Dryland Farming

The last two years I worked on the Quinn Organic Farm in Big Sandy, Montana experimenting with dryland vegetable production. Dryland farming is simply farming without irrigation. It's common for small grains, but certainly not in vegetable production. Superfarmer Bob Quinn wanted to try growing high-value crops on his 3,000 acre dryland farm and decided to experiment with vegetables (as well as continue to grow organic wheat, safflower, green manures, sunflowers, and other crops). I was hired to help him and we planted a few acres of a wide variety of vegetables. Many of the vegetable types were direct-seeded early in the spring and some were started in a greenhouse as per usual (tomatoes, eggplant, onions). Once the plants were in the field from the greenhouse, we stopped watering them (and in the case of the direct-seeded ones, we didn't water them ever). We kept them well-weeded so there was little competition for the available water. We also planted them further apart than you would in a normal irrigated setting (for example 6' between tomatoes and 6-8" between onions). The average precipitation for the farm is between 11-13". During the growing season, there is anywhere from 6-8" of rainfall. It's been remarkable seeing the results of these experiments. I don't think we give plants enough credit for what they can survive. Most did pretty well and all made it through the season. Many of the vegetables didn't produce as much as if they had been watered, but they produced nonetheless. We grew sweet corn, summer squash, winter squash, pumpkins, leeks, onions, potatoes, black corn, eggplant, bush beans, and green peppers.

We also experimented in a saline seep by planting a wide variety of vegetables the first year (2007) and just tomatoes and onions the second year (2008). A saline seep is an area where the water table is very high, but also high in salts and other minerals. One is created on a farm when water falls to the ground and passes through soil that doesn't have enough vegetation to soak it up. The water leaches out salts and minerals before hitting an impermeable layer and flowing downhill where it rises to the surface, evaporates and leaves a white crust on the ground. The soil is full of moisture, but it's salty and doesn't grow much of anything. The first year we planted in straight rows and the second in semi-circle arcs, which more closely mimics the salt concentration of the seep (imagine a target with the inner circles the highest in salt and outer circles with less salt concentration). We wanted to know if vegetables could access the water and also deal with the high salt content. We got mixed results - the onions did pretty well though were inconsistent across the seep, and the tomatoes suffered quite a bit of blossom end rot. I've been saving seeds from the tomatoes and hope to have salt-tolerant varieties in a few generations.

This year, on my own farm, I will continue to experiment with dryland vegetables on a smaller scale (since I'm now trying to make a living from my vegetable production), likely with potatoes, winter squash, and a few tomato varieties. I saved seed from the open-pollinated tomato varieties the past 2 seasons and hope to develop dryland-specific varieties over the course of a few generations. Water use/disuse and water as a waning natural resource are discussed but certainly not enough, in my opinion. Fuel prices (peak oil) and climate change usually dominate the conversation and overshadow impending (and presently occurring) water shortages. Experimenting with different crops and water use (without using GMO technology) is essential. Stay tuned for how my experiments progress. Bob Quinn will also continue his extended variety trials as well. See www.QuinnOrganic.com.


I made a brief appearance at the Farm yesterday. I was in Conrad to open up a business checking account after getting the okay from the Secretary of State's Business Services Division on the creation of the actual business. I was a bit worried since I've been jumping all over the place in this process of starting the farm - buying seeds, then filing with the state to start a business, then preparing the greenhouse, then searching for financing, etc. I'd been telling everybody the Farm's name, bought the URL, and set up the website before the State said the Farm's name was okay. I'm not following any logical order in all this since each step takes some time. While I'm waiting for one thing, I start the next, so before I actually had a legitimate business or start-up capital, I'd already bought seed, started working on the greenhouse, and built a website (I still don't have start-up capital).

I just ordered a pallet of organic potting soil from Peaco out of Big Arm, Montana. Within one week, I will finally begin to plant in the greenhouse, which is a bit later than I'd like, but unfortunately I'm in Missoula through the weekend to wrap things up.

Anyway, I was at the Farm briefly and since there wasn't much new to shoot, I took this photo of a cow-pie littered field of barley stubble. This is where I will be planting emmer wheat (an ancient variety) and lentils. I couldn't help myself since I can't quite believe this will be greening up in just a few short months.

YES! Magazine features the Farm

YES! Magazine contacted me about a month ago as they were putting together an article on young farmers from across the country. My piece didn't make the magazine, but did make the YES! Magazine website. Check it out and check out the other farmers, too:


The photo was taken by my good friend Patrick Patterson with Grace the dog in the background.

More Greenhouse Prep

I spent another day prepping the greenhouse - mostly organizing and cleaning. There are lots of treasures buried in boxes, and since I think I was either a rat or a crow in a previous life, I was thoroughly enjoying myself finding all those knick-knacks that undoubtedly will come in handy some day. Clyde came out to help me fix up the walk out front. Things are looking really nice and I'm already picturing a group of us sitting out on the porch some cool summer evening, sipping a drink, admiring our healthy vegetables, ancient wheat and lentils - maybe the gobble of a turkey in the distance.

Notice the wonderful sun filtering through the fiberglass. Now the building just needs a few seedlings to be complete.

Bumper Sticker Activism

Some great finds in the greenhouse.

The View

This is the view, about 10 miles west of the farm. Not too shabby.

And So It Begins

We've begun work cleaning up the greenhouse. Now it's official: we're going to start our own farm this season (even before I've figured out all the details and logistics). The first photo is an outside shot of the greenhouse (the building to the right). The second shot is of the greenhouse before working on it. The third is of Court's brother and dad, Steve and Clyde, after we cleaned the place up a bit. The final shot is of the garden spot. Hard to believe it'll be full of tasty vegetables very soon.

The Low-Down

Courtney and I have been given an incredible opportunity to start our own farm back home in central Montana. We will be leasing 15 acres of David and Sharons' 260-acre farm just outside of Conrad. The ground has been organic for a long time, so no transition will be necessary. We will treat this first year as a trial year. If all goes well, we'll discuss long-term farm transition options. David's company, Timeless Natural Foods, will contract with us to grow some lentils and ancient wheat. We'll also have a 10-member vegetable CSA, sell at the Great Falls Farmer's Market, and raise heritage turkeys. Gobble, gobble.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...