Gjelina Group Goes to the Market: Flora Bella Farm
"The produce that Flora Bella grows is incomparable, it holds a certain magic, a certain strength that can’t really be explained, but must be experienced."
By Sam Rogers, Farm Liaison
James and Dawn’s arugula from Flora Bella Farm taught me how to love raw produce, to know the difference between great and spectacular, and to notice the subtle differences between how farmers treat their soil, water and plants. This summer, Flora Bella Farms decided not to grow their arugula. Located in the small town of Three Rivers at the base of the Sierras, Flora Bella has been certified organic farmers since 1991. The produce that Flora Bella grows is incomparable, it holds a certain magic, a certain strength that can’t really be explained, but must be experienced. We sat down with them to chat about their story and this choice.
Why is it that the produce from Flora Bella Farm, and the arugula in particular, tastes so good and is so much more robust in flavor than anything else out there?
James: I believe it has to do with the managing of the soil, the snow melt water, and a lot of love and care by the farmers and the people that work here. That's what I believe.
Well it's a good mix. What is it about snow melt water that's so special as opposed to well water or municipal water ?
Well, I've worked with well water this past year on the farm, and there's a big difference. I don't know why that is, but I do know that I have used the snow melt water for 32 years here and I have been so happy with it. I had to convert over to the well water when we ran out of water last year. There is a big difference in the quality, but I didn’t water my arugula with the well water, I only used it for my early starts of some of the brassicas, and they just didn't seem to develop as nicely as when I used the river water. I think it has a lot to do with the surface minerals from the rain that washes through the mountain and into the river. We are one of the first people to divert that water here in Three Rivers because we are right up against the mountains. So it doesn't flow through cities and reservoirs and it comes directly to the farm from the river.
UNCONTAMINATED FROM HUMANITY!
Can you tell us a little bit about style, philosophy, and approach to farming. Is it hands on, hands off- old school?
I would say hands-on/hands-off. We don't put a lot of energy into trying to remove the weeds. Our fields are not completely clear, so our crops are growing with some of the native grasses here. But, there is a lot of hand management, not mechanical. Almost everything here is done by hand, except when you have to go out and till, you do use a tractor. But the cultivation is done by hand, and all of the harvesting is done by hand. A lot of conservation goes into it in order to attract beneficial insects. We have habitats that we’ve planted around the farm to attract good insects that help with a lot of control of insects that we don't want here.
In the “before times,” before Covid, before the well issues — I would even go back about 5-7 years, what would you normally grow in the summer?
In the summer I would grow about 90% summer veg and then there would be some arugula. There always was arugula.
And has what you've been growing in the summer times been changing a little bit each year?
No, I would say that I have really changed it in the last two years because I decided that all my crops should be done with drip irrigation subsurface to conserve on water. Arugula does not do well when it's 90-100 degrees and you're trying water with drip. It likes overhead water to keep it cool, and it takes a lot of water to grow arugula when it's hot. It will wilt, sometimes you have to go out there and sprinkle it a couple of times a day and turn the water on.
In the summer, the entire farm is on drip because we need to conserve water, we won't use any overhead water. If I had all the water I wanted, I would be growing arugula. This isn't the first year that I ran out of water. It has happened before, but I never had a well as a backup source of water before. We will run out of water again this year. In fact, the snowpack isn't as good as it was last year. So I figure I will have to switch over to well water.
We always think of CA as a 12 month growing season where you can go all year. And when New England shuts down for the winter time, we can keep growing, but so many people now seem to have to stop farming towards the end of the summer, just ‘cause it is getting so hot and dry.
I've talked to farmers who decided that they aren’t going to grow a crop this year. It's just weird that we may not have a 12 month growing season in a couple of years at this pace. I mean, not even a couple years.
My practices are a lot different than they used to be. I had to make those changes. My water usage today is probably ⅓ of what it was 5 years ago.
So it's been that fast, the turn around and the changes?
Oh yeah, yeah!! Otherwise I wouldn't be able to farm. Hopefully all the water I applied to the soil is going to the root zone of the plant and right into the plant— not into depercolation and runoff. Hopefully I don't have to use water during the rainy season, but it would need to rain.
We gotta rename that season.
So tell us about your decision this year to not grow arugula and why in terms of the social responsibility and the bigger questions, not just to reduce water usage and prolong what you have. What's behind that decision?
Really it all has to do with water. It's too wasteful; water is precious. When I have to use 3 or 4 times as much water to get a crop of arugula vs during the winter and the early spring. It takes so much water. And I've never really watered my arugula with well water! If I start using well water it might not taste as good. You have to remember when you are using overhead it's like a foliar and the leaves of the plant are taking up the nutrients on that and it's different. And I talk to people that use well water, and they tell us, oh no you have the best water, you have surface water.
The well water might make it soft!
I don't want to take that chance. I put up more high tunnel houses this year and I only use about 20% of the water usage in the high houses. I have a lot more control. I really enjoy growing vegetables. I used to grow a lot more trees, but I had to start slowly pulling them out. I still have a few citrus, and a few plums and some Persian mulberry trees. Our changes all have to do with water. When I say I cut our water usage by ⅔, my high tunnels use about 20% of what my fields use. It's all about management of the water. What I was doing before is not sustainable. If people continue to do that, they are not going to be farming — the technology is there, the practices. It's not like you have to invent, it's already there — it is used in very arid climates, so we need to be able to share the water with the animals and the people in the cities, it can’t just go all to the farm, so I can say I let water go by everyday.