Patronize a Farmer, Save the World

My apologies to the show Heroes for my choice of title. I never saw the show but the marketing still found me. Give that marketing firm a raise!

I read a lot of Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s work as I read economics information on “the internets”. You know, a man has to have a hobby. I read about global economics for fun. Seriously, if you pay close attention you’ll be in stitches. If it helps, begin by understanding that the world’s financial experts are all idiots. Pretenders. They have no real insight into the future they rarely grasp the present and they learn nothing from the past. But, since they have some prestigious degree, they think they can tell us how to improve – even save! –  the world with (…get this…) interest rates. LOL! I guess if all you have is a hammer…

Anyway. Mr. Evans-Pritchard published an article about dirt. Well, he published an article about a published article about dirt. And I think it’s worth reading. Kind of a validation that I’m moving in the right direction…but not fast enough. Further, he points out that we, as humans, have a tendency to prefer instant gratification over delayed…or even deferred. I mean, we could have acorns for the next 50 years but I need an oak board now. I could avoid diabetes and keep my feet but I really like pie. We could have savings but there is so much cool stuff to buy. We could have had cedars in Lebanon but we needed a desert. We are a short-sighted species. Ripping the soil gives us an immediate boost in fertility…though at the expense of future fertility. “Well, we’ll figure out tomorrow when it comes.”

Now that I have agreed with him let’s look closer at what Mr. Evans-Pritchard actually wrote. I mean, I kind of just picked out the points that make me feel vindicated as I initially skimmed the article. How does he really feel? I think he’s a little confuzzled. How about this quote?

It comes as China and emerging Asia switch to an animal protein diet, replicating the pattern seen in Japan and Korea as they became rich. As a rule of thumb it takes 4kg-8kg of grains in animal feed to produce 1kg of meat.

What kind of meat requires 8-16 pounds of grain per pound to produce!? It doesn’t take any grain to produce 2.2 pounds of beef. Or lamb. Or goat. What about fish? It takes 3 pounds of grain to make a pound of pork on a production hog floor but you can reduce or eliminate that if you park your piggies under oak trees, chestnut trees and apple trees. They also do well on alfalfa and a healthy dose of cow manure. I mean, his article is essentially about how modern row cropping is destroying the earth and goes on, in the quote above, to say that we can only feed animals with additional row cropping. And that, we have established, is bad. So we have to do more row cropping to feed the world grains. And that, we have established, is bad.

But why not just let the cows eat grass? Make beef the new chicken. Close up shop on all those Arkansas chicken houses and twelve-thousand sow farrowing operations in Manitoba. I am suggesting the issue at hand isn’t simply the lost of soil biota brought on by tillage and chemical death but, instead, our continuing use of the wrong paradigm. Stop taking feed to cows. Take the cows to the feed. Ta-da! Stop buying eggs at the store. Keep a few hens and feed them kitchen scraps. Ta-da! Use tree crops instead of annual crops. Make our Coca-Cola with high-fructose chestnut syrup! Ta-da! Just give your HOA the bird and get some chickens. See how easy?

The UNCCD is aiming for a global deal to achieve “zero net land degradation” from 2015, mostly by replanting forests. The body’s environment chief Veerle Vanderweerde says it is not going well. “We know what to do to restore degraded land. It’s not impossible but it takes time, money, dedication, and political will, and there is not a lot political will.”

Where to begin? Political will? I think that means use of force. As in, “we have the guns so you do what we say.” Remember this passage?

Yacouba Sawadogo, “the man who stopped the desert”, began to revive the ancient zai technique thirty years [ago] to stop soil erosion on his little farm in Burkina Faso. It involved digging small holes and filling them with compost and tree seeds to catch the seasonal rains, recreating a woodland of 20 hectares in the arid Sahel. Sadly, local officials then expropriated the land.

So much for political will. Time? Money? Dedication? Whose? If we elect some bonehead to fix our problems…well, I don’t have high hopes that our problems will get fixed. In fact, I have centuries of evidence that our problems become worse as governments become more involved. I don’t need regulation forcing me to set aside forested land as magical and protected so we can have a “net zero land degradation.” We need massively net negative land degradation. And this is something we can do on our own. No guns election required! Stop ripping soil and leaving it bare and exposed for 6-7 months each year. Instead, grow cover crops, graze livestock, rotate polyculture crops through. If you have the time, Gabe Brown has a lot to teach us on this topic. He talks about “speeding up biological time” and says, “Feeding 9 billion people will be not be any problem whatsoever if we change our production model and focus on soil.” I feel he backs up that bold claim.

We need the freedom to do the things that were traditionally done before 1950 but leveraging modern technology and new ideas. I need to be free to combine livestock, wildlife, trees, people and time in a carbon-sequestering, soil-building, sustainable and profitable mix. The money will suddenly appear so Mr. Elected Bonehead can have his pound of flesh. Check out Mark Sheppard’s book for a real life example of regenerative forested agriculture. (I could list any number of books that illustrate this well but Mark Sheppard is high on my list. I mean, who can resist a guy who has the …stuff… to lecture for two and a half hours then pull out a guitar to sing a song at the audience?)

Back to the point, there is no need for political will to do this. We don’t have to elect leaders to point guns at us so we will behave. We already know what to do. If you don’t I hope you are sitting down for this. It’s utterly profound. Stop looking at “them“. Stop blaming “them“. What are you doing? How are you saving the world? Where do you buy your food? What system do you vote for each day? We don’t need people signing petitions against industrial ag. What a waste. We need consumers educating themselves…involving themselves. Just go – you yourself – and purchase products from farmers who care about soil health. Farmers who don’t saturate their fields with chemical death. Farmers who enhance life by composting and growing food and building healthy soil. We need agricultural pioneers finding ways to do more with less in spite of existing government regulations and writing narcissistic little blogs like mine about what goes right and what goes wrong. Farmers, not legislators, need your support.

If you are not a farmer (and most people aren’t), find a farm that looks and smells good. Don’t worry about the ugly buildings or the beat-up jalopy in the driveway. Learn what healthy animals look like. Learn what healthy grass looks like (it doesn’t look like a lawn). Look at tree health. Smell the air. Feel the soil. Then invest in the farmer by buying his produce so he can continue to grow.

Patronize a farmer, save the world.

I have a few afterthoughts that really don’t belong in this posting. Don’t worry about peak oil. Peak oil will bring modern industrial agricultural practices to an immediate halt. But not before peak phosphorus brings modern ag to a halt. Unless the lack of humus in our soils enables a drought that brings modern ag to a halt first. There are alternatives. In case you haven’t seen this (how could you have missed it?) I give you this short presentation. May it change your whole life…and through you, the world. Please watch this video. (BTW, note his confession that, as a government agent, he advised his country to shoot 40,000 elephants to “save” the ecology. Made the problem worse.)

I also have to add, if you live near us and are interested in partnering with us in saving the world we can offer you excellent quality and value. If you are inclined to vote, please vote for us.

If I Were Homesteading Over Again…

I appreciate and welcome email correspondence with readers. In fact, probably the coolest part of the blog is the people I have met through it. There are a couple of themes that most emails follow and I would like to address one of those today: What to start with.

The typical letter I get goes something like this (please understand I’m having fun with this):

Chris,
My wife and I really enjoy reading your blog (though we never leave a comment) and have been making plans to move to a few acres of our own. We would like to keep goats and a few chickens. Do you have any tips that would help us get rich from goat milk and chicken eggs on our two acre lot?

Thanks,

A. Reader

Mr. Reader,

We have been all the way down Goat Road. I don’t find that goats are the easiest animals to keep and I’m not alone in that thinking. They are sweet. They won’t break your foot if they step on you. But they have specific nutrition requirements, need the best hay you can buy in the winter and they tend to turn half or more of their hay into manure-covered bedding. They are hard to keep fenced…and it is especially difficult to keep them fenced out of your orchard. They can jump over fence, crawl under fence and they have a built-in, natural resistance to electric shock. Really. Salatin jokes that he won’t keep them because he can’t keep an animal that is smarter than he is. Julie and I found the goats would stay put with a hot fence and plenty of brush to eat but when they run out of food the fence may as well not be there. Maybe it’s not that bad but they can be rough. And what do you get out of the deal? A quart of milk? Talk about a recipe for a fast homestead burnout!

Olive4

Instead of focusing on what I wouldn’t do (herd of elephants) I would rather break down what I would do if I were homesteading all over again. Sound cool? I have to admit, I surprised myself with my choices as I wrote the posting. Stick with me here. This may not apply to you. It may not be what you expect. But it is where I am today.

I can’t imagine a homestead without three types of animals. Maybe four as time goes on…five if conditions are right. Feel free to disagree but if I was me (and I am me) and I was moving to a couple of acres to start fresh, goats just wouldn’t make the cut. Again, you are probably thinking of the ideal farmstead with cow, pig and chicken. Maybe include a duck or a goose or a cat like in the Little Red Hen. But this isn’t the Little Red Hen. This is a homestead.

This is not a zoo. Too many animals will damage your soil. Too many can put too much pressure on the land not allowing adequate recovery and requiring you to buy feed, draining your budget. Miss Coulton was talking of supplying additional feed to livestock saying,

…but these things are only required when you keep more stock than your land can support,—a fault very common to inexperienced farmers on a small scale.

So let’s keep it simple and pare it down to bare bones. Knowing what I know now, what would I do if I was homesteading on an acre or three? I want to keep my workload to a minimum, keep the infrastructure costs to a minimum and allow a maximum amount of time to be a Human Being not a “Human Doing”. You with me here? I want to improve my soils and enjoy my livestock but not wake up every morning dreading the day’s chores.

Since we are homesteading, I would want to put in a big garden and plant a few fruit trees appropriate for my climate but, though my diet will be positively impacted by growing my own broccoli, my budget really won’t be. In fact, growing my own veggies could add significantly to my total food costs. And I would need a source of fertilizer and something to do with all of my weeds and garden wastes. I need to partner with livestock to significantly impact my budget…raising and butchering my own meat and sourcing my own natural fertilizers. But I need animals that will work for me efficiently and that will require a minimum amount of my resources in terms of daily chores and protection from predation. Ready? Let’s go.

Pigs

No surprise to long-time readers, pigs are on the top of my list. I hate it when we sell out of pigs. Usually I only make it a few days before I go buy more. I enjoy their intelligence, their curiosity and their ability to break down and convert waste products into bacon…and what’s better than bacon? The book Harris on the Pig breaks down what makes a pig worth keeping in the opening pages of the book.

The hog is a great eater. He can eat and digest and assimilate more nutriment in a time in proportion to his size than any other of our animals.

But more to the point, the pig assimilates what would otherwise go to waste.

…roots nuts and worms and other animal matter the natural food the hog.

and later…

We can in no other way utilize the refuse from the house and the dairy so advantageously as by feeding it to swine. On grain farms pigs will obtain a good living for several weeks after harvest on the stubbles and in some sections they find a considerable amount of food in the woods.

Our pigs get spoiled milk, apple drops, all the acorns, hickory nuts and walnuts they want. It’s fun to watch a pig try to eat a walnut…sounds like they are trying to eat marbles and keeps them entertained for hours. They get tomato vines and bad tomatoes, split watermelons, etc. from the garden and relish any weeds we can throw their way, especially lambsquarters. And as much as they will eat, they really don’t ask for much from us. They need shade, shelter, food and water and a place to dig. No problem. We need to go away overnight to attend a wedding? Put down some fresh bedding, fill the feeder, check the water and we’re good.

HamAndApples

If I had limited space available I would confine the pig or pigs on deep bedding. I know, confinement. But this is exactly what Salatin does when he puts his pigs in the cow shed. Feed, water, shelter and a place to dig. That’s it. The pigs will decide to manure in one specific place and that’s the place to pile on extra bedding. When the pig ships, heap up all the bedding, let it cook through and age then add it to your potato bed. I might even suggest you overwinter a small group of pigs in an area you want to break sod and turn into a garden. To keep it simple you might pick up four 16′ combination panels then put a cover over one corner and hold everything in place with T-posts. That’s your $50 hog confinement facility. Add in a watering nipple for $2 and a feeder pan and I think you can see where I’m going with this.

Group2

Finally, I have to add that pigs can be an excellent centerpiece to your farm even beyond providing your own meat and scrap conversion. This is a business line you could grow into over time, building on skills as you go and can fully utilize your acreage, rotating through over time while keeping infrastructure costs low.

Rabbits

This may be something of a surprise but after getting a pig on my farm I would set up 4 cages, get 2 males and 2 females and start building a rabbit tractor or two to grow out the bunnies. Not unlike pigs, bunnies relish weeds and require little of the owner, though, as with pigs, we haven’t gotten around using a bagged feed. You have to work to keep them cool in the summer but they can produce a terrific amount of meat in short order and are easy to dress out. My great-grandpa Brown kept meat rabbits in his garage in Indianapolis and, apparently, my great-grandma Brown made rabbit-skin coats. I realize fur isn’t fashionable right now because we would rather save the world with polyester but some day we’ll return to utilizing natural resources…or at least I can hope.

HarePen3

Rabbits also produce copious amounts of manure…the kind you can put directly on your garden without composting and it acts like a time-release fertilizer capsule. But if you choose to compost it you’ll only make things better. Maybe make a compost pile with alternating layers of leaves and rabbit manure in the fall. But to keep odors down you’ll need to either clean and haul the rabbit manure regularly or cover the pile with sawdust regularly. Your nose will tell you…but if you wait to hear from your nose the rabbits will suffer. Be proactive about manure management.

After meat, fur and manure we are left with the offal. If you aren’t into eating rabbit livers (pretty good, really) you can save them for dog food. Same with kidneys and hearts. In fact, the head isn’t a bad thing for a little pooch or for your pig. Yup. The pig will eat every part of the rabbit you don’t…they are omnivores. We typically compost the heads, feet and intestines.

Worms

I know what you are thinking…Chickens didn’t make the top 3? Nope. Worms did. I was surprised myself. There are some things you just can’t convince a pig to eat. There are some things that you are better off not taking to the pigs. Our kitchen generates coffee grounds, banana peels and citrus waste in small portions. Pigs really aren’t interested in those but worms LOVE them. And worms do a thorough job of composting everything at a low temperature for use in our garden. After an initial thermophilic composting of pig bedding and manure we can give it to the worms for finishing, ending up with the best stuff in the world. Not to mention, worms we can sell or feed to other animals…fish, chickens…whatever.

Like the others, the worms don’t need much from us. Make sure they are damp, not wet. Make sure they have something to eat. Make sure they are not too hot or too cold. That’s about it. I highly recommend the book Worms Eat My Garbage for additional reading on the topic.

Worms

Let me pause here to say that you SHOULD be able to raise all three of my top 3 while still living in suburbia with less than $100 invested in infrastructure. Many places allow “pet” rabbits and pot-bellied pigs (often available for free) and there is no law against worms. You don’t need acres and acres of ground. You don’t need a huge amount of debt. What you do need is a plan to contain odors. You need a source of carbon. Do you live near a cabinetry shop? How about a sawmill? Do you have deciduous trees that you can gather leaves from? Can you collect newspapers from neighbors or buy some from the local recycler? If so, run composted animal wastes through your worms and sell the worm castings. Homestead at home. You’ll be amazed what you can do.

About a decade ago all the hog farmers around me who had sold out of hogs in the late ’90’s crash got caught up in a worm farming pyramid scheme. Don’t get caught up in a worm farming pyramid scheme. It strikes me that with a minimal investment in infrastructure, you can make superior compost for your garden using worms. This could be a serious money-maker but I’m really talking about a nutrient cycling resource.

So that’s my top 3. I’m as surprised as you are. But since we’re here, let’s talk about the rest as you may have your own ideas.

Need help mowing? Try Cows or Sheep

Cows are great at solving problems with surplus forage. You are probably going to have a hard time making a single cow happy as they are herd animals and you would probably have a hard time feeding a cow from a suburban yard (several yards maybe but watch for land mines). But on larger acreages…I mean, what else are you going to do with all that grass? You won’t save the Earth with a mower. Sheep may fit into suburbia but, again, you are better off in the stix to help you rotate away from parasites and avoid odor issues. In fact, I think you could make a case that a cow and 4 sheep count as one complimentary unit, utilizing pastures and breaking pathogen cycles, not to mention the cows keeping sheep predators at bay.

Not only do they take a low-value product (grass) and turn it into something better (steak or milk) but the grass sward improves because the cow tugged at the grass, salivated on it, urinated on it, stepped on it and manured all over it. If you want to build fertility in a hurry, if you are anxious to fix carbon and quickly save the world, hire a cow. The grass gets mowed and fertilized in one pass, nutrients are pushed into the soil and the mowers can reproduce themselves. Just add salt and water.

CompleteRecovery1

All that said, they are herd animals. What is a herd? Julius Ruechel says cows don’t really act like a mob until you have at least 500 in one group. I have also read numerous places (this is the most convenient) that you need one hired hand per 1,000 cows (commodity cows anyway)…which is the same as saying that you need 1,000 cows to pay the salary of one man…or one you. That’s a long way of saying, this is a low-margin, land-extensive enterprise. But it sure beats mowing.

HappyCows

I’ll forgive you if you include a dairy cow on your 1-5 acre farm. John Seymour includes a dairy cow in his homestead plans. Just know that milking isn’t for everybody. It just might be easier to drive 20 minutes to buy milk 6 gallons at a time once/week than to deal with 6 gallons/day from old Bessie. But, that’s why you have the pigs. Though it is only mentioned briefly, Eric Bende learned about this and shares his milking experiences in the book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. Also keep in mind, milk cows don’t take any days off. I hope Paul Atreides will forgive this joke but the milk must flow. Every day you bring Bessie to the barn in the morning, brush her off, wipe her off, check each teat, milk her out then clean up the barn after filtering and chilling the milk, sterilizing the milking pail…the list goes on. Matron says it takes her 15 minutes to go from her door to the cow and back again…twice each day. So, again, I might suggest you should make that 20 minute drive once/week instead. Cow or no cow is a quality of life decision and I can see both sides.

Milking

Let’s round out the top 5 with Fish.

I know, right? Look. We have a couple of ponds. They came stocked with bluegill, crappie and bass and we threw a couple hundred catfish in for kicks. Those fish don’t need anything from me. But if I chose to feed them the feed conversion rate for fish is the best it can be. For every pound of feed eaten they gain a pound. Every year I threaten to put Japanese Beetle traps over the pond to feed the bluegill (who love Japanese beetles, btw). How many meals could I pull from an acre pond in a year? How many hours do I have to spend maintaining fence to keep the fish in? None. How many hours fighting raccoons to protect my fish population? None. That said, maybe fish have just displaced pigs on my list. Nah.

Pond

You can look into aquaponics, and I encourage you to do so, but I’m attempting to list things that can take care of themselves. Our first attempt at aquaponics was a dismal failure. Since I have a pond…well, that’s easier.

So, What about…

Laying Hens

OK. Well. Not really a high-margin enterprise here. And everything likes to eat chicken. Everything. So, if you can keep them alive, you’ll get an excellent source of protein on a near-daily basis. Since the margins tend to be so tight (or negative) and we’re talking just a couple of acres here, it might be better to trade for eggs with your neighbor so they can go to war while you stay home. But if you want your own birds for household use you should plan one bird for each member of the household plus two birds…with a minimum of six birds. You could pickle surplus eggs or send cracked, checked or otherwise unwanted eggs to the pigs (you have to have pigs!). And I would buy the birds as ready-to-lay pullets so you don’t have to invest in brooding equipment, though chicks are cute and fun. Just understand, when you are coming home from Bob’s house after sundown on a Saturday evening and nobody was home to close up the chickens…well, you may have one less chicken and a fat skunk stuck in the fence. Good luck with that.

Chickens were the first livestock we bought and every step of the way has been more difficult than advertised. Numerous people have told me tales of the chicken wars recently. Here’s a real example.

Friend: “Well, we started with 15, got down to 1, bought 10 more and now we have 5.”

Me: “How many eggs have you gotten from those 25 birds?”

Friend: “None.”

Me: “Maybe you would be better off with pigs, rabbits or worms.”

Broilers

This is also a low-margin enterprise. If starting over, I would be tempted to find a farmer who raises broilers and work out a deal for the 50/year I need for my own household. 50 whole birds weighing 4 pounds at $3/pound is $600. Maybe you could trade him a fat hog or a litter of shoats for 50 frozen birds. Maybe you could just pay him the $600. There are big advantages to running broilers on your farm seasonally but there are also big expenses.

Hoop

Sigh. I guess I would go ahead and raise my own birds. I enjoy the work and with 3 weeks in the brooder and 5 weeks in the field it is not exactly a life-sentence…the way milking a cow is. I would probably fit broilers in either spring or fall on my homestead…but I say that grudgingly. I’ll hold further comment on broilers for another blog post.

So that’s about it. There are any number of animals I have intentionally overlooked on my list. Please don’t be offended if you are a fan of geese. I think geese could be a good source of grass-fed meat on a farm but I don’t have any experience with them. Ducks are comical but I don’t really like them. You may have your own ideas for an ideal homestead starting lineup but that’s mine. Pigs, rabbits and worms…animals you could start with while you are still in town. Feel free to disagree…but if you are disagreeing before you have dipped your toes in the water, let me know when you dream up your revised list. You will ultimately have to follow your heart’s leading but whatever you do, start small. Start where you are. Minimize your expenses. Start slowly. Step into each enterprise carefully…but for Pete’s sake…take a step!

Tired of Picking Beans

Our oldest daughter stuck with the bean picking for an hour Tuesday morning.  Then she screamed, “I’m Done!” and ran into the house crying.  This is not what we want out of our children.

Did we push her too hard?  Was she simply having a bad day? Probably a little of both with a dash of older brother tossed in.

It’s the hottest weather we have had all year, we have pigs again, broiler chicks, pullets we hatched out, young rabbits, stupid ducks, layers, cows and a 40′ row of beans.  Not to mention the tomatoes we are simply ignoring.  The workload is taking its toll on everyone.  That’s why we only plant beans every few years.

Anybody else risking your children’s sanity or skirting divorce by canning beans this year?

Strawberry Picking

It’s time.  Strawberries are coming in full force.  And just because she’s not wearing a ring doesn’t mean you should go getting ideas.  It wears her out to carry that enormous rock around all day…lol.

Strawberries1

Last year I planted strawberry plants with the Jeavon’s grid in a 20′ row, 4′ wide.  In the fall I had so many runners I planted the other 20′ of the row.  Both ends of the row are very, very productive this year.  Because the row is 4′ wide we can easily reach in 2′ from each side to pull the few weeds that come through or pick the berries.

Strawberries2

Now, having extolled the virtues of 4′ rows, I’m not entirely sure I’ll do it again.  Weeding is a breeze, fertility is high, maintenance is low but I wonder if I wouldn’t get more berries if each plant got more sunlight.  I may plant two rows in a 4′ space when I plant runners in half of the next row (where the onions and cabbages currently are.

Strawberries3

Pay no attention to the pale leaves on my blueberry plants.  I planted into part of grandpa’s rock collection and the soil is a little chalky.  I’ll get the acidity up in time.  Bear with me.

Mulberries are ripening, dewberries are just around the corner.  Broccoli and Cauliflower are finishing up and I need to plant beans in that row.  Maybe I could hire someone to go to my job for me…

Instant Garden Just Add Water

Well, not an instant garden.  Took us about 4 hours.  For the most part my rows are still defined from last year as several of them are still planted.  We put up strings to help guide us, pulled all remaining carrots, weeded the garden and fed the weeds and small carrots to the goats, then got down to brass tacks…er…horse manure.

I spent the winter gathering horse, pig, rabbit and chicken manure…all mixed with sawdust and straw.  We turned that pile a couple of times and watched the temperature vary.

Manure

I don’t own a broadfork but I might make one.  As a substitute I used my pitchfork to loosen the soil 12″ deep.  I didn’t turn the soil, I just broke it up a bit.  Then we began delivering manure one fork full at a time.

InstantGarden1One 12 year old, one 36 year old and a couple of pitchforks.  The youngest two used rakes.  Julie and the oldest daughter were at a hair appointment.  Can you believe that?

InstantGarden2So we worked.

InstantGarden3…and worked…

InstantGarden4…until finally mom showed up and we let her do the rest.  Mom took over planting onions, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower and sent me off to find something else that was heavy and needed moving.  Like the brooder.

InstantGarden5

The center row is currently vacant but we’ll plant peas there tomorrow.  The next row to the right is this year’s potato row so that’s on tomorrow’s list too.  We also plan to plant tomatoes and peppers in the greenhouse tomorrow-ish.  Once again, rows need to be cleaned out before we can start.  Ugh.

I’m very pleased with the amount of work we accomplished in a very short time.  The garden is well established, we just have to maintain the fertility year by year.  Everything needs a good covering of wood chips and we’ll coast through this growing season as we usually do…light weeding on Sundays, ignoring it otherwise.  Just add water.

Dreaming of June

Look at the Blueberry plants!  Oh!  One more year and we can stop pinching the blossoms and start eating them fresh!  Can’t wait!

BlueberriesAnd it looks like the strawberries are really going to make this year.  We’ll have jam, we’ll freeze some, we’ll eat mountains of them fresh with spinach!  I mean, here it is, pretend June 1st and we’ve already eaten so many of them…

Strawberries

And the green beans!  We’ll be busy canning all July to handle the crop that’s out there.  Bush-type beans planted 8″ apart in a grid as demonstrated by Jeavons really do well.  It helps that this row received 6″ of compost and another 4″ of mulch in the last year.

GreenBeans

The potatoes are really coming on.  We’ve already hilled them twice and have high hopes that the drought will hold off this year.  Last year the drought started around June 15th and the potato plants withered quickly.  In fact, I started digging potatoes before July 1.  This year I don’t want to dig the main crop until at least August 1.  Just soon enough to plant our fall crop of broccoli in the same row but late enough that a fair portion of the potatoes will keep.

Potatoes

The rhubarb is doing well but the plants are a bit crowded.  I need to move them to a new home.  I really don’t know where to put them.  The rest of the row is just odd plantings.  Some onions, some lettuce (it’s about to bolt), some marigolds.  I may put in a little buckwheat in this row.

Rhubarb

But this year is THE year for tomatoes!  I’ve never seen anything like it.  We put down layer after layer of chicken manure, horse manure and 10″ of well-composted wood mulch last year and this year I have the best crop of tomatoes ever.  The peppers were looking a little leggy early on but they are bearing now.  The jalapenos are long and flavorful.  Takes 2 pieces of bacon to wrap one popper.  If you look carefully, you can see we planted oregano between plantings of tomato and pepper.  That kind of planting brings in a lot of wild pollinators.

Tomatoes and peppers

Well.  One day winter will pass.  One day I’ll be out working in the garden thinking, “what was so bad about winter?”  But today, looking out at a foot of snow and more falling from the sky, I’m wondering if it will ever end.  You can see a brooder in the potato picture above.  That brooder has 140 chicks in it.  I say chicks but they are nearly a month old.  They should be on pasture.  I may have to sacrifice two rows of the garden to make a pretend pasture for them…feeding them hay daily.

It is nice to have an excuse to sit down for a few days though.  You can assume I’m working when I disappear from the blog for a few days.  I have been working a lot lately.  Let me know if the snow gave you a chance to do some dreaming.

Apple Trees in the Ground!

Once upon a time, probably laying in bed on a lazy Sunday morning (when we lived in the city, churched on Saturday and still had lazy Sundays), I said to my lovely bride, “I would like apple trees.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a fall family gathering where we make fresh cider, take a hayride and roast a pig?”  And that’s where it all began.  That was the dream.  That’s why I live here.  That was probably 8-10 years ago.

And today (after 3 years of planning, hoping, researching and looking for frost pockets) I planted my first apple trees.

They aren’t much to look at.  Just sticks …um..sticking…straight-ish up.  But that’s the start.  They arrived bare root so they need to be staked.  They are planted in hills next to the Georgia wall on the North side of the main garden.  I have all sorts of plans for planting tree guilds all around them but the main point is they are in the ground.

Now, I just cross my fingers and hope for the best.  The money used to buy trees was just money.  The trees themselves are wealth.

Thanks Stark Bro’s.

Chestnuts Roasting in a Closed Oven

I had never eaten a chestnut.  Until today, I wasn’t entirely sure what a chestnut was.  I even ordered 25 trees from a supplier in Florida that will arrive spring of 2013.  No idea.  Just doing what I thought sounded like a good idea.  Get some trees in the ground.  Grow lumber for future generations.  Harvest nuts.  Go.

We were picking up apples at Eileen’s  house on Sunday and I noticed what I assumed were buckeyes.  I asked the kids to leave them lay because I don’t want buckeye trees on the farm.  They are toxic to cows and horses, useless for lumber and are not welcome here.  Anyway, I did little more than glance at them and focused, instead, on apples.

But they weren’t buckeyes.  They were chestnuts.  I think they are Chinese chestnuts.  I realized my mistake today and drove back to pick them up after work.  In the cold.  In the wind.  Thankfully, not in the rain.  A cold front came through and dropped the temperature about 20 degrees in 10 minutes.  I didn’t have a jacket with me.  Remember to wear gloves next time you pick up chestnuts, OK?

We roasted a handful in the oven and, true to the description, they are like eating a slightly sweet, nutty potato.  Maybe I’m missing something.  Where is the wonder and majesty?  Maybe in the 68 years since Mel Torme wrote The Christmas Song chestnuts have changed.  Maybe we have more sweets in our diet now.  I dunno.  Though I plan to roast some at Christmas, the jury is still out on the whole chestnut experiment.  However, we’re going to plant some, we have trees coming in the mail and we’ll figure something out.

Now, I want to say a word about Eileen.  When I was younger (maybe just young) I hauled manure from Barney’s for Eileen’s asparagus (Barney deserves a blog of his own), I rebuilt her wooden swing that her cousin had made for her but the tornado threw into the ditch (Babe deserves a blog post) and I helped her pick veggies, cleaned up her fallen limbs and ate lots of her cookies.  She gave me a couple of her deceased husband’s ties.  Years later I did some really stupid stuff and hit a particularly low point in life.  Eileen made it a point to tell me in front of a large group that, to her, I was still as good as gold.  Eileen means a lot to me.

I think it’s great that, though Eileen is now in a nursing home, I am still welcome at her house.  It may not always be that way but, though she has no idea I was there to get apples and chestnuts, I know that I have her blessing even if it comes by proxy through her son.  Thanks Larry.

Gardening with Zombies

Not the Halloween type of zombies or the ones that dance with you while you and your teen-aged girlfriend try to walk home from seeing a movie.

Real, honest to goodness Zombie Apocalypse type of zombies.  Over the years we have read a number of survival books from true accounts of people stuck on boats or on mountains to fictional accounts of  little boys crashed in the Canadian wilderness to full on TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It).  The main character of a book I’m reading is a big fan of guns and beans (who isn’t?), owns a cabin as a BOL (Bug-Out Location) and has plans to use an abandoned lot nearby for a garden if he has to bug-out.

It’s that last point that bothers me.  It’s as if to say, all you have to do is turn some soil over, tip the seed envelope toward the ground and “Voila!” – food.  Haven’t these people seen Second Hand Lions?!  You know, where they planted a garden out of various seed packets and it all grew up to be corn.

Ugh.

Gardens take time.  Gardening is a skill.  Canning is darned near an art.  Heck, all of it is an art, one that has to be developed over time in your own climate with seeds that are well-suited to grow where you live…viable seeds that haven’t been sitting in a can on a shelf in a storage unit for 10 years.

So our hero in the current book spends his Sunday afternoons shooting with the guys, practicing tactics for urban warfare.  He has to know how to use his weapon so he is ready if he needs it.  It’s preparedness.  He fills a cabin with beans, rice and pancake mix (yes, pancake mix) because he wants to eat beans and rice and pancakes.  He buys a couple of seed packets at the big box store just in case.  Just in case?

Ugh.

I don’t even know what to say.

Well, I guess I’ll have to figure it out because I can’t drop off the blog post here.

Now, look.  I’m very much in favor of arming your family with an array of handguns and ARs customized to fit each member of the family from ages 3 to 60 (younger than three can pass the ammo!).  You wouldn’t say, “Well, yeah, I now own a Glock so I’m ready for the Zombie Apocalypse.”  You learn how to use it!  I’m very much in favor of beans, rice and pancake mix but you can’t just stop there and call it macaroni!  You have to learn how to cook it.  If gardening is part of your survival prep, plan for it.  Learn how to do it!  I mean, the author is very pointed about the fact that our ‘hero’ is rather useless around the house and doesn’t know anything about gardening.  He just buys guns and beans and pancake mix.  Months worth of beans and pancake mix.  (And he expects his wife to be pleasantly surprised that we’re having beans for dinner.  For the next 9 months. (Oh, and we might have to shoot the neighbors to keep them from eating our beans!))

Do you know how to garden?  Most folks grow a good crop of weeds every year.  Not necessarily bad if you know which weeds are best to eat but not ideal if you’re trying to grow onions.

And you can’t keep onion seeds in storage for more than a year!

I have gone astray.  Let’s get down to it.

Soil.  It takes roughly 7 years to get decent soil in your garden plot.  You need manure, animal or human.  It takes 3-5 years for a grafted fruit tree to grow.  It takes 10-15 years for a fruit tree to bear if grown from seed (and if it’s an apple you might be unpleasantly surprised).  Did you plan that timeline into your SHTF scenario? No?  Well, good thing you’ve got a Glock.  Maybe you can help someone with a garden defend it from marauding vegetarian Zombies.

My friend Linda Brady Traynham died not quite a year ago.  She and I discussed this topic at length over the phone one evening.  She had written about it in 2009 but she makes the point better than I can as she reviews the book Patriot.  Here are the highlights:

 I had been using the term”survivalist” as convenient shorthand, but Mr. Rawles showed me the error of my ways:  we want to be prepared to thrive, not just to survive.  We’re capitalists … and we want a better ROI than just living through the breakdown of commerce and law and order.

“I may have to live through wars in ‘injun territory,’ but I refuse to do so without ample supplies of whipping cream, fresh porto bello mushrooms, and a lifetime supply of OPI nail polish.”  Two years into the bad times our heroes have fended off assorted attackers and formed a Dudly Do Right squad to patrol a big chunk of territory assisting those they think worthy of it.  Their standard breakfast is dried wheat softened with heated water.  Lunch is a big pot of steaming rice.  Period.  Dinner is the elk or venison du jour when hunting is good and more rice.  Dehydrated peanut butter or jerky if it weren’t.  Yeech.  The calorie count is a bit higher, but other than that we’re talking Gulag food.  On special occasions they have a tasty MRE.

…Call me effete, but I’d have turned some of the ingredients into elk-fried rice and told those men that they had enough trenches, go hunting and don’t come back without something that can be milked, and I don’t care if it is domestic or a mountain goat.  One of you other idlers go find a bee hive.

Three years into their communal survival experiment they still haven’t planted a garden!  They keep wonderful around the clock lookouts, of course.  They make terrific IED.  Nothing was more important than a garden, and couldn’t someone not on duty have built a still?  They couldn’t even have made soap out of ashes for lack of sufficient spare fats.

Nail polish.  LOL.  She hit the nail on the head.  In your Red Dawn fantasy scenario you should plan to dig more than the graves of your fallen enemies.  You should plan to garden.  You should find a source of milk and convenient protein.  If you can keep a couple of chickens at your house now you should.  You can pack them with you to your Bug-Out location if needed.  Same for rabbits.  It’s more than just bullets, beans and exploding zombie heads.  Learn to do this stuff now and plan to be comfortable.  What if you get there and the zombies don’t find you?  You just going to watch each other field strip your guns for years?  You need something to do!  Garden.  Keep chickens.  Grow something.  As Linda points out, it may even enable you to make a valuable contribution to your gun-toting community.

Heinlein said, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”  

Learning to do anything is simply a matter of putting in the time.  If you want to learn about gardening, the time to start is now.  I can teach you to hit a target at 15-20 yards with a 9mm handgun with an hour of instruction.  You’ll need the rest of your life to learn to garden well.  Start now.  I still have a long way to go myself.

Now, we can’t talk about a well-armed family thriving with a productive garden (and composting their manure for said garden) during the ongoing zombie apocalypse without noting a couple of problems.  These are from Survival Mom’s list of 28 Inconvenient Truths About TEOTWAWKI:

22. Growing your own food is a bigger challenge than you ever thought possible.
23. A green garden can be spotted from miles away, thus endangering your food source and your family.

So.  If you believe there is any possibility of a zombie apocalypse, post-nuclear apocalypse, trucker strike, currency disruption, ice storm, 7 fat and 7 lean years or long-term unemployment (nothing stretches unemployment like not buying food!) and, as Linda points out, thriving sounds better than just surviving, maybe you should take a first step.  Besides, who needs that much lawn?

A Beautiful March Day in October

It’s March.  Well, it’s not but it feels like March…but different.  The weather is right.  We got an inch of rain last night.  The wind is blowing endlessly and I’m in the garden.  March.  But instead of planting potatoes, I’m harvesting the remaining tomatoes and peppers.  I’m cutting up the plants to allow them to compost in a windrow in the garden under (you guessed it!) horse manure.  I’ll haul the horse manure once the row is out.

We’re getting an incredible harvest of green tomatoes but the summer garden is at an end.

The fall garden is getting a good head of steam.  Carrots are doing well.

Spinach is finally starting to come out.  I have the hardest time with spinach.  No idea why.

Radishes are coming out.

Lots of things happening in the garden.  Out of the garden too.  Our last chicken butcher date is this weekend.  I think we’re all ready for it.  Place your order soon.