One of the first things you’ll learn about Shahar Caspi is that he’s not afraid to do things differently. To a point.
“God forbid if my Jewish mother knew that I’m raising pigs,” Caspi says as he greets his pigs, Ava and Adamo, in his backyard.
But he takes his heresy only so far.
“I haven’t tasted one, because I’m afraid to go to Hell for it. We don’t eat pigs,” says Caspi.
The two pigs are an important part of his small farm in the Sierra Nevada foothill town of Oregon House, though. They help recycle nutrients, a key part of his approach to farming.
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Another is using as little water as possible.
Caspi moved to California from Israel eight years ago to run a vineyard. Now, he grows produce in a community supported agricultural operation. And while the presence of pigs might be shocking to some, he too has been shocked when it comes to some local farming practices.
For instance, he can’t believe that some California farmers still flood their fields to irrigate their crops.
“You know, first time I came to this country I said, ‘What is that? Something went wrong here. They blew up a pipe or something.’”
That was back before the state’s record drought, now in its fourth year
But even then, Caspi treated water here as he would back home.
Sixty percent of Israel is desert. The country averages less than 25 inches of rain a year. And yet it still produces almost all of its own food. So water is considered a national resource.
“In Israel, if you water your garden during the day, you will get fined,” Caspi says. “Or they will put a lock on your water and you cannot water anymore. So you water only at night. Everybody is aware of it. Why? Because there is no water. One tiny little lake. You have Lake Tahoe. You can fit all of Israel in Lake Tahoe.”
It’s a mindset that’s helped Caspi continue to grow food year-round here in the midst of California’s worst drought on record. It’s helped him turn small plots of rocky dry soil into productive farmland, and boost production in the middle of a grove of cherry trees that weren’t producing much fruit before he took over.
“California is such a big place. In Israel, the trees are much, much closer together,” says Caspi.
So he’s taken advantage of all that extra space by planting four rows of vegetables in between the trees, and he uses organic material like decomposing horse manure and shredded roots to fortify the soil.
“This is a huge amount of organic matter,” he says as he gets down on his knees to dig in the soil with his hands. “When you plant a tree in such a rich environment, we will need to use much, much less water.”
Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio
Caspi waters his crops using a drip irrigation system whose plastic emitters were invented in Israel.
“I want to make only the very top soil wet, that’s it. Because most of the nutrients are at the very top soil,” he says.
He says it helps a lot that the soil here has never been tilled.
“There are many theories about no-till farming, how it increases the ability of the soil, for water absorption, retention, infiltration all these things,” Caspi says.
None of these methods are unheard of in California. No-till has been around for decades, and nearly 40 percent of the state’s farmland is irrigated using drip systems.
But farmers who’ve been around longer than Caspi have been slow to adopt the water-efficient practices, even as things have begun to change.
“Generally farmers are skeptics about new things,” says Dennis Chessman, state agronomist with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Davis, California. “They have something that works and if it works why change it?”
And by many measures, the old approach here has worked. California produces half the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables.
And Chessman says it’s not simple to make the switch to less water-intensive methods.
No-till practices require new equipment and can take a few years to produce high yield, he says, while switching to drip irrigation can be costly.
California farmers also grow high-value crops, so the perceived risks are high too. Until recently he says, there just hasn’t been much incentive to change.
“There are things that we can learn from the way they do agriculture in some of the more arid regions of the world,” says Chessman. “But historically in California, with plentiful irrigation water, we’ve not given much thought to doing that.”
Now that the state is deep into a severe drought, though, and facing a future that may look more like the present than the recent past of plentiful water, it’s looking at more water-efficient ways to grow food. Chessman says farmers are being forced to re-think how they grow food, and newcomers like Caspi may be helping to show the way.
Not that Caspi has it completely figured out. He’s still experimenting with the various elements of what’s known as biodynamic farming, which treats soil, plants and animals as a holistic entity.
That’s why he has the pigs.
“You just rotate them,” says Caspi. “When you finish the garden, you just move the animals. They eat. They poop. They fertilize the soil and then the next year you can grow the crop."
“We will get to it. It’s still a little bit complicated.”
Caspi says it may take a few more years to get his farm operating the way he wants it. Meanwhile, using water sustainably just seems like common sense. He says his fellow farmers may need to accept that water in California may become as scarce as it is in Israel.
“It’s a different mentality because this country is so big and huge and so rich and everything is in such great abundance, so why not? But Mother Nature may be showing us that this is not the case anymore.”