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Lessons from the Land: Water Woes and Triumphs

by Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming
The 2016 growing season has been abnormally dry in the Northeast and farmers are feeling the heat.  Contrastingly, June 2015 was one of the wettest on record. Here is a small selection of farmer stories dealing with too much or too little water, and the ways they’ve had to change their practices to adapt.
You can read past submissions on other topics at: https://blogs.cornell.edu/smallfarmsprogramlessons-from-the-land/
Submit your own stories: CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT 

Our homestead sits in a notch near the top of Virgil Mountain close to Greek Peak ski center. Two hillsides drain into our land and we are a water source for 2 distinct watersheds. Fifteen of our acres are quite wet and host 2 and 5 seasonal vernal ponds. Fifteen more acres are prone to springs and poor drainage. This is the first year that irrigation has been a constant struggle.
Once we realized that the drought looked to be long-term, we installed drip tape on all of our ground beds. Over time, we are moving more and more of our fruit trees into the fenced garden for deer protection and ease of irrigation. I should mention that we are in our late sixties. The raised beds and irrigation systems have proven to be very ergonomic for aging bodies.
We typically work outside 30 – 40 hours a week from May until November and spend countless hours on food preservation, firewood cutting, compost making, and many other chores. Although we have built the infrastructure for livestock, we don’t currently have any. We are always looking for strategies to build a sustainable homestead that we will be able to maintain into our “golden” years.
We trust that we are leaving a legacy for future generations and we love to share ideas with like-minded people. Our advice to fellow gardeners; Site and build a pond first. Study the lay of the land and the effects of the seasons. Resiliency requires imagination, flexibility, and hard work.
Chris & Bob Applegate
Virgil, NY

In June of 2015, when, according to the weather reports from Binghamton, we received nine inches of rain, I was concerned that all that humidity would bring about another year of blight for tomatoes and potatoes.
In 2016, our warm, dry winter, and historically dry summer had provided us with the opposite worries. Would the well hold out? What if the pond dries up? Perhaps you were thankful that you bought first cutting hay, because there was no second cutting.
While I am not dependent on farming for my living, I was brought up in a household by parents who survived the depression, and a large garden was considered a necessity. My mother would can or freeze vegetables and fruits to see us through the winter. And, back in the day, if you wanted red raspberries, you planted them and waited for them to produce.
In the lovely, rainy year of 2015, I harvested the largest black raspberries I ever saw, and even the apple trees in the hedgerows had apples almost as big as ‘store-bought’.  Being self-sufficient is defines a large part of who I am. I enjoy good, wholesome food, and I love eating a meal where I raised or grew everything on my plate. I’ve raised pigs, butchered my own chickens, and have started a flock of Bourbon Red turkeys.
However, conversations about our severe drought this past summer were disheartening. When I mentioned the pathetic cornfields, or the fact that there would be no second-cutting hay, I was generally met with blank stares. In my own little social experiment, I have simply proven to myself that the general public is far removed from the land. They care more about social media than knowing basic facts about where the food they eat comes from. Most are fairly clueless about the fact that a severe drought means more than a brown lawn, or some local swimming holes dried up. Food, to them, is only from the grocery store. They fill the cart, swipe the card, and go home to microwave convenience food. One teenager actually said to me, “Well, why do we even need farms? You can get everything you need at the store.”
Astounding point of view, isn’t it?
Debbie Curtis, Palomino Hill Farm

This is probably the driest our farm has ever been! We have two different locations, and are running drip and overhead daily and we also have been using 5 gallon buckets and dumping water on crops with those. Dry!!!! The rain just keeps going around us and the forecast doesn’t show any rain in the near future. This is the first year where I have to decide what crops we are going to lose and what crops we are going to try to save. Our main goal is to keep the CSA members supplied and our head above water. (No pun intended)
Trevor, Ithaca Organics
Ithaca and Dryden, NY

Ordinarily at this time of year I would be mowing lanes in the orchard and hauling my tripod ladder around to thin fruit in the pear trees. But after the stop and go hot and cold Spring this year there are hardly any pears to thin, so no reason to mow in the orchard, and this early and long summer drought we are now having will ensure that there will be just about no fruit to harvest.
The same weather patterns dehydrated the watercress I spent a few years getting started and has caused suffering to our laying hens. The excessive heat desiccated the bud sticks I gathered in February gathering and grafted in May grafting.
The erratic weather encourages me to plant more and more garlic. The climate doesn’t kill it, the critters don’t eat, it repels werewolves, prevents disease, improves everything but ice-cream, makes life good, and sells for as much by weight as Asian Pears.
David S. Warren

My neighbor, and Biodynamic greens farmer, is “treading water” in these days of drought. That is, the two ponds he leases are providing enough irrigation water to germinate seeds and bring his crops to harvest just keeping his “head above water.”
As documented in the 1899 by the diaries of Seymour Bates’ who farmed here at that time. (in his own words with his own spelling):
“July 30, 1899 – Dry and in want of rain.
August 3 – Found the center of the land in Hector and begun diging a well in the A.M.
August 19 –  Very warm and dusty.
Aug 20 – Very dusty and warm. Creek dry north of the house.
August 25 – Very dry and the leaves are fadeing and falling from the trees in the woods.
August 26 – Dig in well in P.M.
September 6 – We have dug the well to the depth of nine feet at various times.
September 7 – Drawing stone for the well.
September 9 – The well was at 17 feet at noon. One charge of dynamite after dinner brought water in abundance.
September 17, 1899 – The drought continues. Its equal has not been since 1854.”
Neither we nor the neighbor farmer are being “drowned by the drought” at this time; but we certainly are limiting some water usages, and are once more looking over the farmland contours and noting prospective pond sites.  The hourly cost of hiring a bulldozer is off-putting; but not as scary as a total crop failure brought on by not having water available at the right time in future crop production years.
John Wertis
Trumansburg NY

Our little house is cantilevered over the foundation of an early nineteenth century home on Pumpkin Hill, several hundred feet above Cayuga Lake. During the early twentieth century, the hand-dug house well was drilled down a hundred feet, so I cleaned it out and chipped a foot deeper into the shale with a digging bar.
We installed a fountainhead over a six-foot diameter basin excavated in the shale below it, and over a spillway below that, dug a somewhat larger pond with an outlet channel leading to another larger pond, and then another to larger one. Pumps in each pond circulate water through the system. I stocked the larger pond with native aquatic weeds that thrived, then with Crayfish that ate all the pondweed, then with Largemouth Bass, which ate all the Crayfish. I introduced Fathead minnows, which also thrived and on which the Bass grew large, spawning and spreading through the flowing brook to the lower pond.
This worked well enough during the normal years, but unfortunately, erratic is the new normal. This year we just have enough water for a few frogs and we frequently run the well dry watering. We do not take a lot of showers.  I mulch heavily with straw. Other than by increasing our water gathering and storage capacity, our most important adaptation to the dry conditions has been to concentrate on cultivating drought tolerant crops, especially volunteer pears. Though not native, pears are tolerant of weather extremes and of our thin, poorly drained, clay-laden soil. We have hundreds of naturalized Pear trees on our four acres, and I have grafted a dozen different varieties of cultivated Pears onto a hundred or more of them. I never water these trees.
Garlic is the most drought-resistant vegetable crop. We grow it in mounds on orchard wet spots. Without mounding, there isn’t much soil at all, and the mounding both holds moisture and drains off the excess. Maybe the Garlic diet protects us from dehydration, if not also from vampires.
David S. Warren

The land laid parched, corn’s “arms” pulled in tight to conserve moisture. Squash leaves droop by 10 AM to do the same.  This morning’s thunderstorm finally brought us the blessing of a full inch of rain an about 30 minutes.  All those leaves have spread wide, soaked directly in what moisture they could.  All the plants around are setting about the business of using that water before the hot sun simply evaporates it.  Grow crops Grow!
This dry season has me thinking of the strategies I’ve learned over the years, and regularly use to beat Mother Nature at her own game.  She constantly throws farmers and gardeners curve balls that threaten our harvest.  This year brought dry heat, last year it was cool, cloudy weather.  The list of issues is endless.
One of my most successful defenses against all these threat is diversification.  We grow many different vegetables, at least 3 varieties of each, and plant them in different places.  This year we have 4 varieties of summer squash growing in 3 different spots.  The smallest bed was planted 3 weeks later than the others.  The hail or bugs or soil dryness that ruins one might not hit the others so badly.  On a hot year such as this the squash prosper in wetter spots where mildew does them in on a wetter one.
Another water related strategy is using all sorts of gray water to water our crops.  Some folks go to the gym to lift weights, I haul 5 gallon buckets of water to the berry beds, herb gardens and vegetables.  A bucket catches the warming water before a shower and about half of the shower water itself.  The water eggs are washed in is hauled back out as well.  The dishpan lives in the sink and gets emptied periodically into another pail as it fills.  We find we use far less water this way too.
Carrie Kerr, Dry Brook Farm 
Willseyville, NY

We are grazing undercover brush and buying hay to feed this summer.  We normally make all our own hay but as of June, don’t expect to be able cut again until fall; all our pastures are brown.
Jeromy Biazzo, Wolftree Farm
Hector, NY

When we moved to our land we unsuccessfully tried to dig a well. Instead, we set up multiple rainwater systems for our home, animals and gardens and a main goal for our farm was to prepare for the extreme rain events. We have 2 ponds, 2 300’ swales and multiple riparian buffer zones. Swale berms were planted with willows, fruit trees and cover crops and rows of trees on 30’ spacing fill in the gaps. Sheep and ducks rotationally graze between these systems. In 2015 a 4” rain event tested the system and it flourished. Yet this season, we are in a sever drought. Our rain barrels are dry, our well-mulched gardens and pasture are wilting and turning brown. One pond is dry, the other several feet lower than normal. Pond water is prioritized for the sheep and ducks and only then, gardens and plants. We buy drinking water, which is delivered from the town. Without pasture, we’re testing the diversity of what sheep will eat as we clear fence lines through hedgerows and they graze understory woody plants. Our micro topography + fast growing willow and locust trees means the sheep can browse the lower portion while still leaving vegetation to recover, all while enjoying a healthy meal and shade to boot.
The Gabriel’s, Wellspring Forest Farm
Mecklenburg, NY

Most of New York is experiencing a very dry spring and corresponding relatively low worm egg counts. Barber pole worm larvae do not thrive well in hot dry weather.  However, if and when we do get a good set of rains, the infection rates in our sheep and goats will typically rise sharply. We want the rain but let’s all keep an eye out for the corresponding worm spike.
Tatiana Stanton, Small Ruminant Animal

We’ve been dragging hoses around for weeks at our small homestead/market farm and nursery. It’s never really enough, but things are growing, slowly. I dream of installing drip irrigation, but it seems so complicated on a small, somewhat irregularly shaped farm. I guess on the bright side, the weeds grow slower, too!
Alison Frost, Frosty Morning Farm
Truxton, NY

Years ago we dug a good size pond and when necessary, we use the pond for irrigation with a drip system.  The good parts of our orchard have ON/OFF capability at beginning of each row. One of our orchards is lower than the pond, so we rigged up a siphon system and we water in groups of about 3 rows.  This year the pond is getting pretty low, but I think we’ll still be able to use it for quite a while longer.  When we need to, we fill one of those big cubes or tanks in back of a pickup or trailer, drive into the row and hand water our grapes vine by vine. Kinda clunky, but it works.
Black Diamond Farm and Cidery
Trumansburg, NY

I’m just starting to notice the grass and other stuff dying off. If necessary, I can lop off tree branches to feed my goats. They always have hay, but it usually lasts longer this time of year.
Mary Jane Hetzlein

It’s interesting this post was put up just as a made a video about the main garden at Edible Acres and how incredibly well it is handling this crazy weather. Certainly lots of things struggling in my systems but the established, heavily mulched, perennial dominant gardens are showing almost no stress at all… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7On_19L_xlY,
Edible Acres
Trumansburg, NY

We rarely experiences a summer without rainfall, but here it is. Ditches, wells, ponds are empty. One well is supplying us with a little ability to drip some rows but it is not enough. The powdery soil reminds us of California.
MacDonald Farm
Wayne County, NY

We’ve never experienced such dryness in my 30 years of farming. To strategically save water for other crops, we had to stop irrigating the strawberries early and let the season end. The dry weather makes the crop sweet and short!
Silver Queen Farm
Trumansburg, NY

Submit to Lessons from the Land

The Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming and the Cornell Small Farms Program are teaming up to create a new column called Lessons from the Land, which captures and share the stories of and lessons learned from farmers, homesteaders and land workers around New York and the Northeast. We want to hear stories from growers of all types and sizes, on real topics, that matter!
Each issue has a theme (see below for upcoming topics). Submissions of 400 – 800 words may be submitted online HERE. We will publish only nonfiction submissions. Feel free to submit your name, farm name, city and state or submit your piece as “anonymous” if it allows you to be more honest.
Upcoming Topics & Submission Deadlines: 
Tools: Assets and Liabilities – November 11 (Winter Issue)
Being Prepared – February 10 (Spring Issue)

Claire Cekander

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