Washing Away, part 3

Sunday night through Monday morning: at least another 2″, probably more, on fully saturated ground (I didn’t have my gauge bucket set up). We set a new stream flow record by far, with concrete blocks landing about 30′ downstream and large driftwood across the bottomland. Tonight we’re expecting the remnants of Hurrican Dolly to pass through, promising more heavy rains. Insert standard Noah reference here.

We were lucky Sunday, as that system was producing 80mph winds, tornadoes, and golfball hail. The worst cells passed just a few miles east of us, so all we got was heavy rain and some wind. Could have been much worse.

Washing Away, Pt. 2

A very quick post in a very busy time.

This week’s rainfall: Tuesday, 3.5″; Thursday, 1.5″; Friday morning, 3″. 8″ in four days is a lot, but parts of northern Missouri recieved over 9″ within 30 hours.

This latest round resulted in the highest stream flow we’ve yet seen here. Those familiar with our place will be interested to know that the footbridge washed out, as the water level reached the logs, and had to be dragged out with the tractor. Of course, everything is absurdly soggy and we have concerns about damage to plants from drowned roots and possible disease. More storms are forecast for the forseeable future. The tomatoes are absolutely bursting with green fruit, and if they can just make it through the downpours alive, will be stuffing our market stand very soon.

On the plus side, it’s nice to not worry about irrigation this year…

Washing Away…

While attention has rightly been focused on the massive rainfalls and flooding in Iowa and along the Mississippi river, conditions are quietly getting soggier in central and northern Missouri. In Linn County, a bit north of us, over 7 inches of rain fell in 4 hours; Locust Creek went up 20 feet in a few hours. The Chariton River has gone up 18 feet at Prairie Hill, and the Grand has gone up 25 feet at Chillicothe. These are both significant tributaries to the Missouri River, which has been hovering around moderate flood stage for a while now. As I write this on Thursday morning, the upper Missouri basin in eastern NE and western IA is being pounded by severe storms, central/northern Missouri has had wave after wave of heavy rainfall, and more is rotating into our area. We’ve had over 5″ in the last 24 hours, including 3″ in one hour, producing the highest streamflow we’ve seen on our property, and it continues to fall. We’re forecast for continued storms through the weekend, including severe storms and heavy rainfall Friday and Friday night.

At the moment, the Missouri is forecast to once again reach a stage height of 25′ at Jefferson City, well below the 1993 record of 38.3′ but enough to start flooding lower areas, and this forecast doesn’t include all the oncoming rain. It’s been cycling around that height for weeks now, so this is nothing new, but it’s a lot of water and continued heavy rains across the basin could keep the trend going. So far we’ve been fortunate that the rain pulses are just far enough apart to allow the Missouri to drop again before the next pulse arrives, but that may not last. Much of the region is saturated, and can’t hold much more. More and more folks are quietly saying that this reminds of them of ’93, when this just kept happening; the rain just kept coming and the rivers just kept rising. We’ll see. There’s a long way to go in the Missouri basin, but that’s what they thought in Iowa and along the Mississippi not that long ago.

As ex and current geologists with experience in rivers, we’re fascinated on a scientific level by these dynamics. There are many good websites to use when tracking these events, mostly those managed by the National Weather Service and the USGS. When using these, however, you’ll notice massive gaps in stream gage coverage; this is due to major budget cuts in river monitoring that have really hampered our ability to accurately study, track, and predict river behavior. Read coverage of the Iowa floods carefully, and you’ll find the experts bemoaning the cuts that have kept them from doing their job.

In any case, for an overall view of river conditions, visit http://water.usgs.gov/waterwatch/. This national map shows streamflow conditions for all gages monitored by the USGS, and you can click on a state to zoom in, then click on any gage to see recent conditions.

Another good site is the National Weather Service’s Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Center, which takes similar data to the USGS site and presents them in a slicker, more intuitive interface that really helps present conditions, as well as offering river stage forecasts. As above, click on individual gage sites to view graphs, data, and predictions. The link above is to the Kansas City forecast region that covers most of the central/northern Missouri area I wrote about above, but you can scroll in any direction through the country. Also, at any particular gage, scroll down to see a location map and table of how different gage heights affect the surrounding area. It’s a good way to get context for the river conditions.

Finally, as a way of documenting the wet conditions this spring and early summer, here’s a link to the National Weather Service’s 1-year rainfall data for St Louis. This is a live, daily-updated graph, so if you’re reading this months later in the archive it might not fit my description. But as of late June, you’ll clearly see that we spent most of the winter slightly dry, but around mid-March the rain just started falling and is now 12″ above average. The comparable temperature graph shows the cool side of this agriculturally terrible spring, which has hurt everyone from gardeners to grain spreads.

So for now we just wait, watch the streams rise, and pay attention. Our permanent raised beds are generally saving us from larger disaster, as they keep the roots of our plants above the accumulating water, but that only goes so far. When the soil stays constantly wet and never gets a chance to drain, it will start to stunt and hurt the plants, so we’re concerned. The biggest worry right now is our beautiful stand of 200+ heads of garlic, which is in the process of forming bulbs, only a few weeks from harvest. Garlic needs fairly dry conditions to do this properly, and can rot easily in overly wet conditions. A friend has already lost at least half her garlic to waterlogged fields, and we’re in danger. Losing this crop so close to harvest would really hurt. Overall, though, as I’ve written before, these conditions cement our commitment to developing an effective no-till, permanent raised bed farming method here, because in the long run it will insulate us as much as possible against these sorts of conditions that are causing even more trouble and damage for more equipment-dependent growers.

When It Rains…

The last two weeks have been a rather problematic and stressful time, with conditions and events doing their best to undermine my general philosophy of confident perseverance. I started to write up a thorough explanation of recent events, but stopped when I hit page 4, realizing that such a brain dump wouldn’t work for the blog. I’m going to give a very brief synopsis here, and those who want details can write us. Maybe I’ll email you a copy of the full Word document if you’re a glutton for punishment. At an individual level, these are the sorts of things you expect from running a small farm, but you certainly hope they don’t all come crashing down at the same time. For those who might worry about us after reading this, don’t. Yes, we’re pretty frazzled and a bit wild-eyed, but every job/career/life faces difficult times, and what matters is how you face those times and how you move beyond them. As horrible as the following events feel to us, they don’t begin to compare to what so many Americans (much less world citizens) face every day. Losing a cat is not the same as losing a soldier; dead chickens are not the same as having no food; poisoned goats are a far cry from war, famine, and poverty. So let this account be an accurate reflection of our recent troubles, but in the context that we’re still pretty damned well off compared to much of the world, and are likely to stay that way.

The loss of Loki has already been addressed, though it just set the stage for things to come. It was the beginning of a pretty rough 2 weeks.

We’ve lost 15 chickens to an unknown predator (probably raccoon), prompting us to spend over a day rebuilding the cedar goat shed as a secure chicken house and move the 12 survivors down to the goat paddock. Their old home was surrounded by an electric net fence running 7,000 volts, but that apparently wasn’t enough. When I contacted the net’s manufacturer (who were recommended to us by multiple people), they were flabbergasted at our report. The rep, who uses the netting herself on sweet corn and poultry with no problems, commented in disbelief, “You must have an armor-plated raccoon.”

About the same time, we discovered that a plant thriving in the goat’s home paddock and recently fenced new browse paddock is highly toxic to livestock, and is excreted & concentrated into milk, making our dairy products unusable. So far the goats (and us) are still alive, but white snakeroot was historically the cause for thousands of deaths among settlers and homesteaders across the Appalachians and Midwest. We’re working with Extension services to learn more about the toxicity and residence time we’re dealing with, as almost no one seems terribly familiar with this particular plant and toxin, despite it being common throughout Missouri. In the meantime, we’ve spent hours hand-pulling every snakeroot plant from the home paddock and have abandoned their new paddock for now. We identified the plant as soon as it got big enough to be noticeable, which was when the goats were already eating it. So we caught it very quickly, but there are no answers from the “experts” on how much constitutes a dangerous dose for them or for us.

We are still mired in a very wet spring, making all sorts of agricultural activities difficult (every size farm is suffering this year). This includes hay-making; a recent batch from a friend had to be baled during a very narrow dry window, did not dry enough in the field, and subsequently molded. This creates a fire hazard as the hay composts and heats up within each bale, so we spent an evening breaking open bales and spreading them outside the barn to avoid disaster. It’s 95% ruined and good only for mulch and ground cover. We have tentatively identified another source of hay, sharing an order with another goat farm in the area, so hopefully that gap will be addressed within a week or so.

The constant rain has kept setting us back on field/garden prep, planting, and many other necessary tasks, so we’ll see what our production is like this summer. In addition, dealing with the cascade of pressing animal issues has sucked many days of work time away from our core vegetable operation.

As a cap to all this, my neck muscles are spasming again, keeping me from doing any physical labor. It’s not as bad this time, and I’m aggressively countering it with stretches, heat, and rest, but this is really not the time for me to go out of commission. I went in to the doctor this morning, who asked if I’d been under stress lately. I laughed. He thinks there’s a connection there, and I believe it. Makes sense that the muscles would be tenser and more likely to knot up when I’m so tightly wound right now anyway.

After considering all this, it might be fair to ask if we’ve taken on too much. It’s something we’ve discussed at length, and here’s my take. Yes, possibly, but I’m glad we have. So many of these issues are things that can really only be learned by experience, and that means putting in the time and work. We fully expect that it will take us years to learn to be truly effective and knowledgeable livestock and poultry raisers, and that we won’t be doing it commercially until we are confident in our knowledge and abilities. Right now, we still have off-farm income and the luxury of being able to experiment with these things without losses being a disaster. If we waited to start animals until we were full-time vegetable growers, these losses of time and sanity would hurt a lot more than they do now. So despite the insanity, I think it’s the right approach to learn as much as we can early on, so we can apply those lessons as soon as possible when we need them. These early, combined trials put us on the road to self-sufficiency far faster than the alternative, and so I’m grateful for the lessons even as they give me muscle spasms.

Finally, in a bit of good news, we heard our first rooster crowing this morning. It was a wonderful, amusing sound as he struggled to get it right, warbling like a teenage boy in choir. Just a sign that even as many things go wrong, we’re still progressing toward the goals that have driven us all along. One of the most valuable aspects of this life is that everything is a lesson, and everything is worth experiencing. We are tired, but never bored, and that’s a bargain I’ll make any day.

Patterns of Spring

Since we settled here, we’ve been keeping records of natural events like bird migrations, flower bloomings, and so on, with the goal of documenting and better understanding the natural patterns here. Spring is one of the best times to appreciate these records, as so many new things are happening and arriving. So far, our general observations suggest that migratory birds are on about the same schedule as last year, but wildflowers and local animals are behind. This makes sense, as last spring the weather was abnormally warm here, so that local flowers bloomed early, but birds respond to large factors than local weather.

Anyway, here’s a few glimpses at the changes (or not) since last year:

Birds (first observation in 2007, 2008):
Woodcocks: 2/27, 3/6
Louisiana waterthrush: 3/26, 3/26
Phoebe: 3/11, 3/13
Towhee: 3/11, 3/19
Snow geese: 3/22, 3/23

Other animals (first observation in 2007, 2008):
Spring peepers: 3/8, 3/1
Young snake (prairie king snake?): 3/28, 3/26
Box turtles: 3/13, none
Bats: 3/13, none
Ticks: 3/28, none

Wildflowers (first observation in 2007, 2008):
Crocus: 3/4, 3/10
Harbinger of Spring: 3/13, 3/19
Redbuds: 3/27, none
Spring Beauty: 3/25, none
Bloodroot: 3/25, none

Soil temperature 6″ down (2007, 2008)
February 25 (32, 32)
March 10 (40, 36)
March 24 (none, 40)

These sorts of data will be even more valuable in years to come as we build a meaningful record of long-term patterns, but even now they’re fun to peruse. Keeping a simple notebook is relatively easy, and the rewards are quite meaningful.

Signs of Spring

I’m sure half the country is saying or writing something like this right now, but we’re definitely transitioning into spring here. The early flowers are coming up, like these bursts of color. Many birds have returned or become noticeable again, including woodcocks, bluebirds, phoebes, wood ducks, snow geese, and more. The spring peepers and other frogs are chorusing at full volume, to the point that standing near a stream or body of water will actually make your ears ring. Leaves are not budding yet, but there is an almost imperceptible greening of the grass, and the ground is finally thawed enough to work.

Our first crops of spring are in the ground and growing slowly. The garlic, which has overwintered from the fall, is looking very nice ( left). We have some early lettuce in the ground, which we start indoors under grow lights and then transplant. There are about 120 plants out right now, with about the same number awaiting transplant later today. We hope they’ll be ready for harvest within 2-3 weeks. The early lettuce is growing slowly, weathering cold snaps and an early transplant that was a little harsh on my part. I plan on being more gentle with the next round to go out today.

The Columbia Farmers Market opened this past weekend (March 22) with excellent attendance by both vendors and customers. I had held out hopes of having lettuce ready for this first market, but it’s very difficult to do without a proper greenhouse, and we didn’t get the perfect conditions we would have needed to achieve that. The straw and plastic cold frame at left helps, but only so much. In any case, we have radishes coming up and many more about to be seeded, many trays of onions about to be transplanted, and seeding of the first spring peas is not far behind.

For those who might be wondering, my previously discussed neck trouble has healed up for now, thanks to some muscle relaxants, several weeks of rest, and lots of stretching. I’m back at full capacity, and just in time. We just put in a long weekend of labor, cutting and hauling logs to build new garden beds, continuing the orchard clearing project, chipping more mulch, and generally taking advantage of the current warm weather. Within the next month, we plan to have new irrigation installed in the market garden, up to 20 new 4’x16′ raised beds built, a chicken yard and shed built for the chicks that should be arriving this week, fencing and shed built for the goats that will likely be arriving soon, an orchard area mostly cleared so I can sow alfalfa onto it to build and hold the soil, and weekly sales at market of early spring produce. We’ll do our best to keep photos and news coming as the busy season progresses.