When Nature Heals
September 28, 2011



The above photo was taken by Elena Filatova during her travels through the Chernobyl dead zone. Her work is chronicled on her two websites, kiddofspeed and Elena Filatova.




If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, expands to new territories, and crashes through barriers. Painfully, maybe even dangerously. But, ah, well, there it is.
Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park, 1993

Back in June I wrote that we had lost one of our beehives, probably to CCD. It was a harsh lesson that no one is immune to things going wrong. That whole month of June, other things kept going wrong and the bees, sadly, were a minor issue at that time. So we didn’t do anything with the empty hive box. It sat out there, uncleaned, untended, uninhabited. As June slowly but surely turned into July and then August, and we moved through the various summer upheavals, other farm priorities required our belated attention. I would look out the window at the remaining honeybee colony, be thankful they were doing so well, and silently mourn the loss of that other hive. That’s all I had time or energy to do.

Then one day, I looked out the window and saw bees in that empty hive body again.

Honeybees will sometimes rob other colonies when that colony is weak or empty. At first I figured that’s what I was witnessing. But the bees kept coming and going in that empty hive, from both the standard bottom opening as well as the top opening. Oddly enough, they weren’t flying back to our other hive, which was the most logical home for any robbing workers. The workers that were flying in and out of the empty hive were also behaving like they lived there, rather than acting like they were involved in criminal activities. They would fly up to the hive in a relaxed way, land when ready, and walk in unchallenged. They would depart in roughly the same way - walk out in a relaxed way, crawl up the side, fan their wings a few times, then take off and fly out to the field. Robbery bees have a very distinct behavior and body language and this wasn’t it. Finally after a week of watching this new development, I figured out what was really going on. A swarm had claimed that empty hive as their own, had moved in, and were setting up normal hive activities.

Throughout the rest of the summer and now into fall, I’ve been watching this hive with one part biological fascination, and one part philosophical unease. Why had the swarm, which could have chosen to relocate anywhere, chosen a home which had been previously abandoned? And what does that mean for my conviction that the hive needed to be cleaned up before new occupants? Furthermore, what does this mean for the bigger issues of environmental degradation, ecosystem recovery, and bringing agriculture back into partnership with natural systems? I’m hardly an expert in any of those subjects, but I’m always game to make some pseudo-educated guesses. Or at least good intentioned guesses.

In this instance, I believe that the swarm came from the much stronger colony only a few feet away. Even if the swarm came from farther away, swarm behavior is fairly standard. Scouts go out ahead of the swarm and look for new homes. Whichever scouts find a good candidate will come back and communicate that potential new home to the waiting swarm. By some decision making process which we rocket-building humans don’t yet understand, the swarm queen chooses which candidate site will be used. Once that decision is made, the entire mass of bees flies to that new location and sets up camp. For whatever reason, the swarm queen chose that hive body as her new home. She knew better than I did what their criteria were for a new home, and how many candidate sites were available. She made her choice. The best I can do now is respect that decision and do my best to maintain them accordingly. Even if the choice doesn’t make sense to me.

This episode reminded me of other times that Nature has chosen to move into areas which either natural disaster or human mismanagement had seemingly rendered unfit for life. The first instance I learned of was in my home state of Colorado, at a facility called the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. The Arsenal right outside of Denver had been used for decades as a weapons storage depot, with terrible results. Massive chemical spills, lagoon leaks and toxic materials runoff had been chronic over the years, resulting in a dead zone not only on the property but around it. This site was one of the original Superfund sites, and scientists at the time said a complete cleanup would never be possible. The best they could do was sequester the worst of the contamination, do remediation on the rest, and keep their fingers crossed. But then something of a miracle occurred. First the prairie grasses returned. Just patches here and there, but they spread. Not just weeds, mind you, but native species which hadn’t been seen on that property in many years. Then insects came back, and then birds. Then small animals, and finally larger wildlife such as deer and predators such as coyote and raptors. I still remember the first time I ever saw a bald eagle was when I was flying out of Denver, and our flight took us right over the Arsenal. In what had been a cesspool of manmade chemicals, devoid of life, there was a bald eagle building a nest in a tree. That eagle wouldn’t have been there if there weren’t any good hunting nearby, along with a decent water source. And the small animals which constituted good hunting for the eagle wouldn’t be there without decent food sources. Somehow, against all expectations, Nature had reclaimed the Arsenal as her own. That facility has now been brought under the protection of the US Fish & Wildlife Service and has been added to the National Wildlife Refuge system of parks. In less than a single human lifespan, that area went from dead zone to thriving refuge, against all expectations.

Similar events have occurred elsewhere. The Chernobyl nuclear holocaust in the Ukraine captured global attention in 1986 when one of those reactors melted down and spewed radioactivity into the atmosphere for weeks. Millions of people were impacted by that catastrophe, and the numbers of dead and dying were uncountable. Huge tracts of land immediately near the plant were evacuated, at first simply as “a precaution”. But as the government there started to assess the damage, it became clear there was no going back for those families. Their homes, apartment buildings and farms would remain vacant, and presumed sterile, for decades. Then, once again, humanity got a surprise. An extraordinary young Russian woman named Elena Filatova, armed with only a motorcycle, a camera and a Geiger counter, was permitted to drive through the dead zone and chronicle what she found. In the dying years of the USSR, that was an extraordinary opportunity, and she made the most of it. Elena’s original website makes for fascinating reading as she started to travel that area and document what she found. Her newest website continues to document that region’s reaction to, and management of, that nuclear disaster. While most of the homes and villages stand empty, sometimes she would still find individuals living in their family homes, who had refused to leave for various reasons. They may or may not develop the diseases linked to radiation contamination. But they, and she, have witnessed the growth and apparently reasonably healthy proliferation of natural systems in what was once a dead zone.

There are countless other examples, large and small, of Life finding a way to reclaim areas deemed unfit for human occupation. That is by no means an excuse for us to not worry about future pollution, or cleaning up existing industrial contamination. For every one site that has recovered new life, there are easily 100 which are not as vibrant or healthy or productive as they could be. As the human population continues to grow, we simply can’t afford to have so many sites so contaminated. To be blunt, we need those areas to be productive, or at least healthy enough to sustain life. Furthermore, when industrial accidents or mismanagement introduce toxins into the environment, we lose control of where those toxins go and how they weave into the existing fabric we rely on for life.

My point instead is that we still tend to think of ourselves as kings and queens of the planet, and that we control what happens here. If we have a little reactor breach or spill a tanker of goo, well, oops but we’ll clean it up. Promise. The headlines will scream for changes for awhile, but change comes slowly to us.

I think the real lesson is that Nature doesn’t take orders from us, and She doesn’t like to be kept waiting either. Whatever mistakes we make, whether deliberate or accidental, we will rarely be in charge of how Nature responds. That is both a cause for hope, and a cause for concern. Now that I derive my income from agriculture, the notion that Nature has become my boss is fairly intimidating. I can do things here and there to stack the deck in my favor, but Ma Nature is still dealing the cards. I am thankful for the return of the bees to that empty hive, even though I didn’t orchestrate it. I’m thankful for the return of wild things to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Chernobyl and all the other areas which mankind tried really hard to wreck, and wrote off as "hopeless" later. But I can’t assume that Nature will always be quite so generous or gracious when She takes back lands we have abused. If anything, I wish Humanity would get over itself and its conceited notion of supremacy, and get back to being reverent and humble caretakers of the greatest free lunch conceivable. We were given this planet. We should take better care of it. Lest we be deemed incompetent and Nature asserts full control once again over our lives, our homes and our comforts. I dare say we’ve been warned often enough.


County Fair
September 24, 2011



I wanted to give a virtual salute this week to one of our favorite agricultural traditions - the fair. Most locales in the United States, and many regions globally, have fairs or something similar every year. Whether it’s a spring fair to get the growing season started, a summer fair featuring carnival rides, food vendors, crafts, historical displays and all manner of livestock, a harvest fair in the autumn, a holiday fair or a winter expo for demonstrations and training, most areas have some kind of agricultural lifestyle fair at least once during the year.

We make a point to attend several fairs throughout the year. One is our county fair, typically held at the end of each August at the fairgrounds nearby. Hand in hand with that event is a draft horse show which we also make a point to attend. A third event is our regional fair held at a much larger fairgrounds about two hours away. That event is much larger, and attended by tens of thousands of people, rather than our smaller event which is attended by a similarly smaller crowd. All three events have their place in our lives, and all three events are precious to us. But why?

For one thing, fairs are a local celebration of that particular area’s crops, livestock, rural activities and local history. One local fair might have a hotly-contested watermelon contest if that’s a major local crop, while another would have a wool show that regional shepherds look forward to all year. Perhaps the area is known for its pottery, such that the pottery display dwarfs all the other exhibits combined. Or the region’s small grains crops are featured each year and small producers vie for awards in terms of bushel weight, kernel size or first field harvested. Perhaps a few fields of those grains were harvested the old fashioned way, with grain binders creating shocks in the field, later to be brought by the wagonload to a thresher chugging away nearby. That event, known as a threshing bee, used to be a neighborhood event not for entertainment, but for sustenance. And that is really at the heart of a fair’s soul - a celebration of the farming, ranching, forestry, homesteading and household maintenance that allowed our forebears to not only survive, but thrive. Fair attendees see the tools, the methods, and meet the producers who created the community and still keep it well supplied.

Secondly, fairs offer a chance for producers to exchange information, techniques and even breeding stock, of either animal or plant varieties. There is of course a generous amount of rivalry amongst producers, particularly amongst those judged exhibition classes where ribbons are as hotly contested as ever. But that’s only the start. Fairs are a chance to renew the relationships that buoy us through hard times, share hard-learned lessons that we hope others don’t have to go through on their own, and best of all, talk about what’s gone right during the year. It’s an amazing thing to go to a fair, full of thousands of people, and still manage to see familiar faces in the barns, the auditoriums and arenas. We can’t go to a fair anymore without meeting up with old friends and renewing those friendships.

Most importantly though, I think fairs are crucial events not merely for producers, but for the entire community. It’s all too easy, in this day of Twitter and real-time global newscasts, to lose track of what makes each community unique. The fair’s various displays help us put names and faces to the people and events that shaped our communities, and continue to work for our community’s benefit. That crotchety old man who lives at the end of the lane might be a stranger until you read the fair’s local history display about how he broke trail through bedrock as a teenager, during the railroad’s expansion through this valley. That creepy old house on the hill served as a field hospital during the Civil War, and the family who lived there had sons in both armies. The nice family you buy hay from, turns out to be the first homesteaders in the area, and their living room was the polling station for each election until the library was built. The man with the spectacular pheasants in the Poultry barn is a pediatrician specializing in childhood cancer treatment at the county hospital; he raises birds as a hobby to take his mind off the pressures of work. Or that friendly gal showing goats who was so easy to talk to in the livestock barns, is the same gal that you call at 2am to help you when your own goat is in distress.

These fairs are not merely a place to get popcorn and cotton candy, to take rides and walk through the petting zoo. These are showcases for all the things that make our communities the special places that they are, and have been, and might be again. Sadly, some county fairs are struggling now because folks don’t want to make the time, spend the money, or make the effort to attend. And that’s a loss - not just for their entertainment value, but for their awareness of what’s going on in their communities. My husband and I might have fifteen unfinished projects going at fair time, but we always make the time to go anyway. It’s a way to get our heads out of the details of the day, and take a look around at where we live, and who lives here too, and reconnect with all the people, places and events which have made this place our chosen place. We look forward to going every year. We hope that enough folks keep going to fairs, and exhibiting at fairs, to keep this tradition alive and thriving.


Piglets!
September 20, 2011



After much fanfare and two other blog entries (which you can read here and here), detailing our efforts to breed our pigs, we finally had piglets arrive this week. As in most things on the farm, it was generally a happy event, but we did have a few complications and a few bummer moments.

We knew our gilt was getting ready to farrow when her teats started to fill, almost 10 days before the actual event. That, and changes in her eating and drinking habits were very much in keeping with expected behaviors. She didn’t really start the other classical farrowing behavior, nestbuilding, until a day or so before actual delivery began. Always leaving room for variations, we were nevertheless happy to see her finally start nestbuilding.

In the weeks leading up to farrowing, we went through a lot of different ideas for how best to house the mom and piglets. There are a variety of housing options to consider. For those owners and farm managers who prefer to farrow indoors, there are of course farrowing crates, larger farrowing nestboxes, and the relatively new group farrowing systems being developed around the world. For those owners and farm managers who have pasture-based operations, the options change. Some give their expectant moms a bale of hay or straw, from which the sow will build her nest wherever she sees fit. Some build A-frame huts or other small portable shelters and provide bedding within those shelters, then either lock the sow inside or allow her to choose from amongst various huts. Others build more permanent shelters, either with conventional building materials and/or with unconventional methods such as burrows excavated into hillsides. The range of options for both inside and outside farrowing setups is, in a phrase, mindboggling. Particularly for newbies like us, it was a difficult decision.

After a lot of wrangling around the options on paper, and after talking to quite a few of our livestock mentors and fellow pig owners, we opted to keep things simple. We already had our pigs set up with a primarily outdoor existence. They had spent the vast majority of their lives in our woods, and had only used shelters during the worst of our weather events. Bringing them inside now seemed more of an upheaval than anything else. Still, we are coming into our rainy season, and our first frost could occur at any time. It seemed reasonable to provide some kind of shelter not so much for mom, but for the small piglets. We also wanted the piglets born on “clean ground” which previously had never had pigs on it, to minimize any parasite issues. We also wanted a small pen which would allow the sow and her litter to move around, root in the ground, and generally live as pigs are intended to live, yet still allow easy access for us. Our options narrowed considerably with those preferences. We created a new pen near the larger yard where our gilt had been raised, provided a temporary roof over it, and gave her a bale of hay with which to make a nest. She settled in quickly, arranged and re-arranged her nest until it was to her liking, and then the wait began. We had moved her a full week before she was due, so that last week she just kept getting bigger and bigger, and we tried to be patient.

This past Tuesday morning, our wait was over. At first check early that morning, I found our gilt laying in her nest having contractions. Five hours previously, she had been up and around moving normally, so I knew she hadn’t been laying there very long. The clock had started. In general, most mammals have fairly well documented delivery habits. When they vary from those habits, it’s time to get proactive and assist with the delivery. I had already checked with my various livestock mentors so that I would know what to expect. When contractions start in a gilt’s delivery, piglets generally begin arriving within 30 minutes. So when 30 minutes had come and gone and there were no piglets yet, I prepared to go in and at least explore to see if something was amiss. I prepared by washing up, removing jewelry, then laying down behind my laboring gilt. With no new evidence that piglets were imminent, I inserted my hand, gently worked her cervix open, and worked my arm up to the elbow. And there I felt her little piglets, and I discovered what the problem was. Two of them were side by side, jammed into the birth canal, one of them snoot-first, and one of them rump first. Piglets, unlike many other mammals, can readily be born in either direction. But they can’t be jammed side by side like these two were. I had to grab one and pull. So I grabbed the hock of the piglet facing backwards, and tugged gently with each contraction. Finally after another few minutes, that piglet came out in a whoosh of birth fluid. Happily, she was a large healthy female and she started wiggling and breathing right away. I wiped away the remaining birth materials from her rubbery little snout, then started the clock over again in preparation for Piglet #2.

Perhaps it was because Mom had already been in labor awhile and was already tired. Perhaps it was because piglet #2 was also large. But to make a long story short, I had to go in and get Piglet #2 when another 30 minutes had come and gone without much progress. It was then I decided that she was giving me overly large piglets, all of whom might need assistance. So for the next few hours, I would repeatedly go inside my poor laboring gilt about every 20 minutes, feeling for that next piglet. When I felt a hoof, I’d try to hang onto either the knee or the hock, whichever I could feel. If the legs were swept back and I could feel a nose, I’d hold onto the piglet behind the skull. Whichever part of the piglet I could feel, I’d pull gently in time with mom’s contractions, and we eventually got four piglets out after two hours of labor. At that point, I explored again all the way up to my shoulder, and couldn’t feel anyone else in the birth canal.

At that point, both Mom and I needed a rest. I went back to the house and washed up while she began nursing her new brood. About 45 minutes later, she started passing placenta material, which seemed to signal the end of her deliveries. I was puzzled though, by such a small number of piglets. A normal litter size is 8-12. She’d had such delivery problems because she’d only had the four, and they were huge. But why had she started with such a small litter?

I went back and checked on Mom and her new piglets every few hours throughout the day. She seemed to take to motherhood very quickly, moving very carefully around her piglets, and they nursed strongly. We might have only four piglets rather than the expected 8-12, but at least they were good strong babies. And for that we were thankful. Late that night, during what was going to be my last check, I discovered that Mom had delivered a fifth huge piglet, stillborn. I felt badly that she’d had to deliver one more huge piglet without assistance, and I’m quite sure it was only stillborn because birth had taken too long. I had checked her several times during the afternoon and had never felt another piglet inside, so this youngster must have been at the far end of her reproductive tract. It was a hard blow after having such a small litter. But the good news was that she was able to pass the piglet without assistance and we were really, truly done.

After such a hard delivery, and particularly after I had to enter her birth canal to assist, Mom needed some preventative care to ensure she’d recover without complications or infection. I gave her that preventative and I’ll be keeping a close eye on her for the next week or so. I also have some research to do, to try to determine why her litter size was so very small. In short, it could be a wide variety of things, on both the gilt’s side as well as the boar’s side. Bottom line, we can’t rule out many of those variables with only one litter on the ground. She’s been a great mother so far, and we will breed her again in the future. If she continues to give us extremely small litters, that would start to indicate some weakness in her makeup that makes her a bad long-term breeding candidate. On the other hand, this was our first attempt at AI, our first attempt at breeding in general, and that’s not enough information to make any decisions yet. So for now we’ll let her raise her piglets and we’ll make preparations to breed her as soon as they are weaned. Time will tell if she has a long career ahead of her. And in the meantime, we have our other gilt in her final trimester now, and she’s due October 20th. We’ll rest for the week then start to get our second farrowing yard ready in early October.


Soil Fertility and Testing
September 16, 2011



As summer marches inevitably towards fall, the mind turns from the current growing season to the next. And now is the time to start preparations for that next growing year. First and foremost are soils - determining what shape they're in, figuring out how to amend their condition, and applying those amendments at the right time. But where to get started?

Whether you're gardening a single planting bed, or an entire farm, the fundamentals of soil health are the same - good texture, good drainage, good percentage of organic matter, correct pH and correct balance of various elements and minerals. That's the holy grail of soils.

But how to achieve it? First is the texture. Are your soils light, ie sandy? Or heavy with clay? Or somewhere in between? You're aiming for soils right in the middle of those two extremes - heavy enough to retain water for at least a little while, but light enough to allow easy growth of roots and movement of nutrients. You also want a texture which is rich in organic matter. Why is this? Healthy soils are absolutely teeming with microscopic life, and that life is what converts various large-molecule nutrients into the nutrients that are absorbed by plant roots. We can certainly work to feed plants a sterile mix of exactly the nutrients they need, which is what hydroponics is all about. But for those who don't want to work that hard at it, soils can do that work for them. If those microorganisms are in place, and if the texture allows for their movement through the soil. Happily, soil texture and microorganism populations can be very nicely supplied and maintained by nothing more magical than compost. Compost is the carefully, correctly rotted remains of animal manures. I say here "carefully, correctly" because animal manures which are rotted poorly, ie been left out in the rain, never turned, allowed to get too wet or too dry, etc, have lost much of the nutrients they started with. If on the other hand, that manure was carefully stockpiled under cover, turned several times and handled with due respect, it is chock-full of healthy nutrients just waiting to improve your garden soils. Click here to read a previous blog entry about our composting efforts, and how you can do the same.

The second criteria you need to be aware of is often referred to as "the macronutrients". The big three from this group are Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K). These three are the big three because they are present in the largest amounts in most plants. They are literally the biggest building blocks for plants, so naturally they are required in the greatest proportion by plants as they grow. But there are other macronutrients to consider - calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and sulfur S) are also considered macronutrients. Those elements must be present in the soil if the plant is to reach its full potential. If the sol is deficient, your plants won't be able to grow and produce at their full potential, or may actually develop deficiency symptoms. For instance, a shortage of calcium will result in blossom end rot for plants like tomatoes. But how to supply them, and how to do so effectively? There are several ways to answer this question. Compost as listed above can provide a great deal of all three, and if your soils are poor in general, that's a great place to start. But as you work with your soils over time, you'll develop certain surpluses and deficiencies which compost can't provide. For instance, if you have high phosphorus and low potassium, you'll want a soil amendment which provides high potassium without overloading the soils with excess phosphorus. If your soils need calcium, compost may not supply nearly enough without giving your soils far too much nitrogen in the process. Additionally, you want a combination of quick-release nutrients for growth now, and slow-release for growth later. No one soil amendment can do that. A combination of soil amendments can provide a mix of nutrients, with varying rates of release.

A third criteria are the micronutrients: boron, copper, iron, chloride, manganese, molybdenum and zinc are all considered crucial to plant growth in trace amounts. Here is where things get rather interesting from a supplementation point of view. Compost will vary widely in these materials. If the animals which produced the manure were short in these trace minerals, their manures won't contain it either. A lack of these minerals isn't as crushing a shortage as with the macronutrients, but again your plants won't produce at their full potential. As with the macronutrients, specific soil amendments can supplement exactly those micronutrients which are lacking.

And finally, let's talk about pH, or the "sourness" versus "sweetness", acidity versus alkalinity of the soil. Every soil has a pH, typically ranging anywhere from a pH of 4 (extremely acidic, ie "sour") to a pH of 7 (extremely alkaline, ie "sweet"). That pH is affected by a number of factors - parent rock materials for your soils, amount of precipitation you get in a year, existence or lack of organic matter in your soil, and the amounts of various nutrients present in the soil at any given time. For the record, the vast majority of plants favor a slightly neutral soil. Exactly neutral pH is 7; most plants prefer a soil pH of 6.5. The bad news is that soil pH can be fairly difficult to change right away, so you might be stuck with lower or higher pH than what you and your plants want for the short-term.

The good news is that you can definitely change it slowly over time, using specific supplements to either raise or lower the pH. Most areas of the country which get 30" of rain or more a year will have acidic soils, because rainwater will continually wash out the elements that keep soils near neutral. The single most common way to correct acidic soils is to add lime. Lime is short for limestone, which is a very powerful buffer for increasing soil pH. The primary ingredient in limestone which affects pH buffering is calcium carbonate, so liming the soils also provides a potent source of calcium. However, there are different types of lime, based on the elements and contaminants found in the parent limestone material. Dolomitic lime has a fair amount of magnesium, so if soils are deficient in both calcium and magnesium, this can be a potent supplement. Hydrated lime is calcium oxide which has been "slaked", ie, thinned with water which results in calcium hydroxide. Hydrated lime is not used as often as dolomitic lime because it is considered less stable, is very caustic, and will react immediately with water. Yet it is a more effective buffer for raising pH so less product would be needed to raise pH in the soils. Most sources I've read advise growers to use dolomitic lime, or what would be sold as plain "lime" or "agricultural lime" rather than the hydrated lime, simply because of the safety issues.

So how does a person find out what nutrients are in their soil, and which are lacking? Experienced farmers and gardeners can tell something about their soil fertility simply by the performance of their plants and crops. But that's imprecise at best, and it takes a lifetime to learn those subtleties. What to do in the meantime? Soil testing is the first best way to tell what nutrients are in your soils, and in what proportions. That testing can be very simple and inexpensive, or very comprehensive and more costly. Most hardware stores and home improvement centers carry basic soil testing kits which anyone can use with very little prior training. You take a soil sample, mix it into testing vials that come in the kit, and dissolve capsules in the vials then see what color the sample turns. A darker shade indicates more of that nutrient than a lighter shade. Those testing kids might cost less than $20 and can perform a variety of tests over the passage of time. For more comprehensive kits of various sizes, gardeners and growers can check out the LaMotte series of testing kits. These kits offer a variety of testing options, ranging from very simple NPK and pH tests, up to a much more comprehensive look at both macro- and micro-nutrient detection. Or for those who want the most comprehensive testing results and recommendations, you can talk to your county extension office and they can help you take appropriate soil samples, to be submitted to professional soil testing laboratories. These soil samples will be much more comprehensive, showing not only the concentrations of macro- and micro-nutrients in your soil, but also compare those concentrations to what they ideally should be for the crop or crops you want to grow. Those lab results will also commonly provide recommendations for which soil amendments to use, and at which application rate, to improve soil fertility.

I have provided just the briefest introduction to soils and fertility in this blog entry; entire college courses are conducted on this topic and even those just barely scratch the surface. I have also not mentioned entire categories of alternate ways to improve soil fertility, using methods such as cover crops, crop rotation, management intensive grazing and fallow practices. Each of those are worthy pursuits in and of themselves. For more information on soils testing, soil amendments, soil fertility and soils management, for either growers or gardeners, check out some of these resources:

Sustainable Soils Management from ATTRA

Soil Management Series from University of Minnesota Extension

Soil Management Website from Pennsylvania State University

Soils Management in Yards and Gardens from Washington State University

Soils Management and Fertilization for Vegetable Gardens, from Colorado State University

Crop Rotation on Organic Farms from SARE

Managing Cover Crops Profitably from SARE

Basic Principles of Liming from University of Wisconsin Soil Sciences Department

A Gardener's Guide to Soil Testing from North Carolina State University

Recommended Soil Testing Procedures for the North Central Region, from the Missouri Agricultural Experiment Station

LaMotte Soil Testing Kits


Reflections
September 11, 2011



Extra Credit Projects in Grand Rapids MI produced this image encouraging people to look back and reflect, ten years after the 9/11 attacks. The World Trade Center twin towers, absent from the skyline of New York, are still seen reflected in the water. The Reflect ad was developed by Extra Credit Projects' creative director Rob Jackson and art director Joshua Best.

Like most folks in this fair country and elsewhere, I have spent a fair amount of time lost in thought the last few days, remembering that awful Tuesday ten years ago when everything changed. And mulling how Life, both my own life in particular and larger society, have changed since then.

We had been on our property for not quite two years on that particular day. We had grand ambitions of turning it into a farm. But the pressures of work, combined with long distance commutes, typically sapped us of energy, time and enthusiasm such that we hadn't gotten very far with our projects. We didn't have livestock, we didn't have much of a garden, and we didn't even have basic repairs done to our weary old house. Instead, we were spending time on the commute, at our desks, or in meetings, trying to achieve deadlines for someone else's projects. Then 9/11 happened.

Given that we are on the West Coast, a full three time zones behind the East Coast, some late arrivals to work had already heard about the first strike while on the commute in. I remember being at my desk and hearing coworkers talking about a plane hitting one of the buildings. In the lack of information early on, it wasn't clear whether it was accidental or deliberate. I didn't even know it was a commercial jet until some time later. When the second plane hit, our hearts all sank. This was no accident. Work stopped at our office. An old TV down in the basement was coaxed back to life, and everyone would break away as often as their schedules permitted, to watch what was going on as the day's events unfolded. I couldn't get away from my duties very often to watch, and the little bit I did see I wished I hadn't. It was bad enough seeing smoke pouring out of the stricken buildings, and watching the impact footage played over and over. But the images which bothered me most were watching the various people jumping out the windows. They each had made one last desperate act of self determination. I went back to my desk and didn't watch the rest. By the time the second building came down, I was trying very hard to screen it all out. And failing.

Amongst all the various thoughts and feelings which continued to bounce around in my head that day, and in the days following, only one kept poking me hard enough to really stick with me. I wondered how many of those people had gone to work that day, merely punching a clock and putting in their dues, when they had projects and goals and dreams elsewhere. How many people couldn't wait to get out of work that sunny afternoon, and back to the lives they were building in their spare time. And I wondered about those people who had jumped; what they had thought about prior to making that last horrible, yet honorable, decision. I wondered how I would have felt, standing at one of those skyscrapers' windows, knowing there was no way out, and that my life was about to end one way or the other. I knew I'd feel like I had wasted a great deal of time pursuing goals which really weren't my own. I realized that if I should take anything from that day, it was that I couldn't afford to waste any more time. I adopted a new motto that miserable Tuesday. Carpe Diem - Sieze the Day. We had to get started on the farm, and we had to do it without further delay.

We acquired our first four rabbits only a month or so later. We wanted to start with rabbits because they were easy to handle, quiet, relatively inexpensive and easy to sell if we decided this farming stuff wasn't really for us. We loved them. We raised countless litters of babies with those rabbits, eventually setting up one of our first (and continuing) commercial relationships with a buyer. The next big step came that next spring. I reached a point where I couldn't justify the commute anymore. My own work schedule had gone to nearly 12 hours every day as I covered both early and late meetings. I had been badgering my supervisor to let me do work from home, only to be given one excuse after another for why it wouldn't work. In February 2002, I gave notice that I was leaving, and why. Three months later, the same employer asked me to come back, with the provision that they'd let me work from home. Deal. In Spring 2002, instead of working on my commute, I expanded our garden from one puny growing bed, to four.

In Summer 2002, the goats arrived - a pair of does from a friend who wanted to retire. Also that summer, we bought our first batch of day-old chicks. I set up a brooder for them in my office, so I could watch them while I worked at the home desk I thought I'd never have. I joined a group of livestock producers later that year who had banded together to build a small scale poultry processing facility, to bring that infrastructure back to our county. That put me in touch with a great number of nearby livestock owners who were all trying to do the same thing we were doing - earn some money from this thing we called agriculture. And the ball just kept rolling from there. Each subsequent year saw the farm get a little bigger, and a little closer to being a fully productive entity.

Fast forward these ten years, and yes indeed our lives have changed dramatically. What was once merely a farm on paper is now a farm in reality. We've slowly but steadily expanded our operation, learning what it takes to manage each new addition, and then learning what it takes to make money from it. We have taken more and more products to market every year, and figured out ways to keep more of that profit in our pockets. The path certainly has not been without bumps and turns and setbacks, only a handful of which I've talked about since starting the blog. But I can trace the farm's true birthday back to that horrible day in 2001, when I realized that there's no time like the present to start living the rest of my life.

I hear from a lot of folks who want to do what we're doing. Most of the time, they have a fairly well-thought out list of why they can't start yet. I'm sure those reasons sound very plausible to them. Our own reasons certainly sounded plausible to us. But tomorrow is never guaranteed. Whatever we do with today is what we'll be able to work with tomorrow. If we never start on things that really matter, if we never replace "someday" with "today", how robbed will we feel when we each reach our own personal end of days? Some of the reasons which held us back then, continued to hound us for awhile. But we eventually figured out ways to get around, through, over, under or beyond them all. Some still hound us today, and we're still struggling to work through them even as we already know that we've come far enough along that we'll not turn back. This is our chosen road, and we'll be here for as many days as we have left.

No matter who you are, and what you're doing, and what you'd rather be doing, Dear Reader, I can say with all confidence, Sieze the Day. Make today the start of whatever you want to do next. It doesn't need to be some big comprehensive change. Just get started. And just in case your own reasons seem bigger to you than your goals, I offer you a few lines from a favorite poem, Ulysses by Lord Alfred Tennyson:

And tho' we are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


May we all begin to better exercise our various powers of self determination, before we each arrive at our own end of days. That is what I learned from 9/11.


Getting Back On Track
September 8, 2011



Good morning, Dear Reader. It's been awhile since I've posted any new blog entries. My sincere apologies for that. Sometimes events come along in life which derail our best intentions, and that happened to us in mid-June. It's taken quite a while to get back on track but we're just about there. I may, or may not, write up what happened during that interval. Suffice to say a pair of events during that time had lasting impact on the household and farm. We're working hard to make sure both events turn out to be net good things. But they were both fairly heavy-hitting events, and we still have work to do in sorting out the how's and why's and what-next issues. I beg your indulgence while we continue to sort all that out, and decide whether or not to write about any of it.

In the meantime, I wanted to get back to those topics which I so love to write about - sustainable small-scale farming.

Towards that end, we've had something of a topics backlog develop over the last few months. I'll be writing about these topics in the very near future, both in terms of general principles and how we have dealt with these issues on our little farm:

1) Soils building - it's not just for the pro's anymore.

2) When Nature Heals - sometimes we drop the ball, and Ma Nature picks up the pieces and moves forward anyway.

3) The Arrival of Piglets - we searched high and low for the "best" farrowing how-to information we could find. After much reading and deliberating, here's what we came up with for our first batch of piglets, and how it worked out.

4) The County Fair - an enduring tradition, a nostalgic look at what was, a snapshot of what is, and a glimpse of what may yet be.

5) Draft Animals on the Modern Farm - many would argue that draft horses, mules and oxen have no place on the modern family farm. We don't agree.

6) Farm Products Marketing Pro's and Con's - some of the more common marketing options for small scale growers, and what pro's and con's come with each.

7) Neighbors Coming Together - none of us ever want to hear or see Bad News, the kind that makes us stop in our tracks and wonder whether we can help someone else. But Bad News does come along, and that's when neighbors can make the difference between survival and despair. It's never too late to be a good neighbor, regardless of who your neighbors are.

It's good to be back, Dear Reader. I've really missed writing about these various topics, and sharing what we're experimenting with, what works, what doesn't, and what we've learned along the way. I'll be glad to get back into the practice of maintaining the blog; farming always gives me so much to write about. In the meantime, I hope your summer has gone smoothly and that you are enjoying this transitional time of year, wherever you may be. Here's to a pleasant autumn, and a cheerful course into the rest of the year.