Farm Makeover: Water Water Everywhere

Here in the humid Northeast, we are blessed with water, especially so in this monsoon Summer. A quick scan of the news headlines reveals how lucky we are to have an abundance of this resource, as drought-induced wildfires rage globally and unprecedented restrictions on water use face farmers and cities in the Western US. But we’ve also seen in many cases around the world that too much of a good thing can be disastrous.

newly-dug pond starting to fill with water

Shelterbelt Farm is built on a wet hillside, with heavy clay soil, many springs, and water flowing almost year-round onto our farm from neighboring properties. This results in multiple fields that are regularly inundated with water, unable to be grazed or planted, yet not providing the valuable habitat of a true wetland.

Conventional wisdom for farming on wet ground is to install tile drainage to send the water off the farm. But that’s a waste of a life-giving resource, and also passes the problems of water overabundance downstream. We don’t want our farm to contribute to flooding in Ithaca every time we get a few inches of rain. We also know that in dry years, having water stored in the landscape can literally be life-saving to trees, pastures, and livestock.

Our preferred water management strategy has been ponds. Ponds help in wet years as they capture and slow the flow of some of the excess water, and ponds help in dry years because they are oases of life, like having “water batteries” that you can draw down throughout the landscape. In the first four years we lived here we built a pond per year, though most were small and shallow. Our pond-building funds were quickly depleted, and we still needed at least a few more.

Enter the NYS Climate Resilient Farming Grant, which provides funds to county Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) offices on behalf of farms in their county that want to install projects to advance their ability to be resilient in the face of climate chaos. In 2019, Erica partnered with the Tompkins County SWCD to submit a grant to fund 3/4 of the cost of a farm-wide water management project. They were awarded the grant, and worked with an engineer to design a combination of ponds, swales, drain tile, and small water and erosion control basins throughout the landscape to better manage and hold some of the water that flows through the farm, especially during big rainfall events.

Ironically, project implementation was delayed by the overabundance of rain that fell in July, but was completed in mid-August. For farmers who value the health of their soil, having so many acres of the farm scraped, compressed, and crushed by massive excavation equipment was traumatic! But Erica worked quickly to get all the bare ground seeded, and the rapid growth of the new forage was aided by more timely rains. Our new water management systems got a thorough testing almost immediately, as we received a 4″ rainfall just a few days after all the site work was done. This rain filled 2 of the 3 new ponds to the top, and filled the third one halfway! It also showed us how our 3 new water and erosion control basins and two freshly cleaned-out swales were working, and helped identify places where our designs needed tweaking.

We are really thrilled with how everything turned out, and will be even happier once all the bare ground is fully covered with plants. We are especially grateful to Paul Gier and Jon Negley of the Tompkins County Soil and Water Conservation District for their partnership and support, and to the NYS Climate Resilient Farming Fund for making this project financially possible. Now that we’re done with earthworks, the next step of our climate resiliency plan is to plant thousands of trees in our pastures to feed livestock during droughts, provide shade to our animals during increasingly hotter Summers, and sequester carbon. That next step will take us a few years, but we are excited to get started!

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