Eastern Oregon and Southern Idaho are facing another tough year. Climatologists said in early March that the “megadrought” of the past 22 years has brought us to the worst drought conditions in 1200 years. We didn’t get anywhere near the rainfall hoped for last month, after our dry January and February we would have needed 150%-200% more rain to “catch up,” according to a report from KTVB 7 on March 4th. This is hard news for food growers, seed savers, and our whole food system.
Earlier this year we turned to growers of the cooperative to gain some insight about the State of the Seedshed. With the wealth of wisdom they shared we opted to highlight some strategies they have been implementing to help grow seeds adapted to the tough conditions of our bioregion. Know what they’re up against, and just how tough the seeds they’re growing really are!
James Loomis of Green Phoenix Farm in Salt Lake City
"Last season we had spring-like weather for maybe a week or two. Then we were right up into the 100s and stayed there. We had nearly three months in Salt Lake that were 100+ or in the high 90’s—combined with poor air quality and no rain. What was remarkable was that I didn’t see much drought stress. I looked at my numbers, we used 63% of the water of an average farm in the west—17 times the vegetable output in the US. My lowest soil organic matter is 7%, most of my farm is 9%. That soil organic matter really helps with water retention and nutrition.”
According to USU Extension in Utah, soils along the Wasatch Front average 1.5% organic matter content — relatively low compared to soils in other areas of the country.
Soil organic matter increases where the decomposition of added natural materials is high. James uses a lot of bone meal, blood meal, feather meal, all of which are waste products of other industries running in the city where Green Phoenix Farm is located.
The approach he explained is to “create our own microclimates as farmers. I use shade cloth a little bit. What works better for me is that everything is going out early in low tunnels. I put my tomatoes, peppers, eggplants etc in April. People usually plant around Mother’s Day. By then my plants are 2-3ft tall and totally bushy with leaves. By the time the heat hit the soil was shaded. I’ve been trying to rely on the plants to shade the soil themselves. Bigger plants are more resilient.
A lot of the perennials and a lot of the beneficial insects and pollinators are getting kind of confused. It’s freezing and single digits, and suddenly in the 50’s. Being ready in a pinch to modify that environment. Just having that healthy soil in the first place.
I’ve noticed that the plants I’ve been breeding and saving seed from are doing better and better. Marketmore Cucumber and Black Beauty Zucchinis are at 7 years, and they’re doing well. Normally cucurbit leaves wilt every day. My zucchinis were just…. woosh! Strong. The wilting isn’t about stress, they’re just repositioning to avoid too much sun. They’re deflecting solar energy typically, but it makes me happy to see these eat it up!”
Katie Painter of City Garden, in Garden City, Idaho said that this last summer was “the hottest season since I’ve been in Idaho. I came in 2008. A lot of things got ripe later. We’re in a small space, we can give plants as much water as they need—with water they showed a response. We usually grow a lot of tomatoes. How well the tomatoes do seems to be an indicator of how well the season is going. They came late and we didn’t get as many.
We grow flowers for the co-op, including the Crackerjack Marigolds, last year—we’d grown a bunch the year before. We wouldn’t have gotten as much this year, they flowered later, and sometimes it gets cold and there’s no seed. I’m starting them in the greenhouse early this year.
Last year wasn’t a good year for bees, they got stressed last year. They fly 2 miles to eat. We’re near the river and there’s a lot to eat, but we didn’t take much honey, in fact we fed them more.
I enjoyed the summer 2 summers ago. This last one was so hot… What do you do to mitigate that when it’s 106?
This is one of the coldest winters I’ve experienced here, consistently.”
The cold weather system in Southern Idaho was strong enough this season to redirect storms that would have brought some precipitation unfortunately.
At Affinity Farm in Moscow, Idaho, Kelly Kingsland noted that “We definitely had a heat wave. In July we had an unprecedented heat 109. Then night temperatures were incredibly low—and those affected the seeds. It’s the variability that makes it harder.
Then there was smoke. We’ve really seen how smoke in the air affects photosynthesis. It took us a couple of years to really understand what was happening. We plant a bed of greens every year for market. It’s predictable, every week we’d take a bed of lettuce to market. But now it’s unpredictable….to visually see that slow down and understand what’s happening. It’s important to buy adapted and appropriate seeds for your climate. If you have a crop that’s marginal in your climate and you have smoke and it slows that down, you’re not going to have that crop. It’s a surprising outcome.”
With heat comes the concern for water shortages. “Drought is also going to affect us. It’s worrisome. There was a class being taught up here about how to create watering systems that use less water. But you know what they’re probably going to say? Use a bunch of plastic! I think we tend to think ‘Dripline! That’s a way to conserve water!’
Externalize from the cost of where that plastic comes from. We’re in a pickle. Humans, Americans, we’re up against things we don’t really have answers for.
We need to conserve water, but what are we going to do with all this plastic and who’s it going to cost?
We use drip tape. We use hoop houses and landscape fabric, there is a lot of plastic that goes into farming. There’s no changing exactly. It’s important to look at it and consider… no hoop house? No tomatoes. Compromise...?
Even clear plastic affects how much light get through. I don’t know of any fabric that lets light through, that’s not plastic, that holds in heat. Night time temps are our limiting factor. We’re in the 5b growing zone, it’s changing, it’s been changed. It was solidly 6 before, but it’s now 5b or 6a.
We use a lot of landscape fabric, there’s white fabric that’s more expensive, but we’ll use it on heat sensitive crops. We spray clay, an or organic substance, dolomite, that can be sprayed on leaves to deter bugs. We’ve been spraying it on our landscape fabric to make it more white to deflect heat. Using fabric is kind of a new thing. We put fabric down in June for the squash to reduce heat stress right after transplant.
We bought dolomite clay because we heard that you could put it on the hoop house. We decided we didn’t want to put that much clay on the the ground. So we mix it with our dirt and use that, to let light in, and block some. A lot of farmers use that trick, but a lot of gardeners don’t."
Purple Sage Farms, Middleton, Idaho “The heatwave that we experienced through June/July was definitely a big climatic challenge. We noticed our crops were more susceptible to pests and disease because they were so stressed from the heat. Our peppers, flowers, and herbs were definitely impacted significantly and produced much less than anticipated/than usual. We are seeing more and more extreme weather and storms, which are something that are more and more common with climate change. We can plant thousands of peppers or head lettuce and then have the crop almost completely destroyed by one extreme storm. Smoke from fires is also a challenge as it blocks the sun for crops, makes the heatwaves more intense, and creates a stressful environment for beneficial insects and pollinators.”
Learn more about the pollinator hedgerow at the farm that was planted in collaboration with the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides. In this article, Purple Sage shares a list of all the amazing native and drought-tolerant plants they have been growing at the farm.
Photos by Arlie Sommer:
Farmers Mike and Jackie Sommer pose in front of blooming valerian at Purple Sage Farms.
A bee lands on False Golden Aster, growing in the pollinator hedgerow at Purple Sage Farms.
It takes courage to face what is happening and what looks to be coming, but doing so allows us to prepare. Coming together and sharing ideas, strategies, and adaptations offers us possibilities we may not see on our own. We are stronger together!
- Add organic matter to soil
- Pay attention to what’s happening in the garden, water plants as needed
- Implement shading strategies
- Take care of the bees and plant pollinator-attracting flowers!
- Consider drought tolerant varieties
- Support your local farmers!