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: October 26

Our first snowstorm arrived late last night, and with that, the 2020 growing season at Quiet Farm has officially concluded. Much of the past week has been spent preparing for this introduction to winter; though our skies will clear and temperatures will rise again later in the week, none of our annual crops will survive this cold snap. We’ve been threatened with hard freezes prior to this and have been lucky enough not to lose any plants; our season lasted far longer than expected. We’re hopeful that this early, wet storm will help the firefighters battling the numerous destructive wildfires currently raging across Colorado.

Flooding our pasture with snowmelt from the Grand Mesa.

We ran our final irrigation last week, then broke down most of our gated pipe so that we can repair any damaged gates and valves during the off-season. We have stellar water shares here at Quiet Farm, and thanks to N’s careful planning, we made our water last all season. This year was definitely a rebuilding year for our pasture, and we’re optimistic that our plans for next year’s irrigation run, which include reseeding, marking and thoughtful grazing by our herd, will yield even better results. Small farms are key to fighting climate change – if managed well, land like ours can absorb far more carbon than it emits. Establishing these “carbon sinks” across the country should be of highest priority; if this season’s devastating wildfires are any indication, the Rocky Mountain West has a tough road ahead.

Continue reading

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.

Raspberry Growth 01 sml

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.

Continue reading

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.

Drip Irrigation 02 sml

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.

Continue reading

Farm update: May 11

It’s hot, dry and windy out here, and feels more like late July than early May. We seem to have skipped straight from a parched winter into an equally arid summer, missing the soft green lushness of spring entirely; the peas and radishes survived frost damage only to turn bitter and pithy from sun scald. Last year we had rain almost every single day in May, and this year it’s unlikely we’ll see any. Early reports indicate that the mountain snowpack is melting far too quickly, thanks to this premature summer, and our primary focus these days is on keeping all of our plants irrigated. Here are a few more things we’ve been up to recently.

Irrigation 02 sml

Our gated irrigation pipe at work. 

All of our irrigation water comes from snow on the Grand Mesa. When the snow thaws each spring, the snowmelt makes its way down the mountain through an intricate series of ditches, headgates, creeks and pipes. We’re focused this year on regenerating our pasture, so have started flood-irrigating our land to see what grows. Later this season we’ll remark our pasture (cut channels that direct the water) and hopefully seed it with perennial grasses, too. Eventually we’ll use the land for rotational grazing, likely a grass-fed steer or two. Flood irrigation requires a lot of work – the water has to be “moved” by opening and closing valves and gates along the pipes – but it’s the system we have, so we’re learning how to use it to the land’s advantage.

Continue reading

Farm update: October 21

Buck 01 sml

The south lawn of our house makes a peaceful resting spot.

Is it autumn where you live? Is it crisp and cool with bright scarlet and gold leaves everywhere? Is it dark when you wake up in the morning? It is here, and we’re settling into this brief transition season before winter extends its icy grip. Much of our work these days involves cleaning, tidying, preserving, covering and generally setting things in place for the colder months. We try to take advantage of these bluebird fall days for as long as we can; once the snows come, we won’t be working outside much.

Garlic Slate 01 sml

Growing garlic takes forever, but it’s worth the wait.

Ninety of this season’s largest garlic cloves have been planted in a bed newly prepared with lots of rich compost. Last year’s garlic went into an existing cinderblock bed that was here when we moved in; a few weeks ago we broke that bed down and dispersed the soil into new trenches for garlic and asparagus. The cloves will slumber quietly here over the winter, and in the spring we’ll hopefully see green garlic peeking up through mulch and snow. Every year we’ll plant more and more garlic; we eat a lot of it, of course, but since garlic adapts to its unique environment, we want a generous quantity to save for planting.

Irrigation Water 01 sml

The water runs through a culvert underneath our driveway and out into our pasture. You can see our flume in the upper right.

We ran our irrigation water for the first time this season, and it went surprisingly well. Our pasture isn’t planted right now so the irrigation run was more of an experiment to see how the water would move through our gated pipe system. We own shares in a local creek that pulls water from reservoirs on the Grand Mesa; when we want to run water we order a certain amount for a certain period and that water is deducted from our account. This run was for two days (forty-eight hours straight!) and it requires a lot of hands-on management, mainly opening and closing gates manually in the big pipes. When we’re more comfortable with our irrigation we won’t need to babysit it as much, but we’re unleashing hundreds of thousands of gallons of water mere feet from our house, and we definitely want to pay close attention to where it’s going.

Tomatoes Ripening 01 sml

Our tomato crop redeemed itself after a rocky start.

We harvested all of our vegetables prior to our recent hard freeze and brought in just over one hundred pounds of green, unripe tomatoes. In the past I’ve never had good luck ripening tomatoes indoors, but for whatever reason these are ripening quite well. They’re no longer good to eat fresh – the overnight temperatures dropped too low, so the tomatoes taste as though they’ve been refrigerated – but they’re perfect for sauces, soups and purees. A pantry stocked with canned homegrown tomatoes is a winter gift indeed.

Tree Mulch 01 sml

One of our little saplings, hopefully protected from winter weather (and deer). 

We’ve hustled recently to layer all of our fruit tree saplings with warm winter mulch. Some of our little trees look healthy and others are…struggling. We’re hopeful that the mulch blanket will keep the trees protected from our harsh winter weather, since their root systems are likely to still be quite delicate. One of our priority spring projects next year will be to put a drip irrigation system in the orchard so we can stop watering the trees by hand.

We’re back to work, friends. We wish you a good week.

 

Farm update: May 6

It’s been mostly cool and rainy this week. We’re of course grateful for the moisture and lower temperatures, which might keep our snowpack in place longer, but the weather has literally put a damper on our excavator plans. Never mind, though; there are always plenty of other things to do!

Broad Tailed Hummingbird 02 sml

A male black-chinned hummingbird getting its sugar fix.

One of our most successful ventures recently has been installing hummingbird feeders around our house. We’ve been utterly astounded at the sheer number of hummingbirds that have appeared, including both the black-chinned and broad-tailed varieties. They’ve apparently informed all their friends that the bar is open!

Continue reading

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.

QF Irrigation 11 sml

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).

QF Irrigation 12 sml

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.

Continue reading

A crash course in irrigation

Before we moved to the Western Slope, we were told again and again to make sure we buy water, not just a farm. Over here, water and land are sold separately, like toys and batteries. Just because water runs through, on or over your property doesn’t necessarily mean you have any right to use it.

The good news is that Quiet Farm does have adequate water, in most years. The bad news, however, is twofold: first, the Western Slope is in an unprecedented drought and at the moment no one has enough water. And second, we know precisely nothing about irrigation management. When you live in modern suburbia you just turn on the tap and the water flows magically, right? That is so much not the case here.

Water Droplets
Irrigation management on Quiet Farm doesn’t look like this.

QF Irrigation 01 sml

It looks like this: our Parshall flume (or weir) with attached flow gauge. No, we don’t know what any of those words mean, either.

QF Irrigation 02 sml

This is our water pump with screen to catch wildlife – raccoons, ground squirrels, marmots, whistlepigs, ponies, etc. – when they fall in. Looking forward to THAT happening.

We now own two shares of one of the Western Slope’s strongest irrigation ditches. There are dozens of ditch and reservoir companies; the vast majority of the area’s water comes from hundreds of lakes and reservoirs up on the Grand Mesa which are filled with precipitation each winter. When there is no snow, like last year, then there is no water in the ditches or reservoirs. And so water becomes a very valuable commodity.

QF Irrigation 03 sml

This is known as an “ag tap,” an abbreviation for agricultural. The water from this tap, however, is from our domestic supply. Confused? So are we.

QF Irrigation 04 sml

This is downstream of the water pump and will help irrigate our land with irrigation water. We think. Or maybe not.

When we want some of our water for irrigation – which we can have between the beginning of April and the end of October – we order a precise amount from the ditch company, accounting for absorption and loss along the way. Ditch riders, who live up on the mesa during the season, use a complicated system to send the water down the correct ditch to our property on a specific day. We have to be out at our headgates at about 6AM to start our run, and the water we use is debited from our account, just like a bank. We can lease, sell, trade or give away our water as we see fit, but if we order water, it’s coming to our property whether we’re ready or not. So figuring out our irrigation system is of paramount importance to our future success.

QF Irrigation 06 sml

Our water will run through gated pipe, a common sight in our area. Big farms will own thousands of feet and it’s set up according to your property’s individual landscape and contour. The black gates open and shut to control the water flow.

QF Irrigation 08 sml

A lot of our gated pipe currently looks like this, which is obviously not workable. Even we know that.

In case you’re worried that we’re actually living in Little House on the Prairie, our house has a domestic tap, which is just like water in a normal house. Except that domestic water here is crushingly expensive, especially compared to Front Range rates, which means we absolutely cannot run a farm on domestic water without bankrupting ourselves. No more domestic taps are being issued in our area; local government doesn’t think we have the water to support additional growth – unlike on the Front Range, where greedy, short-sighted counties sell their water to the big cities and then wonder why their towns die. Domestic taps are worth tens of thousands of dollars over here, if you could even buy one.

QF Irrigation 07 sml

Apparently little critters like chewing on the gates inside the pipe. The gates cost $3 each, and we have dozens missing. The few remaining intact ones are probably being eaten right now while you’re reading this.

QF Irrigation 05 sml

The end of the line. Of course, if the pipes aren’t connected properly we’ll just flood everything and there is no way to turn the water off once we’ve called for it. So good luck with that.

We’ve got just about a month to figure this system out, because once the water goes off at the end of October we’ll have no way of testing our work. And when the water (hopefully) starts running again next spring, we want to be ready to get our pasture in good shape.

QF Irrigation 09 sml

Good news, though! We’re unknowingly growing a pasture of invasive elm trees that will need to be removed by hand…

QF Irrigation 10 sml

…when we’re not growing anything at all. Surprisingly, bare pasture is actually worse than having even invasive plants in the ground.

The moral of this tale, friends, is not to take water for granted. The daily luxury of fresh, clean, potable water is an absolute gift and one that not even everyone in the U.S. has access to. So treat your water like the precious resource it is, and know that it is finite. And wars over water will be much more devastating than wars over oil.

There is much work to be done, and winter is coming. Pray for snow.