Farming in the winter in Northern California presents all kinds of challenges, almost all of them weather-related. Winter is wet and cold — at least, it used to be. The days are short and sometimes the sun never comes out, so plants grow very slowly. Our fields are muddy all the time, which makes harvesting and washing produce more time consuming. We never know when it will dry out enough to plant or cultivate, and even when it does, it’s usually still just a little too wet.
On the flip side, we don’t have to irrigate. Irrigation is a big task at Terra Firma during the spring, summer, and fall. It’s a constant source of stress, especially when it’s hot: are the plants getting enough water?
For the last two and a half years, however, there has been little rain in the winter and we have been irrigating all year round. Our primary water source is surface water from Lake Berryessa. In the past, it has always been available for us on the rare occasion that we needed to irrigate during the winter.
Last year in late September, however, we received notice from the irrigation district that due to the drought, no water would be delivered after October 15th. We had already planted the majority of our winter crops. Our backup winter water source was two old wells that were not up to the task of irrigating on a daily basis through a warm, dry winter. We signed up to have a new well drilled and were told they might be able to start in March. And we stopped planting.
We went into fall last year with our fingers crossed that the two old wells would hold until rain came. We lucked out with two big storm cycles that dumped a total of 18 inches of rain on our area in December and February. In between the storms, the two wells were able to provide enough water. But in March — just a few days before the irrigation district started deliveries again — one of them failed completely.
Our new well was completed in July, and just yesterday we finished installing the pump in it and connecting it into the irrigation system. When the irrigation district shuts off the water in two weeks, we will switch over to using it and the plants won’t miss a day of water.
Right now there is near uniform agreement among meteorologists that a strong El Niño exists and that much of California will see above average rainfall this winter. To me, though, the fact that we at Terra Firma are finally 100% prepared for a warm, dry winter essentially guarantees that we will have our wettest winter in 10 years. My forecast is for our brand spanking new well and pump to sit idle for most of this winter, and probably the next as well when La Niña comes along.
Like many things in agriculture, wells are a long-term investment whose benefits are mostly reaped by later generations of farmers and eaters. The wells that we replaced were 65 and 80 years old, respectively. I hope our new well is still irrigating crops in 2100.