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When the neighbors are a source of irrigation

Bart Berg (left) of Trust for Working Landscapes and landscape architect Russ Berg heft irrigation pipe along a trench at the Day Road farm complex Saturday. - Courtesy of Rick Gordon
Bart Berg (left) of Trust for Working Landscapes and landscape architect Russ Berg heft irrigation pipe along a trench at the Day Road farm complex Saturday.
— image credit: Courtesy of Rick Gordon

Volunteers dig in to bring needed water to farms in the Day Road area.

Working foot by foot, volunteers were laying the groundwork for what could be a new era at the Day Road farm complex Saturday.

It was the third day the volunteers labored at the farm, laying pipe and conduit into a mile-long trench carved through the ruddy earth by an excavator. Standing in the chest deep trench they shoveled dirt over the newly laid tubing, packing in the earth by hand and picking out large rocks that might do damage when the excavator finishes filling the chasm.

It’s a rustic home for a cutting edge irrigation system that farmers hope will make growing crops on the city-owned land more affordable and efficient.

The system was paid for with $50,000 federal Department of Agriculture grant secured by the Trust for Working Landscapes. The city is paying for electrical work while much of the labor is being shouldered by the force of volunteers.

“There’s a real good feel to this,” said Brian MacWhorter, one of five main farmers who work plots at the complex. “A lot of people are pitching in to help save farming on the island.”

In the past, irrigation at the Day Road Farms gas come from a mash up of systems. Some farmers have tapped into city water, others have used gas powered pumps to draw from the two ponds on the property.

The new irrigation system will be fed by the ponds and will carry water to all corners of the complex. Branching off from the main line, roughly 20 miles of drip hose will trickle water to individual rows in the fields.

Compared to traditional irrigation the Day Road system will be intelligent about how it dispenses water. An integrated weather station will feed information to a central contoller, which sends signals to decoders at valves throughout the network. A farmer will be able to activate his zone on the property and the computer will adjust water flow based on real-time conditions.

The automated system will use water more sparingly. The ponds have a 1 million gallon capacity, but their level could be drawn down several feet in a single day of watering with conventional pumps.

The new irrigation system can be programmed meter water on a schedule like a residential sprinkler system.

“(Farmers) have spent nights up here just watching the irrigation,” said Bart Berg of Trust for Working Landscapes, who is coordinating the project. “Now they can go home at night and let the machine do the work.”

Berg said the group hopes to have the water flowing by late spring, in time for the dry summer months. Volunteers still have several weekends of shovel work yet to go.

When finished the project will be the largest improvement to the Day Road complex since the city bought land to preserve as open farm space.

“It’s a ton of effort,” said Mike Lempriere, who owns the nearby Perennial Vintners vineyard and farms a plot at the Day Road complex. “This is week three and we probably have three more to go.”

Like Lempriere, many of the volunteers are island farmers, others are just residents looking for a way to support island-grown food. The typical day includes five hours of shoveling, but morale is boosted by a break for a homemade lunch provided by farmers. Last Saturday the workers lined up for a spread of caramelized onion pizza, sloppy joes, a fresh salad and macadamia nut cookies.

Despite the gritty work, the mood was light in the trench as the volunteers inched closer to their goal.

Surveying the row of shovelers Saturday, MacWhorter said it’s encouraging to see islanders supporting farms beyond budget line items and meetings.

Really understanding a farm can take some sweat and dirty fingernails.

“Actions speak better than words,” MacWhorter said. “I go to a lot of these committee meetings and I know people work in different capacities, but it’s nice to see them get out here and do some grunt work.”

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Water works

Volunteers are welcome to pitch in at the Day Road farm complex. Work parties convene Saturdays at 10 a.m. and run through the afternoon. Rubber boots and work clothes are advised and volunteers are encouraged to bring any shovels or digging implements they have. Call Bart Berg at 842-7547 for more information.

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