Thursday, March 28, 2013

Jobs, School and Fun

I want to share some news with those of you still read this long-neglected blog: I got a job.  After I finish my Master of Professional Accountancy at UC Davis this June, I’ll be working full time for the California State Auditor in Sacramento.  I received the job offer and accepted it back in February; I meant to share this sooner but was deeply involved in my classes until I finished finals last week. 
UC Davis Sunset
When I took my first accounting course over two years ago, this isn’t where I imagined I’d end up.  I became interested in accounting through agriculture.  At first I knew little about what a CPA does and whether or not that’s what I wanted to become.  I figured I could take a couple more accounting classes and find a job at some farm business in the area, where hopefully I’d get a little hands-on accounting experience. 

At the beginning of 2012 I realized I needed to leave the farm.  I’d had enough of leaky rice irrigation waders and yield monitor maps so decided to commit to accounting and become a CPA.  I looked around for graduate programs to meet California’s new CPA requirements, found the new Masters in Professional Accountancy at UC Davis and applied.  

One afternoon in early May, Professor Snyder called me to share the good news that I had been accepted to the graduate program at UC Davis.  I was so excited that afterwards while loading an ATV into the back of my work truck, I revved it up too much and slammed it very hard against the toolbox in the front of the bed.  After that the toolbox would sometimes pop open while driving those bumpy farm roads in South Sutter.  

In an attempt to bridge my interest in farming and accounting, I wanted to specialize in agricultural accounting when I first started graduate school.  Since the job search began immediately, I sent out my resume to a few firms that served clients in food and ag.  One firm in Fresno offered me an interview.   It seemed like a great place to work, since their clients included nearly every kind of agricultural operation from cotton gins to cheese making plants to citrus packing and almond hulling. 

Almonds, Yolo County, March 2013
After my interview in Fresno, I realized that despite my interest in farming, the firm wasn’t the right fit for me.  I will say that Fresno may get a bad rap but they have excellent carne asada tacos, Armenian bakeries and Mexican ice cream (chongos!).  After I returned to Sacramento after the three hour drive up the San Joaquin Valley, I began to let go of this idea of agricultural accounting (I held onto the food memories of Fresno a bit more).  I didn’t feel like repeating the Fresno experience in other agribusiness hotspots like Bakersfield, Salinas, Visalia or elsewhere, regardless of the cuisines those locals may offer.  

Other factors in my job search became more important to consider as Fall Quarter progressed.  I felt less and less inclined to relocate somewhere new and start from scratch at the beginning of my new career.  Being near classmates and not having to sever the ties I’ve made in the Sacramento-Davis-South Sutter area mattered more than wheat cooperative taxation in rural Eastern Washington.  I knew I had to cast a wider net locally so I could stay closer to home.  
American River, Sacramento, Fall 2012
When I first considered becoming a CPA I imagined myself preparing taxes at a smaller accounting firm.  However, as time progressed I realized audit is where it’s at in the accounting world.  Auditors work in teams, they get to travel sometimes and they are like detectives, unearthing the mysteries of an entity’s finances and controls.  In addition, they don’t have to deal much with that labyrinth of the tax code that is ruled over by our favorite government agency, the IRS.

When a recruiter from the California State Auditor presented to our audit class in November, I got excited.  The public service element of the work connects with my experience teaching in low-income schools in the Bay Area.  The type and variety of assignments at the State Auditor promise endless learning and the work-life balance seemed much more balanced.  When I interviewed at the State Auditor’s office on Capitol Mall in Sacramento, I something about the place just felt right in a way that other accounting offices I’d visited hadn’t.  

Though I am excited about my career and am glad I decided to pursue a master’s in accounting at UC Davis, being a full time student isn’t without its struggles.  This quarter in Intermediate Accounting we read a 1500 page textbook: I nearly drowned in the ‘Dollar Value LIFO Pool’ and got very lost in the ‘Corridor’ of Pension Accounting.  Grad school is rewarding, but it packs a punch.  
Oak Collection, UC Davis Arboretum, March 2013
I survived this odyssey into the depths of GAAP, itemized deductions and variance analysis thanks to a few things.  One of these is that I started doing Latin dance after the New Year: I immersed myself in it and took classes at the rec center and at a small studio in town.  I also joined the student salsa club, where we have been practicing a really fun choreographed routine to the Bachata song “No Vuelva” in a chemistry lecture hall.  In addition, I spend nearly every Tuesday night attempting to Salsa, Bachata, Merengue and sometimes Cumbia and Kizomba on the dance floor at the Davis Grad, which is conveniently located across the street from my apartment.  
EC Garden, UC Davis
Also within a short walk of my apartment is the Experimental College Community Garden.  I used to take walks here, because it is such a beautiful spot.  The possibility of having a garden there this season became more real after I had accepted the position at the State Auditor.  My employment last season kept me too busy during April and May, and after I started summer school classes in June, it was too late to plant.  This year I have my own plot and I’ve been spending much of my spring break in the garden.  It feels great to have my digging fork in my hands again, turning over the rich, loose soil and contemplating the summer harvest.  
My plot, EC Garden

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lessons from Rice Farming

Note—I have left the names of businesses and individuals out; privacy is the priority at the expense of making this less personal.

So it's been a long time since I've written anything on this blog, nearly a year in fact.  Last fall, I wrote prolifically about all sorts of things related to farming, and even though I am no longer farming, I will stick with the theme.  I am still here in the Central Valley of California, but hydraulic hoses, rice irrigation boards and white Ford Ranger trucks with screwdrivers as radio antennae are no longer a part of my life.  I am not posting any photos of the current work I do as an accounting graduate student at UC Davis: images of Bond Premium Amortization Schedules, Audit flowcharts and Section 179 property deductions somehow don’t compare with giant rice combines, grain bins full of popcorn and views across endless fields towards the Sutter Buttes.  I am not trying to drive off the few readers I still have, so I will include some recycled rice farming photos from months ago.  

Sutter Buttes, Dec 31, 2011
So what is the connection between the two?  How do I go from a life of farming in the rice country of South Sutter County to being a Master of Professional Accountancy student at UC Davis' Graduate School of Management?  I am not going to tell the story of how I got from one place to another, of how I got interested in accounting.  This is the story I constantly repeat in one form or another to fellow classmates, interviewers and many others, and there is another I’d like to tell instead. In the past few weeks, I’ve realized how profoundly farming has shaped who I am.  In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I would like to share my gratitude for all that farming has done for me.  At the same time, I also cannot ignore that the negative aspects of rice farming are still very much a part of my life.

Wheat, Dec 31, 2011 (your truly made all those perfectly straight beds, thanks to a GPS tractor)
 This past September I started a Master in Professional Accountancy program at UC Davis.  From the beginning, we were thrown into the career development, aka, job search process.  Recruitment for the big accounting firms began as soon as we walked in the door.  Was I prepared?  Not really.  I ended up buying a suit—the first one I’d purchased since high school graduation—the night before our big job fair, using the bonus I’d received from the farm when I left in August.  These initial days of school, where I felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants, reminded me of ‘water on’, that intense month of work during May and early June when we flooded over 1,000 acres of rice fields in preparation for planting.  During the first few weeks of graduate school, I reminded myself that if I could survive ‘water on’ I could survive this.  And I did.  Even though I didn’t get hired by one of the ‘Big Four’ firms, I at least looked good in my new suit, had a couple initial interviews that allowed me to get the jitters out and became more and more efficient about getting my school work done.  

Water's on, May 2012
Initially, when I first started graduate school, I looked back on farming with ambivalence.  I wondered at times why I hadn’t had a more ‘normal’ job working at an accounting firm or doing some kind of financial stuff (I actually tried unsuccessfully to get a job at an accounting firm last January and decided to stay on the farm).  It has been hard to explain to people what farming was really about.  The majority of my time on the farm I spent in the office, either making Excel spreadsheets for agronomy research or inventories, entering in time card data or researching topics including labor law, fuel storage regulations or corn cutworms.  However, during the harvest in the Fall I surveyed fields, had a stint driving tractor preparing fields for wheat planting and also coordinated a few days of the rice harvest.  In the planting season in Spring I helped flood rice fields and manage water levels.  This is not a straightforward thing to explain although people who know farming in the Valley understand the whole process.  When I began school, farming became something to flee from; if I lost motivation while studying, I imagined belted tractors (with no bonus burritos or cigarettes in the cab) or angry wasps and black widow spiders coming after me.  This helped me finish my tax reading when my concentration lagged.

Flooding a rice field, May 2012
But fear only works as a motivating factor for so long.  As the first few weeks of graduate school passed, I found myself waking up at night thinking about the farm.  I realized that I was in the midst of a culture shock and that instead of wanting to run away from South Sutter County and never look back, I missed a lot about it.  No, I am perfectly happy wearing a nice clothes and not having to worry about the things that could potentially ruin them, including, but not limited to: muddy dog paws, hydraulic fluid, rice field slime, that red grease that always leaks out of a chorizo burrito, sooty Johnsongrass pollen, motor oil, pump grease, pump oil, smoking oil from a poorly maintained ATV and did I say dust?  I don’t miss those things.  What I found myself missing is the people of farming, and the people have become a major motivation in school and life.  

Tractors, Dec 31, 2011
The farming landscape of South Sutter County is unforgiving: the machines stop for no one (only for breakdowns, which are frequent); in the summer, the heat can be intense and brutal, and the work doesn’t wait.  This place creates a particular class of people that are tough, ingenious, resilient and incredibly hard working. The guys on the rancho have myriad ways to survive the heat and the long days, including bringing enough burritos to stave off hunger during a 14 hour shift, as well as a remate stand’s worth of fruit for health and energy, and of course the frozen Gatorade.  This last trick became my favorite: when you bring a frozen Gatorade to work at 7 AM, it’s still ice cold when you crack it open at 3 PM it tastes like heaven and for a moment you forget that you still have five hours of work ahead of you.  

Combines, Dec 31, 2011
I think of the tough people in South Sutter County when school seems tough.  I think of the guys who spend 90 plus hour workweeks irrigating the crops, or who operate combines—solo of course—for weeks on end until the harvest is done.  I also think of the youth and the women, who are equally tough and who hold things down despite the fact that the men often indulge in vices to excess when they get off work.  I think of all of them, and whatever I’m doing doesn’t seem so hard anymore.  I stop complaining and I feel humble.  This is perhaps the most important thing that farming taught me: how to be humble.  When you're around people who spend their lives doing work that you can barely handle for a day and people who even though they may have stopped school after eighth grade are smarter, more ingenious and way, way better at fixing things than you ever will be, that makes you humble, despite educational pedigrees and grad school admission letters.  I am frustrated that our broken immigration system keeps many people from getting an education and realizing their potential, but it would also be a shame if I didn’t realize my own.  For that reason, I am very grateful for the opportunity to continue my education and find a career beyond the rice fields.  

Spring in Sutter County, CA
 Despite all the positive things that farming did for me, the work took a toll on me.  One has to take the good with the bad in life, the challenge for me is to hold onto the good I take from farming—the humility, work ethic and the ability to persevere—while leaving behind the bad.  At the heart of it, rice farming is a lonesome trade.  Spending 12 hours a day in a tractor is lonely, same goes for doing solo irrigation or field surveys.  Profoundly lonesome in a way that I could never have imagined at my previous job at an elementary school.  At first, I found rice farming a peaceful change from my old work, and it certainly had many moments of tranquility: the beauty of looking across a field lush with flowering yellow mustards in March towards the snow covered mountains or making an early Sunday morning round of the rice fields listening to soothing trio music on the radio.  I appreciated very much the company of co-workers when I had it, for they were the best part of the experience, but there was far too much alone time.  Even though it’s been since June that I stopped farming full time (August part-time) I have a hard time being alone for much time, and I have no desire to do activities like hiking alone like I used to.  The isolation and the intensity of rice farming made me feel bitter and detached at times from others not familiar with the realities the lifestyle.  The long hours during busy season exhausted me and left me with little energy to socialize even though it was what I needed most.  I didn’t reach out to old friends enough and I felt myself drifting away from some of them.  Being alone so much damaged my social skills, and I found myself becoming more and more like those irrigation ditch tenders who, when they corner you, will talk your ear off nonstop until you somehow manage to escape.  When I left farming and began the transition to school life, this is what I sought desperately to leave behind.  But now I have come to realize that I am proud to have farmed rice in Sutter County, CA.  I am slowly figuring out how to move beyond the negative parts of rice farming while not forgetting the people and the work and the powerful lessons I learned from both. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wintertime Summer

Any reader who lives in Northern California is well aware that we've had hardly a trace of rainfall in these parts since Thanksgiving.  In all the time I've lived here in the Golden State, it's the longest 'rainy season' dry streak I can remember.  Although I appreciate more sun during what is usually a gray time of year, this 'Wintertime Summer' is impacting the agricultural landscape in some not so positive ways. 

No green in the fields, no clouds in the sky
I work on an organic farm.  One of the cornerstones of organic farming is that we do not use synthetic fertilizers to grow our crops.  Instead, we apply poop from a chicken factory farm (mostly to the popcorn fields) and rely on green manures to provide fertility to the soil.  A green manure--also known as a cover crop--is planted to fix nitrogen or add biomass and organic matter to the soil.  In the fields at Pleasant Grove Farms, except where the wheat is growing, we sew a legume called vetch in the fall to do this job.  In the rice fields, an airplane drops the seed into the paddy just before the fields are drained; it germinates in the water and begins to climb out of the rice plants before harvest.  On the other fields, the vetch also arrives by plane or it is drilled into the ground with a Tye Drill (tractor-pulled grain seeding implement).  Unlike the food crops, which grow in the hot, dry Central Valley summer thanks to irrigation, the vetch thrives in the cooler months and relies on the rainfall (as does the small amount of wheat we grow).  This all works well, except when it doesn't rain.
The winter wheat hangs on
When I came back to work in this new year, I expected things to proceed at a slower pace at the farm due to it being our off season.  Instead in this long stretch of dry weather many of the cover crops need irrigation and that takes work, so we are busy, as if it were summer again.  On some fields, the vetch is surviving, clinging onto the residual moisture from summer watering and the rains we had in October and early November.  The high organic matter content in the farms' soils have helped, since they hold more water--both in times of drought and during excess precipitation; the wheat in our fields generally looks better than that elsewhere.  After such a long stretch without rain, the management decided to roll out the backhoes and tractors, rehire some irrigators, and put some water on a few of the fields.  Since Pleasant Grove doesn't have sprinklers, this means pulling ditches and strip checks, cranking up the wells and flooding the fields with a couple inches of water.  The hope is that this will reinvigorate some of the more sorry looking spots to ensure a good cover crop to enrich the soil.  The risk is that such an amount of water after such a time with so little will be the botanical equivalent of eating a 16 oz ribeye after a weeklong fast.  We'll see--the irrigators finish their sets on Thursday and the plants may be greening before the rain comes, which looks like it might arrive next week.

Last weekend I had the good fortune to take a much needed trip to Santa Cruz.  Even though I only lived there for six months, my time at the UC Santa Cruz Farm and Garden was immensely positive, and a trip there is a sort of pilgrimage.  The Farm and Garden is a beautiful example of the harmony between food production and nature and a testimony to the loving care and hard work of those who have double dug its' beds, pruned the limbs of its' apple trees, and furnished it with water during dry times.  Like the rest of Northern California, it's been a long rainless stretch in Santa Cruz, and the CASFS farmers and gardeners also face the dilemma of how to keep alive winter brassicas, the ever important Ashmead's Colonel apple tree and of course, the winter cover crops.  On a small farm this seems a little less daunting because of the scale: with the use of sprinklers, it takes only a day or two to water all the fields.  Compare that to Pleasant Grove Farm, where a pair of irrigators spend a week watering only two fields.  Perhaps small farms--with their diversity of crops and more manageable irrigation systems--are more resilient in the face of these sorts of weather 'events'.
UCSC Farm and Garden, Jan 2011
Back in the Valley on Monday I got to take two trips north up Highway 99 to Larry Geweke Ford in Yuba City, part of the saga of replacing the console on the ranch foreman's F-350.  Unfortunately, this being a business outing, there was no time to seek out the acclaimed Five Rivers Tandoori Restaurant in Yuba City.  I did however, get a good look at the heart of Sutter County farm country.  In the afternoon, a thick white haze hung in the stagnant air and the trails of smoke from dozens of small brush and trash fires slowly drifted among the leafless walnut and prune plum trees.  The eerily still flooded rice fields appeared not as a part of a bucolic landscape, but instead as waterways leading to an underworld.  In this lonely landscape, the only people I noticed not in vehicles were a South Asian couple in a walnut grove picking wild mustard greens, one of the few things still growing.  There is much I appreciate and enjoy here in California's agricultural heartland, but at times like this I yearn for the swirling mists and thousand shades of green of Washington's Olympic Peninsula.  It would be really nice to be inside a cozy little cabin somewhere on the coast, watching the waves pound the beach and the rain lash against the windows.

During the workday, I sometimes glance at the National Weather Service's longer range forecasts, and hope we'll get a few inches this winter to fill up the reservoirs and cleanse our skies.   I am trying to enjoy this 'Wintertime Summer', with it's frosty mornings, warm afternoons and evening bike rides.  When I'm on my break at work I try to ignore the diesel and wood smoke infused air and the cracks in the parched earth and instead soak up the pleasantly mild sun while I throw sticks for a farm dog to fetch.  But I will be happy to hear the sound of raindrops and watch the big gray clouds move across the valley towards the mountains, whenever they arrive.