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Reuben Ellis and the Pinocchio Protruding Proboscis Problem: The Magical Mulch Myth

Digger - January 04, 2008

Reuben Ellis (Ellis Farms, Inc.) should hope he is never called to testify in court. Like Pinocchio, he obviously has a problem telling "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

In the 13 December 2007 issue of the Borrego Sun, Ellis' faux folksy "Borrego Farm Corner," a paid advertisement calculated to soften the rapacious image of corporate agriculture in the valley, states that:

As part of our long range voluntary water use reduction plan at Ellis Farms, this spring we introduced the use of an agricultural shredder to our field nursery operations... the shredded material [dead palm fronds pruned from the trees] left between the rows acts as an effective mulch, reducing the loss of irrigation water through evaporation. Studies have shown that mulch can reduce evaporation from the soil surface by as much as 70% compared to bare soil.

Gary S. Bender Ph.D., Farm Advisor, Subtropical Horticulture, University of California Cooperative Extension, questions whether Ellis's claim of a 70% saving of water evaporated from the soil surface is valid. He opines that "mulching mature trees would not reduce water use very much... The reduction of evaporation of 70% might be true with bare soil in the open sun, but not with trees shading the ground."

According to Bender, "90% of applied water is used for evapotranspiration up through the tree." The remaining 10% is lost from the soil surface by evaporation or used to leech salts from the root zone of the trees. He also points out "that mulching with wood chips creates a lot of surface area for evaporation before the water reaches the soil;" and therefore may actually facilitate rather than retard water loss to evaporation.

Furthermore, in April 2000, the Borrego Water District directors "authorized spending $4,000 for meters [tensiometers] to monitor a one year study that might lead to savings of over 3,000 ac/ft of water per year in the Borrego valley by spreading a compost of green and woody waste on agricultural land. A VP of California Bio Mass, Inc., a recycling and organics company, told directors the compost has been shown to reduce water usage by 22%, but admitted that the EPA 'has calculated savings of 10 to 20%.'"

In Feb 2002, BWD directors approved another $1,500 of rate payer money to fund a study of mulching mature citrus trees as a water conservation measure.

In June 2003, a BWD document entitled "Status Of Work To Resolve Groundwater Overdraft" notes in a section captioned "Informational and technical programs for agriculture," that "We [BWD] assisted in funding the program for experimenting with heavy mulching. So far it has not proven very effective in reducing water use."

The minutes of the BWD's 3rd Annual Groundwater Management Town Hall Meeting, 25 March 2004, contain only a brief, uninformative reference to a report on the study made at the meeting: "Agricultural Alliance for Water And Resource Education" (AAWARE) presentation on mulching and agricultural water use survey (Steve Smiley)."

Apparently, the worthies on the BWD board, in their wisdom, did not require a written final report on the results of the study despite their generous financial support of it using rate payers' dollars. In any case, none was ever filed with the BWD; so there is only meager documentation and anecdotal evidence (the BWD board's favorite kind) of the results. The latter indicates that the difference between the mulched plot(s) and those where the soil was left bare in the study was statistically insignificant; i.e., for all practical purposes there was no difference in water use.

Evidently, Ellis did not consult any of the legitimate research on mulching in the Borrego Valley and environments like it; preferring instead to rely on unidentified "studies" that, according to him, purport to show dramatic water savings.

Pretty clearly Ellis had ulterior motives for making these grossly exaggerated, but carefully crafted, claims. In the first instance, it is likely that he hoped they would be understood by residents of the valley as saving 70% of all irrigation water applied and garner him far more credit than he is due, if any, for reducing water use and correcting the long"standing overdraft of the Borrego valley aquifer.

Moreover, Ellis is surely aware that the days of open burning of agricultural waste - the usual and cheapest method of disposing of it - are numbered in California given the state's increasing emphasis on aggressively reducing carbon emissions. By switching to mulching to dispose of such waste now, he is simply trying to get ahead of the curve in order to burnish his image, and with it that of corporate agriculture in the valley, by making a virtue of necessity.

Finally, Ellis Farms has for several years been trying to open additional acres to agriculture, but has been frustrated by the county of San Diego's requirement that any new water use in the valley, such as expanded agricultural operations, be mitigated by real water savings equal to the new water use. Ellis has apparently approached the county with several highly imaginative schemes in an attempt to game the system, but has thus far been rebuffed because the county found them insufficient and unacceptable. Nonetheless, it is not unlikely that Ellis will now try to use his exaggerated claims of water savings from mulching to satisfy the county's requirement - despite the fact that they are patently unfounded and should be rejected out of hand.

This is but yet another example of corporate agriculture's continuing efforts to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear by misrepresenting and distorting the facts. These guys don't do anything unless it pencils out to their economic advantage or they are forced to do it. Notwithstanding all of his happy talk, Ellis is no exception. Indeed, as the above demonstrates, he represents one of the more egregious examples of corporate agriculture's greed and deceitfulness.

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