these terms live in academia, and my hope is that I can bring this into the mainstream,” she said. “The experts say that, just like the housing bubble, we’re living in a water bubble, and eventually it’s going to pop.”

Ramirez held a cooking class Saturday in her home, teaching eight area women to make pizza from scratch and “eat less water” in the process.

“Eat less water” is a trademark phrase for Ramirez. It describes her push to reduce the amount of water used to irrigate farms, thus helping conserve the natural resource.

It’s also the title of her blog, eatlesswater.com, and a book she’s working on about her research of dry farms, which use only rainwater or other precipitation to irrigate.

Experts predict two-thirds of the world will experience water shortages by 2025, Ramirez said.

“I want to figure out how we can unwrite that story and write another story,” she said. “We have to start at the kitchen table.”

Kneading pizza crust made with dry-farmed olive oil and organic flour, Ramirez taught the women in her class how to help save water when shopping for groceries.

Oxnard women says water reduction is on the menu

Read the full article at VC Star and view all photos.