Dryland Farming Project

This is an exciting project that I wrote about two years ago for the PT Co-op Newsletter.  You can see it on their website.

The early morning sunlight illuminates the heads of grain: golden barley, blue-green triticale, and vibrant green wheat.  Walk along the public trail near Collinwood Farm and you will see a hand painted sign announcing the Dryland Farming Project, a trial plot for staple crops. This is an exciting experiment, not only in growing crops, but also in community involvement.

For many years the idea has been a handful of seeds in the mind of Tinker Cavallero. She has an uncanny knack for being right ahead of the curve in sustainable living. Now she’s exploring the limits of what staples can be grown locally with little inputs, especially without irrigation. “We need to research ways that we can locally and sustainably grow staple crops such as grains, legumes, and seed crops,” she said. Tinker is proposing selecting strains of wheat, beans, and other staples through the old-fashioned technique of seed saving.

The Quimper Peninsula receives very little rain, about seventeen inches on average. We are also learning that the Chimacum aquifer is at risk of being overdrawn. And of course, more development means more wells, and there’s a limit to the water held in the aquifer. Additionally, sandy soils low in organic matter are common in our region.

The seeds of an idea were just waiting for a time and place to germinate. Ian Keith, owner of five acres of land lacking the infrastructure for water, wanted to see the land farmed. The land is located above Collinwood Farm and has been fallow for many years. Community organizer and member of Local 2020’s Food Self-Sufficiency group, Judy Alexander, believed in the idea and wanted to be part of the project; she encouraged people to invest in a cooperative to share the initial expense and the harvest. Tinker contributes her five years of experience at Abundant Life Seed Foundation as garden co-manager, her three years experience running a CSA at Collinwood Farm, and her experience co-managing a seed farm in New Zealand for a year. She was also co-manager at Frog Hill Farm where she experimented in spinach seed trails in conjunction with the Organic Seed Alliance.

Tinker has the experience to carry the project forward and the support of several experts. Kevin Murphy, PhD (remember his CSA at Collinwood Farm 10 years ago?) and Steve Jones from the WSU Extension in Mount Vernon will help with different wheat varieties. Several farmers are on board to consult about dried beans and corn.

The project has presented an opportunity for a real exploration in the dynamics of leadership. There is no hierarchy. Participants have self-selected for different responsibilities by communicating through an online Google group, from locating seed sources, to directing work parties, to bringing snacks and organizing potlucks. Tinker’s daughter, Kia Ochun, got so involved in the project she ended up researching the different grains and staples for her high school senior thesis. You can read her crop descriptions posted on signs at the field.

Every Friday and Saturday from five to ten people have shown up to participate in preparing the ground, sowing seed, and weeding the quack grass. The atmosphere on Friday morning is vibrant with people working together. Bob Aoili, a farmer who managed the market garden at Corona Farm, says, “I love the organic-ness of the group, that we can do something without too much structure. And also that each person has a different insight about farming that inspires them.” Another member added, “Here is a group of people who didn’t know each other before we came together and we vary in age from under 10- years-old to over 60. And we have so much fun together!”

“It is my hope,” Tinker said, “that through our trials we can start to create crops that will produce reasonably well and in the process learn methods and varieties best suited for our conditions.” She continued, “I can imagine trials of flax, rape seed, soup peas, fava beans, spelt, barley, buckwheat, oats, quinoa, millet, as well as naked seeded pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.” At this point an acre of staple crops are vigorously growing.  The first crop to harvest will be the barley.  Come by and see the first stages of a dream for dryland farm crops.

Other farmers are involved in similar projects. Finn River Farm is currently doing wheat trials and their winter wheat is growing strong. Stay posted for further developments of the Dryland Farming Project in the Port Townsend area.

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