news from up the creek
FARM, FORK, FEATHER
Appreciating all of a farm’s wild things.
WRITTEN BY MIKE MADISON
ILLUSTRATION BY HANS BENNEWITZ
Our farm is the site of an ongoing census of wild animals, and a recent report listed a dozen species of amphibians and reptiles, including the handsome California king snake as well as two kinds of frogs; 36 species of mammals, including red fox, gray fox, and bobcat; and 153 species of birds.
I am not a birder, but I have learned to recognize many of the birds, and so when I see a pretty yellow bird in the blackberry vines, I can tell if it’s a hooded oriole or a Bullock’s oriole. We have the usual owls — great horned owl, screech owl, and barn owl — and over the last few years, some unexpected owls (northern saw-whet owl and long-eared owl) have taken to passing the winter in the olive grove. Much of my daily work takes place under the watchful gaze of jackrabbits and squirrels and is accompanied by sarcastic commentary from crows and magpies.
From the animals’ point of view, this is a wonderful place to live. There are good things to eat — melons, figs, apricots, berries, and a buffet of delicious seedlings set out by the farmer. If you’re thirsty, just bite a hole in an irrigation line and cool water will come out. Splendid!
Early on, I would get very much annoyed by the predations of the animals, which created a lot of work for me and depressed my income, but over the years I have been beaten down, and by now my expectations are so low that I’m no longer much bothered. And on the positive side, there are hardly any insect pests on the farm, which must be attributed at least in part to help from birds, bats, lizards, and other insect-eating animals.
It is instructive to compare our farm to the surrounding industrial farms. On the industrial farms, there’s a 1,000-acre field of wheat. After it’s harvested in June, the ground is worked up into beds that will be planted to tomatoes the following April. For 10 months, the land is bare earth, with nothing growing on it. Weeds that germinate with the autumn rains are killed with herbicides. That farm is not a good place for a wild animal; there is no water, no food, and no place to make a home. To a bird migrating down the valley, the diversified small farms must appear as welcome islands that will surely provide food and a roost, set in a sea of inhospitable industrial agriculture.
Small artisanal farms make up only a tiny portion of the land farmed in California, but they attract a disproportionately large interest from consumers. Partly this is because they are the source of much of the best produce in the state. And partly it is because of the appeal of their comprehensible human scale, and because they are operated by real farmers, however flawed and eccentric, rather than by anonymous corporations. But we should recognize a further value in these farms: Collectively, they constitute an archipelago of welcoming habitats for the non-human animals that make California their home.
Mike Madison operates a family farm near Winters, Calif., producing olives (Yolo Press Olive Oil), figs, apricots, melons, and cut flowers. His books about Sacramento Valley agriculture include Walking the Flatlands and Blithe Tomato.