This is our farm column from farmer Casey O’Neill. O’Neill is the owner operator of HappyDay Farms north of Laytonville, and a long time advocate for the cannabis community in Mendocino Co; more of his writing can be found here. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to [email protected].
What a glorious run of cool and misty weather, just right for the spring plantings that like things mild. After that brief run of heat, I’ve found that I, too, like things mild. It takes awhile to acclimate to the warm weather that I know will come, so I’m grateful for the respite while the tender plants get settled and established.
This is the time of year when my thoughts turn to irrigation and the infrastructure required to support it. We are in process on a grant from CDFW that is providing funding for new water storage and a retrofit of existing systems. Though this year looks to be a good water year, the wild swings in our Mediterranean climate often leave us struggling to keep up and the grant will fortify our systems so that we have deep resilience in the face of drought, and storage to fight fire should it come to that.
We have three main methods of irrigation on farm; drip tape, inline emitters, and overhead sprinklers. Each has benefits and drawbacks, and each serves specific situations. Overhead sprinklers provide the best coverage and work especially well for tender crops that appreciate cooling during the heat, but they use more water and encourage weed growth. Drip tape is cheap, but it doesn’t pressure compensate, and it’s not durable, so we spend time and money repairing many leaks each spring when we lay it out. Inline emitters are great because the ½” mainline they run in is durable, lasts many years and pressure compensates, but it is much more expensive than the drip tape.
Irrigation projects run on a spectrum much like types of farms. At the easiest end is a flat field with long-lasting crops, in which drip tape is ideal because there are no elevation issues and no pulling up and putting back down of the tape seasonally. At the opposite end of the spectrum is our farm; steeply terraced with significant elevation change, a wide variety of rapid rotation crops and difficulties with rodents hiding under mulch and chewing holes in lines.
When we first got going, budget was tight and drip tape was cheap, so that’s what we used most of the time. The problem is that because it doesn’t pressure compensate, we can only run one terrace at a time, because if we run multiples then the lowest ones get much more water than the upper one. This meant additional expenditures on timers, with more cleaning of filters and more possibility for failure and crop damage. When you start talking about several dozen timers, the likelihood of something going wrong in some of them goes up real fast.
As we shifted from the low-volume battery operated timers that fit on a hose faucet to inline solar timers in ¾” and 1” that can push more volume, we’ve also been focusing on moving to the inline emitters so that we can water multiple beds on one timer with less trouble with uneven watering. Switches that shift the water direction each time the timer comes on allows us to double up the effectiveness, so we can water twice as much with the same timer.
In the veggie tunnels we don’t use drip anymore except for an occasional line on late summer hot crops. We use the mechanical greens harvester on all the salad mixes, and having drip tape in the bed often means a cut line or less effective harvest, so we’ve shifted to overhead sprinkling that also helps to keep the crops cool. We’ve found it quite effective with hot crops as well, basil, peppers and eggplant seem to love having their leaves washed and the evenness of the watering makes better use of the fertility because the whole soil surface stays moist.
This year I’m also implementing sprinklers for cooling and setting crops after planting. In past years I spent hours each day hand watering tender crops, but I can deploy the sprinklers on their metal stakes with the basic ¾” mainline in just a few minutes and then not have to worry about tender brassica and early summer squash plantings drying out when we catch the inevitable spring hot spells. We’re also looking forward to using the sprinklers to run compost tea for cannabis during vegetative growth and for the heavy feeding food crops. The time savings from not having to hand water tender crops and compost tea makes a huge difference for us as we continue our process of finding efficiencies to streamline our operations.
The grant funding is huge for us this year, allowing us to implement changes that would have taken years to accomplish, and some, like the big storage tanks, which we would never have been able to do. The additional water resources will help fight fire when it happens, but will also help keep the farm and homesteads green so that fire will be less of a danger. Each year we are more prepared and knowledgeable, and our systems get a little better. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!