Riding the agri-bus

Checking out Butte County’s ag venues, and a few words on monocrops

On Nov. 10, I was one of about 300 people who loaded up into buses and vans at Chico State’s University Farm for the Farm City Agri-Business Bus Tour—part of the 30th annual Farm City Celebration.

Cass Mutters, our guide, and president of the Chico Grange, provided running commentary for the 5 1/2-hour trip (with five stops) through rural southern Butte County. He taught us about Vina sandy loam and perched water tables (where rice grows) on the way to Naumes Orchards Inc., where cherries and pears are grown.

Other interesting agri-trivia from Mutters: Squash, sunflowers, berries, cherries and wild rice are the only food crops native to California; Marilyn Monroe was crowned Miss California Artichoke Queen in 1947; and one cherry tree will yield enough fruit to make 28 pies.

“What do you think is California’s biggest crop?” Mutters asked us at one point. “Marijuana?” offered Chico City Councilman and Butte County Supervisor-elect Larry Wahl, who was riding in our van with his wife, Mary.

Turns out it’s milk. (Grapes, Mutters said, are No. 2.)

After Naumes, we visited the Triple B Ranch kiwi farm; Gridley’s noisy Stapleton-Spence Packing Co., where prunes and various nuts are packed for shipment worldwide; and 3,000-acre, rice-producing Sheppard Family Farms in Biggs.

Our last stop was NursTech Inc. in Gridley. NursTech is part of multinational nursery group Agromillora, and it produces a staggering number of uniform-sized, super-high-density (SHD) olive trees in its massive greenhouse.

SHD olive trees are increasingly in vogue for their space- and labor-saving qualities. They are planted close together; trellised, like grapevines; and are mechanically harvested.

A batch of identical olive-tree starts at NursTech

NursTech specializes in Arbequina, Arbosana and Koroneiki clone trees, suited to high-density planting, that, according to CEO Javier Marquez, produce a high-quality olive oil. NursTech’s trees are treated with conventional pesticides to avoid diseases, Marquez said.

The word “clone” got me thinking. If the long-term health of our planet depends on maintaining biodiversity, what is the effect of cloning and selective breeding of plants?

“Wild stocks of fruit and olive varieties are a valuable genetic pool, but you would not have the yield and quality characteristics of cloned plants if orchards were from seed,” said local organic gardener David Grau, when I posed the question. “On the other hand, vast stands of any monocrop are invitations to pest and disease attacks.

“To support the populations of humans we see across the globe, cloning plants is necessary,” Grau offered. “To me the issue is not the cloning. It is turning olive production into something similar to machine-harvested tomatoes, which are awful-tasting imitations of real tomatoes. The researchers will be looking to breed varieties that shake easily by machine, and forget about the taste or the exceptional nutritional benefits of the heritage varieties. … When olives are raised in rows like grapes and harvested by machine, the farmers will insist on lots of herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers. Then they will be saying that you can’t raise olives without the chemicals. …

“Most organic vegetable farmers diversify and do some amount of habitat enhancement for beneficial insects,” said Grau. “In this way a balance is maintained, and pest damage is at a low level without the expense of pesticides, organic or not.”