Pipes are Not Water

One of the great mysteries of this property is our “irrigation system.” We have a great well, that produces 60 gallons of water a minute from a large natural aquifer right underneath us. In a drought state like California, that’s pure gold. We also have the remains of a once burly and functional irrigation system. We have found valves and spigots and knobs all over the place. If feels a lot like a game of Myst, if you remember that. A typical session of play goes something like this: let’s see, if I turn this valve on, and this electrical switch on (even though it looks like it will kill me), and turn off this other valve off, maybe those spray heads on the arena will turn on? Yes! wait, No! Only half of them turned on … WHY WHY WHY?


The entire irrigation system is full of similar mysteries in a myriad of baffling ways. Lots of water, but not actually flowing through all the pipes, or at least the pipes we have managed to find. There are pipes running underground all over these 8 acres … but we are not exactly sure where they all are. A blueprint you say? Hah! No such thing exists. And before we ask some serious guys with serious tractors to go ripping and discing and other mightily destructive sounding practices on top, we really need to know where these pipes are underneath.


So, we hired some experts. Thank all the gods of agriculture for agricultural experts. One of the great benefits of moving to a town where a lot of people still make a living from farming is that we are surrounded by extremely knowledgeable neighbors, and the many businesses and business owners who service this community.

It’s odd being a total newbie again, and oddly exhilarating. I have worked in technology for over 15 years, and hey, it’s great to be an expert, but at the same time, a bit sad to realize there isn’t that much more to learn, patterns repeat, change is incremental. As far as knowledge about farming on this scale goes, however, I have only deep passion, fairly good instincts, lots of book learning and some very foggy childhood memories. Without the physical local community, and some excellent online communities as well, this farming adventure would be sooooo much harder.


Jason and I love to learn, but some subjects like industrial agricultural irrigation take more to master than a few hours of web surfing. I did buy a college course textbook for irrigation, and quickly realized I needed several semesters of study, or even better years of experience, to have any sort of clue about such basic questions as: what size pump do we need? What width of pipe in which material goes where? How much pressure do we need to get to the top of our hill? What filtration does drip irrigation require? And this is one that really scares me: what questions that I don’t know to ask should I really be asking?

As I was saying, I give thanks to experts, especially the extremely friendly ones we keep meeting.



Soil is Not Dirt – Dirt is Not Soil

Hey, we live on a farm now, and it’s rather cool!

After a few long tedious months of remodeling and moving, packing and unpacking,  we are now actually living on the farm – whew. It’s, well, it’s wonderful. We wake up to birds singing, cows lowing, tractors on the horizon. The weather has been hot and dry, not ideal from a farming perspective, but a warm welcome to country living nonetheless.

Our farming neighbors have been dropping by to say hello and welcome us to the neighborhood as well. I find some comfort in being surrounded by old farming families who have worked this land for generations. So far, none of them have mocked our newbie farming plans, at least not openly, but rather have been full of genuinely helpful advice, recommendations and contacts. Pascal took off on an unsupervised romp around the neighborhood a week or so ago, almost giving me a heart attack, but ended up visiting the nearby Gizdich Ranch. The extremely nice owner Vince and manager Linda caught him for me, so we have been patronizing their delicious pie shop, perhaps more than we should.

Escape Artist Extraordinaire
Pascal – Escape Artist Extraordinaire

Now, after almost a year of thinking, planning and plotting, it’s time to truly start farming. Our very first challenge is, we bought 5 acres or so of dirt, but dirt is not soil. To transform our dry brown fields of clods into healthy rich soil is going to take no small amount of work and time.

Dirt, We Got It
Dirt, We Got It

We have been talking to folks far and wide about the best course of action to increase our soil fertility before planting, and this is our current plan. First, we need to cut down the weeds and break up some of the clods, which is accomplished through discing. Discing, for the uninitiated (like myself, just a month or so ago), involves a tractor with a serious attachment of steel ‘discs’ that break up the soil and till in weeds.

Tractor Discing – Photo by Chris Billman on Flickr

Next, and as soon as the winter rains begin, we will sow a cover crop for the winter. Cover crops are nifty, and a basic element in organic farming. The basic idea is to grow a mix of fast growing annual plants, then till them under in the Spring, to add nitrogen and organic material back to the soil. A cover crop also prevents erosion and further nutrient leaching by winter rains and run off.  We will probably be planting a mix of lana vetch, bell beans and cayuse oats, a seed mix we can purchase ready to for just this purpose.

After we till our cover crop under in the Spring, we will then do something called “deep ripping.” This is another tractor technique to break up compacted soil. Since our fields have a clay base,  years of tractors and other heavy machinery have created something called plow pan, which is a layer of hard compacted soil right under the surface. We will need to break up this hard pan, so that our tree roots can get down deep to water and nutrients. Then, another cover crop next Fall, another round of discing, and in the Spring of 2015, we will actually be ready to plant our orchard.


Dirt, Up Close and Textural
Dirt, Up Close and Textural

We also collected soil samples last week, and sent them off to the lab for analysis. We are hoping to learn about the general chemical composition of our soil as it is now, the Ph, and amount of organic materials. This will help us decide what kinds of organic fertilizers and other soil amendments to use when it does come time to plant.


Patience, definitely not my forte, so originally I was a bit disappointed to learn we are more than a year out from planting an orchard. Thinking about it a bit more though, I have to admit I am relieved. We now have far more time to decide exactly what tree varieties we want to plant and where. We also have more time to work on that other crucial part of the puzzle, our irrigation system, which is such a mystery of confusion, I am saving it for a whole ‘nother blog post. And in the meantime, I can plant a small veggie bed in the spring, once the first cover crop is tilled under, and I am very much looking forward to it.

Many thanks to Jim Leap from CASFS and the entire FarmReach community for helping us come to soil fertility plan.

Next up … Pipes are Not Water