November 23, 2004: Mike and Diane Madison's
flowers are always one of the most colorful displays at the
Davis Farmer's Market. Today Yolo Bulb, their business name,
has bouquets of ornamental sunflower, gerbera, crinum, and
tuberose. It’s obvious that the Madison’s have
loyal customers. They begin arriving at a quarter to eight
while the market is still setting up, and there is a steady
stream throughout the morning, many who stay and chat. Mike
and Diane have two daughters, Lindsay 17, and Maia, 11, and
today Maia works at the booth with Diane.
The Madisons have been farming since 1986 on 43 acres of
land on Putah Creek, between Davis and Winters, California,
in the western part of the Central Valley, 80 miles north
of San Francisco, just a few miles east of where the valley
meets the coast foothills. The summers here are hot and dry,
the winters colder than the coast, and the north wind blows
hard in the spring.
The Madisons started out in the '80s going into wholesale
production of cut flowers, but have shifted to mostly direct
marketing as well as diversified to include olives for oil
and Clementine oranges. Mike, like myself, is the son of a
retired University of California professor of horticulture,
one of the top turfgrass specialists in the US. The senior
Madison had done some flower growing, which is where Mike
learned the vocation. Mike's sister Deborah wrote the well-known
"Greens Cookbook". Mike, himself a Ph.D. in tropical
ecology, is also an author and has just had a book published
about the landscape of the Sacramento Valley, "Walking
the Flatlands" (Heyday Books). Diane, who has a degree
in design, has some farming background from growing up in
Florida where her grandparents owned a truck crop farm.
The Madisons saw a local niche for direct marketing of flowers.
"Organic farmers' specialty is vegetables and fruits,
and they would grow flowers on the side, but (at least in
this locale) they aren't flower professionals," says
Mike, who then filled the local direct market niche for professionally
produced cut flowers.
The six acres and 200 varieties of plants for flower bouquets
currently account for nearly three quarters of the farm's income,
but that will be reduced to half as the ten acres of olives
and one acre of Clementine oranges mature. The Madisons design
their planting to spread out their labor with one bed here,
a half bed there, so that bouquets can be put together from
January to November. Starting with daphne, anemone, and flowering
apricot in January, they end with gerbera, sunflower, tuberose,
and things like hibiscus in fruit in November. The big months
when most of the money for the year is made are April through
June when peony, tulip, ranunculus, and iris bloom. They like
perennials wherever possible because once established, they
are less work. They average 20,000 bunches a year.
Two thirds of the flowers are sold retail by the Madisons
at the Davis Farmer's Market. The other third is sold to the
local supermarkets Nugget and the Davis Food Co-op. Mike and
Diane moved from wholesale to retail because the concentration
of production for wholesaling necessitated having employees.
Also, if a buyer reneged, they were stuck with having one
day to sell their product. Cut flowers are probably the most
perishable of farm products, having a one day window for salability.
Contrary to what I had heard about growing flowers, the Madisons
have very few problems with insect pests and diseases. Perhaps
the diversity of flower and ornamental varieties helps keep
beneficial insects around, or perhaps it's the plethora of
bats that live in the area. A neighbor farmer, Bob Borchard,
also a Davis High alumnus, has about 2,000 bats housed around
his farm, each one eating some 1,500 insects per night. The
Madisons have bats in some of Bob's bat houses on their property.
Symphylans, a soil-dwelling arthropod that lives off of the
organic matter in soils, have become a problem. They are a
common pest in soils where organic matter levels have been
built up. "It's interesting that, having built up these
nice soils, that a whole different set of pest problems come
in, like symphylans and vertabrates like gophers and voles,"
Diseases are not much of a problem either, mostly because
of the dry Central Valley environment. "The coastal flower
growers, where a lot of the industry is located, have a much
bigger disease problem because of the humidity," says
Mike, "it's not well known that the Valley is good for
The biggest pests on the farm are the varmints - voles, gophers,
wild turkey and quail. The Putah Creek riparian area that
borders the farm is a mixed blessing because it holds both
beneficials like carabid beetles and lacewings, as well as
the animals that raid the farm. Mike sets out hundreds of
vole and gopher traps every year in the battle. "I'd
like to do more with owl houses," says Mike when I refer
to other farmers' who use the owl housing as part of their
One year Mike planted a cover crop mix in the young olive
orchard and got a nice big stand. "When I cut it down,
the voles went for the bark on the young olives and I lost
quite a few trees. I had to put protective strips on all of
them," says Mike.
The Madison’s olives and Clementines are managed organically
but not the flowers. Mike will certify the orchards when they
come into full production. As for the flowers, there just isn't
enough demand for organic, according to Mike, plus the paperwork
of certifying nearly 200 species was too much of a headache.
Most of the flowers are managed using organic methods, but the
particular needs of some of the flowers might necessitate a
conventional fertilizer application when applying compost would
||"It's interesting that, having
built up these nice soils, that a whole different set
of pest problems come in, like symphylans and vertabrates
like gophers and voles," says Mike.
Some of the flowers need particular types of management.
The peonies don't get enough cold in the winters here to break
dormancy, so Mike uses drought stress at the end of summer
and through fall to break rest. Another flower, alstroemeria,
responds to having its stubble burned.
Soil fertility in the flower beds is maintained mostly with
composts bought from a company that composts San Francisco
restaurant waste. For fall planted flowers Mike will plant
Sudan grass in the spring and then till it in mid-summer.
He also likes rice hulls as an amendment, which are fairly
easy to get in this rice growing valley.
In the orchards, Mike uses a low-growing sub-clover mix that
grows well in the cool, wet winters and re-seeds well. Clementines
are sensitive to the inland northern California frosts, so
having the soil partially exposed and re-radiating absorbed
heat at night is important, thus the low-growing cover crop.
Thick, tall cover crops don't allow the soil to absorb the
sun’s heat and re-radiate it at night nearly as well.
Clementines however, need a fair amount of nitrogen, so it's
a tricky balance to get enough nitrogen from the cover crops
without denying solar radiation to the soil and making them
prone to frosts, according to Mike.
The soils here in the west edge of the Central Valley can
be fairly high in magnesium and pH. Mike buys gypsum (CaSO4)
which both lowers the pH and balances the Ca/Mg ratio, an
important ratio for soil health.
Irrigation in the orchards is by sub-surface drip and in
the annuals surface drip. Sub-surface drip emitters are buried
12 to 15 inches deep, so the soil surface stays dry all summer,
which keeps the weed seeds from germinating in the rainless
summers here. The olives take less water, and like wine grapes,
give a better product if they are a little water stressed.
Clementines need more water.
"This valley has deep alluvial soils, 300 feet deep
in this area" says Mike, "so it makes sense to plant
crops whose roots can go deep and take advantage of that depth,
like trees." Mike relates how olive tree roots were found
150 feet from the nearest tree when some work was done near
their land. Oak roots were found 80 feet down when they worked
on a well.
The Clementine orange is a type of mandarin orange, a tangerine,
that has become more popular than the Satsuma orange. It is
seedless unless you plant some other types of citrus nearby,
and has a more tangy taste than the satsuma. The Clementines
ripen in December and January, which compliments the fall
olive harvest and the spring through fall flower seasons.
Mike has planted a half-dozen varieties of olives for high
quality oil production - Koroneiki, Frantoio, Leccino, Moraiolo,
Taggiasca, Pendolino, and Itrana - all varieties that are
well-known in their respective Mediterranean countries. "This
is essentially a varietal trial, as there's no history of
growing these varieties here. California has traditionally
grown olives only for the canning industry," says Mike.
Trees of the old Spanish all-purpose olive varieties Manzanilla
and Mission line the driveway going into the Madison farm,
just as they line roads all over the county.
The olive fruit fly, the Mediterranean's worst pest of olive,
recently arrived in California. Fortunately, an effective
organically compliant pesticide, a spinosad, arrived on the
market at about the same time. GF-120® (Dow) is a fruit
fly bait with the microbially-derived natural insecticide
spinosad, that has been very effective on the olive fruit
fly. Mike also uses traps with a fruit fly attractant.
|"We like to pick most of our
olives a little bit green," says Mike, "green
olives give the complex flavors, and kind of like tannins
in wine, they need to be aged for a few months."
The market for good quality “artisanal” olive
oil has been growing and should grow even more when consumers
realize what they are getting when they buy the cheap $5 a
liter olive oil, even extra virgin oil that has been getting
so cheap. "Extra virgin simply means that the olive oil
has less than 1% free fatty acids," says Mike, "they
can start with all sorts of stuff like rancid olives and they
use chemicals and high temperatures to take the free fatty
acids out, but they also take all the taste out too. Then
they might add a few percent good olive oil for some flavor."
"We like to pick most of our olives a little bit green,"
says Mike, "green olives give the complex flavors, and
kind of like tannins in wine, they need to be aged for a few
months." Mature olives give a different olive oil that
is more buttery and can be eaten right away.
Another factor in olive oil quality and character is the
type of pressing. The Madisons have been taking their olives
to two presses, one a traditional stone press, the other a
modern type called a horizontal decanter centrifuge. Each
will give a distinctly different oil from the same batch of
olives. The stone-pressed oil generally can be eaten right
away, while the centrifuged oil needs aging. The Madisons
plan to buy their own olive oil press in a year or two.
Mike has developed an innovative way of harvesting the olives.
Olives are a labor-intensive crop to harvest and the Madisons,
as with their flower production, just don't want to deal with
the headaches of having employees and all of the paperwork
and expenses they entail, especially in California. So Mike
is forming a cooperative in which members come to the farm
on designated harvest days to pick olives for a share of the
olive oil production. The cooperative will carry liability
insurance for the cooperative members, eliminating a lot of
the potential legal headaches. Mike will keep the trees pruned
low so that only minimal ladder work is needed.
In previous years Mike found that some people will pick ten
times more olives than others in course of a day. So he is
going with the traditional method of keeping track of what
a person harvests and giving them an according amount of olive
oil. By my calculation I might earn three liters of high quality
olive oil for a day of picking, guessing that I can pick half
of the 400 pounds that Mike picks in a day. High quality olive
oil runs $20-$50 a liter, so it sounds good to me. Mike keeps
a share of the oil that keeps him in business.
Designated harvest days are necessary since the minimum amount
of olives needed for pressing at a commercial press is one
ton and they need to be pressed the same day they are picked.
The harvest days are a social event as well, with a big meal
in the middle of the day. Members can pick on the days when
their preferred varieties are being harvested, and can have
Mike blend their oil from different varieties. "The members
also end up buying my oil, so my benefit is not limited to
the labor I get from them" says Mike.
A year's worth of high quality, local, organic olive oil for
a couple of days of picking sounds like something I would
like to do. Olive oil is right up there with wine, cheese,
and chocolate in the gustatory arena. With flowers as part
of the mix, I see lots of potential in this innovative farmer-food