The fellow we bought our piglets from stops by occasionally to chat. The last time, he remarked on how dry it has been lately. Then he said, “Come to think of it, it’s been dry ever since you folks moved here.”
Although we don’t think the two events are connected, he is right. Our first summer here we didn’t really have enough going on in the garden or the pasture to notice the dryness, although I can remember long stretches of August spent standing in the corn patch with a hand sprayer. Last summer was our first try at growing produce for market, and the mixed results (some crops did fine, some did nothing at all) were partly due to the lack of rain; and the $1500 we paid for winter hay was definitely due to that.
We had high hopes as the year began, as the winter and spring were pretty wet. But in June things changed, and since then it’s gotten progressively dryer: 2.5″ inches in June, 2.9″ in July, 1.3″ in August, .35″ in September. None in the forecast for the next seven days.
We are officially in a severe drought. If you look at the Kentucky map, we are about in the center of the orange section. The national map shows that much of this part of the country is at least abnormally dry, with some of the Carolina/East Tennessee area being in severe drought and a small spot in exceptional drought.
We water the garden and the animals using municipal water, and our bill roughly doubled when summer arrived—one hundred dollars rather than the usual fifty, which is still manageable and certainly worth it to keep our cows and chickens and crops alive. The wet winter and spring plus the moderate rain in June and July gave our crops enough momentum to make it to August when the harvest began, through now as the last of the tomatoes are coming off the vine.
Initially the kids were watering by hand using watering cans, but that became way too time-consuming so we laid out drip irrigation tape for most of the garden. That worked very well, and next year we will use it for the entire garden.
We’re looking at a couple of possibilities for developing water on the property: digging a pond in the pasture where a number of water flows converge, and damming up a small gorge up the hill from the house. We’re reluctant to dig a deep well, since neighbors tell us that no one has successfully done so in this part of the hollow.
Pasture is where we are hurting most. The fenced-in section of pasture was eaten down by the middle of September; since then the kids have been picketing Dory so she can eat a few patches around the property. The two calves have been moved to a corral set up near the house, where there was a bit of grass. We started feeding hay a couple of days ago, meaning that we’ll be feeding hay six months this time around, and the hay we’ve bought so far will only last for about two-thirds of that.
We were hoping this year to begin managing pasture so that the cows would be able to graze on sections of it until at least early winter. Through mid-summer that still looked like a possibility. For the past few months, though, we’ve been praying for a burst of rain that might give us a final growth of grass so they could make another circuit of the pasture. It never happened, and now with the evenings getting cold there won’t be any more growth even if it does rain.
If nothing else, we’re learning something about the complex interactions that determine what grass you’ll have available to feed in the winter. And although the drought makes things difficult for us, I’m grateful that these difficulties have come so early in our farming career.
Long before I was ever interested in farming I was reading the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, which begins with a brief history of the Texas hill country west of Austin (where we were living at the time). That area is borderline arid, getting an average of thirty inches of rain per year, just enough to support farming. But Caro pointed out that the thirty-inch average represented a fifteen-year cycle where the rain ranged from a low of twenty-five to a high of thirty-five inches. This lead to a repeated boom-and-bust cycle; every fifteen years or so farmers would come in during the wet years, have great success farming, expand their operations, then go bust as the weather turned dry.
I’d prefer to learn the hard lessons of farming under dry conditions in the beginning, when failure won’t cost us nearly as much, knowing as well that better times are coming.