Monday, August 20, 2012

"Rainforest" Farming

historic drought graphic from NYTimes (7/19/12)
1896 to present
While the rest of the nation sweltered through the hottest July on record and continues to endure the most widespread drought in at least 60 years (or more, depending on your news source), we are wet, wet, wet here on the hill.  As a matter of fact, we are very glad we are up on this hill; the creek paddock has been soggy all season. With the media attention on the devastating drought out West, a lot of folks figure that everyone connected with agriculture is experiencing the same thing. Few other locations are this wet. We are somewhat of an anomaly, even in our own county!

The problems caused by drought are obvious.  No rain…no plant growth.  No plant growth…no food for man or beast.  At times, irrigation is a possibility.  But, in the event of a long-term drought, priorities must be chosen and many crops are left to wither and die. Animals are taken to market ahead of schedule due to lack of forage and food. Coupled with searing heat, it is a situation devastating to the human psyche. All you can do is pray for rain.

On the other hand, the issues of TOO MUCH rain are often overlooked (except in the case of major flooding). Too much water leads to mildew and disease, rotting crops and weeds taller than the farmers. The dark, damp conditions keep the pollinators from venturing out and crop production drops off considerably. Warm, moist conditions cause parasites to thrive and then the animals suffer.  Day after day of slogging through mud and wet can also affect the human psyche.  All you can do is pray to see some sun again.

We are presently in the midst of the wettest July/August ever. We have been keeping records here on the hill since 1997, and we have never seen anything quite like this.  Since the first of July 2012, we have had 10 inches of rain. Ordinarily we have somewhere between 2 and 5 inches during this period of time.  This means that the grass has been staying wet until at least lunchtime, interfering with outside work. The grass is also growing at an inordinate rate and mowing could become a full-time job. While the amazing growth means there is more than the sheep can eat, (and that is a good thing) the tender re-growth does not stand up well to the animals’ hooves, so we need to monitor the traffic over the grass.

The incredible green-ness and lush growth is amazing, and completely un-like any late summer we have ever experienced.  It also comes with a whole new set of challenges never faced (to this degree) here on the hill. In some ways, it seems like a rainforest...minus the exotic birds.

The moisture has caused the blight in the tomatoes to run rampant.  The brown, withered plants are a dismal sight out there in the rain. Although, I must say, the ripening tomatoes do provide one bright spot in the late season garden.  Unfortunately, large amounts of rain cause those beautiful ripening tomatoes to crack open, meaning that much of the crop never makes it to Market. However, all is not lost…sauce and salsa can be made, and I have even frozen some tomato chunks for Winter Sales.

We are beginning to fear for the outcome of the winter squash harvest.  As the vines die back, the fruits should be harvested and stored in a warm, dry place.  Ordinarily, we do this on a hot, bright, dry day, thus reducing the risk of trapped moisture that will cause the squashes to rot in storage. This year, we may have to float them out of the garden like rafts.  The soggy ground is going to make harvest “interesting” and despite the mulch, the squash fruits are sitting in wet, squishy mud.  Not a good thing by any stretch of the imagination.

The copious amounts of water caused the green bean plants to grow taller and longer and then finally fall down on the ground.  Not only does this open the crop to loss through rot and “rust”, it makes them very difficult to pick. As chief picker, I can personally attest to the frustration of having to pick each long plant up and pull the beans from the bottom. We can’t just rip through them; we should get several pickings from each planting. Green beans don’t need much water, it is said that they like “dry feet”.  So, less water is definitely better, particularly in the bean patch.

Short of covering the entire farm with a gigantic umbrella, or pumping the excess off to our agricultural brethren in the mid-west, there is nothing that can be done about the soggy conditions.  Like every other challenging situation we encounter (weather or otherwise), we do what we can and make the best of it…this time… wearing our rubber boots a LOT!

Now, if we could just come up with an interesting/articulate/appropriate response to the well-meaning market customers who keep saying…”guess you’re thankful for all the rain, huh?”

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