Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"How's the Weather?"

by Farmer Richard

This is a continuation of our series of newsletters on the subject of “the future of our food” as we discuss what kind of food system we want going into the future.  This week I’d like to discuss a topic that’s always on our minds, but even more so over the past week….WEATHER.

Weather has been with us forever!  In my case I only have 60 years of weather memory.  Starting on the South Dakota plains, with winter blizzards when we went to the neighbors’ house a mile away with Smoky and Barney pulling the bob sled for a Saturday night taco and card game evening.  A night when only a team of horses could have made the trip.  And then there was the ice storm of ’59 when a heavy buildup of ice snapped off power poles for miles.  We were without electricity for two weeks.  My brother Dennis, my Mom and I milked our cows by hand while Dad was off helping the electric linemen put in new poles.  I know something about weather, I’ve farmed around weather for most of a lifetime.  Sometimes it is too wet and sometimes too dry.  We have learned to farm around it.  We watch weather forecasts day and night and plan accordingly!  We make the absolute most of dry days to keep planting schedules and do our weed control.

Early spring onion field on raised beds
Twenty five years ago we converted to farming with a system of raised beds so excess moisture immediately drains to the wheel tracks and off the fields.  We watched the water run during rain storms so we could observe how it moved and then made ditches and berms to protect fields and drain off excess water.  We built high organic matter in the soil that allows it to be more resilient, absorbing  water and at the same time draining well so it can be worked very soon after a rain.  When it was dry, we irrigated.  We learned to use a variety of different irrigation methods including buried drip irrigation lines to efficiently deliver water and nutrients to plant roots without watering the soil surface and germinating new weeds. 
Last year we built a new dike to help prevent rising waters.

We are very good farmers and have consistently raised good to excellent crops through a variety of weather variations that we considered “normal.”  But over the past ten years, that has changed for the worst!  For example, lets look at the history of the Bad Axe River watershed we live and farm in.  Human beings have lived and survived here for 10,000 years, but farmed for only the last 1,500 years.  European settlers have farmed here for less than 200 years.  The Bad Axe River would periodically flood over its banks and damage the rich valley farmland.  So starting in the 50’s a series of dams were built on the North and South forks of the Bad Axe River to hold excess water and prevent flooding.  The dam that is 5 miles above our farm is the Runge Hollow Dam.  It successfully ended flood events until 2007 when we had what was called a “100 year flood,” with an unprecedented 18 inches of rainfall in 24 hours that overflowed the dam and flooded our valley crops. We survived life and limb and came through economically with the help of many friends and customers.  Then it happened again ten months later.  We had another “100 year flood.”  We survived again and went on to have several good years, got out of debt, and then had another “100 year flood” last fall, September 2016.  We really needed a good year to recover from the losses of that last event, but here we go again just 10 months later! 

A fallen tree on our landlord's storage shed!
 Is our climate changing?  Absolutely!!  We have experienced four “100 year” weather events in less than 10 years!  The overall average temperature has risen a few degrees, ie “global warming” has brought us some late, warm falls and some earlier springs which were welcomed by us.  However, those few degrees in the ocean leads to melting the polar ice caps and may not be welcomed by coastal dwellers in the future.  But what we are struggling with now is the extreme, more intense storm events and weather patterns!  What does that look like for us? 

Cleaning up fallen trees & branches
on field roads Thursday morning
Good, healthy soil can absorb up to one inch of rain in an hour with minimal run-off.  We have recently witnessed three inches of steady rain over a six hour period with minimal problems.  But our recent four inches of rain that fell in less than an hour followed by another four inches just six hours later caused huge problems!  Eight inches of rain on every square foot of field at a rate of two or more inches per hour is “intense.”  Our raised beds with five rows of crop, lost the outside two rows!  The water could not drain away fast enough and fields looked like a “lake” for a time because our valley drainage systems were overwhelmed with the huge amounts of water and debris running from the surrounding woods and hillsides.  When I wrote last week’s newsletter about making choices and considering your impact downstream, I had no idea what we were in for before last week was over. In last week’s newsletter I wrote “Sometimes we are the person being impacted downstream and other times we are the one with the ability to impact what’s happening downstream.  Yes our choices do matter and the farming practices you choose to support can make a significant impact on our local health and environment as well as the health and environment downstream.  At the end of the day, we are all a community and we all have choices.”  Unfortunately, last week we were the downstream recipients who paid for the poor choices and irresponsible actions of a farmer on the ridge above us who chose to clear steep hillsides so he could plant corn.  

Farmer Richard making use of his bulldozer to
clean silt and debris off a field.
When the rains came, there was significant erosion off those hillsides that washed down into one of the dry wash ditches that is supposed to direct water from the hillsides and carry it to the river.  The rocks, silt, soil and sand that washed off the ridge top came down fast with the momentum of the water driving it.  It clogged up the dry wash and came close to taking out our neighbor’s solar panels and house basement.  The debris covered Newton road with silt, soil and debris that was one foot deep.  Because the water and debris didn’t follow the intended path, it spilled over the road and onto one of the fields we farm covering half of a field of small beets intended for fall harvest.  In other places, the erosion and volume of water running off the hillsides took out our five fences that contain our animals and cross our small creek.  After the first 4 inches of rain, our crew put back fences to contain the pigs, working well until after dark only to do it all over again in the morning.  There were numerous trees that fell and broke off throughout the valley as a result of the high winds including a large one on our neighbor’s property that took down a power line.  Wednesday evening Juan, Andrea and I got two generators in place and running so we could generate our own power to run the essentials until power was restored 24 hours later.  We kept greenhouses inflated so they were rigid enough to withstand the high winds of the second storm that came through in the middle of the night.  We were also able to keep our coolers and ice machines running as well as the water pump so we could continue to wash and pack vegetables on Thursday as we tried to fill our wholesale orders and prepare to pack CSA boxes on Friday.  Did we say intense and violent storms? 

The goats really like the fallen trees!
In the days that have followed, we have had six skillful young men working full-time replacing fences, cutting downed trees, clearing silt from river crossings and fields. We lost many hundreds of trees, snapped off from tornado like winds.  We can salvage some firewood and maybe hopefully sell some wood products to help contribute towards the cost to clean all this up!  The wind driven rain and the hail the storm brought with it has shredded the leaves on many crops, leaving them vulnerable for leaf disease.  The water-logged soils  have already led to some plants dying.  Brassicas in particular (kale, collards, broccoli, etc) do not like “wet feet,” meaning their root system cannot stand in water for extended periods of time.  We’ve seen many of these sensitive plants wilt, die and add to our losses.  In our past experience we find that waterlogged plants and crops that go through wet, humid days may look fine, but the shelf life may be shorter and they may suddenly start to rot or break down.  So, please be patient, observant and understanding.  Please do your part to store your vegetables properly, keep your eye on them and eat them in a timely manner so you don’t lose them.  We will never intentionally pack a poor quality vegetable, but what may look fine when it goes in the box may not look fine when you take it out or go to use it several days later. 
Replacing fencing panels washed out by the swift current.

What’s next?  We keep talking.  Brainstorming.  We need solutions to these issues, we need changes to policy, we need to figure out the course our future will take.  We’re back to the “future of our food.”  I, once again, encourage you to be part of these conversations so we, as a community, can proactively decide our future.  There are many things that could be done!  But, they take money, direction, leadership, “political will,” regulation, incentives and education.  Firstly, we need understanding, cooperation and the right attitude.

1 comment:

Cathy Loeb said...

Thank you, Richard, for this excellent continuing series. Those of us who don't farm need to understand the many complex and devastating impacts of our changing climate. David and I are in awe of your ingenuity and resilience in the fact of these recurring extreme weather events. Today's CSA box is beautiful and will provide delicious eating, quite the miracle given your last week. Thank you always!