A lot has changed since the first humans figured out that you could stick a seed in the soil and grow food. But one thing has remained the same: with a few exceptions*, you can’t plant in wet soil.
For many millennia, farmers have had to wait for the soil to dry out after a rain or after the snow melts. There has never been a way to speed the three elements of the process — sun, wind and time — and there still isn’t. There are engineering fixes to make a soil dry faster: installing drainage pipes under it, or sloping it so that water runs off instead of pooling. But even those expensive preventative actions won’t allow you to somehow flick a switch and turn the soil moisture setting from “too wet” to “perfect”.
Different types of soil dry out differently, and at different speeds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture rates soils by their suitability for farming, and the highest rankings are reserved for ground that dries out evenly and steadily — while still holding enough water in reserve for plants to use. Sand dries quickly, clay slowly. Too much of one or the other makes the field less useful for farming. A perfectly balanced soil is called a “loam”.
Depending on the time of year, a loamy soil with a little more sand in it will dry out a few days to a week sooner than one with a little more clay. This can make a dramatic difference for farmers in a year like 2017 when it has hardly stopped raining for more than a week.
The marriage of water and soil produces a normally short-lived offspring with characteristics of both elements: Mud. Rain turns soil into mud almost instantly. Soil is loose, friable, crumbly. Mud is sticky, slippery, even greasy. There are a dozen reasons why a farmer can’t do anything when the soil is wet, and most of us learn them quickly if we don’t already know better.
On farms across California this year, the muddy spawn of earth and water settled in fields in late November, and hasn’t left since. Even when it has stopped raining, it hasn’t been really dry. There’s been no wind to blow the moisture away even when the sun dries the soil out a little, so it returns each night as heavy dew that leaves the ground as wet as a light rain. We’ve had only a handful of days between storms when we were able to get into our fields with the tractors to mow the lush weeds and prepare fields for spring planting.
Now, our first tomato plants are ready to leave the greenhouse and go outside, and we will be planting them tomorrow and Friday. Of all the crops we grow, they are the most tolerant of not-quite dry soil. But we’ll need another week of dry weather for the ground to dry out enough to plant anything else. And that doesn’t look likely to happen.
In the meantime, we’ll be doing what farmers have done for thousand of years: waiting for the soil to dry.
* — A handful of food crops are intentionally planted in flooded fields, including rice and taro root.