Farming in 'Flash Flood Alley'

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Carol Ann Sayle


You might say it was the finale. Hermine, the tropical storm that poured her way north into Central Texas, looked like she was about through with us, but nope. Not quite.

We'd spent the day prior to the promised arrival of the Mexican "tormento" industriously preparing beds for planting fall crops. Flat after flat of kale, collards, and bok choi waited expectantly on our front porch. We knew if we didn't get the beds ready, the effort of that and of planting the crops would be put off by a lot of rain.

That night, Hermine slid in gently, raining softly, enduringly, through the darkness, seeming like an "Oregon Rain," a fantasy rain— nothing like what we usually get in a rain.

Rain fell again and I dug that grave faster than any of the 300 graves I've dug
during my 28 years with chickens.

The next day, she reverted to true Texas thunderstorm style, with wind, booming claps of thunder, lightning, and heavy rain that now and then took a sneaky breather and became Oregon Rain, and then— probably laughing—seconds later, again a full-throated Texas Rain. Three and a half inches the first day, three inches the second day. Might not seem like much rain, but when you are dealing with the soil, six inches will wreck your plans.

The third day was our market, and all night long and early in the morning the rain pummeled the ponds already created by its predecessors. We advised the harvesters to stay home, as who wants to risk the lives of three good pickers?

The rain eased, but not many folks came to market, as they were warned of flash floods, and they knew the farm would be too flooded for us to do much harvesting. Central Texas is known worldwide as "Flash Flood Alley" because of its terrain and the wildness of the storms. The area drains quickly to its creeks, and these become death traps for those who don't obey the caution signs: "Turn around; don't drown."

Later in the day, the sun came out from the edges of a magnificent cloud, and so I was emboldened to slosh my way over to and into the Hen House. Time to collect the eggs and feed the hens some scratch—their afternoon treat.

But, after squishing through the quicksand mixture of straw, soil, and scattered feed seasoned with poop, oh, there was Patty Wyandotte, newly deceased, after 10 years of drought and flood. She died only hours after the death of her friend Old Rosie, also 10 years old, whom I'd buried in a pre-dug grave right before market. I guess Hermine was the last test of endurance for the two old hens and they either failed it or skipped the class.

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Carol Ann Sayle

I carried Patty out to the graveyard and began to dig her grave as she lay, eyes closed, nearby—not one to watch the digging of her own grave nor to care much about rainstorms anymore. The shovel slid easily into the wet earth as Hermine suddenly called from above. Big cracks of thunder. She was baaaacccckkkk! Like the villain in a good horror movie.

Rain fell again and I dug that grave faster than any of the 300 graves I've dug during my 28 years with chickens, and I laid Patty in it and wished her well, as a huge limb noisily disengaged itself from the top part of the largest pecan tree on the farm. It didn't make it all the way through the other branches to the ground below, so it will be a future threat.

I quickly stuck sticks into the top of the covered grave, to deter the hens from searching for worms next time they are out. They head right over to any loosened soil, as they too like an easy dig.

Then I dashed to the barn and waited a few minutes more for Hermine to move off to the north. The sun popped out and the hens swarmed the bright spots and began to preen the mud from their feathers and soak up a bit of Vitamin D.

They hate the rain. Except for the fact that earthworms often rise to the top of the soil and are easy pickings, and soon, after a rain, there will be more worms than ever. It's almost worth wading in slush for a few days. And they eagerly look forward to our fall crops, which in a couple of months will feed them as well as our visitors. Hermine was good for something after all.

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Carol Ann Sayle is co-founder and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre urban, organic farm in Austin, Texas.

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