2009 or “The Year it Rained Too Much”

2009 was a disaster for us and many other farmers across the country. In our area, we & others had complete crop losses due to the excessive rain. We also know of at least one local CSA that went out of business due to the incredibly bad weather. In the NE part of the US, too much rain was also an issue as well as a large outbreak of late blight spread accidentally by big box stores to commercial growers.

If you are farming, you are at the mercy of the weather. We do plan ahead for problems, but this last year was overwhelming and there was really little that we could do.  First we had a late freeze in April that killed crops normally okay to plant by then (tomatoes, peppers), followed  by heavy rains in May (preventing replanting of tomatoes, peppers, direct seeding squash, rotting the Akin potato crop in the ground), followed by scorching heat that lasted all summer (algae bloom in the pond that clogged the drip lines, killing blueberry bushes), and then record heavy rains in September & October (disrupting fall planting of broccoli, cabbage, carrots, beets, etc, wiping out the Akin Fall bean crop).

Spring: Late Frosts, Rain & a New Tractor

We lost most of our tomato and pepper plants in the Spring because as Michie & Wendy Akin have long advised us, we were waiting to plant at a later date than recommended by Extension and we were suspicious of the weather.

So we didn’t set them out and sure enough we got a couple of late frosts. Then before we could plant them it began to rain and didn’t ever dry up enough until late June. Saturated soil cannot and should not be tilled or bed shaped. So we lost most of those plants to the compost pile because we had to hold them too long, but we would have lost them to frost if they’d been planted.

There were bright spots in the Spring. One is that we bought a ‘new’ tractor; it is a 1951 Ford 8N. It is now considered a light duty tractor, but in its day, contributed to revolutionizing farming by making tractors affordable for more farmers. With its 27 hp engine, we’ll be using it mainly as a mowing tractor. We haven’t started using the 8N yet because we need to install some additional safety devices that older tractors did not come with such as a roll-over protection bar & a seat belt.

We started a Fruit CSA in the Spring and installed blueberry bushes, apple trees, pear trees and fig trees. We had CSA members out to assist with the planting and gave a tour of the farm. That was a good day on the farm.

From our early January planting, we had a good, but not spectacular harvest of fava beans. Sugar snap peas and green shelling peas succumbed to powdery mildew from the very wet April before we could get any sort of significant harvest. Carrots from the nursery were a success. These were overwintered and exceptionally sweet.

Summer: Hot & Finally Dry

When June arrived, the rains finally let up to our relief, but we weren’t able to plant until the 3rd week of June. It took it that long to dry up. During that time, we finished installing the irrigation lines directly to the newly planted blueberry bushes. We also put up our first attempt at deer exclusion, a 8 foot high netting supported with rebar posts. Things were looking up.

But then a new problem cropped up: algae. We ended up fighting algae bloom in the pond all summer. Experts tell us algae was especially bad last year. Algae is a serious problem because it clogs drip emitters and pipes. To combat it organically, we applied copper sulfate at Extension recommended rates to the pond. We also added cracked corn to the pond at regular intervals. We’ve investigated what kind of algae eating fish we could add to the pond and there are none we can add that can survive the winter. Tilapia eat algae and we were intrigued by the potential to farm them. But apparently they are extremely difficult to catch and it requires draining & seining the pond to do so. So we’ve shelved that idea for now.

In order to put out the copper sulfate correctly, we ended up needing to buy a boat (our theme song for the summer was “One thing leads to another”). Luckily we were in Tractor Supply one day and discovered a paddle boat that normally goes for over $400 for sale for $50 due to some holes in the hull. A cheap tube of epoxy (and a life vest) later, the boat was water worthy and is what we use. We’ve also had to install an additional filter on the pump system with a finer mesh to try to catch more of the algae before it gets further into the system. We’re still working on a solution to inject organic algae controls into the irrigation infrastructure to help keep the pipes clear of algae.

Meanwhile, the algae problem caused us enormous headaches with the blueberry irrigation. We lost about half of the 175 blueberry plants during the scorching heat of the summer because of the ongoing issues with the algae clogging the emitters causing uneven and unreliable watering. We went through several methods of dealing with the algae. We removed all the emitters and replaced them with larger ones. Now, whenever we actually have to water the blueberries, which really hasn’t been a problem since August, we have to walk the entire field checking for clogs. Then we clear the clogs and re-water. So much for automatic watering. We should still have enough blueberry plants to get good yields barring any further disasters. We will be replacing the dead plants as soon as it is possible.

We learned during the summer all about the flaws of our deer fencing. Oddly enough, the deer didn’t seem to want to jump over the fence where it sagged back down to a mere 4-5′ high. However, the strong winds we get regularly tore down sections leaving a path for the deer wide open. This sort of fencing is clearly not a sustainable or expandable option.

Summer bright spots included our first success growing squash and melons on a large scale. While our yields were disappointing in some ways, we learned which cultivars work best for us which will help us in 2010. We had to shut our CSA down in mid July after completing a term because we didn’t have enough crops to supply a variable CSA box weekly and we’d been having to start & stop the CSA during the first part of the year because of the crop losses in the Spring and because we were unable to keep to our planting schedule due to the rain. We updated our CSA’ers with the gory business details on why we had to suspend. We continue to be big believers in the CSA model and we wouldn’t trade our members for anything. They have been consistently upbeat & encouraging. We were able to continue selling to our restaurant customers because we did have a lot of a few crops but not enough diversity to make CSA boxes worthwhile.

Fall: It’s Raining Again, Oh No

By end of the October, the accumulated rainfall in Hunt County (where the farm is) was over 60 inches. The average annual rainfall is about 44 inches. We got nearly 17 inches in October alone. Really.

In spite of the rain, we started our Food CSA back up in early October depending mainly on crops grown in our raised beds at the nursery. We explained to our CSA’ers what was going on & that we would again be subject to stopping & restarting since the weather just refused to cooperate. We decided to not announce that the CSA deliveries were occurring because we had so little else to offer for off the truck sales. Our CSA’ers have been tremendously supportive during this difficult and expensive time for the farm.

Of course, because of the fall rains, we weren’t able to get any of the fall crops planted on time. We did plant out several thousand feet of snap beans and shell beans. However, the rain rotted the seeds. Those that did come up where eaten down by the deer because we were unable to keep a hot pepper spray on the plants (the rainkept  washing it off). We ended up holding transplants in trays, having to compost some and planting some out very late finally (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi and brussels sprouts). The deer fencing continued to come down and our hot pepper spray efforts kept being thwarted by the rain. So between the deer and the raccoons who discovered the melons, we didn’t harvest much from the farm after early September. What could be harvested was often affected flavor-wise by the excessive rain.

When it started raining again in September we realized that we were just going to have to suffer through the rest of the year and make the best of it. So we took the time when we couldn’t get anything productive done on the farm and used it to complete some long postponed projects. For one, we were able to spend some time researching sprayers and concluded that the way we are planning to use our sprayer (weekly) we needed to be sure to buy one that would be rugged and hold up. We are believers in buying quality when it counts so that you don’t have to keep re-buying. So, we ended up buying an agricultural grade sprayer from our tractor dealer. It connects to the 3 point hitch, has retractable booms and switches to control the sections of the boom.

We had also been planning all year to buy a compost tea maker. You can read about it here: http://www.erathearth.com/. We bought the 60 gallon model. We also bought 55 G drums of fish fertilizer and pure cane molasses to add to the finished tea. We became big believers in compost tea last year. However, the traditional method of brewing it requires about 24 hours. This maker makes 60 G in 30 minutes. That’s more on our time scale. It does it via a patented process of creating air vortexes in the water.  We’ve found using compost tea greatly reduces the need to spray our organic insecticides, a true win-win.

Laurie, after some studying, some new pins, a few things moved here & there and lots of elbow grease, adjusted the cultivator so we could finally pick it up with our quick hitch on our Kubota. This was a big deal because we’d already taken the quick hitch off the Kubota and realized we still couldn’t pick up the cultivator because we would have had to change some adjustments on the tractor that would have made it hard to switch back to the quick hitch,which, frankly, defeats the purpose of the quick hitch. We’ll be using the cultivator (we hope) to open furrows for planting. If we’re really good, we’ll also use it to close  furrows. Gotta tell you, that will be a lot easier than using a hoe.

We ordered vegetable plug trays for the first time. Up to now, we’ve produced all of our own vegetable plants. However, given the scale we’re expanding to, we need to invest in a greenhouse to produce more plants. Until we have the time and resources to do that, we’re going to use a certified organic plug producer out of California (the only one we can find) to supplement what we’re growing and hopefully get us off to a fast start in 2010. The first shipment is scheduled to arrive in late January and includes broccoli, cabbage & cauliflower plugs. These trays are 288 size cells, which are very small. We’ll be bumping them up into larger trays when we receive them. This means we’ll need a lot more room for trays in a semi-protected area. Getting that area ready is one of our big projects for 2010.

Meanwhile, at the nursery, things kept on rocking along. Growing in raised beds is much easier than growing in a field. We did finally catch one of the marauding rabbits that had been destroying our nursery crops all year in a live trap and he now lives far, far away. We are re-baiting the trap regularly to see who else we can relocate. Growth on all the nursery plants will be very slow through January due to the short day lengths, temperature and light intensity. We do have planted: carrots, beets, radishes, lettuce, chicory, kale, chard, collards and arugula. Damage to the nursery crops continues despite the rabbit trapping and we now suspect we also have mice. Mouse trapping is next. So can you really have too much rain? If you’ve read this far, you know the answer is yes, you can have too much rain and no, we won’t regret saying that in the first drought year. Flooding is just as bad as a drought.

Winter: Looking Forward

Frankly, we’re glad to be done with 2009. If we were not fortunate enough to have the savings to weather this past year, we would have joined the ranks of those farms who folded in 09. We get asked why aren’t there more farmers around here? There are several reasons. Probably the most important reason is that it’s a hard thing to do. If you’ve read this whole article, we hope you now have a better appreciation of just how hard it can be. Failure while farming is certain in one form or another. All that we can do is to continue to plan for as much as possible and keep hoping.

God willing, we do have big plans for 2010. We’re working this week on selecting a pipe bender design so that we can move forward with building a couple of small high tunnels. We’re going to buy a bender instead of buying pre-bent pipe because it much more cost effective. We need a bender because we’re planning to put up a small, temporary high tunnel at the nursery to give us more light space for seedling trays this Spring in a weather protected structure. We already use low tunnels extensively at the nursery. What’s the difference between a high tunnel & a low tunnel? Simply, you can walk into a high tunnel. We also want to put up a high tunnel at the farm to test whether it will help us continue to grow crops in spite of adverse weather (i.e. frosts, excessive rain). And we’ve heard that deer don’t like to go into high tunnels even if the tunnel is mostly opened to vent.

Our first shipment of plants will arrive in the 3rd week of January. We will grow them out to a larger size & then transplant them out on the farm.  The February shipment of plants is half tomato plants & half pepper plants. Instead of waiting until April to plant out tomatoes & peppers, our plan this year is to put them out beginning in March in stages.

Those put in before April will be covered with some sort of weather protection. This could include the high tunnel we described above. Or it could be a low tunnel with a self-venting greenhouse type film. Venting is important because we can have very warm days in March followed by a freeze. If a tunnel isn’t vented, the plants will be overheated and killed. We will probably make some of all these plants available for sale to those would like to have organic plants for their home garden.

We are planning to add cut flowers back in 2010. The February plant shipment includes a tray of snapdragons. We’ve delayed ordering any bulb grown flower like lilies or tulips because they are too expensive to risk right now. We will grow more seed started flowers in 2010 and hope to restart our Flower CSA.

Meanwhile, during these next few cold months, we are working on tasks like clearing out invasive Eastern Red Cedar on the farm and repairing and bolstering fence line. The big annual seed order will be placed in the next week. Peppers, tomatoes & eggplant seedlings that we will start ourselves will be started in January. The safety equipment we bought for the 8N last month will be installed so we can use it this year. Research into better ways to defeat algae continues. As a next step in our efforts to peacefully co-exist with the resident deer population, we will soon be fencing in a small trial section of crop land with solar powered electric fencing. And finally, we continue to read and study ways to improve our production. We are looking into how to obtain grant money to offset some of our infrastructure investments and support some of the things we need to study this year like the high tunnel. If there are any great grant writers out there who’d like to trade vegetables for their services, please do email us.

We continue to be humbled by the incredible, almost overwhelming support for local farms that we’ve witnessed in the past 5 years. We know that we alone cannot possibly serve everyone that is interested. More local farmers are needed and they need your support as well. Spring is right around the corner and farmer’s markets will be re-opening. Please do support those markets, especially those that focus on growers and are not primarily full of resellers. If you are looking for a local farm near you, check www.localharvest.org. If you are interested in growing your own vegetables, then please consider contacting your local County Extension office for free advice.

We hope that you all have a very prosperous 2010 and thank you for your continued support.

Kim & Laurie

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