Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Good, the Wet, and the Unplumbed

In the next day or two I had been hoping to do some trench work out back of Ma'ikwe's house, to repair a leaky water line from our newly constructed cistern. Ma'ikwe was going to scare up a couple of strong backs to help with the digging and I was going to handle the plumbing. We were thinking the whole affair might be managed in half a day (providing only that we successfully aggregated all the replacement parts needed to effect the repair).

But those plans got washed away yesterday as northeast Missouri was blessed with 3.3 inches of liquid sunshine. It's hard to believe we had a drought last year.

(When I was just a sprat, I spent many summers between ages 8-16 at a boys camp in northern Minnesota. It's where I learned wilderness canoeing and how to tie a tautline hitch—both of which have stayed with me for decades. The camp director, Doug Bobo, used to tell parents with a straight face, "It never rains at Camp Easton… occasionally we get some liquid sunshine; but it never rains.")

While the rain was poorly timed for next week's trench welfare, at Sandhill we were more fortunate. We hit the weather perfectly for transplanting our sorghum seedlings. Starting Thursday morning we were able to get all 100 flats in the ground by Friday afternoon—mere hours before the rain arrived. Whew! 

While the flats all have the same outer dimensions, they have different numbers of cells: some have 200 (10x20) and others have 242 (11x22). Either way, it was a lot of sorghum seedlings—perhaps 22,000—enough to plant about two acres, not quite half our average crop. It takes a five-person crew to transplant sorghum and it's one my favorite agricultural jobs, in part because it takes a five-person crew. That is, it has to be done cooperatively, as a group.

One person drives the tractor (being careful to keep the rows straight and properly spaced). The other four are riding on the transplanter, which is an ingenious ground-driven device that allows the crew to put in two rows of 4-6 inch high plants with a near-perfect stand in about five minutes per 100 yards. Even though the tractor is just puttering along in low gear, it's a beautiful sight to look up at the end of a pass and see a long line of upright green seedlings where there had been just bare field minutes ago.

The four people on the transplanter are assigned two per row, with each pair alternately placing seedlings into the rubber grips of a revolving wheel that, in sequence:
o  Receives plants
o  Clamps them
o  Opens a furrow in the ground
o  Releases the plant into the ground
o  Allows a squirt of water into the furrow
o  Pushes the furrow closed, tamping the soil against the plant
o  Comes around for another pass

There are six rubber grips on the wheel, which means that six seedlings are planted every revolution. It's a pretty trippy implement that we only use once a year.

The reason we do a substantial portion of our sorghum crop as transplants (rather than direct seeding, which is far less work) is that we're organic and it can be very difficult maintaining weed control in the row. All farmers rely on cultivators to kill weeds between the rows; but that doesn't touch the weeds that grow in the row with your crop. While conventional farmers mainly rely on herbicides, we have only three choices: a) rotary hoeing; b) hand weeding; or c) transplanting.

Option A is running a mechanical device with curved metals spikes over the rows at moderately high speed, such that it disturbs the top inch or so of soil but no deeper. If you time it just right the deeper sorghum roots will survive what is lethal to foxtail—our biggest weed problem. At least that's the theory. For this to be effective, there is a narrow window where the weeds are vulnerable and the sorghum is not. If the fields are too wet to cultivate during that window, you won't kill the weeds.

Option B is something we'd rather not do, but occasionally need to if we're going to have a decent crop. There's been many an August over the years where community crews will go out to the fields at first light to hoe in the rows for a couple of hours, before the summer sun drives us from the fields.

Option C is the payoff for all the extra labor devoted to planting the seedling trays and riding the transplanter. When you insert 4-6 inch high plants into a bare field, the weeds can never catch up to the head start given the sorghum plants and we needn't worry about weeding in the row.

All of that said, we don't do our entire sorghum crop as transplants, because we don't want to put that much investment in a system we only use once a year, and occasionally the weather conditions are such that the direct sown crops outperform the transplants. Think of it as hedging.

Now if I can only get the mud to dry out in Ma'ikwe's backyard, I'll be all set. 

(Farming is highly weather dependent, and the weather is highly undependable, which leads to almost unlimited opportunities for humility—and frustration if you're under the illusion that you're in control. While farmers often complain about rain inconveniencing their outdoor work plans, they know better than to complain too loudly—just try living without it.)

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