Thursday, April 9, 2020

Dry Land Farming

An article appeared in the recent Maple Society Newsletter (spring 2020) that was written by Alan Tabler, an Oregon nurseryman who has been employed at Don Schmidt Nursery as Production Manager/Grower for the past 34 years. The essay was Small Maples for Small Gardens which I found very interesting and I always appreciate others' learned perspective of the genus I love so much.
Alan Tabler

Besides the encyclopedic detailing of various Acer palmatum dwarves – and at the risk of Maple Society plagiarism – I quote from one of Alan's paragraphs that suitably illustrates the Don Schmidt Nursery's practice of dry land farming.

At Don Schmidt Nursery, plants are grown under a system of dry land farming. Under dry land farming, water availability is managed by regular disking of the soil to allow the moisture to wick up to the root zone by osmosis. This system reduces weed and disease pressures and allows for more environmentally sustainable growth. This method also allows the plant to grow to its natural form based on its genetic potential.”

I wrote to Alan that B.H., a famous plantsman from England, read the article and questioned me about this farming practice. I remember that Alan extolled its virtues in a regional newspaper a few years before, but unfortunately I didn't save it, and would it be possible to get a copy of that?

Alan replied, “I couldn't find the article, so I wrote up a brief description of our practices at Don Schmidt Nursery. Please forward this to your U.K. friend. Please have B.H. contact me direct if he has any questions. I am always happy to spread the faith about dry land farming.”

So, here's Alan's gospel:

Dry land farming is a system of agriculture where water availability is managed by repeated disking of the soil. The emphasis is on maintaining soil health and nutrient bioavailability. This type of farming is not new. It was the way most farming was done before water pumps became readily available after WWII.

It should be emphasized that you must commit to the system for it to be effective. Doing only part of the system will not generate the desired results. Disking of the soil cuts into the soil hardpan and allows the available water to wick up into the root zone by osmosis. Tilling of the soil creates the opposite effect by creating a hardpan that restricts water movement. By not giving the plant supplemental water, it allows the plant to grow in tune with the seasons and to shut down growth when the weather requires it. This leads to less leaf and branch scorch, which eliminates entry of disease and also helps eliminate late summer powdery mildew. It takes approximately 8 days to return to a row and disk it again. While there is a fixed cost of tractor and driver, it is competitive with labor and cost associated with moving irrigation pipe.

At Don Schmidt Nursery, we plant our maple liners in October. If there is anything you can count on, it is that it will rain in the fall in Oregon. Oregon springs are often wet which delays planting too late for the liners to establish themselves before the heat of summer. In spring, maples are trimmed hard to stimulate top-growth, which in turn stimulates root growth. The vigor of the plant is maintained and creates a more hardy, healthy plant able to withstand environmental stress.

Maples in general have limited insect problems. Scouting is used to pinpoint any possible problems. While we are not philosophically opposed to the use of pesticides, we only use them when necessary.

One of the drawbacks of dry land farming is the setting of pre-emergent herbicides. Fall rains make pre-emergent application difficult. Ideally, the February dry spell is the time to spray in Oregon. However, February is also the time for digging, trimming and shipping, etc. So, pre-emergent use is often neglected.

Strangely enough, weed growth in the rows is not a negative in today’s labor situation. Keeping employees productive all year round helps to retain those we will need during digging season. Hand hoeing helps keep our employees productive. The key is to finish hoeing before the weed seeds mature in order to keep next year’s weed population in check. In winter we allow a natural cover crop to grow between the rows for soil stability and to be disked under in the spring to return the nutrients back to the soil.

Fertilization is done in March before bud break. At Don Schmidt Nursery, application is done by helicopter in order to complete the process in three hours, rather than three weeks.

Sanitation is important. If any plant shows a sign of pseudomonas or other disease, it is immediately removed and burned. Low areas that are unsuitable for maple are to be avoided.

The hardest current problem at Don Schmidt Nursery is allowing a field sufficient rest. Ideally, fields should be rested and cover cropped two years before replanting.
The soil is your most valuable resource, and maintaining vigor and the health of the soil is paramount. Our plants have a longer rotation, generally six to ten years. The trade off is a strong hardy plant that will perform for the customer.

While dry land farming is not well suited to Texas and other dry areas, it would certainly work in large parts of the United State and the U.K.

The ultimate goal of dry land farming is to work with Mother Nature instead of against her, forcing the grower to follow the rhythms of the seasons and to appreciate the beauty of maples in all phases.


Well, thank you Alan. I farm differently, though, by using tons of water that nourishes Acer cultivars in “artificial” soil in containers. I will concede that the Schmidt method sounds far more appealing, but unfortunately I am too old and underfunded to give it a try. However, if I won the lottery – which I never will because I never play – I would endow a research institute at Buchholz Nursery to empirically study the Acer genus...with the ultimate aim to advise and encourage the home gardener to further appreciate and to learn how to best succeed with these wonderful trees. Ultimately the proof of Schmidt's theories is demonstrated by the health and vigor of their product.

At this time of our Coronavirus Reality, my Flora Wonder Blog might come across as inane (or insane), as when the Band played on while the Titanic was sinking. It is difficult, but I'm trying to keep my own hopes from descending, and let's hope that some solace can be found with close observation and involvement with nature.

After Alan Tabler declared in his (March 19, 2020) email that he was always happy to spread the faith about dry land farming, he nevertheless concluded with “Strange times they are upon us, Alan.”


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your blogging. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Alan Tabler's article very insightful.
    Mike Cook