This time, the timing was good

04/15/2010 12:00 AM |

The drenching rain of two weeks ago – and the fairly quick dry-out that followed – made the soil at Tom Wickham’s Cutchogue farm ‘just right’ Monday for plowing in preparation for sweet corn. See video.

If the monster rainstorm of 10 days ago had happened just a few weeks later, local farmers would have been crippled with “too much stuff in the ground,” said Baiting Hollow farmer Jeff Rottkamp.

“Right now, most farmers are just getting ready to plant, and we still have plenty of time to plant,” he said Friday. “It’s better that the rain happened when it did.”

Though Mr. Rottkamp said he’s “never seen anything like” the recent storm, which dumped upwards of eight inches of rain onto local fields, the resulting high water table didn’t deter Mr. Rottkamp from plowing his land to prepare it for corn and vegetables.

“This past week has been very nice,” he said of the largely warm days that followed the storm. “It dried out enough that it worked.”

As his workers began work plowing a field covered with tall grass on the southern part of his property Monday morning, Cutchogue farmer Tom Wickham said that for the most part the earth below the topsoil on his land is very sandy, noting that the area tends to dry out quickly, even when the water table is abnormally high. But, he agreed, a deluge like that of two weeks ago would have had seriously consequences for an agricultural area if it had happened a little later.

“Then that sort of water could wash out plants and tend to cause rot,” he said. “But this soil is just right. It’s easy to plow, and there is no water standing in it. It’s not excessively wet. This will be very good for corn. We plan to plant corn in a day or two.”

According to Joe Gergela, president of the Long Island Farm Bureau, a number of North Fork fields have historically had problems with flooding, but “guys figure out how to deal with it.”

“There’s not much you can do about nature,” he said. “Not only is the soil saturated, but the water rises with the water table. But there are certain things you can do from a stewardship standpoint.”

Some farmers use recharge basins, man-made ponds that help percolate water into permeable soil in low water table areas, to prevent flooding, Mr. Gergela said. But these basins take away from land production — and land is scarce.

“You need to make sure these things are deemed appropriate,” he said. “Most farmers are evaluating all of these things as we speak. They all make independent decisions on how to manage this kind of stuff.”

Other farmers in low-lying areas are simply working around depressions in fields where the water “always stands for a long time,” said Allan Connell, district conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Riverhead.

“In some fields, they just have to work around the big ponds,” he said. “They just don’t plant there because the water table is so high.”

But with solid practices in place, like subsoiling, where the soil is “combed” in the fall, and the planting of “cover crops” such as rye and oats during dormant times, Mr. Connell said he has not gotten too many calls for help with drainage issues at the soaking start of this season.

“You see all those fields in the winter … they are usually covered with green,” he said. “That also helps as organic matter which is plowed into the soil.”

In the fields behind Wickham’s Fruit Farm stand in Cutchogue Monday morning, standing water surrounding one of the farm’s greenhouses represented the level of the water table on land about 25 feet higher than Wickham Creek, a saltwater inlet just south of the farm. Mr. Wickham said he “welcomes the water back into the aquifer,” and not just so his greenhouse tomatoes and cucumbers can get their water directly from the water table — virtually eliminating the need to irrigate.

“On Long Island, all the water we use in our wells comes from rainwater,” Mr. Wickham said. “Now, we have more than we need for consumption, but it’s important to get water into the ground. Because the majority of homes and business still rely on private wells, and you can’t just draw indefinitely from them without replenishing them.

“Because we have sandy, soft soil here, almost all the rain that falls here ultimately goes back into the aquifer,” he continued. “This water level here is actually higher than the water level of the creek. And so where does this water go? Ultimately, it seeps out underneath the creek, and you can even see sometimes springs of fresh water bubbling up in our saltwater creek. And it’s happening now, because the level of salt water is actually higher than the sea level in the creeks. All things considered, this is not really a serious problem for us.” See video.

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