It’s not easy driving through Siskiyou County’s Scott Valley in far Northern California.
It’s difficult to keep your eyes on the road. The small, idyllic valley of hay fields and grazing cattle and horses is encased by the snow-capped peaks of Marble Mountain Wilderness to the west and to the east is a smaller range. Forests of tanbark oak, madrone and Douglas fir define the edge of the 28-mile long, six-mile wide valley that sits at 2,500 to 3,000 feet in elevation. It’s dotted with small towns and small family farms.
Deer are everywhere and around each corner; you are distracted by the opportunity to capture a view of mesmerizing Mt. Shasta, the 14,179-feet high snow-capped citadel that defines far Northern California where the Golden State meets Oregon.
There remains a frontier feel to this part of California, reminiscent of the Gold Rush and westward migration of the 1800s. It still feels like this is where a young man could get his start.
Farmer Brandon Fawaz of Ft. Jones, Calif., did just that. His Scott Valley agricultural career began early as a freshman in Etna High School in Etna, Calif., one of the four towns in the valley.
He bought a well-used harrow bed; rebuilt it “piece-by-piece” as part of an FFA project and started his custom farming business, hauling hay bales. It was a cabless and gasoline-powered bale pickup wagon, but he was young and didn’t know better.
“I really did know better because I had asthma and hay fever,” laughed Fawaz. However, that didn’t stop him from his taking the first step toward his goal of working in Scott Valley agriculture.
Unusual start for Scott Valley farmer
He did not come from a farming background. His father is a retired California Highway Patrolman and his mother is a school administrator. The family moved to Scott Valley in 1983. You can tell he is the son of a police officer. Asked to spell his name, he recites, “Foxtrot, Alpha, Whiskey, Alpha, Zebra.” Fawaz is Lebanese.
Fawaz has progressed well beyond that rebuilt bale hauler. He:
- Farms 1,400 acres of irrigated hay.
- Has a college degree in business.
- Operates a custom agchem and fertilizer sales and application business and is a state-licensed qualified applicator.
- Provides custom farming services for local growers.
- Was just appointed to his second term on the Siskiyou (County) Golden Fair Board.
- Is past president and still director of Siskiyou County Farm Bureau.
- Is a Scott Valley elected trustee for the Siskiyou County Office of Education.
- Owns one-third interest in a private airplane and expects to complete his check ride soon for his private pilot’s license.
And he is only 30 years old. Still single, but “happily engaged,” his fiancé keeps the books for his enterprises.
He attended community college after high school and was accepted to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, University of California, Davis and Chico State. He was ready to pack his bags for Cal Poly when he was told he could make $19,000 per year with his degree.
He was already earning more than that. “I would have had to let all the custom work go to get an education and I would have had to start over when I came back home. It never made sense to me,” he said. He did not abandon his education goal. He earned a business degree online from a Florida university while he grew his agricultural businesses.
Fawaz agrees it is not easy for a young person to start farming. “When I started, I was living at home. That, hands down, was the biggest help I got. My parents also co-signed a couple of loans so I could buy equipment.” By living at home, he could put all his profits back into the business.
Early on his goal of farming took a bit of a turn. “I leased my first ground in 2004, and the man I got my chemicals from needed help. It worked out for us both. I definitely learned from his 30 years of experience.”
Fawaz eventually went off on his own into agchem and fertilizer sales along with his application services.
“I wanted to become a PCA (pest control adviser), but when I finished my degree, they had changed the rules to become a PCA by then and I had not taken the right classes in college,” he explained. He would eventually like to get his PCA license to bolster his farm management business by taking on larger farming operation. However, for now his plate is obviously full.
Forages and grains are the primary crops in Scott Valley. Northern California forages are called intermountain hay and considered overall better quality than hay from lower elevation, warmer farming areas.
Three hay cuttings yearly
Fawaz gets three cuttings of hay per year. Much of it goes into the retail market. “Hay growers in places like Butte Valley pride themselves on putting up a lot of high quality dairy hay. We cannot really compete with that. I pride myself on putting up a lot of big hay … high-yielding good quality hay.”
He will put up hay from up to 4,500 aces per year. Maybe 500 of that will go into the dairy market. “I don’t avoid the dairies. It is just not where I want to go.
“I have worked with the same hay broker since I started farming, and he tells me I have repeat customers for my hay who like the quality and consistency,” he said.
University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor Steve Orloff researched and introduced the idea of mixing alfalfa and orchard grass in the 1990s. That has been very successful for Scott Valley growers, some of whom ship this mix all the way to San Diego — a 700 mile trip one way — to supply a demanding horse market.
Fawaz has a 50-50 mix of alfalfa and alfalfa/orchardgrass fields. He likes to get 3 tons per acre on his first cutting of straight alfalfa, but it is not dairy quality. He shoots for 2 to 2.25 tons on the second cutting and 1.25 to 1.75 tons per acre on the third. With the orchardgrass/alfalfa mix he tries to get a little more on first cutting without losing quality. His second and third cuttings of the forage mix yield a little less than straight alfalfa.
He bales anywhere from 90-140 pound three-strand bales. He also puts up hay in a 3-by-4 foot big bale weighing 1,400 to 1,500 pounds.
All his ground is leased, usually on a five-year contract. Wheel lines deliver the irrigation water on all but three fields where there are center pivots. “I will pay more rent for a pivot,” he added.
He has cut back on his acreage. He once rented 2,100 acres. “I am down 300 to 400 acres from last year, figuring it is better to work smarter than harder. And I have put up more hay this year by learning how to be more efficient,” he said.
He wants to get five years from a pure alfalfa stand before interplanting orchardgrass. He believes alfalfa uses less water and fertilizer than orchardgrass. “I also believe a good healthy stand of alfalfa will produce a half ton more per acre than grass."
Interplanting orchardgrass in the alfalfa will extend the life of the forage field three to four years.
“We would get more life from a stand if we did not have the rodent problem like we do. Gophers are hard to get rid of.”
Fawaz analyzes soils and tissues each year to determine fertilizer use. Orloff, who has known Fawaz since he was in high school, says the young grower relies on nutrient sampling more than most.
“It is a lot cheaper than buying fertilizer you do not need,” Fawaz noted. “I don’t think people pay enough attention to other nutrients in orchardgrass besides nitrogen.”
No shortcuts for field establishment
Fawaz believes there should be no shortcuts in establishing an alfalfa field. Asked what he believes are the three most important elements. He said No. 1 and No. 2 are “good seed bed and good seed bed — for good soil to seed contact.”
No. 3 is good weed control prior to seeding. Irrigating a new stand is just as important. Alfalfa needs water frequently during stand establishment, “not necessarily a lot of water, but water at the right time.”
His best stands have been cross drilled compared to the more common practice of drilling and broadcasting in one pass.
“Cross drilling is an old practice. It costs more money to do it, but you get the best stand,” he said, adding it is particularly challenging to cross drill under a pivot where the rows are in a circle, but it can be done.
Fawaz is convinced spending the money necessary to get a good stand pays off financially in the long term.
Fawaz does not have any Roundup Ready alfalfa, but he provides some custom services in herbicide tolerant fields.
“It is great, but it is no panacea,” said Orloff. It has its place where there are troublesome weeds that can only be controlled by Roundup, like quackgrass.
“If you have a particular weed problem that Roundup can take care of, it makes sense. However, from my perspective, Roundup is a cheap herbicide and farmers tend to rely on it too much. That results in weed shifts.”
“Growers practicing good weed control probably do not need herbicide-resistant alfalfa,” said Orloff.
Orloff and other UC forage specialists have worked extensively since before it was introduced. This research has defined many advantages, as well as better developing the best management practices for herbicide resistant alfalfa. Even through years of work, Orloff has discovered in the limited commercial fields that went in before the ban on seed sales was imposed that there is one area where it has a great fit.
“If you plant a stand and it has bare spots after it is up, you can spray the Roundup to get rid of the weeds in those patchy areas and replant the spots. It does not hurt the established alfalfa. You cannot do that with conventional alfalfa. That can be a big advantage for Roundup Ready alfalfa,” Orloff said.
Fawaz gives plenty of credit to Orloff and Dan Drake, the livestock farm advisor in the UCCE county office, for his success at such a young age.
“Steve and Dan help every farmer and rancher here maintain profitability by providing an unbiased link between the grower and other parts of the industry,” he said. “They are not trying to sell us anything — only providing us with information we can go out and use as best management approaches to our crops and animals.”