Something I Love about Farming

Something I love about farming year after year is that past experience allows me to perceive ever greater levels of detail in the process of farming, offering the possibility of making ever more precise decisions in order to effect the desired outcome. An outcome like having spinach or carrots, for example. And spinach and carrots are two things I've been thinking a lot about these past few weeks.

In my early years of farming I read the seed catalog, picked a planting date, dialed in the seeding rate, and hoped for the best. This was met with mixed success. Even though we assume seeds will germinate into plants with some regularity, there is much that holds them back, and so naively setting the seeder according to the book and running it on the proper planting date may or may not yield a good crop in any given season.

It's been a few years since I learned to plant at the proper time of the weather rather than the proper time of the calendar. And even more years since I reluctantly had to admit, having studiously dialed in the seeder settings with ever more precision, that I had been erroneously attributing problems of spotty emergence to the easily-adjusted mechanical certainty of the seeder, rather than to the uncertain climactic conditions under the soil surface.

It was only after examining the failures of many past seasons and comparing the conditions and results in the present instance with the conditions and results of  previous trials that I could begin to tease apart the innumerable variables of these quite uncontrolled experiments. And in the classic way of “the more you know, the more there is to know,” I do enjoy being able to juggle these micro-level details and make my best gamble about how to provide the optimum conditions required.

I last planted carrots a few weeks ago, before the big rain, which I thought would be better than waiting until after, especially since if they didn't work I'd still have time to re-plant. Carrots need constant moisture to emerge (so two weeks of rain is great!) but they are quite wimpy and liable to stall out pushing their way up through firm soil, germinating successfully but never making it to the surface. Water makes the soil soft, but lots of rain compacts and settles the soil into a firm mass--a firm mass that requires even more water to loosen, which will dry and harden on the slightest sunny day. Planting shallowly offers a shorter path to the surface, but it dries out quicker up near the sun and germination can suffer. It's also hotter near the surface--though afternoon irrigation can cool the soil. Spinach germinates erratically above 90-degrees, compounding the difficulty of matching these factors to provide the ideal conditions to the seed for the 5-7 days it takes to (hopefully) break the surface.

On Wednesday I made my gambles with the last carrot planting and first spinach planting, both critical crops, and I enjoyed every minute of seeding-rate calculation with math and measuring spoons to settle on a rate that might be high enough for a reliable stand but low enough to limit the work of thinning, setting the depth (shallow) and planning to irrigate frequently--but lightly--and waiting until these cooler days which, however, have a higher chance of blasting thunderstorms that can pound the loose soil into crusty cement in an instant.

Whether all this effort and consideration will have the desired effect I do not know. And if the seeds do emerge, exactly at the right spacing, can I attribute the success to my care and precision? Who can say. Certainly I will have no idea which variable was the critical factor, although I might guess. Many years from now perhaps the trends will be clearer, and if the success rate continues to rise, only then might they hint at a causal relationship. Until that time comes I'll continue to pay attention and do my best, and enjoy every minute of it.