50/50 Chance of Rain

August 26- September 1, 2019

His face was always scruffy, a country boy turning into a wise old-timer.  We worked together over twenty-five years ago.  One day in his dually truck cruising down the center of a narrow county road, over hills and around curves, I casually asked him if he thought it was going to rain today. He matter-of-factly said, “Fifty-fifty chance of rain.  It will either rain or it won’t.” At first, I took it as a smart-aleck joke, but since then I’ve decided he’s right.

Fifty-fifty are not very good odds if you are a farmer counting on rain to feed your crops. Historically tobacco farmers in this area had some rudimentary 4” diameter, 30’ long aluminum pipes; they’d stick one end into Elkhorn Creek, hook the other to the pump, driven by the PTO (power take off) of a tractor, and lay great lengths of pipe out through the crop fields with sprinkler heads every so often. The 30’ aluminum pipes don’t go around curves very well nor over humps or dips, so it was a general pain in the neck and finger pinching kind of thing, but it was a rescue from deep draught.

Every season, farmers had to make the decision of setting up the pipes or put their hope in the next storm to bless the crop with lifesaving moisture. There are plenty of stories of rain coming by the time they got it all set up and running right. If they went to all the trouble to set it up it would usually stay out just in case it did not rain enough to help, but then it was in the way. Despite the imperfections, everybody had a pump tucked away in a barn somewhere, and a pipe wagon behind it, because when the farmers needed one, they had to have one.

Fifty-fifty are even worse odds if you are a produce farmer, since each crop has unique water requirements. Therefore, we have invested in several water delivery systems to hedge our bets when we find ourselves on the wrong side of the equation. There are two basic systems, trickle and overhead, and a third if you count float tanks in the greenhouse.

Irrigation starts with the source, and ours are the North Fork of Elkhorn Creek and Kentucky American Water Company. Municipal water is convenient for year-round use in the greenhouses and high tunnels, while all the fields are nourished by the creek. We invested in an underground trunk line from the creek to the round field in the back, with a flip-the-switch electric pump at the creek. The line follows the borders of several fields and risers are installed for access to the line when new crops are rotated in.

One way we hedge our bets is to raise high value crops, like tomatoes, with a strip of trickle irrigation tape running underneath the rows of mulch which helps to conserve soil moisture from evaporation. The tape has drip outlets built in every 12” and swells when charged with creek water. A consistent water supply is crucial. For example, in tomatoes lack of moisture causes blossom end rot and a big burst of rain swells the fruit faster than the skin can grow, effectively ruining them by splitting them open.

For tomatoes and other crops, we run a flexible plastic ‘lay flat’ hosing from the port, or water valve, along the edge of the field with connectors at each row. We can drive over these lines, but lines can be damaged by mowers and cultivation equipment. Between the creek and the tiny emitters along the rows is a sand filter, to capture particulate matter from the intake pipe in the creek. When this system is set up and working properly, we can easily deliver the water to these crops on a regular basis and adjust it to run less when it rains.

For field crops that are grown in cultivated soil we use a ‘traveler’. This engineering marvel consists of a big gun type sprinkler on a wheeled dolly; it is hooked to a hose reel that slowly winds up the hose. We pull the dolly with 600 feet of hard hose attached to the far end of the field; then we run some pipe or a flexible connector to the reel and turn it on. As the water moves through the reel it spews water 150’ in each direction across the field, and it also triggers the reel to slowly wind itself up, pulling the dolly mounted with the big gun back to the reel. This takes 10-12 hours and is often done at night to reduce evaporation loss.

The hot dry weather of late has us running the pump for some crop or another most all the time; it is part of daily chores. Last year with the record setting rains, we hardly even had to water tomatoes. Out here on the banks of the Elkhorn, we usually get enough rain for the pastures and hay fields to sustain our livestock and soil building program. But produce is another story. Whether it’s a big gun or little lines dripping all day, we are thankful for technological solutions to aid in crop production, since it will either rain or it won’t. – Mac Stone

In Your Share

  • Arugula or Baby Kale
  • Cabbage
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Microgreens/Shoots
  • New Potatoes
  • Onions, Red
  • Onions, Sweet
  • Summer Squash
  • Surprise Item- Jar of Organic Tomatoes

Recipes

Check out our Pinterest board for this week’s recipes! https://www.pinterest.com/elmwoodstockfar/recipes-2019-summer-csa/

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