As Yolobus 707 eased out of Woodland and west toward farmland, four members of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, their staff members, local farmers and others settled back into their seats.
On Tuesday, the board, their guests and their guides roamed Districts 2 and 5 on a tour of Yolo County’s diverse agriculture sector.
“If you’re not in the field day in, day out, it just seems like something you’re passing on the road,” said Yolo-Solano farmbudsman Michelle Stephens.
Under gray clouds threatening rain, the bus rolled past almond and walnut orchards and slowed near a plot of first-class soil that could become a gravel mining pit, before stopping at the day’s first destination: the 10,000-acre Muller Ranch. Rows of both drying and vibrant Pioneer-owned sunflower seeds were spread on one side, the Mullers’ new almond trees the other.
Frank Muller compared the boom in nut tree plantings to the dot-com bubble.
“But we’re not predicting a crash,” Muller said.
He talked through tomatoes, exorbitant land prices and water — which inevitably became the theme of the day. The Mullers had no surface water, like most of Yolo County, and left 5 percent of their land fallow. In early July, they had to shut off some of their wells when water tables began to drop.
Come winter, Muller said, “We’re going to pull out our rosary beads and start praying.”
Ironically, the rain threatened by Tuesday’s weather would be disastrous: Muller had been up at 3 a.m. checking the radar, because an inch of rain in August could put him out millions of dollars in tomatoes.
Back on the bus, District 5 Supervisor Duane Chamberlain pulled up weather predictions for the day, which showed a strip of green and red extending north of Yolo County, across California and Nevada. That color meant rain, and rain this late in the season boded as poorly for Chamberlain’s hay as for Muller’s tomatoes.
Down County Road 19, the bus turned onto a eucalyptus-lined driveway to 25-acre Chowdown Farm, a seven-year-old ranch specializing in lamb, poultry and game. Kristy Lyn Levings, co-owner of the land, walked the group through the process of reviving the land she and her business partner Brian Douglass bought from a pioneer farming family two years ago.
For at least the next couple of seasons, the soil will require extra care, toasted from years of dry farming. Still, the sheep scampered back and forth as sprinklers wetted the grass. Levings and Douglass would bring birds back to the farm once the weather cooled.
“We want to bring the best-tasting produce to the market, bar none,” Levings said. “If you raise it in a warehouse, it tastes like warehouse. If you raise it outside, it tastes like sunshine.”
As a small farmer, both she and Douglass have to work other jobs, and are trying to increase the number of value-added products they can produce and draw more agritourism to the land. Levings sees every visitor, every family as a chance at education, perhaps inspiring a child to consider farming as a future.
On the way to the last stop, John Young, the county’s agricultural commissioner, pointed out the produce stand that had popped up near the migrant center in Madison. Previously, only a convenience store was within walking distance of the center. Now, the food desert has at least one small oasis.
The tour ended at the Turkovich Wines tasting room in Winters and featured a historical overview of the UC Davis College of Agriculture by Dean Helene Dillard, and a panel who talked about water and regulations.
District 2 Supervisor Don Saylor of Davis organize the tour in the hopes of hearing, touching and witnessing agriculture from the point of view of a farmer.
“It’s critical for the Board of Supervisors to understand the reality of agriculture on the ground,” Saylor said. “If we sit in a board room and talk about farming in an abstract way, we miss the opportunity to understand policy and direct needs.”
— Reach Elizabeth Case at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow her on Twitter at @elizabeth_case