I wrote recently about a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer, and her family’s new concerns about eating healthy. That first long day in the hospital room, we were talking about how important it will be for her to not only eat healthy but also have a wholesome, restorative place to spend time in between her chemo treatments. As that discussion progressed that day, I knew in my heart what my buddy needed most - a lush garden full of vibrant, life-giving fruits, veggies, herbs and flowers. She has always had a garden of some kind, often better than mine actually.
She usually has a gorgeous yard, beautiful roses, and she’s gotten some things to grow that I have yet to master. But with the growing season upon us and her laid up with post-surgery recovery and then chemo, it was clear she wouldn’t be doing a lot of strenuous digging, lifting, weeding or cultivating anytime soon. And knowing her, she’d strenuously object to accepting charitable offers of help. That was the moment when I hatched my plan: I was going to put in her garden for her.
I didn’t want to step on toes, so I enlisted the help of her husband. What were her garden plans this year? What were the obstacles? What had she already talked about doing, and how far had she gotten? And most importantly, did he think that I should attempt the garden work, or should I leave that project to her? He agreed that she was in no shape to be gardening this spring, and he also agreed that she would likely turn down overt offers of help. He also felt strongly that a well-appointed garden would definitely be beneficial to her recovery. He had wondered himself how best to help but he was the first to admit he knew nothing about gardening. He cautioned me that the work load was considerable: her six planting beds were chock full of both over-wintered annuals, perennials and weeds, and he didn’t know which was which. All those beds were in desperate need of compost and mulch, but he didn’t know what kind of each she preferred. Additionally, a cold frame had collapsed over the winter, and she had been clearing a new area for some undisclosed future purpose. I figured that I knew her preferences enough, and I could determine garden plant from weed accurately enough, that we could put in a pretty good approximation of the garden she wanted. But it quickly became clear that any successful garden plans would need speed, skill, a good amount of effort, and an equal amount of raw material. My husband quickly agreed to help; we had all been friends a very long time and he also wanted her road to recovery to be as smooth and wholesome as possible. The three of us began to refer to our planned efforts as Green Ops, or Stealth Gardening.
The first task was to figure out what she had planned for this year. Somehow her husband was able to find her written diagram for what she’d wanted to do this year, right down to the type and number of plants in each bed. I took that to my farming partner and we talked about which varieties would do well in her yard, which plants to put next to each other for companion planting benefits, and what to plant first versus what to save until later. Her husband also learned that she wanted to first renew the beds with compost before planting anything, but our cold spring had prevented her from even starting that work.
I started to assemble veggie starts at the greenhouse, and we plotted out where to get the compost and how to get it there without her knowledge. A target date started to materialize- Memorial Day weekend was the first time all of us would be able to synch up our schedules and materials. In the interim, my buddy was finally released from the hospital, and had recovered enough at home that she’d gone back to work on a part-time basis earlier in May. Her work schedule had settled out such that she worked early in the week, then had each Thursday and Friday off for chemo, then worked Saturday afternoons. A Saturday afternoon would be perfect for our plans. We settled on today as Stealth Gardening Day.
She was due at work at 1pm, so we arranged to be there shortly thereafter with plants, mulch and compost. Her husband ostensibly had plans to work on various indoor projects that day, but as soon as she left he hustled outside, fired up the riding tractor, and had just finished knocking down the very tall weeds around the garden fence when we pulled up. My truck was so loaded down with compost and mulch that I was worried the tires would bog down in their soft lawn. Happily, my faithful little Ranger drove right up to the garden gate.
We spent the next six hours working over that garden. Each of us started in a different bed, clearing out all the weeds. Mercifully, only two of the beds still had useful plants in them, so I did those. The guys were able to take a ‘scorched earth’ approach with the others and they got right to work pulling everything in sight. And as luck would have it, we had one of the nicest days yet this year for our work. The afternoon progressed perfectly, with steady progress made under mostly sunny skies. Our conversation was light-hearted and cheerful, the weeds were only occasionally stubborn, and slowly but surely a garden began to emerge from what had been overgrown jungle. The plan was to first clear away all the weeds, then apply the compost and mulch. Any subsequent plantings would either be seeded directly into the mulch, or the mulch could be pulled away from the soil surface just enough to plant veggie starts without exposing the rest of the bed surface.
As the day progressed, it became clear that we wouldn’t finish even prepping the beds, let alone planting anything, before my buddy got home from work that afternoon. We decided we didn’t care. The secret was going to be out one way or the other, and she could hardly prevent us from finishing what we’d already started. So we just kept going, and watched for her little red truck to appear. About four hours after we started, there she was, driving home, with no idea what was waiting for her. I don’t know which exact moment she realized something was going on in her yard. But I do know that as she walked up to us, she had the biggest smile on her face that I’d ever seen. She was almost speechless, as she looked over that patch of jungle-turned-garden. She couldn’t say thank you often enough. Finally, she said she’d go change into work clothes, and come out to give us a hand finishing up. She actually worked with us for another two hours, helping me do some fine weeding around the plantings she did still have. We managed to dig up and relocate a number of feral oregano patches, to be consolidated into two big pots that she could come out and harvest anytime she wanted to cook with that fresh herb (which was frequently). And I had the distinct privilege of trotting out her six new tomato starts, each tall and leafy enough that they already needed staking. She just held those tomato starts in her arms like she was holding a new baby, looking at them as if looking at something she’d never dared to dream hope for. I’d produced hundreds of those starts this year for market, but at that moment it felt like those were the six most important veggie plants I’d ever had the privilege of seeding.
We finished up our mulching and compost work as the sun was sinking below the Olympic mountain range on the horizon, on what could only be called a perfect day. She told me that she’d hoped to have the energy to do at least some work later this year, but she had despaired of getting so much done, let alone so early in the year. She asked if the tomato starts could wait a day or two before being planted out; I said they were fine in their gallon pots for another week or so, because I’d fed them right before bringing them over. But I warned her that the work today was only Phase One of our Stealth Gardening Master Plan. There was more yet to come - secret plans that we were working on which she would simply have to wait to see, like a child waiting for Christmas morning. The gratitude on her face was indescribable, even as she tried to tell me I shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble, and certainly didn’t need to do any more. Too bad, girlfriend. We have our plans and we’re sticking to ‘em.
We haven’t finalized Phase Two yet, and I certainly can’t disclose those plans in such a public forum as this. But rest assured, Dear Reader, that we’ll have more Stealth Gardening work yet to be done this year. And for what it’s worth, I must also report that the time and effort we have spent so far on this project has already come back to us so richly, it hardly seemed like work. If there’s someone in your circle of friends and family who could benefit from a spontaneous gift of gardening effort, I highly recommend making that effort. We sure had a good time.
Fencing is possibly the single most boring yet crucial task on a farm or ranch. It is often one of the first things that must be done either when building a new facility or renovating an old one. That’s true whether you have livestock or not. Even if you only have some prize roses, some creature out in the world has a mission to go pester those roses to no end. That pestering will begin about 5 minutes after you’ve planted them. Gardens, market crops, field crops, bramble fruits and even orchards all need good fencing as much as any class of livestock. With good fencing, you have some reasonable assurance that whatever you put out that morning will still be there that night, in the same condition. Without good fencing, it’s only a matter of time until your animals, or someone else’s, go wandering where they shouldn’t. Nothing will ruin a day faster than realizing your animals are out. Or worse, your neighbor’s animals are out and munching away on your prize plantings. There’s a reason for the phrase ‘good fences make good neighbors’. There’s also a reason one of the ancient wonders of the world, the Great Wall of China, was basically a big fence. Many of the world’s worst disagreements started over someone going where they shouldn’t have. The motivation to build and maintain a good fence ranks right up there with the motivation to eat, sleep and breathe. Life is just so much easier when those tasks aren’t ignored.
So it should be no big surprise that a lot of our daily chores, and ongoing projects, involve fencing in some way: fencing our animals in, fencing other animals out, fencing off garden areas, fields, beehives, and even driveway or construction areas. We have resigned ourselves not only to this ongoing task but also to spending the money to do it right. The only thing worse than not having a fence, is not having sufficient fence, because that means you spent that time, money and effort for nothing. So where we perennially search for ways to save money, we won’t skimp on fencing anytime soon.
On our home place, we’ve come to rely on several different types of fencing for most of our paddock and growing areas. Our most common fencing is what’s known as field fence, but more specifically called woven graduated livestock fence. It consists of a metal wire mesh standing 47” high, with vertical wires running every 6”, and horizontal wires which are close to each other at the bottom. The distance between each horizontal wire gradually increases towards the top, thus the term “graduated”. The theory is that fencing near the ground should have smaller openings, to prevent passage of smaller animals. But the higher you get off the ground, presumably the bigger the animal becomes, so the openings in the fence can be larger while still preventing their passage. It’s a practical compromise between cost, weight and function. Run that mesh about 6-12” off the ground with sturdy metal T-posts or wooden fence posts, then string hotwire along the top and bottom of that, and you’ve very quickly got a 6’ barrier between you and the rest of the world. A barrier which will keep in or keep out 99% of all the creatures who would otherwise go gallivanting where they don’t belong.
Other types of fencing we rely on include a much lighter-weight, 6’ tall welded fence for the poultry yards, and 6’ chain link fencing for the dog yards. The welded fence material works well for the birds because it has much smaller openings - 2”x4”, and it’s much taller than field fence yet lighter to install. The birds prefer to squeeze through small gaps or flutter over the top, and the smaller openings combined with greater height keeps them where they belong. We use chain link for the individual dog yards, because it is much stronger and they can’t climb the bottom wires then wiggle through the top spaces. We have also used chain link for internal panel divisions in our barns, with generally good results. The hooved animals don’t like to climb on that type of fencing because the V shape at the bottom of each opening pinches their hooves together. It’s also small enough to prevent a horse from putting a hoof through it, yet open enough that I can instantly look down the stall row and see into each stall. But it is pricy, and heavy. So we have to be pretty selective where we use it.
One of the best fencing investments we ever made was to use heavy duty corral panels for the majority of our cow and horse stall panels. The darn things are amazingly heavy - I can barely move one by myself. But they sure do the job and they take a lot of abuse. Earlier this year I wrote about an incident we had with one of our cows trying to jump one of those panels. The only reason she was able to even think about jumping it was because bedding had built up in the stall, effectively dropping the panel height from 6’ down to only 3.5’ tall. When she tried to jump the panel, she got high centered on that top rail. After a lot of effort, we were able to get her over the rail and into the next stall. While it was my own darn fault that the bedding had built up sufficiently high for her to contemplate jumping the panel, it was thanks to the strength and design of that panel that it didn’t collapse and impale her or us while she was parked on top of it. She came away from that incident without so much as a scratch on her, and I came away from that incident very impressed with those panels.
Now however, our fencing career has taken a new turn with the addition of the rental pasture. I’d dearly love to use our field fence/hotwire combo out there, but it would not be practical or affordable to install all that fencing on land that we might only use for a single growing season. So we went back to the drawing board and did a lot of reading and talking to other livestock producers about what had worked well for them. We settled on what is called a New Zealand type of fence, which consists of multiple strings of smooth wire or filament stretched at high tension between fence posts. It has also been called “cheesecutter” fencing because it resembles the parallel, narrow-gauge wires used in some cheese cutters. Recent fencing developments have, however, found two issues with that type of fence: first, they can be costly to install because of the high tension requirement. That means stronger fenceposts driven more deeply into the ground than what would be required for field fence, and tighter tension which can be a hassle even on level ground. Secondly, both livestock and wildlife have a hard time seeing the fence, and there have been far too many cases of animals, particularly horses, running full speed into the fence and sustaining sometimes severe injury as a result. Turns out the “cheesecutter” moniker was a little too accurate. To lessen those two issues, a modified New Zealand fence has been developed with larger-diameter, easier to see, electrified filaments. The filaments might be the diameter of twine or rope. Some horse fencing has even been developed with 1”-2” wide tapes. Because these filaments are electrified, they don’t need the high tension to keep the animals from leaning on them. And because they are easier to see and larger in diameter, the animals don’t run into them as often, and don’t sustain cutting injuries when they do. It’s much cheaper and faster to install than field fence, and best of all, we can take it with us at the end of the year. So that’s the fence of choice on our new rental ground. We’ve begun installing it, and so far it’s going up easily enough. Time will tell if it works as well as we hope it does.
As I have previously written, any farm that must buy in feed is ultimately not the master of its own fate. One of the primary reasons we rented pasture land this spring was so that we could better control our own hay and grass supply. And if things had been running on schedule, our animals would have been grazing that land for over a month by now. But as circumstances would have it, we haven’t moved them yet. Nevertheless, they keep eating and we’re strongly motivated to start feeding them that luscious grass. Sadly, most modern grass harvesting methods fail miserably under cool and/or wet conditions, which is exactly what we’ve had all spring so far. However, cutting grass by hand doesn’t suffer from such conditions. At least, it doesn’t suffer nearly as much. So this week we’ve been trying our hands, literally, at harvesting methods which don’t rely on machinery which would bog down in the wet heavy fodder. Here at the end of that week, let’s just say we’ve had mixed results.
Many years ago when we first bought our home place, we had very small areas of grassy growth which needed to be cut regularly. Not a lawn, but an uneven grassy meadow. Where most folks would have simply reached for the lawn mower or even a riding mower, we wanted to see what other methods were available. I had an old reel mower which was clunky and could no longer be adjusted well for height. We used that for about 15 minutes and decided it needed to become yard art. Next we bought a line trimmer, and youbetcha that worked quite well. It also worked quite well decorating whoever used it with the juices of whatever it was trimming. Protective eyewear was crucial, as was picking out clothing that you never wanted to wear in public again. Combine that with the two-stroke gas engine, and hearing protection was also required. I felt like I was going into battle whenever I used it. But it did knock down the grass pretty darn well.
Another alternative was a scythe. This enduring symbol of harvest has hundreds if not thousands of years’ worth of historical use. To be clear, I am not referring to the American pattern scythe, with its thick S-shaped handle and awkward, heavy blade. No, this was a much more slender creature of European design, using a much lighter handle (called a snath) and a blade which was subtly but critically different in shape and angle. That latter scythe was comfortable, almost instinctively easy to use, and it also got the job done very nicely. Better yet, I could walk with a comfortably erect posture and use it for hours without the fatigue that came from American-pattern scythes. Best of all, when used correctly, the scythe swept a very large area, laid down each cut in a ready-made windrow, and didn’t spit all sorts of green flak all over the person cutting. It was orders of magnitude more efficient and more pleasant to use than the line trimmer.
So for several days this week, my husband and I scythed an ever-expanding area of the rental ground. We’d sweep back and forth across the width of the parcel, lay those windows down with each pass, and then move to the next section to cut. It was steady, quiet, rhythmic work that left us only slightly tired. After each pass, we’d gather up the grass we’d cut, sometimes still wet, and bundle it together with hay twine. Then we’d haul each bundle to the waiting trucks, cart it home, and feed it out fresh. The animals were delighted.
We probably could have kept doing that indefinitely, if not for some post-cutting issues. First, our method for tying the bundles apparently didn’t work very well, because about a third of the bundles ended up working loose on the short ride home. That spilled long stems and blades of fresh grass all over the back of the truck. That “leakage” wasn’t significant at first but we lost enough grass from each bundle that the waste started to add up. Secondly, even the bundles that stayed tight for the trip home, were difficult to feed out to the animals. Ironically, the animals were so happy to eat it that they trampled a lot of it just in the act of shoving other animals out of the way. Feed racks would have helped that situation a lot, but we didn’t happen to have any available. So there’s more waste. Third, we had to haul the heavy bundles from the growing area up to where the trucks were parked. We used a cart to carry them up that hill, but even with a cart that hill got real tiring, real fast.
All those disadvantages still weren’t enough to dampen our enthusiasm for using the scythe. Not quite. The thing that finally convinced us to go back to the drawing board was the sheer volume of grass yet to be harvested, and the knowledge that modern machinery could harvest in minutes what was taking us hours to harvest by hand. That, combined with the reality that we just didn’t have the time to be out there for such big chunks of time every day harvesting grass this way, finally convinced us we had to find another solution. By the end of the week, we were back to buying in hay. And the search for haying equipment resumed.
While reading about scythes on various websites, I learned that yes there were certain scale limits, beyond which the scythe simply couldn’t compete with modern machinery. We were already beyond that size limit. However, we were pleasantly surprised to see that yes, scythes are still used and valued in a variety of harvesting locations where either the climate or the harvesting conditions (such as steep ground, remote areas, etc) made mechanical harvesting difficult or impossible. In those circumstances, the scythe still shone brightly against the noise, the cost and the complexity of modern harvesting machinery. Another area of strong competition is when many hands are available to do the work. An army of competent scythers could compete effectively with even the best modern equipment, at a fraction of the cost. Sadly, we didn’t have either the time or the manpower. So our scythe saw only a brief tour of duty before being returned into careful, respectful storage.
For those folks who are looking to harvest small areas of grass by hand, say 1 acre per day or less, the European-pattern scythe is hard to beat. Even today, enthusiasts are continuing to experiment with new blade and snath designs, while old foundaries are producing blades which can only be described as beautiful, functional artwork. The craftsmanship still available with scythes is a thing to behold, and the day is not far off when demand will simply be too low to sustain those manufacturers. If we had more people on hand to help, or less area to cover, we’d still be out there scything, and happy to be there. But for our needs right now, it looks like we’ll be joining the ranks of the rushed, who have plunked down money in substitution for manpower. I think that’s the practical solution, and probably the more profitable solution. But somehow I find myself wishing I could have stayed with the scythe.
To learn more about European-pattern scythes, and how they are being used today on farms around the country and around the world, check out these websites and Youtube videos:
The Scythe Connection
The Scythe Connection's Blog
One Scythe Revolution
Youtube video titled "A good scythe at work"
Youtube video from Mystic Prairie Farm, entitled "Making Hay With An Austrian Scythe"
Youtube video about making hay in the Swiss Alps with a volunteer army of scythers
The work on our rental ground has begun. To be honest, that work should have begun a month ago. But our miserable, cold wet weather set back our pasture work just like it has set back everyone else. Yet the grass keeps growing and our animals keep eating, so we have had to make adjustments to our plan.
The general plan for that land, at least this first year, was to take the land out of its fallow status and bring it back into production as uniform pasture. We have the option to graze it, hay it, or some combination of both. Given the number of animals we have versus the size, we’ll almost certainly do both. We also very much want to determine what condition the soil is in. We know the field has not been limed or fertilized in years, if not decades. Yet it has been harvested many times during that same interval. In isolation that would almost guarantee some moderate to severe soil deficiencies. Yet the topography of the surrounding lands results in nutrient runoff every year during our heavy winter rains; at least some of those nutrients end up on that pasture. So we’re not entirely certain what we’ll find when we do our soil testing. One thing is for sure - that testing will give us a list of soil deficiencies and surpluses which must be corrected before the field will provide optimized production of nutritious forage.
To be sure, even mild soil imbalances cannot be corrected within a single growing season. Whatever we do this year will merely be a start to the process. Some would question whether we should pour money into soil improvements when we might not even be there next year. Soil improvements, particularly when done according to organic standards, take awhile to soak in. And those soil amendments don’t come cheap. Fortunately, merely having animals on that land will go a long ways towards boosting the fertility. The animals’ mixed manures will be a welcome addition to those soils. However, the animals will have to be rotated throughout that field such that those nutrients are distributed evenly. And we’ll still have to add things like lime, and probably both macro- and micro-nutrients which are either not present in the manures or available in the wrong proportions. So some kind of bought-in fertilizer is almost inevitable. If we continue to rent this land in subsequent years, the steps we take this year (and the money we spend) will start to pay off. But we’ll still have a lot of soil improvement work ahead of us.
The soils improvement is only part of the expected costs this year. We also have the new bought-in fencing for the livestock grazing areas, along with rented or purchased equipment to cut, rake and bale any grass we harvest as hay. The fencing is fairly straightforward and relatively low in cost, so it won’t set us back very far. Better still, we can take it with us at the end of the growing season and re-use it for at least several more years. Haying equipment, on the other hand, is quite pricey. Buying used equipment is generally regarded as the better way to get into haymaking, but even then it would cost anywhere between $10,000 to $20,000 for a complete set of very well used but serviceable tractor, mower, rake/tedder, and baler. That’s simply beyond our means, particularly since we’re not even sure we’ll be renting that hay ground next year. So we’re looking into renting equipment or hiring a custom baling service. A third option which has come up, is to borrow the owner’s older backup implements. In exchange, we would pay for repairs and maintenance of that equipment during the year. That would make good use of tools which would otherwise be gathering dust in the barn, and provide affordable tools for us while providing implement maintenance which otherwise wouldn’t be serviced this year. It’s not a perfect setup, but it is a better option than plunking down a lot of money during an experimental first year of operations.
Looking at the cost benefit analysis for this pasture renovation on paper, it would be awhile before we saw a good return on these investments. We certainly won’t see a return this year if we merely value the land according to the value of the bales produced, minus all these costs. But that’s only part of the analysis. The other part of the equation is what we’ve already got going at home. With all the livestock we own, hay costs are now our single highest farm expense other than the mortgage. So anything we can do to knock down that overall cost is a net good thing. And to be honest, we’re currently buying hay at retail. Even when we buy hay locally, we are paying someone else not only for their land, their grass, their equipment and labor, but also their profit. If we can eliminate their profit from our budget and find ways to minimize those other costs, we’ve saved money over buying in the hay.
This year’s hay budget calculations will have two sets of data - what it would have cost us to buy in the hay, and what it cost us to graze it and harvest it ourselves. Those numbers may end up being very, very similar this first year of our pasture renovation. But if we’re careful, and thrifty, subsequent years should see a growing divergence between what it cost us to provide our own hay versus what it would have cost us to buy it in. If after several years we still don’t see any cost savings, or if we wrap up this first year and absolutely hate managing that pasture, we’ll still have the option to go back to buying in hay. In some cases, folks have chosen to continue buying in hay because their production costs would have been higher. Or they just hate trying to manage yet another operation. But most folks we know prefer to put up their own hay and manage their own pastures. For some I’m sure it works out to be cheaper that way. For some, they’re able to dial in the exact combination of productivity and forage nutrition that they want for their animals. But there’s also a satisfaction that comes from closing the loop on a farm, such that the waste or outputs from one income stream, such as livestock manures, can become the input for another portion of the farm, such as pasture fertility. It’s a case of the whole being greater than the parts, and the whole is made stronger and more resilient in the process. That’s the holy grail for farming - to bootstrap a collection of soils, buildings, equipment, crops, animals, manpower and weather up into an organized whole to produce wholesome foods and feeds. And a wholesome lifestyle in the process.
I signed the paperwork weeks ago, after mulling the decision for a very, very long time. So you’d think that yesterday as I stood gazing at this land, I would have gone through all the mental concerns and emotional responses already. Yet here I was, lost in thought and almost overwhelmed all over again by the scale of what we were doing. I had rented farmland and I needed to do something productive with it. What to do, how to start and which options to choose?
On our home place, we have only approximately 1 acre of cleared land. The rest is technically forest, but more specifically it is overgrown pioneer tree species which desperately need to be thinned. Nature will readily do that with each winter windstorm bringing down a few more old trees. As I related in previous blogs, sometimes that is not a very desirable way to manage a landscape, what with trees crashing down in random directions regardless of what’s under them at the time. So we’re actively managing our forest and proactively bringing trees down in small batches. Nevertheless, we have precious little open ground, let alone finished pasture. When we first bought our place, we weren’t sure what we’d be doing with it, so that wasn’t a problem. Now that we’re fully immersed in owning livestock and trying to keep them fed, suddenly pasture takes on a whole new priority. Additionally, we didn’t know 10 years ago that we’d want good crop land suitable for a wide variety of either market or fodder crops. Yet here we are, going to market each week and still feeding our livestock with at least some bought-in feed. Our ability to raise our own market or fodder crops has become a high priority as well. So in a way, the field where I was standing earlier today was in fact a field of dreams - a way to move forward in our farming activities, not only to better provide for the livestock we already had but also to expand in directions we had determined we wanted to go. Good enough. But now that we’d rented the land, we had a lot of choices for how to proceed. And therein lay the challenge.
The parcel we’ve rented is half of an approximately 14 acre rectangle, containing a strong stand of canary reedgrass. While this grass is not as well known in some areas as other more traditional hay species like timothy or orchardgrass, it is nevertheless an excellent choice for this land. Simply put, you can’t drown canary reedgrass nearly as easily as you can other species. It can survive waterlogged conditions for months, which is exactly what this bottomland has every winter. Furthermore, the root system for canary reedgrass is so tough, it resists the damage that often occurs when either machinery or livestock tread on it during those waterlogged conditions. The foot or the tire might cut or punch through the sod and get wet, but the plant won’t be injured. For this particular parcel, there’s even a rumor that 1950’s roadbuilding efforts saw a Caterpillar D8 machine break through the sod in this field and sink into oblivion, never to be seen again. The turf just closed up and went right back to doing what it does best - growing.
Which is exactly why I’m here. We need that grass, having purchased hay off this field for several years now. But this time, we won’t be paying the owner to cut it, bale it and sell it to us. We’ll be harvesting it ourselves, either via livestock grazing, and/or via hay cutting and baling. It’s one thing to look at this field from the road and imagine our animals out here, up to their eyeballs in grass, happily chomping away. It’s another thing to cut the fence lines, drive the posts, string the hotwire, figure out where the gates need to go, and oh yeah how best to get to the field when the access road is under water, the drainage ditches are overflowing or the ground is too soft to drive on? Lots of details to work out.
There is also the topic of whether this land can ever grow anything other than grass. The short answer is, of course it can. The longer answer is, how much effort will it take to switch over to something else? Canary reedgrass thrives in soils which are not only waterlogged but also acidic, which is common in areas with high winter rainfall. Our soils are extremely acidic and typically need to be limed at least once every few years. Some fields need liming every year. That acidity is important because it changes the nutritional profile of the soil. For instance, nutrients which are present in the soil may nevertheless be unavailable because they are bound to other substances when pH is too low or too high. Even when we get the pH balanced, we will almost certainly still have nutritional imbalances here, after decades of harvesting hay without regular fertilization. This parcel is the fortunate recipient of runoff from upslope areas and as such it automatically does get some nutrient renewal each year. But that nutrient influx is almost certainly not ideally balanced out. So we’ll have fertilization to do as well. Yet if we do things right, we’ll make this stand of grass even better than it already is. And correcting the pH and nutrient profile would give other plants, including crop plants, a chance to grow here. We certainly wouldn’t be the first to convert old hay ground into cropland. But we sure have our work cut out for us.
Then there’s the question of equipment. So far in our farming work, we’ve been able to avoid purchasing large pieces of equipment such as tractors and heavy implements. With this new rental, that may have changed. We are currently exploring our equipment options, including the use of a little-known-but-very-handy small farm tool called the walking tractor. Think of a really big rototiller, and imagine how handy it would be to have other implements you could use on a chassis of that size. A small sickle-bar mower, for instance, or a half-sized cultivator bar, or a half-width planter, as compared to typical tractor-scale sizes. We have had such a walking tractor, called the BCS, for several years now. I think it’s going to get a good workout here. But it is intended for small acreages, and we’re right at the threshold where it may not be up to the task. If we’re grazing this land and harvesting hay only to stay ahead of the grazing, we’ll do OK. But if we ever decide to take off a hay crop for the whole parcel at one time, we’ll probably need some bigger machinery. Similarly, if we lime and fertilize and then convert some fraction of this field over to crop production, thereby having only an acre or two in hay, and grazing, and crops, our BCS will do just fine. But if we start talking about managing the whole thing for crop production, then we’ll need to step up and get larger equipment there too. And that’s a whole new ballgame for us. A lot more money out the door too.
Those are all happy-ending types of scenarios. But I have to look at why we even had the chance to rent this land. The owner used to cut and bale hay here as part of his larger hay operation. But some years, circumstances of weather and equipment breakdowns and manpower shortages would result in this land not being harvested. That has happened often enough that it was worthwhile to the farmer to let the land be leased, instead of managing it himself. We must acknowledge that if one party has had difficulties getting out here to harvest, we may have those same difficulties. The last thing anyone who rents land wants to do is fail, and that is a distinct possibility. We always have the best intentions but we need to plan, literally, for rainy days.
I certainly have livestock back home that are anxious to get out here and start eating. I certainly have a wallet that wants them to be here eating, instead of consuming bought-in hay. Here is where we’ll have to walk the talk, where the rubber meets the road, where we either prove up our ability to manage this land profitably, or we don’t. Everyone in this transaction knows that this year will be a year of experimentation as we figure out what works and what doesn’t. So in that regard, we don’t have any detailed production goals or obligations to meet. Nevertheless, the pressure is on to make something happen here, productive and/or profitable enough that everyone is happy with the transaction. We’ll work here this year and see how it goes. The owner may extend the lease, or not. We may renew the lease, or not. This field may turn out to be a field of dreams, or one long nightmare, depending on a whole variety of circumstances (only some of which we’ll control). Time will tell.
You know spring has arrived when the farmer’s markets start to open for the year. For our area, that’s typically the first week of May. Additionally, many non-profits here host their plant sales in May. Everyone hopes for nice weather for such events, which can boost attendance and therefore sales. We lucked out twice already, first when the market we’re attending this year opened to an un-heard of warm and dry day, and then a local library’s annual plant sale dawned relatively warm and rain held off most of the afternoon. A very nice start to the year.
Farmer’s markets have recently been heralded as one of the primary ways for new growers to get a foothold in the market. Our participation in three markets last year was, well, certainly an education in marketplace dynamics. But I can’t claim we were successful. If anything, last year’s markets taught us about 100 ways that we were sorely unprepared for the realities of making money from produce sales. They were hard lessons, but well worth learning.
The first lesson is not as obvious as it sounds. Namely, you can only make as much as you bring with you. In other words, don’t expect to make $250 at market if you only bring $125 worth of goodies. That isn’t obvious at first because newbie folks rarely ever work out exactly how much their volume is worth at any given time. What might look like a very nice full basket of salad greens may still only be worth $40. Furthermore, it’s going to sit there and wilt progressively through the afternoon, looking less and less appetizing. Sales from that basket might start off brisk, but start to sag as that wilt progresses.
The second lesson is perhaps even more painful: prepare to pack up and take home most of what you brought with you. Yes there are categories of products that will sell out every single time you’re at market. We couldn’t keep enough basil on hand, ever. And our salad greens often sold out as well. But we usually went home with most of the rest of the produce we brought, which was really discouraging. After I’d learned Lesson #1, to bring enough produce with me to hit my sales target for the day, I had to tack on the “you’ll only sell a fraction of what you bring”, which meant I had to bring even more. Usually three or four times as much as I hoped to sell. And each week, at least one category of lovely produce didn’t sell at all.
The third lesson was more nebulous: the display can either make or break the sale. Our eggs were a good example. We offered free-range eggs, priced to match what others were charging. Given all the press about industrial-scale egg production being contaminated with this-and-that, we figured farm fresh eggs would fly off the table. Yes they did, but we had to display them up high and those lids better be open to show the clean eggs inside. If we kept the eggs at table height, the customer’s eye just slid right over them. Also in this rule is the notion that no one wants to buy the last of anything, or break into the pack to get the first of anything. If we have twenty bundles each of basil, rosemary sage and oregano, we typically put out five bags of each and kept putting out new bags so that it looked like we had an infinite supply. But we never crammed the basket so full that it was hard to reach in and take one. When our basil basket was down to the last two or three, we’d combine it with perhaps the rosemary (which also sold well) so that neither the rosemary nor the basil looked lonely in the basket. In a more general sense, the whole booth needs to be attractive in some way, not only pleasing to the eye but also unique from everyone else around it. And that “look” needs to be relatively consistent from week to week. Customers who found you the first time will want to find you again. Give them some visual anchor that they can find in the future in case your booth location changes (which often happens). Also remember that they may have liked your stuff so much that they want to meet friends there next time. If your booth is the only one with white-and-green checkerboard tablecloths, it’s easy to describe what to look for. If you have a nondescript booth, sales will be nondescript too.
And finally, perhaps the most important rule of all - put on a really well practiced game face and be the most engaging human being you’ve ever managed to be, even if that’s the last place you want to be standing. I can’t emphasize this last rule enough. I’ve seen many, many growers show up at market with absolutely lovely displays, overflowing with colorful collections of yummy this-or-that, only to stand there with a stone cold expression daring anyone to speak to them. Or worse, they show up with a folding card table, hand-scrawled pricing signs (with misspellings!!), and all their edibles in some cooler, and then they sit there and read a book. And then get mad at their neighbors and the market manager when their sales tank. Guess what? They created their own failure. And they’ll do it every single week until they burn out and give up. Then they tell all their friends that nope, farmers markets are just full of cheats and thieves and people who unfairly sabotage and/or out-compete the new guy. Um, no. The vendors who survive at farmers’ markets are the same as those who survive anywhere else - we find ways to attract customers, provide the customers with what they want, and make it easy to come back for more. Just like any other business.
I relate these rules so easily, because I broke every single one of them last year. Repeatedly. Oh, some weeks I’d be OK in one category but not so good in another. Some weeks I’d have most of it buttoned down, but still forget something else and sabotage my own efforts. My one triumph was when I used something I think of as a secret weapon, available to anyone. But it requires a goodly dose of humility and willingness to change. Namely, I asked an expert to stroll past my booth, take a look, and give me feedback on how we were doing. I actually did that twice - once with someone who was a regional advisor for farmers’ markets vendors and managers, and the other was a newbie to those markets but who had many, many years in restaurant sales and customer service. They thought I had a nice enough little booth, visually appealing and I was friendly and engaging. But between the two of them they found many, MANY little details here and there that needed improving. I could either take their advice, or ignore it. I took the vast majority of their recommendations to heart, and I saw sales go up as a result. If I had stuck to my pride and my newbie opinions about what my booth “should be”, I would have crashed and burned.
My experiences last year taught me a lot about how NOT to do a market booth, but also whetted my appetite to do a better job of it this year. Happily my partner this year is in fact that farmer’s market expert who I consulted with last year. For this year’s market, I put away all my notions from last year, put on the apron of “willing apprentice” and we’ve been doing the booth her way. Based on her vastly superior knowledge, our sales are up by an order of magnitude over my attempts last year. Which perhaps is the most important lesson of all - when at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Don’t keep doing it the same way each time, but experiment with different methods, different details and different markets. Seek out (and follow) that expert advice. Keep what works, jettison the stuff that doesn’t. I’m still learning what it takes to do well at market. But thanks to the lessons above, I’m doing a whole lot better than I would have otherwise. For those folks who are either contemplating selling their goods at farmer’s markets and want to know more, or perhaps are already selling at market and want to improve, check out the following resources for some good guidance:
Rodale Institute Tips for Selling at Farmers Markets
Project Green Leaf's Tips for Selling at Farmers Markets
FarmersMarketOnline's guide to Setting Prices
University of Missouri Extension's Guide to Selling at Farmers' Markets
May 4th, 2010 started off pretty much like other early May days. We had been having a nice spring so far, not enough warmth for everyone’s tastes but the trees were leafing out and we could feel spring underway. A potential for high winds had been forecast for our area, which is nothing new, but it was getting to be a little late in the year for such storms. I figured it wouldn’t be anything worse than what we’d had so far.
I was wrong.
As the morning progressed, the winds got considerably stronger and I started to wonder if we were going to see some branches come down. Our windstorms usually come in winter when the trees don’t have their leaves, and as such the winds have to be pretty high before we see major branches come down. But they do come down; in November 2009 we had the top of an old cottonwood come down on our goat/sheep barn, crushing one end of that barn and killing one of our ewes. So we had plenty of respect for the potential risk. Towards that end, we’d had some arborists come out and consult with us in April 2010, to determine which trees needed to come down and which weren’t major risks to the house or outbuildings. We did fell the large old cottonwood whose top had come down and damaged the goat and sheep barn. But the other large cottonwoods along the road were deemed an unlikely risk for hitting the house, the barn, the road or anything else.
Turns out the arborists were wrong too.
At roughly 10:45am that morning, roughly one year ago today, a strong gust of wind hit one of those huge old cottonwoods, and down it went. I was home at the time, working on something in the living room, and I had just emailed my husband to say that the winds hadn’t been too bad yet that day. Then I heard a curious sound, like hundreds of glass objects falling off shelves and breaking as they hit the ground. Then the house shook. Not very much, not enough to knock anything over. But enough that I knew something had hit the roof. I went to the kitchen window to look outside, and what I saw didn’t really register at first. Where before I would have looked out over several pretty crabapple trees, the dirt driveway and some of the animal yards beyond, what I saw at that moment was simply green. The green of thousands of leaves smothering everything in the driveway. I stepped outside, and again my brain didn’t really register what I saw. Covering everything, to a depth of several feet, was the leafy remains of a grand old cottonwood that had only a few minutes before had easily been 100’ tall with a canopy more than 50’ across. Wow, I guess more than one branch had come down. Then I turned around and looked at the house to see if we had damage. That’s when I realized what had happened. The shattered trunk of the tree was laying in our driveway, with the many side branches sprawled out in all directions. There were so many branches laying in various jagged arrangement, that at first I didn’t notice one particularly large one draped across the corner of the house. Then I looked up, and saw that it had cut through the corner of the house directly over my office, caving in the roof at that corner and knocking the rain gutter off the far side. I also saw that several windows had been blown out, presumably from the rapid pressure changes as that huge volume of air was displaced while the tree came down. I don’t know how long I stood there staring, but it was a long time.
I came inside and called my husband, and said those five words which he dreads hearing: “You need to come home.” I explained briefly that a tree had come down and done “some damage” to the house, but I couldn’t yet find any way to quantify what I was seeing. He said he’d be there as quickly as possible. Somewhere in my mind I realized I should really start to pick up all this debris, but again I just stood there, dumbfounded.
To make a long afternoon’s story a bit shorter, my husband got home, went right to the shed, got out the chainsaw and went to work. I had already checked all the barns by then and thank goodness there was no other damage. I had started to dig through the branches, looking for various things like our rototiller and my market tables which had been alongside the driveway and leaning against the house, respectfully. Then it occurred to me that I was due at a nearby farmers’ market that next day. There was no way I could possibly do harvest under these conditions. I called the market manager and told her I wouldn’t be there. I think she thought I was making up the part about the tree hitting the house. It took my husband working all the rest of that day, and all the next day, to clear enough of the branches that we were able to get vehicles in and out of the driveway again. By then we’d also learned that a lot of other trees had come down around the area. I wondered if other folks with trees gone through their roofs were having as hard a time wrapping their brain around those events, as I was having. Eventually I came around and was better able to help with the cleanup. Cleanup was just the start; it was my task to coordinate all the subsequent insurance, repair and restoration issues which lasted the rest of that summer. While I look back with some irritation at moments during that period, I also recall the many gestures of generosity and support displayed by friends, neighbors and family who stepped up to help us out.
UPDATE: I started to write up this blog entry some time ago; well before this year’s fresh round of destructive weather events moved through the Midwest and Southeast parts of our country. In retrospect, our shock and dismay pales in comparison to those who lost their homes, their families, their workplaces during those storms. I won’t even try to imagine what that must feel like. My heart goes out to every one of those folks who stand and blankly stare at what they see, or more importantly what they don’t see: new holes in their lives where their homes, their work and their loved ones used to be. Holes created by a mere five minutes’ worth of strong winds. I think it’s human nature to ask certain questions at such times. “Why me?” “Why not me?” “Why them?” “Why us?” “What am I going to do now?” I don’t have any of those answers. But I do know that if human beings are good at anything, we’re pretty darn good at rebuilding after some calamity tries to run us over. I also know that for some bizarre reason, people are often at their best when things are at their worst. So to all those who have lost so much during this spring of crazy weather, my hopes and prayers are with you that you find miracles large and small, with which to knit your lives back together. And to those who were not affected directly, I encourage you to help out in any way you can. It’s all too easy to merely watch the news about someone else’s bad day. One quote which comes to mind in this context is “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” If in our case the tree had come down only a few more feet to the southeast, the entire canopy would have crushed the house. Yours truly wouldn’t be penning this blog entry. It wasn’t any particular worthiness on my part that spared the house, the barns and the market garden that day. It was a blessing, no more and no less.
But another quote also comes to mind as I think about all those folks facing similar issues, or worse, across the country right now. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Any one of us can be caught at any moment, in circumstances that we cannot conquer alone. Anyone who thinks they are immune is kidding themselves. If there’s ever a time for community-building, neighbors helping neighbors and folks re-establishing the civil bonds which unite us all, it’s now. I hope everyone reading this blog will take a moment to look at his/her community, and find ways to help out someone having a bad day. Nationally, the American Red Cross is one of the best clearinghouses for directing assistance from where it is donated, to where it is needed, at any given time. Visit their website at www.redcross.org for more information on how you can help. Please remember: it could have been you.
We have generally followed organic practices since our farm’s inception, but we have never been certified organic. We haven’t gone through the certification process for several reasons:
• some of our specific practices and facilities do not meet the detailed criteria of the National Organic Program (NOP)
• the record-keeping requirements are useful and well intentioned, but I’d have to give up sleep in order to keep up with all that documentation
• I have been concerned about our livestock’s health care options under the NOP rules.
So when we are asked about whether we’re certified organic, we cannot say “yes”. Nor can we use the word “organic” in any of our marketing information, on our farmers’ market signage, or on the website. Under current USDA NOP rules, the word “organic” cannot be used unless producers are certified. We can, however, explain that we follow most of the NOP crop-management and animal-management guidelines. Sometimes that explanation is enough. Sometimes it’s not, and folks ask us why if we’re so close to meeting organic standards, we haven’t gone the last few steps. It gets to be a frustrating conversation when I have to explain that I already have 30 hours of work to squeeze into each 24 hour day, let alone adding the NOP’s additional requirements.
Now, to be sure, that certified organic designation is not the only game in town. There’s also Certified Naturally Grown. That program is a much less formal entity, and it is not regulated or controlled by any federal government agency. The Naturally Grown standards are taken largely from the NOP, but with specific changes made along the way. Some of those changes are more strict than NOP guidelines. Some are more flexible. The record-keeping requirements are much less stringent, which is both a plus and a minus (easier on the day-to-day production requirements, but also allowing for items or practices that would not pass muster if examined later). I have circled around this option for awhile. The part I can’t get past is that a farm can be certified Naturally Grown if it claims to meet the criteria, and is then inspected by any person who is already certified Naturally Grown. But the knowledge, competency, fairness, thoroughness and diligence of that individual are appropriate only so far as their own personal working experience. For instance, a recent check of the CNG website s “find a farm” map, identified almost a dozen farms within two hours’ radius of us. Two of them were apiaries, nine of them were produce-oriented, and only one was livestock-oriented. None of them, as far as I could tell, featured all three operations. So whoever did my inspection would only be familiar with one third of my operation. That makes me really uncomfortable. Perhaps there are ways in place to deal with that scenario but so far I haven’t found those alternative criteria. So I mull and I debate with myself, but so far I haven’t gone that route. Yet I get that “why not?” almost as often as the question about being certified organic.
Two more terms have also recently come into more frequent play, namely “local agriculture” and “sustainable agriculture”. While local agriculture would seem the clearest and most easily defined of the two, even that term has issues. First of all, what constitutes “local”?? Is it food produced within 5 miles of home, within 50 miles, within 500 miles, or even further? An arbitrary national definition could be imposed by the USDA or some other agency, but that would almost certainly violate more practical definitions based on geography and cultural boundaries. For instance, let’s say that local production is defined as 100 miles. The distance between Everett, our county seat, and the southern Washington state border is roughly 150 miles as the crow flies. Yet it’s only roughly 100 miles between Everett and Wenatchee, county seat for the county just east of us. So it would seem by looking at a road map that Wenatchee would be considered a “local” market for us, while towns near the southwestern border of the state would not be local. However, anyone living here would quickly recognize that we have much more in common with folks in that southwestern corner of the state - in terms of regional culture, climate, agricultural production and even market opportunities, than in Wenatchee. This is because a mountain range stands between us and Wenatchee. That mountain range has created something of an informal but very real boundary between eastern and western halves of the state. Folks in eastern Washington are fond of thinking that we’re simply an extension of California. Folks in western Washington dismiss the eastern half of the state as being more akin to Idaho and Montana. If we tried to sell in Wenatchee, we’d have a tough job of it. Selling to someone in the southwest corner would be simple by comparison. So “local” is as local does. Once again, the definition of the word eludes simple description.
”Sustainable” isn’t much better. There’s economic sustainability, environmental sustainability, and even ethical sustainability, and variations within each of those. For instance, one measure of economic sustainability would indicate that a farm must simply bring in more income than it spends. Sounds simple enough. But if a farmer pays himself next to nothing in the attempt to show a profit, and operates so close to the margin that he has no savings account or retirement plan, is that economically sustainable? Or consider environmental sustainability. A farm could meet every certified organic rule and regulation on the books, yet still contribute to loss of biodiversity, loss of disease resistance in flocks, herds and plant varieties, or even still rely on bought-in substances to provide for ongoing soil fertility. And the farmer who runs his farm very conscientiously by economic and environmental standards, yet runs his or her employees into the ground, can hardly be considered sustainable. So there’s no easy definition there either.
What’s a farmer to do, as we try to carve out some way to define and describe what we do? And what’s the consumer to do, when trying to evaluate different farms?
The only answer I’ve been able to come up with so far, and the best suggestion I can make, is to educate, educate, educate. Educate ourselves not only on the details of how to run our farms, but also on the short-term and long-term, local and global implications of our actions. Educate ourselves on the issues surrounding genetic diversity, livable wages, reliance on fossil fuels and petrochemicals, or even the pro’s and con’s of heirloom vegetables and heritage livestock breeds. We as growers and livestock owners need to educate our consumers, because no one comes into the marketplace as either buyer or seller, knowing all this stuff in advance. And consumers need to educate themselves because there is no one right answer; each farm and each producer has a mix of conditions which warrant flexibility. In short, we need to talk to each other - producer with consumer, regulator with permitee, employer with worker. I think that’s the only way to have farms that work well today, and will continue to work well tomorrow. In fact I sorta doubt any other recipe would suffice.