Talkin’ Watertown Blues

It’s cliche for a farmer to talk about the weather, but it’s been on my mind a lot.  And I have a few thoughts on how the clouds have affected our progress; thoughts that every shareholder of the farm should know.  So here goes.

The rain.  It’s a dictatorial force — something that gives orders from the tallest towers to its underlings below the skyline.  For example, the moisture we’ve received in the past couple of days has muddied the fields of dirt.  And with that muddiness comes obvious delays in our ability to prep beds through tillage because we’re working with living soil and we are trying our darndest not to destroy soil structure.  You might say, “hooplah — why is soil structure so important?  Just get my broccolis in the ground, damnit!”.  But that would go against our knowledge of the importance of soil structure.  It’s the arrangement of soil particles into a well-developed network that allows air and water to flow freely that is the cornerstone of a healthy soil.  I like to think of it this way — plants need everything we need to grow.  This includes oxygen, which their roots can’t extract from a waterlogged/compacted soil that can’t retain pores of air.  So that’s the rub on the rain of late.  In combination with our Italian stallion of a rotary tiller (that has been to the small engine repair shop twice this month), this splurge of precipitation has prevented us from doing a whole lot of work in the fields.

Ironically though, it was a lack of rain in the early part of this month and last that dictated that our early season crops would not germinate.  There just wasn’t enough soil moisture at 1/4 inch, 1/2 inch, or a full inch’s depth.  We designed and ordered an irrigation system to run 1800 gallons per hour and it was delivered piecemeal last month (if you can call 900 pounds of boxes on your mother’s doorstep piecemeal).  We even installed it without too much fuss.  Sure there were a good many trips to the local water hounds at Mountain Supply and A.G. Supply in Missoula, and the A.G. Supply out of Hamilton.  But that’s what new growers have to do because there aren’t enough of us out there to stock the shelves of a ‘Veggie Growers R Us’ or a ‘Small Farms Inc.’  Those places don’t yet exist.  But no matter.  We were able to get our irrigation system readied after a few days and we supported a few local businesses in the process.

Still, even with the irrigation in place, another hazardous stepping stone had us falling into the creek (or waterless ditch to be more precise) this spring.  Just down the road from us, there’s a main pipe that heads down from the mountains.  This metal instrument was struck by a fallen tree over the winter, and was discovered only a week or so before we’re legally allowed to pump water out of the creek.  And this wouldn’t have been an issue if not for this particular pipe being the one that delivers irrigation water to everyone in our community with a water right, including our landlords, the Zens.  Naturally, it needed repairing before it could do its job.  And the family that manages the pipe has been quite preoccupied with other tasks (including the college rodeo) — too busy to fix the break in the line and turn on the water.

This situation hasn’t affected every one neighbor in the same way.  How could it?  We don’t all grow the same things and we don’t all sell what we grow.  And so it’s plain to see the perennial pastures on either side of Highway 12 have been sending out tremendous shoots, because the stored water from the winter thaw has been all that forages of all shapes and sizes have needed for their early growth stages.  But at our place, the seeds in newly prepared seed beds wouldn’t germinate.  That’s not to say we stood idle with this water issue on our hands.

1. We reacted to the knowledge of busted pipe by planting successions of radishes, spinach, and peas.  We did so before we’d even contracted with a neighbor to do the plowing.  We knew no water could be distributed through drip lines to beds of transplanted kale and chard and lettuce heads.  So we didn’t bother planting these things because they wouldn’t have survived ’til harvest for the first few weeks of deliveries to CSA members.

We sowed these seeds in case spiraling clouds overtook the valley and cast many layers of shadows across the land.  Instead of feeling the ominousness of these shadows, we anticipated feeling an inner warmth brought about by the sight of water droplets infiltrating the soil crusts later left by the mouldboard plow and discing implements.


We had this feeling this week, to be sure.  But because the rains came so late, we won’t have a harvest for 30+ families the first week of June.

2. ‘Plan B’ was to transplant lettuce seedlings and seeds into our parents’ gardens.  Enough for a few weeks (over 80 heads) at least.  The bottom photo shows some of those 80 heads.  The top is a picture of my mom’s greens…

blog 5-18 siete

3. Then we started microgreens (photos to come) in order to offset the fact that many direct seeded crops won’t mature in time, either in the home garden or at the farm.

4. We also began hunting for perennial herbs to glean for farm members.  Here are the fruits of our search from left to right: fresh oregano, parsley, lovage, lemon balm, and sorrel.  ImageImage

All in all, moisture isn’t just a dictatorial power, crushing us with too much or too little rain (or too many mosquitoes).  I mean, we’ve all seen its ability to transform landscapes into sublime greens invisible to the Montanan’s eyes in the other 11 months out of the year.  You can only take in so much lodgepole pine greens, you know?  This is a great moment to open your eyes and stare out in wonder, even if it’s only at the quack grass.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that the precipitation in the West can be a sign of this planet’s benevolence as much as its cruel nature.  We’re learning to live by it more and more.  And next year, I promise, we’ll be in a better position to work out these early season kinks so that we provide the $25 in value for the first weeks of June.  The early season woes I’ve described will bring a sparse collection of produce, but once we’ve worked out the kinks, every member who’s trusted us to fill their table will be rewarded.  The crops below are coming in strong.


Rest assured, we’ve overplanted (by 25% in many cases) the mid- to late-season crops because we know that these are the veggies a) kids chomp hardest into … b) heirloom-loving adults love most … and c) families can preserve through canning, freezing and root cellaring.  These are the crops that will help us offset the low delivery weights in the early season.  By August and September, each week’s dollar value will be sky high!

Just you wait (for more of this rain and the food she brings)!


Max Smith

Farm Manager

Missoula Grain and Vegetable Co.


4 thoughts on “Talkin’ Watertown Blues

  1. Every farmer is like a doctor: they both need patience. As a subscriber, I didn’t buy a share of a grocery store–I bought into a farm and a farmer, neither of which come with a guarantee other than the promise of hard work, informed decision-making and the need for a lot of trust. I am still feeling good about my farmer.

  2. oh very punny Geoff!!!

    Max, I really enjoyed reading your artfully written blog. I happen to be in a big city right now, hearing sirens, and your writing makes me long for the land!
    Alas, can’t control the weather, glad it rained and your lettuce looks wonderful.
    Carry on, munch later,
    Sarah- future eater

  3. Max – You are an inspiration. Thank you for all your hard work on our behalf. We have confidence in you and the farm.

  4. This is the first year in decades I haven’t had a big garden. Miss the garden — but not the anxiety over the weather. So glad y’all are carrying on. Thanks for doing good work & keeping in touch.

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