Roots and Shoots: How Local Farmers Coped With Drought

Organic growing makes it easier

By Pamela Doan

Anyone trying to grow plants outdoors has been acutely aware of the extra work this summer watering plants. I decided not to plant greens again this fall because I didn’t want to add that to my list of daily chores. Weather is the unpredictable factor, especially when you’re tending crops as a job, not just for your family. I can always stop by the farmer’s market and pick up lettuce when my plants get eaten by pests or bolt, but when you have families relying on your harvest in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), the stakes are higher.

Jocelyn Apicello, who runs the Longhaul Farm CSA with her husband, Jason Angell, called this summer a “unique experience.” In the five years since they started the CSA, this season has been the most challenging because of water issues and the dry conditions. They hand-water the 1 acre that they cultivate and feed 50 families from their crops. “We have an efficient system but I felt like we got a lower yield on things like cucumbers, squash and celery than in the past. They’re heavy water users,” Apicello said.

At Glynwood Farm, Jarret Nelson, the vegetable production manager, also had to do a lot of watering, but their system runs differently. Nelson’s job was less labor intensive than Apicello’s, he only had to make sure the sprinklers and drip tape were set correctly. Glynwood waters their crops from an irrigation pond on the property and Nelson said: “If we didn’t have as good an irrigation system, we would have had to do more mulching.” Glynwood’s CSA had 150 families participating this season and they cultivate 6 acres, rotating to leave 1 acre fallow every year and planted with cover crops to recoup its fertility.

Glynwood Farm in Cold Spring (File photo by Alison Rooney)

Glynwood Farm in Cold Spring (File photo by Alison Rooney)

Glynwood’s harvest was affected by the hot, dry weather, as well. “We’re growing 40-50 different crops,” Nelson said. “Many like it hot and dry and did well — eggplant, zucchini, peppers. The lettuce, broccoli, and kale haven’t been quite as good, but it’s the balance of crops that make up for shortfalls.”

Both farms are committed to organic growing methods and Apicello and Nelson credited that with their ability to cope with extreme weather better than conventional farmers. Nelson said, “We have an advantage in dry conditions because we have a lot of organic matter in the soil and that helps.”

Organic farmers don’t use chemical fertilizers to meet plants’ nutrient needs. Instead, soil is built up into a rich, balanced, fertile mix by adding organic matter like compost. At Glynwood, Nelson adds 10 tons of compost per acre. The compost is made on the farm by using manure from the goats, sheep, and cows that they raise as well as the other produce waste that is added to compost. Nelson said, “It’s a very sustainable system.”

At Longhaul, they saved gray water and used rain barrels to collect water. Apicello said, “When we made pasta, we saved the water. Rinse water from washing vegetables, anything we could collect.” She recommended planting crops that don’t mind shade in shady areas to reduce watering and getting rid of weeds. Weeds will compete with vegetables, fruit or flowers for water.

Mulching was the first line of defense for both farms. Apicello said, “Then the sun isn’t baking off the surface of your soil and taking out the moisture.” She recommended using hay, straw or leaves and putting down newspaper first to help with evaporation.

At Glynwood about 25 percent of the acreage uses a combination of drip tape and black plastic mulch. Drip tape runs along the row of plants and delivers water right to the roots. It uses less water than overhead watering and combined with the black plastic mulch is very efficient. Nelson said, “It goes under the mulch and you can run it off a hose easily.”

As temperatures rise due to global warming and our local weather patterns are affected, paying attention to how we use water is critical. Apicello said, “I think fresh water availability is one of the biggest challenges even though we don’t feel it on the East Coast or in the U.S. in the same way. We wouldn’t have to purchase everything from California, which sends out something like 90 percent of the average person’s produce, if we had a regional food system set up. Hopefully more people will be interested in getting their food locally.” Both Glynwood and Longhaul said they had a greater demand for their CSAs than they could accommodate.

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