In the valley of green gold
|By Mike Rankin|
Nestled in the Marble Mountains of northern California lies the Scott Valley. At the valley’s northern tip, you’ll find the small community of Fort Jones. It’s there that the valley takes a sharp and narrow dog leg to the west toward the Pacific Ocean.
Back in the mid-1850s, this valley was overrun with miners in search of gold. These days, the gold in the valley stands green in the form of irrigated alfalfa fields that dominate the landscape between the two mountain ranges.
Brandon Fawaz — the son of a highway patrolman and school principal — has lived in the valley since he was 4 years old. His family owned a 20-acre property and rented 15 acres to a neighbor who made hay.
“All I wanted was a pig to show at the county fair,” Fawaz mused. “My parents, on the other hand, wanted no part of swine. I always liked machinery, so when I got to high school, my parents cosigned a loan for me to buy a used bale wagon, and I began hauling hay.”
It was that bale wagon that morphed into an expansive business that now includes commercial hay production and sales, custom haymaking, and a crop input sales and field application enterprise. Fawaz’s home base of operations lies within the valley’s dog leg. In the distance, beyond the hundreds of acres of alfalfa, you can see the snow-capped Mount Shasta.
Fawaz owns 270 acres of Scott Valley land, leases an additional 1,000 to 1,200 acres, and does custom work on another 600 acres annually. He has about a dozen full time employees.
Business expansion has taken place quickly for Fawaz. “It was a pretty meager start,” he said. “In the beginning, I farmed with pretty much old junk machinery. Even so, my custom business grew, and in 2004, I leased a 500-acre ranch to make my own hay. Then, in 2005, I worked with a business in another valley to sell fertilizer and chemicals and begin doing some application,” he added.
In 2006, Fawaz started doing more retail sales and service himself, soon reaching the point that he could furnish and apply any type of crop input a farmer might need. He also began selling seed and bale twine. At the same time, a growing custom hay business transitioned into more leasing and ownership of land.
Owning and operating a commercial hay business doesn’t allow for much extra time during the growing season. Stack on top of that a crop input retail sales and service business and a custom haymaking enterprise, and you have the recipe for a busy man. Fawaz is all of that.
Even so, this amiable yet outspoken farmer allocates time to his community and industry. Fawaz has and continues to serve on or lead a variety of county and state committees and organizations, including, but not limited to, the California Farm Bureau Federation, the California Alfalfa & Forage Association, Siskiyou County Office of Education School Board, Siskiyou Golden Fair Board, and the USDA Farm Service Agency County Committee.
Don’t count Fawaz among the bashful. As farm visits go, he’s every journalist’s dream. Ask him a question, and he’ll shoot from the hip, but you quickly get the impression that Fawaz is driven by a passion for the hay industry and its future.
The first-generation hay farmer cites two primary factors that will shape the future and profitability of the Western hay industry.
“I believe the foremost issue facing hay growers in this valley will be related to government intervention, especially as it pertains to water,” Fawaz opined. “We are in a valley that does not overdraft its wells to deplete groundwater, yet there is constant pressure from the environmental community to end groundwater pumping. There have been lawsuits filed and the environmental community has come out victorious.”
“Second, is commodity price. We need a solid price to be able to hire good labor and maintain quality equipment. We have strong hay yields, so dependable and efficient equipment is needed. However, with our shorter growing season, we only put a fraction of the hours on a piece of equipment here compared to the longer growing seasons South of us,” he added.
Alfalfa drives the bus
Irrigated, green fields of alfalfa not only dominate the landscape in the Scott Valley, it’s that crop that also garners most of Fawaz’s attention on his own farm and that of his retail business’ customers. On his permanent crop base, 50 to 60 percent is comprised of alfalfa with the remainder being an alfalfa-orchardgrass mix or pure orchardgrass. The agricultural entrepreneur is not afraid to try new practices when it comes to growing the “Queen of Forages.”
The typical approach to seeding alfalfa in northern California is to plant sometime during the first half of April. But that’s a labor crunch time for someone who also has a crop input service and application business.
“I’ve been trying to play around with more late-August seedings,” Fawaz noted. “It fits our work schedule and labor situation better, especially where we have pivots.”
Tempering, but not eliminating, his enthusiasm for late-summer seedings are meadow voles, which are a major alfalfa pest in the region. “Voles can get ahead of a fall seeding and wreak havoc,” Fawaz said. The rodent is also a problem on established stands.
“We do a lot of things to keep voles under control. We’ve used rodenticide, but one of the keys is to reduce the amount of crop residue going into winter. Sometimes that means a late fall cutting and sometimes it means going out there with a flail chopper. I’ve even tried unsuccessfully to get someone with sheep to bring them over and let them graze in the fall,” he added.
Fawaz has also seeded alfalfa after a cereal grain forage harvest, usually in late June. “We’ve tried it a couple of times and had good success,” he said. “We can keep enough water applied through the pivot, and it hits the third or fourth trifoliate leaf stage pretty fast with the warmer summer temperatures. I just can’t see paying the rent on a field, harvesting a low-value crop like cereal grain hay in June, and then not getting anything off that field again until the following July.”
Fawaz seeds fall dormancy 4 or 5 alfalfa varieties, using mostly conventional varieties but also some with the Roundup Ready trait. “We have one field that’s a fall dormancy 6, and I might experiment some more with the less dormant types,” he explained. “I have access to most brands of alfalfa. We try to always plant varieties that are in the top five or six of the variety trials, and that may not always be the same variety each year,” he added.
Seeding 16 to 18 pounds of seed per acre, Fawaz puts a lot of effort into preparing a good seedbed. “We seed alfalfa one of two ways,” said the veteran alfalfa grower. “We either plant with a Great Plains press wheel drill or we airflow the seed on and then double roll it. Both methods seem to work.”
When alfalfa is airflow seeded, Fawaz uses a fertilizer spreader that has multiple boxes, which allows fertilizer to be applied at the same time as the seed, but with each loaded into a separate compartment on the spreader.
Food, water, and weeds
Fawaz uses both wheel-line and pivot irrigations systems, putting anywhere from 5 to 14 inches of water on per cutting. He said he averages about 2 acre-feet of applied water for the season. All of his water is pumped from wells.
As you might guess, a man who runs a crop input business is going to have plenty of opinions on fertilization strategies for alfalfa. Fawaz doesn’t disappoint. “I’m of the opinion that alfalfa will luxury consume potassium,” he noted. “It seems like no matter how much we put on before first cutting, we will see deficiency later.”
Rather than putting all of his fertilizer on in one application, Fawaz now will spread it over several applications.
The amount of fertilizer applied to alfalfa fields is driven by soil and tissue samples, but, on average, fields receive 150 to 360 units of potassium per acre. Fawaz also routinely applies phosphorus, sulfur, boron, and molybdenum. Soil pH ranges from 6.3 to 7.1, so little lime is needed.
“We have every weed imaginable, and they can be a deal breaker in the Western equine and export hay markets” Fawaz said emphatically. “Weeds will fight weeds in every field, and if you do nothing, they will shorten stand life. It’s not a question of will we spray, it becomes more a question of what we will spray. Baling 60 to 80 tons per hour, we have no tolerance for weeds,” he added.
Winter and summer annual weeds are the biggest problem for Fawaz. An initial herbicide application is made in February to early March. For conventional varieties, metribuzin or Velpar tank mixed with Paraquat is common. For fields where summer annual weeds like pigweed or bristle grass threaten, Prowl H2O is applied. If those weeds arise in June or July, an application of clethodim and/or Pursuit is used. Glyphosate is applied on Roundup Ready varieties.
Hit the 8-ton mark
Though three-cut systems used to be the norm in the Scott Valley, wetter springs and drier falls have started to allow for four cuts per year. Fawaz runs two rotary swathers. “I feel like we can put up hay longer in the fall than we used to,” he said. “Also, we can cut and condition hay for baling a lot faster these days, making it easier to take advantage of harvest windows in the fall.
“August 20 is the absolute latest I will cut third crop if I’m going to go for a fourth. I actually prefer a few days earlier than that. We usually take our fourth crop from September 25 to October 5. After that, we don’t expect to have much if any regrowth,” he added.
Hay is generally baled at 10 percent or less moisture using six Freeman 3-tie balers. He also has a Massey-Ferguson large square baler. An average alfalfa yield for Fawaz is 6.5 to 7 tons per acre. This year, Fawaz will have four fields that will break the 8 tons per acre mark, a new personal best.
Unlike many regions, alfalfa winterkill isn’t a problem in the Scott Valley. “Though we have snow cover for short periods, we don’t like it because the meadow voles go crazy,” Fawaz said. “Generally, if snow lasts on a field for over 10 days, that’s a long time. We’ll get below zero temperatures, but that’s not a common occurrence.”
As alfalfa starts to thin, Fawaz will sometimes interseed orchardgrass into the stand. This prolongs useful stand life and allows him to add an alfalfa-grass mix, or sometimes pure grass hay if he decides to spray-out the alfalfa, into his available inventory.
When alfalfa stands do need to be terminated, cereal grain crops are often seeded to break the alfalfa rotation. Fawaz uses straight wheat or a mix of wheat, oats, and barley. The cereal grain hay is cut when it reaches the soft dough stage and is harvested the last half of June. It lays for six to eight days before being dry enough to bale. About 10 to 20 percent is small baled for the retail and horse market while the rest is big baled for beef and dairy cow markets.
Striving for improved quality
This year, Fawaz made 80 percent of his alfalfa as small bales and 20 percent large squares. Some years, depending on the market, it may be closer to 50:50.
“I’ve been trying to make more quality hay for the dairy and horse markets,” Fawaz said. “A small percent of the three-tie small bales goes to export and the rest sells into the equine and retail hay markets. The high-quality big bales are for the dairy market, while lower quality hay is directed to the beef cow market. I usually work through a broker, but I will occasionally sell direct to the end user,” he added.
Fawaz doesn’t test his horse hay but does test his higher quality large bales that potentially could enter the dairy market. “If a customer wants a test, I would do that for them,” he said.
In another attempt to improve forage quality, the California haymaker has experimented with making baleage. He rented a wrapper for 2019. “I think I should own a wrapper and only use it when I have to,” Fawaz related. “It also depends on the market. This year, I think we’re better overall in the horse market than the dairy market.
“There are benefits to wrapping that go beyond the product. We found on the wheel lines that we could get the hay off quicker and start irrigating sooner after harvest. This boosted yields off of those fields.
“One of the problems we have with baleage is getting people to understand what they are paying for with the wrapped hay after a moisture correction. It will probably feed better along with having other benefits in animal performance. Once they feed it, they’re sold. I once gave two bales to a guy and told him to let me know if he liked it. After that, he bought quite a bit of the product,” he mused.
Fawaz knows that the success of his business rests squarely on the shoulders of other industries, both here in the U.S. and across the ocean.
“Hay growers on the West Coast need a profitable dairy industry and access to export markets,” Fawaz said. “While I concentrate more in the retail horse market, that market is only made strong — or weak — by the health of the dairy and export markets. But even with strong markets, we have to be able to do business in the State of California, and that seems to get tougher every year.”
So, what are the answers?
“Fair trade is an obvious answer for starters,” Fawaz asserts. “Second, we need a state government that values our existence. Many times, it feels like California is turning its back on production agriculture and doing what it can to hinder us. I can’t honestly remember when the state did something to try and help us,” he added.
Fawaz is not the type to give up the good fight. He’s come too far from his humble beginnings with nothing but a leveraged old bale wagon.
Through the years, both gold miners and loggers have come and gone from the Scott Valley. Fawaz wants to ensure that alfalfa growers don’t meet that same final fate. With his own hay farm, a retail crop input business, and a custom farming operation there is too much to lose. And oh, by the way, if you’re visiting the Scott Valley, Fawaz and his wife, Jaclyn, also own and manage the 10-unit Etna Motel where you can stay.
This article appeared in the November 2019 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 12 to 14.
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