Genesee Valley Organic Community Supported Agriculture

Notes from the Farm -August, 2001

by Elizabeth Henderson

We are obsessed with water. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is turn on the weather radio. Greg plays it at lunch. Promises. Promises. Promises. For weeks, the announcer has been saying, "chance of shower." 60%. 40%. 20%... No real rain since June 22. The creek along the Fairville Field ran dry July 27, four days earlier than in 1999, one of the driest summers on record. So we spend hours every day watering the crops. In the Tear Drop Field and the Hoop House, we use our trickle irrigation which puts out a slow, but steady drip of water through tiny holes spaced a foot apart. For the crops in the Fairville Field, we truck five 50 gallon barrels of water at a time and siphon it through hoses moving them by hand up and down the beds. Tedious work providing only enough water to give the plants hope of wetter times. Unlike 1999, this drought is strangely local. Showers fall to the north and south. We can see and hear them, but we get no rain. Doug Kraai says this is the driest he has seen the pasture for his bison in 17 years.

We are lavishing a lot of our energies on two of your favorite crops - broccoli and carrots. To fertilize the broccoli, we planted a cover crop of rye and hairy vetch last summer. In late May of this year, when the vetch started to flower, Greg mowed the lush growth, and I spaded their thick residues into the beds. Usually, I spade these beds three times at two week intervals to prepare the soil for planting. The first time, driving the tractor feels like sailing a boat through a rough storm. It seems impossible that the soil could absorb that much stuff. The second time, a lot of the residues have broken down. And by the third, a pass of the spader creates a smooth seed bed. This year, I did not do the final spading, leaving the beds quite rough with a lot of rye straw on them. I feared that spading again would dry the beds out. We then placed trickle tapes on the beds along the rows where we planned to plant the broccoli. By doing this, we were able to set the plants into soil that retained some moisture. We irrigated the first planting immediately. By the second planting, however, the creek was dry. We had to water these 3500 plants by hand.

This particular misery will not be repeated. Doug Kraai has agreed to dig an irrigation pond or a well in the Fairville Field. The neighbor whom he hires to do this work has his heavy digging equipment at the farm where he is excavating two more ponds for wildlife. We are next in line!

You may have noticed that we have supplied you with painfully few carrots this year so far. Our April planting did not germinate well because it was so dry back then. Our second planting, in May, is growing slowly and will be on your plates by the time you receive this newsletter. But the third planting encountered the same dry conditions as number one. I spaded under three attempts at carrot beds because there were so few carrots. Finally, at the end of July, we had come to the last possible date to plant carrots if we hoped to have them mature this season. On July 24, I seeded carrots into five 250 foot beds, three rows each. We placed trickle tape next to the rows, but watered them by hand and covered them with row cover to keep the moisture from evaporating quite so fast. Six days later, we watered them again. I peeked under the reemay in a few places - tiny carrot plants are breaking through the surface here and there. With luck, we will have some carrots in the fall.

As for other fall crops, winter squash and pumpkins are growing well with regular irrigation. When they first emerged, we sprayed them all twice with kaolin clay which seems to have effectively reduced the cucumber beetle damage. For a couple of weeks, the plants looked oddly white. Red cabbages and brussels sprouts are dangerously dry and under heavy attack from flea beetles. We are trying to choose our moments carefully for seeding fall root crops and greens. Immediately after 1/4 inch of rain fell, Ammie and I seeded two beds of beets and one of Swiss chard. Unlike the carrots, these crops came up well. We are still waiting for the chance to seed fall kale, collards, spinach and oriental greens.

Unfortunately, even with irrigation, the dryness will lower the yields of all of our crops, some more than others. Forseeing this possibility, we have planted a good 25% more of many crops than we calculate is needed to make up generous shares. This will be the third year in a row of challenging conditions. We have completed the garlic harvest. We planted about 25% more than last year. Many of the bulbs are smaller than last years, though more pungent in flavor. The early onions, grown from sets, are better than last year's. Excess water is even more stunting than drought. In the contest between the onions we mulched and those we did not mulch, the unmulched seem to have won out in size and ease of harvesting. The later onions, grown from seed, may yet put on more weight if they get a little rain, and we planted twice as many of them as last year. All over the country, 2000 was a bumper year for potatoes. Judging by the early Red Norland potatoes, our yields are down 25%. On the other hand, we all enjoyed the windfall of the potatoes which grew in the pea beds from ones that we missed in the harvest last year.

Sweet corn is earlier than last year, but the raccoons are eating more of it. We are going to try a new approach to confounding the critters by laying pea fencing around the edge of the corn field. That will make harvesting interesting for us humans too.

The crops that like the heat , such as melons and tomatoes, are doing much better than last year. If we can just give them enough water, their flavor and quantity should be good. Nothing like a heat wave to make melons sweet. We filled the hoop house with eggplants and peppers which are thriving with plenty of both heat and water. If all goes as planned, the peppers will ripen to red and yellow before the end of August. For the salsa lovers, we have some hot peppers too. The varieties are Fish, Jalapeno and Brazilian Rainbow in order of increasing hotness.

Perhaps the greatest damage from this drought is hitting not this year's crops, but our long term fertility. We have not been able to plant any cover crops. Seeding buckwheat or rye and vetch into beds of dust would amount to feeding the birds. The dryness has also stalled our effort to prepare the new beds in the Barn Field. Spading in these conditions merely churns up the dust, choking both driver and tractor.

While Mother Nature has been hard on us this season, our human relations have been good. Both of our interns ( you can meet them at the farm or elsewhere in this issue of the newsletter) are fulfilling their early promise as hard workers and mature, fine, interesting people. We are very fortunate to have them and to have the opportunity to share with them what we have learned about organic farming. Rebecca and I will be attending the NOFA Summer Conference in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I will give two workshops. My son Andy spent a wonderful three weeks at the farm. His wife Midori returned from her Paris visit to her mother in time to celebrate his 30th birthday and their first wedding anniversary with his grandpa Harry. At 87, Harry is writing two books at once, an autobiographical novel and a monograph on the life of the nineteenth century sculptor Edmonia Lewis. Helen is reading, thanks to her own efforts and those of her mother Ammie. Some of you may have noticed the fine labels she writes for our boxes of vegetables.

Hopefully, by the time you receive this newsletter, the drought will be a thing of the past. We look forward to enjoying with you more balanced fall weather at the farm.


Copyright GVOCSA 2000. All rights reserved.