By Lorrie Baumann
Catalina bleats insistently from her pen in the Toluma Farms nursery barn as farmer Tamara Hicks approaches. Slender and long-haired, Hicks has the sun-kissed complexion of a woman who spends much of her time outdoors, and she doesn’t have the bottle that Catalina, a pure white Saanen kid born several weeks ago, is hoping for.
Like the other lambs and kids born this year at Toluma Farms, a 160-acre farm in west Marin County, California, Catalina is named after an island. There are also Kokomo, the island of the Beach Boys song; Floriana; and Manhattan – all bodies of land surrounded by water, a topic that’s very much on Californians’ minds. “We have often discussed the irony of being surrounded by water, being a coastal farm and dairy and worrying constantly about water,” Hicks says. “Hence, the islands seemed comical in a depressing sort of way.”
She and her husband, David Jablons, bought this farm in the rolling hills near Point Reyes in 2003 with the idea that they could become agents of change in the local food production system and in the debate about climate change. “We made a conscious decision that we could be part of the conversation about restoring the land,” Hicks says. They’ve sunk most of their children’s potential inheritance into this property, and now California is giving them a practical lesson in what the state’s climate means to the future of local food.
California is in its fourth year of a drought that’s setting records even for a state with a long history of concern for whether it has enough water to supply a burgeoning population and an agriculture industry that supplies most of the country’s fruits and vegetables. The period from 2012 through 2014 was the driest three-year period ever in terms of statewide precipitation; exacerbated by record warmth, with the highest statewide average temperatures ever recorded in 2014. Every California county has been included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s drought designations at various times between the beginning of 2012 and the end of 2014.
Unlike most other natural disasters, drought is a gradual crisis, occurring slowly over a period of time. There’s no sudden event that announces it, and it’s not usually ended by any one rain storm. The impacts of drought get worse the longer the drought continues, as reservoirs are depleted and water levels decline in groundwater basins.
Even though some parts of northern California did get a little rain last December and again in February of this year, the cumulative effect of four critically dry years has created a crisis that is expected to cost California’s agriculture industry $1.8 billion this year, with a total statewide economic cost of $2.7 billion. More than 18,000 jobs in the state’s agriculture industry are likely to be lost to the drought this year, according to agricultural economists studying the effects of the drought for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Marin and Sonoma Counties have been the heart of northern California’s dairy industry since 1856, when Clara Steele made the first known batch of cheese in this part of the country from a recipe she found in a book. These are not the state’s most drought-stricken counties, but even here there’s a pervasive air of crisis. Marin County has declared a state of emergency so that farmers can qualify for any aid that becomes available. Local radio stations advertise water conservation tips and the availability of financial aid for water-saving devices. Farmers and gardeners hold evening meetings to share advice, offer each other fellowship and discuss the chances that this year’s drought might be California’s new normal, as Governor Jerry Brown said it is in April, as he imposed mandatory water use restrictions. Across California, the message is being passed that, “Brown is the new green,” as the state’s residents are urged to save water, save water, save water.
Hicks and Jablons take some solace in the knowledge that this property has a long history of having sufficient water. California’s most significant historical droughts have been a six-year drought in 1929-1934 – the Dust Bowl years, the two year-drought of 1976-77 – a comparatively short drought that nevertheless had very serious effects on the state’s groundwater, and another six-year drought in 1987-1992. The 1929-1934 drought was comparable to the most severe dry periods in more than a millennium of reconstructed climate data, but its effects were small by present-day standards because the state’s urban population and agricultural development are much greater now. In the 1970s drought, the family that owned Toluma Farms then had enough water to allow friends and neighbors to come and fill up tanks to truck back to their own farms. This time around, Hicks doesn’t feel secure enough to make that offer.
When they found this property, 18 miles west of Petaluma, in an area where they’d been coming for weekend camping excursions for years, it was a dilapidated farm with a history of dairy production that had been abandoned and the pastures neglected. Ten thousand old tires had been piled on a hillside in an ill-advised attempt to prevent the slope from eroding and were spilling down into the road. Other discarded junk had been dumped around the house or buried in backhoed pits.
Neither Hicks nor Jablons had any experience in farming – Hicks is a clinical psychologist and Jablons is a surgeon, both with busy practices in San Francisco – but they felt that their financial resources, their skills in forming and maintaining helpful relationships with other people and their commitment to their values could see them through the challenges of returning the farm to its historic use as a productive dairy farm. “It’s a good thing that we are both equally committed to the idea of restoring the farm to health and making a statement about the value of sustainable agriculture and a healthy food system,” Hicks says. Otherwise, she adds, their marriage might not have survived the challenges of figuring out how to turn derelict pastures and an ad hoc landfill into a financially and ecologically sustainable family farm. After more than a decade of work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to rehabilitate the pastures, hauling away the tires and other garbage, building a guesthouse that’s rented out for in-depth educational farm stays and meeting space, and opening a creamery for making cheese, the farm hasn’t yet fulfilled that dream of sustainability. Hicks is hopeful that the artisan cheeses from the Tomales Farmstead Creamery she opened on the property in 2013 will be the final piece in a patchwork of enterprises the couple operates to support the farm, but returning the land to health will probably take a few more decades, she estimates. “We’re not profitable yet,” she says. “I’m not sure if it’s possible to make a living as farmstead cheese producers.”
Toluma Farms gets its water from sidehill wells that just have to last until the drought ends because the farm can’t support the costs of trucking in water, even if the water was available at all, which it probably wouldn’t be. “We kind of hope and pray,” Hicks says. “The city [of Petaluma, the nearest municipal water system] has pulled way back in prioritizing water for agriculture. Houses out here can’t even get water.”
Coming to terms with the drought has meant cutting back the milking schedule to once per day instead of the usual twice-daily milkings at 12-hour intervals, which saves half the water normally used to clean the milking parlor but reduces milk production by 25 percent. State and federal regulations require that the equipment used in milking must be sanitized before every milking and then washed immediately after use, both to protect the milk from contamination and to protect the health of the animals, and all of this cleaning is a major use of water on dairy farms.
Tomales Farmstead Creamery makes and sells five cheeses made from the milk of its herd of 200 goats and more than 100 East Friesian sheep. The cheeses all have names that reflect the heritage of the coastal Miwok Indians who lived here before the Europeans arrived. Kenne is a soft-ripened goat cheese with a wrinkly Geotrichum rind that’s aged for three weeks. Teleeka is a soft-ripened cheese made with goat, sheep and Jersey cow milk – the only one in the collection that’s not a farmstead cheese, since the Jersey milk comes from Marissa Thornton’s dairy farm just down the road. Assa, a word that means “female” is an aged goat cheese with a chardonnay-washed rind. The name is a tribute to the many women who work on the farm as well as the female animals that produce the milk. Liwa is a fresh goat cheese aged just three days – the name means “water.” “We pray for water,” Hicks says. Atika is an aged sheep and goat cheese with a McEvoy Olive Oil rind. Atika won a second-place award from the American Cheese Society in 2014, in the creamery’s first time to enter the awards contest.
All five cheeses are made with pasteurized milk, since the creamery doesn’t have the space to isolate pasteurized milk cheeses from raw milk varieties. Hicks is glad now that the couple made an early decision not to make raw milk cheeses because she’s noticed that the makers of raw milk cheeses are getting extra scrutiny this year from food safety inspectors. While there are raw milk cheesemakers who believe that pasteurization could compromise the complexity of the flavors in their cheeses, Hicks is satisfied that the production method she has chosen produces an excellent product. “We think it’s delicious cheese, or we wouldn’t do what we do,” she says.
Two years ago, Jablons and Hicks started growing their own hay using dry-land farming techniques, by planting 40 acres with a mixture of oats, rye and barley that yielded one cutting last year and a second cutting this year. That’s easing some of the effects of the drought on the farm, since it insulates the couple from the extra costs of buying hay in a market in which the supply/demand ratio has been affected by decreased production from farmers who haven’t had enough water to irrigate their hay fields. “We still have to supplement some, but not nearly what we had had to do,” Hicks says. “With the drought, we’re paying twice as much now as we did 10 years ago. It’s now $300 a ton, and the quality is not as good…. We know people who’ve had to get rid of their cattle. Fortunately, sheep and goats don’t drink as much water.”
She’s grateful for the coastal fog that blankets the hillsides of her farm in the mornings and shelters the fields from the evaporative power of the sun’s heat. “I don’t know how the farmers around Modesto are doing it,” she says. “The weather is so much hotter there.”
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