Rain & Raised Beds

It has been an incredibly wet, cold, cloudy spring so far in Missouri, and this is playing havoc with farmers large and small. Fields are too wet to easily plow, soils are waterlogged, crops don’t grow fast (if at all) with so little sun and so much moisture. Many farmers have almost nothing planted yet, because the ground is simply too wet to work and has remained so for months.

These conditions, which are the sort of problems agriculture must always surmount, offer support to the long-term model we’re taking to managing our vegetable production. We do not want to rely on equipment such as tractors and tillers to work our land, because they are expensive, unreliable, and contingent on proper conditions. In our market garden’s raised beds, we can work the soil, seed, and transplant far sooner than an open field, because the beds help moisture drain, and the permanent walkways are more easily navigable by foot. Also, having permanent beds improves the soil condition, because they are never driven on, tilled, compressed, or otherwise negatively impacted.

This is all well and good for a small garden, but how does that translate into larger-scale production in our field? We are following the lead of Patrice Gros, an organic vegetable farmer in northern Arkansas who grows multiple acres of produce in a completely no-till permanent bed system. In our adaptation, we are developing permament 4’x40′ beds throughout our field, which will always remain in place. The advantage to this approach is that our reliance on equipment and weather conditions lessens; we don’t have to drive tractors through mudholes to prepare our ground. It’s more manual work and more time, but the tradeoff is reliability and better soil quality. The biggest challenge to no-till methods is weed control, which Patrice accomplishes through heavy, constant mulching with straw whenever there are no active crops growing. It is an interesting balance to learn, and we will be doing more tedious hand-weeding that someone with a mechanical cultivator would, but our goal is to be free(er) of the trap of relying on tractors, tillers, and capricious weather conditions. The other benefit to this method is that we can adapt intensive gardening techniques to a larger area, thus boosting our yield compared to tractor row production.

Raised garden beds, with deep drainage aisles between them, really help with the soil condition and growing possibilities in our market garden. They’re a lot of work up front, but should last for decades, and once they’re in we have far less maintenance and waterlogging issues. Applying a similar approach to our larger field (bottom photo) is intended to lessen our reliance on equipment and weather conditions. The extra weeding and planting work ought to be offset by the improved soil quality and greater flexibility in planting and maintenance.

Of course, our problem this year is that the beds aren’t DONE yet. A year like this is exactly why we’re doing this work, but when you still have to dig, move, and spread soil to build the bed in the first place, months of waterlogging rain really don’t help. Two years from now the work will pay off, but for now I’m even farther behind because trying to work this clay muck is just impossible. This is why farming is a long-term career; it works best if you’re planning for years if not decades ahead.

Late April update

It’s been incredibly busy here the last few weeks, so I have let this blog slide. Here’s a quick summary of all that’s been happening. We have stormy weather coming in later this week, so I will try to get more details, photos, and more written then.

First and foremost, the goats have been a success to this point and are a very valuable addition. We are averaging 2 quarts a day of excellent fresh milk, and are making yogurt and cheese with what we’re not drinking. We already have a distribution network set up with friends and neighbors who enjoy the truly fresh milk and yogurt, though it is all free as we are not legally allowed to sell any of this under current conditions. I need to do some more research on what it would take to make and sell yogurt legally, as everyone who tries the yogurt loves it (it’s far fresher, tastier, and healthier than commercial brands; even the organic ones are loaded with sugar). The goats are doing their larger job of helping us clear brush and improve our fields, and the milk is simply a bonus. Our fundamental goal on the farm is a high level of self-sufficiency combined with diverse income streams from multiple products, so building our experience with dairy/meat goats is a large step in that direction.

The chicks are growing fast, and are quite ready to move from the brooder to the outdoors. Yesterday we finished clearing and cleaning up the future chicken yard, and seeded it with early rye. Tomorrrow I hope to finish the chicken house and fencing so that we can move them outdoors for good (with a brooder lamp in the new house). Heritage breeds are proving their worth so far, as these birds are more interested in the natural foods we’ve been giving them (fruit flies, amaranth, cooked squash, whey from cheese-making) than the processed chicken feed you’re “supposed” to feed them. We supply that too, as we don’t know enough yet about chicken nutrition to be sure that they’re getting all they need from the natural food, but we are going to move very aggressively toward feeding them as naturally as possible from on-farm products and not Purina inventions.

Our lettuce and radishes are finally growing well with the onset of true warm weather, and I intend/hope to sell at market for the first time this coming weekend. We have peas in outdoors, many summer things seeded indoors, and will be starting many more in the next few weeks. The garlic is looking spectacular and I’m looking forward to marketing that in a few months. Out in our larger field, I have begun the process of converting the broad plowed area into permanent beds, which will be planted this year mostly in drying beans, corn, and various grains. We’re putting in roughly 30 4’x50′ beds this year, with more to come next year. I need most of these ready by end of May so they can be planted in time. There are also another 10-15 permanent raised beds to finish in the garden.

May is going to be an incredibly busy month, as it is probably the peak of our planting season, combined with a great deal of infrastructure work getting our beds built, irrigation laid out, fencing for the larger fields and more goat paddocks built, as well as market sales. Luckily the days are nice and long, though.

All of the topics above are roots for individual blog posts in the future; I’d like to write in more detail about managing each of the animals in natural ways, developing our large-scale no-till methods in the big field, building animal infrastructure, market sales, and more political news/issues. Look for me to start filling out those subjects in coming weeks, with more photos. One good stormy day should take care of some of this.

Meet the Goats

Our population has risen once again, with the arrival of five goats. We have not kept goats before, but have a strong interest in doing so for a variety of reasons. We want to minimize our use of off-farm inputs, such as bringing in fertilizer from elsewhere, and keeping livestock and poultry helps achieve that. Second, we feel that sustainability means integrating many different types of farming; the land will be healthier overall if we manage it for multiple uses. Third, we have limited prime vegetable ground, and if we intend to make a living on this land, we need to diversify our income. Our goal is to build up a herd of goats that will make use of, and improve, our many acres of brushy pasture that are prime for goats but marginal for produce, while providing us with meat to sell and milk for our own use.

These five goats represent our beginning, a way to learn the handling of goats at a manageable level, from which we can expand if we desire. In the meantime, they will provide us with milk and help clear and improve our acreage for future uses. These animals all came from a local goat dairy with whom we’re familiar, and who have been very gracious and helpful in getting us started. Perry (second from top) is an older milker whose commercial value is dropping off, and is ready for a good semi-retirement home. She’s a bit ornery and calculating, our current escape artist. Garlic and Gloria (bottom) are 2-year old does who simply represent an over-stock of does at their parent farm, and needed a good home. Garlic is an easy, productive milker and a joy to have around, while Gloria is currently dry but a good companion for the others. The two kids (third from top) are being raised for meat, to be butchered sometime in the fall, and we will hold the three does over the winter.

Their current home is a shed and hoophouse in a smaller paddock on our bottomland (top). The shed is sided with our own milled cedar , while the hoophouse is built from old cattle panels and plastic sheeting. The shed provides a solid, warm, dry structure for inclement weather, while the hoophouse holds their hay, mineral, water, and milking stand. They will be spending many of their days out on pasture around the farm, eating brush and clearing land for further use. We use a system of portable electric netting to confine them to a specific area, moving it regularly to balance their foraging with the health of the pasture.

These animals certainly add to the workload around here, but they are part of our larger goals of sustainability, integrated farming, and self-sufficiency. They are a joy to have around, and represent another aspect of our future as a diversified small farm.

Pleasures and Perils of Poultry

The population of Chert Hollow Farm just went up by 28, as our first chicks arrived early this morning. We intend these to form the base of our egg flock, and they should start producing some time in late summer. These chicks are unsexed, so we will learn over time what ratio of roosters/hens we have. The former will be raised as meat birds, and the latter maintained as layers.

These chicks came from SandHill Preservation Center, a wonderful small farm in Iowa that specializes in maintaining rare heritage breeds of fowl. These birds may not gain weight quite as fast or lay quite as many eggs as a commercial hybrid, but they’re real chickens, the kind any real farmer around the world would recognize. They will be an integral part of our farm’s landscape, eating insects and excess produce while fertilizing the ground and supplying us with eggs and meat. Visit SandHill’s site to learn more about the value of heritage breeds.

Unfortunately, starting these chicks also exposes us to a danger facing many small farmers: the Federal Government. For years the USDA has been pushing for something called the National Animal Identification System, which is fine in concept and truly frightening in practice. In short, the government wants to require that every animal (livestock or fowl) in the country be fitted with a Radio Frequency ID tag, and that any change in that animal’s status be reported to the USDA within 24 hours (death, slaughter, movement to a different location, exposure to other animals, etc.). This is intended as a food safety measure to allow the USDA to track back disease outbreaks and contain them. That is a noble goal, but in practice it will be devastating for small farmers and independent animal owners, who have neither the time nor the money to put up with such an intrusive and bureaucratic system. It is a one-size-fits-all system, meaning a backyard flock is treated the same as a 10,000 bird Tyson feedlot, despite the fact that the latter can far more easily afford the time and expense of such tags and tracking requirements than a small independent farmer.

It’s an unfortunate situation. There are real food safety and disease concerns out there, such as bird flu, that require some form of attention. Also, small farmers and backyard raisers can certainly follow poor practices that might increase the chances of a disease outbreak or other problem in the food supply. But the reality of this approach to the problem is really dangerous; do we want to encourage a safer food supply by driving small farms out of business, and by making it prohibitive for individuals to keep their own animals? In my opinion, most of the dangers from disease and food safety come from the large industrial operations, and we should be focusing our regulatory efforts there rather than persecuting small farmers who sell their goods locally and are not part of the national/international industrial food system that makes disease outbreaks so frightening.

I strongly encourage you to read more about the NAIS; it may be the single largest threat to the small farm/slow food/local food movement yet. This really could drive many farms out of business, or prevent many more from attempting to raise animals. We’re taking our chances, hoping that sanity will prevail and enough farmers and consumers will revolt against this well-meaning but effectively horrible system.
Read more at:


or just use Google.

Patterns of Spring

Since we settled here, we’ve been keeping records of natural events like bird migrations, flower bloomings, and so on, with the goal of documenting and better understanding the natural patterns here. Spring is one of the best times to appreciate these records, as so many new things are happening and arriving. So far, our general observations suggest that migratory birds are on about the same schedule as last year, but wildflowers and local animals are behind. This makes sense, as last spring the weather was abnormally warm here, so that local flowers bloomed early, but birds respond to large factors than local weather.

Anyway, here’s a few glimpses at the changes (or not) since last year:

Birds (first observation in 2007, 2008):
Woodcocks: 2/27, 3/6
Louisiana waterthrush: 3/26, 3/26
Phoebe: 3/11, 3/13
Towhee: 3/11, 3/19
Snow geese: 3/22, 3/23

Other animals (first observation in 2007, 2008):
Spring peepers: 3/8, 3/1
Young snake (prairie king snake?): 3/28, 3/26
Box turtles: 3/13, none
Bats: 3/13, none
Ticks: 3/28, none

Wildflowers (first observation in 2007, 2008):
Crocus: 3/4, 3/10
Harbinger of Spring: 3/13, 3/19
Redbuds: 3/27, none
Spring Beauty: 3/25, none
Bloodroot: 3/25, none

Soil temperature 6″ down (2007, 2008)
February 25 (32, 32)
March 10 (40, 36)
March 24 (none, 40)

These sorts of data will be even more valuable in years to come as we build a meaningful record of long-term patterns, but even now they’re fun to peruse. Keeping a simple notebook is relatively easy, and the rewards are quite meaningful.

Signs of Spring

I’m sure half the country is saying or writing something like this right now, but we’re definitely transitioning into spring here. The early flowers are coming up, like these bursts of color. Many birds have returned or become noticeable again, including woodcocks, bluebirds, phoebes, wood ducks, snow geese, and more. The spring peepers and other frogs are chorusing at full volume, to the point that standing near a stream or body of water will actually make your ears ring. Leaves are not budding yet, but there is an almost imperceptible greening of the grass, and the ground is finally thawed enough to work.

Our first crops of spring are in the ground and growing slowly. The garlic, which has overwintered from the fall, is looking very nice ( left). We have some early lettuce in the ground, which we start indoors under grow lights and then transplant. There are about 120 plants out right now, with about the same number awaiting transplant later today. We hope they’ll be ready for harvest within 2-3 weeks. The early lettuce is growing slowly, weathering cold snaps and an early transplant that was a little harsh on my part. I plan on being more gentle with the next round to go out today.

The Columbia Farmers Market opened this past weekend (March 22) with excellent attendance by both vendors and customers. I had held out hopes of having lettuce ready for this first market, but it’s very difficult to do without a proper greenhouse, and we didn’t get the perfect conditions we would have needed to achieve that. The straw and plastic cold frame at left helps, but only so much. In any case, we have radishes coming up and many more about to be seeded, many trays of onions about to be transplanted, and seeding of the first spring peas is not far behind.

For those who might be wondering, my previously discussed neck trouble has healed up for now, thanks to some muscle relaxants, several weeks of rest, and lots of stretching. I’m back at full capacity, and just in time. We just put in a long weekend of labor, cutting and hauling logs to build new garden beds, continuing the orchard clearing project, chipping more mulch, and generally taking advantage of the current warm weather. Within the next month, we plan to have new irrigation installed in the market garden, up to 20 new 4’x16′ raised beds built, a chicken yard and shed built for the chicks that should be arriving this week, fencing and shed built for the goats that will likely be arriving soon, an orchard area mostly cleared so I can sow alfalfa onto it to build and hold the soil, and weekly sales at market of early spring produce. We’ll do our best to keep photos and news coming as the busy season progresses.

“Restaurant mouth”

We don’t eat out much. After years of eating meals made at home, scratch-made from fresh, quality ingredients (there are few canned or processed ingredients in our kitchen), our taste buds have become exceedingly sensitive to the taste and presence of preservatives, salt, and other chemicals in most prepared food. Every now and then we’ll try a new place that claims to use “only the freshest ingredients”, with a chef on hand cooking real meals, only to come home with “restaurant mouth”.

This is the term we’ve coined for the dry, brackish, basically nasty aftertaste invariably left in our mouths after a restaurant meal. I’m not talking about fast food or chain establishments here, I’m talking about supposedly real restaurants with kitchens and “chefs”. We’ve reached the point where we can taste the canned ingredients, low-quality spices, or processed sauces in the dish with the first bite; the preservatives and over-salting are obvious. This pattern is proven by the consistent high quality and lack of restaurant mouth in the few regional establishments that we know for a fact use nothing but real, clean ingredients and have real, skilled chefs and cooks. These consistent winners always prove to us that (a) it’s possible to cook real food from real ingredients in a restaurant, and (b) that we’re not imagining our negative reactions to other establishments.

Speaking of negative reactions, “restaurant mouth” is often accompanied by “restaurant stomach”. We’ve found that our digestive systems as well as our mouths have become really sensitive to over-salting, preservatives, chemical flavors, and other signs of poor ingredients, because a visit to an unknown establishment tends to produce several days of upset stomachs or worse. We recently had an especially bad reaction to a supposedly high-end place that turned out to be one of the worst meals we’ve had in years, revealing abundant signs of kitchen laziness, incompetence, and poor ingredient quality. It doesn’t matter that your menu offers fancy entrees if they’re made with generic ingredients and little skill.

In our experience, restaurant quality is only tangentially related to the “fanciness” of the place or the menu; our safe bets range from higher-end establishments to simple cafes. A better yardstick for restaurant quality is the presence or lack of good vegetarian entrees on the menu (by good, I mean something more creative or skilled than a veggie burger). While we’re not vegetarian (at least at home), we’ve found that the presence of real vegetarian entrees tends to mean that (a) the chef is skilled, creative, and able to use raw ingredients well, and (b) the restaurant is aware enough of food and dietary trends to make that option available to its diners. All it takes is one good vegetarian entree in a menu of 10-15 meat entrees to please the vegetarian in a group, yet so many restaurants don’t even bother to learn how to make the myriad interesting, quality vegetarian dishes that are easily within their grasp. And to reiterate the point, I don’t mean the standard sops like veggie/mushroom burgers, canned tomato sauce on pasta, or tofu. A chef or cook with the confidence and insight to offer real vegetarian meals is far more likely to know what (s)he’s doing with everything else, too. The common thread is real, clean, fresh ingredients, cooks/chefs who know how to use them without the crutches of salt, chemical flavorings, and processed sauces, and an understanding of dietary culture that accomodates broad interests and needs. It’s a rule that’s rarely failed us in predicting or avoiding restaurant mouth.

A real pain in the neck

Not long ago, I apparently re-aggravated an old neck injury from several years ago. I’m still not quite sure what happened this time, but coming home from the MOSES conference, my neck and upper back started to get stiff and painful, and it slowly grew through the week. I rested a lot and cut back on my normal work to try and let it heal, but it kept getting worse until I woke up one night in excruciating pain, so stiff that Joanna had to help me roll over in bed.

I went to the doctor the next morning and was given some muscle relaxants and therapeutic exercises. These worked very well, such that within a few days I was back to just a dull roar of stiffness and soreness. In another week I should be able to ease back into my normal routine, though I’m under strict orders not to even look at a chainsaw or shovel for a while. I wasn’t able to help at all with the lumber operations last weekend; we’re grateful for a neighbor who spent the day helping Joanna haul logs and lumber around.

Meanwhile, I’m spending a lot of time resting and going stir-crazy, watching days go by in which I could be making progress on the myriad tasks, chores, and projects that are looming with spring almost here. At this point, I’m at least allowed/able to cook, clean, and walk around again.

There are some things you just don’t think about much until they happen, especially when you’re young. Health and injuries are one of them; there are almost 14 million young adults in the US who don’t have health insurance. I’ve never been one of them, having paid for my own coverage since college. I was very grateful for this when my initial injury happened in Virgnia, which cost thousands of dollars in medical bills and left me bedridden for three months. We’re now on Joanna’s insurance through work, which makes a big difference in cost and quality compared to covering yourself while self-employed.

Experiences like this really help crystallize what’s wrong with health care in the US. I’m sympathetic to concerns that universal health care would be an expensive bureacratic nightmare, and my experiences with large government agencies don’t give me much hope that such a system would work very well. But right now, with insurance tied so strongly to employment, our system effectively punishes independance and entrepreneurship, particularly in the agricultural world where injuries and health risks are very real. How are young people supposed to start or join farms when doing so means that they’ll either have to go without insurance they can’t afford, or have a partner with an off-farm job?

Someday, we’d like this farm to be a full-time job for both of us, but the single biggest barrier we see is health care/insurance. Farming is strenuous enough that not having insurance is not an option for us; something like this latest “injury” could wipe us out with the double whammy of cost and lost labor. And I haven’t even brought up the issue of hiring employees and providing benefits to them, which is completely unrealistic for most small farms right now. So we, and many like us, are stuck under a hard glass ceiling of outside jobs and no employees, keeping our businesses forever small and limited. If we want a stronger economy, society, and food supply, we have GOT to find a way to spread the costs and availability of insurance/health care over a wider area, to support the small businesses and entrepreneurs (farm or otherwise) who are the backbone of our economy.

I’m fortunate to be in very good health; both the last time and this time, doctors were impressed with how fast I healed, likely due to the fact that I take very good care of myself. But precautions only go so far, and we badly need a system that gives us a fighting chance to live our lives free from fear that a freak incident could put us out of business. Let’s hope that 2009 is the year in which that starts to happen.

Logging & Lumber

Throughout the winter, we’ve been working to clear ground for our orchard and berry/bramble plantings; see area (9) on our Future Plans map. We’re focuing on a 1/2 acre area of gently sloping ex-pasture which is currently overgrown in thick cedar trees, a common occurence in Missouri when fields are abandoned. Although it would be faster to just hire someone to clear-cut it, that would also result in tremendous soil disturbance and the wasting of much of the tree material. Doing it ourselves, we sort the logs into small – medium (for fenceposts and raised bed supports) and large (for lumber), and chip most of the branches for mulch, burning some of the larger dead material that is difficult for our chipper to handle. There’s very little waste this way, and we save a lot of money compared to buying trucks of mulch and large fenceposts.

Pushing back the cedars

Homegrown cedar mulch

We’ve been stockpiling the larger, straighter trees for milling into lumber, and on March 1 we did our first batch by hiring a local couple with a portable sawmill to come down and do the work. We had close to 30 logs stockpiled, but seriously underestimated just how efficient he would be in getting lots of lumber from each log. After eight hours of work, we had only gone through about half the logs, and had generated a stack of beautiful heartwood cedar lumber about 4’x6’x10′ (the accompanying photo shows the stack only halfway through the day).

Portable sawmill

Halfway lumber stack

The lumber, mostly 1″x4″-10″ planks and 4″x4″ posts, is just beautiful, with the swirled red/orange/yellow of heartwood cedar. We’ll use some of it for home projects like cabinetry and tables, use the rougher material for sheds and other outbuildings, and are considering selling some of the best stuff to offset the cost of the milling. But it’s also worth a lot to us as wood that came from our land, that we cut and processed, and so we’d rather use most of it for our own purposes than sell it so we can buy generic wood from who knows where, harvested who knows how. We’ll just have really nice-looking and smelling outbuildings!

This is just a start, as we still have at least 15 logs waiting and at leats another 1/4 acre of trees on the way. Meanwhile, this first batch is stacked in the barn where it will cure for 5-6 months before we can use it.

MOSES organic conference – recap

I spent part of last week at a large organic agriculture conference in La Crosse, WI, organized and hosted by the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service. Over 2,000 people attended the three days of workshops, talks, research presentations, and more. The event captured so much of the energy, initiative, philosophy, and value of the local and organic agriculture movement that I think it’s a proper place to kick off this blog.

It’s hard to know where to begin when raving about this conference. First, unique among conferences I’ve been to, they put their money where their mouth is. MOSES provided three meals a day and constant drinks and snacks, all sourced from organic and local ingredients, mostly served on real glass and dishware. It’s rare to find an organization that actually practices what it preaches, especially in the details. It’s the first travel in a long time where I haven’t wished I’d brought my own food. From a culinary perspective, not all the food was that special, but there are limits to culinary achievement when feeding that many people, and the value of the food’s sourcing more than made up for any drawbacks.

Second, the conference draws and serves a very large constituency that made it fascinating and inspiring for everyone involved. I was able to interact with everyone from small homestead types to mid-size dairy operators to thousand-acre-plus grain farmers. The latter were particularly worth talking to, as over and over they told the same story: they’d grown up and starting farming in the chemical/GMO era, were seeing that it just wasn’t working any more, and wanted to find a new way that let them preserve their land, lessen their dependancy on corporate interests, and return their farms to the values they remembered or found worthwhile.

Although much of the energy and public face of the local/organic movement is focused on small farmers, it’s these big grain farmers that will really drive changes. They’re the ones that governments and corporations listen to; they have the clout to really change things on the market side. When they start to revolt in large numbers, it will make waves that no amount of small market growers can achieve on their own. There are those in the small farm/organic/slow food community who seem to see grain farmers as inherently evil or corrupt, forgetting that a lot of these folks are trapped in a system they didn’t create, and are only now seeing a way out.

It was truly inspiring to hear their stories, and thank them for taking on risks in switching to organic that we small farmers may not truly appreciate. Organic and conventional market growers can often market their products in the same places and use the same infrastructure; the differences are as much philosophical as they are economic or cultural. But talking to these larger grain farmers really helped me understand what an undertaking it is to go organic in a field dominated by corporate, industrial agriculture. You have to find your own market for your crops; the local elevator won’t touch you. You have little support, since the local dealers and suppliers don’t know or value organic methods and supplies, and most of your neighbors think you’re crazy. You have to survive through the 2-3 years of transitional status, when you can’t get the higher organic price but you’re doing the extra, risky work to maintain organic status. It’s just a different world from small market farming, and I appreciated the value of a conference that helped such different folks come together and understand one another better.

Finally, (though I could go on for much longer), the conference really captured the overall energy, growth, and value of local food production. Although it’s billed as an “organic” conference, it generally took a broader view toward the value of local food systems and supporting small family farmers than on hammering home organic methods. There was plenty of opportunity to learn more about organic farming, but not in a pushy or exclusive way. When I spoke up in a forum on local foods to argue that such initiatives should NOT be exclusively organic, and should include all types of small farmers so that the consumer can decide, it was met with much agreement and no argument. It was nice to be involved with so many folks whose philosophy was broad and inclusive, not narrow and partisan. Most small, conventional growers would have felt comfortable, and that’s important.

The conference was really focused on the Upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa), where small farm and local food support networks and culture are far stronger, but there were some of us from others areas that have farther to go. Next year I’d really like to arrange a larger Missouri contingent to attend together, so that we can all be inspired and educated by the example of these pioneering states and communities.