My husband and I were visiting family in Southern California last week. We drove out to the Santa Rosa Valley one morning to see Uncle Pete who lives on a small ranch at the brow of a hill overlooking a park of eucalyptus trees and avocado groves. It had been brutal all week in the valleys with temperatures over 100º but the ocean breathed gently across the hilltops and lifted the burden of heat for the day.
My husband’s uncle raises quarter horses in Oklahoma and keeps several palominos and bays on his California property. Most ranchers are dependant on hay for fodder to feed their livestock, but hay has recently gone from $150 to $300 per ton because of widespread drought conditions in the United States. It makes it difficult for even the backyard horseman to keep many animals.
Uncle Pete hasn’t got pasture on his ranch so he bought an Australian-made hydroponics unit from a farmer in Bakersfield who couldn’t figure out how to keep the sprouts he was growing from molding. We drove golf carts down the hill from the house to the horse corrals and stood beneath the cool, breezy shade of eucalyptus trees, listening to the 81 year-old great-grandfather describe with a lingering trace of Oklahoma drawl his trials and errors as he tinkered with the unit over the past six months. Then he demonstrated how he grows the luscious green barley mats he calls "biscuits" that account for two-thirds of his horses’ diet. He couldn’t produce enough feed to sustain them with the single unit, so he built another one himself for a fraction of the cost. The new unit isn’t climatized and hasn’t been tested through the winter, but I am still impressed.
The whole process is rather too labor-intensive for a man of Pete’s age, so his next challenge, he says, is to make it easier. He’s not an armchair man, and he’s still got the curiosity, ingenuity and drive of a self-made man, so I think he’ll do it. Maybe someday in the future school children will be reading about Eli Whitney's cotton gin and Hydroponic Pete on their iPad textbooks.