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Tillage, drought and their child: disaster

Paul Kaiser, Singing Frogs Farm
Paul Kaiser, Singing Frogs Farm

Across the arid West, farmers and ranchers are sharing tools and stories of resilience. Farmer Paul Kaiser discusses how he and his family are preparing for drought on their farm, Singing Frogs Farm, in Sonoma County, CA. 

On January 17th, 2014 California Governor Jerry Brown announced a statewide drought emergency. Despite recent March rains, seven of the last eight years have been very dry in California, and we are currently experiencing the driest year on record. But it is not just the climate that is leading to trouble with drought, but the way we manage our soil.

In the 1910s and 1920s, the widespread use of tillage equipment was the greatest root cause of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s when drought and high winds became the norm.

Deep rooted prairie grasses and perennial ground cover, which normally can withstand these conditions, had been plowed under. Tillage and bare ground between crops had nearly eliminated soil organic matter and with it the strength of the soil.

Why is this important? For every single percentage point of soil organic matter (SOM) in the soil, an acre of land can hold an additional 16,500 gallons of plant-available water. The native soils on our land in northern California used to have 6% to 10% SOM which could hold 100,000 to 165,000 gallons of water per acre. Now these very same soils that have been tilled down to 0.5% to 2% SOM are only able to hold a mere fraction of that. In addition, every single pass of tillage equipment reduces soil moisture level by the equivalent of one-quarter to one-half inch of rainfall.

Paul's children Lucas and Anna harvesting rainbow chard on the farm
Paul’s children Lucas and Anna harvesting rainbow chard on the farm

A high level of soil organic matter not only builds drought resiliency, but it is also a strong buffer against all types of erosive forces. A tilled soil with low SOM not only can’t hold water, but with the necessary weeks and months of bare soil during the tillage and field prep season the result is the perfect recipe for disaster. As we head into our summer dry season during this extreme drought, we should learn from the past and turn our attention to building and protecting our soils.

One of the most important ways we protect our soil is to disturb it as little as possible. At Singing Frogs Farm, our non-mechanized no-till vegetable operation brought our SOM from 2.1% up to 6.5% in five short years. This has enabled us to reduce our water use from 2 to 3 hours of drip every-other-day to less than 90 minutes per week during peak summer heat—even for delicate crops like butter lettuces.

We also protect and build SOM by keeping the soil covered as often as possible. Any bare soil exposed to the sun and wind is slowly dying. We use transplants rather than direct seeding to greatly reduce the time our soil is exposed to sun and wind, thereby increasing overall moisture retention. Less exposure of bare soil also reduces temperature fluctuations in the soil thereby keeping soil biology happier and more robust.

Paul's family picking strawberries on the farm
Paul’s family picking strawberries on the farm

With typical tillage systems, the duration of bare, exposed soil between two sequential standing crops might be 5 to 11 weeks. At Singing Frogs Farm, the time from the harvest of one crop to the transplanting the following crop in the same field row is only a couple of hours. Using floating row covers also greatly reduces evapotranspiration from our soil and crops, making for a more humid, stable growing condition and dramatically less water use. And, of course… mulch, mulch, mulch!

A third key method we use to increase drought resiliency is by planting native, drought tolerant, and pollinator-friendly hedgerow plants in and around our fields. These help reduce wind erosion and evapotranspiration but they are also excellent habitats for beneficial insects which improve pest control and crop pollination services. Since establishing our native hedgerows, our cucumber production per field bed has more than doubled due to improved pollination; meanwhile, our crop losses to aphids has been reduced to nearly zero because of healthy populations of beneficial insects that overwinter in the perennial hedgerow habitats.

If you think a non-mechanized, no-till, transplant-based farm can’t possibly work on the field scale – it may not have to. Singing Frogs Farm grosses well over $100,000 per crop acre per year through our CSA, Farmers’ Markets & Restaurant sales. We only need a couple acres to make ends meet. Staying small-scale is what has allowed us to meet the challenges in this time of drought.

Paul Kaiser is a leader in ecological agriculture who was recently recognized with a local Leadership in Sustainability Award as well as an international Farmer/Rancher Award for his work in biodiversity and pollinator conservation on his farm, Singing Frogs Farm. Paul began his career in agroforestry in the tropics working to convert degraded lands into economically viable and biologically diverse and resilient farmland. Since then Paul has received dual Masters Degrees in Natural Resources Management and Sustainable Development. In the last eight years, Paul and his wife Elizabeth, have married sustainable land management with local food production at their biodiverse, notill, and family friendly farm in Sebastopol, CA.
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