Water Saving Strategies for Your Farm & Garden
It’s been a long, hot summer. July was the hottest month in over a century, and a lot of farmers, from tiny one acre plots to hundreds-of- acre century farms, have been worried about their water supply. It turns out that those who farm using old fashioned or organic principals are faring best in this new era of climate disruption.
Mason Gilbert, a small farmer in Brooktondale, NY, worried about the lack of snow last winter, and delayed planting, hoping that more rain would fall. He credits the crops he has to a five pronged approach: using raised beds, planting closely to minimize water evaporation, mulch, saving the water from his roof and using the available water in a controlled manner. For instance, his tomatoes get regularly scheduled water boosts to help avoid blossom end rot and the carrots, in the raised beds, get enough drainage to keep from being temporarily overwatered and splitting when it does rain. The late start delayed his entry into the nearby Caroline Farmers Market by a few weeks and initially didn’t help his bottom line. What did help, however, was embracing the new social media outlets. The web site that his son put together to showcase the family farm and regular updates on Facebook have made a big difference in their sales. With that extra advertising, their produce is now selling fast at the local Caroline Farmers Market and to customers that visit the farm. His wife, Donna, also carries produce to work to fill orders generated from the web. Check out gilbertfamilyfarm.com to see what’s tripled their sales.
Christmas Tree Farmer Bob Hunt, in Trumansburg, NY, says, “We’re not in trouble yet. The trees haven’t started changing color, but that’s partially due to the clay soil on much of our 233 acres. It tends to retain what water we get and while that may be a problem in the spring when I’m waiting for the ground to dry up enough to get the equipment into the fields, right now it’s a help.” With the soil moisture from Spring rains disappearing, Bob is concerned that he has no practical way to water his trees. “Our strategy right now is to pray for rain. If it gets worse we’ll try to run a pump from our ponds and water the seedlings so that they don’t die, but that’s expensive and what do we do if the pond dries up?”
Don Barber and Rita Rosenberg of Rosebarb Farm in Ithaca, NY use horses to farm their acres using organic principals. They sell from a roadside stand and preserve their own food. “I’ve been trying to retain all the water I can.” He explains, “We use gutters to direct and save the water from our house and some of the outbuildings. I’ve got water barrels and we’ve buried a 500 gallon tank as backup. We also mulch and water sparingly, putting the water where it will do the most good. For instance, we water the berries as they’re setting fruit and as the fruit is plumping up. It’s the only way to ensure a crop. There were some blueberries that didn’t get enough water and they just dried up on the plants. We could probably do a little more in the way of retaining water and if this climate disruption keeps up, we’ll have to.”
The Hatches have been raising sheep, bees and vegetables on their acreage for about 40 years. “We water using drip hoses in a controlled manner. We used to spray the vegetables using water from our pond, but the pump was noisy and expensive and it wasted a lot of water. Now, with controlled application we can use the well in our barn and we haven’t run out of water yet. It might help that we live on a hill with an abundance of water and a forest surrounding us. When we moved here 40 years ago we planted trees as a windbreak and learned to use mulch. It all makes a difference in both the amount of work we have to do and in the bottom line.”
Cal Snows family farm in Caroline, NY has been in existence since 1816 and two of his sons are following in the family footsteps. Son Aaron has helped them branch out into a value added product, cheesemaking, to help grow the business. With nearly 200 years of family wisdom Cal has a number of things to suggest. He relays an old country saying that some farmers who were hit by last year’s floods might relate to. “They say that a dry year will scare you to death but a wet year will starve you.” Still, the lack of water this year is not easy to cope with.
“We plant at least 15% more than we expect to need during any year. That way if we have a very wet or dry year, or hit a cold spell, we’ve got a margin of error. If we end up with more hay and feed than we need, that means that we have a little extra income that year that we can set aside for a bad year. With the amount of land we have and while trying to grow the feed for all of our animals, irrigation isn’t practical. We do mulch, use crop rotation, avoid over plowing or over compacting the soil and we plant varieties of alfalfa and other crops that can handle the drier weather. We planted the small grains early enough this year that they got some growth when there was still some rain, but our corn is stressed. There are more harmful insects in the fields than normal, but we’re not buying or spraying any insecticide. The cost of the chemicals, the fuel to spread them and the damage to the beneficial insects isn’t worth it. We use a pond to water our livestock and so far the springs that feed the pond haven’t failed us, but the heat, even with giving the cows as much water as they want, is still cutting into milk production and their general health. For instance, fertility declines when the temperature rises.”
Tips for Saving Water
Rainwater Catchment from a High Tunnel for Irrigation UseA video from Iowa State University Extension describes how to build a system to catch, store and reuse the rainwater for irrigation in a high tunnel. They’ve determined that the runoff from a 30 X 96 foot hoop house can collect up to 28,000 gallons of water per season. Each rainfall of at least ½ inch can help fill the two 500 gallon tanks buried next to the hoop house, providing much of the water needed
This bulletin spotlights innovative research into a range of conservation options including soil management, such as using compost, conservation tillage and cover crops; plant management, featuring crop rotation, water-conserving plants and rangeland drought mitigation; and water management strategies such as low-volume irrigation and water recycling. Cornell Cooperative Extension and the USDA SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) have a number of tips for soil management and conserving water. They include water capture in rain barrels and tanks, mulch and drip irrigation on smaller acreage, planting drought resistant varieties and native forage whenever possible and saving and recycling any water that does fall. Taking care to till in a limited way, so that you’re not kicking up dust and further drying the soil will also help. Building up the soil with organic matter, using cover crops and crop rotation will also help. There is also information on innovative systems for tillage, irrigation and runoff collection.