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Measuring Before Digging

Updated: Apr 27, 2018

Later this week, a massive excavator is going to arrive on the farm. It’s finally time to start digging our swales and berms. We’re going with the excavator instead of shovel digging because there are more than 6,000 feet of swales and berms that need to be dug. That’s nearly a mile and I just don’t have that kind of time.

This weekend’s dig is part of our larger plan to establish seven acres of permaculture-style orchard and silvopasture. We have a butt-load of bare-root trees showing up on the farm in late October and I want to make sure we have finished all the necessary earthworks to set the orchard up for long-term success.

Before you can dig, you need to mark where you will dig. And that activity proved to be a lot easier in theory than in practice.

The basic idea of a swale on contour is to catch water as it drains and hold it in place until it absorbs into the ground. That means that you need to ensure that your swales are level. I’ve previously written about my plans to use a permaculture tool known as a bunyip level to mark the positions of the swales and ensure that they are level. I tried to put this method into practice back in June. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a disaster for me.

The bunyip gives you the ability to determine if two points are level, but it’s really hard to use it if you are working solo. I was constantly tipping it over when I would try to measure from one point to another. I even tried building several different types of kickstands and other support apparatus to keep the posts in place, but each design failed spectacularly.

Beyond being hard to use, the bunyip level was also exceptionally time consuming. After working with the bunyip for four hours, I had only marked seven points. Once I eventually switched to my Plan B, 262 posts were used to mark the swale positions.

Right around the same time that I was failing miserably with the bunyip, my friend Nick stopped by the farm. Nick works at the local NRCS office. The NRCS is an agency within the USDA. Its mission is to improve, protect, and conserve natural resources on private lands. After Nick and I talked a bit about my struggles and he offered to let me borrow the department’s laser level. You know, the fancy kind that usually costs around $1,000. He didn’t need to offer twice. I jumped at the opportunity.

Working with the laser level was great. It took about two hours of playing with it and watching YouTube videos to figure out how to properly use the thing, but once I got up on the learning curve, it was smooth sailing. I was able to mark off eight different rows for digging, each ranging between 300 and 800 feet long, over the course of two days.

It’s kind of tough to see in the photo, but the little white lines are the markers for the swales. The grey blob is me. The brown and white blobs are cows and sheep.

The days I spent working in the pasture and marking with the laser level were awesome. I lucked out and had perfect Vermont summer weather—75 degrees and sunny. I also had sheep and cows to keep me company. I really can’t think of better working conditions or co-workers.

We’ve got a lot more work ahead of us this weekend, but I’m really excited about making more progress against the plan

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