Tag Archive: irrigation


Farming for over 30 years in Shoreham, Will and Judy Stevens have noticed climate changes at their organic farm – Golden Russet Farm.  From 1985 to 1995, Will recalls having a number of late frosts in May and that the first frost date typically occurred in early September. However, in the last 20 years, there’ve been only two years where the frost date has been as early as that, with the typical frost date extending to October.

Our growing season is longer and we have more frost-free days; we’ve had years where we’ve had no May frosts and more notably the fall has gotten longer.

In addition to the changes in frost dates, Golden Russet Farm has experienced both extreme storm events, as well as excessively wet growing seasons. 2011 was a persistently wet year, starting in spring and culminating with Tropical Storm Irene in August. Golden Russet Farm was in the red that year with a $34K loss. Much of the crop loss was due to soil saturation, not event flooding per se. The farm’s soils are a layer of loam on top of a layer of clay of varying thickness (2 to14 inches), which inhibits drainage from the root zone. Learning from 2011, Will says,

I’ll take a dry year over a wet year any day. It’s easier to manage dry conditions with irrigation than to be at the mercy of heavy rain events. We’ve noticed over the years that almost every rain event is a violent event. We used to get gentle rain. Now it’s thunderstorms and violent events. With 2.5 inches of rain in an hour, we needed to get rid of the surface water as we didn’t want standing water.

In 2012, working with their existing equipment (a three-bottom moldboard plow), the Stevens built up raised beds by alternating plow passes with 12 inch dead furrows. This roughly formed 36 inch wide ‘beds’. Going to this type of raised bed did add some complications. After soil smoothing and mulching, the Stevens ended up with a final bed width of 30 inches, but this width was too narrow for the transplanter and cultivators as they risked sliding off the beds.

After several years making adjustments, the Stevens invested in a three-point hitch bed shaper in 2015, which can be pulled with their tractor to shape 34-inch beds, moving soil up from the wheel track, so that only two passes need to be made with the press pans. The 34 inch top width of the beds matches up with the cultivator and transplanter. At the same time, drip irrigation tubing is put into place as the beds are made.

Will Stevens with his bed former purchased in 2015

The Stevens started by planting carrots, lettuce, beets, and spinach in some of the raised beds, and brassicas, broccoli and corn in others. In 2016, the Stevens had 12 raised beds of tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, peppers, flowers, and 11 raised beds of garlic across their 1.5 acre field.

With the bed shaper, there’s no need to till the topsoil. In fall 2016, the Stevens bought a chisel plow with four shanks for subsoiling as their soils have a plow pan, which needs to be broken up to make the soils more friable and further improve drainage. For 2017, their plan is to increase by a third the raised bed production area so that they’ll have two acres of raised beds in 2017, and then, they’ll expand to three acres by 2018. With raised beds, Golden Russet flower sales are up 50% from 2015 to 2016.

Raised beds keep me in farming and really reduce the risk of loss, especially mitigating the losses in a bad year. If we’d had raised beds that year (2011), we’d have had fewer crops with wet feet. We lost $4000 worth of carrots, and ended with none that we could sell.”

Soil temperature changes more quickly on raised beds with greater surface area exposed to air.

Raised Bed Equipment

2015 Purchases:

Raised bed shaper              $2,700

Chisel plough -4 shanks  $2,900

Drip tape layer                    $200

These equipment purchases of $5,800 represent only 17% of the cost of the Golden Russet losses in the year of Irene, 2011. Looked at another way, this $5,800 spent in 2015 was easily recouped the next year with the $7,000 annual increase in flower sales. While Golden Russet’s overall use and related costs of irrigation are up, it’s clear that the combination of irrigation to increase yields during dry periods and raised beds to prevent losses during wet periods will result in more stable revenues over the years.

A $5800 investment in equipment for raised beds was easily recouped in one year of increased revenues.

Golden Russet’s plan to move to raised beds arose from the worst case scenario of record wetness and Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, but as Stevens says, “Even in a dry year like 2016, there’s not really a downside.”

 

 

 

 

 

This week’s scattered showers are not enough to bring relief to the sustained dry summer we’re having in Vermont. Not suprisingly, the degree to which farmers and their crops are affected depends on their access to water and their irrigation systems.

In general, Champlain Valley farmers may be faring better than their neighbors in the Pioneer Valley, Masssachusetts.  While Vermont is experiencing abnormally dry weather, much of Massachusetts is facing severe drought conditions.

Moreover, Vermont farms that have invested in irrigation systems are reaping the benefits of this prolonged warm, sunny weather balanced by regular irrigation. With normal precipitation levels in Vermont at less than three quarters of their normal amounts, maintaining soil moisture is challenging but farms with healthy soils paired with an irrigation system are well positioned for this stretch of unusually dry weather.

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Percentage of Vermont experiencing abnormally dry weather from 2000 to 2016

In Burlington, Vermont, the Intervale Community Farm (ICF) started building its irrigation system 20 years ago.

We’re fortunate for being in the floodplain that we have abundant water supply with a main stem river and also some large high capacity wells in the floodplain – it has made us a much more resilient farm as we can contend with dry periods by using a mix of sprinkler and drip irrigation,” says Andy Jones, ICF’s farm manager.

Summers are hotter, the highs are higher, the existing soil moisture evaporates, and the plants transpire it more.  We use drip irrigation where we have plants that don’t want water on the leaves or that are spaced far apart so we can get some real weed control benefits and some water efficiency benefits by not watering the whole area. For winter squash, melons, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, peppers, we use sprinklers and for almost everything else, drip irrigation.

However, drip lines can be problematic for organic farms, which are using mechanical cultivation as their main weed control tool. As Andy describes, “it can be pretty challenging to move drip out of the way If you want to go through there every week with a tractor. Every time you’re moving the drip line and when you go back and weed, you have to move the drip line and then when you want to irrigate again, the irrigation line is not in the right place.”

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Andy describes that ICF’s sprinklers are spaced much farther apart so it’s easier to do routine weeding along with irrigating. There are also some cooling benefits from irrigation on a hot day with cool weather crops. And crops like greens and brassicas are hard to germinate in sandy soil without top water.

Andy points out the certain crops such as carrots, spinach, beets need water coming from above in order to germinate.  Drip lines don’t typically spread the water wide for germination of these crops to occur.

Covering 20 acres of their production field, ICF’s main sprinkler and drip irrigation system is a mix of old and new equipment.  Over the years, the farm’s investment in irrigation amounts to about $35,000.


I can’t imagine growing vegetables on sandy soil in a warm place like the Champlain Valley without irrigation – it’s absolutely critical to maintain crop quality and growth for a lot of our crops.”


Challenging conditions on Massachusetts Farms and Relief in Sight

Given this summer’s particularly dry conditions, irrigation can make the difference between a great harvest and poor harvest for many crops. Our neighbors in the Pioneer Valley, MA are taking a big hit. From crop loss to delaying second plantings, farmers without irrigation systems,  are holding out for rain, trying to catch up with laying irrigation lines, and even recruiting more workers and volunteers for hand watering.

In response to a UMass Extension survey, 80% of MA farm respondents are losing at least 30% of a specific crop. This data will determine whether USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) in Massachusetts can seek federal disaster assistance.   In order to seek a disaster declaration and relief for Massachusetts’s farmers, the Farm Service Agency requires documentation of the extent of crop loss for each county.

While climate change in Northeast has meant a trend of warmer and wetter weather, this precipitation is occurring as more extreme episodic events and not necessarily when it’s needed, during the growing season. While five years ago we had record Lake levels and extreme flooding, for the past several summers, we’ve experience extended dry and hot periods in the Champlain Valley.   Farms like the Intervale Community Farm that have invested in irrigation systems and planned their system according to crop and soil type are well positioned to have a bumper year.

Irrigation has been essential as otherwise we would have lost so many crops as irrigation allows us not only to keep things growing and bulking up, but other crops we can’t even germinate without irrigation so it’s the difference between a crop and no crop.

Drought assistance can be found by contacting your County’s FSA office, USDA’s drought program assistance.  Information and technical assistance on developing a resilient farming strategy and building soil health in the face of climate change can be found at UVM Extension’s Center for Sustainable Strategy.

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