I’ve been working on the Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s Native Seed Farm where they grow plants for rehabilitating the lands burned by the 2008 Santiago Fire. Our recent tasks have involved harvesting seeds from various species endemic to the local coastal sage scrub biome.
The same fire opened the land for use. The farm exists on a plot that once grew avocados. Encroaching flames torched the grove before they turned to the east and threatened my home.
Volunteers and paid staff perform most of the chores. Idle farm workers with wages paid by the Irvine Ranch join for a few months every spring. This keeps them on hand while cash crops grow and there is little to do elsewhere.
Each Wednesday morning we load into the back of a truck and ride over a half mile of bumps to the farm. Rachel brings us to the row where we will do our work, shows us how to do the job, and starts our labors.
The first crop I helped pick was heart leaf penstemon (Keckiella cordifolia), an easy task because I just had to walk down the rows clipping dried flower heads. You could do this work without gloves because there were no thorns to pierce your fingers and no need to pull at the seed clusters. On the same day we picked Cliff Aster (Malacothrix saxatilis) which involved just pulling the pods from the plant and tossing them into a gray plastic bucket. The picking left my hands a little sticky from the latex in the sap, but it washed off easily enough. I signed up for more.
Wild tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) occupied our attention for the next two weeks. The species gets its scientific name from a prolific female botanist of the ancient world named Artemis (named after the Greek goddess) who might have discovered its relative which is the herb you use in chicken or tuna sandwiches and salad dressings. “Dracunculus” comes from the root which coils like a Chinese dragon. Harvesting this plant involved distinguishing between the ripe and unripe seeds — green versus brown — and stripping them off the plant between our thumbs and forefinger. I found it more productive to use my forefinger and middle finger. The plant’s odor clung to my sweating arms and clothes. It was not unpleasant and I wondered if it wouldn’t be so bad to skip a shower after the morning’s work.
I hate picking buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum or whatever the local species is.) You carry around a small trash can, bend over, stuff as much of the plant as you can in the trashcan, give the seed clusters a few thumps, and then get up and repeat the process on another part of the plant or on the next shrub. If you have blood pressure issues or a bad back, you feel the repetitions. I received a small respite from the chore by gleaning a field of white sage (Salvia apiana), a task not unlike the picking of wild tarragon. I wore gloves for all of these activities.
The unique character of the crop brings us volunteers into contact with nature. A pair of kingbirds spied on our doings while they tended their nest. One would sit on a post in the middle of the field while we labored. We have seen turkey vultures flying overhead, crows, and ravens. The adjacent sage scrub may harbor a California gnatcatcher.
Our most common encounters are with various insects. While we were harvesting the buckwheat, we kept noticing a number of black and red bugs of all sizes that we could not identify. There was also one that was mostly green except for yellow borders around the edges of its abdomen. I had trouble finding the black and red bugs in the online Orange County Natural History guide, so I set myself to the task of identifying the green and yellow one. Largus californicus or the Bordered Plant Bug proved not only to be the large “beetle” we had been seeing, but also all the little black and little black and red bugs! After seeing so many of them one week, we sought for them in vain the following. The species had completely vanished from the buckwheat! Had we removed most of them with our shaking out of the bushes the first week or had they just passed their season?
The work ends at noon when we drop our collections into the seed drying house and jump back into the trunk. A short drive brings me back home where I wipe off the sweat and the scent of the harvest.
Volunteering grants me piece of mind, detachment as I separate the seeds from the stalk. By no means should you assume that farm work is nothing more than a sport. I do this for three hours a week and I do it as charity. The laborers who I see in the fields and groves that we pass on our way must hang their lives on it for forty hours or more a week. No chemicals threaten my health. Our overseer is friendly and understanding. I am but a tourist engaging in a pursuit of no economic importance, just based in passion for the wilderness. It gives me life nevertheless.
HOW TO VOLUNTEER: Visit the Irvine Ranch Conservancy site at http://www.letsgooutside.org and sign up for the Native Seed Farm activity either on Wednesdays or Saturdays. If you want a more strenuous activity, there are trail days, rootings out of invasives, and plantings in fire ravaged areas.