RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The long drought here in California has forced many farmers in the Central Valley to rethink how they use water. One sheep farmer has adopted an unusual method of water conservation. Valley Public Radio's Ezra David Romero reports on how it's working.
EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: On Golden Valley Farm, an hour north of Fresno, Mario Daccarett's employees are milking 500 sheep. This creamy milk is eventually turned into cheese and sold at places like Whole Foods.
MARIO DACCARETT: They tell me that our Golden Ewe cheese is the best for grilled-cheese sandwich ever.
ROMERO: Daccarett gets about 800 pounds of milk a year from each ewe. To make that much milk, it takes a lot of feed, like oats and hay. And to cut the costs of all that feed, Daccarett says he has a secret ingredient that enriches his cheese while at the same time saves a lot of water, that ingredient - sprouted barley grown indoors.
DACCARETT: We plant every day, and we harvest every day. And It takes six days to complete the cycle.
ROMERO: He feeds his sheep one part oats and hay and one part sprouted barley. Growing barley as feed isn't anything new, but Daccarett sprouts barley seeds inside shipping containers using hydroponic technology and indoor grow lights. He's using just 2 percent of the water it would take to grow the crop outside.
DACCARETT: I think that's a big advantage. If you don't have a lot of land, you can produce a tremendous amount of feed in a very, very small area with very little amount of water.
ROMERO: Inside each 10-by-20-foot shipping container are five horizontal rows of shallow black trays. Daccarett's nephew, Jose Quinonez, says the growing process is quite simple.
JOSE QUINONEZ: So we just get the tray, just the dump the barley, spread it really good.
ROMERO: After he fills each tray, he pushes them forward until the container is full and closes the door.
QUINONEZ: That's it. It's ready. Just wait seven days, and it will be ready to feed.
ROMERO: Every hour, sprinklers mist the seeds for 20 seconds. That amount of water is just enough to start the germination process. In a matter of days, these sprouts will stand six inches tall and be ready for the sheep to eat. The farm produces 2,400 pounds of sprouts every day, but not everyone thinks growing indoors is worth it.
DANIEL PUTNAM: The margins are pretty slim.
ROMERO: That's Daniel Putnam, an agronomy professor with the University of California, Davis. He says the cost doesn't pencil out.
PUTNAM: And if you really apply a little bit of economics to it and animal nutrition to it, it doesn't quite appear as promising as one might think.
ROMERO: Putnam says these hydroponic containers are expensive, about $100,000 each. But for sheep rancher Mario Daccarett, it's working. He says his first two containers paid for themselves in just over a year.
DACCARETT: The more pressure we have from water limitations or the more pressure to become more efficient ourselves and more sustainable - you're going to see more people doing it.
ROMERO: And when Daccarett's nephew, Jose Quinonez, feeds the sprouts to the sheep, they come running.
QUINONEZ: You can tell they go crazy when they see it. They really like it.
ROMERO: And just like sheep love the sprouts, Daccarett says he loves the financial savings from this not-so-widely-used farming practice. He hopes to buy three more shipping containers to grow even more sprouts in the coming year. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in Fresno.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.