Plan For Farm Water Concerns In A Changing Climate

Water is critical to life and essential on the farm. Water also stands to be an issue as our climate shifts, so plan now so you have enough (but not too much) water in the coming years.

by Zach Loeks
PHOTO: Deyan Georgiev/Adobe Stock

Considering the climate is shifting, it’s probably worth considering how to prepare your farm for coming uncertainty. There are a number of production aspects to consider, from water to soil management to crop choices to business strategies.

Today, we’ll focus on the very important consideration around water on the farm: too little, too much and maybe even both! 

Water is one of the most critical resources on the planet. Your annual and perennial crops must have water to thrive and survive.  Insufficient water in the soil will cause a crop to wilt and eventually die. Inadequate water will lead to a loss of yield and crop quality. 

Similarly, too much water is a bad thing. Waterlogged soils can become anaerobic and produce poor crop yields. If soil is too wet, you may not even be able to get into the field to plant or harvest. 

Capture & Store More Water

Develop strategies to capture and store water and easily distribute it to your plants around your farm. 

I like to create ponds in low-lying areas to hold water—this feels like a no-brainer. But you can also create ponds at higher elevation in strategic locations to capture spring runoff and soil seepage. 

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One simple, though potentially costly, idea is to install eavestroughs (gutters, essentially) to direct water into storage tanks from barns and houses.

Drip irrigation, flood irrigation and sprinklers all have merit for water distribution. Drip irrigation is lower cost and can also be very efficient, with minimal water lost to evaporation. The method, however, is less ideal on a large scale, and drip irrigation can get in the way when you need to cultivate for weeds. Sprinklers, on the other hand, can be easily avoided for mechanical cultivation. But they can also waste precious water.

One of the farmer’s best lines of defense is to improve soil’s capacity to hold water. This can be done through intensive cover cropping to increase the soil’s organic matter percentage and build better aggregation in the soil. Ironically this will also help the soil drain better when there is too much water. 

Dealing with Too Much Water

If you have too much water, you should improve the drainage in the soil on your farm to prevent flooding. For gardens and market gardens, raised Permabeds will help improve soil drainage by assisting in development of aggregates and better soil structure.

You should also strategize your crop selection for low-lying areas prone to seasonal flooding. If it already floods, it will likely flood more in the future. Maybe you can retire this area from annual crops and plant perennials that don’t mind getting seasonally wet feet (like elderberries). Hazelnuts have also performed well in less-than-ideal soils, and haskaps will also yield in low-lying clay soils. Alternative crops like sweetgrass can be an interesting addition to a farm’s output; sweetgrass does very well in wet soil.

Sometimes it is about planting crops in the fall, when it may be drier, then avoiding late starts in spring. Crops like winter grains or garlic avoid spring bottlenecks with uncertain weather.

Additionally, planting later may be a good idea. If the ground is saturated April through May, maybe a June planting of water-loving melons could be just the ticket. 

Climate change requires consideration for water—both too little and too much. Choosing when and what you plant; improving the soil; and understanding how to capture, store and release water for irrigation are some of the key considerations to make now so you’re ready for climate change effects in the coming years.

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