Agricultural Areas Exemplify Solano County's Diversity
By Barry Eberling | DAILY REPUBLIC | January 12, 2008 14:21
Benjamin Gutierrez throws hay to sheep on Al Medvitz's 3,600 acre ranch in the Montezuma Hills Thursday morning. The Montezuma Hills are just one of many diverse agricultural areas in Solano County. Brad Zweerink Photo. Photo by Brad Zweerink
FAIRFIELD - Craig McNamara grows walnuts on hot, flat valley land near Putah Creek. Al Medvitz raises sheep on grassy, windswept hills near the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
These diverse operations have something in common -- they're both in Solano County.
Diversity is the name of the game in the county's farm industry. Microclimates and topography create an array of unlikely places. Cattle can graze on foggy hills near Vallejo during the summer even as a Dixon farmer mops his brow amid 90-degree heat in his tomato field.
'No other California county has the access to the Bay, Delta, coastal range and to the soils of the Central Valley,' said Kurt Richter of the UC Agricultural Issues Center.
Richter and Alvin Sokolow came up with the nine farming regions listed in their recently completed, county-commissioned agricultural study.
To tour the nine farm regions is to see Solano County in all its diversity, with places so different they can feel like a world apart. Understanding the nine regions could help save and boost the county's $243 million annual farm economy.
'They can't be treated the same,' Richter said. 'That's like treating the housing industry the same as pharmaceutical sales.'
Walnuts are king in the Winters area near the border between Solano and Yolo counties.
'We're blessed with Putah Creek,' said McNamara, who farms 450 acres.
Putah Creek was tamed 50 years ago by the massive Monticello Dam, which created Lake Berryessa reservoir. But prior to that, it raged during big winter storms, spilling its banks and flooding acre upon acre.
Those historic floods left behind rich, loamy soils, McNamara said. The creek today provides water for farms and feeds into aquifers, he said.
Winters-region farming produces $13 million annually, 7 percent of the county's annual total. But that relatively modest slice is in part because of the area's small size. The region tops Solano County in per-acre annual value at about $2,000.
A problem in the region is growing encroachment from rural residential homes, Richter said.
Medvitz and his wife, Jeannie McCormack, raise sheep and grow grains on more than 3,600 acres near Rio Vista and the Sacramento River.
'It's hilly grassland,' Medvitz said. 'It's not like the oak woodlands or mountainsides of eastern Solano. There's not a lot of surface irrigation water. It's pretty expensive to pump water from the river into the hills.'
Montezuma Hills farmers have had to find their own niche in the county's agricultural world. This is a dryland farming area, with much of the water used falling as rain.
Helping farmers survive economically are huge, electricity generating wind turbines and natural gas fields, which are compatible with farming. Some farmers have leases with energy companies that bring them extra income.
But the falling dollar and last year's drought conditions pose challenges, Medvitz said. Sheep-raising is in decline and more farmers are turning to cattle, he said. Still, he is 'cautiously optimistic' about the area's farming future.
'If we could figure out a way to do cheap irrigation, we could have another agricultural paradise out here,' Medvitz said.
Hot summer days, cool summer nights and fertile soils make the coastal hill valley near Fairfield ideal for vineyards.
Suisun Valley is a distant 45 miles from the cool Pacific Ocean, so hot days are expected. Yet, the region's unique system of bays and gaps in the hills allows cool breezes to kick up in the late afternoon, much like what happens in the Napa Valley.
Temperature swings from day to night are often 35 degrees to 40 degrees, said Roger King, a farmer and president of the Suisun Valley Grape Growers Association. Grapes can retain acidity in the levels needed for fine wines.
Suisun Valley has several wineries. Growers also sell grapes to wineries in other counties, including those in Napa Valley.
Local growers have faced low prices for the past few years, but King sees things getting better.
'We're starting into a very healthy leg of a new cycle, where supply is coming back into balance and actually coming short of demand,' King said.
Pleasants, Vaca and Lagoon valleys
Rose Loveall-Sale grew up in Pleasants Valley near Vacaville and can remember the old days.
'When I was young, it was all orchards,' she said. 'It was all stone fruits and walnuts -- a very quiet, out-of-the-way area.'
Most of the farming in big orchards is gone. Loveall-Sale these days sees more big houses on 20 acres and more horses. Agriculture has changed in these coastal hill valleys that, unlike Suisun Valley, don't get the cooling marine influence.
Now there are small, niche farms, such as Loveall-Sale's Morningsun Herb Farm. On a mere 3 acres, the farm turns out several hundred thousand plants annually for sale to the public and nurseries.
Richter called this area the 'home of the hobby farmer.' That's no put-down. Products from some of the farms are sold at the farmers market in the San Francisco ferry building and served at Berkeley's Chez Panisse Restaurant and Cafe.
'There are a lot of very small producers who are doing some very progressive, small-scale, high-value production,' Richter said.
Dixon Ridge has a combination of good soils, climate, access to water and large parcel sizes that allow farmers to adapt to market conditions, Richter said.
That makes it one of Solano County's most important farming areas.
'It's the most flexible,' Richter said.
A farmer with walnut trees can't change crops from year to year. Dixon Ridge farmers can switch among wheat, tomatoes, bell peppers, alfalfa, sunflower and other crops. They have also got plenty of Lake Berryessa reservoir water for irrigation.
This 63,000-acre flat area near Dixon generates $64 million each year, 33 percent of the county's annual farming total. Among the challenges listed in the study is development, both urban and rural residential. Interstate 80, which is sort of a growth conveyor belt, cuts through the Dixon Ridge.
Ryer Island is so far removed from the hustle and bustle of modern life that the only Solano County access is by using the Real McCoy ferry.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta island is a few miles north of Rio Vista on Highway 84. Levees hold back the waters of Miner and Steamboat sloughs from a 24,000-acre area planted with such crops as grapes, alfalfa, wheat, corn, pears and tomatoes.
'It's closer to the Dixon Ridge area than anything else in the county,' Richter said.
This is one farming area in Solano County that has no fear of being annexed by a city for subdivisions. But its remoteness also adds to transportation costs because farm products must be moved using a narrow bridge on the Yolo County side.
'Farmers are smart. They've got it figured out,' Richter said.
Elmira/Maine Prairie east of Vacaville looks much like the flatlands of the Dixon Ridge and is next to the Dixon Ridge.
But the soils are heavier and less fertile. The region has its own farming strengths. Many farmers grow alfalfa, corn and wheat, and ship it to dairies elsewhere in the Central Valley.
'Hot days and cool nights and the Delta breeze produce high-quality feed stuff for dairy cows,' Richter said.
Having a dairy locate there to use the alfalfa, corn and wheat would boost the area's economy, Richter said. He called dairies 'processing plants.'
But proposals for large dairies have caused controversy in Solano County. Opponents say the dairies cause air pollution and other stench that can drift into cities.
The hills that separate Solano and Napa counties are used for cattle grazing.
Sheep and cattle graze in this Central Valley area near Highway 113 east of Vacaville. But it's best known for the vernal pools where such rare creatures as fairy shrimp live.
'It's more important for its natural resources,' Richter said.
Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646, Ext. 232, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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