16. 2007: Autumn has been dry. So what’s your
Plan D? By now many of us in the East—especially the
upland Southeast—and other places scattered around the
country are tired of the “D” word. Yes, “drought.”
It seems you can’t turn on the news without hearing
about another community about to run out of water or one that
is imposing water restrictions on their residents.
What about our farms? Fortunately, droughts like the one
we are experiencing this fall don’t come along too often.
Here in eastern Pennsylvania we did get several inches of
rain in recent weeks, but boy, was it dry up until then. Most
farms had their silage cut weeks ahead of schedule and we
had corn dry in the field by mid-September.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy harvesting fall crops in
shirtsleeves under nothing but bright sunshine and blue skies.
But those cover crops we planted aren’t too happy: the
winter wheat is up but slow growing, and I know many folks
have it much worse. These weather patterns pose many questions
regarding impacts on your crop rotations and cover crop selection.
Questions pop up like: Should I still plant wheat? Should
I switch to another cover crop? Where can I find seed in a
On our farm, just like on yours, there are no easy answers.
I may be off base here, but I never try to second-guess my
crop practices because of the weather. I tend to follow the
plan I’ve laid out and the calendar for field activities
I’m used to. I’ve gotten several calls this fall
asking me what individuals might do differently if the rains
don’t come. All I can tell them, or you, is that short-term
weather patterns will affect healthy organic soils less drastically
then conventional soils. This is in part because of the greater
amounts of carbon we’re sequestering in the soil. Carbon
is like a sponge, soaking up any rain that does fall and holding
in the root zone where crops can use it.
Long-term dry spells are a whole other matter. There may
be no sense planting valuable cover crop seeds in the fall
if they have little, if any, chance to survive, and those
fall-planted grains may not make it either. In this case you’ll
need to really re-think your plans for spring. You may be
depending on that cover crop for nitrogen if you’re
using legumes, or on the small grain to get into a hay crop.
There are no pretty alternatives here, but thinking through
the situation now may help prevent a crisis several months
down the road.
If your legumes fail, or if you never even got them planted,
search now for alternative sources of fertility. These could
be animal-based manures, organically approved materials from
bagged sources, compost (your farm’s or purchased) or
even spring-planted legumes to help supply subsequent crops
with the nitrogen they’ll need to meet your yield expectations.
In case you never get your winter grains planted or they
don’t survive the winter, develop a plan now for how
you’ll change your crop rotation to satisfy your Organic
System Plan. Be sure to document all the changes you make
to your plan and send them to your certifying agency so that
they are up to speed on what’s happening on your farm.
Even though you may still be harvesting (as I am) and it’s
hard to think about your next cropping season so soon, you
may want to order seeds now for next spring as an insurance
plan. If a winter grain field hasn’t made it, think
about planting a spring crop instead.
The main point is Have a back-up plan. Everyone faces
different situations, and needs to sort their best remaining
options if the desired “adequate moisture” scenario
has failed to materialize. Taking time now to develop Plan
D or E or whatever will pay huge dividends later.
me your questions, post them on one of the New
Farm Forum pages for others to address, or talk to folks
who know your operation and whom you trust. But, take a good
look at where you think you’ll stand … then make
And, of course, pray for rain. Many of us could sure use
From One Farm to Another,