Welcome to the Molino Creek Farm Collective, the Central Coast’s oldest dry-farmed organic tomato grower. We moved to the Farm in 1983 –land formerly called ‘The Greek Ranch’ – and have been deeply involved in this labor of love ever since.
“Molino Creek Farming Collective is a community that actively supports the growth and success of the farming busines on our land: a business that supports the community and is sensitive to its needs. We are committed to preserving integrity in our relationships with each other; and to loving, responsible stewardship of the land.”
We take great personal pride in the amazing produce grown on our land: uniquely situated almost 1000′ above sea level, giving our crops the advantage of warm, sunny days and cool nights. The effect of such conditions on vine crops in particular –grapes, tomatoes, and the like– is a sweeter fruit, with a far more complex flavor and mouth-pleasing texture than tomatoes grown under conventional or hothouse conditions. You can buy great tomatoes from our friends on other local farms all up and down the Central Coast, but only at Molino Creek Farm do you find such perfect growing conditions and such perfect tomatoes.
We make weekly stops at Farmer’s Markets in Santa Cruz, Palo Alto, and in Aptos at Cabrillo College. Please check our schedule, or subscribe to our Twitter or Facebook feeds, for specific market dates and times. Our produce is also sold in Whole Foods Markets, New Leaf Markets, and other local grocers and wholesalers. We are happy to pack custom orders for pickup at one of our market stops as well. Send us a Tweet or an email for more information.
It is a bit of a stretch to say that a farmer’s life ever allows for season breaks, but we are reaching the moment when things slow down. This is a rhythm derived from the Sun.
As the sun passes on its lower arc in the sky, the days grow short and the overall temperatures colder. Occasional blasts of cold air from the Dark North make for chill and fear of frost. Those winds push rainy storms our way, and we hope for atmospheric rivers. The bright white winter sunlight is often bracketed by the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
We had a bit of rain in two storms, enough to make things green again here and there. The mowed areas are green, but the unmowed areas stand tall and brown, the worn out tall dead grass of yesteryear in stark contrast to the new growth.
Fall color unfolds across the landscape, each week a new show. Cherry Hill is a fire with orange and red-orange. Big leaf maples are so very yellow in the canyons nearby. In the orchard, hazelnuts and apple trees are turning color. The Two Dog vineyard is in peak fall color.
The walnut trees across the farm have lost most of their leaves, not so colorful anymore.
As orchardists, we finish the growing season by lightly harrowing the soil over cover crop seeds, by gathering up and stacking the tree props, and by raising the irrigation lines into the boughs of the trees…out of the way of the springtime mowers. We watch the sky for impending rain and hustle the harrow in front of the weather, allowing natural precipitation to germinate the bell beans, vetch, and oats in rows between the trees. We pull on gloves to avoid splinters and the sound of wooden polls clanking together into a neat pile fills the air as we stack a hundred props. We walk back and forth, pulling the 18” stakes with micro sprinklers, tugging the irrigation lines out of mulch and from the grasp of entangling weeds…then hoist the lines up into the tree branches. The rows are clear and blushing green, but at least the apple trees are a month away from dropping their leaves.
The Coming Winter
Community orchardists next gather in the orchard for Winter Solstice and then we Wassail to keep the tree spirits from snoozing too deeply. With any luck, we will burn less in the Solstice Fire this year. We have enough funding from apple sales to rent a big chipper to make food for the trees from the massive piles of fuel reduction biomass piled near the orchard and the bonfire space. Bonfire ash fertilizes and diversifies the mulch field. While making that ash, a great gathering of the network comes together with food, music, and stories to welcome the lengthening days. A while later, at the arbitrary date of Wassail, we formalize the ritual to celebrate and decorate the Grandmother Tree with ancient song and big noises. The work, however, waits until mid-February with a host of springtime chores…if we are ambitious, we’ll plant a few more bareroot trees in the few locations left in the orchards.
We have bobcats in the neighborhood! Sylvie spotted a juvenile bobcat near the entrance to our farm this past week…the first bobcat in a long while! She and others have also seen fox, not on farm, but nearby. There are so many rodents on the farm that any predators that do show up will eat well for a long while. Stand still anywhere on the farm and you can hear the rustling of small mammals…day or night…within a yard of you anywhere. With the moistening of the soil, gopher throws are getting bigger and more frequent. After a long hiatus, in some areas you can find vole runs again- the voles are recovering from a population crash more than a year ago. Mostly, there are several species of deer mice scampering about. There aren’t that many wood rats or rabbits, but a few of each, here and there. No racoon, few skunks, maybe a weasel, no badger, few coyote, no real lion sign, no coyote sightings but an occasional yip in the distance, and a handful of deer from time to time. There are moles and harvest mice for sure, but I haven’t seen them recently. And there are domestic (some quite feral) cats and dogs (mostly fierce) and maybe invasive rats and mice, too. Perhaps there are shrews but I never see them. That’s most of what I know about the furry creatures around Molino Creek Farm. I’m betting the many species of rodents are feeling the chilly air and the short days and are doing what they can to figure out ways to make it through the long winter. They line their nests with dry grass, shredded bark, thistle down, or leaves and fill food storage chambers with piles of hay or seeds. They burrow deep under rocky ledges. They engineer drainage systems to help water flow away from their sleeping areas. They grow thicker fur and some pile together for shared warmth.
A good friend from Back East (USA) once told me that they had a hard time getting used to California’s “seasons” where “winter is the time that the leaves fall from the trees, and the grass turns green.” Here we are, in our rainy season once again. And, unlike Back East, we are planting things: cover crops. The first bell beans we planted have cracked their seed coats, shooting a white root down into the moist soil; leaves have yet to emerge. The nights have turned so cold that the crickets stopped singing. The moon is big and the nights long, bright, and silent. The last few days, 3+ inches of rain soaked our farm. There are puddles everywhere.
The pace of harrowing is the rhythm of the moment. I pull on gloves, hearing protection, a dust mask and hat then turn the key to start up the BCS tractor. Backing it out of the garage, the racket of the engine distracts wildlife from their otherwise peaceful times. Shifting into high gear the machine lurches forward and I pick up my pace, steering it down the road towards the orchard. I park it and then go get the heavy bags of cover crop seed: vetch, oats, and bell beans. Full bags are difficult to pour into the bucket and seeds spill onto the ground. Half full is heavy enough, and I take off down the rows, tossing seeds as evenly as I can, just where the harrow can scratch. Scoop, toss, swish…scoop, toss, swish. I sew bell beans at 3 seeds per square foot, oats at 10 and vetch at 5 per square foot…at least that is what I aim for. The seed spread is never that even and the resulting cover crop is patchy with one species growing more lushly than the others, different species in different places. The bucket empties quickly though I’ve covered good ground – back to the emptying bags for a refill.
After the Seed
After the seed is spread, I fire up the tractor and the heavy duty work begins. I put back on my hearing protection, hat, gloves and dust mask. The BCS is a bear to turn, but turn it must…at the end of every row it’s an about face. Back and forth the harrow scratches, sometimes bucking when it hits particularly hard soil. The harrow sometimes digs into one side or the other, pulling the heavy tractor sideways. I heave-ho to straighten it, tilt it back to clear debris, and then its back to harrowing long rows, pulling and weaving to miss the tree branches. After just 2 rows, I’m soaked with sweat. After 6 rows, I’m beat and its dark. Tractor in high gear again, off it goes to cover for the night. I haul the heavy seed bags back to the barn. The bucket gets stowed for the next cover cropping session. This BCS cover cropping takes us around 15 hours each year just for the orchard areas. The resulting lush growth gets mowed in the spring and raked under the trees for mulch and fertilizer.
Laughing birds poop
The blackbird cacophony is loud, a hundred birds calling from the skeletal branches of a big dead fire-scorched Douglas fir close to the orchard. They alighted there, flushing from a part of the orchard that I had planted in cover crop a week before. I walk up the hill and take a look where they had been: 3” tall fresh bright green oatgrass sprouts have been pulled up and messily scattered, but they left the bell beans alone. Soon, enough cover crop will be coming up all over the farm to more than satisfy the blackbird maw, but for now the early cover crop plantings bear the brunt of bird hunger. Bicolor and Brewers blackbirds strut and peck shoulder to shoulder. I reflect that they are leaving behind bird poop that would otherwise cost us a bunch if we were to import chicken manure: thanks, flock!
First, there was the roar of big waves. It was mild weather, so I left the windows open a crack for fresh air. Open windows are also a treat for outdoor sounds, but something wasn’t right. What might have been the noise of a commercial jet was too consistent, lasting far too long. The air was trembling, the low noise slightly alarming. The waves were back! It has been a long time since the farm vibrated from big waves. Sometimes, it is hard to tell if it is just noise or if the earth itself is shaking. Radio stations warned of sneaker waves. Looking down towards the coast, there were big rolling corduroy ocean patterns.
Then, there was the rain. The setup was telling. Those waves were followed by an odd hazey sky and then there were colorful sunrises and sunsets and different cloud formations drifting in from various directions. Obviously, the weather was changing. Forecasters at first predicted one-tenth inch, then maybe a quarter, and revised yet again to perhaps a half inch. Tuesday morning was the predicted storm and it occurred on schedule with what I call a ‘small raindrop contest’ – every raindrop trying to be teensy and spread out. Then, dawn brought a precursor shower that wet things pretty good. It wasn’t until mid afternoon when the sky dropped torrents for a short bit as a narrow band of rain swept in from the North. At sea level just downhill not even a quarter inch, but up at 900’ we got more: .81”
With the rain came the cold and a trailing bit of chilly showers. Gray threatening puffy clouds sporadically appeared next to bands and walls of mist. At times, all clouds disappeared and the sun shone or the stars brightly sparkled. It has been a dynamic beginning of the week!
The cold makes the birds move slower. The hundreds of high cheeping dark eyed juncos are feasting on seeds along roadsides and hesitant to move away. When they do scatter, they play leap frog one over the next as if a slow motion windblown rolling wave of twittering bird confetti. The hawks perch on fence posts far too closely when you walk by. Quail wait, thinking they can hide and not have to move but then panic, flush, whir, and bounce off of fences and bushes in their chilled-brain bad aim haste. Before this rain wet the ground, the quail were leaving oodles of the best foot prints on our dusty roads as they mopped up thousands of sprouting seeds and seedlings. They will soon be eating only salad. There are lots of quail around right now!
Burr. It’s cold! How cold is cold my back east father asked (Hi Dad!): well, it was 53F as a high today. It’ll be in the low 40’s tonight along the coast but frost is possible inland. Those temperatures are cold for us and will spur a whole new round of winter symptoms. The young grass will turn beautiful shades of red and purple at tips of their blades. The already changing grape leaves in the 2 Dog Vineyard will brighten to a better yellow.
In prior blogs, I’ve commented on the winter vs. the summer birds and have before mentioned the red-breasted sapsucker saga, but I hadn’t thought too much about my observations that they are Molino winter birds. Audubon has a range map that shows their winter vs. summer haunts. The map is quite odd. They are mapped as very definitely only winter birds here, but there are areas to our far South and not that far North where this species lives all year round. Now…why would they leave here in the Summer?? Frequent readers with good recall may remember that we had a pair of these birds (they mate for life) but one got et, presumably by a Coooper’s hawk; the one remaining returned alone for a few winters. And then there were none. And now there are three. 3!! Bill Yates pointed them out, including a note that one was potentially a juvenile. Now we have a family of sapsuckers and an eruption of new holes in the bark of our orchard trees. Swarms of ants are drinking at those sapsucker bark wells. So are hummingbirds, which solves one of my mysteries about what the heck hummingbirds were feeding on this time of year, when there are no nectar producing wildflowers around here.
Meanwhile, in the orchard…We still have apples! 2 Dog is selling our apples at Heart of the City and Alemany Markets and Roland is peddling our apples at the Wednesday downtown Santa Cruz Market. The Fuji apples are deservedly quite popular: crunchy and sweet. The Braeburn apples are even crunchier, though not as sweet- they have a more complex flavor. Those are the two varieties that are ripe right now and the last ones to go to market…for maybe two more weeks. It has been a long and productive apple season. You’ll want to get some of these late season apples before they are gone! It will be a long wait until next year’s Molino apple harvest.
I personally walked backwards steering the harrow for another 5 rows this week right before the rain, hoping that the additional predicted moisture would help along the germination. The cold will slow it down. A mixed flock of Brewers and bicolor blackbirds have been feasting on the seeds. So many have moved onto the farm that they now form murmurations, though I wonder if that term is reserved for starlings.
For the past many years, we’ve had to wait until January and beyond for citrus to ripen: not so this year. The harvest is ripening 2 months early and we’ll soon have the second citrus harvest of the year. The Robertson oranges are nearly ripe. The Persian limes are turning yellow, nearly ripe! Our first Improved Meyer lemons are getting tasty, too. Only the mandarins will not make a second crop this time.
The last thing to report is the Earthquake from last Friday. It was a long roller with strength. USGS recorded it as a 5.1 on the Richter Scale, centered just east of San Jose – not that far as the raven flies. Pictures were askew on our walls, new hairline cracks in the drywall and stucco. But, nothing fell from the shelves! A reminder that we are in earthquake country. I wonder how many of the fallen apples were due to seismic shaking?
Be well and have a good rest of the week!
The deer have had a good few seasons. Before the CZU Lightning Complex Fire of August 2020, the forest had grown back shady and dense after the prior fire of 2009. Between the shade and the passing of time allowing shrubs to get tall, deer food had slackened off quite a bit. Shrubs are the deer’s favorite food. Also, that extensive shady forest provided just the kind of cover mountain lions like best; they might have been taking out quite a bit of the deer population. Nowadays, there’s not so much mountain lion sign, but lots of post-fire small shrubs, and a burgeoning deer population. Several healthy bucks are roaming in and around the farm. At least one of our does seems to be getting pretty big around the tummy right now, so more are on their way. All the deer are looking quite healthy: there are at last 8 here and there nearby…back to our old record number.
Another sign that the cougar population has slackened…coyotes! I heard a coyote calling again the other night, very nearby. 2008 was the last year the farm had any regular yipping coyotes, but they returned after the 2020 fire and have been regular visitors ever since. Coyotes are a good sign of few (if any) lions in the vicinity. I’d rather have lions, but the coyotes are nice visitors, too.
Winged predators are also doing well: hawks seem quite numerous and healthy. I see the resident Cooper’s hawk and kestrel frequently resting between what must have been successful hunting sprees. The 2-3 red tailed hawks likewise have some down time. There are nearly always hawks wheeling lazily overhead now that the breezes have returned. Oh yeah…it’s hawk migration time along California’s coast! Some are just passing through.
The apple harvest this Fall has been surprising in many ways. ‘Normally’ the Community Orchardists gather just once a week for the working bee: on Saturday afternoons. During those gatherings, we saw the apple crop growing and growing. We thinned the fruit 3 times to make sure the fruit were fewer and far enough apart to nurture bigger, more pest free apples. The turnout at the working bees was great through the Spring and Summer. As the well-spaced fruit started swelling, we went from weeding to propping branches. We did not expect so many apples to survive the thinning and the pests, including 25 jays and woodpeckers which pecked hundreds of fruits mercilessly. We kept testing apples for ripeness every day until they started ripening the second week of September. For the last 5 weeks, we have harvested a record crop and it has required many extra hands on so many levels.
Two Tons of Fun (for starters)
Mind you, we are very part time apple farmers. The Apple Corps are a couple of focalizers, a few dedicated regulars, and a whole lot of others sporadically joining to nurture the Molino Creek Farm Community Orchard. We have sent around 1500 pounds of apples to farmers markets, 500 pounds to Davenport’s Pacific School food program, and 2000 pounds to the cider press. And, we aren’t even done…
Mountains of Fuji
The last part of our apple harvest are from the orchard’s original planting of Fuji apple trees. Fuji apples are half Red Delicious and half Virginia Ralls Janet. They were so named because of the town near the agricultural research station where they were developed: Fujisaki, Japan. Dense, sweet flesh and great storage potential makes this a very popular apple. We sent 200 pounds of those to Saturday farmers markets this week. They will sell out.
When I first learned about organic farming, cover crops were called ‘green manure,’ a term I haven’t heard much more recently. The idea is that you don’t need farm animal dung to fertilize your crops- nitrogen fixing legumes can do the trick if you manage them right.
We’re planting cover crops now across the farm. This evening, I finished harrowing the sixth of 50 rows in the apple orchard: 3 rows to the hour to spread the seed and then run the tractor implement called a harrow to cover the seed with soil. There are many hours yet to go, but it is nice to chip away at the project. Bell bean seeds are big and shiny and fun to throw, like casting marbles around the trees. Tossing about oat seeds has its rhythm, too, and the seeds are bright blond and easy to see how evenly they are landing on the dark soil. Vetch seeds are jet black, perfectly round, and it is impossible to know how well you are casting them about, handful after handful.
A Harrowing Experience
The harrow leaves a pleasant looking seed bed consisting of bits of leaf litter and chopped up plants mixed with soil and rolled flat. Perennial plants are spared (they sprout back right away), and earthworms and other soil organisms mostly survive. We use a BCS Italian-made walk-behind tractor. The harrow is mounted such that you have to back up the whole time while running it, always looking over your shoulder. That’s a harrowing experience!
Fall is progressing in both the wild and cultivated areas. Poison oak still wins the award for the most colorful native plant display: crimson patches brighten hillsides in forests and shrublands everywhere you glance along the coast nearby. The orchard’s apricot relatives and hazelnuts are the latest things to add to the fall color palette with their menagerie of yellows, oranges, and everything in between. Breezes have returned, but the fall leaves are most thick just under the trees’ canopies. Colorful leaves, thickly strewn in tree understories are delightful, each orchard visit presenting a new display.
Stillness. The air barely moves, and each day darkens into hushed, unstirred nights. The still air phenomenon carries from one day to the next so that now it seems normal, almost beyond comment. It has been weeks since any kind of substantive breeze has blown across the farm. Fall leaves pile directly below trees. Dust hangs along gravel roads for long moments after a farm truck interrupts the windless tranquility.
Dark = Chill
Monday evening, the fog retreated offshore and bright stars twinkled by the billions in the suddenly clear sky. There had been days of fog, sometimes drizzly fog where subdued daylight was muffled by blankets of thick, low clouds. Downtown and at the farm, people stoked the season’s first wood fires to ward off the dank chill.
The chill and darkness combined with the harvest of many apples gifted us our first taste of reprieve from watering the orchard. Once trees lose their fruit, they aren’t as thirsty. This is especially welcome because we pump water with solar power, and there was no pumping potential with the days with such limited sunshine.
How does the lack of rustling wind affect raptor hunting? The kestrel reels and screams. The Cooper’s hawk more stealthily turns acrobatically around trees and shrubs, sending our big quail coveys scurrying. Two red tailed hawks have little lift from updrafts; they sit on low perches hoping to pounce on nearby prey. The vultures haven’t been sailing by.
Placid nights echo across the landscape with many great horned owl hoots and barks. Owls scamper and hop on my roof through the night, scanning the rodent filled yard for their meals. Some neighbors suggest the rodent population has (finally!) started declining, but I’m less sure. There is a new, the first, bunny burrow nearby and a new bunny joined the last old and skinny individual remaining. Last year, there were 10 brush bunnies in that same space.
Apples become ripe with surprising suddenness. We bite and compare: is this type ripe enough for harvest? Plewy- the arguments sputter! ‘That Braeburn is a week or more off!’ ‘No it isn’t’ ‘Here, try another one!’ ‘The skin is bitter and tough, its not sweet enough yet…look the seeds are still light brown’ We settle down and wait if anyone is adamant enough. Then, three days later, the Braeburn is indeed inarguably ripe. Same with the Fuji apples. Suddenly, when we thought there was a lull in the harvest and we’d have to skip markets…there are lots of ripe apples again.
Gone are the Gala, Jonagold, Wickson Crab, and Mutsu. Here come the Fuji and Braeburn! After those…we’ll get some rest: three more weeks of bigger harvests!
Meanwhile, 2 Dog Farm eyes its ripening dry farmed winter squash, increasingly coloring the fields. Squash with no irrigation?! Yes! Yummmm!!!
A key to successful apple growing is keeping the orchard clean. Stand quietly in the orchard for 15 minutes even on these still days and…thump! There goes another apple falling from a tree. Quickly, the ground is covered with bruised windfall apples. Gophers drag the fruit nearer their holes, gnaw into the flesh, hollowing out the orb from below. Dwayne Shaw from Maine visited and neatly stacked the better windfalls in piles and we haul them to the press. He pitched the nastier ones into the wheelbarrow for disposal; soon, the barrow was teeming with yellow jacket wasps, which clean up the apples as quickly as possible. Those wasps also like to eat soft bodied insects, so mop up the apple pests, the core of the problem which spurs us to clean things up. Thanks waspies!
Chill Turns to Heat
With the clearing fog came a sudden heat. For weeks it barely crested 70F but today it was 85F. At dusk, toasty warm air wafted (slowly) in from the east. Crickets sing again this warm evening. Three days of warmth and it is time to water the orchard again. May the solar array help pump water once again!
The past 2 years have produced an October and then a November heat wave. The heat broke both years when the first real rainy storm soaked things on Thanksgiving. Will we wait that long this fall? It calls for sprinkles next week…fingers crossed! It would be nice to keep the grass greening and the fires at bay.
Dawn slowly lights the sky, muffled by thick silver-gray drippy fog, draping across ridgeline trees, blurring distant shadowy shapes. Closer, water droplets bend newly emerged grass blades, not yet tall enough to soak your shoes. Fog muffles most sounds like snow, except somehow the sharp pitter patter of fog drips which fall from trees hitting dry understory leaves. The rain of those droplets have been the sound of early morning, before the birds sing.
Dawn Unfolding, Birds
Eventually, the golden crowned sparrows sing along with the juncos, goldfinches, and, louder, the spotted towhee. Then, the ravens’ barking calls announce the busier time of day, awaking the jays’ raucousness. This past week, the orchard started sounding with a single sapsucker’s whiny peet. This one has a bright red head and is especially shy. They mate for life, but the one that just arrived came without a partner. One sapsucker is enough – it is already opening up many holes in the apple tree trunks, creating sipping wells for many other birds…sap cider?
It is nut time. Jays and acorn woodpeckers swoop back and forth from the oak trees, one acorn each trip. The woodpeckers fill granaries- they have lots of dead trees to choose from. The jays land here and there, furtively glancing around before jamming acorns into the ground, a couple last rakes with their beaks for burial. If they catch you watching, they unbury the nut and take it elsewhere, beyond sight.
Walnuts, too, are ripening. Ripe English walnuts easily split from their shells, beige-orange nuts set in baskets to cure. Black walnuts drop heavily from trees, thudding on the ground: hundreds await someone who wants to deal with them. We run them over with our cars and birds follow in our wake to pick the tasty meat from shards of thick shells. The ravens and juncos are especially ‘on’ it.
Wildlife are active at the piles of apple culls and spent ground apples from the cider pressing. The deer move slowly away from filling up on fruit. Coveys of quail somehow find the piles enticing.
Since the second week of September, Community Orchardists have harvested and sent to market over 1,000 pounds of apples: we might be half way. Mike and Charity used their country Tesla to haul another hundred or so pounds of apples to the Pacific School recently- and, we’ll keep sending them with more.
For the past 3 weeks, it has taken gatherings three harvests a week to keep up with this year’s apple crop. Besides the Saturday afternoon gathering, we get together Tuesday and Thursday late afternoons to harvest for farmers markets as well as for Pacific School (and some go from those to cider, too).
Here’s the procession of apples from early to just now: Gravenstein (we ate them all)…then Gala (we harvested them all in the last 3 weeks) then Jonagold (all enthusiastically purchased) and Mutsu (half harvested), then just last week- Wickson Crab, Harrison (cider), White Winter Pearmain (tasteless!), and Golden Delicious (yummy!). Next up…Braeburn and Fuji, but we might have a lull in production before those get ripe enough to pick. It looks like we need to plant a few apple trees that get ripe at this point in the midseason.
With the short days, we are harvesting, packing, and pressing until dark.
Last Thursday, as I was finishing the harvest cleanup, I heard geese approaching. There was just enough light to see 100 geese in their V formation flying south right above Molino Creek Farm. Later, in the real dark, I heard more. Recent late evenings, the same sound of echoey goose laughs have been brightening the soundscape. The sound of geese…the changing color of trees…the chill nights…fall is really here!
Across the farm, people are awake before dawn, lights winking on while the stars still shine. We pull on our clothes, make coffee, eat a snack, and prepare to head out as soon as there is any light at all. I mosey across the farm, turning on water valves…that freak early rain was so far in the past that it is time for the once-a-week soil soak again beneath the orchard trees. I pace back and forth down each row of trees examining the micro sprinklers and irrigation tubing to check for any leaks. Mice, rabbits and gophers sometimes chew the lines: I mostly listen for gushing leaks, but sometimes I see them before I hear that awful sound. Leaks repaired, water on, I head to my paying, indoor job. Other farmers keep going as farming is their mainstay.
We still pull our sun hats from the peg next to the door before heading out to work the farm when the sun is up. Sun heat prickles bare skin though the air temperature is perfectly moderate. It is harvest time. Crews pick apples twice a week for markets: we navigate ladders high into trees after the ground picking crew has finished what is reachable. Shoulder-slung bags full of fruit get dumped into sorting bins and the sorters go to work: bad apples to the compost, barely okay apples to the cider press, almost perfect apples gifted to the Pacific School food program, perfect apples to 4 different farmers markets.
Apples off to Market
Farmers load, haul, and set up displays of boxes of beautiful, community-grown apples where people gather for produce at local farmers markets: Saturdays at Palo Alto and via 2 Dog in San Francisco at Alemany the “People’s Farmer’s Market” and then again on Wednesdays via 2 Dog at Heart of the City (SF) as well as Molino Creek Farm’s stand at the Wednesday market in downtown Santa Cruz. We are selling 400+ pounds a week, more than twice what we ever sold before- post fire resilience and the fruits of many people’s labor.
As the sun sets, we begrudgingly wind down. There are not enough hours of light to deal with the harvest, so we often have to make lists of work to be deferred until the next morning. Harvest bags get packed into mouse proof bins, I check that gates are closed against the evening’s marauding deer, I give a final twist to shut off irrigation valves and update the watering log book, and then I clean and put away the tools. Brushing off the dust and dirt from my work pants and stomping off my boots, I head home as darkness sets in. The first crickets are singing, and an owl begins its nighttime hoots. Cold clean-smelling air settles into the low points on the farm, the higher points are still warm and smell resiny from the last sun warming the coyote brush.
Deer, No Bobcats
The male deer are sparring, and one has cracked one of the points on its antler. Three male deer, one larger, are strutting around, following the four or so does that frequent the farm nowadays. The larger buck and the larger doe are frequently at the cull apple pile in the evening: that will help them bulk up for the cold, rainy winter!
Where is bobcat, coyote, and fox? The plethora of gophers fills us with consternation. Nearly every square foot of ground has been tossed and turned. I find fresh moist subsoil piles at 100’ intervals every day. The hawks scream and reel, crisscrossing the fields. A kestrel eviscerated a gopher on top of a stump next to my office window midday the other day…he plucked its fur off as much as he could before getting to work tearing apart and swallowing the better food.
The raptors are not enough, and the snakes and lizards are slowing down. We need the mesopredators! Two foxes traipsed along the road down from the farm the other day. I haven’t seen a bobcat in a year. A wave of canine distemper is reportedly still raging across our region, which might explain why there aren’t many fox or coyote, but feline distemper hasn’t been a big issue…so why aren’t there more bobcats? They would be so well fed!
Green or Freshly Tilled Fields
The rain two weeks ago germinated millions of seeds and now seedlings are greening the landscape. Where we didn’t get to raking the last harvest in the hayfields, the grass is the tallest, growing through the thick mulch. We took advantage of that early germination to weed the fallow farm fields- disking the crop of weeds into the soil, preparing for planting the cover crop. The farm has beautiful contrasting patches of brown and green.
Late Season Flowers
Amazingly, the bees have forage. It is ironic that it is harvest time for the humans and the bees might be hungry. Fall and early winter are starkest times for pollinators. Hummingbirds and bees flock to irrigated salvias in our gardens. But still, the coyote bush is in full bloom- but there are only a few old enough to flower- the fire spared ones are abuzz with diverse flying pollinators: flies, bees, and wasps. Evening brings the hawk moths to the jimson weed aka Datura and evening primrose, wildflowers that are also taking advantage of the garden irrigation for late season blossoming.
Fall Color Commences
Each year, the obvious harbingers of fall are our many black walnut trees. Descendants of the Mother Tree in the Yard, the younger walnut trees turn lemon yellow starting from the highest, driest trees and ending with the Mother Tree. It is a count down clock to winter. The last trees to show fall color are at the very lowest elevation- in the north apple orchard, on the steep north facing slope of Molino Creek Canyon. Those apple trees turn yellow in late December and early January…slowly dropping leaves into February.
We hope you are getting out to the fall colors of our area, in the shadier canyons where the big leaf maples, roses and hazelnuts are starting to show.
The fog rolled in thickly, the second drippy session of the season. Most fog has been ‘dry’ this summer- an unusual phenomenon not previously broadly recognized as ‘normal’ in our culture. For two mornings, the whole world went gently pitterpat, rooflines and gutters a constant spatter. Then the sun started winking through in silvery streaming rays lighting droplets on leaf tips, sparkling. The fine breezy dust particles stuck together and the wet smell of fall let us breathe deep and clean air once again.
We wake each morning to the high shrill peeps of black phoebes, insistent and fierce. Peep, PEEEEEP, peeep! …. flutter, Snap! They nab flying insects expertly out of the air. And then they perch on the roof line, their glistening knowing dark black eyes gaze back at me when I say my hellos. Off they go, flitting arcs from many perches hunting.
The quail have done well this year. The smaller clan coveys have melded into massive tribal gatherings. Seventy plus birds thickly dot grassy hillocks and across fallow farm fields. Three and four birds peck shoulder to shoulder, others only a couple feet away. They must be finding lots of food as these groups don’t move far, satisfied to stay put for an hour or more. When startled, the whir of those many wings is loud and invigorating.
The Brewer’s blackbirds returned en masse, fluttering like fallen leaves from high in the sky. Now their staccato chips, squeaks, and trills brighten the farm soundscape. They strut proudly forward unidirectionally in flocks herding and frightening ground bugs to supplement their diets.
In the lush forest of fruit trees, it is apple ripening time. Galas are peak flavor and earnestly moving to harvest bags. Also, Jonagold apples, the tastiest crop, arrived at their best this week – off they went to market, too! Next up…Mutsu and Golden Delicious. After that, Braeburn apples are in line for ripening…and there are quite a few big, beautiful apples on those trees. It is interesting to see the fruits of our labors: bigger apples hanging low on the trees ‘cause that’s where we could most easily reach to do the fruit thinning!
On the ground where Two Dog Farm has been cultivating dry farmed winter squash, the vines are withering and revealing and understory of acres of big yummy squash. The pale yellow of butternut squashes dot the ground on the undulating rich soil of our Roadside Field. The dark green acorn squash are all sidled up against their bushy main stems high up in Vandenberg Field.
Fall color is erupting all around the farm. The big bushy walnut trees are brightening to pure yellow. Poison oak, resprouted after the 2020 fire, is 3’ tall and startling crimson and violet. Wild roses are also turning towards the yellows in the understory of the forest where the fire burned. There is more fall color to come- our apples wait until December or even January to change color!
We hope you are having a spectacular fall enjoying bountiful harvests of healthy organic food raised by small farmers taking great care of their wildlife filled land.
Heat fades. Cool nights. Cloudy, muggy days. Clouds scatter northward – tattered remnants of Hurricane Kay make for spectacular sunsets and less intense sun. This was the fourth odd monsoon of the season. Most years we have no monsoons. Global weirding.
We were so proud to last weekend to pick up a whole season’s fallen and thinned apple fruit, ~700 pounds. But the heat wave triggered mass fruit shedding. Big fruit now litter the orchard floor. So, we must go again – only ~300 pounds this time. Perhaps we will save these windfalls for pressing. And, perhaps we will add Molino’s first hops to the juice.
The cool nights should help the Gala apples get sweet and floral, so that we can send the harvest to markets next week. Two Dog Farm will be carrying boxes to their markets for the first time in a long while…we have a big crop.
Each apple type is coloring up with varietal distinction. Braeburns are deeper red, mutsu medium apple green, fuji – grayish green-red, cheery red and yellow striped gala, maroon esopus spitzenberg, cheery red and green wickson crabs, and so on, and on….we have so many varieties. The colors of help gage (subtly) ripeness…in the right light. Apple growers benefit from expert color memory. There are plenty to taste test.
On Cherry Hill, Around the Avocado Bowl
A similar heat wave ushered in the CZU Fire in 2020, destroying our cherry orchard and one big block of older, bigger avocado trees. In 2021, the California Certified Organic Farmers organization sponsored their employee Drake Bialecki to take a sabbatical to work at Molino Creek Farm helping us with fire recovery. Drake’s steady hand, nurtured by years of fine pottery, graft-healed the cherries and avocados, patching buds onto cherry stems, matching new shoots to avocado root sprouts. A year later, we have 6’ tall, big bushes of avocados and 4’ tall vibrant starts of recovering cherries. Phoenix orchard blocks. We envision dense cherry tree shade sheltering families with giggling children raking in UPick sweet fruits in just a few more years.
Return of the Cool
Cool nights in the upper 50s, contrasted with heat wave nights in the upper 70s to mid-80s. Waves of low clouds, like a wall over the near ocean, send occasional arms inland and wisps of fog lick treetops.
The nocturnal cricket chorus is much muffled and seems more distant. Owl hoots less frequently. Everything needs rest after a week of extreme heat stress and all the work that entailed.
Some critters appear, others disappear. Each week there is change. I frequently encounter a huge antlered buck sometimes near the female and her young, sometimes alone. He holds his head high, three points on each side of a big set of antlers. Some bucks with these many points are barrel chested and bulky; this one is more graceful but still strong. He bravely moves only a little bit away from people. Deer always seem to be browsing.
For a long while, I could spot fresh snake trails every day. Seeing gopher snakes was normal. Now, no snakes and few snake tracks. Where did they go?
Sky the kestrel is back to being always around the farm, as is the red-tailed hawk. There were for a moment two Coopers hawks: we hope both stay – one is normal. The kestrel fusses at the others, screeching and dive bombing them.
Blue bellies and alligator lizards are easy to find. Baby blue bellies- 2” long- are commonplace, nervously scurrying to the lips of gopher holes as we walk by.
Extraordinary heat roasted Molino Creek Farm and much of California these past many days. Wilting heat. Obliterating heat. Maybe if you come from Death Valley you might say ‘that’s nothing!’ We’re pretty sure it was something like 109F for hours at one point, what was it…Sunday? The scorching affects the memory. Every day it has been well over 90F inside with no way to cool down. Water out of the tap was warm out of the supposedly cold side. We’re not used to anything much over 80 outside. Normally, cool nights help chill the house and the bodies. Nights didn’t get under 80. Day after day everything solid has been heating up. It will take days for things to cool down again. They say that coolness comes back this weekend. With each consecutive heat wave, the next warm spell is worse because everything is that much drier. We hope that this is the last heat wave, but we typically have heat waves through even November these days.
The night time cricket chorus got much louder, more constant and the chirps quicker. Midday bird song is nonexistent; dawn chorus is muted…there has been no dusk bird chorus. The quail calls don’t seem to have changed, though they seem much braver. Most birds are braver- not wanting to expend much energy running or flying away if they don’t have to. All bird beaks are wide agape all day, panting.
We’ve had smokey sunsets. No fog. Odd stillness or weird winds. Off shore tiny slow breeze. So still for so long and then yesterday a big pushy wind from the southeast for almost an hour, then occasional breezes from that same direction for a bit…warm breezes!
A young coast live oak bent over ninety degrees, perhaps from 2020 fire damage. A still hot afternoon and another oak was shedding leaves more rapidly than a deciduous tree would on a windy day in fall.
The black walnut trees hang wilty and droopy, just ripening their crop of fruit.
Dust hangs in nearly still clouds after a car passes by.
The moon shines a muted pale orange from California’s wildfire smoke.
Besides the crickets, our most entertaining of insect buddies, there are others. There were eight dragonflies zig zagging above the upper orchard the other warm evening. Below them there was a buzz of yellow jacket wasps, finally building a population back to devour damaged apples. Maybe the two were related: dragonflies feasting on yellow jackets. But, maybe the biomass of insects supported by our lush organic, regenerative orchard is providing more diverse insect fare. Yellow jackets also feed on insects…they might be mopping up pests like scale, aphids, mealy bugs, coddling moth larvae, etc. It is nice to see so many predators in the orchard helping with pest control and feeding the birds.
Changes in Birds
The swallows are gone. I’m not sure when they left, but there are no more barn swallows to wake up to, I already miss their long sentences of chortling squeaky chirps. Off they went to the south land for the winter. Any bets on when the golden crowned sparrows return from their Alaskan haunts? One morning I’ll awaken to that three noted sad song some say is ‘I’m so tired’ and realize that they are back for the winter. Usually, this occurs on the Equinox. There’s an annual betting pool for their return date just like there’s a betting pool for the first significant rain (>1” in one ‘event’). Want to join in with your bet?
One by one the quail are getting eaten by the Cooper’s hawk: piles of feathers keep appearing. A couple times this week, I heard that hawk screaming, terrorizing other birds in the larger vicinity.
Two Dog Farm tomatoes are starting to ripen. They are also producing a bunch of really fine looking (and tasting) peppers. Their dry farmed squash are chugging along- they like the hot weather, apparently.
The apple crop is getting ripe and burning. Gala apples though not quite as sweet as they should be but have dark brown (not quite black) seeds, so almost ripe. They’ll put on some sugar in the next couple of weeks and we’ll be hauling them to market. The heat wave made some apples burn on their sunny sides. A few years ago when the Fuji apples burned, they regained their color and it wasn’t so shocking. Let’s hope for the best or we’ll just have some visually scarred apples for cider not sale.