For a few weeks back in February and March, we got to experience a pleasure that has been rare the last few years. Any time the sun came out and the sky cleared, you could look east from many of our fields and see the bright outline of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada over 60 miles away.
Now that most of the trees have leafed out, it’s harder to find a spot to see the view. It’s also hard to walk. Because just about everywhere, the weeds and grass have grown into a lush, dense jungle.
Managing weeds is the most difficult aspect of farming organically. But it is impossible to do when it’s raining or very wet. Our most important weed control methods all involve using tractors.
On conventional farms, weeds are controlled primary with herbicides, often sprayed using ATVs. Since ATVs are so much smaller and lighter than tractors, they can be driven on fairly wet ground without getting stuck. But you can’t spray herbicides when it’s raining, or when the plants are soaking wet.
Organic farms like ours are generally pretty weedy even in normal California winters. But the measure of how wet this year was in Northern California is that even conventional farms are pretty weedy.
Just prior to the most recent round of wet weather, we finished mowing all of our fields and orchards — cutting the grass and weeds down right to the ground. One day after the rain returned, all the grass had starting regrowing, and now one week later most of it is over two feet tall again. As soon as it is dry enough, we’ll be back at the mowing.
The weeds in the walking rows in our strawberry field — which is planted in early fall — were so tall that they were shading the plants. Normally we are able to get in once during the winter and cultivate them with the tractor; not this year. We had to go through the field with weedeaters to cut them down. Now there’s a thick layer of squishy mulch between the beds, but at least the sun is hitting the plants. (And there are lots and lots of green berries!).
We get some help with the weeds from a local rancher who grazes his sheep in some of our fields, They’ve been happily munching on the grass in the table-grape vineyard now for several weeks. All over California, lifestock producers are thrilled with the amount of free, rain-fed greenery available for their herds, especially after years of stress and worry about keeping their animals fed during the drought.
Organic vegetable growers, though…not so much.