Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It All Comes Back To Manure

We need all of our farmers.  I firmly believe that. Trial and error and ten years of trying to learn how to manage something  resembling a farm has taught me that no one can wave a magic wand and make a professional who can wisely manage natural resources, operate and maintain machines, fix buildings, design and construct infrastructure, supply field labor, deliver lambs at 1 AM,  fix a leaky kitchen faucet, push a teenager to get the  chores done and drive an 11 year old to hockey. We need all of our farmers because they know something about everything.

When I came back from the ACORN conference in Halifax last week, pumped full of information until it was leaking out of my pores, I called on a young farmer in my neighborhood to share the information I'd learned with him.  You see, one of the things I learned at ACORN was that this potent and highly concentrated input needs to be spread around.  It's no good just keeping it in a bag in the barn.

So we talked about soil and seeds and fertility for about an hour when this young conventional farmer said, "You know, I've been looking at it.  And it all comes back to manure". He'd just this year produced the best corn crop he'd ever had by loading up his soil with manure from his cows instead of buying in chemical fertilizer.

In 1969 an oil well blew out in the Santa Barbra Channel and flooded our beaches with crude oil.  It was an environmental disaster that created the first Earth Day. The students of the new environmental sciences, our "alternative" neighbors and people all over the world woke up and saw that we were making a mess and something had to be done about it.  Lines were drawn. The politics of the environment were born.  Many good things came of that movement but something went wrong.

Santa Barbara County is an agricultural area on the coast of California that also has fishermen and oil production. We have old cowboys from families that go back to the Spanish and Mexican land grants of the colonial era.  These families worked to manage grazing and pasture for beef and tended their lands responsibly for generations. They weren't ready for the kind of people promoting Earth Day in 1970. When the lines were drawn around the ecological movement, these "descendientes" excluded themselves and there was no effort made to include them in.  That was a mistake on both sides.

When I was 24, I volunteered to help work 350 head of range cattle on a family "brush ranch". I met a rancher  who was the descendant of people who had worked that land for 130 years. The owner had been educated at UC Berkeley.  This was not the red-neck cowboy I had imagined. And in fact I later learned that our University system had been supported by families like his so that their sons and daughters could get a first class education in their own state and bring that education back home to the farm and their communities.  It turned out that that old cowboy was the one who lost the family ranch a few years later. I know for a fact that he later died of a broken heart. I was at his memorial with his stetson, his riata, his work saddle and his family who no longer had the home their grandfathers and grandmothers built.   

The young farmer I was visiting last week was interested in the material I brought back from Halifax on soil science. We started talking about biological farming.  And we talked about an old man in our neighborhood, recently departed, who farmed naturally all his life.  Not because it was the thing to do, but because it was something he'd proven over a lifetime.  The young farmer and I talked about bringing up seaweed from the shore for mineral supplement to feed the fields.  And we talked about pellet fertilizer. The young farmer thought for a moment.  "The old man said, 'You don't need to put that "hail" on the field.  Everything you need is right here.  We never put that stuff on and we always had a good crop'."  The old  man put kelp and manure on his fields and rotated his crops.  "It all comes back to manure"        

We need our farmers. All of them. The young farmer and I have listened to and learned from "Los Viejos" - the old ones. When we lose a farmer we break the chain of generations of knowledge on the land.  And as the young farmer and I can tell you - it's a long hard row to hoe getting it back. But the old men still try to tell us, "Don't lose what we worked for. Nature is giving you everything you need right here".  

Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy Soil - A Micro Revolution

I've just returned from the ACORN conference in Halilfax, Nova Scotia.  ACORN is the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network and it represents and embodies organic agriculture in the Maritime Provinces.

First of all I have to thank ACORN for the fine job they did to bring such a diverse group of people together to represent the organic community in our region.  I spent three days totally absorbed in seminars collecting valuable information, not only about how I'll work my  farm, but to see that more small farmers are putting local agricultural products and farming careers within reach of more families, individuals, partners and local communities.

And I do have to comment on the diversity of participants.  We're all aware of Occupiers and Tea Partiers and the social and political differences rabidly promoted by our spectator media.  But this gathering included those who defied those definitions and divisions.  I met an evangelical Christian, a home schooling mom, a Libertarian, a small business owner, a wealth manager looking for a change in life, a dogged small farmer in pursuit of agricultural profits, a young person interested in shaping their own alternatives, an artist who was engineering his own technology solutions, a "hippie" looking for independence from corporations.  These people of diverse ideology were not in opposition to one another, nor were they actively protesting anything.  They were embracing the means to take peaceful action with their own hands. It was civil. It was orderly and it was radical. We weren't there to protest the status quo. We're already changing it literally from the ground up.

And speaking of ground.  The seminars on soil biology, plant health and permaculture left my eyes wide open. I had previously read Gary F. Zimmer's book, "The Biological Farmer". And this summer I was browsing in Michael Phillips book, The Apple Grower, both of which provide detailed information relating the science of soil biology to plant health.  But Av Singh's presentations at ACORN really bridged the gap for me between science and field experience.  His description of a holistic approach based on science plus farmer observation and experience made my day.  He gave me the scientific keys to unlock what I see in my own fields.

Now.  There's more than one way to do just about everything.  And I was very interested in the seminars on organic standards and allowable inputs.  But the magic happened when a theory I hadn't really understood was explained.  Everything your plants need to be healthy can be found in a biologically healthy soil system.
The key - is making everything available to your crop - at the right time.  This is master level stuff.

But think of it like this.  If you drink too much on Saturday night and your system is out of balance, you won't be at your best on Sunday morning. Which, by the way, is why airline pilots aren't allowed to fly with a hangover.  Now, you can treat the symptom by taking a few Tylenol, or you can work on putting your whole system back into balance and decide not to put too much alcohol into your system again. You can imagine what's going on in our soil body when we don't keep it in balance.  We're trying to grow plants in soil that has a hangover.  

Going for optimal soil biology is probably the hardest way to go about optimal plant health.  It's so much easier to dump in some organically allowed inputs imported from who knows where and call it good.  But then we're just practicing the same bad medicine that got us in trouble in the first place.

So yes, I learned some things about why our crop yields aren't what they could be.  And yes, I 've learned how to apply organic corrections to my soil.  But I'm motivated to face this new challenge of growing healthy soil from start to finish because I know that the only "sustainable" agriculture comes from the micro-biological level up.

Tip O'Neil is famously quoted as saying, "All politics is local". I guess the same can be said for soil.  
Our land has been farmed for 200 years and I'm now 52 years old.  Our short term goal is to take a living from our farm.  But our long term goal is to leave good soil for the next farmer.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Conversation With Coyotes

I walked the lane from our home, almost a quarter mile to the gate that opens on the pasture closest to the house and peed on the gate posts.  Then I walked along the fence line to the gate that leads to the next field above the house and peed some more.  I was leaving a statement for the coyote pack that counts our farm as their territory.  Don't cross this line. This is mine.

That's what I did as we put our first batch of 50 pastured chickens into pens on the pasture.  And we had no trouble from coyotes.  But when we put our second batch of 50 on the pasture, we lost them all.

Coyotes aren't native to PEI. Like us, they are CFA's (Come From Away's) who are variously accepted, tolerated, hunted and trapped.  We know there is a an active pack in our neighborhood.  They make themselves known on a regular basis in an interesting variety of ways.  Coyote is a sensible dog.  In native lore he is, "The Trickster". He is part fool, part shape-shifter, part devil.

When the pack is in our area, it moves, not in a bunch, but as a picket line through the woods.  Rabbits and ground animals beware,  if coyote flushes you from cover, the pack will finish you and a wild celebration of howling will mark victory.  About 4:00 AM some days ago I heard a scream that sounded like a child in pain in the woods.  It was followed by the celebratory yip and howl of a coyote who had just taken down a good sized rabbit.  My dog, Annie heard it too.  If you've ever heard a rabbit scream, you know what I'm talking about.          

In the days that followed all was quiet.

Then, last night there was the sharp yip and howl of a lone voice just behind the house in the woods. It was an announcement. "I Am HERE!"   But "here" was a little too close for me.  So I walked into the dark and gave a series of deep throated barks at intervals.  As I moved up to the tree line I pinpointed it's position.  Coyote shouted back.  Now not so certain and then giving ground back into the field behind the trees.
We never saw each other.  But communication was being made and it was plain enough. I was saying,
"STAY AWAY!" And he backed off.

After quiet was restored, I went back into the house and went to bed.  About 20 minutes later, I was paged through the closed windows of my room by a faint high wailing that sounded like a cell phone in my sleepy state.  I got up to open the window and heard coyote's latest broadcast now very close to the edge of our field.  I barked back which set my dogs into a few minutes of growling and boof-ing at the intruder. Then we all settled down and the night was quiet again.

Last summer, I read Farley Mowat's 1963 book, "Never Cry Wolf". He details his experiences living with  and observing a wild wolf pack in the far north.  He learned the rules that determine the territory of the hunting wolf packs and observed the disciplined social behavior that guarantees survival of hunting groups and preserves peace between them.  It was his book that encouraged me to take the initiative of communicating with my wild canine neighbors by marking my boundries.

I have two dogs.  I love dogs. And I understand dogs.  The canine in the wild is not the babied simpleton we raise as pets.  It is a canny, wild hunter.  It belongs to a society that has rules and it understands a lot about its environment. And I'm convinced, after thousands of years of proximity with man,  it knows exactly who we are.

This morning I walked the lane from our home almost a quarter mile to the gate that opens on to the pasture closest to the house.  I was getting ready to move the horses out to graze when I saw a little green tootsie roll on the ground in the gate way.  Right on the line I had peed last summer. It was a message from coyote.

We knew coyote in suburban southern California.  He would come out of the fog draped foothills to patrol the empty streets before dawn with a scornful swagger surfing for cats and backyard bowls of free dog food. But here on PEI this local wild dog had left me a note full of animal protein, fur and slim white bones. And the message was, "Chill out man! I know where your boundry is! No need for threats, bro."        
We lost our second batch of 50 chickens on the morning we were planning to take them to be processed.
Something tore through the poultry wire and tore up the the backs of the birds between their wings (a relatively small bite mark), leaving them dead and dying on the ground - but none were taken or eaten. We never knew what got them and I didn't find clear tracks.  But the holes in the wire, the size of the holes, the size of the bite marks and the fact that the birds weren't killed for food told me it was probably raccoons that did it.

Coyote is a trickster. And he's a hunter. But the message he left me said that he's well fed on wild game. He knows where I've marked my ground. And he assumes that he's free to hunt the wild hare that would destroy my garden if the population was left un-challenged.

I have to agree. Even so, this evening I walked the lane from our home up into the fields and "refreshed" my marks.  I offered a howl into the woods that went unanswered.  And I went home satisfied that I had answered coyote for tonight.