Every so often, a season on the farm ends with the general agreement that "we won't see a season like this past one perhaps ever again in our lives....." Our Crystal City orchard received over fifty inches of rain during the growing season; on average we receive twenty one inches of rain during the entire twelve month year. Over a ninety day period beginning in late April, it rained or misted almost every single day.
For a non-farmer, rainy weather is little more than a nuisance during the rush hour commute, and possibly an inconvenient imposition on weekend plans. If, however, you are in the business of taking care of trees, then continuous rain is a quite larger demon: it is something that modifies your environment and prevents you from carrying out the tasks that make up your livelihood. During the greater part of the period when the young nuts were beginning to develop on the trees, the saturated wet ground prevented us from entering the fields with our tractors and sprayers. As a result, we were unable to provide a modicum of care to the pecan trees, and insects and disease had a free pass to inflict damage at will on our developing leaves and nuts.
Our harvest will begin in earnest next week, and the current state of the crop would discourage even the most wild eyed optimist. The predominate variety that we grow is the Wichita nut, and this years crop has been hard hit by scab, a bacterial disease that is spread by the constant splashing of raindrops on the nuts and leaves. Many of the nuts have scab related damage over more than fifty percent of the nut shuck, and most of these nuts will be inedible. We will have to separate out the damaged nuts before we send the crop to the shelling plant, and thus the total poundage of nuts that we produce this year will be greatly reduced.
We are not smart enough to know, or even to hazard a guess, as to whether or not this years abnormal rainfall is somehow related to global climate change, or if it is within the bounds of the expected possible hundred year rainfall. In the past twenty years, we have never had this much rain, so frequently and so intensely. A low pressure system sat over our part of south Texas for months on end, and it seemed to drag every bit of moisture in the Western Hemisphere to the storm clouds over our orchard.
Of course, there will be some longer term benefits for the farmers in our region: the local reservoir that supplies irrigation water to our area is full, our river is flowing strongly, and the aquifer that supplies our water wells has been completely recharged. These blessings will be greatly appreciated in the coming years, as the fight over water in south Texas continues between the suburbia/carwash builders and the people who produce food for the world's growing population (And given the melt down in subprime mortgages, I think the suburbia builders may be in for a well deserved hiatus. Destroying the planet one subdivision at a time is hard work!)
All is not lost this year, as we have three other varieties of pecan that seem to have taken all the extra rain in stride. Our Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Desirable pecan trees all have full loads, and the nuts appear to have excellent quality. Although these trees make up less than half of our acreage, they do ensure that we will have some organic crop to sell to the many people who call us looking for organic pecan halves and pieces. As an insurance policy, they ‘paid off' this year, but it comes at a cost: on average, a Wichita tree will produce twice as many nuts as any one of these varieties.
This winter, as the great rainy season of 2007 fades from our mind, we will be ramping up one of the most important projects that we have undertaken at Rio Grande Organics. Over the past few winters, we have been experimenting with various cover crops to try and determine suitable plantings for our orchard soil type. Cover crops are generally members of the clover family or the vetch family, and as they grow during the winter, the plants take nitrogen out of the air and convert it to a usable form in the soil. By using cover crops in the winter, we will no longer have to provide nitrogen fertilizer to our trees in the spring. All of the nitrogen that they need will be ‘fixed' in the soil during the winter by the clover growing around the dormant tree.
Cover crops were always grown by farmers prior to WWII as a way of providing fertility to their spring crops of corn, cotton or tobacco. After the war, as inexpensive fertilizer from chemical plants became readily available, farmers stopped going to the trouble of planting and caring for a winter crop of yellow clover. It was much easier to simply spread cheap granulated fertilizer over the fields in early spring ahead of the seed planter. The knowledge of what cover crops worked in which soil types in south Texas has long been lost. Only with the recent price spike in fertilizer, which is mainly derived from natural gas, have farmers once again sought out suitable legumes to plant in their fields after harvest. Many of the plant varieties that we have tested over the past few years have actually been imported to this country from Australia, as their researchers have been leaders in the development of self-regenerating legumes for decades. We have had good results with four different plants, and this winter we will be planting various mixtures of these plants over a couple hundred acres of orchard. Our research will continue, as it is important to find a plant that will reseed itself year after year; a legume that has to be reseeded every year is not a great advantage over traditional fertilizer.
The search for a perfect cover crop will proceed this winter, and like so many other projects on a farm, the probability of reaching a conclusive solution is not great. Weather conditions and insect patterns change every year, and a promising clover this winter may fail to do much next year. It will only be after many successful winters that we will be able to say that we have a cover crop that works. But that, in a nutshell, is what farming is all about: an ongoing battle against nature and economic forces to profitably produce food that people want to eat. And as we carefully look over a trailer load of our nuts at the end of a harvest day, we will be thankful that we get to spend our time taking care of trees, and we will look forward to the challenges that next year brings.