Making Dry Land Vegetables a Success

If you made it out to the farm for our 2016 Quinn Farm Summer Tour, then you saw firsthand just how spectacular our dry land vegetables are looking. Our Indian corn plots, in particular, are doing very well and while we’ve certainly had more moisture this year, there are several key components to growing dry land vegetables successfully.

Perhaps the most obvious concern for any dry land agriculture, as the name would suggest, is moisture. The northern great plains of Montana are arid, which means we get very little annual rainfall. So water conservation is always at the forefront of our minds and it starts even before we seed.

Plant spacing, when growing dry land vegetables, is very different from an irrigated field or garden. Plants are seeded three to four times as far apart as you might plant them where there’s readily available water. This extra space gives each plant ample room to find and utilize the ground moisture. And believe it or not, we’ve found each plant produces about the same yield as an irrigated plant. Of course, I only have a third to a quarter of the number of plants per acre, so my yields are reduced in that way.

Weed control can be the difference between a successful dry land crop and a total loss. Weeds need water just like any other plant which means keeping them to a minimum is crucial to conserve moisture. In organic agriculture, we do not use chemical herbicides to keep the weeds at bay and must therefore come up with alternative methods. Just prior to seeding, for example, we will always work a field to remove weeds and then cultivate again when our crops are still small. For our corn, when the stalks are still small, we push earth around the base of the plants. This process is called “hilling” and helps to keep the weeds under control as well as provide additional support for the fast-growing stalks. We do the same for the potatoes.

Pests are also a concern, especially when it comes to potatoes. Last year our potatoes were ravaged by potato bugs so this year we’ve been keeping a particularly watchful eye out and are picking them by hand daily. This can only be done, of course, with a small patch. And once the corn begins to produce, we will surround the plots with fencing to keep out hungry antelope, deer, skunks and raccoons.

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Thus far we have had the most success with storage vegetables, such as potatoes, winter squash and onions, although I am certain success might be had with several other vegetables, especially root and early season crops. It is my hope that what we’re doing here can be used as a model that can be repeated to provide locally grown vegetables for communities all over the semi-arid great plains. It would give local farmers another enterprise to add to their farms and provide local communities with a sustainable, fresh, nutritious and tasty supply of basic vegetables.

Charley’s hard work has really paid off and you can see it in the pristine rows of potatoes, corn and squash. With weeds at a minimum and moisture enough to make any farmer hopeful, we are looking forward to a plentiful harvest this fall.

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