January 2nd, 2021

I haven’t posted for a long time due to uncertainty about my grain operation. In the late fall of 2019 the family who had rented me land for next to nothing for 12 years suffered the loss of the their mom. The family needed to make the ranch pay for itself and leased it to a local walnut grower who can pay real rent. I can offer nothing but great thanks for the time I had on the ranch and with the family.

Because I had the land enrolled in the Conservation Sustainability Program of the USDA I had to make a decision. That program was paying me annually for using no-till, cover crops, and crop rotations. If I failed to formally cancel my contract I would owe all the money back. If I planted my crops and then the tenant needed to plant his walnuts my investment would be lost.

In the end I decided to cancel the CSP contract and not plant. Planting involved buying some more equipment that seemed unwise under the circumstances. With no place to store my equipment, I donated my combine to the Center For Land Based Learning in Woodland, CA and sold the rest.

At this point I am still open to the possibility of some land showing up closer than the 50 miles I was commuting but realize it’s a long shot. I’m 72 and not up for risky enterprises. Grain was always a low-margin crop and takes a bunch of equipment. Ironically, since the pandemic started I have had a high volume of calls seeking out rye, my main crop. I sorry to have to turn people away.

Wild Weather Year

May 21st, 2019

My last post way back in January described conditions too wet for planting from Thanksgiving onward. That never changed. I get Natural Resources Conservation Service grants for some of the cost to do no-till, cover crops, and crop rotation so I had an contractual obligation to plant a cover crop. The fields were flooded but my NRCS field supervisor said to plant anyway and regard it as an experiment. I would have need a swamp buggy to drive in the field so I sloshed around the field on foot, broadcasting seed with a hand seeder. I figured I walked 10 miles doing that.

I had to disappoint several people who were looking for cereal rye since I never got any planted. Now I’m not so regretful since this May is on track to be the wettest on record. Any rye I that grew would have been flattened by some downpours we’ve had.

The effect of an unpredictable climate is undeniable. Five years of drought, a year of torrential rain, a year with very cold dry conditions, and now this. I keep trying this restorative farming because we’re in for more and probably worse. Restoring soil health can pull carbon from the atmosphere and help slow climate chaos while making farming more resilient to these weather conditions.

Too Dry Then Too Wet

January 9th, 2019

As of late November all my fields were dry and hard since there had been but a brief rain in early October. The photo at right shows the amount of crop residue that was left from last year. Amongst that was a thick mat of medusahead, an invasive exotic grass that suppresses other seeds than its own. Though I’m trying not to disrupt the soil biology, this year I really needed to suppress that invasive grass with some soil disturbance.


Close to Thanksgiving I thought a window was opening with a little rain that would soften the soil so I bought organic fertilizer for a cash crop and seed for the cover crop. Then it started to rain and has kept on with only short breaks ever since. Now it is early January with no break in sight. I am hoping for some drying later this month or next that would allow me to plant all my fields. I must plant the cover crop one way or another to meet my USDA contract, but the cash crop is uncertain.


It’s clear that the weather patterns that prevailed over my first seven years of grain farming are no longer holding. This highly changeable weather is what climate warming models have predicted. It seems even more important to persist in this regenerative farming effort to see if I can create some resilience model that would grow crops no matter what the weather does.

No-till Planting Results 2018

October 27th, 2018

Things looked promising when I last posted in May. The rye crop and cover crop looked vigorous. However, late rain stimulated a field bindweed (looks like morning glory but strangles crops) explosion in the mowed cover crop where it was no longer shaded by the rye. Also, by the time the cash crop dried down enough to harvest, I could see that the rye growth was very spotty. My conclusion was that a thick growth of medusahead (an invasive non-native grass) had prevented germination of a lot of what I planted. This is where theory ran up against reality on the ground.


I was supposed to be buying a mid-60’s combine from a friend at the end of May but it didn’t end up getting it on site until July. While getting it running in the 90-100 F weather we discovered a bunch of things that needed repair. My friend did run the machine through the rye to test it but the grain yield was so poor I decided not to buy the machine or bother with the crop.


I will post more soon on developments since then. Below is a picture from the day Natural Resources Conservation Service staffers came out to do annual soil testing. We’re chatting while waiting for the timed water infiltration test is proceeding.

Weird Winter No-Till Results

May 25th, 2018

After a December with almost no rain, some rain but temperatures in the 80’s in January, then dry and very cold in February, we ended up with a cool, damp May. Today it’s 50 F and rained for a half day and rye crop and cover crops continue to grow. Next week it’s supposed to be in the 90’s. In mid-winter it looked like I’d wouldn’t get much out of the planting but it all turned around. This first picture is mid-winter.


The second shows mowing some of the cover crop at the beginning of May to kill the legumes before full bloom to maximize nitrogen gain. Cows were supposed to be doing it but circumstances got in the way. In any case, the no-till planting of cover crop and rye crop had mixed results. Some places had great germination and growth, others almost nothing. Planting a mix of large-seeded bell beans with rye and radish may not have worked well because of the different planting depths needed. Now we’ll see if I can get a harvest out of the rye.

November 17th, 2017

I breathed a sigh of relief this week when I finally got my crops planted. I was committed to doing it no-till (not turning the soil) because I wanted to avoid turning up weed seed that would sprout, wanted to leave the soil microorganisms undisturbed, and wanted to save all the fuel and labor of tillage (turning soil with a disc harrow). In a later post I will discuss the no-till idea and its benefits to the soil.


I hired a local farmer with a very large (30 ft. wide) no-till drill (planter) to put in the crop but had to wait until his schedule allowed. This planter has a sharp coulter disc that cuts through residue on the ground, followed by two opener discs that make a slot in the ground where the seed tube drops seed, followed by a press wheel that closes the slot. With the rainy season beginning I was worried he might not get in to the field. Fortunately, he was able to come in a dry window and did 30 acres in a few hours. Good thing, because it rained all the next night and most of the day.


He planted one field to the rye and a mix of rye, bell beans, and daikon radish to 21 acres. The rye scavenges nitrogen that the beans will create from their roots, and the radish makes large holes in the soil that allow water and oxygen to penetrate.


October 9th, 2017

As some of you locals have surmised, I have left the grain milling business, though not the farming. The birth of my first grandchild and the desire to get loose for more backpacking, bicycling, and travel before I get too old convinced me that it was time. I sold the equipment and grain inventory to Drew Speroni who has worked for me for a few years.

On the farming side, I am excited to be entering into what I call data farming. I have mentioned in past posts applying for USDA grants to experiment with cover crops, no-till planting, and rotational grazing. The grants came through, so I will plant some acres to a cover crop mix of cereal rye, daikon radish, and bell beans. I will plant a smaller amount to cereal rye alone for a seed crop. I am paying for a special heavy planter to put in the crops without any plowing or disking. The idea is that this type of planting does not disturb the microbial life in the soil and that means more organic matter, fertility, and CO2 storage.

In early spring Mark Lefler, who grazes cattle on this ranch, will be putting his cows on the cover crop ground, concentrated in small plots and moving them frequently. I hope to control weeds and harvest the benefits of manure this way and he gets forage for the cows.

As I said, it’s all experimental but I plan on learning a lot. Agriculture will need to change with a changing climate, to mitigate the damage of past practices, and to feed a lot more people. I hope I can help.

Farm News February 2017

February 7th, 2017

There hasn’t been a whole lot of farm activity for the last month. As all the Californians know, it just kept raining all January—26 inches in Nevada County. I have been down to check the fields and growth of everything, including weeds fortunately, has been slow.


As I mentioned in my last post the rye leaf tips are showing purple and very pale lower down, at least in some of the fields. After consulting with Amigo Bob Cantisano of Organic Ag Advisors in Nevada City I am putting on 150 lbs./acre of organic potassium sulfate when the fields get a break from rain. The plants can take up that much quickly but not lose too much to leaching from the soil, plus it won’t break the bank. That should give the plants a boost when the soil warms up and things start to pop. Addressing shortages of soil phosphates is a longer-term project.


Meanwhile, I have my application in with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for funding for no-till on part of the acres and cover crops on another portion. I should hear yay or nay later in the spring.


Planting Grain In Untilled Soil

December 30th, 2016

On November 18 I started my experiment with no-till grain growing. Using my 1960’s John Deere double disc drill, I planted cereal rye on 26 acres. The soil was moist but firm so the tractor didn’t make ruts. The double discs that V together in each row cut into the soil, at least where there wasn’t too much crop residue, to get the seed in about a half inch. Three weeks on, the rye was coming up nicely. Now at the end of the year, I am seeing noticeable potassium deficiency in the plants, evidenced by a purpling of the leaf tips. My soil tests confirm this. So now I have to decide if I spend $3000 on potassium sulfate to mitigate the problem. I’ll keep you posted. I currently have about $1000 in seed, plus fuel and labor.

Rye At Three Weeks

Rye At Three Weeks

Drill At Work

Drill At Work

Testing again

December 2nd, 2016

Sorry, don’t mind this!