If you are a homeowner, I’d hazard a guess that you have not been proud of your lawn this summer. It’s likely brown, and patchy from the nearly absolute lack of rain we’ve had this summer. In a recent statement, US Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack expressed sympathy for the farmers of Rhode Island, where part of the state has been declared a natural disaster! It’s hard to reconcile weather that makes every day a perfect beach day, with a state of natural disaster, but the parched conditions have left many farmers hurting this summer. We’ve heard from cattle farmers who are already feeding hay to their cows because their pastures aren’t producing enough grass for grazing. And I can only imagine the price of that hay, a crop that is never irrigated (except, of course, by rain), will be sky-rocketing due to a severely limited supply.
On a vegetable farm, we do plan to irrigate our crops, setting up elaborate arrays of drip-tape that slowly leak water very close to the base of each plant. It is a very efficient means of watering. But when it hasn’t rained in 6+ weeks, and the soil has turned to dust that blows away in the wind, those lines simply can’t keep up. In these circumstances we use overhead irrigation to really throw down a solid inch of water, which is what plants needs each week to thrive. We are lucky to have a pond on our property out of which we can pump water, through a long series of hoses, to a sprinkler so large it’s referred to as a “gun”.
The conditions we have experienced this summer are such that much of our crops would have died without this overhead system. Indeed, most of our effort has been in keeping plants alive, rather than helping them grow. There’s a big difference, which includes time. In a recent episode of the WNPR show Next, a New England farmer tallied up his economic losses this summer due to the drought conditions, but not because any of his plants died. Instead the problem was that a large percentage of his crops never got planted because of the time he had to spend irrigating so as not to lose the crops he already had in the ground.
There has been an occasional rain this summer, and I can’t describe the sweet relief of that sound for a farmer. The amount of work being taken off of your shoulders by those rainclouds, the way that it drenches the fields to a degree you and your water pump could only dream of. It usually calls for a celebratory cup of coffee as we sit and just listen.
For some years now we have been interested in an approach to crop farming called no-till. It is a method of growing that leaves the soil completely undisturbed, allowing it to retain the natural structure and microbiology that is lost once soil is mechanically turned. Our interest in it was sparked by a mentor and friend who uses this method with great success here in Lebanon. The health, productivity, and flavor of the crops he and his wife grow are impressive, and the time saved on weeding is extremely enticing. Tilling brings weed seeds to the top of the soil where they germinate alongside the intended crop, whereas no-till farming leaves the weed seeds below ground, far from the alluring light of the sun. The structure of soil that has never been tilled is crumbly, as opposed to sandy tilled soil that is prone to drying out. So much of a tilled field remains bare ground, even when the crop is planted in it: The paths and spaces between rows are all bare and vulnerable to the drying effects of the sun and wind. Topsoil and organic matter are reduced by these natural forces. Land that is always “under cover” of plant life or mulch can absorb and hold water much better, reducing the need for irrigation. Not to mention the benefits of a soil that is more “alive” in its microbiology and therefore more nutritious to plants. And so, no-till seems an even stronger approach to vegetable farming in the face of these dry summer conditions that we are being warned will continue.