By Ellen T. Birrell 

We are hard to find. If you were to search our address for directions, you would only get to the end of the county maintained road about two miles away. You could spy on us with Google Earth, but only if you knew where to look. You might see an old farmhouse surrounded by citrus orchards spinning out until the gravitational pull of human order–houses, gardens, gadgets and pavement give way to the more enduring force of the Santa Clara River on our northern border, carrying the mountain away, down the valley to the sea. The river has sucked at the toe of that mountain for eons.

Green creates topography. I knew this primate truth early. When I was growing up long ago and far away, I played in my neighbor’s rhododendron forest. The game was to climb a tree at one end of the yard, and not touch the ground until I had to go home for lunch. My young monkey brain discovered early on that trees offer heights to scale, shelter, safety, and probably–although I always enjoyed my peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the kitchen with Mom–food. I know; any geologist would complain too. A minion of Big Science, he would politely explain that rocks and dirt and glaciers, and rain and frost and faults create Topography, and pull out his Dibblee map to show me, yet again, the hard and soft facts of the old ground around us. His topography is brown, mineral and durable. Mine is green, breathing, and vulnerable. As a suddenly late-in-life citrus farmer, I have staked my welfare on green topography, and depend on the food part of trees pretty heavily without having climbed one in longer than I care to remember. If I had the guts, strength, or the imagination of my earlier selves, this farm’s thirty acres of citrus orchards would entertain me with lifetimes of tree-top travel.

As a thoroughly adult and grounded biped, I have had an arm’s length relation to the farm. I have accounted for it through taxes and “inputs” bought and paid for, like sprinkler heads and herbicides. I have savored its aesthetic spectacle during many labyrinthine walks.

“Miracle Monocrop Under Moonlight” is highly recommended. In the stark light of day, I have
calculated its more pragmatic qualities, sometimes at my computer, sometimes in the field with the pickers, to glean and check that all is well.  After all, this green has produced the green that has allowed us to live here. From my arm’s length distance, any question of “how does this work” over the years has garnered a dizzying array of partial answers. In the last two years, I have learned there is no arm’s length approximation for farm life.

The river has unraveled its moist embrace of our land, retreating to the hot broody hinterlands upstream. My 7 and 9-year-old friends, Metta and Josie, visited recently. They always make a trek to a sloppy mud bank off our west end with big rubber boots on, calling it “Icky Icky Island.” This year they went in sneakers and reported the island “just sand.” California is experiencing its worst drought in recorded history. Big Science, that assiduous analyst of tiny data, announced in the newspapers that as water disappears from the land, the geography of the state is actually changing altitude, rising measurably from the burden of the water’s staggering weight. ( Luckily some previous steward of this place piped in a drinking water supply from the city of Santa Paula, but this farm has drawn irrigation water from the river since 1908.

What little river water might still flow this far downstream has been pent-up behind a dirt dam, pooled for exclusive use of a land-lease upstream from us, an industrial scale row-crop concern. They are harvesting green in all senses every three weeks—chard, kale, cilantro, watercress, celery—all fast money in the bank to them.  Downstream, the river is bone dry.  The 30 acre organic lemon farm and the 80 acre golf course are both irrigating with drinking water from the City of Santa Paula municipal supply, and we are too.  We are all trying to keep our greens alive until it rains, until fire season passes, until the drought is over, until we run out of money, until, until, until…. The sky is, truly, falling, but not in the wet way we need.

I think of the farm’s irrigation system as part of a vast plastic circulatory system insinuated just beneath the skin of the land. You might assume the analogy is only half true; the system has arteries and a pump, but no veins or lungs. I thought so too, at my desk paying bills. But as any born farmer will tell you, our green topography does the other half, fruiting, feeding, exhaling oxygen and moisture back to the ether to form clouds. The ranch’s current river collection system dates from 1996. Imagine perforated plastic fingers spreading out horizontally in the gravel about 25 feet below the surface flow of the river and add a pump. When the river flows, this “infiltration gallery” collects 600 gallons of river water per minute. From a 20-thousand-gallon tank in the orchard where we planted our first tangerines, the water is distributed through 12 irrigation zones on the ranch, so normally it takes about 12 days to get all the orchards watered doing one 8-hour irrigation set a day. Irrigation and weed management is why the ranch has always had a full-time employee.

Watering the farm with our drinking water supply water now takes more than two months, with all hands–including mine–on deck. I am up by dawn, pulling on scruffy clothes in the dark, usually the same ones I left on the floor yesterday. Dawn used to be earlier, but the nights are getting longer. With the recent mountain lion sighting on the ranch at dusk, I am content to sleep in ’til full light.

Our daily job is to shepherd tiny water (think garden hose, not fire hydrant) from one area of the orchards to another, a network of valves turned on or off, a different combination each time we change a set, two sets a day. The cardinal rule of irrigation is always having a place for the water to go; if the pump is on but the valves are closed, water pressure will rupture the pipe couplings somewhere. Our ranch foreman, Gerardo, got sick one week, and a young friend of his, Antonio, and I tried to get the irrigation done without him. It did not take us 20 minutes to blow the couplers at the pump wide open, knocking the whole damn Tinker Toy system off line for 3 days while we glued it back together.

The 12 irrigation zones have 90 sub-valves. Each one opens an underground pipe to which any number of PVC risers are connected. The risers, mounted perpendicular to the pipe, come up about a foot to 18 inches above the soil, that is unless the soil surface level has changed—sometimes we have to dig them up. There is a thumb valve about 6 inches from the top which is crowned with a T shaped coupler into which is fitted a length of irrigation hose. With the pump on, valves open, we wait for the water. We observe the day’s varying pressure and decide how many valves and risers we can open. (We can tell when the golf course is running more than 3 sprinklers, because our pressure drops.)  Any sets smaller than 20 trees we just walk away from, hoping there will be more pressure next time we make it around. We can’t even get water to the top of the east end tangerines (zone 10). There are about 150 trees up there that will just have to hold on until rain comes.

Changing this morning’s set—the tangerine trees on the firebreak above the west end—we arrived only moments after a coyote had gnawed one end of the hose out of the T-coupler to grab a drink. The water had not run long enough to wash much of Sugar Mountain away.

I got my first badge of honor about a month into this work. Gerardo gave me my own irrigator’s bag; a scavenged grain sack with a shoulder strap of braided baling twine. Our bags carry plastic jars full of irrigation bits—various sprinkler heads, couplers and tiny plugs—and needle-nosed pliers, sharpened pruning shears, and compression couplers. Working under the lowest branches, I have learned to wear my baseball cap backwards, like the homies. With the brim in front, my vision is obscured and I keep hitting my head. Backwards, the cap still protects my scalp from lemon thorns.

The color of the tiny stripe on the irrigation hose probably means something—capacity, plastic grade, manufacturer or temperature range—but now as labor in the field, there is a lot I don’t need to know.  Just clip the hose and push the ends into the T at the top of the riser. It is a compression coupling and takes a bit of strength. The hose unfurls at the base of the trees in that row, and is sealed at the end by threading it back and forth through the two holes of a clamp shaped like a figure eight. The clamp slips off easily, and this too is useful, because the lines clot with river silt regularly. 

Our capillaries are tiny hoses—3/8ths of an inch—anchored at one end in the irrigation hose with a tiny coupler from my jar, threaded through a plastic stake pushed into the dirt and capped with an emitter, also in my jar of bits, that might be simply described as a sprinkler head, except that they are marvels of miniature design, some no bigger than half an inch. They too are color coded, and manufactured in a dizzying array of volume capacities and spray patterns that I cannot and do not need to parse.  These little miracles come bagged by the 50 count, and we use them in the orchards like TV cops pop donuts.

Each emitter must be checked as the water comes through the valves. Sometimes they are buried in the leaf litter or knocked over entirely. I pull up the stakes and re-set them, making sure the spray doesn’t’t hit the trunk—a fast way to root rot. Sometimes the tiny hoses have pulled off their coupler, or somehow the coupler has broken and must be dug out of the big hose with needle nose pliers and replaced before reconnecting the emitter tube. Gerardo tells me to cut lemon twigs sporting especially long thorns. Scary green stilettos, good ones are as much as two inches long—no emitter harboring snail scum or river silt stands a chance against them. I stab and suck them clean. Gerardo shows me that the shorter lemon thorns are great for plugging small bites in the hoses; just cut the thorn off and stick the pointy end in the hole—the width at the base of the thorn is usually big enough to match thirsty rodent teeth. Thus, in a manner of speaking, the lemon trees repair themselves; Gera and I perform the systemic immune response with thumbs and tools and thorns.

We circulate from row to row, always in a hurry to arrive before it’s too late, always in a hurry to move on. The trees stand and wait, patiently green, until suddenly, without complaint, they are not.

I can see generations of owners, myself included, who have made “check-book decisions” about expanding the orchards, tucking in a few extra trees every time we do replants, because, like donuts, nursery whips are cheaper by the dozen. This kind of arm’s length thinking can get you into trouble, in my case literally—I torqued my back repeatedly on long muddy slides down the mountain. I know where those tuck-in trees are planted, and because I am old and creaky, I have a deep appreciation of the categories “nearly impossible” and “dangerous” that youth might not notice and labor has never been authorized to point out.

On the irrigation crew, I am labor–newly and once again muscle, observation and strategy–as I was as a child in the rhododendrons. I am often sore, and acutely aware that at sixty, I can no longer bid my body do as I did in my thirties. Managerial abstraction (not to say as Marx might, alienation) in this sense comes naturally with age. I cannot do everything Gerardo can—he is half my age. In joining the effort, I must draw on other strengths.  With my up close and muddy point of view, I plan the lineaments of a much smaller and more productive orchard, one that generates sufficient green but also preserves firebreaks, because out here green and brown create fire topographies as well as compost.

Here, where the land leaks a muddy flux into the river and on, down to the sea, fossils reveal an older sea floor, high above our heads on Sugar Mountain, parched and flaked by our desert sun. Skeletons of sand dollars and seafoam, little fishies and odd plant-life, long caught as snapshots in the slurry under the surface, translated by time and heat and pressure–and the multi-millennial meanderings of water over the surface of our globe. After two summers of the river’s absence, I know none of us—neither the legged nor the leaved—does the work of living out here alone. I hope the water returns soon.

About the Author:


Ellen Birrell is an artist and lemon farmer in Ventura County, California. She co-found and edits X-TRA ( and has taught at CalArts since 1991.