January 25, 2016

The Science of Farming


I have a soil thermometer that rides around in the cab of my truck. My vegetable books have tables of the minimum soil temperatures required for plants to grow. Right now, the soil is at about 38 degrees F; winter crops will creep along at this temperature (broccoli, peas, turnips, beets, lettuces, bok choy),
but planting summer seeds would not work right now. The magic number for summer crops is 50 degrees F. When the soil temperature creeps into the 50’s  – and we are safe from freezes  – that is spring.

As I get more experience going through the seasons, I have noticed that I look at my job as one big science experiment. I have soil, energy from the sun, water and seeds. This combination, used in the right order with the right timing, sets into action one huge chemical reaction that results in food. The scientist’s job is to attempt to control all of the elements as best as possible, making the chemical reaction predictable and consistent.

This time of year, I have my little seeds in the greenhouse where energy of the sun is captured and directed specifically at my baby plants. If this isn’t enough energy to keep the soil above 50 degrees F, then more energy is added by way of an electric heater. All this is done in an effort to time having plants ready to put into the field when the weather has turned, so that the sun is providing enough energy for plants outside to grow. Timing is everything.

The other part of the equation is trying to avoid having plants in a sensitive period of their lives during the heat of the summer. In Capay, it is expected that there will be a heat wave during the summer that brings the temperature into the teens of the hundreds, and this can last for several days. These are not conditions that plants like. Tomato flowers fall off of the vines without ever setting fruits; peppers are scorched by the sun and shrivel up into brown masses; greens melt and everything on the farm feels miserable. Timing the growth of the tomatoes so that all of the fruit is set before this heat wave is important. It is also important to time the peppers so that their fruit does not grow
vulnerable to the sun until after this hot period.

Of course, it is impossible to accurately time this every year. Farming turns into a game of odds, bets and luck. There are times and methods for doing things throughout the year that maximize the likelihood of success for each crop. There are also hunches and flukes that will allow you to get away with certain things this year, knowing that during other years it would have resulted in disaster. And sometimes, no matter what you do, disaster strikes.

This week, I sit making my plan of attack for the summer and fall to come. It is this time of year that I look back and think about the most methodical ways to approach next year’s production of our 40 plus crops.