Water: How farmers meet the challenge of too little, too much

By Sylvia Keesmaat

Leslie Dyment, at Crow Hill Farm in Cameron.

Farmers have been concerned about water issues for as long as human beings have been growing crops. From the irrigation ditches of the ancient near east, to the flooding of ancient Egypt, the lack of water, or too much of it, has shaped the rhythms of farming life.

As a result, farmers throughout history have developed various strategies related to water. Some of these—like the worship of ancient fertility gods and goddesses—seem a little odd to us now. Some, like tile drainage, are still practiced but are somewhat controversial. Others, such as the use of terrace farming and dams, continue to be used today.

Sylvia Keesmaat, Lindsay Advocate.

Farmers in the Kawartha Lakes who consciously practice strategies to retain and manage water, therefore, stand in a long and honoured history. And, while recent concerns about climate change have prodded some farmers to examine their practices around water retention and absorption, for most farmers these are not new issues.

“Farmers have always been adaptive and prepared for change in weather patterns and the risks involved in crop production,” points out Mark Torrey, the local member service representative for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

For Torrey, who farms on sandy loam between Woodville and Kirkfield, moisture retention has always been an important strategy to maintain fertility in the face of drought. Whereas in the past fields were often ploughed yearly, farmers are increasingly engaging in no-till practices, where seed is planted into fields that still contain the stubble of the previous year’s crops. Not only does this reduce erosion, but roots that decay in the soil add organic matter that increases moisture retention.

Torrey also adds manure to his fields and chooses seed varieties that will perform well in challenging situations. In addition, he sows cover crops that increase the fertility of the soil.

The use of cover crops is increasing, as farmers realize that plants such as winter rye, vetch, clover, oats, tillage radish, and buckwheat all have different roles to play in increasing soil health, says Alan Mulock, a farmer in the Oakwood area. Each cover crop, which is a crop that isn’t intended to be harvested, contributes something different to the soil.

“Some gather nutrients, some build nutrients, like nitrogen, others build organic matter as they decay. Others are green manure that is turned back into the soil.” Such crops build up the fertility and resilience of the soil so that it is able to weather different storms, whether that be too much water or too little.

Mulock is also careful about the seed he uses, relying as much as possible on older seed stock that is adapted to this area. Seed that has been nurtured in the weather patterns and soil of the Kawarthas can pass on knowledge to subsequent generations of seeds. This produces plants that are resilient to the weather patterns unique to this place, both overly wet conditions and drought.

We don’t generally think that the seed we choose is important for weathering flood or drought, but genetically modified seeds, or seed stock that is imported doesn’t know the climate and will find it harder to thrive. For instance, in a no-till system, Mulock points out, the soil is very cold when seeds are planted. Seed that is adapted to our area and has been saved from previous years is able to cope with those cold temperatures.

While both Torrey and Mulock are growing cash crops on a fairly large scale, Julie Fleming and Andrew Flamen of Circle Organics have some of the same concerns about water on their much smaller certified organic vegetable farm. Although they also use cover crops each year to increase the resilience of the soil on some of their 60 arable acres, Fleming and Flamen employ a host of other strategies for managing water on their farm.

When they began farming 11 years ago, they used drip irrigation but found that every year they were bringing a large load of plastic irrigation tape to the dump. In an effort to move away from plastic, they realized that they would need to use sprinklers of some sort on the 12 acres of vegetables that they grow outside each year for three farmers markets and 150 Community Shared Agriculture shares. Sprinklers for this amount of vegetables would need a reservoir to draw from.

To meet this need, Fleming and Flamen installed a key-line dam —essentially a pond high in the landscape on their hilly terrain. The pond catches rainwater and is also fed by two swales that catch rainwater and drain it into the pond.

Swales, which are similar to ditches but are intended to catch and slowly sink water rather than drain water away, are also used to slow the run of water off the hillsides.

Julie Fleming, Circle Organics.

“We have done so much work to enrich our soil with cover crops,” says Fleming, “we don’t want it being washed away in a rainstorm or winter run off.” The swales slow the flow of water over the land, allowing it to sink into the ground and the water table rather than running swiftly away.

In addition to storing water for irrigation, the pond has other benefits: frogs have increased and hop out of the pond to catch insects in the garden. Beneficial insects have also increased.

A move away from plastics has also led to another water saving measure on the farm. Whereas they previously used black plastic as a mulch to keep down weeds and warm the soil, they are now mulching more frequently with straw. While straw makes weeding trickier, it retains moisture extremely well. And it breaks down into organic matter.

Cover crops on the pathways also keep the soil in place and retain moisture. Unlike the mixture of tillage radish, peas, sunflowers, spelt and winter rye that is used as a cover crop on the fields, the pathways are sown with ryegrass and spelt, which are easier to weed and don’t invade the vegetable beds.

There is one place on the farm, however, that is suggesting its own use in relation to water going forward, says Fleming. That is a low area that floods every year. “Maybe that will be the site of our next irrigation pond,” she suggests.

Leslie and Craig Dyment, of Crow Hill Farm in Cameron, had a similar area on their 100 acre farm, home to a 50 ewe flock of Corriedale Sheep for food and fibre. “This area wanted to be a wetland,” says Leslie. It flooded every year, and had turned into a boggy marshy field of shrubs.

Rather than try to dry out the field using tile drainage, the Dyments decided to build a pond in the field under the Species at Risk program. This reduced flooding in the rest of the field, and enabled them to plant a variety of native plants to create a tall grass prairie around the pond, along with native plants that grow in the pond itself. Not only does the prairie provide native pollinators for the farm’s honey bees, the pond has also created habitat for other wildlife such as turtles and frogs; in addition, the wetland has become a pairing pond for ducks.

The pond also functions as a settling area for water before it drains from the field to the creek, 500 feet away. Now, instead of run-off from the fields entering the creek and the lake unfiltered, the pond purifies the water before it continues to the lake.

“Agricultural run-off is the largest contributor of phosphorous to our lakes,” Leslie points out. The Dyments have taken a problem field and turned it into a water purification system that addresses a different problem, that of run-off.

Sediment ponds, but for tile drain outlets, are also a strategy that farmers are being encouraged to consider through the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) Peterborough program, according to Henry Bakker, the ALUS program coordinator. The ALUS Peterborough Program is a recent partnership between ALUS Canada and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), and is funded primarily through support from the Weston Family Foundation. Installing tiered sediment ponds at a tile drainage outlet ensures that phosphorus from the fields is captured before water reaches the watershed, especially if the ponds are planted with biomass for filtration purposes.

Bakker, who pastures beef, poultry, and pork on his farm near Bobcaygeon, points out that the ALUS program funds can be used towards a number of strategies that enable farmers to manage water more effectively on the farm. One emerging technology is contour drainage, where drainage tile is installed following the contours of the land at a lower pitch than usual. Land still drains during times of extreme moisture, but during time of drought the drainage outlets can be closed to shut off the flow so that water can be retained. As a result, water falling during a sudden intense rainstorm in a drought period will not be lost to the farmer, but can be held in a relatively dispersed way over the landscape where it is needed.

It is no surprise to find out that farmers are at the forefront of efforts in the Kawartha Lakes to build up the fertility of the land to improve water retention, as well as efforts to restore the wetlands that host much of the biodiversity of this area. After all, attentiveness to the land, its health and its biodiversity has characterized resilient and regenerative farming through the ages. Who better to provide leadership on these issues than the people whose daily rhythms are shaped by the land that they farm?

All the farmers we spoke with emphasized that care for the land and the plants that grow on it shaped their farming. And that care means that the land becomes a place of thriving beyond itself, a place of biodiversity and health for plants, animals, the soil and further generations of farmers.

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