Drought, Deluge, & No-Till Resilience
This week in central KY it has rained every day for. Over. Twelve. Days. Some areas ‘round here received a foot of rain this week alone—we’re certainly close to that (I can’t say for sure as my 4 year old adopted our rain gauge as a laser gun recently and I found it with the mower #farmingwithkids), not to mention the mounting devastation in the mid-West. However, all of this rain is not really slowing us down in the fields. Not like it seems to be with conventional growers, or even ourselves several year ago.
All we hear at market from other farmers is “Are you drowning?” or “Are you as sick of the mud as we are?” or “Gotta get more ground worked, but...” and everyone seems to be in the same boat (is that an insensitive analogy?)
Except, we’re not drowning. We are not sinking into mud when we’re harvesting. We’ve still been planting and seeding away. I will be seeding carrots today, and it poured all of last night.
To me, this sort of resiliency is (a part of) what no-till offers growers.
As the climate changes and weather events intensify, becoming more sporadic, we cannot survive separately as small-businesses or together as a coherent food system without more resilient practices. We have to prepare for more extremes, but all of them at once—too much and too little water, too much wind, heat, hail, too much cold, snow, polar vortexes, and so on.
That’s a tall order, but the solution isn’t necessary putting everything inside and under cover, it’s diverse biological systems with good ground cover. We need systems that can handle and better distribute large amounts of water, and other-times no water at all. Nature understands droughts and floods. Healthy, functioning soil knows how to regulate itself. We simply have to steward that sort of self-regulation on our farms by keeping the soil covered, planted, and as undisturbed as possible.
We also have to not get cocky and stay observant. The best soil science asserts that we’ve only identified 2% of soil life, and know even less about the interactions and relationships between them. For those of us who are not mechanically inclined (or mechanically inept, like me), it’s like driving a car, but not completely understanding how an internal combustion engine really works. Still, everyone understands the basic principles, and to keep gas in the tank, keep the oil changed, and if you notice something odd, get it checked out. Moreover, no-till will be different on every farm based on their soil, their environment, their resources, and their community of eaters. It’s not copy and paste, and relies heavily on observation, call and response.
I add that last note on observation because all of this isn’t to say that all this rain is without any challenge for us, just that the challenges are manageable, even solvable. It has turned what would once have been a breakdown into a minor repair. Some pathways are certainly getting behind. I have a section of tomato plants in one area of my garden that doesn’t drain well where I’m starting to see some signs of overwatering. The carrots are not quite as easy to pull, and where I have trialed non-deep-mulch methods, there is a little mud. I also see a few places where the compost has washed down the pathways. Those are all annoying, but all fixable. I can see that the majority of my system is still functioning well and with a little tinkering, and perhaps a few adjustments for my pathways and where I place crops, I am not going to worry too hard about the rain.
I’ll worry about the microbes, though, and let them fret the weather.