A Food Forest in the Desert

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
September 7, 2012

“I wanted to be a farmer, but I didn’t want to grow the usual stuff,” says Robert Lower of Flying Disc Ranch. His farming education began at age four, when his parents planted fruit and nut trees in Santa Barbara and encouraged their seven children to garden. He now grows dates and citrus in a lush 10-acre food forest in the Coachella Valley, where 90 percent of U.S. dates are grown.

He got his start in the food business in the 1970s, contracting with farmers to grow fruit on unused land and distributing it to co-ops and natural health food stores. In 1979, he acquired a plot of desert land in Thermal, about 520 miles southeast of San Francisco, and Flying Disc Ranch was born. He was drawn to dates because they cannot be hybridized. “I wanted something that wasn’t going to be bred out of existence in 10 years,” he says. “And I needed something very physical and challenging.”

The journey from barren desert to biodiverse oasis has been anything but straightforward. Robert practices his own blend of organic, biodynamic, and sustainable farming methods, which he calls “eco-dynamic” farming. The ranch was certified organic early on, but Robert dropped certification in 1989, when his certifier, CCOF, defended the use of gibberellic acid, a growth regulator primarily used on grapes. While still uncertified, he says, “We’ve always been gung-ho organic, 100 percent, no leniency.”

He has been especially inspired by permaculture, a term coined by Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren to describe a design system that mimics nature and has deep roots in “permanent agriculture” traditions throughout history. After taking a permaculture design course, Robert has been integrating the principles they learned into the agroforestry work they were already doing at the farm.

sites/default/files/flying_disc_palms.jpgAt Flying Disc, a cover crop is maintained year-round to prevent soil disturbance and erosion, encourage microorganisms, and help retain water in the dry Coachella desert. Robert originally planted a mix of sunflowers, chickpeas, and fava beans, but the cover now consists primarily of “volunteers,” wild plants that are mowed frequently but never tilled. “We’re weed tolerant and insect tolerant,” Robert explains.

The ranch could be considered what is known in permaculture as a food forest, a layered style of planting that resembles a natural ecosystem. At the top level, date palms provide the canopy, interplanted with shorter trees, including citrus, pomegranate, figs, guavas, and mangos. At the lower levels, or understory, Robert has planted aloe vera and perennial herbs such as mint, chamomile, and geraniums. The farm is also brimming with fauna: snakes, lizards, toads, and birds take up permanent residence, while itinerant coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, and foxes forage for rodents.

With such a diversity of life at the ranch, Robert says there is little need for pest control. “When you have different tiers to your agriculture, not only do you have the normal insects, but you have cubic feet on top of cubic feet of habitat, so the predator count is much higher.” Large populations of spiders and wasps keep most insect pests in check; however, he recently had to apply the organically approved insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to his grape leaves to eradicate army worms. The wasps finished the worms off.

To manage soil fertility, the farm produces its own compost—approximately 500 cubic yards per year—using organic material from the farm. He activates the compost with a biodynamic preparation that inoculates the compost with beneficial fungi. As of this year, Robert boasts that his compost is all “vegan,” meaning that they use no animal manures. He also adds rock dust to remineralize the soil, a process that helps “build the nutritive and water-holding value of the soil.” Rock dust and Colorado River water are his only off-farm inputs.

sites/default/files/flying_disc_dates.jpgWorking with nature and just a handful of employees and WWOOFers, Robert keeps his desert food forest thriving, selling through farmers markets and mail order only. Tomorrow he’ll be bringing about five varieties of dates to the market, with more to come as we get deeper into fall. As a farmer who eschews certifications and categorizations, he lets the relationships he’s developed with customers and the high quality of his dates speak for themselves.

“We call ourselves ‘consumer-certified and media-verified,’” says Robert, citing his open-door policy for visitors to check out the farm’s practices first-hand. “We’ve got nothing to hide.”

All photos courtesy of Flying Disc Ranch.

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