Desert Spring

I’d really like to thank everyone that came out to our first week down on Highway 2.  It was well worth our effort and it was wonderful to see old and new faces.  We also appreciate those of you who are taking advantage of our online store – and please don’t be shy if you just want to do things the old fashioned way and just give us a ring.

We’ll be back again on Saturday rain or shine and hope for slightly better weather than last week and just in general for this season.  By this point in late April, farmers would like to be in full swing: spreading manure, working the land and getting crops in.  There was a small amount of activity the last couple days in our area, but after last night’s soaking everything will be parked again for at least several more days on even the highest and driest land.

Here in Ontario we hope for a bit of a drought in the spring: it lets fieldwork and planting get done uninterrupted and also makes life a little nicer for the cattle which are being turned out – not to mention their calves…  There’s a saying in farming that “a dry year will scare you – a wet year can kill you” – this sounds a bit counterintuitive but also points to a lot of why things are done the way they are in agriculture.

For instance, that most produce in North America is grown in the deserts of California, Arizona and Texas seems ridiculous when you first consider it – having to divert all of that water all that way when the crops could just be grown where the water originates.  However, the aspects of precise control of water, and the extremely low ambient humidity makes the desert a much more “controlled environment” to grow delicate, high value crops.  You need an inch of rain?  Turn on the tap.  You need to get equipment or harvesters into the field?  Turn it off.   There are no fungal problems and the barren landscape provides no alternative host for pests and diseases.  And this is why lettuce (an extremely thirsty, delicate crop) is a billion dollar industry in… Arizona of all places.

And so while Arizona might dominate the winter lettuce trade, the trend continues northward up the Pacific coast and mountain valleys.  Whether the Central and Salinas valleys, the Willamette in Oregon, or the rainshadow of the Cascades in Washington, they make the desert bloom with irrigation, producing high value crops ranging from wine grapes, to apples, to Walla Walla onions, to grass seed.  A migrant Central American labour force also happens to follow this trend north and south with the seasons but that is something for another article.

Even in Canada, in the northernmost tip of the Great Sonoran desert: the arid Osoyoos Valley in British Columbia, stone fruit orchards and vineyards thrive where homeowners don’t really need a lawnmower.   Such are the advantages of a desert climate when it comes to growing dainty crops.

Dry conditions are not only advantageous for horticulture, but it is no coincidence that the cattle industry tends to be centered in drier regions as well.  Quite simply, looking after large amounts 1000lb+ animals is just a lot easier when there is no mud.   It is wet and cold and uncomfortable for the cattle, a potential death trap for calves, and a great way to mire and destroy farm equipment.   It is also why traditional cattle husbandry in this region is very “barn centred” and the only extensive “range” type beef operations in these parts are possible on very rocky or sandy ground.

At the moment, our beef cattle have some rocky hills to climb up onto and fortunately aren’t yet due to calve.   Our hens have dry, elevated homes on wheels to sleep and lay in, but we’ve essentially had to sacrifice an area for them to debauch during the daytime, this wet spring – rather than constantly moving them about, to only extend that effect to more areas.  The longer I raise livestock, the more I understand why farmers tend to want to just stick them in a building…

The closest thing produce growers in this area can do to approximate the “desert effect” is to grow their crops on sand.  Sand is referred to as a “light” soil and is great because it warms up quickly in the spring, and unless the water table itself is high, is freely draining, meaning that farmers can get back on the land quickly after rains to till, spray, harvest etc.   The problem with sand is that it is droughty, and lacking the particle surface area of “heavy” soils to hold nutrients, tend to be infertile and acidic.

Heavy clay soils can hold onto a great deal of nutrients and moisture, but can be very tricky to till and plant into, warm up very slowly and are prone to compaction and poor drainage.  The “just right” and most desired soil type, in theory at least, is “Loam”, and according to our soil tests this is what we have here.   Our gardens were formed on the bottom of a shallow, warm lake some 10,000 years ago, and not only do we have a nice balance of soil particles, but a great deal of calcium and organic matter as well.  

Organic matter, “humus”, is the real life blood of a living soil and helps ameliorate the deficiencies of any sort of dirt: making sands more moisture retentive, clays more friable and so on.  You maintain and build organic matter with cover crops, compost and manure: we’ve got lots of black gold on hand here – we just need some strong winds and bright sun to hang around so we can get it spread on the land.  It always comes along… eventually.

One thought on “Desert Spring

  1. Pingback: Lettuce Lessons | Salt of the Earth Farm Kingston~Lyndhurst

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