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Mary-Howell, Peter and Klaas Martens
By late July this summer, the pastures were crispy brown, large acreages of corn in New York’s Finger Lakes were knee-high and tasseling without an ear in sight. We had not seen measurable rain since the beginning of May and very little moisture accumulation for over 12 months. National Weather was kind enough to rate our area as D-3, or Extreme Drought, but we already knew that. We have farmed in dry weather before, but nothing prepared us for this summer.
2016 was the year that saw major flooding along the Gulf Coast, North Carolina and upper Midwest, and severe droughts in California, the Southeast and the Northeast. By the beginning of winter, wild fires were raging in the mountains of Tennessee, and a National Weather map showed that very few parts of this country could be considered ‘normal’. Extreme weather events and conditions are now the new normal, and as farmers, our challenge is increasingly to learn how to adapt, be more resilient, and be as agile as possible in our response.
Some experts define ‘risk management’ as just another insurance policy and hassle, but we prefer to see risk management as a response plan, a systematic and strategic approach of planning ahead to prepare for the unexpected.
Fortunately, most of the factors that make farms more resilient are the same factors that make farms more productive, more independent, and ultimately more sustainable. We always have the tendency of farming with last year’s variables, but regardless of what 2017 brings, these resilience principles will help minimize our risk and increase our ability to adapt.
1 Soil Health – Pick up any farm magazine these days and you will see articles on soil health. Many labs and universities are developing soil health tools to assess the chemical, physical and biological conditions in a soil sample for a ‘soil health’ score. It seems that everyone is an expert on soil health, or at least, they have figured out how to use this catchy term to sell something!
But, in a nation where ‘health care’ means ‘disease care’ with precious little legitimate ‘health promotion’, the same is true with soil. The promotion of soil health is not in the myriad of products you can buy. It is in the things you do, the health-promoting practices you use, always holding this core truth in mind: while soil chemical, physical and biological characteristics are all important, but the greatest of these, and the most responsive, is biological.
Tend the microbial life in your soil carefully and mindfully. Give them (1) nutrient-rich food from cover crops, compost and crop residue (2) a safe clean home with good water infiltration, little erosion and ample soil air through improved drainage, reduced tillage and judicious application of nutrients, and above all, (3) don’t kill them with pesticides!
There will come a day when our descendants shake their heads in astonishment that American agriculture thought it wise to douse the soil with highly toxic poisons where we grow food. Pesticides are fairly indiscriminate in what they kill, even herbicides are known to be toxic to bacteria and fungi, as is nitrate fertilizer. A rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t pour it on your children (with the possible exception of manure!), then it probably should not be poured on your soil microbes.
New research out of the University of New Hampshire shows that the soil microbial population is the primary source of stable soil organic matter. In the past, some scientists and biotech/chemical industry apologists have claimed that the best way to increase soil organic matter was by slowing down the decomposition of plants. However, decomposing plant material turns rapidly into carbon dioxide and is lost from the soil. A healthy, diversified microbial population is necessary to produce chemically complex, persistent soil organic matter that forms stable aggregates, open pores, and is able to resist erosion and structural breakdown.
Overnight on May 14, 2014, unexpectedly heavy rains swelled streams, pouring down the hills and into our little town. Debris on stream banks washed into culverts, the blockage causing major flooding. Many fields had just been plowed, so with little to hold soil in place, mud washed freely into the streams, into basements, stores, and into the lake. The amount of topsoil lost that one night was phenomenal, but equally important was the catastrophic property damage. It is a remarkably unpopular but undeniably true fact that the slimy flood-mud in Mary’s office-supply store basement came from somewhere, most likely from Joe’s field. If Joe chooses to farm in a way that puts Mary’s property at risk, is that not a worthy topic of ‘common good’ conversation? Farmers never like to be told how to operate their farms, but if they choose an approach that does not resist erosion and runoff, why should they not be held liable for property damage downstream?
A healthy soil is filled with a balanced and active diversity of healthy microbes and cycling organic matter that will hold more water in dry years, promote better drainage in wet years, hold soil in place resisting erosion, prevent rampant root disease, with strong particle aggregation to resist compaction, promote good water infiltration, sequester carbon from the air, and provide nutrients to sustain good healthy crops under a variety of climatic conditions. Seriously, what’s not to like about that?
2 Crop Diversity – Crop diversity has so many benefits. Diversity spreads out risk of weather and pest damage, and distributes seasonal labor demands. It improves financial security by avoiding putting ‘all our eggs in one basket’ that might develop a leak. A good rotation promotes nutrient cycling, suppresses weed growth and pest populations, reduces erosion, increases soil water-holding capacity and reduces compaction. A good rotation uses our land wisely for the full 12 months each year, rather than focusing all production and activity in a mere 5 months. A good rotation improves agility to adapt to the unexpected, planting and harvesting nearly every month of the year, selling crops into varied markets while enriching our soil, keeping it stable and in place, safely covered during the winter and productive during the summer. A good crop rotation improves both the quality of our soil and the quality of our lives.
One great thing about being an organic farmer is that we have good strong markets for many crops, increasing our options. An example of a possible diverse crop repertoire for the Northeast is this:
(spring, summer, or frost seeded)
As the drought settled in this summer, we became very aware that forage for our cows and the three dairy farms that we cooperate with would be extremely short. Second-cutting hay was not growing and with so little pasture, we had already started to feed our ‘winter feed’. It was late July, there still was time to do something, but with virtually no moisture in the ground, do what? After considering our choices, we started planting BMR sorghum-sudangrass, BMR millet, and BMR sudangrass. These are warm season ‘C-4’ grasses that are very efficient with moisture and are able to grow during hot dry weather.
By early October, the BMR sorghum-sudangrass fields were over 6 ft tall, lush, filled with juicy sugar, in prime condition to chop and stuff into a silage bag. By early November, the red clover underseeding that we had frost-seeded into our small grains had grown enough to chop. As the BMR crops came off, we planted winter triticale and Austrian winter peas that will provide top-quality forage next spring, about the time when supplies run short, and give us opportunity to double-crop the fields to soybeans or dry beans.
A neighbor looked at his hay supplies and came up with a different approach. After harvesting wheat, he planted tillage radish, forage turnip and cowpeas. Usually considered cover-crop species, these also can make for good grazing or greenchop with the benefits of soil loosening, nutrient sequestration, and nitrogen fixation.
Had we relied only on the traditional perennial cool-season hay species that are typical of upstate New York, we would be like many dairy farmers this year, with barns that are distressingly empty, already purchasing expensive hay with most of the winter yet to come. But instead, by quickly switching to crops better suited to the hot dry conditions, we and our neighbors have ended up with enough forage.
3 Practicing ‘Cultural Defense’. This is a rather intriguing thought-process, a system of planning ahead to be better prepared for the unknown. This is not exactly new, but perhaps it needs to be taken to a higher level of intention and engagement.
Winter is a good time to map out scenarios and strategies, such as ‘how should I plan to control weeds in row crops in a drought?”, “how will I control weeds when it rains?” , “what must I change if it rains all the time?”. Rather than being reactive, now is a good time to be proactive, actively planning decision-tree strategies, acquiring versatile equipment, and being prepared for different possible variables.
In a drought, weeds are very easy to desiccate but hard to bury or suffocate. Aggressive cultivation generally won’t hurt deeper-planted crops, but it is tempting to slow down on cultivating when you don’t see weeds. Many of our neighbors did that this summer figuring it was too dry for weeds to grow, and then were unpleasantly surprised when rain started in September and the weeds came on strong.
In wet years, weeds have big tops with small roots. It is important to set weeders and cultivators to bury, rather than to pull weeds to the soil surface, since they are not likely to dry. Use brief breaks in the weather to get over as many fields as possible, not trying to painstakingly get every weed. When it rains all the time, don’t be tempted to plant later than optimal. Sometimes that pays off, but often it is a waste of time and seed.
More yield is lost at harvest and in storage than most farmers realize. Be sure harvest equipment and storage facilities are repaired, functional, clean and accessible before you need them. Have access to a good moisture tester and know how to use it. Harvest grain at physiological maturity rather than waiting for it to dry in the field. Several years ago, we invested in tracks for the combine, allowing us to continue harvest even in mud and snow. Especially if fields are weedy or wet, be prepared to clean and dry grain quickly, a good rotary cleaner can often save a weedy crop of grain if used promptly after harvest. Regularly monitor grain in bins and wagons for deterioration, insects, and heating, and be prepared to act quickly if problems are detected.
Sometimes conditions force creativity. After such a dry summer, October was so wet that it was impossible to get the usual dry-bean harvest equipment through the fields. Fearing we’d lose a surprisingly beautiful crop of pinto and kidney beans, we brainstormed with one employee who had worked for a vegetable processor. He suggested we try a snap-bean harvester that strips the pods off the plants. Wagon loads of pods and leaves came back to the barnyard and were threshed through the bean combine – but the mission was accomplished and the beans saved!
Unexpectedly, we found that the cows totally love eating the dry pods, bean plants and stray beans! What looked like impending disaster turned into successful bean harvest after all, along with a very large pile of additional feed for our cows. I think we can call this serendipity this year, but in the future, we will know this is a viable option.
4 Adapting new technology. The world of agricultural equipment is changing fast right now, with new options for GPS guidance, new tools for weed control, and new computer monitoring to improve precision. It can get expensive since much of it is developed in Europe, so we must carefully examine options to determine what will actually pay back the investment on our farms.
Improving seed placement, reducing tillage and fine-tuning weed control have been priorities for us. Klaas and our son, Peter, have spent much time evaluating European planters, drills, and the myriad of creative tools recently invented to remove weeds. Some machines are truly surreal in their approach and others not appropriate to our farm, but we have upgraded to several newer-style cultivators and weeders. We have also incorporated GPS and other computer positioning, and we feel we now can achieve better weed control with fewer field passes, less soil disruption, less fuel, and less time.
Purchased energy remains a major obstacle to sustainability on all farms, both organic and conventional. With increasing horsepower tractors, massive bin fans, grain dryers, baleage wrappers, refrigeration and more, a typical farm consumes an enormous amount of fossil fuel-based energy.
About 5 years ago, we started installing solar panels on the roof of one barn. This has progressed to cover two more barns, now at over 60 kw and still growing. With plummeting cost of solar panels and inverters, installing solar power is increasingly cost effective. We have replaced nearly all the stationary electricity used on the farm with solar, including lighting, bin fans, shop tools, and the spelt dehuller. We traded several pickup trucks for an electric Smart Car and a Nissan Leaf because very rarely do we actually need the capacity of a pickup truck to go between fields or run for parts. House water is heated with solar panels on the garage, and we are actively pursuing an electric soybean roaster to eliminate that major consumer of propane. An electric chainsaw is used to cut the wood that heats the house.
This shift is only partly because we philosophically seek to ‘reduce our carbon footprint’, though that is certainly something we care about. The bigger reason is that we see that purchased petroleum-based energy makes us increasingly vulnerable to national and international politics, to a dwindling supply and rising prices, too dependent on forces outside our control.
It is much better to take control of our energy generation and consumption now, using the sunlight that arrives on our farm each day, with intention, intelligence and planning, rather than to be forced into less desirable changes later.
After we had been farming organically for a few years, we started thinking it was time to write the definitive book on organic field crop production. But, we were raising a family, farming and starting a feed mill, so the book took back burner only for it to then become very apparent that we will never write the definitive book, as our understanding, our challenges, our decisions and our confidence change with each year. We will never stop learning nor will we ever stop improving our practices, especially as erratic weather patterns throw unexpected curve balls.
Our greatest challenge now is to create a resilient farming system that is agile and elastic enough to roll with those curve balls, allow for mid-stream changes, and to emerge productive and smiling, no matter what the weather brings.
The Martens can be reached at Lakeview Organic Grain, Penn Yan, NY, 315-531-1038
or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted: to Organic Production on Wed, Feb 15, 2017
Updated: Wed, Feb 15, 2017