The newest farming machines under the sun

Local farmer uses solar energy and advanced organic growing techniques to make his operation totally self-sustaining.

by Kari Gray
t the Not When the Surf's Up Farm, Richard Dutton doesn't make hay while the sun shines. He makes electricity. His solar-powered farm, the only totally solar-powered farm in San Diego County, uses the energy from the sun to run generators, pumps and other farm equipment. In fact, he uses propane to fuel the vehicles that take his produce to the farmer's markets as well.
His latest invention, a direct-drive, solar-powered pump and irrigation system, will be displayed at the Harvest EarthFair, Saturday, September 14 at the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum in Vista. Solar power is cheap, renewable, and clean and is produced right here in San Diego County.

Waterless farming?

"Our goal," he explains, "is to feed people from their own eco-system. In Southern California, that means without using additional water. Our goal is to use no water. Oak, for example, is an indigenous crop which can provide more protein per square acre than corn. Once established, oak requires no additional water. But other, non-indigenous crops can also be established: olives, grapes, okra, watermelon, some varieties of garlic. "
"We farm traditionally," he explains, "with no amendments to the soil other than organic mushroom compost. Not even 'organic' fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides." Like many organic farms, he controls insect pests with plantings that attract beneficial insects that in turn eat the bugs that eat crops.
Another reason the farm doesn't need chemicals or pesticides is crop rotation. The garlic crop, for example, will not go back into the same field for four years. Plant-specific diseases die out in that interval. Intercroping, planting compatible and complimentary crops instead of filling a field with all one crop, also keeps plants healthy and pest-resistant.
"Finally," he concludes, "we always allow one field, at least, to remain fallow, unplanted, for the weeds to send their roots down where no domesticated plant can, to bring up minerals and nutrients from deep below." The nutrients are then available for the next crop and the weeds build soil tilth when they are turned under.
"Each year, as the soil tilth is improved, it becomes more and more sponge-like and we need less water," he explains.
"We use Perma-culture methods, which were developed in Australia. We want to work with nature, to let nature help us. For example, we plant citrus on a south-facing slope. Everything is oriented towards the sun. And plant herbs are planted near the kitchen door," he adds, "so you don't have to go as far to pick them and use them!"

A fresh start

A musician, geologist and video producer, Richard Dutton returned to his native La Jolla in 1975. Working at a public access television studio across the street from the Del Mar Farmer's Market, he never expected that one day he would be on the other side of the table, selling his produce. But after his daughter's birth in 1988, he and his wife, Stephanie, wanted to move to the east county where Richard had made deliveries for La Jolla Produce.
Stephanie's late husband, Seth Johnson, had started Not When the Surf's Up Construction Company in the 1970's. In 1990, a friend discovered a location surrounded by the Rincon Indian Reservation, and the Dutton's farm was started from scratch and christened with the old company's name. "It was nothing but bare ground and a slab of concrete," Richard remembers.
Farming privately-owned land surrounded by the Rincon Indian Reservation, "we don't do anything without the advice and approval of the tribal council," he explains. "In fact, we have sharecropped on reservation land, starting a demonstration project with a tribal council member to grow crops by a Head Start school. But the cows got in and ate the crops!"
Not When the Surf's Up sells at Farmer's Markets and also provides internships and a full range of classes on organic farming, dryland drip irrigation, indigenous agriculture, biodiversity strategies, adobe construction, alternative energy and regional geology.
And yes, they do surf.