Wanted: Rain: Los Altos Hills farm, behind on produce, eager for storms

Photo By: Photos by Elliott Burr/Town Crier
Photo Photos By Elliott Burr/Town Crier

Jason McKenney, Hidden Villa’s agriculture manager, kneels amid a row of immature cover crops (also pictured below), said the Bay Area’s months-long dry spell has yielded trouble for the farm’s harvest.

The much-anticipated rain that soaked the Bay Area early this week had soggy residents brandishing umbrellas and seeking dry sanctuaries. But Jason McKenney, who manages a major source of local produce at Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills, greeted the downpour with open, thirsty arms.

“It’s so welcome, you can hardly imagine,” he said, crossing his fingers for more as he paced through a particularly parched field where the inch-tall cover crops haven’t come close to their usual 1-foot height. “We’ve been waiting for months now.”

The Bay Area has been unusually dry since the last sizable rainfall Thanksgiving Day. Hidden Villa normally notches 26.5 inches of rain by this time, according to the farm’s measurements. This year, it’s closer to 6.

The lack of rainfall has McKenney concerned for the farm’s harvest, which supplies the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program. A quarter of the bounty stocks local food banks, such as the Community Services Agency in Mountain View, which serves Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, and the leftovers are sold at the summer Los Altos Farmers’ Market or eaten by Hidden Villa staff.

“This is, so far, the driest year ever here,” said McKenney, Hidden Villa’s agriculture manager. “It could impact us fairly negatively. … Our agriculture is dependent on a yearly recharge of the aquifer.”

Arid land can result in unhealthy cover crops, which for Hidden Villa include legumes and peas used to inject nutrients in the soil for upcoming produce. When the cover is delayed in reaching its normal height, as is currently happening, it disrupts the seasonal rotation of crops.

Chris Overington, Hidden Villa’s executive director, added to the prayer for rain.

“We’ve definitely been concerned and looking at it,” he said. “If it doesn’t rain this spring, we’ll adjust how much we grow, what we grow.”

That could mean breaking melon lovers’ hearts. Water-hog produce like watermelons, cucumbers and sweet corn might not end up on the menu – or in customers’ weekly baskets.

But all’s not lost.

McKenney said the farm can augment low rainfall via several strategies, but maintaining its organic certification limits their flexibility somewhat. Fertilizer might be common in home gardening, but don’t mention that word around McKenney.

“That’s like giving it a vitamin instead of a diet,” he said. “It’s like steroids.”

The problem with fertilizer, McKenney explained, is that it doesn’t allow the soil to swell naturally with nutrients that can carry over to the next year. With continued use of fertilizer comes diminishing returns in crop health.

Instead, tactics such as drip irrigation taken from the farm’s limited groundwater well can act as a Band-Aid until more rain falls.

That may take some time – the National Weather Service predicts sunshine through at least next week – but while eyes point skyward, hoping for even so much as a sprinkle, farm staff may have to rely on hedging their bets.

“We’re a small-scale farm,” McKenney said, “so we’re able to adapt.”

Rain dances welcome.

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