Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Farm Bulletin: Public Works Projects

When we city folk go to the farmers' markets, we see the end result of much work and planning, some of it happening months, if not years, beforehand. Farming takes hard, physical labor, and it's important to look deeper, to notice the berry-stained hands, the stiff backs, the cuts and bruises. I'm grateful to be able to post contributor Anthony Boutard's missives as a reminder of what it takes to grow the food that we put on our tables.

Farming is more than a pastoral activity: it also requires careful planning. As with any town or city, we rely on infrastructure such as water delivery, drainage, housing and transportation. Among our annual activities are what we call public works projects. Over the last three years, we have been working on renewing two blocks that were planted to blackberries. One is going into vegetable production and the other may be planted to raspberries. Berries are very expensive and risky to plant, and sane farmers shy away from the crop.

The change is equivalent to urban renewal. The trellises and irrigation pipes are removed, old canes are mown and turned under and restorative cover crops such as chicories, clovers and mustards are planted. We needed to improve the drainage in the field and change the irrigation. The plums needed better drainage. We have lost some trees where the soil was water-logged. The orchard has an odd mosaic of drainage patterns.

We drove our Volvo down to Needy Tile and loaded up 6,000 feet of drainage tile. It is not your mum's old 240. Our Volvo has a 26-foot flat bed, a 310 HP Cummins engine, two 100-gallon fuel tanks and a Hendrickson tandem rear end. (It took a while to get used to people complimenting our rear-end.) The Volvo is registered at 38,000 pounds gross vehicle weight (GVW), and is a beast to drive. The definition of embarrassment is failing to shift to lower range at a traffic light; the truck stalls. The tile is not that heavy, but it is bulky and fills the bed.

Needy Tile is located in the Clackamas County settlement of Needy. The Needy post office opened in February 1855. Drain tiles were originally two-foot long pieces of terra-cotta pipe. They were placed in a deep ditch down end-to-end, then covered with soil. The water seeps between the seams and flows down to an open ditch or pond. Tile manufacturers were located in the bottom land near clay deposits and the river bottom hardwoods needed for firing the kilns. Some beautiful old kilns still stand near the Groner School in Scholls.

Today, drain tile is a long plastic tube with slits along its length. Water trickles through the slits and down the tube to its outlet. The location of the factory on a narrow road next to a river reflects the history tile-making, not good industrial planning. The immaculate factory with its hissing and clunking machinery, and the serpentine tile hoses moving along the floor, is straight of Tati's "Mon Oncle." The only thing missing is Alain Romans' music—the truck lacks a CD player. It took us three days to lay the tile pipe.

Next, we loaded the Volvo with about 600 feet of water pipe. While we had the trencher on site, we dug out the ditches to bury the pipe. We buy our irrigation supplies from Ernst Irrigation in St. Paul. The area around St. Paul is called French Prairie. Once it was covered with Blue Lake pole beans, and the Marion County Soil Survey published in 1972 still evaluated soils for pole bean production. Today, it is all bush beans picked by Pixall Super Jacks. They also grow a lot seed garlic and hops on the prairie.

All of our irrigation supplies are purchased from Ernst. Until a decade ago, it was part of an independent John Deere dealership and irrigation supplier. The Fisher Group acquired Ernst in 1999. In 2009, Fisher decided to combine stores and relocate in nearby Donald. The families that founded Ernst got together and repurchased the irrigation company from Fisher. Ernst is an important employer for St. Paul and it was a community effort to save the business. Patrick, Jill and Mike, the children of Bill Dolan, one of the founders, are responsible for day-to-day operation of the store. It is a friendly, small-town business. Matt Corcoran is their micro-irrigation specialist.  He designed and redesigned our system at various times over the last 12 years. We are a tiny customer relative to other farm operations, but the staff are always attentive.

Now our pubic works projects are done for the season, and we are back attending to plants and harvesting crops.

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