Who Needs Rain Anyway

When Steve Hallstrom goes to the field at daylight to harvest the rich produce of his 2.5-acre river bottom farm, he finds the soil moist and the plant leaves wet. It hasn't rained, but his crops look as though it has, late in a very dry summer in the Snoqualmie Valley. Indeed, even at 9:30 on a warm August morning, much of the ground remains very damp.

Steve can't waste water. His irrigation well yields about one and a half gallons per minute, not nearly enough for heavy watering. But he has nature working for him: The Tolt River delivers airborne moisture during the cool nights, and broad-leafed vegetables collect it like funnels. The loamy soil of his farm holds moisture at the root level where the plants can make best use of it. He never subjects the land to the drying effects of chemical fertilizers.

A steep, grassy hill with a crown of fir and cedar a few hundred feet west of the gardens casts an early shadow on the fields, to reduce the intense afternoon heat of late summer. Thick woods border two sides of his fields. They shade the fields in the morning and help hold the dew and fog that have already burned off in the sunnier parts of the garden.

The house, barn, hillside and bottom land are all of a scenic piece; Thoreau material, had Thoreau been at all interested in the bruising, hands-in-the-dirt toil that organic truck farming demands.

Steve makes use of the microclimate by matching crops to the best hours of sun and shade. Plants such as cabbage and broccoli, whose leaves trap the dew and funnel it into the center of the plant, grow on the shady sides of the field, and get very little irrigation. Corn, squash, and pole beans, heat lovers all, get the sunny sections and most of the carefully applied well water.

An essential principle at Steve Hallstrom s farm: Don't try to control nature. It isn't necessary and it probably won't work anyway.

They shade the fields in the morning and help hold the dew and fog which has already burned off the sunnier parts of the garden.

Interestingly, Steve doesn't go along with the trend toward drip irrigation and plastic mulching.

"I don't think much of those systems," he says. "Maybe you save some water, and that's environmentally sound. But the yards of petroleum-based vinyl tubing you buy, and the yards and yards of petroleum-based plastic sheeting? That all winds up in the landfill."

Ordinary oscillating sprinklers, perched on platforms just above the crops, work best for Hallstrom. "It's the closest thing to rain," he says. "When you're irrigating in hot weather you want large drops that fall quickly, with the least evaporation." Impact sprinklers break up the drops, and seem to him to deliver less water to the ground, where it's needed.

Water timers to control the sprinklers? "I'm the timer. I look at the plants and the soil and when it needs watering, I water."

Insect control? He dusts with diatomaceous earth and rotenone for flea beetle. Otherwise, nothing.

Fertilizer to feed those lush and juicy vegetables? "Chicken manure. That's it." How much? "I really don't know. I put it on with my manure spreader until it's an inch thick or more, and till it in." (Hallstrom is careful to keep the manure, like the rotenone, out of the water.) He uses moderate-to-heavy applications of ground limestone, but no additional phosphate or potash.

It works. The proof comes on the Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings at the University and Columbia City farmers' markets in Seattle. Hallstrom rushes to serve the customers who queue up at his stand, and to replenish the wide range of produce. Pumpkins, pole beans and brilliant red lettuce all fly out of his boxes.

The payoff for the Hallstroms and for scores of other small Seattle-area organic farmers? Their customers' gratitude.

"Now and then someone will take the time to say how much they appreciate our being here, and how important it is to be able to buy good, healthy food. That makes it all worthwhile."

Steve Hallstrom thrives on his customers' enthusiasm for his tasty, healthy organic produce.
Organic Gardeners Composting

Organic Gardeners Composting

Have you always wanted to grow your own vegetables but didn't know what to do? Here are the best tips on how to become a true and envied organic gardner.

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