Last week had a decent stretch of dry weather that allowed us to squeeze in a few plantings before the arrival of March 1st — but just barely.   Even as recently as last Monday, it appeared unlikely that the fields would dry out enough for us to much.  Then Mother Nature gave us the gift of two windy nights.

Since January, it’s been so moist and muddy that even after a warm, sunny day, we would wake to a coating of heavy dew that was difficult to distinguish from the aftermath of a light rain (other times it was the aftermath of a light nocturnal rain).  Any drying of the soil from the previous day was at least partially undone, and we would have to wait until  11 a.m. or later to attempt to do any tractor work. The nighttime winds eliminate that problem, and allow the soil to progressively dry out from day to day.

By Monday morning we were preparing fields for our first tomato plants, which will be ready to plant mid-month.  By Tuesday afternoon, we were planting some potatoes.  Wednesday morning we started planting onions.  By Wednesday afternoon, I was able to plant some spinach, lettuce, arugula, kale and peas. Thursday morning we were able to get a few more tasks done before the rain returned around 10 a.m.

January and February are not particularly critical months for planting here, although the crops we plant have an important role in your CSA boxes later in the spring.  But March is a critical month, and we need lots of fields prepped and ready to plant.  Thankfully, we were able to get  quite a bit of that work done during this very short window in the weather — the first time since early December we were able to do so.

We are also getting a lot of help from the sheep.  When they started grazing our cover cropped fields in mid-February, it was about 100 mostly pregnant ewes but lambing season is here and the herd size has now swelled to almost 300.   Sheep are, of course, covered in wool and don’t mind the rain (although they don’t love strong wind).  They get moved every 3 or 4 days to a new section of  field after they have grazed down the weeds — which they eat first — and cover crop.  During the windiest storms, we move them into the pistachio orchard where there is a little more shelter.

Planted in November, the cover crops don’t grow much during the winter but once the days start to lengthen, they really take off.  During March, they will grow several feet taller before they begin to flower.  It’s important to either graze or mow the fields before they make seed, so it’s a good thing that the lambs grow with them, eating more pasture and drinking less of their mother’s milk each day.

While livestock production is a worldwide source of carbon dioxide pollution, the opposite is true here.  The 100% pasture-raised sheep in Terra Firma’s farming system are replacing several tasks that would otherwise be done by diesel-fueled tractors.  They also reduce the amount of fertilizer we need to apply to the fields, and actually convert the cover crops they are eating to more readily-available nutrients for our crops.  Moreover, by bringing sheep onto our farm, we are doubling the number of food crops that each acre produces.  If every acre of irrigated farmland in California were used for both grazing and crop production, it would dramatically cut the carbon footprint of agriculture in our state.

(Terra Firma does not manage the sheep ourselves, and we are not involved in livestock marketing or sales.  However, I would strongly encourage anyone who does eat meat to purchase lamb products from local producers.)

With all these other benefits the sheep convey,  it takes a wet year like this one to remind me of a more mundane one:  Sheep are waterproof, and “work” rain or shine.  And since they are lightweight compared to tractors, they don’t compact the soil much while they are grazing.  So even when it’s too wet to do anything else on the farm, they are still out there munching away.  And when the rain stops, the fields that they have grazed dry out much more quickly than fields that they haven’t.

Since mid-February,  the sheep have grazed about 10 acres.  They’ve got about 30 more acres to do before the cover crops starts to go to seed in mid-April, but they’ll have to speed up a bit as the plants are getting taller each day.  At some point, we hope it will dry out enough that we can get out there again with the tractors and help them  out.