Wandering through the wildlife habitat preserve on the Bowles Farming Co.'s ranch north of Los Banos, Calif., takes you back to the days of Miller and Lux, two names from centuries past synonymous with the agricultural greening of California's great central valley.

Wetlands meander through the property harboring ducks, geese and other waterfowl. Egrets stalk prey in the waterways. Pheasant scurry for cover in the native brush. It is as if time was turned back 150 years, except for manmade irrigation canals and adjacent fields awaiting the planters of the 2006 cotton crop.

The 13,130-acre Bowles spread is still farmed by descendents of Henry Miller of the legendary Miller & Lux.

Henry Miller and Charles Lux amassed hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the central valley as farmers and cattlemen. Much of it still yields a bountiful harvest each year. Miller and Lux were some of the early pioneers in developing irrigation systems for the valley where it does not rain in the summer.

Miller and Lux left unchanged significant portions of the land they accumulated beginning in the mid-1800s. Some of the original wetlands remain today around Los Banos where federal and state wildland reserves protect native species and harbor wildlife habitat mimicking patterns that date back to before Miller and Lux.

“Henry Miller was a visionary and also a conservationist,” says Cannon Michael, vice president of Bowles Farming and sixth generation descendent of Henry Miller. “He was responsible for saving the Tule Elk from being hunted into extinction, and even though the focus of this operation has always been farming, it never has been developed from corner to corner. There are still a lot of the original sloughs that run through this property.”

Native riparian areas

Michael and other family members actively manage native riparian areas intertwined with the vast farming operations to preserve waterfowl and other birds. An entire section of land has been set aside for a self-sustaining duck hunting club.

“From a farming perspective, it would be much easier to develop some of those pockets, straighten out the field shapes and streamline our operation,” Michael says. “We have a lot of point rows that make it more difficult to turn equipment. We've been operating 8-row equipment and are switching over to 10-row now. However, we cannot go to larger implements because it simply won't work on our fields. But that's OK. It's not our family philosophy to develop every square inch of property solely for the sake of agriculture. We believe we would be giving up more than we stand to gain.”

Maintaining wildlife refuge areas requires much more than just leaving things alone. Agriculture has forever altered the natural ebb and flow of environmental forces — particularly water — and has had a major impact on plant and wildlife species. Man must replicate the past to preserve wildlife areas.

“There used to be a lot of sugar beets here,” Michael says. “That was good for pheasant. When that stopped, the pheasant population went into a major decline. We're starting to rebuild that population by encouraging certain broadleaf weeds such as smartweed in the native areas that are a good habitat for them. The pheasant population is definitely making a comeback. So are the other bird species. Today, there are over 200 species of birds in the area plus the migratory birds that we see.”

Trees and shrubs are planted selectively to provide shade and habitat. “Black willow, cottonwood and buttonwillow generally will tolerate the alkaline soils of our area,” Michael says.

Invasive species management

Invasive species are managed with spot herbicide applications of Roundup or 2,4-D. Starthistle is the primary culprit. It is not native to California, but is now found on an estimated 12 million acres in the state, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Starthistle is a very aggressive invader and a voracious competitor of native vegetation.

Cocklebur is another control target. “We have not done much seeding,” Michael says, “but occasionally we have seeded ryegrass and other native grasses to add habitat. In the duck club we use irrigation timing to encourage different plants to grow. We can use quick irrigations to create pockets of beneficial plants like timothy and smartweed, while not leaving it too long to create too many tules.”

Whenever possible, mechanical removal of undesirable vegetation in the habitat areas is used.

Wildlife habitat management does not conflict with farming by creating any added weed or insect problems in adjacent crops, added Michael.

Approximately 12,000 acres of the ranch is farmed. About 50 percent of that is cotton, 40 percent in alfalfa and the remaining in tomatoes and small grains.

Insect balance

“We watch the perimeter areas where our fields border the wild areas, and for the most part we do not see a great insect influence from these areas,” he says. “Beneficial insects tend to keep it balanced for us.

“We use irrigation gates and valves to not only move water around for farming but wildlife habitat management as well. There are also ponds and levees to hold water where we want it. The center channel is wet year-round. We'll start flooding the outlying native habitat in the fall to create a brood habitat for birds. Then we'll start pulling the water off in March to enable germination and re-establish the native vegetation. We always leave brood water for the local ducks.”

In April and May when the chicks emerge, they have insects to eat and cover to duck into to hide from predators.

Some lands are flooded for the duck club as well as other areas of the ranch depending on habitat management goals. The entire process is monitored not only by physical inspection of the property, but also by satellite imagery.

“We use Landsat satellite imagery in our farming operation to look at field health,” Michael says. “We've also found that is a very useful tool to help manage the wildlife habitat areas. That's a lot of acres to check on foot so we use satellite imagery to make sure the water is flooding areas we want it to flood. We can also monitor the vegetation to a certain extent. If we see anything that looks out of whack, then we can go out and check those areas and make necessary adjustments.”

Maintaining wildlife habitat refuge costs money.

“Water can cost from $20-$40 per acre foot,” Michael says. “It is surface water, so pumping is not usually required. The property lies within the San Luis Canal Co. District.”

Cost share programs

There are a variety of state and federal cost share programs available for growers interested in establishing or maintaining a wildlife habitat preserve as well as other conservation projects. Information can be found online at:
http://www.fsa.usda.gov/dafp/cepd/crp.htm
http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/crp/

“We participate with the Farm Service Agency's Conservation Reserve Program,” Michael says. “We have a contract that provides us with a small amount of money to help with some of our costs in managing our duck club/preserve. Under that arrangement, we are inspected every year by the National Resource Conservation Service to ensure that we are complying with the terms of our contract.”

California's vast agricultural lands will never return to the days prior to Miller & Lux, but conservation efforts throughout the state by private landowners as well as state and federal agencies are returning portions of natural wetlands to their original health and vitality.

“This is a legacy that has been passed down to me by my family, and I want to pass it on to my children,” Michael says. “There is tremendous value in being able to appreciate the native environment and the wildlife it harbors. We're committed to making sure that privilege never completely disappears.”