The seed catalogs are piling up and it’s a constant reminder of how in flux we’ll be as of
June. It’s been a long time since I’ve not put in a large seed order, and frankly, I’m feeling a bit antsy about it this season. So, to take my mind off of what I won’t be doing, I’m thinking ahead to the things this extra time will provide in terms of opportunities for learning. An ever-growing, ever-bearing, zone 1-10 list of things to learn while not farming:
Tend to the travelling orchard
Improve spinning technique
Improve fiber processing set-up and technique
Experiment with natural dyes
Learn about medicinal herbs
Practice grafting techniques
Volunteer at school or public garden
Help a fellow farmer with farm chores, butchering, shearing, etc.
Learn old-fashioned candy-making
Focus on food preservation techniques:
Take a class in business planning for the fiber mill
Maybe, just maybe, learn a new knitting skill
Explore niche or value added markets
Take a botany class
Spend some time with growers using methods outside of your own, including conventional, biodynamic, and other permaculture or organic farmers and gardeners
Cut up seed catalogs to make art with the kids
Cut up seed catalogs to do some companion planting planning
Re-read Edible Forest Gardens
The list continues to grow and hope blooms eternal, so… suggestions are always welcome and may spring shine warm sunlight upon your gardens!
I just returned from another trip out to New York, this time to explore the Schoharie valley and Delaware County. This trip, thanks to the farmers who housed me, really invigorated me. I think I’ve been feeling a bit disconnected from farming, despite the daily regimen because we’re currently partially uprooted. Being on a farm started by a woman and witnessing the incredible foundation she has built, along with the connectivity she fosters with neighboring farms, has really inspired me not to “begin again,” but to continue with this mission forward to build a farm and fiber business.
The farm where I stayed (had to make this trip out alone so Chris could tend to the alpacas), is technically East Branch Farm, but most of the locals know it as Straight Out of the Ground, a beautiful property with a goddess of a guernsey cow, who is the apple of Farmer Madalyn’s eye, for sure. And it’s easy to see why. Look at that adorable face!
In addition to farming, Madalyn also co-produces a radio show called the Farm Hour Radio.
The mountains are nothing short of magical. The roadways and farmland trace their contours, and in the mornings, mist hovers over the valleys, leading me to look for hobbits and unicorns as much as farmland.
Madalyn connected us with some good folks and resources for farmers and reinforced the awareness that New York is a good state for agriculture. Beneath every county sign I passed, the words “Right to Farm” appeared prominently. The soil in the valleys appears good and the prospect of a fiber mill feels welcomed.
Moreover, the locals are fiercely loyal to their agricultural roots and at one stop, in a village where we had been told we could not house our alpacas, a local business owner stormed down to the local village office and demanded to see the ordinance. When the village couldn’t provide any specific wording ruling against alpacas, she called me and said, “You can have your livestock here.” Can’t help but love these folks.
I would like to say we have figured this whole thing out, but after an inspection revealed some significant issues on the house we were under contract to buy, we are once again looking for the farm. However, despite this setback, I feel more confident than ever that we’ll find the right place, because more significant than where we will land is that feeling of where we belong. And it’s there, among the mountains and the hard-working farmers of the Schoharie, where we feel most at home. Looking forward to calling this place home.
Last trip out, we traversed Sharon Springs, where an inspiring couple revitalized a farm into an enterprising business. Madalyn told us it’s not only a thriving business, but they even had a television show. Check it out below. Also, living in the region, a woman I look forward to meeting at some point in the near future, Shannon Hayes, the Radical Homemaker. And so much more I would like to share, save for the time to write it all down…
If you don’t know them already, the Beekman Boys are fabulous.
We are a family of six. That translates to two kids per parent. Factor in a dog, cat, and four alpacas, and meal planning/preparation, and you can see how a day goes by very quickly for our household. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love farming, but this kind of farming is unique for us. We do not live at the property and without electricity and running water, we have to make daily trips hauling materials in during the winter months over-top heavy snowfall and no matter the weather, and as often as two to three times daily.
Water is carried in three-gallon drums. We fill it at home and carry the water uphill through the snow because there is no way for our car to traverse the drive this time of the year. It’s good cardio, but not half as good as the 50lb bags of pellets or the even heavier dense hay we carry bale by bale.
A hay shortage this year meant we could not stock up as we had done previously, but thankfully we found a really good supplier just 12 miles from the farm. Today, we’ll haul in another load, bale by bale, through the snow, uphill the whole way. I’m just grateful it’s good grass hay (harder to find with such high demand for alfalfa mixed bales in our area).
Yesterday, was a straw day. We stack two bales on the Prius roof once a week for bedding. The straw is light and not as difficult to maneuver, but takes time, like anything, when traversing heavy snow.
The daily tasks at the farm include the removal of the evening dung-pile (it’s amazing what an alpaca bottom can produce in a day), watering of the animals, a daily ration of pellets (a treat and supplement), hay feed, and feeding the cat, who has taken up residence with the alpacas. They form a harmonious grouping. Cats and alpacas pair well together and the cat keeps the mice away from the feed and I often find the cat and the alpacas nestled together in the deep straw bedding.
Next comes the dumping of the collected dung outside of the barn, then a walk around the perimeter to ensure the fence is in good order. Usually a few nuzzles and snuggles are exchanged and that concludes the first round.
Another aspect of having alpacas is the grooming. We do not groom their fiber, but we do keep their nails clipped, which is not a very pleasant process for the farmer, unaccustomed to wrestling a 200-lb animal during its routine foot-care.
This summer, I learned to administer both IM and SQ injections for vitamins and vaccines. Also not my favorite task, but part of the routine care of the animals. There’s the shearing, but that’s a biennial event for Suris, and thankfully one we can hire out (though we successfully sheared two on our own – I may be slightly stretching the use of the word “successful” in this instance).
Farming is not for the faint of heart. And farming in this fashion is reminiscent of something older. At times I am working in complete darkness, by feel, and other times I find myself breathing standing before the large looming barn with the feeling time has stopped in this place altogether. It’s a peaceful feeling and I am grateful this special place has been preserved for many future generations to experience and enjoy.
There’s a kind of innocence with which we reconnect as adults studying ecological design. The design process emphasizes the importance of observation, a kind of observation free from agenda or assumptions. It’s not easy, but there are ways to practice observation to enhance your ability to see your environment without immediately interpreting and assigning value or reacting to what is being observed.
Observation, not Reactive Observation
First, let’s explore the difference between observation and reactive observation. The example I use most often is that of the “invasive.” Consider a forest canopy in which there is a presence of tent caterpillar. They have eaten away the foliage on an old maple tree amid an otherwise dense canopy.
Reactive observation might lead to the immediate assignment of weighted words like “infestation,” “destruction,” “invasive,” “damage,” and “bad.” However, these words do little to describe the relationship of the tent caterpillar to the natural environment. Observing this same scene without reactivity means looking at the individual elements, first, then observing any relationship these elements may have with neighboring elements.
In this scenario, we might include notes like:
Presence of tent caterpillars
Maple canopy eaten by tent caterpillars
Maple tree old
Sunlight on forest floor
Presence of green foliage on forest floor
New forest edge forming
Presence of birds more so on maple, than other trees
These observations do not assign values to the individual elements, but allow us to make interpretations free from reactivity. Rather than a hyper focus on the “damage” done to the maple tree, we might be able to see how the presence of the tent caterpillars opened the canopy, thereby allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor, creating a new forest edge. The presence of anything that might feed off of the tent caterpillars indicates a natural response to a change in the bio-web.
Prior to practicing observation, it’s sometimes fun to test your observation skills. So often, those new to this process protect their ego, asserting that they are good observers and insisting they do not need practice to see. They then, inevitably, go on to do an initial site plan, forgetting major elements like large trees, sheds, or pathways – the brain simply takes these elements for granted.
To practice the art of observation, sit in one spot for a period of 15 minutes. Spend the first 60 seconds writing down anything you observe in an area as small as a square foot, from visual to auditory to sensory to olfactory. Take a break, then observe the same space for another 60 seconds, noting anything new you can observe that you may have missed previously. Repeat this practice until you can no longer detect the individual elements. At this point, begin noting any relationships between the individual elements, again in one minute increments.
Consider a dandelion. Assume you knew nothing about the plant. Instead of asking “What’s it called?” examine and make note of its individual elements, from the broad leaves radiating out from the stem, to the flower, to the bee on the flower, to the deep taproot. What kinds of plants are growing next to the dandelion? Each of these characteristics and relationship-oriented elements can tell us loads of information more than a label. A dandelion, by any other name is still, after all, a dandelion.
Next, Work from Patterns to Details
The above practice helps you observe individual elements and their relationships in an environment. The next step is to make broad observations of an environment. Patterns in nature, whether spirals, branching, key-hole, or waves, are repeated on a grand scale, like the spiral galaxy, to something small like the structure of our DNA double helix. These patterns do not repeat because they are pretty, but because they are efficient.
Consider the Mississippi. It’s fed from multiple, smaller rivers and streams. The bulk of the transport of water is taking place where these rivers and streams merge and the path followed is that of least resistance to water. We can mimic this same pattern in the design of our garden beds, with the wider paths being accessible to tools or other resources, to the smaller pathways that allow enough space for the human element to harvest. Walking this space and observing where you feel naturally inclined to walk, can help aid you in the design of pathways for the space.
You may also observe a space from a distance and notice the types of plants growing in a space. Plants can indicate much about the health of a soil to the soil type and water accessibility. They can also indicate previous human presence or soil degradation. Taking the broad view, you might spot rows of spotted knapweed growing among carrot flower, indicating a space once occupied by an orchard or cornfield. This kind of broad observation can help you formulate a plan for revitalization of soil at the site.
Using that same example, work from the larger pattern and what it tells you, to smaller details, like proximity to resources that can provide nutrients, pathways of water-flow occurring naturally, to changes in the edge space between the field and the neighboring ecosystem.
Working within the Nature’s Envelope
Working within nature’s envelope, rather than forcing a design on a space will save time and energy in the long run. Running any system using this model can improve overall productivity and efficiency, whether it’s a working farm or a business. Practice may never make perfect, but it’ll certainly take you a step closer to where you’d like to be.
Ha! It rained and shorted the fan. My grandfather is probably rolling in his grave muttering his favorite: Prepared Planning
Prevents Poor Performance!
We don’t always get it right, do we? Neither do plants. In fact, there’s a lesson somewhere in this fiber fiasco, I’m sure. I’m thinking about my apple tree siblings. Apple trees are heterozygous, in the extreme sense of the word. This means a single apple tree produces significant genetic variations of itself in its seed. The seeds a single apple will each produce a unique variety, some quite different from the parent tree. Imagine how many unique varieties are born from a single apple tree?!
Most farmers don’t rely on apple seeds for propagation. Instead they graft the living wood or scion off of a variety that they like, onto root-stock from another apple variety. However, those incredible apple varieties that humans have propagated throughout the centuries were discovered often via chance seedlings that grew up along fence-lines, where farmers planted apple seeds with that twinkle of hope in their eyes.
I will refrain from diving into the why and how of the conventional mindset toward selecting varieties for market, and instead return to my poor planning. (There’s a point to this, I promise.)
Heterozygosity in apples makes apples extremely adaptable in a multitude of climate and soil types. One tree may be capable of producing annually in harsh cold and high elevation, while another may thrive, but produce only biennially in a warm Zone 7 with wet feet.
The lesson from our apple tree sisters is this: If you don’t know whether something will work, and it’s on a small enough scale to adjust and adapt, then it’s better to try and fail, than not to try. Even with a little failure comes the opportunity to learn. You might learn that your phone really is reliable for things like predicting weather, or that after throwing a handful of different seeds down at the driveway edge, you finally discovered one that will thrive in that location.
Apple trees broadcast their message out into the world, hoping it will take somewhere, somehow, even against some pretty tough odds. And in doing so, not only do they continue to thrive as a tree on this planet, but we have been gifted thousands of nutritious fruits in places as far away as Kazakhstan to those growing in Mexico. So eat up, drink up, and be thankful for the lessons and sweet rewards in all the experiences life affords us.
The food dehydrator finally arrived. We’ve been researching the best methods for food storage and it has quickly become one of our favorite tools for preserving the harvest. We can now make jerky, fruit leather, and dry fruit, veggies, and herbs to store for months.
You can even dry sauces and soups for later use (a helpful tip for avid campers/adventurers).
I wasn’t sure what the kids would think – Would our dried apples compete with the store-bought variety? If the toddler had anything to say about it, I think they exceeded all expectations.
I normally buy dried tomatoes – I love the flavor and texture and it sometimes makes a decent meat substitute. Not only do the tomatoes dry really well, they’re something of a work of art when finished.
Buying fruit leather at the co-op is a bit costly for this family. Making our own is not only fun, but a healthy alternative. We use a bit of honey to add some sweet to match any tart flavors on part of the berries and can now make good use of all of that autumn olive at the farm.
I don’t normally do plugs for commercial products but in this instance, with the limited number of options in our region for food-safe dehydration, this product makes a really nice (and quiet) addition to your food storage arsenal. The Nesco Snackmaster Pro Food Dehydrator FD-5A is one of the higher end models at the lower end of the total wattage spectrum. It’s a smallish unit with stackable trays (up to 12) and very quiet. Highly recommended, if solar isn’t a good option.
We hear this a lot, “How can you do that without a tractor?”
It helps that we don’t till and manage the farm in a manner consistent with Permaculture’s ‘slow and steady’ principle. But the question remains, how do you deal with a large swath of land that requires working? We’ve run into one such stretch of pasture that was heavily tilled and sprayed for a few years. What remains is a rocky, sandy, depleted soil with several varieties of pioneer plants putting down deep tap roots to mine for nutrients and to gain traction in a heavily eroded landscape.
How can we alter this stretch without a tractor? Our answer: Time, livestock, poop, and seeds.
Pioneers, the first to appear after the soil has suffered enough tillage, are plants often detested by the traditional farmer/gardener. They’re designed to survive in harsh, arid soils. Some even secrete a growth-suppressing hormone from their roots, keeping other plants from competing for the limited nutrients available. Additional tilling, which throws nutrients into the air, will generate an ideal habitat for these plants, preventing what we’d like to grow from growing (unless we rely on biocides to kill them, then soak the ground with synthesized NPK).
Instead, we approach the land with an integrative thought process. How can we work with what’s here and what we have to improve soil and get a yield of some kind out of the process? That yield might come in the form of fodder for animals, or food for humans (or both).
The land mentioned above, once a GMO-cornfield, is being transformed into a productive grazing pasture for our sheep. We first let it grow undisturbed for a full year (in a few more years, the microbial life there prior to conventional approaches will return), while installing fence-posts.
Taking advantage of a gentle slope, we’ll graze the sheep, who expel some of the richest pelleted manures of any livestock, in the upper portion, supplementing their feed with hay. During this process, as it rains, they’ll fertilized the upper portion of the field and allow for water to carry some of the nutrients to the lower half.
The pioneer plants, which congregate in the lower portion of the field, will now serve as a food source for meat-chickens. Using a chicken tractor (instead of a petrol-driven tractor), we’ll move the chickens daily and where they’ve eaten away the vegetation, they’ll leave a rich manure in its place. After each move, we’ll sew grasses and a limited supply of clover (a great nitrogen fixing legume).
By next year, we’ll reverse the process, allowing the sheep to graze the lower pasture, continuing to fertilize as they eat, and run the chickens across the upper portion, seeding as we go. Out of this, we get yields of meat from our chickens, fodder for the livestock, and fiber off the sheep. No tilling (and no tractors) necessary.