For the last four years, growing vegetables in the Sacramento Valley has been quite similar to growing them in the deserts of Southern California, the source of the vast majority of the winter produce eaten in the U.S. There in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, it rarely rains and the winters are warm and mild.
It was easy to forget what farming in the winter here used to be like. This year has been a very gentle reminder.
One of the biggest problems we face in the winter is weeds. Plants love rain. Much more in fact than they like irrigation. Natural rainfall causes more weed seeds to sprout, and the weeds get bigger, faster.
There are only three methods of weed control on an organic farm — cultivating with a tractor, hoeing by hand, and dessicating with flames. All of them require a sustained period of dry weather to allow the soil to dry sufficiently and for the weeds to die. In the winter, a weed that is uprooted with a hoe will re-sprout if it stays in contact with wet or muddy soil, or if it gets rained on within a day or two after weeding.
This winter we have only had one week of dry weather between Thanksgiving and today, and unfortunately it was the week after Christmas when most of our staff was on vacation. The weeds have taken full advantage of the situation.
I used to consider our wet winters a limiting factor for how much we could grow during that season. If we only got a few dry days here and there, there was only so much weeding that we could get done. No point in planting crops only to see them disappear under the weeds.
But six of the last seven years have had a month long dry spell in the middle, mostly in January. And we’ve had plenty of time to get all the weeding done. And so each year, we’ve planted a little bit more in the winter.
Now here we are halfway through the rainy season, and there are fields where the crops are disappearing under a carpet of green. If it were to keep raining every week in February, we would be looking at losing much of our onion and garlic crop. Luckily, the forecast is for at least two weeks of dry weather that should allow us to get at least a good chunk of it weeded.
Perhaps the biggest irony is that despite the constant wet weather, we are still behind last season for our total rainfall to date here at the farm. It hasn’t rained a lot, it just has been constantly wet.
Get out and enjoy the sunshine for the next two weeks. We will be out in it as well, weeding. Finally.