by Sam Adams Courtesy of Solano Land Trust Published in Vistas Spring 2023
Even though the rain fell on a land suffering from drought, the wettest ten days of Ian Anderson’s life were mostly a wash.
After the atmospheric rivers began last December, erosion split up parts of the Montezuma Hills where Ian, his wife Margaret, and their employees grow wheat and graze sheep under the aegis of E.A. Anderson and Son Ranch.
The Andersons practice what some call “dryland farming,” growing hundreds of acres of cropland without irrigation. Ian prefers the more accurate term “rain-fed farming.”
And some years the land gets more than its fill. Solano County experienced the twelfth wettest December on record at the end of its sixteenth driest year.
By March, Ian and Margaret’s property had received more than fourteen inches—an average year’s rainfall. But timing matters: crops need a good rain in November and another soaking in April.
“Rain-fed farming works and is productive as long as the weather is consistent,” says Solano Land Trust Conservation Director Tracy Ellison.
For rain-fed farmers in Solano County and beyond, consistency is running scarce.
As weather patterns shift and nature throws everything it can at local farmers, your support in protecting our region’s agricultural legacy becomes more urgent than ever.
One hundred years on the land
“The Montezuma Hills is one of three regions in California that grow small grains and annual crops with no irrigation,” says Ian Anderson, a director on Solano Land Trust’s board since 2000. “We feel it’s viable because our family has been here one hundred years doing it.”
Ian’s father weathered the droughts of 1976 and 77 while Ian was in New Zealand studying sheep management. Ian began farming the property full-time in 1979. The droughts kept coming.
The farmers employ the summer fallow approach, selecting each spring what field to leave fallow for the following October. Over the years, tactics have changed to retain water.
“Originally summer fallow meant plowing but nobody plows anymore—it’s too disturbing to the soil,” says Ian. “But we disk some of our fields. You turn the soil over and it does multiple things: it creates a seedbed for next fall, and it conserves moisture from one season to the next.”
The crumbly disked earth blankets the soil beneath it, retaining moisture five inches below the surface.
“If you don’t do that, this heavy clay soil literally cracks open. The land will bake all summer and the moisture is lost to the air.”
It’s a prudent strategy for dry years.
“But here we are. A wet winter in a drought.” Ian tries to stay philosophical. He also takes out crop insurance.
“Excess rain is basically a negative but not an extraordinary negative. Would I rather have ten inches of rain in three days or no rain in three months? I’ll take the ten inches.”
His most profitable harvests come during slightly above-average years of rainfall. Twenty inches annually. In 2023, it rained that much by April.
Changing weather brings beautiful foes
“Two geese eat the same amount as one adult sheep,” says Richard Hamilton, rancher at Hamilton Brothers Ranch and Ian’s neighbor to the north.
It’s not just what they eat but how. Sheep and cattle nibble down the tops of the grass. Geese devour, pulling up the roots vigorously.
Last year the snow geese came to Solano County, many landing in Jepson Prairie Preserve’s Olcott Lake. This year brought more flocks and greater damage. Now, pastures that haven’t had one cow look like thousands have grazed it.
“I love seeing the waterfowl,” says Richard, “but it has to be in balance.”
Signs of imbalance included many dead birds in the flock. Higher populations heighten disease risk.
“You can see how vulnerable they are and how it affects ducks, geese, and other birds,” Richard says.
The Hamilton’s already manage grazing for ten endangered plants and animals living in and around the region’s vernal pools. These organisms are vulnerable to the land’s destructive new guests.
As land conditions change, flyways will shift. A University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources report from 2021 cites “limited wetland habitat and food resources for geese in the Klamath Basin and other stopping areas along migration routes due to drought.”
And things shift fast: snow geese, recently not a local issue in Solano County, have no local solution.
“The Department of Fish and Wildlife are going to have to address this thing,” Richard says. “There’s more to the story of this year than ‘We got a lot of rain.’ Extreme cold and total geese devastation.”
A legacy of innovation on open land
Working at the front lines of agriculture’s new normal, local growers are experimenting with new methods to weather what comes. Rain or shine, the innovation never runs dry. Kelsey Nichols is the manager and shepherd at McCormack Sheep and Grain. She leases land for crops to the Andersons.
Researchers working under Dr. Charles Brummer of UC Davis have planted an alfalfa field on the McCormack property that includes forty different alfalfa strains. It is establishing well and could enable Kelsey to scale up her lambing operation.
“Conventional hay-cut alfalfa is something you’ve got to irrigate,” Kelsey says. The new crop offers a fantastic summer feed. “It’s a very tough plant that has great promise.”
Alfalfa is a perennial legume rich in nutrients and moisture. Like algebra, the name has Arabic roots: the plant originated in present-day Turkey and Iran, Mediterranean landscapes that are comparable to California’s and similarly impacted by changing weather patterns.
Life beyond the interstates
Not everyone in Solano County makes it out to the county’s sparsely populated southern reaches. At Birds Landing, pheasants mill about the tavern the late Shirley Paolini, postmistress of the town’s decommissioned post office, ran well into her nineties.
However, everyone can point to the wind turbines nearby. And they’d be foolish to think the energy stops there. The Andersons shrunk staff and purchased many gigantic pieces of equipment. But these machines are just faster, better versions of the early 20th-century relics now in Ian’s garden. On a good year, Ian’s unirrigated wheat fields still produce six million loaves of bread.
That’s why Ian describes this region as “a net positive part of the county.”
“We take very little in county-provided resources, and give back more in food, fiber, energy, and property taxes.”
If Solano County’s agriculture is defined by the tomato fields and almond orchards along the Solano Irrigation District, agriculture worldwide better resembles what has been happening at Ian and Margaret’s ranch for over a century—and what’s happening down the road where their son works.
“Farming is in my core,” Ian says. “It’s so visual and rewarding to see your harvester fill the grain bin. If you get hungry, you just grab a handful of wheat from the bin.”
But Ian knows the county’s agricultural future depends on others seeing that value too.
“How important is agricultural land and open space to Solano County’s health and vitality?” asks Ian. “Today food comes from all over the world, but so many people have recognized the benefits of ‘locally grown.’ It’s critical right now for people to tune in to how quickly ag land is being developed or threatened. Do we want agricultural land and open space to be long-term Solano County assets? If so, we need to pay attention to how quickly that is changing.”
Ian wants people throughout the community, people like you, to get involved in making wise land use decisions.
“Each of us can do more than you’d think,” says Ian, the man of six million loaves.”