Category Archives: weather

Organic Tomato Farm’s Soils Produce High Yields During Terrible Drought

Today’s post is reprinted by permission of Charles M. “Chuck” Benbrook, who is a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University.

Long-time readers of this site know that healthy organic soils retain moisture far better during drought-stressed conditions. Today’s post offers a pretty profound example of that principle in action this past summer during California’s drought.

Charles Benbrook reports about an organic tomato farm in California and its amazing success even during last summer’s terrible drought. The numbers he includes in this article of tomato yields and rainfall are astounding in a positive good-news way for producers of every kind, everywhere. He attributes this tomato production “miracle” to the organic soil health of the long-standing farm. (Although, I suspect because it is “Northern California-coastal” it is also receiving some moisture in the way of fogs.) Then, he warns growers that if they wish to be resilient in future weather-stresses expected from climate change, they need to establish similar soils in their own growing fields.

It’s a win-win.

Better tasting tomatoes, lower input costs, and crop resiliency.

It is better to let Nature do the work for us, instead of destroying the natural systems and then repairing the damage to get the yields we’re after.
—Kay M.

Promoting Global Food Security One Crop of Tomatoes at a Time

By Chuck Benbrook

In early September I visited a remarkable organic farm on the coast of California. This farm has been in organic production for about 30 years, and its harvests of mostly organic tomatoes have been marketed through a variety of outlets in Northern California.

I arrived on the day picking had just begun on a sloping tomato field about 6 acres in size. The crop was exceptionally clean, with virtually no insect damage and few weeds. Minimal, organically approved control measures had been used, including applications of sulfur and releases of trichogramma (beneficial wasps), along with many hours of hand weeding.

One of every dozen-plus fruits had minor, cosmetic blemishing on the skin, typically where the tomatoes contacted the soil. Otherwise, the tomatoes were picture perfect. I can also vouch for their organoleptic quality, from a first-hand eating experience at a dinner during my stay. These tomatoes also, no doubt, contain markedly higher levels of health-promoting phenolic acids and Vitamin C, for reasons discussed in an earlier blog (“A Tale of Two Tomatoes,” February 23, 2013).

The grower has since reported that the field produced about 30,000 pounds of tomatoes per acre.

Farmers in other tomato-producing regions often produce substantially more per acre.  My friend and colleague Madeline Mellinger runs Glades Crop Care (GCC), South Florida’s major independent crop consulting firm.  She and the GCC staff scout and advise farmers on pest management across about 11,000 acres of tomatoes each year.  In their neck of the woods, conventionally grown tomato yields average 50,000 pounds per acre, and in all but unusual years, range from 35,000 to 65,000 pounds/acre. Yields of 60,000 pounds per acre are common.

So what’s the big deal about a 30,000 pound per acre organic tomato yield in sunny California, when Florida (and some other California) growers often produce twice that per acre?

This was a dryland field of organic tomatoes – no, none, zero supplemental irrigation had been applied.  The field was planted in April.  Detailed weather data is accessible from a nearby weather station, which I accessed upon return to my office.

On August 6th and 7th, the last measurable rainfall had fallen in the area (0.02 inches, or two one-hundredths of an inch, i.e. almost none).  July rainfall totaled 0.16 inch, and 0.04 inch fell in both May and June. A far-below average 0.45 inch fell in April, and only 1.12 inches came in March, usually one of the year’s wettest months.

Total precipitation for the 2014 production season was 1.83 inches.  On California’s irrigated fresh market tomato fields, around 30” of irrigation water is applied to bring a crop to market, and according to the USDA, average yields are about 35,000 pounds per acre.

Organic production + 1.83 inches of rainfall = 30,000 pounds of tomatoes.

Conventional production + 30 inches of irrigation water = 35,000 pounds of tomatoes.

If a drought-weary California is forced to look for new ways to conserve water, the performance of this organic farm is both impressive and hopeful, given that it produced over 16,000 pounds of tomatoes per inch of rainfall.  On a typical, irrigated, fresh market tomato field in California, experienced growers harvest about 1,200 pounds of tomatoes per inch of irrigation water, and somewhat less than 1,000 pounds per inch of rainfall-plus-irrigation water.

How could 30,000 pounds of tomatoes per acre be harvested on a field receiving so little rainfall?

It’s all about the soil. Over the last 30-plus years, this field has been in a complex rotation, with ample amounts of added organic material and routine cover cropping. The organic matter content of the soil has been increased about two-fold – from around 1.5% to about 3% — promoting rapid water infiltration (when it rains), as well as enhancing the soil’s water holding capacity.

So what does this un-irrigated, organic tomato field have to do with feeding the world?

Governments around the world are urging people to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables to at least four servings per day (the USDA recommendation is 5-8 servings/day). The population of California is currently 38 million, so each and everyday, the good citizens of the State should be consuming at least 152,000,000 servings of fruits and vegetables.  Surely, mankind does not live by tomatoes alone, but for the sake of making an important point, bear with me.

According to the USDA, one serving of fresh tomatoes weighs 90 grams, or 0.19842 pound (i.e., there are about five servings in one pound of tomatoes).  Accordingly, 1,005 acres of similarly managed, organic tomatoes yielding, on average, 30,000 pounds per acre, would produce enough tomatoes to feed 38 million Californians four servings of this vegetable for one day.  Year-round, at the same yield level, only 366,943 acres would be needed to assure 38 million Californians get their four servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

The surface area of California is about 101 million acres, of which about 30 million acres are classified as farmland.  About 6 million acres in California are regarded as “prime” farmland. Over 500,000 acres of California land are planted to cotton most years, and another 1.5 million produce hay.  Clearly, finding 366,943 acres to produce enough fruits and vegetables (F+Vs) for all Californians should not be a major problem, at least not for a very long time.

For 314 million Americans, and the 7 billion on Planet Earth, less than 3% of available, high quality agricultural land would be required to assure production of at least four servings of F+Vs a day, per capita, year round.

Doing so, and getting the tomatoes, citrus, berries, and potatoes to the people who need them, including the poor, remains an enormous challenge, but not because of land shortages, lower yields on organic farms, or even persistent drought. In years when drought, or too much rain and flooding, or an untimely freeze, reduces fruit and vegetable production in one region, other areas can pick up at least some of the slack.  And through new methods to preserve and store F+Vs, the nation could (and probably will someday) create a strategic F+V reserve.

As climate change and severe drought become more commonplace, the importance of building soil quality as a hedge against catastrophic crop failure will grow.  Experience and insights gained on long-term, well-managed organic farms will provide a benchmark of what can be accomplished and how healthier, richer soil can serve as a buffer against climate extremes. And this will promote global food security, one field at a time.

Photo via FlickrCC Mr.TinDC.

3 Picks: SD Cattle Catastrophy, Japan’s Groundwater, Sustainable Barn

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) Catastrophic Early Snowstorm Kills Thousands of Cattle in South Dakota: By Chet Brokaw. “‘It’s the worst early season snowstorm I’ve seen in my lifetime.’ Early estimates suggest western South Dakota lost at least 5 percent of its cattle. Some individual ranchers reported losses of 20 percent to 50 percent of their livestock.’ …”

2) Japanese Municipalities’ are Creating Initiatives to Conserve Groundwater: By Junji Hashimoto. In Japan, where they have been using more groundwater since the 2011 earthquake, farmers and municipalities are working together and creating ordinances to use groundwater in conjunction with monitoring recharge rates. Through methods of cooperation, and a recharge calculation formula which reduces water fees when greater amounts of groundwater are recharged, they are smartly planning for the future.

3) UK’s Award-winning eco-build slashes thousands from farm’s running costs: “…by combining modern technology with traditional materials like sheep fleece and straw, it is possible to create a sustainable rural building that not only has a very low carbon footprint it is also saving many thousands of pounds in running costs. … Materials used in the construction and for running the building were sourced from the fields of the Allerton Project farm, including straw for the walls and sheep fleece for insulation. Wood chip harvested from the estate’s own woodland provide fuel for the biomass boiler to heat the hot water and the thermostatically zoned under-floor heating. Rainwater is collected for the toilets and showers, while sixteen roof-mounted solar photovoltaic panels provide electrical power to the building…”

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.

Photo credit: Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust

CIRES and NOAA on the Boulder Flood Event

I’ve been waiting for this. Today, CIRES at the University of Colorado, NOAA, and the CSU Colorado Climate Center have released their preliminary assessment of the September 2013 Colorado Front Range flood event.

Key Points:
● An unusually persistent and moist weather pattern led to rainfall totals from September 9th – 15th that have been observed in only a handful of events on the Front Range in the past century.

● In the context of the entire Front Range this was a rare precipitation event, especially for September, and in some respects unprecedented.

● The very heavy rains caused severe to extreme flooding across the northern Front Range and downstream areas in northeastern Colorado; the peak flows at many gages and the overall extent of flooding were probably unmatched in at least 35 years.

● Research is underway at CIRES and NOAA to determine how human-caused climate change may have influenced this event and whether the risk of similar events occurring in the future will increase. The most plausible influence of climate change: Slightly more water vapor being made available for precipitation.

● The natural hazard of flooding for the Front Range includes not just smaller-scale convective events with very high rainfall intensity (e.g., Big Thompson, July 1976), but also rain-on-deep-snowpack events (May 1894), and broader-scale, long-duration rain events with mainly lower intensities (September 2013).

● Total societal exposure to flooding on the Front Range has increased in the past several decades due to population growth and development; recurrence of a previously experienced natural hazard will tend to cause comparatively more damage.

Martin Hoerling of NOAA in Boulder says that conditions for both Hurricane Sandy and this Colorado Flood had a blocking pattern that kept the weather from moving west to east as normal. How quickly a storm leaves an area is a big factor in the severity of any weather event.

UPDATE: Also recommended: The flood next time, by Roger Pielke Jr. who says, “Unfortunately, Time magazine set in motion an urban legend when it called our disaster a 1000-year flood, suggesting that it was an incredibly rare event, on with only 0.1 percent chance of occurring in any year. The claim subsequently has been repeated often across social and mainstream media. We cannot afford to get caught up in such hyperbole. What we know so far is that the flood event experienced by the city of Boulder, despite the record extent and magnitude of rainfall, is actually probably more accurately described under standard methods of flood frequency analysis as a 25-year flood, or one with a 4 percent chance of occurring in any year.”

Tremendous future growth is predicted for the Front Range of Colorado. Each weather event here, and elsewhere, is complicated by the expensive fact that more homes, roads, bridges, and supply chain infrastructure are damaged as growth trends upward.


Boulder’s Flood September 2013

It rained all day Tuesday, then it rained again all day yesterday, but last evening it rained torrentialy for the first few hours after dark. By this morning, we’d received 6.5 inches of rain in 24 hours, and by now perhaps 10 inches. That’s about half of our average annual rainfall. The rain has continued throughout today, and is to go into tomorrow.

At our house we had to bail water out of a basement window well for an hour, and eventually got some plastic rigged up to protect that weak point. Up and down our street this morning neighbors were dealing with issues, plastic was being put over chimneys, over roofs, and pumps were being used to pump water out of some of the houses. This fifty year old neighborhood isn’t accustomed to this kind of rain here in Boulder.

The rain is widespread — covering an area from Estes Park all the way to East Denver. East Boulder County is currently cut off from West Boulder County because roads are impassible. Some neighborhoods, communities, and towns have become islands due to closed roads either direction, such as Lyons, which has also lost its water supply.

I ventured out on my cruiser bike around 1 PM today to take some photos, all within a half mile, or so, of our house.

This first photo (above) is of the bicycle trail underpass of Bear Creek and U.S. 36, also referred to as the Denver-Boulder turnpike. During the half hour that I was out, I saw Bear Creek coming up rapidly, as the water level in this photo is much higher than in the first one that I took a half hour earlier.

In the above photo, Bear Creek is coming over the road which is normally the entrance to St. Andrews Church on Baseline Road.

This is the Baseline Road bicycle trail underpass which follows Bear Creek, which is overflowing onto the trail. I visited with a neighborhood lady who was also taking photos in this spot and she told me that all of their neighbors who live along Bear Creek have six to twelve inches of water in their basements.

This is normally a footpath or bicycle trail near Williams Village, part of the University of Colorado’s student housing. Note the two “bumps” in the center are the railings on the footpath, now covered by Bear Creek’s overflowing water.

The University of Colorado’s classes were called off for today and tomorrow. The students that I ran into were totally gobsmacked, asking me how long I’d lived here, and if this sort of thing happens very often. Poor, poor, frosh. One said he felt like he was back in Wisconsin. You can see how wet the conditions still were as I was out and taking these photos, and as I write this. This moisture in the sky is stuck.

The Coast Guard has been called in to our land locked town, and one student told me he saw amphibious vehicles (similar to the ones above) coming in on the turnpike.

That’s my little world view of this flood and you are hearing plenty about it on the national news, so my coverage of it ends here.

UPDATE: The USGS says this now qualifies as a hundred year flood based on flow rates, but doesn’t care for that terminology.

Friday UPDATE: h/t Dennis Dimick for this article – Colorado Deluge: “Could Be Classified as a 1,000-Year Event” By Tom Yulsman. Is this one of those “rivers in the sky” situations? It feels like we are experiencing a tropical moisture event. And the rain started after an unbearable unseasonable heat wave that lasted 3 weeks. Now back to dealing with the 8 inches of water in the basement. Dear old McGuckins Hardware just got a new shipment of sump pumps in.

SEE follow-up post here.

Dr. Walter P. Falcon of Stanford Writes About a Very Wet Season on His Iowa Farm

K.M. Note: I’m not sure how many prominent agricultural economists spend their summer on a farm, but Dr. Walter P. Falcon of Stanford does. Last summer I asked him if I could repost his writing with his summer observations here on b.p.a. and he granted me permission to do so. This year he’s done another writing and he was kind enough to notify me (as I requested) and offer it for publication here. Personally, I love his insights because they come from such a unique lifetime perspective.


“Stuck in the Mud: Stanford’s Scholarly Farmer on the Soggy Fortunes of Midwest Growers” Farmer’s Almanac, Part II by Walter P. Falcon (July 16, 2013)

My wife and I are again spending the summer on our farm in Eastern Iowa. I am fourth-generation from land just a mile away, first settled by the Falcon family in 1858. My wife is also fourth-generation, from the farmstead we now own. Our land is a medium-sized corn, soybean, and cow and calf operation in the heart of a very rural Iowa county—though Starbucks is only seven miles away! Summers here provide a pleasant change from my day job, which is as Farnsworth Professor of International Agricultural Policy at Stanford University. It helps when teaching agriculture to have one’s feet in the soil. In 2013, “in the mud” is a more appropriate phrase.

My farm notes from 2012 chronicled the problems of farming during one of Eastern Iowa’s most severe droughts. Because of high temperatures and low rainfall, it was a truly miserable production year for farmers—made only mediocre financially rather than miserable—by the widespread use of crop insurance. Drought affected many states, and last year the national federal subsidies on crop insurance were nearly $15 billion, more than the total that was spent combined on all of the other farm-related programs in the federal Farm Bill.

credit: Wikimedia.

But what a difference a year makes. We have gone from one of the very hottest and driest years on record to one of very coldest and wettest. For Iowa, it was the wettest spring ever, eclipsing the 1892 record. The riskiness of farming is something to see in real time; it is also very instructive to listen as farmers talk about coping with uncertainty. Listening to them is not very difficult if one is prepared to invest a bit of time. In most rural areas, there is typically a restaurant, diner, or some other slightly disreputable place where farmers gather for early morning coffee. For our group, it is the old limestone store in Waubeek—the limestone having been hauled by horses in 1868 from nearby quarries at Stone City, the historic home of Iowa’s most famous painter, Grant Wood. What have not changed from last year are the watery coffee, the stale cookies, and the energetic exchange of farm tales—mostly true, occasionally coarse, and sometimes more than a little embellished.

As with last year, the talk is about weather—though now the signs have all been reversed. Last spring it was dry; this spring it was wet. It rained and rained and rained. During the critical planting period of April, May and June, it rained in significant amounts in our area for 40 days. We received 21 inches in total, as compared with less than 8 inches last year. Much of it came in torrents, leading to significant erosion, runoff, and flooding. Moreover, the weather was cold. The local weather station reports that average temperatures for May and June were about 6 degrees cooler than in 2012, which is huge as those kinds of comparisons go.

Farmers have had plenty of time for morning conversations, since the fields were so wet there was not much else to do. They commiserated about a lot of things, and here are some of things I heard and learned. Virtually everyone said planting had been delayed at least three weeks beyond the first week in May, the date most think is their optimal planting time. Perhaps a quarter said that the delays were so bad that they were shifting some fields from corn to soybeans, since the latter typically do better than corn if planted in June. Everyone spoke of having fields with low spots that would simply go unplanted, or if planted, were flooded out with zero yields expected. (And everyone was checking the fine print of their crop insurance policies to determine coverage for land that could not be planted due to weather, so-called “prevented” acres.)

The temperatures were so cool that corn seeds often lay in the ground and rotted or only germinated partially. They talked about the merits of re-planting—the costly process of “tearing out” what had already been planted to replace it with new seed. The calculus of that decision is complicated, since it involves further delays in the crop cycle and, at a minimum, the cost of new seed and tractor fuel. New corn hybrids cost up to $100 per acre, depending on the special traits that have been stacked into the seeds, thus putting seed costs on par with those of nitrogen fertilizer. All farmers grow genetically modified corn, and those who initially had paid extra for the more expensive, drought-resistant seed seemed more resigned—“the cost of doing business”—than angry.

There was also great concern about fertilization this year. Agronomists have been urging farmers to put nitrogen into the ground (called side-dressing) when plants needed the nutrient, rather than prior to planting, to help prevent nitrogen losses due to runoff or into the atmosphere and groundwater. My neighbors know that nitrogen runoff is a problem, but as one put it, “this year we are screwed; because of the rain, we can’t get back into the fields with supplemental nitrogen.”

The number of rainy days was totally frustrating for livestock farmers as well, most of whom also grow alfalfa for forage. There was barely a sequence of dry days long enough to make hay. The quality of the alfalfa diminished, as it grew tall and coarse. On our farm, we actually baled hay on the 4th of July. The lateness of this first cutting will mean the loss of at least one, and possibly two, later cuttings. The latter, of course, are the most valuable in terms of quality and price per bale.

The 4th is also the traditional benchmarking date for the corn crop. Historically, corn was supposed to be “knee high by the 4th.” But with new varieties of seed and early planting dates, corn is typically shoulder high. In 2013, however, it really was knee high and looking puny and yellowish. The 4th is traditionally also the start of the season for sweet corn—the best in the world! But it too was delayed by more than two weeks. The bit of good news is that the Japanese beetles, a fierce pest in 2011 and 2012 to both soybeans and home gardens, have yet to appear.

The flooding that accompanied the rain was huge. Iowa expects to lose substantial acres of corn because of flooded fields. Almost every farmer I know was affected in some way or another. The week after we arrived from California, for example, we had two severe storm warnings and one tornado warning in the first four days. The tornado blew around us, but the latter of the storms came in torrents. With the rivers running high, and with the soils saturated, flash floods happen almost instantaneously, as we experienced first-hand. Our large permanent pasture, summer home for the red Angus cow and calf herd, contains a medium sized creek. It quickly overflowed flooding the entire pasture. The cows and calves were understandably unhappy, bawling loudly and persistently, thereby triggering a 5 am rodeo in the rain as they got moved to the barn on higher ground. (Rodeos in the rain are not fun, however glamorous and intriguing the thought may be. There is always one calf….) But it was a good thing the move was made. For later in the morning, we saw that the flood had taken out 50 yards of fence, thus opening the pasture up to the adjacent highway. And for those interested, repairing creek fences is not a whole lot of fun either.

That same storm had countywide effects as well. The Linn County Fair was to open on June 26th, and unfortunately the fair grounds sit alongside the good-sized Wapsipinicon River. The storm had pelted areas upstream and the river was rising rapidly. There was a decision to be made. National and local weather service models projected a crest of 25 feet, which would mean four feet of water in the grandstand, and a small lake where the exhibits were to be. The fair was called off, and that is a BIG decision for a rural area. It affected almost every farm family, especially the farm boys and girls who had spent literally a year preparing their 4-H and F.F.A. (Future Farmers) projects—from livestock to sewing—for the competition. Everyone then waited in gloom for the fairground to flood. But it didn’t! The fair had been canceled for naught.

The forecasters had missed the river crest, and missed badly. What was estimated at 25 feet, turned out in fact to be 14.95 feet. Everyone thought that a miss by one foot was understandable, but that a miss by ten feet was sheer incompetence! They were relieved that the flood had passed, and bore no ill will against the fair committee. But the coffee conversations the next few days were blue about government forecasters. I cringed, given my day job, when one of my neighbors said, “those weather guys are even worse than the damned economists.” And that comment then triggered a lengthy conversation about the Department of Agriculture (USDA) forecasts for the size of the new (2013) corn crop.

Despite the wetness in the Midwest, the USDA at the time was predicting a record corn harvest for 2013. Farmers, who tend to be a bit myopic and to see and think the whole world is like their county, simply didn’t believe the numbers—neither the area nor the yield forecasts. Those estimates of a big crop were helping to drive prices for the 2013 crop down to about $5 per bushel for corn, relative to the $7 per bushel farmers had received during 2012 and the early months of 2013. Several of them argued that it was a deliberate attempt by the government to drive down prices. I suggested that it wasn’t what the government thought, but what markets believed that was important. But they had a point, because the markets couldn’t figure out the estimates either, with a great deal of day-to-day variation in prices based on weather assumptions, both in the U.S. and in China.

At last the rains finally broke and there was a week of dry weather. What happened in the countryside then was nothing short of amazing. Farmers, typically with help from their spouses and extended families, worked 24/7. Tractors, with lights, comfort cabs, and sophisticated GPS systems to do virtually all of the steering, pulled 16- or even 24-row planters; they were everywhere one looked. So much planting took place in those few days that fertilizer dealers were overwhelmed by the logistics of moving sufficient quantities of starter fertilizer into the countryside. During that one week alone, 56 per cent of Iowa’s entire corn crop was planted!

These notes are being written in real time, and what this year’s harvest will bring eventually is now anyone’s guess. At a minimum, the harvest will be late, which means that an early frost could be a very serious problem. Farmers now are beginning also to worry about late-season precipitation. (My wife is convinced that we have had our rain for the season, and that from now on we will see drought.) Farmers are not an optimistic lot when it comes to forecasting weather! But at this point in the season, most of farming is waiting.

My clearest conclusions from the last two years are about risk. Farmers and farming communities face lots of it, and in almost every direction they turn. (I smile inwardly every time I am told by neighbors, “I don’t see how you can live in California with all those earthquakes!”) Modern corn-belt agriculture is complicated, capital-intensive, and uncertain. That is why federal crop insurance is already such a key element in the new Farm Bill, and likely to become even more so in the context of future climate variability and change. Finally, anyone who believes that farming is done by those who can’t do anything else, or that farms are quiet, idyllic places, ought really to spend a summer on an Iowa farm.

Walter P. Falcon is the Deputy Director of Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment (FSE); Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) Senior Fellow; Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow; and Helen Farnsworth Professor of International Agricultural Policy, Economics (Emeritus).


You may read Dr. Falcon’s writing from last summer here: Observations From an Iowa Farm by Walter Falcon