Saving Water + Energy with Local Foods

Karen and John Pendleton are leaders in the local-foods movement in Kansas. Operating on 65 acres in northeast Kansas, just outside of Lawrence, the Pendleton’s raise vegetables and flowers using surface and subsurface drip irrigation in the field, in hoop houses, and greenhouses. Emphasizing the importance of direct marketing via farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture, agricultural education, and agri-tourism, the Pendleton’s educate local consumers on agricultural practices, beneficial insects, and nutrition. Using a common sense approach, the Pendleton’s practices save water, energy, and benefit the local community. John Pendleton explains,

We live here. We think it’s important to have a nice balance of good, healthy environment where we live and work. Whether it’s food, butterflies, pumpkins, or flowers, they’re all different things we have on the farm. The butterfly pavilion is educational, the flowers are beautiful, and the food tastes better. We want to provide good quality products to the customers that look better, taste better, and are more nutritious. I like that people say, ‘this is my farmer.’ Our customers are our customers, and we are their farmers.

Water

The Pendleton’s are committed to growing vegetables and flowers with efficient water usage. For 25 years, the Pendleton’s have used drip irrigation in their operation. Drip irrigation is much more efficient than conventional sprinkler or watering systems, which are prone to evaporation losses. Drip irrigation puts the water exactly where the water is needed—near the roots—and reduces waste compared to less accurate irrigation methods. This is specifically beneficial for flowers, which can be damaged by overhead watering. Drip irrigation takes a more measured approach to watering, and by not inundating the flowers, it ensures better plant quality. Coupled with protective black plastic mulch, (which suppresses weeds) SDI goes a long way in efficient water usage for many plant varieties that have very particular water requirements. John explains,

Our farm was originally set up for flood irrigation, where we could use large volumes of water and overhead sprinklers, but the efficiency of that compared to drip is terrible. When using sprinklers, you have more evaporation. You’re watering driveways, walkways, everything. With SDI, the water is right where the plants are. The plastic mulch holds back the weeds, retains moisture underneath the mulch, and it also reduces the need for using a chemical herbicide.

Tomato and pepper plants also benefit from SDI because it reduces the disease problems that tend to surround conventional watering methods. This lessens the need to invest in chemical fungicide expenses and similar inputs.

Saving Water with Drip Tape and Mulch from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

 

The Pendleton’s also grow tomatoes hydroponically with a semi-drip system. Hydroponic tomatoes are ready to harvest at the end of April each year which gives more variety in the spring markets and encourages consumers to purchase local foods early in the growing season. The Pendleton’s have established an enlightened system of growing vegetables by efficiently using water and simultaneously producing an abundant, stable harvest. Locally-raised hydroponic tomatoes are picked vine ripe which results in better tasting tomatoes. From a human health perspective, this "better taste” also has a distinct advantage for establishing a balanced diet: the Pendleton’s believe that better-tasting food is more likely to be accepted by children.

With hydroponics, you start harvesting at the end of April each year which gives more variety in the spring and encourages local foods early on. The difference between locally raised hydroponic tomatoes and shipped in tomatoes is that our tomatoes are picked vine ripe where the others are picked before they are ripe. Vine ripened tomatoes taste a whole lot better! If it tastes like a tomato, kids will eat it!

One notable facet of the Pendleton's vegetable production is their commitment to no-till. They have grown 20 acres of asparagus using no-till for ten years. Before switching to no-till, the soil would blow and pit the asparagus. In order to improve their soil health, the Pendleton's have also made a large (15’ x 30’) compost pile that they use onsite. A focus on soil health guides their operations. As Karen comments, "We are spoiled with the good soil of the Kaw River Valley, we do our best to protect it." John continues:

We are so blessed with having Kaw Valley soil. There’s a reason that this type of farming goes on more in the river valley than the hills and the clay and people’s backyards – it’s just too hard to do. The clay holds moisture, plants don’t thrive. Having the right soil structure to start with makes all the difference. On top of that, something as basic and scientific as a soil test is very important so that you know what nutrients are there. There’s art and science to this. You need to know what nutrients are needed for the crop. You don’t want to add too much fertilizer, because that’s bad for environment, but you need the plant to have enough. We use a mixture of compost and growing green manure and legumes. Peas, and soybeans create nitrogen. If there is a need for extra nutrients, knowing how much you need to have is important. Instead of dumping all of it on in the winter, spoon-feeding is better for the plant.

They use some herbicides to address weeds, but Karen says they normally use half an application. Karen says, "we put up with more weed pressure than we would like, but it’s manageable.”

Using no-till and light applications of herbicide, in turn, improves water quality, which is a priority for the Pendleton’s. They created and preserve 10 acres of wetlands in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Their property is flat, so it generates minimal runoff, and since they use drip irrigation, essentially the only runoff that reaches the wetlands is rainwater.

Energy

The Pendleton’s take a multifaceted approach to reducing their energy usage: locally marketing produce, increasing ventilation, reducing chemical applications and even retrofitting a tractor all fit into the efficiency on the farm.

As strong advocates of locally-grown produce, the Pendleton’s participate in two farmer’s markers each week and also open their farm for agri-tourism and "U-pick” on-farm activities. They operate a CSA from the farm with nine drop-off places located in Lawrence, which are primarily businesses and daycare centers. This provides bags of produce each week to about 100 people. Locally grown foods save fuel because they reduce the "food miles” involved in transporting vegetables from farms to grocery stores. The CSA model also helps financially, as well. Customers pay to participate in the CSA at the beginning of the season, which provides an operating loan, of sorts, that comes in when all seed costs are due. Plus, being in direct contact with the customers is just plain fun. Karen says,

It is fun at the farmer’s market. That’s our social time and our marketing time. We really enjoy it. We see people every week, others once a year. It’s a place for us to see people and see our friends. The farmer’s market family really takes care of each other. It’s a good community. It helps with education because the customers can ask us all the questions. Most farmers are more than willing to talk. It’s all about relationship.

The Pendleton’s greenhouses are extremely well-equipped to use low amounts of energy. They do not use any fungicides or insecticides; they use beneficial insects in their greenhouses and have not sprayed insecticides on their greenhouse raised produce in over 25 years. Beneficial insects are very efficient and save money, because once the population of beneficial insects is established, the greenhouse runs virtually problem-free for the rest of the year. Also, using Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, on outdoor crops, means they only have to spray in isolated areas, or spot spray, where there are problems.

We haven't sprayed insecticide in our greenhouses for over 25 years. It saves us money because the beneficial insects are very efficient. We’ve learned to be patient. It usually takes about two weeks to see the impacts of the beneficials, but once we get a strong population in a greenhouse, we have no problems for the rest of the year.

You definitely have to keep on top of the insect populations, especially with pumpkins and squash. Squash bugs are terrible. We’ve used the "two-brick method” and I’ve even taken out battery powered vacuums to get the bugs. Our last resort is to spray.

Ventilation is a major energy expense for greenhouse operations where indoor temperatures can reach up to 120 degrees. The Pendleton’s modified their largest greenhouse such that they can open the top third of the structure’s walls which significantly increases cross-ventilation. As a result of these ventilation modifications, the greenhouse no longer needs to run fans. The cost of running fans in one greenhouse went from about $500 a month to $0 virtually overnight. The Pendleton’s also have high tunnels, which enable them to extend the growing season and use no additional energy. They use shade cloth to keep things cooler in the high tunnels which further extends the season.

The high tunnels really help us manage for the extremes, when you have three days straight of rain, the tomatoes get diseases. With drip irrigation in a high tunnel, we don’t have that extreme rain. We can add a shade cloth if it’s a crop that needs more shade, if it needs less heat, we can lower the sides for more ventilation. We can start crops earlier which extends the season, meaning we have crops longer.

In Kansas, our spring is usually about two days long, maybe a week. It goes from cold to hot so fast. The high tunnels give a longer period of spring that we can use to grow cold weather crops, like greens, salad mixes, etc., that need a long cool season.

Using plans from a Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) grant, the Pendleton’s also converted an old Allis Chalmers G tractor with a cracked engine block to an electric tractor. Karen jokes, "it is the Prius on the farm!”

The farm Prius: New Energy for an Allis G from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.


 

The relationship between saving water and energy is important for the success of this operation. By using SDI, the Pendleton’s have more efficient fertilizer application. Switching to no-till has huge energy reductions, primarily because no-till cuts fuel consumption by reducing the number of trips across the field, which saves fuel and money. Moreover, recent research suggests that using fewer inputs can significantly improve the indirect energy savings. The production of inputs to agriculture (fertilizers, pesticides, and so forth) requires massive amounts of energy, so any reduction of inputs saves energy

Progress

The Pendleton’s are active leaders in the movement promoting local and sustainable agriculture. John Pendleton is president of Growing Lawrence, a directory of small farmers and U-picks. The group meets monthly, which Karen believes has important benefits:

In today’s world, farmers aren’t getting together as much as we used to, not finding that socialization that we used to. There are no local farmer’s co-op anymore. Farmers are missing out on networking and socialization.

Karen believes that regularly discussing the issues facing farmers today will unite farmers who engage in different practices.

We have done conventional farming and produce or horticulture farming. So many consumer groups are trying to get the two to be against each other. One of the things we try to do is bring the two groups together so they can understand each other.

The Pendleton’s participate in an educational outreach activity called Slice of Ag. This unites fourth graders across the country to learn about agriculture, vegetables, beef, pork, grains, food safety, equipment, and soil conservation. Of course, the Pendleton’s have detailed, intimate knowledge of most of these topics.

They welcome nearly 1,000 children every year to their butterfly pavilion. The young visitors receive a 20-minute talk on the metamorphosis and life cycle of butterflies, the importance of bees and pollinators, and tour the house, which contains butterflies, caterpillars, eggs, and chrysalis. All of their butterflies come from the Pendleton’s farm, and they plant nectar plants and host plants and then catch butterflies and put them in their pavilion.

Butterflies a draw for ag education from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

Many of these practices help prepare the Pendleton’s for subprime conditions. High tunnels help lessen impacts of late frosts, freezes, and hail storms. Another technique they use to reduce the impacts of freezes is to use "Remay” (spun fiber fabric) as a protective cover, which provides an additional 3 to 4 degrees of warmth. The Pendleton’s are aware that Kansas is a place of unpredictable weather, and try to plan accordingly:

We would love to live in average [conditions] but average never happens. Normal is the extremes here in Kansas. The black plastic mulch and drip irrigation are a way that we hedge. There may be years where we don’t need it but having it in place gives flexibility.

Acknowledging the spontaneity of weather and diverse climate in Kansas is an important factor in the Pendleton’s crop selection. They aim to grow crops that are easier to grow in Kansas. For instance, they encourage growing sweet potatoes via "Tuber Tuesdays,” a celebration of sweet potatoes in Lawrence that features specialty dishes using sweet potatoes at restaurants on Tuesdays. This initiative encourages growing suitable crops and encourages consumers to buy regionally-appropriate crops by educating, highlighting nutritional value, offering recipes, and simply having fun.

The Pendleton’s operation and activism are models for those interested in promoting local foods, sustainable practices, conservation efforts, and community outreach. Their greenhouses and equipment are examples of energy efficient gardening and agriculture; their system of irrigation reveals a great way to keep their water quality and water use efficiency high; and their investment in their community shows that collaboration and information are essential in creating a more successful food system.

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