October 2007 - Morning Song Farm

Final Fire Update, CSA back on track

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So many of my fabulous customers and supporters have poured in their concern for Morning Song Farm, and I sure want to take a second to thank everyone. This will be the final fire update, after which I’ll go back to my usual once a week publishing. Here’s where the farm stands:

All buildings safe. It’s clear fire fighters fought hard to save my grove, as 6 inches beyond the grove line is total blackened cinder for probably 500 acres. We lost bigtime in one area: the avocado grove. It looks like the fire whipped up really fast, but not very hot. The trees weren’t burnt to a cinder, just blackened and singed. Most of the 2007 crop is lost on the lower 350 trees, but most if not all may eventually regrow and provide a harvest if I can figure out how to operate the farm business with half the income for 2 years or more, while paying for water, input, labor, etc as they regrow. Also infrastructure is a wipeout in that area. The irrigation pipes and water valves melted. I’m maxing out farm credit today to begin to replace, as the trees can’t be watered at all until the system is up and running. I have a commercial account at Miller’s Irrigation in Fallbrook, but couldn’t get through Mission Road in Fallbrook, so Home Depot gets my business.

The “secret forest” at the center of the farm, with towering oaks, our live spring and hidden grotto, lost undergrowth, but big trees are fine. That’s an area we decided to leave untouched, except to keep clean and enjoy. The previous owners put a picnic table, camping site, tables and chairs along the little path, but never told us about it in escrow; leaving us to discover it on our own. Wildlife can go in there for a safe and always-present drink of water from the spring. We owned the farm for a year before we came upon it. What a joy! It truly is enchanting! Fire fighters didn’t know how to get in (entrance was hidden and secret) so when they saw flames they hacked into it. I’ll have to rent a chipper/shredder for a week or so to chip up what’s left there, plus all the downed branches all over the place from the Santa Ana winds that whipped through with the fire. The fire took out the little bridge that spanned the creek inside the secret forest. That will have to be replaced. Plus, I’ll want to replant to cover the gaping holes left so that it can again be “secret.”

The acre or so of Australian Blue pumpkins was incinerated. Nothing left.

A few macadamia trees were singed, but not destroyed. Every single chicken made it through despite not having food or water from Monday night until Friday morning. Llamas have an auto system that continued throughout the blaze. Whatever it costs, I want the chickens to be provided with an automatic system as well. Because they make a mess of the auto systems we’ve tried in the past, (climbing in with their dirty feet and clogging everything) some ingenuity will be required. Also, as grove water pressure alternated between high and low, the system would either blow out and spray the startled chickens with a wild, whipping hoseline, or shut down because pressure reduced below minimum operating requirements. Maybe someone reading this has seen a grove system that works… Previously, I had just given up and reverted to hand watering and cleaning their dish twice a day. This is a wake up call. We’re going to figure out how to get the system automated!

Here’s the really good news: row crops look great. I was expecting leafy greens, herbs, tomatoes to have died in the heat. But air quality hid the heat of the sun and protected them despite not being watered for 5 days during a Santa Ana.

So the bottom line is this: the farm looks pretty good as you drive into it; houses and barns standing. Only commodity that took a hit is the avocados, which may regrow. The immediate pressing problem is financial. The farm squeaks by all year until December when the commercial avocado harvest begins in earnest. Between the Santa Ana winds and the fire, most of the crop is gone. There is enough avocodos to put in our CSA baskets, maybe not more. A small upper block is left untouched, except for the wind loss, and the old trees we were cutting down aren’t fire damaged and have a few fruits left hanging. We were coming up on that time of year when the purse strings loosen and we can sigh the annual sigh of financial relief. That relief is now nowhere in sight.

The other commodities we sell in wholesale quantities are kumquats (half the crop blown off in the Santa Ana winds on Monday) and my wonderful Bearss limes. Last Friday, several days before the fire, our primary wholesale lime buyer let us know he wouldn’t be doing business with Morning Song Farm anymore unless I could accept a 15 cent premium above third world pricing he’s now getting from CCOF Certified Organic Mexican limes. Let me explain. Since CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) which certifies my fruit has gone down into Mexico and certified with the California Certified Organic label, and growers are just now coming into full production, the large United States wholesale buyers are shifting their attention to our southern neighbor. When consumers here in the United States see the well-respected CCOF label, they may think they’re supporting the few local organic lime growers left in Southern California. I’d sure think that! American lime growers lost the conventional lime and lemon business to Mexico a decade ago, but only now have we lost the organic lime business, as well.

Between the unprecedented ’07 frost, just announced mandatory water cut offs, Santa Ana winds, newly emerging import competition and now the ’07 firestorm, many farmers right now are evaluating whether or not they should continue at all. If there ever was a time to quit and sell out to a developer, frankly, that time has clearly arrived. I don’t have the answer, myself. The reality of my situation will unfold as I examine financial avenues; including grants, loans, fund raising and increased reliance on volunteers. Perhaps the farm could increase revenues, at least in the short term, by opening the farmhouse to ecologically-minded vacationers on a weekly basis. Not that I’d expect anyone to pay us to shovel manure, but perhaps some sort of “farm experience,” would be of interest to some people.

I sure could use a volunteer committee to help with cleanup as well as brainstorming financial alternatives in the next two months as we address the enormous tasks ahead of us. Since almost all my supporters live in Orange County, I don’t know how realistic that is, but I thought I should put it out there that help would be really appreciated! A few offers have trickled in to come out and help next weekend when power and water will be back on. I surely am grateful for the offers. E mail me at donna@morningsongfarm.com if you’d like to come out and help. I’ll get directions to you, and particulars.

We are back on track for CSA basket delivery this coming Tuesday and Wednesday. Credits for the missed baskets from last week will show up on next week’s November invoices. Thanks!

Friday Morning Update

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I climbed into my truck before dawn this morning, and dragged girlfriend Maria Thomas out of her bed to accompany me to Rainbow in hopes of seeing to my livestock’s safety and my farm’s fate. We were stopped, same as before, at Rainbow Glen Road. This time we were able to take Mission Road, which was open for Rainbow residents East of the 15. Again, CHP professionals were kind and supportive, but firm. No one passes. It was suggested that I get in touch with animal control to see if they’d go up and check on livestock. We hung around with the small crowd of would-be Rainbow Glen Road returnees for a few minutes and were thrilled when animal control happened to stop by. They were very happy to take my farm address and check on my animals. They suggested I return to my evacuated position and wait for a return status call, as they had numerous farms to visit in the little Rainbow Glen Valley.

We drove into Fallbrook proper in the hopes of getting a view of the farm from one of the northernmost crestline neighborhoods that look down into our valley. Although I saw no evidence of fire in all of Fallbrook, many neighborhood streets were shut down to all but residents of that street, and we were turned back from any of the side streets that would have looked down on the valley. Since it was a total evacuation, I had expected to see quite a bit of damage, but saw nothing.

The fire got fairly close to south San Clemente, and there was never a mention of an evacuation, so the mandatory evacuation of Fallbrook let many of us to assume Fallbrook was in cinders. Just not so!

It took us quite a while to get on our way back out of Fallbrook proper to San Clemente because road closure information is still inaccurate. A CHP officer that stopped us at a side street road closure directed us to go to Mission Road East and on to 15, but when we arrived there it was blocked off.

Later, while we were on our way back to San Clemente, animal control called to tell us what they saw. They said chickens and llamas were very hungry and thirsty (chickens had had no water since Monday, 5 days ago) and that the flames had gone right to the door of the farmhouse, but that the house was saved. She said some of the grove was lost.

I just received a call from Rabbi Shalom who grows his sacred ethrogs on the southwestern corner of my farm. Unbelievably, two days ago, during the height of fire storms, he managed to talk his way past the roadblock and he just now called to tell me he’s been to the farm and wanted to tell me what part of the farm’s grove at that time had been lost. I’m flabbergasted! I’m the owner of the farm, and had hungry and frightened livestock but couldn’t get in. But he got in! Wow, I thought I had a pretty convincing need to get in, and if there was any way they could let me, they would have. And hey! I brought donuts!

Animal control has kindly offered to continue to care for my livestock until the eviction has been lifted, so I won’t be returning until I’m guaranteed passage through Rainbow Glen Road. Why waste the gas?

Llamas safe

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I just got back to San Clemente, here’s the news: I left San Clemente at 7:00 and was one of the lucky ones that got through I-5 before it shut down. Took 78 across and 15 north. Got off on Mission in Fallbrook, and was turned back, but advised to try the Rainbow Valley Blvd. exit a few miles north. I did that, and got all the way to Rainbow Glen Road before being turned back. I got out and spoke to the CHP officers blocking Rainbow Glen, and during a lull, one was kind enough to go the 1/2 mile up Rainbow Glen to feed the llamas. I waited anxiously for his return and was relieved to hear the llamas are fine. The bad news is that he said a fire crew was fighting to save the farmhouse when he arrived, and that we’d lost trees around the house and some of the grove. He said it looked like the trees that were lost were avocados, and that the macadamia trees appeared to be safe. Great! The macadamia trees, that are nothing but a public service, are left standing, but the trees that pay the bills have burned. Anyway, it could be much worse, and I’m grateful for that!

He suggested that by nightfall or certainly by tomorrow morning, owners should be able to return to their homes. By the way, if anyone has to interact with a member of the CHP doing “road block” duty, a couple dozen donuts and coffee would probably be really appreciated. These officers are stuck for hours having to do the tough job of turning anxious owners away from their homes, and particularly in remote areas, can’t always get away for a bite to eat.

Oh, obviously no baskets this week, but can’t see any reason why we shouldn’t resume next week, as things stand now.

Latest News about the Rainbow Fire

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Precious little is out there for the worried residents of Fallbrook and Rainbow, but here’s what I’ve gleaned from other blogs: The Rainbow fire as of 8:30 p.m. Tuesday night is only 10% contained, is currently burning on Rainbow Glen Road, which is the road Morning Song Farm is on. In this “Rice Canyon” fire, 206 homes, 40 outbuildings, 91 vehicles and an astounding 20,000 avocado trees in 7,500 acres have been consumed by flames.

No word about livestock rescue efforts. The near-total news blackout of Rainbow continues to leave us very frightened, but hopeful.

Roads are currently shut down for returning evacuees, but if there is anyway I can get into the area to feed, water and check on my animals, I will at daybreak.

Morning Song Farm: Mandatory Evacuation

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There will be no Tuesday baskets today, farm is evacuated, Rainbow Glen Road shut down. There is a mandatory evacuation in place in Fallbrook and Rainbow. Not much news is available for the “Rice Canyon Fire” which includes Rainbow. Animal rescue services were unable to get to our farm to bring our herd of llamas to safety.

Flames approach Morning Song Farm, Avocado Harvest blown Away

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Much of Fallbrook and Rainbow is being evacuated, although the crew at Morning Song Farm says they see no immediate danger. I’d drive out there myself, if nothing else but to move llamas and chickens to safety, but noone is being allowed into Rainbow at this time. Weirdly, MSF’s crew just finished up the fruit harvest for tomorrow’s baskets, and says they’ll do the vegetables and herbs tomorrow morning, as usual, unless something changes. Please do check this blog for emergency developments; questions such as: can our driver get into Rainbow southbound from Temecula and pick up baskets for Orange County’s deliveries? have been left unanswered at this time.

More news: grove manager Rufusio just called to report the majority of 07-08 avocados have been blown to the ground.

Great Local Coverage of Donna

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Hi all —

I can’t believe I missed this great article in the OC Weekly featuring Donna and Morning Song Farm. Click on the link to read the whole thing, but here’s one of my favorite parts:

Think a moment about the last piece of fruit or vegetable you ate. Do you know where it came from? Do you know who grew it? If your answer to both is “no,” consider this: If you were part of Morning Song Farm’s Community Supported Agriculture, you’d know that it came from Rainbow, a burg in northern San Diego County. And you’d know that the farmer who grew it is a dedicated woman named Donna Buono.

What fantastic recognition! — Todd

What's new on the water problem front

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We had a witcher come out to the farm this weekend and douse. If I’d known how cool it was to watch him, I’d have made a party out of it and invited everyone to tag along. He used an obviously well-worn prong and walked along until the prong swung down on its own, indicating water. We walked back and forth across a couple separate areas until he found what he explained is the center of the vein, which is where a well should be drilled. We’ve contracted him to drill a well for us. There is no guarantee he’ll actually hit water, but the alternative is cutting down 1/3 of our trees, so we’re drilling. And praying.

What we're planting this week

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This is a very busy month for us! We’re planting both the shell peas and the pod peas, along with more garlic (lot’s more). Last year we mistakenly cut the new green sprigs of our garlic when it reached 12 inches, thinking the garlic would just grow another sprig. It did, grudgingly. The cloves aren’t as big as they should be, so this year I researched how to specifically grow Garlic Chives. They’re planted with the intention of eating them before they’ve grown into a new clove, and are spaced tightly, like seeding the row for beets. We ordered an enormous quantity of seed to try our hand at growing this delicacy correctly this year.

We’re also preparing the soil for our regular garlic and potato planting. And then the usual: more lettuces, (now that’s it’s cool they’ll be easier to grow), brocolli, more beets (this time we’re trying an heirloom yellow beet), more chives, shallots.

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