By Amelia Hazen, Clifton Park Production Assistant
June 4, 2015
In recent months, the news of the water crisis in California has lead me to think more extensively about water usage and conservation at the farms I have worked on. Water is integral to agriculture, as it is to all life on Earth. As these issues become more and more prevalent, it is imperative for farmers large and small to reevaluate their water usage and what they can do to protect local waterways. Each farmer has her own perspective on how to address issues of irrigation and stormwater management, and for me, it has been very exciting to see how these matters are addressed in Baltimore City. Civic Works’ Real Food Farm is situated in the Herring Run Watershed, which flows through Baltimore City and the County, joins with the Back River, and empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Additionally, the farm is located at the top of the Harris Creek Watershed, which is an underground watershed, connected by the city’s storm drain system, that runs through East Baltimore to the Chesapeake Bay.
We take water very seriously here at Civic Works’ Real Food Farm, and have implemented many techniques and systems that help us protect our local watershed and conserve water on the farm. At the most basic level, we don’t use and chemical fertilizers or pesticides, which have the capacity to throw off the delicate balance of our soil ecosystems and waterways. Additionally, we have a bioswale that runs through the farm. A bioswale (see photos) is essentially a small ditch that is engineered to filter silt and pollutants from runoff water, and helps with drainage. Here on the farm, we have an issue with water drainage, as the farm is situated on top of the former Lake Clifton. We struggle to keep our fields from flooding after heavy rains, and the bioswale helps to drain the excess water that collects in the fields. (It can get pretty muddy after a few days of rain- on many occasions I’ve left work looking like a swamp monster!) The bioswale is necessary for keeping standing water out of our fields and off of our crops. Too much standing water could lead to rotting vegetables, which is no good for our farm…or our customers! Our bioswale is planted with native plants that have strong root systems, which help filter the water that passes though. Microbes in the soil help break down any high concentrations of organic nutrients that runoff from our fields before the filtered water enters our watershed.
In the fields, we try to minimize tillage as much as possible. Tillage, or turning the soil in preparation for planting, disturbs delicate soil biology and leads to higher rates of soil erosion and water evaporation. By minimizing tillage, our garden beds are more effectively able to absorb and retain water. Rather than regularly tilling with large tractor implements in order to prepare our rows for planting, we use a broadfork as much as possible. A broadfork is a large, human-powered tool that allows us the aerate the soil without disturbing its structure. To use it, you have to step (or jump!) on the crossbar above the fork’s tines and rock it back and forth to loosen the soil. The fork is heavy and takes a lot of upper body strength to manipulate – at the end of a day of broadforking, I’m almost always exhausted! But it’s a fast, effective, and fun way to improve soil aeration and drainage. If we’re lucky, we can skip the broadfork and plant directly into a freshly mowed cover crop, without any sort of tillage or turning the soil at all! Planting into a mowed cover crop allows the cover crop to act as a green manure, or mulch. This provides us with extra groundcover, therefore shading the soil’s surface and holding in water. We’re also able to achieve a fuller groundcover by interplanting slow and fast-growing crops. Through these practices, we conserve water and limit soil erosion and runoff, therefore protecting our watershed.