Where the water goes

There has long existed a tired stereotype of a farmer as some sort of rural idiot, a barely-literate country bumpkin who can only just string two sentences together. If there is anything we’ve learned during our nearly two-year (!) farming adventure, it’s that a successful small farmer is anything but stupid. You have to be a veterinarian and a seedsman and an ATV mechanic and a soil scientist and an entomologist. You have to dig holes, repair fences, build structures, patch hoses and outwit pests. You have to be strong, creative, resourceful, thrifty and tireless. And you have to know how to manage the water on your property, no matter how it gets there.

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The components of one of our drip irrigation kits.

One of our goals for this, our second full season of farming, is to get our irrigation dialed in. We don’t farm in a traditional American sense, i.e. hundreds of acres of the same crop (usually corn or soybeans) laid out in precise rows and neat blocks. Irrigating that sort of monocrop is relatively easy, because every plant is identical and therefore its water needs are identical, too. Once that irrigation system is established, it’s basically set-it-and-forget-it. Instead, we farm in a sort-of patchwork style all across our property: perennial herbs in this corner, a bed or two or nine here, trees over there. As a result, our irrigation is similarly patchwork, because there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

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N’s design for the raised bed irrigation.

There are lots of ways to get water to plants. Sprinklers (overhead watering) are the method of choice for most suburban yards; megafarms often use center pivot irrigation, the huge metal structures you see in the Midwest. Precise, careful drip irrigation has long been employed in the Middle East but is relatively new to the U.S.; as water becomes more scarce and valuable, it’s starting to gain traction both in backyard gardens and commercial operations. Essentially, most drip irrigation systems use networks of tubing to deliver water straight to the individual plant. Drip irrigation is often costly to set up, but substantially more efficient at water conservation and delivering moisture exactly where the plants need it. In our hot, dry and windy high-plains desert environment, where a great deal of moisture is simply lost through evaporation and desiccation, drip irrigation is the way forward.

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Laying dripline in a raised bed.

Earlier this year we invested in a number of customizable drip irrigation kits. They were spendy, but ultimately we think that the time and water saved will offer a dramatic return on investment. We started with three kits: one for our nine raised beds, one for our orchard of twenty-six fruit trees and one for our replanted raspberry patch. Each kit is slightly different, and each allowed us the opportunity to design the irrigation in a manner that best suited the plants’ needs, as well as the water sources we have.

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The filter and pressure regulator on the raised beds.

N painstakingly designed the set-up for the three kits, then we laid out a complicated network of hoses and tubing and fittings and valves and filters and pipes for each one. At the moment, all of our crops are watered on “house water” from our frost-free ag taps – this means that we pay the same amount to water the vegetables that we do to wash dishes or take a shower. This is not an ideal long-term situation, even though the residential water rates here are so absurdly low they provide no incentive whatsoever to conserve. Ultimately we want to use our irrigation ditch to water our crops, as we do the pasture, but we haven’t yet quite figured out how to make that happen.

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The beginnings of salad greens.

Drip irrigation is pretty simple: transit piping brings the water from the tap to the dripline, which is set along the plants and typically has individual holes every so often. The driplines in our raised beds, for example, are on 12-inch spacing and we’ve either laid three or four lines in each four-foot-wide bed. The primary goal of drip irrigation is to get water to where the plant actually needs it – the roots – and to minimize the amount of water lost to air and wind. Although it’s not typically an issue in Colorado, in more humid climates it’s not a good idea get a lot of water on the plants’ foliage, because it can contribute to mold and disease. So drip irrigation keeps the plant itself dry whilst irrigating the roots – the ideal watering situation.

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The filter and pressure regulator in the orchard.

Lots of people set up their drip irrigation systems on timers, which obviously prevents the system unintentionally being left for hours (or overnight!) and drowning the plants. We’ve chosen not to do that, simply because we have such intense water pressure coming from our ag taps that we’ve had to use pressure regulators and flow reducers in order not to blow out the dripline. If we had the system set up on integrated timers, we’d have to leave the ag taps on at all times and simply rely on the timers, and we’re not quite confident enough to do that just yet. So we turn the beds or the orchard or the raspberries on, go about other tasks and set an alarm to remind ourselves to check on the saturation periodically.

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Each fruit tree has its own tiny sprinkler.

Our nascent orchard isn’t set up with dripline as the raised beds are, but rather with tiny emitters – almost like a little individual sprinkler for each tree. Each emitter has a small stake that we insert into the ground, and when the system is activated the area around the tree is watered. Tree roots spread more than annual roots do, so we’re trying to irrigate a larger radius here. Each tree is still caged because they’re outside the game fence, and is also mulched with straw to conserve moisture.

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Watering the newly planted raspberry canes.

We planted forty raspberry canes last season, and not one survived. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint exact reasons for crop loss, especially in a tough growing climate like ours, we suspect that inadequate irrigation was definitely a contributing factor. We’ve replanted these canes and are hopeful that the drip system we’ve installed here will allow for a better result this year.

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A few raspberry canes are already showing growth!

Credit here goes to N for his creative and thoughtful irrigation solutions – and for moving and arranging hundreds of feet of hose all over the farm since I insist on planting every empty space I can find. We’ll shortly be planting a new set of trees for a windbreak, and are planning a DIY drip line using relegated garden hose and a drill! Stay tuned to see how that project turns out.

All signs indicate that we’re in for another drought this year, so it’s more important than ever that we use our limited water efficiently. We’re still watering some areas by hand, but our goal is to eventually have drip systems installed just about everywhere. Irrigation management might seem a bit boring, but it’s far and away one of our most important tasks, and each day we’re learning more about how to control where the water goes. As one of our farming mentors says about growing food in Colorado, “You only have to water the plants you want to grow.”

One thought on “Where the water goes

  1. Pingback: Farm update: June 22 | Finding Quiet Farm

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