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
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
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 hurry?
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
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
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 a plan.
And, of course, pray for rain. Many of us could sure use some.
From One Farm to Another,