Organic Farming for the Next Generation w/ Israel Morales
Interview with Israel Morales, Executive Director of Sustainable Operations at JV Farms Organic
We welcome award-winning organic farmer Israel Morales for an in-depth discussion of organic agriculture, including transitioning conventional farms and educating the next generation of growers. Based in the Salinas Valley of California, Israel has over 40 years of farming experience and was recently named Organic Farmer of the Year by the Organic Trade Association. He currently serves as Executive Director of Sustainable Operations at JV Farms Organic.
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Learn more about JV Farms Organic: www.jvsmithcompanies.com/jv-farms-organic
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INTRO: Welcome to Organics Unpacked, a podcast for the business-minded organic grower — an interview podcast where we hear from the top experts in the commercial organic industry, with a focus on the business elements of organic growing both in and out of the field. You will gain insight and grow your operation. This show is brought to you ad-free by Avé Organics, a Wilbur-Ellis company. To learn more about Avé Organics, visit our program notes. In the meantime, enjoy the show.
TOM: Hello, everyone. Thanks for tuning in today. Welcome to a new episode of Organics Unpacked, a podcast where we discuss organic farming from a practical view. I’m your host, Tom Buman. Today, I’m joined by Israel Morales. Israel is a highly respected organic farmer in Salinas Valley of California, who just can’t seem to find the time to retire. Israel, thanks. Welcome to today’s podcast, and thanks for being with us.
ISRAEL: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
Getting Started in Organic Farming
TOM: So, Israel, as a part of the story that you have to tell, which is a really long and rich tradition, how did you get started in farming? What’s your background? What’s the story of where you got today? Before we get into organic farming, I’m always interested in how you got to where you are today.
ISRAEL: Yeah, we had a conventional farm in Salinas, and I worked for a company that was, for a long time, here. In 1986, I heard a little bit about organic and some people that were doing organic in small acres: a quarter of an acre, half an acre type of thing. It was very interesting, but they talk, and they go more natural. So that was something. I started out with small acres, sandy soil, more light, but we learned quite a bit. When I retired from the company, we were doing 5,500 acres organic. We increased the acres through the years. Of course, it took that 20th time, so 30 years.
TOM: So, in 20 or 30 years, you went from a half an acre to over 5,000 acres.
ISRAEL: Well, I think we saw the benefit of the organic. It was a problem — a little bit — because a lot of equipment and a lot of stuff we had to make. We had to learn about it, but I really believe organic because it’s more than, ‘They just plant the seed.’ It’s alive. It’s how the plants communicate, how the mycorrhiza helps, how the funguses help, how the microbes help. People think that you’re crazy, but there’s something that happens.
Learning How to Farm Organic
TOM: So let’s start at the story in your early days, like when you just had that first half-acre. I think you said it was kind of a sandy soil, and there wasn’t much biology in the soil. Who did you go to get information once you got started and thought, ‘This is a good idea.’ Who did you learn from?
ISRAEL: Yeah, well, they learned — a lot of them — because they already had a farming background. But a lot of them, ‘How do we do that?’ How do we grow this plant? I had broccoli: a small, very small leaf. I pulled my hair, and I don’t know what to do. Then they learn about the beneficials, learn that it’s another root, that 90% of the bugs are good. 10% are bad, and what I’m doing is killing all the good ones. Then I go, ‘Oh, we’ve got to change that.’ So we had to start treating, a little differently, learning. We did that. Then a company that was around at that time, the owners were making a company. And we gamble, we do, with trying to go across to a real large company. It’s a learning process that, right now, has a lot of tools. There are more tools that you can do.
Types of Crops in Organic Systems
TOM: So, early on, what kind of crops did you grow under the organic systems?
ISRAEL: There was spinach. There was spinach, broccoli. We were trying to grow broccoli. Some of the spring mixes. It was probably the easier one because they grow in a month, in 40 days-45 days. Grow pretty fast, so it’s the last chance to get that now, but you suffer the weeds. So, in conventional, you have herbicides. But organic, right now, they’ve got some herbicides. But at that time, there were no herbicides. I remember one neighbor because I had a little organic, and he’d mention and say, ‘I hate organic.’ And I’d say, ‘Why? Why do you hate it?’ He’d say, ‘Because you’ve got weeds.’ And I’d say, ‘You have more weeds than I have.’ And I would use no herbicide. And he’d say, ‘How come? Because you’re doing something illegal?’ I would say, ‘I don’t do something illegal. Weeds grow on unbalanced soils. So, if you unbalance your soil, you’re going to grow some weeds. Balance your soil. You’re going to get less weeds.’ We had to learn that part.
How to Balance Your Soil
TOM: So, when you talk about balanced soils, what do you mean, Israel? Is that fertility?
ISRAEL: It had to be, ‘balance it out.’ If you had 60 acres — 10 calcium, 12% magnesium — you have all the components there, and also they’re breaking down. You’ve got to build your organic matter. So, when you build organic matter, the microbes have food. They have carbon. They have oxygen. That’s the whole process, and then that’s in weeds. You can try that, balance it out and do. Then you have to do another thing. Minimize your tillage. Don’t till everything, your placement. That’s a whole package, in my mind, especially organic. It’ll work on conventional too.
TOM: So, Israel, when you think about balancing your soil, how do you start? Is it looking at it? Is it a lab analysis? So, if I gave you a piece of land and said ‘balance the soil,’ how do you start that process?
ISRAEL: You’re going to start with the analysis. I was doing, if the year is 2000, all the odd lots. 2, 4, 6, 8, all the other lots are templated. Then, 2001, I had the 1, the 3, the 5, and you always have history. I use soils in how they’re changing, and now you’ve got to change the organic matter. That’s how you’re going to do it. So some people use, say, chicken pellets real high. When I started out, I started using guano that comes from Peru. But, then, I found out that it was 12%. Then a guy up here, he can do 4% on chicken pellets. I want the organic matter, so the cost is going to be even less. But you put the amount of the organic matter in your soil. So you want to increase your money, and your organic matter is how you manage. But people think, ‘I get a high percentage of nitrogen. The crop is going to look good.’ Maybe. But you’re not doing the best thing: balance all of your soils. That’s a part of it.
Conventional vs. Organic Systems
TOM: In organic systems, soil is the first, right?
ISRAEL: Yeah. Organic is the best way to do it, and even conventional can do organic. I’ll grow organic even if they wanted conventional. To me, you should grow organic and sell it as whatever. It doesn’t matter. It’s better in a ‘thirst’ condition: too hot, too cold. Organic does a lot better because it’s not the weather. The weather that’s going to change is going to get warmer, but organic is better because the apparent conditions of microbes keep working, even if it’s cold or it’s hot. And in conventional, it’ll stop. If it’s too hot, plants suffer. I had a conventional kind of flower and a plant of the same variety on the whole block, and half of it was organic. Half of it was conservation tillage. The other one was conventional tillage with conventional fertilizer. And when it was hot, the cauliflower wilt, and they had the same hours of irrigation, same everything.
TOM: Conventional versus organic made that much difference.
ISRAEL: It really does. It can take the heat. When it is hot, the organic can take the heat for some reason. I really think it’s part of the microbes working on the plant, so they require a little less stress, a little less fertilizer.
TOM: Over the years, Israel, how much have you increased organic matter on your farms?
ISRAEL: It takes a long time, my friend. That is something, but I increase it, whether it was nothing. It was half. It was three or four. But once you increase it, you have a bank, a Wells Fargo bank where you can grow that money from the organic matter to your crops. And that’s why, at the end, I put a cover crop on beds and let them grow a month and a half to pull all the nutrients, put them in the stem and then bury it, so the microbes can eat it and their holes don’t drain with the grain. So that’s a different fertilizer. It’s so much to do.
Conservation Tillage in Organic Farming
TOM: Right. So one of the things I often hear — a criticism of organic farming — is given the amount of tillage you need to do for weed control and everything else, sometimes that really suppresses organic matter production. But that must not be what you’re doing. Are you doing more conservation tillage and maybe cover crops and enhanced matter?
ISRAEL: Yeah, you’ve got to do conservation tillage. You can’t go and expose everything and kill everything. When you go out with the disk, and you turn in the soil, you’re exposing live organisms, and you’re killing it. They’re going to give you fertilizer because they will, but you’re reducing. You help, so minimize your tillage. You’ve got to break the harpin, but you’ve got to minimize it. You’ve got to minimize it. Don’t expose it. So what I did: I used a reversible mulcher. Europe is big on that, and they bury this stuff 12 inches, 16 inches, all the green, and then seal it. So you don’t have to expose it. Loosen up, bury it, water and let it sit.
TOM: Okay, so you got your equipment from Europe? Or at least your ideas from them in this kind of reverse tillage?
ISRAEL: No, we start out here, but they come in some. Then I went on one trip to Europe, and I saw what they do. And to me, it makes sense. They put in a lot of trees around some of the farms and tried to collect some of the fungus. People here don’t want them because I came from Europe, and I planted trees. My neighbor got mad because I was having too many birds. That’s what he said. But it’s a process. That’s why it is hard to teach somebody or share with somebody. Try it out. Try half a field. That’s what I tell people. Try half a field, and then you can see it for yourself. But it’s some tools, like I said, in Europe because they’ve got those reverse mulchers. They’ve got some others too. I don’t really like the other tools. I had one group that came from Spain, and they saw some of the conservation tillage that we had. Then he said, ‘We plow. In Spain, we plow. We use the plow a lot.’ And I told the man, ‘You probably have latas carotina.’ A lot of fungus. And he said, ‘Yes, we do.’ I said, ‘Yeah, because you’re turning. You kill it, and you’re exposing it.’ It needs 20% more stuff for them to survive. Once you dry them off, I don’t know how many died, but I know that it hurt the crop.
Expanding the Number of Organic Crops
TOM: So, Israel, just going back now, though, again, you started with a few crops and a few acres, and then you ended up with over 5,000 acres. What was the diversity of crops in the last couple years? Have you expanded the number of crops?
ISRAEL: We grow everything that we grow here. You grow celery. You grow broccoli. You grow cauliflower. You grow squash. You grow spring mixes, spinach, chards, beans. It’s everything. You can grow anything. We were growing big acres of yam, peppers. So growing different crops that we grow here, that’s no problem now. Now, we have more tools. We have seed, really good varieties that we can grow organically. More people are growing, organically, seed. When we started out, we had no seed. We had to use conventional seed in order to do it. And the certifiers were okay because, well, we had none. We were just using that, but know that they can grow anything, anything that we grow here. And I’m sure somebody is growing grapes organic, and some other apple planters or whatever. I was brought on the row crops.
TOM: So do you have neighbors that are growing organic crops? Or are you kind of an island in this sea of conventional growth?
ISRAEL: Yeah, most of the ground that I call good ground is conventional. All the ground that nobody wanted, that’s what I told my boss. I said, ‘The ground that nobody wanted, that’s what you gave me.’ And I would say, ‘We make more money farming organic than conventional, so less problems.’ In a way, it was good because I learned how to kind of grow crops on ground that was not the best ground so that you can grow it organic. So that’s a way from out there between the vineyards, which I love, but it’s fine for me.
TOM: Other than teaching yourself, did you have resources that helped you get into organic farming? Were there specialists or experts that you were able to rely on?
ISRAEL: Yeah, I had a lot of friends in the county. We were buddies for a long time. We share with the other growers. I went to lots of seminars, lots of them. I listened to some other people, some other things. You always learn. You learn, so it’s dependent. How can we try this? Can we try that? And I had a pretty good group of employees. They work. They’re excited, and they want to do it. And my bosses also pushed me to do the best. They pushed me, so it kind of worked out for me.
Organic Farming Equipment
TOM: So there’s a lot of equipment coming out: robotics that kind of do a lot of stuff automatically. I know that’s new to organic farming, but as you went through, did you have to create equipment for yourself? And do you still have to do that? Or are there people now that are producing specialized equipment for organic farmers?
ISRAEL: Yeah, there was somebody that was building equipment, what they call minimum till, conservation tillage. We were kind of looking at it, but we were a little different. We build our own equipment, and it’s very simple. Very simple. In the county, we want to do five years of steady conservation tillage, what we do, minimum till, what somebody else does, and conventional tillage. Then plant lettuce for five years. Plant and come back and do the same thing. We did that, and we learned that with conservation tillage, we had less diseases, less when compared with the minimum till, which turns the ground more. Like I said, we take care of the harpin. You have to work the ground but minimize your tillage. Then bury it and then water, and then you plant. So that system’s 3 – 4 passes. Sometimes, on the conventional tillage, we can do 15 – 16 disks and chisels in rougher. We pick the ground a little too much. That tillage will show you how to do it. Probably, for a farmer, it’s easy to just buy something. Right now, they’ve got a one-pass tillage, which has chisel, disk and everything. I don’t know. I don’t know. That might be something. To me, you’ve got to minimize your tillage. You’ve got to make sure you don’t disturb it too much. Then you have your placement on the crop, so how do you place it? Because plants can be closer together, so you don’t put one line here, one line here, and then it grows the other way. Because they’ve got to communicate roots that cross ways. How do we do it? It depends on the farmer, but I think that most of them will do it because everybody does it.
TOM: Okay. How do you yield on your organic crops? It’s hard for a farm kid from Iowa to kind of think about all the crops and all the different things you have going on in Salinas Valley. You have so many things. But in general, how did the yields from your organic crops compare to your neighbors’ more traditional ways of farming, knowing that you said that your soils, generally, are poorer than those? You kind of have the leftover soils. How did the yields compare?
ISRAEL: We start out with very low yields. Very low. Then, at the end, right now, organic could be the same or better in some things. The ground is organic — the ground that we had was organic — and producing some of the yield is not bad. Of course, it’s dependent on the farming, but what I saw was getting better.
Cover Crops in Organic Farming
TOM: So I also have noticed you have an interest in cover crops. How do you use cover crops in your system?
ISRAEL: Well, to me, because of minimized or conservation tillage, you mix your crop. You finish with your crop. You mix it. You bury it, and then you come back. Some of my friends in the county want 125 to 150 pounds of grass per acre, and I don’t. I do 10 pounds, 12 – 13 pounds, 20 pounds at the most. Minimize the grasses because I want that plant to grow in the roots and pick up all the nutrients that’s in the soil. I want that plant to put them in the stem, and it’s going to do that in 40 days, 30-some days, 40 days. You water, so you work the ground. You bury it. You can plant the same day and water in the night, and then you have a cover crop on your system that you can bury and do the same thing. Run your mulcher again and bury it and leave it set on the winter time. You collect all these nutrients, and you feed the microbes. It’s pretty easy. But if you put on a hundred-and-some pounds, your stem is so small, and your roots are so small. You want your roots to go and grab everything they have, in my mind.
Water-Holding Capacity in Organic Systems
TOM: I understand. I understand. So you talk about water a lot. I realize, in California, water is precious. But how do your soils — and as you keep them in balance and maintain them and grow the organic matter — how does it improve in water-holding capacity?
ISRAEL: They improve. When you do conservation tillage, and you’re working in an 80-inch bed, and you planted 60 inches, that’s what you’re planting. Then you’ve got 20 inches for driving your tractor, your equipment. So you want to compact those 20 inches. You don’t want water to go across that. You want the water to stay on the 60 inches. That’s where you need it. So we show records where we’re saving water. You’re saving. You’ve got to save. And the waterholes are like a channel. In my mind, that’s the way to do it. And it’s going to come to that point because the more I read about it, we will have no water. We are short on water. We’ve got to minimize the water. Some people use a drip, but it needs to have a better deal on the drip to really show we’re saving water. It looks like it’s saving, but I don’t know. Some farmers use, say, celery 36 hours on, 36 hours off. That’s a lot of water, a lot of time and a lot of energy. So I think that the whole system has to be checked.
Growing the Organic Movement
TOM: So, Israel, you’re very passionate about organics. That comes across in everything you say. What boards do you serve on? Throughout your history, what are some of the things you’ve done to help the organic movement? Because I know you’ve been very active in it.
ISRAEL: I don’t know. I don’t really know. I’m just doing it, and I know the organic grows so much. After we started out, it’s more people, more people. And there were a lot of people that would say, yes, they love it. And a lot of people don’t like it, like anything else. In my mind, I think it’s a nice system. I want my grandkids and everybody to enjoy the food that’s grown organic. Grown organic, it’s a different flavor, a different thing. We’re dealing with a difference. And I think, eventually, it’s going to be over eventually. There’s going to be more people that want to worry of what they put in their system, also, but to their stomach, and plus, like I say, flavor. So I really think, eventually, we’re going to learn how to grow it. And to me, it’s going to be easier.
TOM: I’ve also seen that you’re very active in helping/passing information onto the next generation. You just can’t quite retire from organic farming. You are always teaching and helping others.
ISRAEL: Well, we need to do that. I was trying to convince people. I know a lot of farmers. They’re my friends too, but convince them. Then I told my wife, I’d say, ‘You’re better off with these young kids who have the operation.’ I can change the other people, but those are the ones that are going to need it anyway, the young kids. This is what I told my grandkids. I said, ‘A person, in my mind, when they’re 1 to 25, it should be your time.’ You can do whatever you want. It’s your time. And as a parent, 25 to 50, you belong to your kids, to your wife, to your family, to your home. Build the best you can. And from 50 to 75, you belong to your grandkids. Take care of your grandkids. And I’d say from 75 on, you belong to all the great-grandkids and all the kids that are out there. So I told my grandkids, I said, ‘Your time is done because I’m over 75.’
TOM: How’d that go over? I’m guessing they still want you around Israel.
ISRAEL: That math teaches that we’ve got to take care of the young generation. How do we do that with a little part? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out.
Organic Farming for the Next Generation
TOM: Well, Israel, I appreciate you being on today, being on an episode of Organics Unpacked. I think it’s really good to have that historical perspective of people who have been in the organic system for many, many years. And I appreciate the time you’ve given us today. But if you had two minutes in a room with a more traditional farmer, and you only had two minutes to talk to them, what would you want to tell them about transitioning to organic farming? What would you want them to know?
ISRAEL: Well, it’s so much. It’s soil. It’s plants, to take care of it. It’s water. It’s the whole package, but you can’t go wrong. You will learn the system, and I think you’ll like it. Go to seminars or go to a conversation or talk to somebody. This is what I have, kind of coaching them. Like I say, I help anybody. I’ve got small farmers that are trying, and they’re learning. It’s hard for me, depending on the person, where he’s at: if he knows the tillage, if he’s convinced with the tillage. Water is very important. Water is very important. Very important. So that’s how to do that. Like I said, with the reverse tillage, you put all the stuff on the bottom and then the water, but you’ve got to water it enough to bring the microbes up two inches. So those are things in there that are important. You can do something, but do it right, and then you’ll get the benefit.
TOM: It sounds like you’ve had years of experience with organic farming and figured out a lot of things and are certainly willing to share that with future generations. I appreciate your wisdom that you’re passing on to the next generations. I really appreciate all you’ve done for organic farming because it’s leaders like you that really have made a difference over the years, and just thank you for all you’ve done.
ISRAEL: Thank you. Thank you.
TOM: Okay, well, with that, we’re going to conclude this episode of Organics Unpacked. And, again, I want to thank Israel Morales from Salinas Valley, California for all the information, and remember to stay tuned every week when we bring you another facet of organic farming. Thanks for tuning in.
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