Thursday, April 10, 2008

Good News for Ducks

It's raining. I mean a lot. St Louis just recorded their wettest March ever, breaking a high water mark set in the 19th century. The forecast for northeast Missouri on this drizzly Thursday is for 1.5-3.0 inches. Since it's falling on totally saturated ground and the streams are already running full, we're talking about water over roads. It's a perfect day for staying indoors (and composing a blog entry, for example). [If it keeps raining at this rate, I'll start writing about cubits and boat designs.]

Some years at Sandhill we've already placed most of our frost-tolerant crops in the garden
by this date—peas, onions, spinach, potatoes, radishes, and a wide variety of greens. This year only the poor, soggy peas have been sown. Most other crops are waiting patiently in flats, huddled in our new greenhouse, enjoying extra days of warmer, controlled-moisture conditions.

Some springs we fret over whether well have enough rain for the morels to fruit. Not this year. As we're only just now entering the traditionally wettest time of the year, the worry is when we'll be able to get into the fields to plant our sorghum.

On the good side, a cooler, wetter spring delays the fruit blossoms and that offers protection against damage from a late frost (last year we lost 90% of our fruit crop to this phenomenon, and we're really hoping not to repeat that experience). One of the truisms of homestead farming & gardening is that the weather is always good for something (though, of course, the obverse is also true).

Our average annual rainfall is 35 inches. If it came a half inch every five days, we'd never need a sprinkler, and there'd never be any flooding. Because Nature isn't that accommodating, we garden to conserve moisture (mostly by heavy mulching) and work the land in such a way that minimizes soil wash in heavy rains (mostly by only tilling ground with minimal slope and shaping fields on the contour; also, the mulch helps here as well, though this is only practicable in the garden). While we own 135 acres, we only actively farm about 15 acres—because only those meet our stringent requirements for what we feel we can farm sustainably.

Years ago, I recall walking down to a bridge on our property right after a heavy spring rain, to observe our intermittent stream (called the Sandhill Branch). While the branch tends to dry up in late summer, it reliably has water in the spring & early summer and small fish will work their way upstream to explore. The branch was full that day, and the flow was turbulent and heavily silted (hundreds of acres drain into the stream at that point, almost all of them not on our property). In contrast with the main flow, I was struck by the clearness of the water joining the spate from our adjacent field—which was tilled though not yet planted, meaning it was susceptible to maximal erosion.

Because we border our tilled acres with wide grass strips, and are religious about leaving sloped ground in grass or trees, we suffer modestly from erosion. This was in sharp juxtaposition with what must have be happening upstream on neighboring property, where soil was obviously being carried away—I was watching it merrily course downstream, essentially on its way to biggering the state of Louisiana.

The most lasting memory of that time on the bridge was observing one small fish, struggling desperately to swim into the unsilted outflow from our field, where it had a chance to breathe—without clogging its gills on the tailings of agricultural mining.

You can't just farm for the averages; if you want to be sustainable, you have to work the land in such a way that you can handle the predictably unpredictable ebbs and flows of the rain gods. Currently, it seems, they've decided to let it flow.

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