Preparing for frost

Sunday was a gloriously sunny day, marked by strong winds sweeping along the ridgetops and occasionally funnelling down into our valley to rearrange the leaves and the row covers. As we worked outdoors, we could hear the occasional limb crack and fall, and watch the half-dead leaves give up and swirl away. Such dramatic winds generally imply a major weather shift, and we knew that these were driven by a large mass of cold air sweeping down from the north to bring us our first killing frosts Sunday and Monday nights.

The arrival of a killing frost marks the effective transition into winter. After that, most of the produce is finished, except the few cold-tolerant items such as kale and leeks. We can now put the growing areas to sleep; pulling out the plants, broadforking the beds, adding a layer of manure, and mulching them with straw. Over the winter, the mulch will keep the soil warm, allowing worms and microbiota to feed on the manure and mix it thoroughly throughout the soil, generating a fertile setting for next spring. I’ve been working on this over the last few weeks, but now it’s time to finish the job.

Specific tasks yesterday included pulling all irrigation hoses and storing them in the barn, cleaning and storing all other hoses, collecting any unused row covers, plastic, tools, and other items that are no longer needed, and so on. Over the last few days we’ve harvested all remaining sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, and so on, leaving us with large piles of produce to process or otherwise use. For example, I have 80+ lb of green tomatoes now (more about those in a future post). In any case, agricultural winter is here.

Critter of the Week – Crayfish

This wet year seems to have been especially good for crayfish, as we’ve been finding them all over. This particularly nice specimen was actually found on our road, near the top of the ridge, after one of our major rainstorms. This was an especially worthwhile find, as we discovered she was carrying a large load of very new babies under her tail:

Of the 28 or so crayfish varieties present in Missouri, four are really common in our area, which is classified as prairie for the purposes of crayfish habitat. Looking at these four (first four listed here), the Papershell, Northern, Devil, and Prairie crayfishes, I’m pretty sure this one is a Prairie crayfish. Notice that the other three have very long pincers, whereas the Prairie has very short, stubby pincers. Also, the Prairie prefers grassland and former grassland habitats farther from water than the others, which fits its location near the top of the ridge adjacent to open and partly overgrown ground. Fun fact: their burrows can extend more than six feet underground.

As usual, the Missouri Department of Conservation has an excellent set of web resources on crayfish. Those who are interested will quite enjoy browsing their information.

Organic toads

Meet one cog in the complicated wheel of organic management, the American toad. Voracious predators of insects, beetles, and other pests, toads are a valued presence in our growing areas. A full discussion of organic methods is beyond the scope of a quick blog post on toads, so I’ll attempt to keep this brief and relevant.

Natural ecosystems and very robust and self-regulating. Generally speaking, they manage themselves quite well. “Pests” are partly a human creation, in the sense that we create unusual conditions through our agricultural methods that encourage the surrounding ecosystem to go out of balance. A large, dense population of a single plant (the crop) will naturally attract a large, dense population of the pest that is attracted to that single crop, and if we wish to harvest that crop we will have to deal with the pest situation we’ve helped create.

Encouraging the presence of natural predators such as toads and spiders in our growing areas helps us balance the inevitable imbalance. Natural predators are especially good at preventing problems from arising in the first place, as they can react to pests’ populations far more quickly and sensitively than I can. A resident toad will be far more in tune with the local insect world than I ever will be. On the other hand, while regular applications of chemical sprays will certainly deal with any immediate pest problem, they also eliminate most of the natural predators of the overall pest population, meaning that the sprays become the only control and become more and more necessary over time. Toads and spiders cannot easily survive in an environment where their food has been eliminated and they themselves have been poisoned.

So how do we encourage toads? Our log-built raised beds are a significant factor. Toads like small, dark holes to hide in, and the junctions between logs are a common and popular lair for them. In the photo below, the lower right corner of the bed creates a natural hollow in which the toad in the photo above has set up residence. In other areas, a few rocks piled up to create an internal hollow makes a great toad home. Most importantly, though, we don’t do anything to discourage them. Basic predators like toads, spiders, birds, and bats are everywhere except where we eliminate them due to development, chemical application, and so on. Keeping our artificial growing areas compatible with the surrounding natural ecosystem is one of the keys to organic management. And I never get tired of seeing a fat toad hop through a bed, knowing he’s stuffed with pests. Read more about Missouri toads and frogs on this MDC website.

Ike floods

As a climax to an incredibly wet year, most of Missouri was absolutely drenched over the last few days by a combination of Tropical Storm Lowell, a strong cold front, and Hurricane Ike. Here we got at least 6″ overall, falling on fully saturated ground. It would have been much worse, but Ike raced through overnight on Saturday far faster than anticipated, with the rain tapering off by dawn that was originally expected to last through Sunday. Still, it produced widespread flooding around the region and created the largest floods we’ve seen yet. Above you see our low-water crossing. This water level is pre-Ike; we got another 4.5″ on top of the rain that caused this. Ike came through overnight, though, and the water had already begun to drop on our little tributary by dawn, so this is the highest photo we have. It got higher, though, as the debris and bank conditions clearly demonstrated.

These last two photos show our road just to the north, where it crosses Silver Fork Creek. That bridge is normally something like 10′ above the water. It’s a very good thing Ike raced through, because a few more inches of rain on Sunday would probably have threatened this bridge, especially with those logs jammed up against it. You can see that the water is already breaking on the girders. Beyond the bridge, you see the floodwaters racing over the road; check the speed limit sign on the left for a depth reference.

Just a punctuation mark on a long, long sentence of wet weather this year.

Charismatic Critter of the Week – August 18

Meet the caterpillar of the Cecropia Moth. This fellow was found on one of our wild plum trees, a common habitat. A member of the Saturniidae family of giant moths, these can become a moth with a hand-sized wingspan. Click on the photos to enlarge, and to enjoy closeup views of the mouth and spines. Although he eats like a machine, there aren’t enough of them to really be pests, so he remains in the wonderful realm of fantastic creatures. Right now he’s residing on a stick in a large yogurt container, where he rapidly devours plum leaves and drops turds the size of blueberries. (I have no idea what gender this is, but “it” just doesn’t do justice.)

Another benefit we find to farming is the sheer amount of time we spend outdoors in varied habitats, giving us the opportunity to run across rare but fascinating things like this. As the title of this post suggests, I’m hoping to make this a regular feature; I have a nice backlog of good fauna photos to draw from.

Washing Away, part 3

Sunday night through Monday morning: at least another 2″, probably more, on fully saturated ground (I didn’t have my gauge bucket set up). We set a new stream flow record by far, with concrete blocks landing about 30′ downstream and large driftwood across the bottomland. Tonight we’re expecting the remnants of Hurrican Dolly to pass through, promising more heavy rains. Insert standard Noah reference here.

We were lucky Sunday, as that system was producing 80mph winds, tornadoes, and golfball hail. The worst cells passed just a few miles east of us, so all we got was heavy rain and some wind. Could have been much worse.

Washing Away, Pt. 2

A very quick post in a very busy time.

This week’s rainfall: Tuesday, 3.5″; Thursday, 1.5″; Friday morning, 3″. 8″ in four days is a lot, but parts of northern Missouri recieved over 9″ within 30 hours.

This latest round resulted in the highest stream flow we’ve yet seen here. Those familiar with our place will be interested to know that the footbridge washed out, as the water level reached the logs, and had to be dragged out with the tractor. Of course, everything is absurdly soggy and we have concerns about damage to plants from drowned roots and possible disease. More storms are forecast for the forseeable future. The tomatoes are absolutely bursting with green fruit, and if they can just make it through the downpours alive, will be stuffing our market stand very soon.

On the plus side, it’s nice to not worry about irrigation this year…

Washing Away…

While attention has rightly been focused on the massive rainfalls and flooding in Iowa and along the Mississippi river, conditions are quietly getting soggier in central and northern Missouri. In Linn County, a bit north of us, over 7 inches of rain fell in 4 hours; Locust Creek went up 20 feet in a few hours. The Chariton River has gone up 18 feet at Prairie Hill, and the Grand has gone up 25 feet at Chillicothe. These are both significant tributaries to the Missouri River, which has been hovering around moderate flood stage for a while now. As I write this on Thursday morning, the upper Missouri basin in eastern NE and western IA is being pounded by severe storms, central/northern Missouri has had wave after wave of heavy rainfall, and more is rotating into our area. We’ve had over 5″ in the last 24 hours, including 3″ in one hour, producing the highest streamflow we’ve seen on our property, and it continues to fall. We’re forecast for continued storms through the weekend, including severe storms and heavy rainfall Friday and Friday night.

At the moment, the Missouri is forecast to once again reach a stage height of 25′ at Jefferson City, well below the 1993 record of 38.3′ but enough to start flooding lower areas, and this forecast doesn’t include all the oncoming rain. It’s been cycling around that height for weeks now, so this is nothing new, but it’s a lot of water and continued heavy rains across the basin could keep the trend going. So far we’ve been fortunate that the rain pulses are just far enough apart to allow the Missouri to drop again before the next pulse arrives, but that may not last. Much of the region is saturated, and can’t hold much more. More and more folks are quietly saying that this reminds of them of ’93, when this just kept happening; the rain just kept coming and the rivers just kept rising. We’ll see. There’s a long way to go in the Missouri basin, but that’s what they thought in Iowa and along the Mississippi not that long ago.

As ex and current geologists with experience in rivers, we’re fascinated on a scientific level by these dynamics. There are many good websites to use when tracking these events, mostly those managed by the National Weather Service and the USGS. When using these, however, you’ll notice massive gaps in stream gage coverage; this is due to major budget cuts in river monitoring that have really hampered our ability to accurately study, track, and predict river behavior. Read coverage of the Iowa floods carefully, and you’ll find the experts bemoaning the cuts that have kept them from doing their job.

In any case, for an overall view of river conditions, visit This national map shows streamflow conditions for all gages monitored by the USGS, and you can click on a state to zoom in, then click on any gage to see recent conditions.

Another good site is the National Weather Service’s Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Center, which takes similar data to the USGS site and presents them in a slicker, more intuitive interface that really helps present conditions, as well as offering river stage forecasts. As above, click on individual gage sites to view graphs, data, and predictions. The link above is to the Kansas City forecast region that covers most of the central/northern Missouri area I wrote about above, but you can scroll in any direction through the country. Also, at any particular gage, scroll down to see a location map and table of how different gage heights affect the surrounding area. It’s a good way to get context for the river conditions.

Finally, as a way of documenting the wet conditions this spring and early summer, here’s a link to the National Weather Service’s 1-year rainfall data for St Louis. This is a live, daily-updated graph, so if you’re reading this months later in the archive it might not fit my description. But as of late June, you’ll clearly see that we spent most of the winter slightly dry, but around mid-March the rain just started falling and is now 12″ above average. The comparable temperature graph shows the cool side of this agriculturally terrible spring, which has hurt everyone from gardeners to grain spreads.

So for now we just wait, watch the streams rise, and pay attention. Our permanent raised beds are generally saving us from larger disaster, as they keep the roots of our plants above the accumulating water, but that only goes so far. When the soil stays constantly wet and never gets a chance to drain, it will start to stunt and hurt the plants, so we’re concerned. The biggest worry right now is our beautiful stand of 200+ heads of garlic, which is in the process of forming bulbs, only a few weeks from harvest. Garlic needs fairly dry conditions to do this properly, and can rot easily in overly wet conditions. A friend has already lost at least half her garlic to waterlogged fields, and we’re in danger. Losing this crop so close to harvest would really hurt. Overall, though, as I’ve written before, these conditions cement our commitment to developing an effective no-till, permanent raised bed farming method here, because in the long run it will insulate us as much as possible against these sorts of conditions that are causing even more trouble and damage for more equipment-dependent growers.

When It Rains…

The last two weeks have been a rather problematic and stressful time, with conditions and events doing their best to undermine my general philosophy of confident perseverance. I started to write up a thorough explanation of recent events, but stopped when I hit page 4, realizing that such a brain dump wouldn’t work for the blog. I’m going to give a very brief synopsis here, and those who want details can write us. Maybe I’ll email you a copy of the full Word document if you’re a glutton for punishment. At an individual level, these are the sorts of things you expect from running a small farm, but you certainly hope they don’t all come crashing down at the same time. For those who might worry about us after reading this, don’t. Yes, we’re pretty frazzled and a bit wild-eyed, but every job/career/life faces difficult times, and what matters is how you face those times and how you move beyond them. As horrible as the following events feel to us, they don’t begin to compare to what so many Americans (much less world citizens) face every day. Losing a cat is not the same as losing a soldier; dead chickens are not the same as having no food; poisoned goats are a far cry from war, famine, and poverty. So let this account be an accurate reflection of our recent troubles, but in the context that we’re still pretty damned well off compared to much of the world, and are likely to stay that way.

The loss of Loki has already been addressed, though it just set the stage for things to come. It was the beginning of a pretty rough 2 weeks.

We’ve lost 15 chickens to an unknown predator (probably raccoon), prompting us to spend over a day rebuilding the cedar goat shed as a secure chicken house and move the 12 survivors down to the goat paddock. Their old home was surrounded by an electric net fence running 7,000 volts, but that apparently wasn’t enough. When I contacted the net’s manufacturer (who were recommended to us by multiple people), they were flabbergasted at our report. The rep, who uses the netting herself on sweet corn and poultry with no problems, commented in disbelief, “You must have an armor-plated raccoon.”

About the same time, we discovered that a plant thriving in the goat’s home paddock and recently fenced new browse paddock is highly toxic to livestock, and is excreted & concentrated into milk, making our dairy products unusable. So far the goats (and us) are still alive, but white snakeroot was historically the cause for thousands of deaths among settlers and homesteaders across the Appalachians and Midwest. We’re working with Extension services to learn more about the toxicity and residence time we’re dealing with, as almost no one seems terribly familiar with this particular plant and toxin, despite it being common throughout Missouri. In the meantime, we’ve spent hours hand-pulling every snakeroot plant from the home paddock and have abandoned their new paddock for now. We identified the plant as soon as it got big enough to be noticeable, which was when the goats were already eating it. So we caught it very quickly, but there are no answers from the “experts” on how much constitutes a dangerous dose for them or for us.

We are still mired in a very wet spring, making all sorts of agricultural activities difficult (every size farm is suffering this year). This includes hay-making; a recent batch from a friend had to be baled during a very narrow dry window, did not dry enough in the field, and subsequently molded. This creates a fire hazard as the hay composts and heats up within each bale, so we spent an evening breaking open bales and spreading them outside the barn to avoid disaster. It’s 95% ruined and good only for mulch and ground cover. We have tentatively identified another source of hay, sharing an order with another goat farm in the area, so hopefully that gap will be addressed within a week or so.

The constant rain has kept setting us back on field/garden prep, planting, and many other necessary tasks, so we’ll see what our production is like this summer. In addition, dealing with the cascade of pressing animal issues has sucked many days of work time away from our core vegetable operation.

As a cap to all this, my neck muscles are spasming again, keeping me from doing any physical labor. It’s not as bad this time, and I’m aggressively countering it with stretches, heat, and rest, but this is really not the time for me to go out of commission. I went in to the doctor this morning, who asked if I’d been under stress lately. I laughed. He thinks there’s a connection there, and I believe it. Makes sense that the muscles would be tenser and more likely to knot up when I’m so tightly wound right now anyway.

After considering all this, it might be fair to ask if we’ve taken on too much. It’s something we’ve discussed at length, and here’s my take. Yes, possibly, but I’m glad we have. So many of these issues are things that can really only be learned by experience, and that means putting in the time and work. We fully expect that it will take us years to learn to be truly effective and knowledgeable livestock and poultry raisers, and that we won’t be doing it commercially until we are confident in our knowledge and abilities. Right now, we still have off-farm income and the luxury of being able to experiment with these things without losses being a disaster. If we waited to start animals until we were full-time vegetable growers, these losses of time and sanity would hurt a lot more than they do now. So despite the insanity, I think it’s the right approach to learn as much as we can early on, so we can apply those lessons as soon as possible when we need them. These early, combined trials put us on the road to self-sufficiency far faster than the alternative, and so I’m grateful for the lessons even as they give me muscle spasms.

Finally, in a bit of good news, we heard our first rooster crowing this morning. It was a wonderful, amusing sound as he struggled to get it right, warbling like a teenage boy in choir. Just a sign that even as many things go wrong, we’re still progressing toward the goals that have driven us all along. One of the most valuable aspects of this life is that everything is a lesson, and everything is worth experiencing. We are tired, but never bored, and that’s a bargain I’ll make any day.