Grit and grace

Hello there. We want to say that we’re still here on Quiet Farm, and that it’s been a rather challenging start to the growing season. One hundred percent of our county is currently in “exceptional drought” – the scale doesn’t go any higher! In official government parlance that translates to “dust storms and topsoil removal are widespread; agricultural and recreational economic losses are large.” We’d agree with that assessment – and it’s only May.

We have not yet received our official irrigation allotment for the season, but are expecting less than half of what we had last year. Wildfire season (now really year-round rather than just a season) has already started in California, New Mexico and Arizona, and promises to be grim here again, too. Dust storms and relentless wind are a regular feature of our days, and it’s impossible to keep the cool-weather crops properly irrigated. We have not had any moisture at all since January.

To compound our troubles, our hundreds of plant seedlings in the sunroom have been infected by an unknown disease or other ailment, and as a result are tiny, stunted and definitely not thriving. They should be going outside in about three weeks, but at this point it’s unlikely that we’ll have any at all, and it’s too late now to start more warm-weather crops. Perhaps the universe is sending a clear message that this isn’t our year.

That said, what else can we do but keep going? This blog isn’t meant to be a place for complaints and whining. We have a comfortable house, plenty to eat and we’re healthy and safe. Many, many people have it far worse than we do, and we’re well aware of that. We will do what we can with what we have, and perhaps the growing season will stage a recovery of sorts. And if it’s a total write-off, then we’ll try again next year.

Tip your hat to a farmer the next time you meet one – this growing food thing is no joke. Thanks as always for reading, and we hope you and yours are safe, healthy and well.

Farm update: March 22

We are sorely disappointed to report that we did not receive even one paltry inch of snow from the massive spring storm that walloped Denver and the Front Range last weekend. To add insult to injury, snow was in the forecast again today, to no avail – I promise you that it is clear and dry outside right now. We joke regularly about checking (In)AccuWeather on our phones, where it’s always “currently snowing in Delta County” – no. No, it isn’t. We have learned from our time here to only trust the weather that we can actually see and feel. All other promises and forecasts ring hollow.

So what we’re not doing on the farm right now is plowing or shoveling snow. But here are a few other things we’ve been up to lately, if you’d care to see.

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Farm update: January 25

Hello there, and how are things in your world? We’re still in the slower season here at Quiet Farm, but we’re starting to think about spring planting and other farm tasks on our to-do list. The biggest issue on our minds right now is definitely water, or lack thereof – it’s been far too warm and dry this winter, with very little snow. We need about twenty feet of snowpack on the Grand Mesa in order to have decent irrigation run-off in spring and summer, and right now we have two feet – or ten percent of what we need. We are hoping for an exceptionally wet spring, but to be honest it’s looking as though our “extraordinary drought conditions” will persist, which likely means more wildfires, too. With that concern front and center, we’re always thinking of ways we can use the water we do have more efficiently.

We love our local library’s seed bank!

We are huge fans of the Delta County Library system, which does yeoman’s work on a painfully limited budget. In years past we’ve attended “seed-sorting parties” in late winter to help the library prepare its extensive seed bank for the spring growing season. Obviously we cannot gather in person at the moment, so the library managed a perfect pivot and created take-home kits for volunteers. Each kit contained donated seeds (we received bolita beans, marigolds and pink hollyhock) and we sorted and packaged the seeds into individual labeled envelopes. Local gardeners are encouraged to “check out” seeds in spring, grow out the crop, then collect and return seeds to the library in autumn to share with other gardeners. The seed library has been going strong in Delta County since 2013; this program not only encourages seed-saving, but also provides an incredible wealth of locally-adapted seeds and helps build our foodshed’s sovereignty. A task like this is well worth our time.

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This week in flowers: July 13

Friends, it’s truly a surprise anything is blooming right now, considering our punishing temperatures – high nineties every day! – and total lack of moisture. Also, please send tax-deductible donations to help pay our extortionate water bill. But! We do have a few bright spots of color around the farm that we thought we’d share.

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Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is a member of the marigold family.

We planted a number of different flowers, including calendula and marigolds, in our raised beds to both provide visual interest and to attract beneficial pollinators. Although calendula doesn’t love our intense summer weather, most seem to be doing reasonably well and will hopefully bloom again in fall’s cooler temperatures.

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Farm update: June 22

‘Tis the season of both growth and destruction. We spend most of our time weeding and watering and looking for new growth on our crops and in our pasture; in response, all of our crafty farm pests have come out with hunger in their tummies and destruction on their minds. Time spent not watering or weeding is instead spent defending our territory. It’s a hard-fought war of attrition out here, and both sides are digging their heels in.

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A raspberry cane with reassuring new growth.

We’re so pleased to see new growth on most of our raspberry canes. You might remember that we planted forty canes last year and every single one failed; this year we regrouped with drip irrigation and we believe that made all the difference. Bramble fruits like raspberries and blackberries typically do well in our climate; we’d love to grow our own fruit as well as our own vegetables. We’re always, always learning out here, and we’re trying hard not to make the same mistakes twice. We like to make lots of different mistakes instead.

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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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Things that are great, vol. 2

Modern lives contain way too much negativity, a cycle perpetrated by a fear-mongering media looking to sell us stuff we don’t need. In the interest of combatting that mentality, then, we present our second “Things That Are Great” link round-up, highlighting news stories and trends that we think are worth celebrating. (Read our first positive link collection here!)

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Photo clearly not taken in Colorado.

If you had to guess at the largest irrigated crop in America, you might well assume corn or soy. You’d be wrong; however; according to a 2015 NASA study, lawns represent about 40 million acres in the U.S., or about three times as much land as corn. All this grass comes at a steep price: 9 billion gallons of water per day, plus hundreds of millions of pounds of fertilizers and pesticides and other chemical treatments, all of which eventually end up in our water sources. And yard waste, including grass clippings and leaves, represents the largest single occupant of our landfills, too. All this for a crop we can’t even eat? Ridiculous.

02 February

Thankfully, though, forward-thinking companies are working to change that antiquated attitude. All across the country, edible landscapes are “unlawning” America. Converting pointless, thirsty lawns into healthy, local human food? Yes, please. These edible landscapers often face a lot of resistance from restrictive HOAs, but progress is still being made, albeit slowly. If you’d like to replace your lawn with native plants, check with your local extension agent – they’re often the best source of information for what will grow best and still look nice in your region.

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A crash course in irrigation, vol. 2

Hello, could everyone please put on their interested faces? We’re going to get into the nuts and bolts of learning how to run ditch water on our farm, and we know you won’t want to miss a single moment.

We ordered our water two weeks ago; today is the final day of the season we can have it. We’ve called for half a foot for two days, the minimum we can request and hopefully enough for us to test our gated pipe and our repairs. There will be no more testing this season after this run, so we need to learn all we can.

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At the headgate before sunrise.

The morning of the irrigation call starts with a pre-dawn alarm and a drive to the headgate (about a half-mile north of our farm). On the stile post we find a metal tin with the day’s water requests: where the water is going and in what quantity. The paper below it lists which households are on which ditch lateral (west or south).

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This is the Stevens and Linder ditch ticket; there are four requests with the totals listed (names underneath ours removed for privacy). All four of the day’s requests are located on the west lateral so the first task was to shut the headgate to the south lateral, thereby directing all the water to the west.

The ticket shows the quantity of water requested by us (.50 or half a foot), the corresponding gauge chart conversion (.47) – to be remembered to help set the flow gauge on our property – and lastly the water shrink to be expected due to ditch loss (6%). Requests three and four on the ticket won’t suffer the 6% water shrink because they’re on decree water and it doesn’t apply. Those folks have senior water rights which allows them decree water (free and separate from their water shares) even at the end of the season. For almost everyone else this season, there was no decree water at all; the reservoirs are too low to allow it. We’re supposedly in a hundred-year drought, but even that is a misnomer; we’ll almost certainly see a drought this severe or worse again in our lifetimes. Extreme drought is the new normal here, and learning how to properly manage our water rights will be key to our longterm success.

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Scouting trip

For a site called Finding Quiet Farm, we don’t actually write that much about finding Quiet Farm. This isn’t because we’re not looking, but because we haven’t found much worth sharing. Farmland in the U.S. is bulldozed and paved over for housing developments and shopping malls at a staggering rate of forty acres per hour, and the land that is available tends to be just a touch out of our price rangeWe spent a month in Oregon this fall, volunteering on farms and looking for our own place, but ultimately decided that Oregon wasn’t our home. We drove back to Denver through Colorado’s Western Slope, and decided to give that part of the state – previously ignored – a closer look in the new year.

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The first week of 2018 saw us westbound from Denver crossing the high mountain passes, which was easy instead of treacherous because winter in Colorado was canceled this year. We visited Grand Junction, Delta, Montrose, Olathe, Hotchkiss and Paonia, areas famous for peaches and sweet corn and cherries and the center of Colorado’s nascent wine industry, too.

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Our trusty road trip car. (Just kidding.)

Over the course of three long, intense days, we saw maybe a dozen properties. Most, of course, were discarded immediately: rickety house in need of extensive, costly renovation, sketchy neighbors, too much infrastructure devoted to horses, odd adobe construction, property too close to busy roads. But there were two in particular that caught our attention: one forty-acre parcel just outside of Grand Junction, a reasonably major population center, and one in a tiny apple-growing area just up the Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world.

Orchards

Apple trees with protective winter coverings ready for use…if winter ever appears.

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