As springtime blooms across the northern hemisphere, we eagerly prepare for our fifth season of planting. Here in California, there’s never a “normal” year — only a drought year or a flood year. 2023 has definitely been the latter, with severe flooding that serves as a stark reminder of the inevitable adversity we face. Yet, even in the face of such challenges, life finds a way to flourish.
Jack Norton, our Head of Cultivation at Terpene Belt Farms, shares his expertise on the meticulous preparation required for successful field cultivation and how we’re adapting to the unique challenges of this year’s growing season. From the ever-changing weather patterns to the latest farming developments, there’s always something new to discover when it comes to California agriculture.
The aftermath of a very wet winter: Waiting for the soil to dry
Perfect conditions never made a skilled farmer.
Water — a crucial resource for farming and irrigation — is essential for successful crops. But what happens when we’re overflowing with more water than we can hold? After several feet of ground saturation, water starts moving sideways and flooding occurs. Unfortunately, drying out the soil is mostly a waiting game, but there are a few techniques that can help us along the way.
Draining the water
First, we use drainage to our advantage. Flooding creates a lake out of our drainage pond at the bottom of the farm, which we must then pump back into the river. This process lowers the water table, allowing flood water to drain more efficiently.
Next, we can employ cover crops to speed up the drying process. Plants in the field, like weeds or cover crops, consume water and help to dry out the soil. While we’ve never sowed cover crops due to our bare-bones cycle, volunteers growing in the field are doing their part to suck up excess water.
We’ll conduct soil testing to determine if the soil is dry enough for planting. There are many ways to test for soil moisture, but a simple test involves grabbing a chunk of earth and squeezing it to see if it putties out like mud or if it starts to crumble. Another way is to stick a shovel in the ground and then turn it over to see if it comes clean off the shovel.
Once the soil is at the right moisture level, we also have to look at the forecast and figure out how many clear days are ahead. When the weather’s also on our side, we’re ready to prepare and shape the beds.
Tilling & shaping the beds
To turn a profit, we need to be smart about how we prepare our fields for planting. The key is to do most of the work ahead of time, ideally in the fall. By getting the beds ready early, we can focus on planting when the time is right and maximize our growing season. This also means we don’t need to rely on harmful chemical pesticides.
Preparing the beds involves two main steps: tilling and shaping. Tilling involves breaking up clods of earth and mixing them into the soil, while shaping creates wide and smooth raised beds for the plants to grow in. This helps keep the soil warm and provides a clear path for the tractor wheels.
When it’s time to plant, all we need is a quick touch-up of the beds with a light tillage tool. Doing the bulk of the work in the fall is also beneficial because winter rain can help break up the soil even more. This gives us a loose, friable soil come planting season, setting us up for success.
Planting Early = Larger Plants, Larger Yields
This year, we’re aiming to beat our personal record and plant earlier than ever before — ideally, in the first week of June. Why? Because early planting means bigger and better yields. When the plants have time to toughen up before the heat of summer hits, the warmth becomes a source of growth for them. Plus, early planting allows us to start harvesting earlier, giving us more time and money to complete other important field work come fall.
Unfortunately, we’ve had to contend with some wet weather that’s made things more challenging. But, we can’t control the weather, so we focus on what we can control: expert farming methods, equipment that’s ready to go, and meticulous preparations.
As we strive towards our planting goal, we’re reminded that farming is a delicate balance between planning and adapting to unforeseen circumstances. But with determination and a little bit of luck, we’re confident we can make this planting season the most successful one yet.