My wife Torie and I moved down from Alaska in 2011 to Colbert, WA to establish a small farm so we could be close to, and in control of, our food supply. We bought land on the side of a hill in a pine forest facing south and west. While my wife worked in Spokane, I started building the infrastructure and soil that would be necessary to achieve this goal. In January, 2012 I enrolled in a Permaculture Design Course presented by Michael “Skeeter” Pilarski. This afforded me the opportunity to put to use the principles and techniques that are part of permaculture and eliminate those techniques that did would not work on our site. After 5 years of growing soil, deciding on what we wanted to grow and sell and installing a drip irrigation system, we are poised to take the next step in our growth. This involves becoming more sustainable in our operations. Receiving a $5000 grant from the HumanLinks Foundation to enhance our drip irrigation system has positioned us to become a more productive, and a more profitable small farm. Here’s the story of how this came to be.
Any new farmer quickly develops a keen interest the weather and soon after establishing the farm, I started studying climate change in earnest. I thought, if I was going to accept something as game-changing as climate change, then I needed to research it as completely as I could. Over the following years, signing up for newsletters, reading reports and research results from international and regional sources, I realized the reality of climate change and discovered how it will likely affect the region in which I now live and farm.
Among the reasons we chose the northeast part of Washington state are the quality of both the aquifers we live on and their associated recharge zones. Those aquifers and recharge zones are fed by another asset we will hopefully always enjoy– the precipitation that we receive in the form of snow and rain delivered by weather patterns from the North Pacific making it over the Cascade mountain range and delivering that precipitation after bumping up against the Rockies to the east.
In my research into climate change and how it will affect our region, three impacts stood out to me. One, as the atmosphere heats up, it will hold more moisture. This moisture will fall during more frequent and more severe weather events. Two, this precipitation will, in the case of snow, melt earlier, before the growing season, and in the case of rain, will fall earlier, also before the growing season. This will result in a shortage of natural irrigation sources in the spring and summer, when farmers in our region need them most. Third, our historical hot and dry spell– July through mid-September– will most likely start earlier, end later and be dryer and hotter, thus requiring us to use well water for irrigation earlier and more often.
Because of these factors, I came to the conclusion that I needed to become more efficient in my irrigation methods and capture much more of that early precipitation to use during the spring and early summer. By doing this I would alleviate much of the demand on my well AND realize a supply of nutritious irrigation water at ambient temperature (rain water contains natural fertilizers and warmer irrigation water doesn’t slow plant growth as much as cold well water does). So, I started thinking of ways to realize these two goals. Since I was ¾ of the way to having my 1-acre herb farm completely on drip irrigation, I knew that drip irrigation coupled with rain-water storage would be part of the solution.
Our farm is oriented such that we receive a bit of eastern sun, a lot of southern sun and a lot of western sun. Our main growing areas easily receive 10 hours of sunlight a day. This led me to the third major element of the plan– solar arrays for electricity generation to run irrigation pumps. At about the same time, I became aware of grants to support organic and sustainable farmers available through the HumanLinks Foundation, based in Western Washington. HumanLinks had been associated historically with Washington Tilth and is now partnering with the newly-formed Tilth Alliance to offer financial assistance. I decided to apply for a grant. I took a month or so to flesh out a new, sustainable irrigation plan for the farm to include in the grant application.
The final plan is this: I will install two 2500-gallon polyethylene water tanks buried 3 ft. in the ground on top of 1 ft. of coarse gravel. The two tanks will be connected so the water level stays the same in both. Water will be supplied from two sources: Gutters from a nearby mini-house with about 308 sq. ft. of roof surface and 44 ft. of gutters and my 5-year-old, 220 ft.-deep well. A float valve in one of the tanks will keep them full, but not overflowing. That tank will have an attached “first diverter” to keep detritus out of the tanks. The two tanks will be located about 9 ft. above my planting areas and their associated drip irrigation lines. The water from the two tanks will feed a 24-volt DC water pump powered by a 290-watt solar array mounted on a 6-inch diameter steel pole. The water coming from the tanks will arrive at the pump under positive pressure due to the height of the water, known as “head.” The pumps will assist in moving the water through the drip lines as the water level in the tanks, and hence the head, decreases. The system will also include two deep cycle batteries and associated charge controller as well as 75-micron filters to filter out sediment and rust particles from the water before it enters the drip lines.
The drip irrigation system I use consists of 1-inch main trunk lines feeding ¾-inch black poly distribution lines with 40-psi mineralized well water. These connect to ½-inch drip tubing and tape running at 25-psi with 9-inch and 12-inch spaced drip emitters. My farm is configured with about 36 growing beds. Each is served by about 100 to 120 emitters requiring about 3.5 - 4 gallons per minute. The solar powered system I designed will be able to supply 5 gallons per minute running directly from the electricity supplied by the solar panels. During the day I will be able to irrigate, conservatively, 8 beds in one day for an hour each time for providing each bed with about 1-inch of water. This translates into about 5 days of irrigation time. The batteries in the system are a bonus designed to run ventilation fans and LED lighting in my two greenhouses and, if necessary, operate the 24-volt pump for a day or so. All told, the cost of the system came in at $4785. This included $600 of in-kind contribution from us in the form of shipping costs paid, labor and miscellaneous parts purchased. The big savings came from the cost of the water tanks. These will cost me $840 each and I will drive to Washougal, WA twice to pick them up, thus saving me between $700-$900 in shipping costs. These two trips will instead cost me only $120. I submitted the application for the grant on February 20, 2017, well before the February 28th deadline. On March 22, we received notification that we had been awarded the grant.
There is a bit of a back story to the HumanLinks/Tilth Alliance grant program, and I will be frank here about it. For years, there has been a “tension” between the west-side sustainable agriculture support community and the east side in terms of attention paid and support offered to small-scale organic and sustainable farmers in the east. Tilth Alliance, under previous names, had focused its energy almost solely on the west side, leading some to characterize as lip service their stated “statewide” mission. The 2015 Tilth Conference held here in Spokane was, in my opinion, a crumb thrown to the east to help assuage a certain sense of guilt. HumanLinks Foundation has likewise focused their funding efforts on the west side. During the Tilth Conference in Spokane, there evidently was some heated discussions between Tilth Alliance and ag representatives from the east around this issue.
When I decided to apply for a grant from HumanLinks, I called them up and frankly asked what my chances were, as an east-sider, of getting the grant. The woman on the other end admitted that they tended to focus their funding efforts on 3 counties in Southwest Washington. Aware of this, I purposefully tried to keep my grant request to less than $5000 and included a 15% in-kind contribution by my farm. I believe my grant application provided HumanLinks/Tilth Alliance with a perfect opportunity to appear more inclusive of Eastern Washington agriculture at very little cost. I think I benefited from a “win-win” opportunity for them– little cost and a large public relations return. Don’t get me wrong, I am not criticizing them. Far from it. I am happy I could be the tool to affect a renewed inclusive attitude between west and east. I hope it continues and benefits other organic and sustainable farmers over here.
At the completion of this project, sometime around the end of August, they plan to have a large potluck party to roll out not only the solar irrigation project but the earth-sheltered greenhouse they will be building this spring.
About the Author
Thom Foote and his wife Torie are retired teachers from Alaska and lifelong gardeners. Both are “military brats” and have moved around all their lives. They have two children, a dog, a cat, 25 laying hens and, soon, 20 meat chickens, 3 pigs and 15 turkeys. Their farm website is footehillsfarm.net. They can be reached at (509)-596-0950 anytime. They often organize tours and welcome visitors anytime during the spring, summer or fall.