Drought

We have not received meaningful rain since the beginning of May, which was officially the 3rd-driest and 4th-warmest on record (since 1890) as measured at the Columbia airport. Although the short-term conditions have been mostly great for vegetable production, long-term this is a real problem as irrigation costs undercut our budget, pastures suffer, and later produce struggles because irrigation just isn’t as widely effective as proper natural rainfall. On the bright side, far fewer weeds than usual have been able to germinate in the dry conditions, so the weed load is relatively light for this time of year, and in general we prefer dry to overly wet conditions. Here’s a closer look at the drought we’re entering or already in depending on your viewpoint, and its ramifications.

In our area, the month of May averages 4.71″ of rain. Using the rough rule that produce needs about an inch a week of water to grow properly, May should be just about perfect (for reference, the last 3 Mays recorded 4.27″, 4.36″, & 4.60″). In 2012, the Columbia airport (25 miles south of us) measured 1.31″ and we measured 1.56″. That difference is the effect of one small but intense storm that swept across northern Boone County in late May dropping a narrow swath of rain; it sideswiped us with a virtually meaningless 1/4-inch that was gone the next day but upped our official total.

The image below is from the excellent Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service website run by NOAA, with all sorts of fun tools and data for scientist types like us. It shows the departure from normal rainfall for the 30 days leading up to June 9, with the scale in inches on the side. Most of Missouri is at least 2″ short while large areas of central Missouri are over 4″ short, during a very hot month. You can see the tracks of a few isolated, intense storms cutting across the otherwise brutal trend, and even these may not have been as beneficial as you’d think since an isolated dumping of rain on sun-hardened ground tends to run off, not soak in where it’s needed. For non-local readers, our location is marked with the black dot; the area just north of us looks better because of that isolated storm mentioned above.

Last year we faced 3+ months of fairly dry conditions in late summer, and wrote a long post then about all the problems that drought causes. It’s worth re-reading as pretty much all those conditions are true this spring as well, including stressed plants, dying pastures that affect our ability to graze animals without much supplemental feed, irrigation costs, and more.

But it’s worse now in spring, because so many more of our plants are young seedlings and transplants without deep root systems yet, so they take that much more care and watering to keep alive than mature plants; this includes many more young fruit trees in the orchard, and other native trees throughout the farm, all planted this spring. CSA members receiving the abundance of great produce lately don’t necessarily experience the daily stress and cost of keeping all these things alive and growing under these conditions. After all, for non-farmers this has been some of the most glorious recreational weather imaginable.

While we have drip irrigation lines run in most of our core vegetable-growing areas (see photos in the CSA#8 newsletter), there are a lot of other watering needs that aren’t served well (or at all) by these systems. Many of these are small plantings &/or fairly drought-resilient ones, but at some point in a month of drought they need water too. These include the fruit & native trees, the herb garden, other scattered herb beds, various flower/ornamental beds, Jerusalem artichoke beds, a newly established corn/bean field, and more.

Joanna has been using two methods for watering these, depending on the size & nature of the planting. For small areas, a soaker hose set to run for half an hour to an hour or more works ok though needs to be regularly repositioned. For larger plantings like cover crops in our north field or corn/beans in a new field, a sprinkler in the evening when it’s not windy (to minimize loss to evaporation) wastes water but is time and space-efficient. Usually we’ll run that for 20 minutes to an hour for a given area. In any case, all of this means a lot of running around, moving hoses, turning on water, turning off water, wondering if water did or didn’t get turned off & going back to check.

This spring is also worse because we face a potentially serious threat to the year’s rotational grazing plan; a drought now that keeps our future grazing areas from growing will have ramifications months from now when there isn’t enough for the goats to eat. Last summer/fall we were able to balance this somewhat by returning the herd to pastures we’d grazed in early spring, which had regrown sufficiently by late summer.  This year we may not be able to do that, because the pastures have already effectively stopped growing in May and are just sitting there browning. We’re facing the possibility of butchering goat kids in mid-summer to cull the herd size and its impact on pasture, which not only costs us meat but is about the last project we want to do in the heat and busyness of mid-summer.

Buying a lot more hay and feed is out of the question financially. Like last year, we’ve been supplementing heavily lately with waste produce like bolted lettuce, stripped cabbage leaves, finished pea plants, and so on, but that can’t entirely make up for dying or dormant pastures.This affects even vegetarians, as our goats (and chickens) are the primary source of fertility for our vegetables because we refuse to use chemical fertilizers or feedlot manure, and so have to keep these animals going for the long-term stability of the farm and its soil health. The more it costs us in work or purchased feed to get on-farm animals through a drought, the less cost-effective our on-farm fertility management is despite all its environmental and ethical benefits. Pastured animals are healthier, happier, and less prone to parasites and pathogens, but drought threatens the basic underpinning of that management choice.

These conditions are running us somewhat ragged, with no rainy days for downtime or recharging, just endless beautiful, long, sunny days that demand the extra work of keeping up with the early spring’s crush of produce growth and keeping the entire farm irrigated while looking ahead to the ramifications months from now that we must already plan for.

As another blog noted recently, independent “specialty crop” farmers like us (as the USDA defines fruits & vegetables) don’t have access to the sorts of crop insurance and subsidy programs that commodity farmers do. We operate on the open market and take our losses (of time, crops, and income) personally; another reason local foods “look” expensive compared to the propped-up system we compete with. Independent farmers don’t get paid overtime to save their crops, and we don’t get to raise prices in response to this. CSA helps balance this concern significantly compared to market sales, but it’s still a basic issue for independent farms.

At this point it’s going to take just the right type of conditions to really break this cycle. Even an inch of steady, gentle rain will only do so much if it’s isolated among many more weeks of hot, dry weather, and too much rain too quickly causes its own problems as the water washes off and erodes soil rather than soaking in deeply. Even though there’s another forecast chance of rain soon, it may not matter a whole lot if it just leaves a token 1/2″ and moves on. We still overall prefer dry weather to wet, but like all farmers, wish longingly for the right medium and not lurches through extremes.

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