A diversified vegetable farm in drought

As of July 17th, our portion of central Missouri is now officially in “extreme drought“. The National Weather Service expects most of the Midwest’s drought to “persist or intensify” through October. All of Missouri has now been declared a “disaster area“, with lots of hands being wrung about the real and potential crop losses for corn & soy farmers. Of course, very little attention is being paid to the state of things on other kinds of farms, like local dairies, orchards, and vegetable farms. So here’s a visual tour of the conditions on our farm, all photos taken July 18. It may surprise some folks how good many things look, and this is something to consider when reading about all the financial support given to commodity farms while the work it takes to achieve our relative stability & success is ignored by the government. This post certainly won’t cover everything we have planted, but it gives a good sense of the overall vegetable status, leaving out our pastures which are in far worse shape (but still somewhat greener than many that we’ve seen in the region). And we’re increasingly worried we’re reaching a tipping point where things really do start to go downhill regardless of our efforts.

This is typical of our tomatoes; huge and loaded with fruit. In general, these dry conditions help prevent disease as long as the plants’ roots have access to water (through drip irrigation in our case). Too-hot temperatures can interfere with pollination and fruit set, but we haven’t actually seen that yet, surprisingly. The netting you can see in the upper left background is a shade cloth that blocks 30% of direct sun. This is enough to mostly prevent sun-scald of the fruit, which happens under these intense conditions, and probably also helps reduce a bit of heat stress on the plants overall. So far this is the best tomato year we’ve ever had; not sure how much longer they can take this heat, though.

From left to right, young cucumbers (which need to be trellised), okra, and winter squash. Okra absolutely adores hot & dry conditions, while the cucumbers and squash are of more concern. The squash has had an intense population of cucumber beetles, which spread disease and have killed some plants. The hoops you see are for row cover, an insect-barrier fabric that we haven’t been using for fear of roasting the plants (something we and other farmers we know have experienced before). So things aren’t great in this case, but hardly a lost cause either.From left to right, sweet corn, parsnips & scallions, and sweet potatoes. All of these are doing fine with irrigation. The low weed load due to dry conditions has been a nice side effect of drought, though I’m not sure it’s worth the irrigation cost under such intense conditions. Parsnips & sweet potatoes are difficult to judge in that you really don’t know how much yield you’ll get until you harvest, so healthy-looking plants can be misleading (heat stress could mean they just don’t put on good roots, or desperate rodents could be eating them all out of view). Sweet potatoes do love heat though, and all in all the plants themselves are doing as well as could be expected. The netting around the sweet corn is electrified to hopefully deter racoons (we’ve trapped 11 so far this year); sometimes, though even electrification isn’t enough.Here’s our main corn field, with four varieties of drying corn and one of popcorn (mostly for personal use as cornmeal). Joanna is included for scale, amongst the giant Hickory King, a vigorous heirloom variety. This is being grown in a former animal pasture, so the fertility is there, and we’ve been using old, unevenly leaky soaker hoses to partially irrigate this field. It’s a bit wasteful of water and not ideal, but has kept the corn (and pole beans & sunflowers also here) alive and reasonably healthy. We’re getting to the point that such methods aren’t keeping up with the intensity of heat and drought, and are seeing increased signs of heat stress in the corn, but it still looks way better than most commodity corn around here.Here are the other semi-irrigated field crops. Upper left are cowpeas and peanuts, to date watered with an inefficient sprinkler, though we’re about to switch to soaker hoses. These are definitely not as large and healthy as they should be, but are still pretty good for extreme drought. Upper right is a cover crop of buckwheat, mostly out of range of the sprinkler, which definitely illustrates what happens to crops without enough water. This is what most of the commodity fields around here look like.And finally the only regular vegetable crops really struggling at the moment, summer squash and cucumbers. The former are actually a pretty old planting and are more than due for disease and death, so it’s not all that surprising that’s what they’re doing. These plants seem to have markedly benefited from the dry weather; normally a planting of this age would already be in a big compost heap.The cukes are disappointing, having started out really strong but succumbing quickly to hordes of cucumber beets taking advantage of their heat stress.

There are three main reasons our crops are generally still looking good now: irrigation, hard work, and diversity. Irrigation is expensive; we expect our next monthly water bill to be in the $800-$1,000 range, and it takes a fair amount of time and effort to manage properly. But one really important point about irrigation: We live in a place where we can irrigate with a clean environmental conscious; we are not fundamentally depleting aquifers at rates higher than their long-term recharge rates, unlike farming regions farther west. Large-scale competitors in desert areas like CA and AZ get government-subsidized water from non-ecologically-friendly sources, one reason grocery store produce appears cheaper than ours. If those farms paid market rate for their water like we do, customers would see the economics of local vegetables in a new light.

Labor is expensive, too, in a different way: most of the labor on this farm is our own, and is paid through the stress and physical exhaustion of working through these conditions to grow, maintain, harvest, and distribute our crops on a semiweekly basis. That’s something commodity farms simply don’t face anymore, though don’t forget that their highly “efficient” mechanized model is driven by subsidies and debt. Diversity is key, as well. We’re not relying on one or two crops; we have a number of crops that thrive in heat (such as okra and sweet potatoes) and quite a few that can manage; in a cool, wet year (such as 2008 or 2009), we’d have different crops succeeding.

And while things still look good now, we don’t know for how much longer. The biggest challenge coming up is getting fall plantings established in high temperatures with all sorts of hungry/thirsty critters ready to mow them down. We’ve already postponed some plantings slightly, but can only wait so much longer before we miss our window of opportunity for certain crops.

3 thoughts on “A diversified vegetable farm in drought

  1. I noticed you mentioned a water bill. I was wondering if you might find it economical in the long run to drill a well. There might be some assistance available for farmers to drill wells. There is also a program that helps fund pond building. I agree that it has been an exceptionally good tomato year. Our summer squash and cantalopes are performing well – eggplants not so much. Last year we an an exceptional eggplant and pepper year. Every year its something different – its what keeps us going.

  2. We’ve looked into wells and have been told that in our area, to get to decent water, we may have to go 1,000′ deep for $10-15,000, with no guarantee of usable water at any depth. This is because northern Boone County sits on multiple layers of high-sulfur coal, along with lots of fractured bedrock that lets surface contaminants seep down. It would take years of drought to make a well like that pay off, and if things get that bad we’re probably out of business anyway.

    We’re not interested in pond irrigation because (a) the only place to site one would be right in the middle of our current and future hillside pastures, and thus we’d lose acres of usable pasture because we can’t have livestock defecating in the drainage basin of a pond used for vegetable irrigation (especially under organic rules), (b) I don’t think our hillsides are high enough to generate enough head to sufficiently pressurize enough irrigation lines to be worth the effort, and once you start messing with pumps you have another whole expense and unreliability issue, (c) the expense and landscape destruction of building a pond large enough to irrigate our entire farm would be significant, and we’d need to build a very large one to ensure that it doesn’t fail in a year like this (as our friends at Happy Hollow Farm are finding to their chagrin).

    Finally, the significant benefit of county water is that it’s of guaranteed quality and reliability, year-round, no need to do water tests or worry about contamination. Given the increasing paranoia about food safety in fresh produce, irrigating from an inspected and tested source is of major benefit to us; on a certified vegetable farm, that’s even more useful. Unless drought like this becomes an annual occurrence, we’re quite willing to take the tradeoff of temporarily high water bills as opposed to expensive but unreliable well water or expensive and highly destructive pond-building.