Archives for posts with tag: agriculture

Wascally Wabbits!

A.V. Walters–

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Cages and Wraps

Late April and early May were a whirlwind of activity. We ordered over 200 trees, anticipating the participation of 40 volunteers in this spring’s tree planting extravaganza. The trees arrived. The volunteers did not. There were good reasons for standing us up, but that still left us on our own with a lot of bare root trees.

With bare root plants, you have, at best, two weeks to get them into the ground. You can “heel them in” to buy additional time. Heeling in is essentially storing them in dirt—either by digging a trench, or mounding. Still it’s planting and uprooting them again—more work for us and more trauma to the tender roots. So, we rolled up our sleeves, and planted.

No sooner were the trees in, than we began to lose them to deer and rabbits. So began the next great surge—the making and installation of the tree cages. In all, over a very short period, we made and installed almost one hundred and fifty cages. By the time we finished, and feeling invincible, I was almost beginning to think that rabbits could be cute. Then, we (mostly Rick) re-fenced the garden/orchard area with rabbit-proof fencing. You’d think that there would be an opportunity then, to breathe and rest. Ha! Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…

Below the house, we’ve planted a hedge of berry and blooming plants. Well, eventually it will be a hedge; currently it is a widely spaced and hopeful collection of spindly plants. Its purpose is to provide a visual break and to host a wide variety of blooming plants that will be good for the bees. As a side note, there are a number of berry plants that will provide treats for us, too. There are blueberries, high-bush cranberries, service berries and elderberries, mixed in with lilacs, redbuds, red osier, and lavender. In a few years it will be really beautiful. Because the berry plants are particularly tasty (and because I have an emotional and aesthetic stake in this hedge), they were among the first to be caged. Finally, after weeks of work, we could relax.

Well, I actually went into town for groceries, and bought some new work shoes. Rick was working on plumbing, so I walked up to the house to show him my fancy new footwear. On the way up the path, I saw it. A baby bunny. Cute, eh?

Not so much. The baby rabbits are very small. They fit nicely between the wires of our new tree cages. Once in, they are protected from predators, and can munch, at their leisure on our berry plants. From my vantage on the path I could clearly see a baby bunny giving my brand new blueberry bush a serious pruning. I rushed it, waving my arms, screaming. It ran. And stopped, thirty feet from the new hedge… waiting. Quickly, I surveyed the damage. One blueberry, neatly pruned to half its original size. One baby bunny, stalking. And, across the field, half a dozen baby bunnies, frolicking.

Rick came to the door of the house, alerted by my cursing. I held out the severed blueberry branches and he understood immediately. We pulled out a roll of chicken wire and began cutting cage-wraps, glancing nervously over our shoulders to the hedge. I should have stood guard, because in the twenty minutes it took to cut the wire wraps, three more blueberry plants were pruned to within an inch of their lives! Thank God for new shoes!

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Blueberry, it’s branches trimmed!

Now, all of the berry and bloom hedge plants have double cages. I’m also going to string deterrent wires across the tops, to discourage any deer, who might reach down into the shorter cages for a nibble. It’s the Fort Knox of landscaping. Maybe now we can relax a bit. Except that it’s time to put in the garden.

Bunnies? Maybe they’ll be cute again, someday.

 

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Beyond Sustainable

A.V. Walters

Food Stamps 2

For decades, sustainable has been the goal. Organic gardeners and farmers could proudly point at their successful efforts for the fact that they’d brought in crops that were not at the expense of the environment.

Agriculture, as it’s practiced in this country, is a significant factor in environmental degradation. Soil erosion, soil desiccation, loss of beneficial bacteria, poison build-up in the soils (and groundwater), bee losses—these are all “normal” conditions brought about by standard American agricultural methods. By contrast, organic practices, crop rotation, organic soil amendment (cover crops, compost and natural manure applications), these actually build soil health and soil volumes. As an organic gardener’s soils improved, she could be proud of the fact that she was building a better tomorrow in her corner of the planet.

Now we know that that is not enough.

The living world is a connected system. Excessive carbon in the atmosphere is changing the climate all over the planet and, organic or not, we’re along for the ride. It’s not enough to mind your own little corner with the objective of saving it. We need to save the planet. We can start by doing exactly what we’ve always done. Recent research shows that sustainable garden/farm practices actually trap carbon into the soils. Better soil, better air, better climate! So the organic gardener’s efforts actually help to offset some of the bad practices everywhere else!

Think of the changes we could make if we expanded organic and sustainable gardening practices everywhere! I imagine a world in which your local “garden center” does not have an “aisle of death,” with its shelves lined with poisons. To get there, people need to stop buying those products. To convince them to let go of their poison remedies, the organic tribe needs to spread the word. We need to reach out, with solutions, instead of judgments. We need to have classes and write articles on alternatives to the garden fed with chemical fertilizers and “guarded” with pesticides. It can be done. (And yes, I know we’re all busy, but really, our lives and our future depends on this and we can make time.)

Imagine how much more progress we could make if our agricultural system changed to include some of those same techniques. Successful ancient farmers built our civilization using sustainable methods. Our current version of extractive farming has only been used for half a century. We can revive those sustainable traditions and decrease our reliance on chemical inputs. Recent studies on extended crop rotation have shown we can increase soil health and minimize chemical usage.

“Substantial improvements in the environmental sustainability of agriculture are achievable now, without sacrificing food production or farmer livelihoods.” – See more at: http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/news/10-11-2012/benefits-of-longer-rotations#sthash.0Zeiwsun.dpuf and at www.cefs.ncsu.edu/…/croprotationsfinaljan09.doc Even beyond that, the evidence is coming in that shows that an international conversion to sustainable agricultural practices on a larger scale could literally save the planet.

This isn’t rocket science. Sustainable practices are cheaper, healthier and sounder than the system that puts food on the tables for most of America—and changes in farming methods could prevent topsoil losses, sequester carbon (reducing climate change) use water more efficiently and deliver better quality foods for Americans.

proclimweb.scnat.ch/portal/ressources/2302.pdf

Our mindsets have to change to make this possible. Our language has to change to embrace a brighter future, without building resistance to what we need to do to get there. Sustainable isn’t enough. But regenerative is. Regenerative Agriculture isn’t exactly new. It’s what all good farmers did before the chemical revolution. So another revolution will be necessary to make the change. It won’t be easy. There is huge resistance in big money—and big money has a lot to lose here. The agri-chemical industry will not go gently into that good night. (Monsanto, the “poster-child” culprit in agricultural degradation, already owns the Google words for “sustainable agriculture.” In a cruel joke of technology, Monsanto gets the first search hit for those words.)

If you want regenerative farming and gardening to survive and thrive, you’ll have to put your money to work. Don’t buy gardening chemicals. Support your local farmer, especially your local organic farmer. Read labels—and be picky about what you buy. Don’t buy GMO foods. Reduce your consumption of processed foods. If you haven’t already, start a garden. Plant trees. Because we are all part of the problem, we can all be a part of the solution.

In a quote often (and perhaps mistakenly) attributed to Winston Churchill, “You can depend upon the Americans to do the right thing. But only after they have exhausted every other possibility.”

(And thanks to the United States Postal Service for the beautiful Forever stamps.)

 

Permaculture–

A.V. Walters

It’s clear that the neighbors all think I’ve lost it. Our immediate neighbors are retired organic farmers. When I said that the solution to poor soils in the orchard area was to amend the soil before planting, they just shook their heads. But, I meant it. It’s one of the cool things about having heavy equipment—you can do things that make sense, but normally wouldn’t be worth the effort.

When I said that we’d amend to a depth of 5 to 6 feet, I was exaggerating, but not by much. We dug out 4 to 5 feet. That’s the beauty of a backhoe. Still, it wasn’t easy. The digging goes well enough, but then you have to separate out the good topsoil, from the glacial sand below. Then you have to add in the compost—just a little over a cubic yard per hole—and mix it together with the good topsoil. You can’t just layer it, or you could get “perching,” where the compacted layers resist water flow. So the mixing and the filling of the holes has to be done by hand.

Even Rick thought I was nutty. He mentioned that it felt like he’d been conscripted into the army, and was sentenced to dig holes and fill them in again. That was what we were doing—though not quite as simple as that (and not punitive.)

If ever there was ever a good reason to go to great lengths, putting in trees would be it. It’s why they call it permaculture. They’re permanent. If you don’t take extra measures now—you won’t get the chance later. These trees deserve the best start they can get. If planted in well draining soil that’s also rich in organic material, these trees will be well ahead of the game. We live in an area that considers itself the “Cherry Capital.” All too often, though, the cherry farmers drop the whips (baby trees) into the sandy ground and then fertilize and spray them for the rest of their lives. It’s like being hooked up to an IV feeding tube! So much for conventional agriculture.

We won’t be doing that. You can grow healthy fruit without all the junk. It helps if you think ahead. This weekend was a backbreaking exercise in thinking ahead. Just as we were finishing up last evening, yet another neighbor walked over to query us on just what we were doing. I was hip-deep in the last hole. Granted, we didn’t actually plant yesterday. We were too tired. So, it really did look as though we were just digging holes and filling them. We were. In a funny way, we are burying treasure. She didn’t look convinced when I explained our system. When I told her that we’d water them with willow bark tea for good root development, her eyes widened.

This is a small town. I’m sure that within the week the whole town will know how crazy we are. Most folks just dig an 18 inch hole for a tree. That’s what the instructions say.  We’ll hear all about it when we go into the hardware store. That’s were you can catch all the good farm gossip.

Today the trees went in. We now have 4 cherry trees, 2 pear trees, and 3 apples. We still have one more orchard tree to plant this year, a plum. It hasn’t yet arrived, snug in its mail order carton. We’ll put in another four next year (they were out of stock this year!) and then the orchard is complete. All were selected for winter hardiness, disease resistance, flavor, type (cooking or eating), and timing. After all, you wouldn’t want them all ripe at once!

Between forest trees and orchard, in the past two weeks, we’ve planted 95 trees. It’s a relief to go back to building.

We can’t put in the garden for another ten days. When our frost-free date comes, we’re ready to plant our seedlings. If they think we’re crazy with the orchard, wait ‘til the neighbors see the buckets.

Start Here

A.V. Walters

Orchard Dreams

Orchard Dreams

Though the ground is still frozen, we’re planning our “dooryard” orchard. It’s not a big orchard—enough mostly for our own eating and canning use. Fruit trees require some work and planning—and are often done wrong. Most nurseries have the same one-size-fits-all approach as big-box stores. They sell the fruit tree that’s “in” this year. To do it right, first you have to do your homework. Keep in mind that planting a fruit tree is a long-term investment—it will be three years before you see a serious harvest, and a fruit tree can live twenty-five to even hundreds of years

What kind of fruit do you want, and why do you want it? It’s probably not good to save this decision for the time when, cart full of other stuff, you’re standing in the gardening department at the big-box store, squinting at the little, fruit description labels tethered to spindly saplings in tubs. What kind of fruit do you like? What do you eat now? Don’t fixate (yet) on any specific cultivar (tree variety.) Just figure generally what you’d like. Then you can work on specifics and, more importantly, the realities. If you don’t eat fruit now, what makes you think that, three years from now, if this poor tree survives, you’ll want to eat its fruit then?

Let’s throw some other factors into the mix. How much land do you have for fruit trees? (As a general rule-of-thumb, you’ll need to have an area around each tree that is as big as the tree will be tall. And no, you cannot overlap the root space for trees.) Do you have good light? What kind of soil do you have? Are you on a slope—and if so, top or bottom of the slope? (For air movement.) Are you planting in a space where you can water (or are you depending on rain?) Can the tree survive in this area?

This is the big one. Where do you live? Start here.

http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/#

Find your state and click on it. (My deepest apologies to my non-American readers, but your location will have similar information available.) Yes, the garden department at the big-box store will sell you a banana tree, but should you buy one? Figure out what climate zone you’re in and start from there. (Californians may prefer to use the more detailed microclimate Sunset Magazine zones.) Your temperature range is the single biggest factor in tree choice success. Armed with that, you could go online to find a fruit cultivar that will live in your location.

But wait, there’s more. Go online, armed with your zone and your fruit type, and you’ll find dozens of candidates. Maybe you want an apple that was your favorite as a kid? Maybe an all-around workhorse apple? How will you be using it? There are fruit that are bred for “eating” or market purposes, there are baking and culinary fruit and there are canning fruit. You might be considering drying it. Well, the same apple you use for lunches might not be the one for pie, and not the one for sauce. Especially, if you’re dealing with limited space, you’ll need to make some compromises and choices.

Now that you have a specific fruit type selected (say eating and baking apple,) look at your options and select for size, soil suitability (light or heavy, well draining or clay—though you can amend the soil some at the outset) pH, and disease resistance. Many of the newer hybrids are bred specifically for hardiness and that’s not a bad choice for a beginning gardener. Heirloom varieties are wonderful (and often “open pollinated,” but we’ll get to that) but if grandma’s Spartan is blight susceptible, you’re taking on a long-term project to grow it. I don’t advise against such a selection, only that you do so with your eyes open. Otherwise, several years down the road, you may find yourself opting to remove the tree you chose—losing money and time, in the process. Pick the tree for your conditions. (Note to my sister: If you’re a gypsy, don’t bother planting fruit trees. By the time they’re ready to bear, you’ll be long gone.)

In your selection, make sure you check whether your choice is self-pollinating, or whether you’ll require a companion variety in order to get fruit. Nurseries aren’t very good about warning you about this. (Even my own Mum planted a lovely, exotic French Gage plum, which has never given fruit because it’s not self-fertile and it doesn’t have a compatible pollinating partner.) The catalogs and online listings all look so lush and delicious—who’d think there are so many things to decide? When in doubt, Google your variety, with the words “pollinating partner.” Another fun feature, in today’s nurseries, is that they sell grafted dwarf varieties that solve the pollination issue for you. I used to think this was a gimmick—but it works well for the backyard gardener, and it has the added novelty of producing multiple types of fruit on a single tree.

Taking the time to pick the right tree(s) is more than half the battle, in growing happy fruit. We have a lot of space, and we’ve decided to grow four kinds of fruit trees: apples, pears, cherries and plums (and, probably a hazelnut hedge/windbreak, down the road.) We want them for eating, baking, canning and dehydrating, which we’ve taken into consideration in the types selected. Although there are some heirlooms in our picks, we also have some new, more disease-resistant cultivars in the mix, and we have researched the compatibility of our choices for their pollination partners. We’ve picked a total of fifteen trees—which is a lot for most, but we’ll have local, market outlets for any excess. We’ve even chosen varieties that spread our anticipated harvests throughout the season, so we aren’t overwhelmed at any given time with too much fruit. Now, we just have to wait for them to arrive (after all, the ground is still frozen solid.) Then there’s planting, watering, pruning and worrying, and then waiting again—several years—until we have fruit.

Of course, there’s the easy way. Just go to the farmer’s market (if you’re lucky enough to have one) for fresh and delicious fare, from your area.

Timing the Jump.

What’s the Buzz?

A.V. Walters–

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I read all the science on it, and I find it frustrating that there is no consensus about just what is up with the bees. I’ve been a bee fancier for decades. My grandfather was a beekeeper and my interest was piqued as a little kid. However, my urban life didn’t favor beekeeping. When I finally moved to the country, in Two Rock, I was more than ready to keep bees. Then, I learned that my landlord was wildly allergic to bee stings. I liked the landlord—so, no bees.

Even going back two decades, the bees were in trouble. The culprits then were tracheal mites and varroa mites. These mites are still a problem for the bees but, in an otherwise healthy hive, a manageable problem. Now we have what’s called Colony Collapse Disorder, with bee losses ranging from 25 to 50%, per year. They just fly away and abandon the hive, en masse. Science has yet to find the reason that the bees lose their sense of direction and wander off to die. In fact, it’s likely there are several reasons. We really are at a point where bees are at risk—and with them a substantial percentage of our food supply. One-third of what we eat requires bee involvement.

When North Americans think of our bees, they are generally European honeybees. They have been domesticated for thousands of years—and we brought them with us to America. They are not “natural” to our North American biome, but they are a vital component of our agriculture. There are plenty of native pollinators, but they’re not a big part of the way America produces food. And, that’s a very big part of the problem.

It seems to be lost on Big Ag that bees are insects, just like many of the other agricultural “pests.” Our industrial agricultural model—based on monoculture, is hostile to most insects and weeds. The dominant approach is to saturate the crops, and the fields, with poisons. There is an enormous “collateral damage” quotient in the dominant approach. Our foods are coated in pesticide residues, our soil and groundwater are being contaminated, our agricultural workers suffer from chronic exposure syndromes and we poison the bees, our pollinators. Some newer pesticides, neonicitinoids, appear to be particularly damaging to bee populations. Unfortunately, while the bees are dying, the “debate” continues whether the neonicitinoids are legitimate suspects. The makers of these toxins, Bayer and Syngenta, claim that proper use will not result in bee losses—taking a page from the tobacco companies’ old playbook on what does or doesn’t cause lung cancer. Denial can hold truth at bay for decades. After all, there are a great many factors at work.

Included in the mix are issues of proper beekeeping. The emphasis for professional beekeepers tends to fall into one of two camps—the pollinators and the honey producers—though the pollinators produce honey, and the honey folks’ bees are obviously out there pollinating, too. Both camps are guilty of not taking great care of their bees. Here, the big issues seem to be food and travel.

Like most of us, bees are healthiest if they have a diverse diet and a low stress lifestyle. Left to their own devices, bees will collect the nectar and pollen from of a variety of plants and will produce more than enough honey to feed the hive through the winter. The pollination industry interferes with the natural order by trucking the bees from place to place to pollinate specific crops. There is no diet diversity, the bees are exposed to high levels of insecticides on the crops they pollinate, and living on the road is hard on the bees’ navigation skills.

The honey industry is no better. In the quest for high honey production, the beekeepers strip the hives of honey and then winter-feed the bees with high fructose corn syrup or sugar—the bee version of junk food. (Not that the pollinators don’t use sugar diets, they do, too!) In both cases, bees are weakened, and then at risk for the various bee hazards, including the tracheal and varroa mites and pesticide exposure. There’s so much finger-pointing going on in the bee tragedy that the bees will be all gone before any coherent science can catch up. Indeed, I heard one beekeeper justify his poor practices on the grounds that everyone else does it, and the bees will soon be dead, anyway! (I wonder if he has the same attitude when it comes to raising his kids.)

Every single day I am solicited online for donations to “save the bees.” Most of these are seeking funds to fight the use of neonicitinoids which really are a big problem, but only a part of the problem. The challenges of beekeeping are a microcosm of the challenges we have in agriculture, anyway. It’s a problem of scale—diversity equals strength—monoculture equals weakness. The solution isn’t to pour on chemicals; the solution is to grow our crops and our bees in ways mindful of, and taking full advantage of, the rhythms and ways of nature. Organics. It can be done.

So this week, Rick and I have started to make our contribution to save the bees. A month ago, I took a beekeeping class. And we’ve invested in hives and beekeeping gear. Ours will be pampered bees. They will live in one place. They will have a natural and diverse diet—and in the winter, they’ll eat their honey, like bees should. We’ll enjoy smaller yields in the spring—after the bees have had the chance to overwinter. Small scale, “bees first”, management is the solution. We’ll do our bit to save the bees, while the bees earn their keep by pollinating our gardens and giving up a bit of honey. Win-win. And now, if we could just get these hives assembled….

 

Let's see, Tab A....goes into....

Let’s see, Tab A….goes into….

 

 

 

 

Feed The Soil, Not the Plant!

A.V. Walters–

It’s the organic gardener’s mantra. If the soil is healthy, the plants will be healthy. If the soil isn’t healthy, there’s little you can do for the plants, that isn’t ultimately bad for the soil. Chemical fertilizers are the equivalent of an IV drip. Maybe it will do in a pinch, but it’s no solution to the nutrition issue. Do things that are good for the soil, and you will be rewarded with a healthy garden. It’s almost that simple.

I’ve been soil building for over thirty years. Trouble is, I keep moving on and leaving my efforts behind. This year we will have a garden. Last year we didn’t have our well in, so it wouldn’t have been responsible to put in a garden. Instead, I took soil samples and sent them in to the extension office for testing.

The results were grim. Our soils are largely glacial deposits. Sand, and lots of it. We’re deficient in most of nutrients for which they test. Most importantly, there’s not a lot of organic material to hold what’s there. With straight sand, it’ll take a good bit of soil building before we have something to hold the nutrients and to hold moisture.

That said, it’s not a disaster. Our delays have helped. We’ve changed the location for the garden–our first pick didn’t have as much sunlight as we thought. Being here has let us learn more about the location, the winds and how the sunlight falls. This land hasn’t been farmed (conventionally or otherwise) in at least thirty years, so the good news is that there are no bad things in the soil. We just need to build it up. The fastest way to get that process started is to add compost, or composted manure. And we’re lucky. It’s easier to amend sand than it is to lighten heavy clay.

I watched last winter as the Amish farmers spread manure on their fields in February and March–really in the middle of winter. At first I was surprised, but thinking more, it made sense. The fields are frozen, so their teams (they farm with draft horses) don’t get mired in the muck from early spring rains. The composted manure doesn’t care when it is spread, it’ll freeze now, but then “activate” when things thaw, and the early rains will carry the nutrients into the soil. It’s an efficient use of winter down time. I knew then that I’d need to watch for a supply of composted manure, come February.

And, this past weekend, there it was. A craigslist ad for 100 tons of composted cow manure. I forwarded it to Rick. He laughed. Meanwhile, I went to the internet to get the weight to volume conversions and I did the calculations.

I assured him, “No sweetie, we don’t need 100 tons.”

“What do you think we need? Says in the ad that there’s a ten ton minimum.”

“We need fifty tons.”

He could hardly believe me. But if we’re going to jump start this garden, and if we’re serious about it, that’s what we need. There’s the garden, and then more for our small orchard. We’ll need to amend deeply in the orchard. (Thank God for the Kubota and the backhoe! Maybe, if it’s a light enough mix, we could use the snowblower to spread it!) (I wonder what Rick will say about that.)

You can see where I get the idea.

You can see where I get the idea.

Rick is a nice boy from Southern California. I don’t think there’s any way in the world that he ever thought that he’d be the kind of guy to purchase fifty tons of composted manure. He’s shaking his head. I’ve negotiated with the dairy owner for a good price. So, now we just need to find a trucker to haul it. This isn’t a case where owning a pick up will help. This is easier said than done. I haven’t yet been able to find a hauler. The primary crop in these parts is cherries. Cherry farmers use flatbed trucks (with stacked bins.) A flatbed won’t work for manure. I’ve asked around, so far with little luck. Once I disclose what I want hauled, I’ve detected a near-immediate, and serious lack of interest.

It may take a while or so to get this all arranged. That’s good, because in the interim, I’d like to haul all of the trees we cleared last summer over to the new garden site to do a burn. Nothing helps a new garden like bio-char. Winter isn’t just about seed catalogs and dreaming. Sometimes there are garden chores that are best saved for the dead of winter.