The World's first certified organic growers and processors with C.C.O.F. Since 1990
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LaRonna Jojoba Company
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with Huell Howser
As aired on KCET L.A. PBS
Jojoba was Desert Center’s largest employer in the 1980’s. We quickly became employed with the large jojoba farms in the valley, weeding, repairing irrigation, and managing. It was then we realized jojoba cannot be productive if planted by seed.
If you plant 10,000 jojoba seed, you could expect 5,000 to be non-productive males, and of the 5,000 females maybe one would be a good producer. To further impede production, some plants from seed could take up to 7 years before it reveals if it is a male or female.
We began to study papers written by academia and people in the field. Dr. Hogan and Dr. Yermanos both wrote about vegetatively propagating jojoba - produce them from stem cuttings. We had the good fortune to meet and discuss at length jojoba with world renown “Plant Father” Dr. Howard Scott Gentry, therefore we learned about the plant from the very best and their research.
We began to map, watch, and note observations of thousands of plants from the wild and from plants under cultivation. We realized that seed planted fields will not result in an economic security, so we set out to find the “perfect jojoba”. We observed plants for up to 3 years, noting yield, shape, seed size, etc then would make a cutting and put in the greenhouse. Jojoba is a hard to root, woody plant. You need to have a misting system for watering the plants, plus you have to have bottom heat to keep their “feet” warm. It is a challenge to regulate the correct temperature in the greenhouse with those two working against each other. We have had an 80% rooting success and 95% transplant rate to the field. The newly planted jojoba is actually an adult plant because it was cut from an adult plant. We have had seed production on year one, but a commercial crop can be expected by year 3. We have reduced the number of cultivars conducive to production to around 15 - 20. We plant 1/4 or 1 acre every 3 to 5 years from the best of the best in our field. We harvest over 230 pounds a row, where seed planted fields were happy to harvest 230 pounds an acre. We have cultivars that produce seed containing 62% oil. This is extremely exciting to boost oil yields. The average jojoba seed contains 50 - 52% oil content. We feel its best to produce large seeds with high oil content, then many small seeds with low oil content.
An observation we noticed in the wild is that jojoba goes dormant, or to sleep in the summer months. The plants get a grey-green color the leaves are tough. We determined that the quick rains that fall in the desert during the summer do nothing to sustain the plant. These summer rains will fall fast and hard and just run off instead of percolate into the ground. We then learned from Dr. Yermanos that a tap root of a wild jojoba can be up to 40 feet deep. He told us of how they tried to dig one up and stopped at 40ft. So it all made sense. When its ghastly hot, jojoba goes to sleep with its “feet” so deep in the ground the heat doesn’t burn them. With this observation, we decided to not irrigate our field in the summer so the plants can go to sleep.
We were the ridicule of the industry when we announced how we grow our jojoba. All conventional wisdom had jojoba irrigated year round. Farms in the Chuckwalla Valley irrigated 24 - 7. This resulted in bringing pests that otherwise would leave jojoba alone. In the summer when its hot, and the fields are irrigating lush soft jojoba, grasshoppers thought they were in heaven. We observed grass hoppers completely stripping leaves from the plants. Once a “cloud” of grasshoppers visited our farm, flying towards us like an Alfred Hitchcock movies. They lighted on trees, side by side and completely covered the trunks of the trees, all lined up like tiny soldiers. They stayed there for three days. We noticed a grass hopper or two in our field, but they seem to take a bite from the “thorny dry” leaves and leave. The next time this occurred, we drove to the bottom of the valley where the large fields are, and noticed a farm spraying malathion. The noise and movement from the farm equipment, made the grasshoppers flee, to our place to relax and wait out the sprayers before returning to the fields. Malathion is a contact spray, which means it must touch the bug you’re trying to eradicated. Also, grass hoppers did not lay eggs in the soil under the plant because the ground could get as hot as 140º and the eggs die. So, by not irrigating in the summer, we control pests, protect flower buds, from frost, and save lots of money.
One winter we experienced 18º several mornings in a row. Farm mangers hired helicopter pilots to fly over their fields. The theory was to have warm air from a certain altitude push down onto the plants, in an attempt to save the flowers. An expensive experiment that did not work. It was by far the coldest we have experienced it here. We lost half our crop that year, but still saved half our crop. We were the only farm in California or Arizona to have a harvest that year. Researchers and scientists from around the world visited our farm to ascertain why. It was determined that a severe drought before a hard freeze makes the plant produce abscisic acid, or a natural anti freeze. The abscisic acid protects the flower bud from freeze. We made the observation that jojoba doesn’t need water in the summer, now we know quantifiably why. So, by not irrigating in the summer, we control pests, protect flower buds, from frost, and save lots of money.
Our water well produced more water than we could use with our first planting, and not having running water for 18 months, we respected it and did not want to waste any of it. So we asked some surveyor friends to find the lowest spot of our land and we built an irrigation pond above that level. We fill the irrigation pond then shut off the well and gravity feed water to the plants. We installed 1/2 tubing with emitters at each plant. This saves water and money, and we get to swim in the summer!
We met our good friends at Desert Center Grape Farm who grow table grapes organically. We really like the idea of not using herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers. In 1989 we became certified organic with California Certified Organic Farmers. We were the first certified organic jojoba growers and processors in the world. And remain the only ones in California. We do everything on our farm and NEVER process seeds not grown on our farm.
The one pest that can be problematic is the Say Stink bug. This critter over winters in the desert, hatches and crawls to the field in it’s larvae stage. It develops wings as an adult and long skinny proboscis or nose. They stick their skinny nose inside the capsule of the seed right after it has been pollinated. Inside the young capsule is a jelly-like embryo that the insect sucks our. That embryo would have developed into a seed. The farmer doesn’t notice this has happened for a while, as the empty capsule continues to grow and looks “normal”. Then after a while it shrivels up and the stark realization takes hold. We have lost half a crop in a matter of days with this insect.
Since we do not use chemical pesticides, we decided to try an experiment. We dedicated 1 and 1/2 rows to “beneficial habitat strips”. One row is approximately 600 ft long and is on the northern boundary. The second row is about 300 ft. and located a few rows inside the southern boundary. We cleared the rows, laid irrigation tubing and watered. We hand pulled weeds that are a nuisance, like Sahara Mustard, and encourage native wildflowers - mallow, brittlebush, lupine, turtleback bush etc. We have also purchased Desert Southwest Wildflower mix from Peace Valley Farm Supply. What we created was a habitat for spiders, lizards, small birdies all that will eat the Say Stink Bug when it crawls in. This was such a big success, we keep the beneficial habitat strip every year. They not only provide much needed relief from the say stink bug, they make beautiful bouquets in our home during the Spring. We still do observe some damage to our crops from the say stink bug, but the damage is negligible. Thanks to wildflowers!
When we first plant cuttings, they are very tender and succulent. They are vulnerable to many pests. Jackrabbits will frolic through the fields and razor a cutting down to the nub, then it dies. The kicker is the darn rabbit doesn’t even eat the plant, just cuts it down. To alleviate that problem installing a chicken wire fence around the field solves the problem.
Aphids are a real big problem on tender, juicy leaves of a cutting. Aphids are tiny black parasites that hitchhike on the back of ants. An aunt climbs around a jojoba, and the aphid jumps off and has dinner. They will suck all the juices from the leaves making them extremely deformed. We encourage weds that we have observed “house” ladybugs, whose favorite food is aphids. We have purchased gallons of ladybugs from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, released them into the farm, and they ate our problem away! We only had to do that once. Then our beneficial habitat strips and selective weeding creates plenty of places for ladybugs to thrive.
Another problem farmers face is coyotes. Coyotes will cruise the fields and chew up hundreds of feet of irrigation tubing. If the irrigation is on, they will chew a large hole so it is able to get a drink. If the irrigation is off, the coyote will go row to row pulling out tubing and chewing it in search of water. We would replace hundreds and hundreds of feet of tubing every day ! In jojoba’s hey day, managers would pay local people to get a spotlight, shotguns, and some friends and go coyote shooting. We just didn’t feel that was the way to control them. So, we buried an old steel bathtub in north-eastern corner of our property, tied it into the irrigation system, and keep it filled with water. Our irrigation repairs declined exponentially, to almost zero.
We installed our “guzzler” with the natural environment in mind. We placed shade cloth inside and tethered it down in case a lizard or someone falls in, it can grab onto something and pull itself out. Then we put a tortoise fence around it so one of our ancient friends doesn’t fall in a drown. Now we have this nice source of water for everyone - everyone except the tortoise. What torture it would be for the little guy smelling and seeing water with no way to get a drink. So, we installed a “mini-guzzler” for the tortoise. It is only a stainless steel pan, into the ground next to the bathtub that fills with overflow water from the tub. Now everybody is happy. We have seen tracks of coyotes, bobcat, kit fox, and tortoise. Once there was even tortoise scat in their water bowl. It is so much easier, fun, and educational to work with nature instead of against nature.
We feed our plants with our health and the environment in mind. We have incorporated dehydrated fish and kelp into our feeding program. We also incorporate the meal created from extracting the oil from the seeds. We had the meal analyzed and realized it is a good supplement to the plants. It’s PH is 5.7 so that helps with balancing the soil. We also know that it is 32% protein, which translates to nitrogen. We mill the jojoba meal after expelling the oil, Larry built a tool for the tractor, and we place the meal right back into the field.
We create a mountain of hulls or shells every year from cleaning seeds. We don’t let that go to waste either. It make great compost, and is very nice for mulching. We use it everywhere we are growing - garden, fruit trees, and ornamentals.