We're several months into a serious drought here and there's no end in sight. According to Agriculture Canada we are experiencing a D2 condition or "severe drought" at this point. We had low snowfall over the winter to charge the groundwater and since the end of March we've only had about 4 inches of rain, where we would normally expect closer to 12. We're feeling lucky that we are surviving so far this year, given how bad it has been for some farmers. Nonetheless, we are feeling the heat and so are the crops.  The grass is a sea of brown, with just a few deep rooted perennials (like the chicory above) still making a go of it.

We've had a few things fail to establish at all early on - early carrots, beets, spinach, scallions and turnips. These are normally planted early enough in the spring that they will reliably germinate and get going with rainfall and soil moisture. Simply seeding and forgetting about these crops for a couple of weeks usually works out during the busy rush of spring as the season gets going. This year, I ended up replanting and coaxing along quite a few things, and still ended up with a few total losses. Fortunately the early transplants fared better, as they reliably get a bit of water to help them get established. 

By now, I would have expected to have carrots going out every week, but they have hit a size plateau and seem to be waiting for more moisture. Lettuce, broccoli and baby greens have been missing from the boxes since the first few weeks because although I have been able to get them growing, without more water they are small and bitter. Yesterday I finally gave up on the last planting of broccoli and plowed it under to plant some drought tolerant cover crops and make some space for a few more fall crops. Out of my three broccoli plantings, I was only able to harvest the first. 

We are fortunate to have some irrigation equipment (although not nearly enough to irrigate everything easily) and I have been putting in a lot of hours moving hoses and drip lines around to make the most of it. In the past couple of weeks, however, I have cut back to the bare minimum to keep things alive because I am starting to get worried about running out of water. We have one very good well with good flow but if we run out it will be real trouble. Keep your fingers crossed for us.  

Here's a test hole I dug in a bed that hasn't received any irrigation. It is dusty dry a full 12 inches down. The little bits of rain we do get are barely wetting the surface here. It's quite strange to dig after a rain and find dry soil underneath a thin layer of moist soil on the surface. By my estimates and based on the soil type here, we need 2.5-3 inches of rain just to recharge the moisture in the topsoil, to say nothing of the groundwater.

Speaking of dust, even simple tasks like raking a bed flat kick up big clouds of dust. To a farmer, that's precious topsoil blowing away forever, so I have been trying to avoid excessive disturbance, but it can be tricky when a planting fails and needs to be replaced. 

Here's a side by side comparison of the early and late summer squash. On the left is the first planting, which managed to get to decent size before the ground dried out completely. On the right (wilting) is the third planting, which I would be hoping to have take over production in two or three weeks from now as disease pressure increases on the first planting. It has been in the ground for almost a month and is barely hanging on. Needless to say, this squash won't be picking up the slack any time soon.

The sweet corn is doing better than the dry grass next to it, although it is quite a bit shorter than usual. The dry conditions stress the corn, but at least the heat we've had has been good for ear formation. In the foreground you can just see my high tech bird prevention technique for this year - paper bags over nearly-ripe ears, held on with rubber bands.

Ultimately, worrying about and being affected by the weather just comes with the territory as a farmer.  Right now we're feeling fortunate to have been able to make it this far in the season under such difficult conditions. Still, we're definitely worried about getting some rain in the back half of the summer so that our fall crops have a chance to put on some growth before the weather starts to cool. Come on, rain!


Fall Cover Crops

Late summer is the time to get fall cover crops planted. Cover crops are planted not for a harvest that will be taken away from the field, but to provide some benefit to the soil. There are many reasons to plant a cover crop: to increase organic matter in the soil, to prevent erosion over the winter, to soak up excess nutrients from the previous crop, to bring subsoil nutrients up to the surface, to break up compaction, to capture nitrogen from the atmosphere or to smother weeds and reduce weed germination. It's impossible to do all of the above at the same time, so cover cropping is usually a matter of juggling some of those objectives with the available time, weather and cover crop species.

Here I've planted a combination of white clover and tillage radish. The tillage radish is a specialized cover crop that has been selected for extremely deep taproots. It will send the taproot down through hard layers of subsoil, breaking up compaction. The plant dies when the temperature reaches -10 C, leaving a deposit of organic matter deep in the soil. As the plant decays, it will also provide a channel for surface water to better infiltrate the soil, adding to the deep water table and reducing flooding on the surface. The clover, by contrast, has a shallow, fibrous root structure that primarily adds organic matter near the surface and reduces erosion. Its main ability is to fix atmospheric nitrogen (take nitrogen gas out of the air and turn it into nitrate for the soil), which reduces the need for fertilizer inputs next year. It fits well in this spot because it can be established in the shade of the radishes, and then do most of it's growing next spring, when the weather would be too cold and wet to plant something new.

The other combination I use for fallow beds is oats and peas. Oats are in the grass family, and like so many other grasses, do their best growing in cool weather. They will add a large amount of organic matter and reduce soil erosion. They also die around -10 C, so as long as the temperature reaches that point before they set seed, they will leave the organic matter behind with no actively growing plant to incorporate in the spring. I've found that the best point to establish them is around September 1st in this climate. Too much before that and they may set seed (which is a potential weed problem, but also diverts nutrients from the plant tissue to the seeds) and too much after means that they will not be large enough by the time the real cold hits to grow well. Peas fill the nitrogen fixing niche in this combination, but unlike the clover they are killed by cold weather and use their tendrils to climb the oats so they are not growing in shade in the fall.

Finally, where I can I have interseeded clover in beds that will not be finished in time to squeeze in a full bed cover crop. The example above is crimson clover starting to come up in the cabbage bed. The clover establishes under the shade of the main crop and continues to grow after the crop is harvested. I have generally used white clover for this purpose but this year I am also trying crimson clover, which grows a little taller and fixes a bit more nitrogen.

It's tough during a busy harvest season to put aside time for cover cropping. Ultimately, the payoff in terms of building soil health from year to year and reducing the need for fertilizer make it well worth the effort.

Tucking in the garlic

Happy New Year! We've been busy with the holidays recently, but here's a belated post from mid December to get us started for 2015.  Stay tuned for information on this year's CSA registration coming out in the next few weeks.

The last real field task of the year is done!

After planting the garlic, I wait until the ground is starting to freeze and then mulch with straw. This helps moderate the temperatures in the soil during the very cold weather. Excessively cold soil temperatures and/or too many freeze-thaw cycles can be bad for the garlic, which (ideally) has already started growing roots.

I was a bit late this year as you can see from the snow:

Straw mulch

One advantage of doing this job when the ground is frozen is that it simplifies straw delivery - I can drive around pretty much anywhere without being concerned about soil compaction or erosion:

Straw delivery

There won't be much action in this field until the garlic sprouts start poking up, but garlic is one of the first plants up in the early spring so that won't be too long.

The weather outside is frightful

The hoops are covered in the nick of time. An April snowstorm? No problem. 

Snow covered hoops

Let's hope it's a bit more delightful inside...

Inside the hoops

The snow is actually the least of our concerns. The current forecast shows the temperature going down to a chilly -7 degrees C tonight. The lightweight row cover on the hoops should buy a couple of extra degrees for the seedlings and also protect them from windchill. Maybe spring will come back in a couple of days?