Spring Growth

Spring Growth

Monday, July 19, 2010


Hello Hot Dry People,
Greetings from a seriously hot dry farm. It's dry, it's the driest we've seen it here - of course that's only been 4 seasons. We'll get to sound so much more impressive once we've been here for 30 seasons. We have farmed else where in dryer conditions, that was in '99. We are really glad about irrigation - see my harangue at the bottom of the email if you think you can stand it. It's kind of dry (pun should not have been intended).

If you have not already, and you are in need of more awesome recipes than you could ever hope to cook through, all painstakingly arranged by crop, YOU SHOULD CHECK OUT MARTHA STEWART'S RECIPE PAGE!!! http://www.marthastewart.com/food. She has it going on in the eat your local, seasonal, food department in true Martha style. I typed "cucumber" in her recipe page search engine right before writing this email and 392 recipes showed up. Even me, who usually haughtily shuns the idea of using a recipe to cook our food, promptly took out a frozen High Point steak to thaw so that I could make her delicious sounding (and looking - yes, there are PICTURES) Asian cucumber and grilled steak salad for dinner.

Here's the veggie forecast:
kale, chard, escarole/endive, salad mix, cabbage, beets, spring onions, hot pepper, basil, and....... CUCUMBERS. ZUCCHINIS. CROOK NECK SQUASH. PATTY PAN SQUASH. This is the time of year to pull out all the stops and eat the above items in bold. This is their big moment in the sun. Try to go beyond zucchini bread. Give Martha a whirl. I'm sure she won't let you down.

u-pick: beans(2 quarts some are getting big. This first generation is Provider and that is part of the trait. There are three more generations of beans coming), kale, chard, flowers (pick those edgy dark red sunflowers near where the peas where), cilantro, dill

This is where you might want to stop reading unless you are interested by the ins and outs of irrigation. If you are stopping,
Thanks and see you around,

Here's a rudimentary run down of how we drip irrigate at the farm. First a water source is needed. The first year we were here ('07) we had a million gallon pond dug, and a second well drilled in a spot that a dowser recommended. All for the sake of irrigation (we get to swim in the pond, but certainly would not have dug one just for that! The pond isn't really something that you'd want to swim in at this point. It's getting low).

Once water sources are established, the water needs to be moved to the crops. There are 2 irrigation pumps set up on the edge of the pond that pump water out of the pond, through a filter, and into a flexible, fireman type hose called blue layflat, so named because the hose lays flat when empty, allowing a mower blade to mow right over it with out causing harm. The blue layflat runs all the way from the pumps out to the uphill side of each field. From there the layflat is equipped with quick connects that attach to a type of piping that is made of rigid black plastic. We call these pipes "headers". Headers run the whole width of each field - in our case each field has about 72 beds that are each 200 feet long. Individual lines of drip tape are attached to the header via shut off valves. The number of lines of drip tape laid on each bed is determined by the crops being grown. I could get into how we determine all that, but that would take up more writing! The drip tape is basically a long plastic tube with little slits every foot where water drips out (hence the name).

All of this infrastructure has to be set up before we can irrigate. It's a lot of unrolling big reels of plastic tubes. We reuse headers from year to year, so there's plenty of standing by the pallets of rolled up headers from the year before, trying to figure out which header best fits this year's crops. It may sound easy but it's not. The beds don't line up perfectly with the beds of the years before, so there is an art to it.

Once everything's set up it's time to turn on the pump (first put gas in and make sure the pump works, fix it if it doesn't) Then, wait a bit while the system pressurizes (drip works best between 12 and 15 psi). The system has less pressure the further the water gets from the pump, so we have to bike back and forth a few times between the pressure gauge on the header of the field being irrigated and the pump by the pond to fine tune the system. Now, hopefully, the drips are dripping out and the crops are getting a drink. Dum dee dum. La la la. Ahhhhh! what's that giant geyser off in the distance?! Jump of the irrigation bike (my old bike with 2 panniers filled with drip tools and parts) and fix the leaks. The older the drip system and the more times the materials are reused, the more the leaks.
As you've probably guessed, the name of the game here at the farm lately is irrigation. Why do we irrigate? Irrigation results in better yields - faster growing, bigger crops. It helps ensure that seeds planted in bone dry soil germinate. We need crops to germinate roughly around the time that we plant them because we seed them on a fairly strict schedule that co-insides with the harvest schedule. That is, if the crops don't germinate in a timely fashion, we don't harvest them in a timely fashion. Bigger crops mean less total land needed to grow an adequate amount of food for the CSA. Faster growing means that there is more time for cover crops and bare fallowing. More reliable crops means that we don't spend time preparing a field for planting, planting, and then have to till it in because the stand didn't justify the time and resources it takes to grow and harvest a crop.
Despite all these benefits of irrigation, we do have long-term farm dreams of dry farming (farming with out irrigation). Why is that a farm dream? There are a bunch of reasons. One important one is that irrigation takes money. Another one is that irrigation takes a lot of stuff, and all of that stuff, besides the water, consists of plastic and gas. The plastic parts don't last forever - we buy about $5000 worth of irrigation parts a year, and those aren't things that count as equity, they're things that have to be purchased every year because they wear out. So, dollar signs and non-renewable resources (plastic and gas). Irrigating takes time - time that could easily be spent on other tasks. Pulling drip lines off a bed (actually more like 30 beds) to get a cultivating tractor through takes time, putting the drip back on all those beds takes time. Picture adequately described. We'd love to get rid of all those plastic harnesses!

How to do it? (Dry farm that is.) Well, there are many factors as you're probably ascertained! Probably the biggest factor is soil health. The more organic matter (OM) in a soil, the more water it can hold. OM is measured as a percent of the soil. I think that every % of OM holds one inch of rain. Most of the vegetable crops we grow would like about an inch of rain per week. Our OM is 3-4%, depending on the field. That's pretty good. Some of that OM we've created with an intensive cover cropping routine, some is left over from the years and years that this farm was a dairy. I'd say that most is native. So, say it rained one day and 3 inches (HA) came down. If the soil was dry to start with, it would be able to hold all of that rainwater with out any leaching, run-off, or erosion. That moisture can stick around and nourish microbial life and crops. In a soil with very little OM, moisture would leach away and leave the soil dry again in a relatively short amount of time. It's a self perpetuating cycle because the more moisture a soil can hold, the bigger and lusher the plants grow, and when those plants die their big lush bodies break down and contribute to, among other things, OM. Soils with low OM grow smaller plants, and thus build up OM more slowly. There are also many moisture conserving tillage techniques that dry farmers use. I really must limit myself and not describe all of them right now. My apologies. We actually use many of them even though we irrigate because they are just good farming practices.

Hopefully at some point the farm will reach a place where the soil is in such good health and Paul and I know our fields so well that we can totally maximize every drop of water out there and pull off dry farming. Or, possibly, the cost of irrigating with be prohibitive, or both. We'll see, for the time being we're fully on the irrigation band wagon.

See you at the farm,


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