Fertile Ground: Lessons From a Market Farm With Very Little Water
When you step through the wooden gates of a small-scale market farm, Heart and Soil Organics, you may see an acre of terraced beds of vegetables. Rows of tomatoes, zucchini, and many other varieties all grow alongside each other. Swallows are swooping and diving low in the sky. Ducks are swimming in a small pond. It is a lush and biodiverse market farm growing food year round. Although it is abundant in food, every year, near the end of summer, it runs out of water.
The first year this happened was the first year I started farming. I remember the scorching valley of heat and having nothing to give the crops. It was terrifying. My husband and I were powerless and we stopped our season early because we were unable to plant.
However, because of that first year, we decided to design our farm so that our plants are able to withstand the drought that inevitably happens in August. Utilizing permaculture principals on our farm gives us the ability to absorb weather fluctuations, like droughts and floods. We can passively bring nutrients back into the soil, and create space for beneficial insects. We do all this through permaculture design.
Permaculture meets market farming
While permaculture philosophy includes many perennials, and food forests, on our farm, we include intensive crop production that we need in order to make a living. In essence, we are a permaculture/market farm hybrid.
The first step in creating resiliency is designing the farm to sink and store rainwater in the soil. Ponds, swales, raised beds, and terraces do an excellent job at passively storing rainwater. An added benefit, because we are on a slope, is that we can irrigate our farm using gravity feed. Growing near the pond is also excellent as the land near it is always moist.
Ponds and ducks
We have three rainwater harvesting ponds. Two at the top of the farm store almost all the water we need. These run dry in August, but by that time, our plants are well established and we are only planting out robust starts that can sink their roots deeply into our no-till beds.
The third pond is a small duck pond in the center of the farm. We direct rainwater runoff from a ditch to this pond. Our ducks fertilize the water and we irrigate all our perennials with this rich fertilizer.
Organic No-Till Method
We use organic no-till methods on our beds as a way to store water in the soil. Tilling the soil releases 100's of gallons of passively stored winter rain. By broad forking, and adding lots of organic matter we are able to keep that water in the soil. This is key during the times we run out of water. The plants can get the water from deep in the soil. To learn more about organic no-till method check out this article.
To avoid soil erosion, terraces are necessary when farming on a slope. By adding compost and organic matter, the soil has the tilth that swallows up the water without flooding.
Although we continue to run out of water each year in August, we are able to shoulder this time by stabilizing the water in the land. Swales, ponds and terraces are important design components that hold winter rains. Organic, no-till is a necessary growing technique that also creates resiliency. Each year, we grow more food than the last.
What we are learning is the design component of a farm is equally as important to the planting and harvesting component. If a farm is designed in such a way that absorbs the shocks of climate change, we are more resilient in uncertain times such as these.