It's field trip week here on the farm. On Tuesday we have an Elderhostel group of 45 people visiting for a couple hours. This will serve as a dry run for another tour to be held on Saturday as part of the Audubon Society's Snow Goose Festival. Tours are usually fun--the people who come are generally very interested in farming, wildlife, and everything that happens on a modern day rice farm. It seems most people just enjoy being out in the open space, and away from their lives in town for a few hours. There is a bit of pressure to make field trips interesting, but the real worry is what to do when the wildlife doesn't show up!
We have tons of animals on the farm, but unfortunately I can't make them magically appear when the tour bus drives in. We have big showy animals like deer, coyotes, great horned owls, and the occasional bald eagle; elusive animals like beaver, river otters, opossums, and wood ducks; we have turkeys nesting in the orchard, and mallards in the rice fields. Winter brings sandhill cranes; in spring, thousands of blackbirds sing to us from the oak trees around the house; summer brings the insects, which brings swallows and swifts flying low over the fields; in fall, I see tiny rails darting out of the rice ahead of the combine.
All these animals are here partly because of the physical location of the farm, and partly because of the way we manage our land. We're not "clean" farmers, meaning we don't kill every weed or tree that isn't producing a crop we can sell. We leave plenty of edge habitat, and have worked to revegetate areas of the farm that are not in production. For example, an old railroad bed runs the length of the farm, and comes quite close to the Sacramento River at the corner of our property. As a bare railroad bed full of spiny starthistle, it is of little use to us or wildlife. But about 10 years ago, we started slowly revegetating that strip of land, planting oaks and other native plants, and giving a helping hand to plants that were already there. Some spots were more successful than others, because a raised railroad bed of dry gravel that was likely sprayed with herbicide for 50 years is a really harsh environment. But we now have a develping wildlife corridor, which brings animals onto the farm from the river's riparian forest. After a soaking rain, we see all sorts of footprints in the mud, from animals using this section of the farm as a highway of sorts.
This sounds great, of course, but it has its drawbacks as well. Three years ago we planted 30 acres of organic almonds trees adjacent to the corridor. Everything was fine, until the deer discovered the tender young trees. We planted 3300 trees, and the first year, probably half of them had their leaves eaten by the deer! And even though I checked the orchard at all hours of the day and night, I never saw a single deer. It drove me nuts to go out every day and see more leaves gone. I tried everything I could think of, and even bought a solar powered, motion-detecting burglar alarm with a light and siren. I set it up near where I thought the deer were entering the orchard, so that when they would come for dinner, the siren and light would scare them so bad they'd never come back. Maybe it worked for a while, but it didn't take long before Tony hit it with the mower, sending it crashing to the ground and smashing the solar panel.
In the end, the trees grew a little more every year, and eventually got big enough that the deer browsing didn't bother them so much. Now the problem is that the bucks rub their new antlers on the bigger trees, scraping the bark off and leaving a big wound on the tree.
Farming with wildlife is no easy task, but seeing the animals is one of my favorite parts of farming (even when they may be doing a little damage). As former biologists, Raquel and I are committed to sharing the land with wildlife as much as possible. We'll keep encouraging the animals to come, and sometimes cursing them when they do.