News From the Farm | October 19, 2015

We are eeking our way into fall this week. Temperatures have been quite warm and the relief of chilly nights and cool days hasn’t yet come to us. The year has been noticeably warmer in both the exceptionally warm and dry January and February, and a noticeable multi-year pattern of warm and dry fall weather. 

There have been some interesting repercussions of these patterns. Instead of the year being a gentle push between winter storms, we started the year with a sprint. Dry weather means that the soil is dry enough to plant, cultivate and harvest – and irrigate. When there is little rainfall, we have made the deficit up with irrigation from the wells on the farm and from Cache Creek flowing on the east side of our farm. The pace didn’t slow down this year. As a farmer, one doesn’t know if the window in a dry February will be closed by a cold wet March, or a prolonged wet spring that doesn’t allow one to get into the fields to plant seed and grow spring and summer crops, so one plants when the soil is ready. A dry spring means that the work doesn’t slow down – generally until late fall.

We’ve been busy with our fall groundwork and harvest. Nuts and winter squash are in the barn; along with some feed corn for our chickens and heritage red corn that will be ground for cornmeal to sell. Fields are being planted with both fall crops and cover crops. We then irrigate these crops in order to get things growing. We hope to have the majority of our farm ground covered with growing plants in December and through the winter in order to protect it from heavy rains and blustery winds – should they come. 

The strategy of water management for farmers is too often focused only on water for the growing crop. Farmers are getting much more frugal with water as it becomes scarce. Most have moved to drip systems or micro-sprinklers to conserve water – the rate of adoption of water conserving technologies by farmers has happened swiftly. Yet it seems that much more could be done to consider water in its year-round cycle. Being ready for the winter and the strategies needed for a wet one might need a shift in thinking. Water that falls on farm fields and runs off is lost revenue – energy lost and a loss of water resources for the next year. Water that soaks into the soil is held as a reservoir for trees and deep-rooted plants like tomatoes or melons to draw upon – soaking winter rains feed summer crops and reduces the need for summer irrigation. Planning for maximizing winter rain harvest needs to become part of farm design. 

This can be done with cover crops, leaving crop residue on the soil surface or mulching the soil with organic matter. These fall practices shelter the soil from hard rains. Hard rainfall causes the soil to seal and water to run off – taking topsoil and nutrients with it, which creates added problems downstream. By using cover crops in the farm plan, farmers can increase soil organic matter and the resulting soil can hold more water. Cover crops also harvest sunlight, store carbon and accumulate nitrogen that feed soil systems and become food for the billions of microbes that nourish summer crops.

Yet most farms don’t plant cover crops – for a variety of reasons. Cover crops require additional groundwork in the spring when planting is the focus. They require a strategy for their incorporation and utilization for the spring planting season. Cover crops increase risk in some instances, a wet spring makes it difficult to get into the field and work in the cover crops, making it difficult for some commercial farms to meet the dates required by some contracts for crop delivery.

Farming is about managing risk and adaptation. Most farms now gamble on the hope for moderate rains and leave soil bare. Yet both climate change and global warming require that we have a new focus on using farmlands to harvest more carbon from the air and store it in the soil. If there are to be more severe weather events and if they come in the form of hard rains – one needs to gamble long on having soil protected. 

Farmers have not been paid for the processes that are at the heart of long term and sustainable stewardship. They are by and large paid only for the tons, bushels or bunches of crops that they deliver. It is assumed that they would work in their self-interest to preserve the soil resource that sustains them… Yet the value of soil stewardship is hard to measure. The value of keeping soil covered is clear to us here at Full Belly. The additional harvest that we can make of green material that feeds our soil is also clear. The fact that there is some fall irrigation involved allows us to start these cover crops when the days are warm and they can grow tall enough by December to do us some good is a tradeoff of a scarce resource for the potential for a greater overall harvest. In a drought year with scarce water it is not an easy question and not a clear trade of scarce resource for the potential benefits of greater harvest.

How would your farm – if you had one – respond? I am of the mind that we need to bet on the wettest year, optimizing the potential harvest and protect the soil resource. In all cases, the seeds should be planted and the hopeful anticipation of rains that allow the greening of fields and the protection of soil through the winter. Minimizing risk and bringing in a year-round harvest has hope for a partner. As we enter the rainy season, we are looking to the sky and planting our seeds with a measure of that anticipation.

–Paul Muller