Water, Water – Not Everywhere

by Gary Mount

The drought during the summer of 1999 made a lasting impression on me. Never in my 25 years of farming did I have to watch some of my crops die due to lack of water. Each year I plan and plant, with the expectation of harvesting crops later in the summer. There are lots of things that can happen to the crops. Too much rain, too much disease, hail, frost – little can be done about them. But a farmer can do something about a lack of water – irrigate. Supplying needed water to crops has allowed the United States to become the biggest agricultural producer in the world. Irrigation has made the Israeli desert bloom. But what about Cold Soil Road in central New Jersey?

My quest for more water began 23 years ago. Our life of farming had just started, and I realized the new dwarf apple trees that I was planting would need irrigation. Their root systems are small, and they do not thrive in a drought. I discovered that our farm well was actually capable of providing much more water than was needed for the house, Farm Store, and cider mill. In fact, it could yield 70 gallons per minute (gpm)! It is a remarkable well for this geographic area. In southern New Jersey, it is not unusual to find wells producing 800 to 1000 gallons per minute. The aquifers are plentiful and not far below the ground surface. In our area, 4 to 10 gallons per minute is more usual.

We installed trickle irrigation throughout the farm and have watered our fruits and vegetables from this well for over 20 years. But, as our farm expanded with our rental of adjacent land and with the growing of more intensive crops, our water need also increased. For example, to water our two acres of blueberries we use 40 gallons per minute. During a dry time, they need that much for 4 to 6 hours a day, 4 days a week – and so on for all the crops.

The system of trickle irrigation is an extremely efficient use of water. Water is supplied to the plants using the “drip” or “trickle” approach, with the water slowly dripping out at ground level – right where the plants need it. Very little is lost to evaporation. All the plantings are monitored with moisture sensors buried in the root zone. Crops are watered only when they need it.

Despite the efficient system and careful monitoring, 70 gpm only goes so far. We now farm about 100 acres on Cold Soil Road and, during a drought, our well does not have enough water. After the summer of 1999, I decided to drill another well. This decision led to quite an adventure. We drilled the well in March 2000, calling upon the Sam Stothoff Company to do the work. Well drillers are a “funny” sort. They ask only two questions – where and how deep! You pay by the foot, not by the gallons produced. We chose a “likely” spot. However, 460 feet later, we had only 4 gpm – enough for a house, but not worthwhile to us. What a disappointment.

I had previously decided that if the first well proved unsuccessful, I would give it one more try. The drillers still had the same two questions. I was stuck.

In the fall of that year, my friend, Doug Minard, an apple grower in the Hudson Valley of New York, visited Terhune Orchards. When I related the story of my unsuccessful well, he said, “I might be able to help you.” My friend Doug is a dowser. He asked me for two coat hangers and a wire cutter. He made two “L” shaped wires, held them in his hands pointing forward, and said he was ready to go. Now, if you have read any of my previous articles, you know that I am a great believer in science and the scientific method. This just wasn’t scientific. I wasn’t sure what to do, but remembered what I had learned long ago – if a friend wants to help you, let him. And besides, he couldn’t do any worse than I had already done.

Before we went out to dowse a well, he suggested that he check how the wires worked. Walking back and forth around the farmstead, he soon located four of my buried water lines. I had known where they were, but he didn’t. My scientific convictions began to waiver.

We then went out to the orchard where Doug located several good spots. He identified one of them as the best, and I marked it clearly.

The story ends in December, when I called the Stothoffs back. They drilled a 500-foot well that produces a terrific amount of water. I am no longer so skeptical of “dowsing.” Maybe some things are not so easily explained by science. I am now working on developing an irrigation system to go with my new well. Maybe that will be the subject of a future article.