Sunday, June 3, 2007

Water, water everywhere....

It rains, again and again. My hay supplier prays for drought so he can cut and bale. I schedule volunteer work days for my days off, it rains that morning, and the volunteers make other plans for the day. The potatoes still aren't all planted, and Mom and Dad delivered my 200 tomato plants Thursday. The bright side is, I haven't had to water the plants despite their tiny pots!

The days are in the 80's; the nights are cool; the rain is bountiful; the soil is well-drained and fertile; there is nothing to limit the growing of things...except that the main bank of seeds in the ground are weed seeds, not vegetable seeds. I wish--hope upon hope--that I'd had time to plant more, weeks ago. But my years of farming experience tell me, in a small faint whisper almost drowned by my impatience, that God has His hand in all of this, and all will be well.

Whenever (that is to say, several times annually) I panic about my failure to get things planted on a timely basis, I think of the summer early in my farming career that I put my last tomato plants in the ground on July 4, just "on principle" to be able to truthfully tell my mother I had planted all the plants she lovingly grew for me. Who would expect to harvest anything from those plants, especially with no irrigation? Sometimes all that drives me is my motto, "If I don't plant it, it CERTAINLY won't grow!"

It did not rain for 6 weeks after the 4th of July that year. The July plants, having been seriously stunted in their tiny pots, were small and didn't need much water, so they came through the drought without missing a day's growth. But the growers who got their plants in "on time" and irrigated them simply couldn't put enough water on their mature, fruiting plants during August to keep them alive and producing. My early-planted tomatoes languished, their height and vigor (or lack thereof) graphically displaying their distance from the roots of the neighbor's trees 50' to the west of the garden. For most of the fall, I was pretty much the only grower with tomatoes for sale at the Farmer's Market. It was an important lesson.

The theory of driving the bus full time and working the farm looks possible on paper, but the turn-around between Farmer's Market ending at 11 a.m. and needing to leave the farm for work by 12:15 just doesn't work in practice, even with the help of a dedicated apprentice who puts things away and washed up after market. She's still working through all the mistakes that one has to make in order to learn this trade, and I'm not there to double-check things.

When I arrived home at 9:00 this evening, I heard the ominous sound of the water pump running. Let anyone argue with me that radio, TV, etc. should be allowed in the house--they argue in vain! Background sound would have drowned out the soft, steady thrum of the pump in the basement.

The water pump running when no one has been home for hours can simply mean that the toilet is leaking, the sheep have just had a thirsty moment and the automatic waterer cycled to refill their tank, the water softener is going through its "back flushing" cycle--something normal like that. But I always stop and listen, after checking the toilet. And tonight the pump did not stop.

A leaky hydrant or shut-off, a hole in a hose, a waterer knocked out of a water tank by jostling sheep--these are the most common causes of an incessant pump. I respond to the running pump by making a tour of the hydrants.There was enough daylight left--twilight, really--to see that the hydrant that supplies the hose to the washhouse where we clean vegetables and market equipment had been left on, as I expected. I checked the hydrant...not leaking at any of the connections: a miracle, a good thing, I'm pleased. Probably the sprayer in the wash house is leaking...but no, to my amazement.

I might have missed seeing the problem in less light. But the pale sky reflected clearly in the broad puddle around the rams' water tank, stark against the black of the wet muddy ground in the twilight.

I had filled the rams' tank earlier this week, switching on the branch of the 4-hose manifold that supplies a hose that runs far across the back yard to the obscure tank. The apprentice has no involvement in the care of the rams, and wishes none. The hose is woven into the fence so that it is permanently aimed into the tank. All I have to do to top up their tank is turn on the hydrant, open that branch of the manifold, and turn off the hydrant 10 or 15 minutes later. Of course, I was in a hurry to get to work on time, so I just turned off the hydrant without shutting off the hose that goes to the rams' tank.

Yesterday I was in a similar hurry to get everything done before I had to leave for work when I turned the hydrant on to wash lettuce for market. How frustrating that the water pressure was so low! But the apprentice was in the house washing eggs, and I assumed (let me know if you don't know the joke about what THAT does...) that was the cause of the low water pressure. And of COURSE the pump was running when I went in the house and she wasn't running water at all...I had the sprayer set to a steady trickle so that it would fill the huge commercial stainless steel sink slowly during the time I was picking the first few varieties of lettuce.

I have a habit of "always" checking the manifold for unnecessary open branches when I turn the hydrant on...partly because I've caused a few flood puddles myself, and partly because I've blasted cold water into my boot more than once from an open hose-less branch, and partly because Murphy's Law says that I'll get all the way into the wash house only to discover that ALL the branches were closed, including the one I needed, and I'll have to make another round trip to the hydrant. So I should have caught the open branch to the ram pen then.

But the apprentice hasn't learned that habit. I can't blame her. I haven't taught her. It's so much a habit, I don't even think about it. This farming is a hard job to teach because there are so many "simple", "obvious", interrelated things that one simply forgets one knows/does. And if I remember and try to tell everything I know--everything I'm thinking about and paying attention to as I go through the motions of operating the vast, complex living machine that is the farm....then it so easily comes across to the novice that I'm overstating the obvious, assuming she has no common sense, overwhelming her with a million little inconsequential details. The eyes glaze over after the first 15-minute introductory lecture on how to operate a water hydrant...and that's just the warm weather version, and none of the repair and maintenance.

Yesterday the apprentice remembered to turn off the hydrant before she left.

Today, she didn't.

And no one was there to hear the pump running all day, pumping a shameful amount of potable water onto the ground. A sin against all the world's peoples who must walk hours a day to carry the few precious muddy drops that will sustain them until tomorrow! I am glad I don't have a head for numbers; otherwise I'd be tempted to self-flagellate by calculating the exact number of gallons that have been drawn from the alluvial flow under the farm, only to be immediately sent back through the sandy soil.

If I had any doubts about the wisdom of my recent decision to take some extended time off from the full-time bus driving, they are gone, washed into the flooded Kansas River by human error and lack of a back up system.

It took me decades to begin to understand the saying, "The best fertilizer is the farmer's shadow." This is what it means: One must be present to cast a shadow; one must be present to attend to the sound of the pump humming in the distance. Without the farmer's presence, things do not seem to go as well....

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