|Maine Farmhouse Journal
The Long Dry Season
Last summer was touch and go, keeping the blueberries supplied with enough water to grow big, juicy berries. It was a hot, dry summer in Maine, and nearly 50% of the state's blueberry crop was lost. We had a short picking season ourselves at the Farmhouse, much to the disappointment of our customers. While other blueberry growers who weren't able to irrigate really suffered, the drip irrigation system that we put in last spring saved our crop.
Blueberries need about 2" of water a week while they are in flower and during the growing season when the berries are ripening. When the rains fall short, we try to make up the difference using irrigation. Unfortunately, the water source for our irrigation system is the water well for the Farmhouse, and last summer it wasn't enough to take care of the needs of the house and the blueberries both. Several times I ran the well dry. Luckily, the well recharged itself every time within an hour or so, so it wasn't a complete disaster. With a lot of trial-and-error I was able to work out the settings on the timers so that each of the five irrigation zones got water on a staggered schedule during the night. I started out with an hour of watering per zone, then reduced that to 30 minutes with an hour "rest" for the well to recover. By the end of the growing season, each zone was only getting 30 minutes a week of watering in 15 minute well-spaced increments, or about 1/4 of what the bushes needed.
The winter of little snow we had last year(see Not Much of a Maine Winter Now, Was It?) didn't help the groundwater situation any. We have several neighbors whose wells have dried up, and the predictions from the Almanac were for another hot, dry summer this year. We were very worried that there might not be enough water for the Farmhouse, let alone to irrigate the blueberries. It was not a good prospect.
Cooperative Extension Assistance
When Tom Bell did his series of articles in the Portland Press Herald on the drought we are now going through here in Maine, he called it "the Long Dry Season". He also mentioned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was providing 50% matching grants to farmers for new water wells. I called up the Cumberland County Cooperative Extension Service in May to see for myself.
"How do I apply for one of those federal matching grants?" I asked. "We have a blueberry operation up here in Sebago, and irrigate them from the house well. Last year I pumped the well dry several times, and if we have a dry summer, it is going to be worse."
"Sorry, but the only water emergency grant program we have is for livestock farmers" Sandy said.
"Do you think the program might be expanded sometime in the future to cover blueberry farmers as well?" I asked. I told her about our blueberry operation and how much water we use.
"Come down and register your farm with us, and we'll put you on the list in case something happens."
A few days later I stopped by the Cooperative Extension Service offices in Gorham and filled out some paperwork. "I'll let you know if the grant program is expanded" Sandy said.
About two weeks later Sandy sent me an e-mail. "Matching grants for blueberry farmers are now available. Contact me for details" I called her right back, arranged to have her come out to inspect our operation, and fill out the application.
"You'd better arrange for a well driller" she said. "I understand there is quite a waiting list for them. Once your application is approved, you will only have 30 days to complete the well."
I made three calls. First, I contacted Ron Irish. Ron lives up the road about 3 miles and owns Irish Well Drilling. Ron put me on his waiting list, and said that he would be able to get to our place in mid-July as things looked then.
Joe Foster was the next call on my list. Joe is the local plumber, and I wanted to get on his busy list to have him hook up the pump and pressure tank once Ron had finished drilling the well.
Dowsing for a New Well
And finally, I called Roland Moore. Roland is a dowser from Falmouth, and I asked him if he could come by and locate a spot for the well. I'd never had any dealings with dowsers before, and was a bit skeptical. However, I know several people who swear by them, and I also am very aware of how difficult it is to get a good flowing well in our area. So to cover my bets, so to speak, I figured it was worth a try.
Tim and Carol Mayberry have a wonderful bountiful well at their farm up the road 1/4 mile. It flows 25 gallons per minute (gpm), and is only down about 67 feet. They are able to irrigate their large commercial vegetable farm, their greenhouses, and their domestic needs, with water left over. Everyone else down the road from them, however, are water-poor by comparison. Next door neighbors Alan and Valerie Greene have a 400 foot well and only has about 1 1/2 gpm. Our own house well flows only 2 1/2 gpm and is down at about 150 feet. Other wells in our area are sometimes very deep and have only modest flows. While we'd all like to have a well like the Mayberry's, the odds are that we will have to be satisfied with something much less.
"Roland" I said when I talked with him on the phone "I got your name from The American Society of Dowsers directory of Maine dowsers. We are having a new water well put in, and I thought you might be able to help us."
"Sure" he replied. "I'd be happy to come up and see what I can do".
We arranged for him to come up that weekend. He and his wife drove up on Saturday morning. I'd heard tales of dowsers and their forked willow or apple wands, but Roland didn't fit my preconceptions. First of all, he started right off asking me questions: "What volume of water were we looking for?" "What quality did we need - household or irrigation?" "Where were we going to use the water?"
He then pulled out the tools of his trade, and further spoiled the impressions of the typical dowser. He had two pieces of plastic surgical tubing about 14" long tied together at one end so that when he held on the two ends it looked like a "V". Using this device he walked over our property muttering to himself. Every now and then he would stop and the tubing would go up and down.
"No water anywhere over there" he said, pointing towards the area between our garden and the road. "But right here, you'll find water". He then took out two brass rods that looked like brazing rods that each had a right-angle bend so they looked like an "L". He took the short end of the "L" in his hands and walked slowly over the area. The rods swung back and forth in front of him and crossed several times. "There are several good veins of water that cross right here" he said.
Roland then went back to the tubing device and stood in one spot asking questions "Is the source between 100 feet and 500 feet down?" The tube dipped. "Is the source between 100 feet and 400 feet deep?" The tube dipped again. He continued his questions about the depth of the water source, and the quantity and quality of the water that was available. Finally, he drove a yellow wooden stake in the ground and stood back.
The yellow stake was only about 20 feet from the control box for the blueberries, and right in the middle of our asparagus patch. "Tell your driller to drill right here. He will find water around 200 feet, and it will be a very good producer. He will not find any water below 300 feet."
As I understand the science of dowsing, it is an ancient art of searching for hidden things (water, precious metals, etc) using the inate ability that most people possess. The American Society of Dowsers estimates that nearly 80% of people have this special gift - an ability to sense things not perceptible to others.
"Let me look at your existing well" he said. I took him over to the other side of the house and he took out his instruments. "You have a well here that is flowing about 2 1/4 gpm, but there are two or three other veins near by. Let me see if I can divert them into your well bore." With that he took an iron rod and drove it into the ground with a hand maul above where one of these veins was located, and tapped on the rod with the maul in the direction of the well bore. He repeated this at one other location. "That should increase the flow to your well" he said. "You should see an increase to about 4 or 5 gpm, but you need to draw on it to get it to flow into the well."
I thanked Roland for coming over, and was hopeful for a good well at a reasonable depth. As for his "diverting" additional flows to our existing well, I ran the pump and there seemed to be a slight increase in flows for a short time. As things got drier in the following weeks, the house well reverted to its delicate, marginal flow situation that we had experienced the summer before. We certainly were not getting 4 or 5 gpm out of it.
Ron Irish came over to look at the lay of the land before he brought his drill rig in. I showed him the yellow stake that Roland had driven into the ground, and said that he could get his equipment to it with no problem. I asked him if he ever used dowsers, and he was noncommittal. I could tell from his facial expression, however, that he didn't think much of the practice, but would humour me and drill where I asked.
Belts and Suspenders
I've always been a subsciber to the "belt with suspenders" theory. That is, you try and cover your bets with a back up scheme. That is one of the reasons that we have a generator out in the barn, so that when the power goes out we have an alternate source of electricity. And why I try and find an alternate route from here to there, so that you have a fall-back in case the primary route is closed because of construction or whatever. That is probably just the Yankee in me.
Anyway, I figured that we'd better go ahead with setting up a water storage tank. There were just too many "ifs" hanging over the new water well. "If" Ron finds water where Roland said he would, and "if" the well comes in with enough volume, and "if" the water quality is OK for the blueberries, and "if" all this can be done this growing season, etc, etc. The water storage tank would allow us to operate off the existing house well until all the "ifs" got worked out. When the new well was available, we would still need some sort of reservoir if the volume wasn't real good.
Last year I bought an old 1,200 gallon water tank from the Town. It started life as on a home heating oil tank truck about 40 or 50 years ago, and was then converted into Sebago Fire Department's Tank 2. It hasn't been used for years, and has been sitting behind the old town garage on a couple of wooden timbers for at least 25 years. For all its years, it looked sound and I figured it would serve me well as a water storage tank for the blueberries. Tim Cook hauled it up to the Farm just before Christmas (see Not Much of a Maine Winter Now, Was It?), where it sat in the field.
This spring I levelled off a spot on a little knoll behind the barn that was about 3 feet higher than the water control box. One fine day, not too warm and not too cold, and with not too many black flies, I had Merlin Baehr and a friend over to help me build a crib work out of old railroad ties. I wanted to get the tank elevated another 4 feet above the knoll so that there would a reasonable hydrostatic head that would flow water from the tank to all the irrigation zones.
The Steep Falls Lumber Yard had received a big shipment of used railroad ties from some line in Canada. By picking through the pile I found a dozen that were in pretty good shape. Each was creosote-coated oak and took all I could do with help to lift and pile in the trailer. I also bought a double handful of foot-long galvanized spikes to hold the ties together. It was a chore unloading the trailer behind the barn, but I figured with Merlin and his friend helping we could stack and spike without too much problem.
Merlin's friend and I were struggling to carry one tie up the knoll when I heard "Clear way, coming through!" Merlin had picked up a tie that probably weighed as much as he does and was carrying it like it was nothing at all! I showed him how I wanted the ties spiked together, and gave him a 2-pound hand maul. "Got anything bigger?" he asked.
Now you have to realize that Merlin is 15 years old, is skinny, and can't weigh more than 100 pounds soaking wet. His older brother Daniel could lift up a car with his bare hands to change a tire if he wanted to, and Merlin is growing up to be the same.
"Sure" I said "Let's see what I've got in the barn." He came with me to the pile of hand tools under the loft in the back of the barn. "How about this one?" I asked, showing him an 8-pound splitting maul.
"Don't you have anything bigger?"
"I've got this 12-pound sledge hammer, but..." I started to say. Merlin said "That will be just right" and carried it back to the cribbing.
Merlin climbed up on top of the cribbing and drove the spikes in with 2 or 3 swings of the sledge as fast as his friend and I could stack the ties on the crib. We started calling him "John Henry". Merlin hardly broke a sweat, and the crib was done in no time at all.
After the kids had left, I still had a couple of things to do before moving the tank into place. The old tank had quite an accumulation of mouse nests, rust and scale. I spent an hour or so cleaning it out with a shop vac and a hoe. The dump valve fittings had been taken off when it was decommissioned, and I tracked them down in Station 2 and Station 3, so that I could put it back together. I found all of the parts except one 1 1/2 inch compression fitting that took a trip to Portland to replace. Sebago Hardware and Standish Hardware had all of the other fittings, valves, plastic pipe and clamps that I needed.
I'd mentioned to Tim Cook that we were ready to move the tank to the cribbing whenever he happened to be in the neighborhood with his truck. He gave me a call on the fire department radio one day to see if I was going to be home. A short while later he showed up with a truck that had a long boom on it, and he made short work of lifting the tank right into place where I wanted it.
All that was left was to dig a ditch from the tank to the water control box big enough for two water lines and hook everything up to the existing water system from the house. Since this is only going to be a summer water system, I didn't have to dig the ditch below the frost line and just went at it with a shovel. It was discouraging to see how dry the soil was. Even though we've had some rain in June and July, it hasn't been enough. As far down as 1 1/2 feet the soil was as dry as dust. Without irrigation, the blueberries would suffer. Water during the flower-and-fruit bearing stages is critical to a good crop.
One 1 1/4 inch plastic line carried water from the house to the water tank. There I installed a valve so that I could regulate the water coming into the tank at just a trickle. A toilet float valve went into the top of the tank, so that when it was full the flow of water would be shut off. A trickle of 1 or 2 quarts a minute from the house well would fill the tank in a couple of days, and would keep ahead of the irrigation needs for the blueberries. Paul installed gutters along the south edge of the barn roof, and piped the gutters so that all the rain collected from the barn roof would flow into the tank as well. One 1/2 inch rain storm nearly filled the tank half-way.
The other water line from the tank tied into the water control system upstream of the valves to the various irrigation zones. I could irrigate from the tank alone, or in combination with the house water stream. The elevation of the tank gave me nearly 20 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure, which was more than enough to flow water to all the zones. The Queen Gill drip irrigation tape is pressure limited, and I have installed 12 psi pressure relief valves on all the zones to prevent bursting the tape.
Drilling the New Well
Ron Irish was able to move his schedule up and showed up with his drill rig and a couple of support trucks to begin drilling on July 3. It was a hot, muggy day. He maneuvered the drill rig exactly over the yellow stack that Ronald had located, and started to drill. The drill went quickly through the soil, rocks and gravel and at about 60 feet he hit bedrock. After installing surface casing, the slow but deliberate process of drilling through the granite bedrock continued all day.
At about 240 feet the drill went through a layer of feldspar with a trickle of water. At 300 feet Ron had gone through all the drill pipe he had brought with him, and called it quits for the day. Since the next day was July 4, he proposed giving his crew the holiday weekend off. "I'll be back on Monday" he said and we can decide what you want to do from here". I was clearly disappointed that the big volume gusher that Ronald had predicted was not there.
I called Roland and told him what the driller had found. He insisted that the water vein was above 300 feet, and suggested that the well bore be hydrofracted to open up the seam. When a well is hydrofracted, water is injected under pressure to force open any water bearing seams. I then called Ron and asked what he thought. He reiterated that he hadn't had much luck with dowsers, and recommended that the well be drilled a little deeper before hydrofracting.
Ron and his crew came back on Monday morning, July 8 and measured the flow at 3/10 gpm - pretty small and a long way from what we need. They drilled the well deeper, but found no additional water. Ron and I talked, and he pulled the drill casing out of the well and brought in the tanker truck he uses for hydrofracting. Once water was pumped down the hole under pressure, there was an immediate loss of pressure indicating that a seam had been opened and the water was flowing from the well bore into the rock seam. Ron estimated the flow at 3 to 4 gpm.
I called Joe Foster back and told him we were ready for him. He was there the next morning, and installed a pump down the well, a pressure tank, and he and I ran the power cable to the barn. Once I run a new line from the breaker panel to the new breaker box in the barn we will be ready to use the new well. It is hooked up to feed the water tank, or to feed the drip irrigation system directly, or even to back feed the house should the house well go down for some reason.
When everything was done, we ended up with a new well producing between 3 and 4 gpm. We didn't get the well that Roland predicted, but he was close in his predictions of where the water would be and that deeper wasn't going to find any additional water. I guess on balance the dowsing worked. Whether we would have found water without his help is an unanswered question. We don't have a barnburner of a well, but it should take care of our blueberry needs for the time being anyway. Between the old well, the new well, and the storage tank I have a couple of "belts" to go with my "suspenders."
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Last updated July 15, 2002
Copyright © 2002, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2002, Allen Crabtree