The return of the green

Posted by on Nov 5, 2012 in Skyelark Ranch

Autumn has well and truly arrived, and all the creatures of Skyelark Ranch are generally happy about that fact. Summers in the Capay Valley are long and hot with this year being no exception and I for one am glad to see the back of it, and by the looks of the pastures, the ducks, and the pig, so are they.

I must apologize for what has been a fairly long sabbatical from these ‘ere postages, but please be assured that they will be coming thick and fast now that the days are getting shorter and the cooler evenings have started to force us indoors seeking the warmth of the wood stove and a nice cup of hot cocoa.

Fall in California brings with it a flush of green grass and a noticeable and refreshing coolness to the air. This morning when I was making my way back between the pasture and the orchard having let the sheep out for the day’s grazing, I swear I could feel the earth release a slow, cooling sigh as I walked. The dull greys and golds of the residual summer stubble – a direct result of the preceding months of baking heat, no water and no new grass growth – appear as stark contrast to the damp early morning air, and the carpet of tiny green seedlings that now covers the farm. I felt that in any second there would be a hiss of steam from the mouths of the many squirrel holes that pock-mark the farm – the ground cooling in front of my very eyes.

Autumn has brought such freshness to the farm; last week’s germinating rains and the continued warmth and sunlight, have stimulated the grass to start coming up so fast you can almost watch it. The new growth brings initial relief from a season of heat and drought to land and animals alike, but also signifies a new year of life in the ranch’s biological clock. In the few short days it took for those first drops of rain to soak into the earth and stimulate the germination of a thousand tiny seedlings, our responsibility as ranchers has suddenly shifted from rationing last year’s grass, to encouraging and preserving the tiny new seedlings through the winter. It won’t be early spring until the grass really takes off giving us the bulk of the year’s forage, but in the meantime we have to carefully manage what has just appeared through the cool days of winter. It is now our job as farmers to care for this new growth, and to make sure that the decisions we make today aren’t to the detriment of this or future years’ flush of fresh green grass.

Along with the cool air and sudden burst of colour, fall also brings shifts in the behavior of animals and farmers alike. We have started to hear the distant honk of Canada Geese and the unmistakable croaking cackle of sandhill cranes far overhead as they make their way south to their winter habitat in the rice fields and ponds of the Central Valley. Underfoot, we are no longer quite as cautious when we walk through the orchard as the King, Gopher, and most importantly, Pacific Rattlesnakes have all found their hibernation dens and are sleeping their way through the winter, safely tucked away from the heel of my boot and the blade of my mower. Of the four species of snake I have observed on the ranch, the harmless Gopher snake is the one most likely to be found in the path of the tractor as I mow firebreaks and roadways, and the highly venomous rattlesnake is usually what I find when walking through the long grass, no longer with the protection of four feet of tractor between my leg and its teeth. In the orchard the squirrels are busily collecting the last of this year’s windfall almonds, and the juvenile Great Horned Owls are squealing their protests at having been abandoned by their parents, now having to fend entirely for themselves – which makes for a slightly nervous poultry farmer – having not yet figured out that silence and stealth are their main weapons in their fight for survival, not, screeching and whining.

Fall has shifted our daily priorities too. With the imminent arrival of this year’s crop of new lambs we are readying the stalls and hurriedly fixing the last of our ‘nursery’ pasture fence in anticipation of the flurry of little wobbly-legged lambs. We are also preparing the field for planting a crop of hay for summer harvest to help see us through next winter, so have disked the field, turning the ugly mass of brown-grey weeds into a nice, and even bed of soil in which to plant.

Autumn is definitely a time for shifting priorities and preparation for winter. This year, we hope to put up some rain water catchments on the barns, and are planning to plant a hedgerow of native shrubs, forbs, and grasses along the fenceline at the front of the farm. And although there are still mouths to feed, chores to do, and projects to accomplish, there is an overall feeling of slowing down; the urgency and heat of the summer have been left behind in a cloud of their own dust and the slow, cool days of fall have taken over, much to the delight of a farmer far more at home in wellies and rain gear than in shorts and flip-flops.

*(This was an updated and edited re-post from 2011)