Over the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time on rainy days looking over farm records for the past 16 years — as far back as I have them. Not once in that time period we were unable to plant a single crop for the entire month of March. Outside of the drought years, rain is fairly common for this time of year. We have an aspirational list of planting goals, but don’t always achieve them. And yet even in the wettest years — 2011, 2017 and 2019 — we planted a few fields.
But it was starting to seem like 2023 would be the “Year of No March Planting”. It takes more than a day or two of sunny weather to dry out the soil after it’s rained. Roughly speaking, it takes around 3 days for every inch of rain we receive, although that depends on the time of year and whether or not it’s sunny and/or windy. This month we’ve been getting 2-3 inches of rain every 5 days. The ground is not getting a chance to dry out, and there’s no long dry period in the forecast.
Our first planting of tomatoes is scheduled for planting every year the first week of March. Started in the greenhouse back in January, the plants can’t stay there forever. At a certain point, they get too leggy and root-bound to plant. And there’s a second planting scheduled for April 4th, which is rapidly approaching. Planting them both at the same time would mean having way too many tomatoes, all at once.
We even had a field that was ready for the tomatoes. During the dry weather back in February, we prepared the ground and covered the planting beds with plastic mulch that warms the soil and keeps it slightly drier than the uncovered soil between the beds.
Most of Terra Firma’s planting equipment is fairly small scale: the tractors we use for planting are relatively small and light. We even have a specialized tomato planter that doesn’t move any soil. But if the soil is still muddy and soft in the furrows between the beds, even that equipment gets bogged down. Worse, driving on soil when it is very wet destroys the soil structure, compacting it and making it even more likely to flood in the next rain.
With all this in mind last week, it was time to think outside the box. We took a tractor-mounted implement that we use for strawberry-planting, and turned it into a human-powered tool. With two people pulling it, it punched holes in the plastic mulch that was covering the soil so that others could plant into the holes.
To say that planting tomatoes by hand is inefficient is a vast understatement. With a tractor and three people, we can plant about 5 acres per day. Instead, it took 8 people a full day to plant two acres. And those people were working hard, on their hands and knees. At least the ground was soft.
We’ve got another short dry spell coming this week, and I’m planning on planting more tomatoes and some peppers — most likely by hand again. But that’s all we’re going to get done unless and until it stops raining for more than a few days at a time. The other crops we normally plant this time of year require the soil to be much drier.
Of course we are far from alone in this situation: all the farmland in Northern California is currently muddy and wet if not entirely underwater. Very few farm fields are being planted. And the rainy weather is expected to continue at least through the end of the month and into April.
We’re looking at a pretty unprecedented situation both here at Terra Firma as well as for much of California agriculture. The weather has us on our hands and knees…literally.