Our fresh snap peas are producing now, our first really succesful crop this year (the lettuce and radishes were severly hampered by the cold, wet spring).
Peas are fairly easy to grow, but tricky to harvest. They ripen fast, with a narrow window to get them just right in order to hit the maximum sweetness and texture. We grow vining peas, which produce a continous crop as long as conditions allow, as oppoesd to bush peas, which ripen all at once, and only once. Below, you see a comparison of developing peas:
The top pea is not ready yet; still too small and too thin. It won’t be very sweet. The middle pea is perfect; starting to round out, but not yet cylindrical. It will be juicy and tasty. The bottom pea has gone too far; it’s bloated and round. It will have lost some sweetness and be a bit tough. I try to check every day to make sure I’m getting each pea just at its peak.
Like some other produce (greens especially), peas are sensitive to heat after being picked. They really ought to be chilled instantly once they’re off the plant; sitting in a bucket in the sun for even a few minutes and they may start to lose some of their peak sweetness and quality. We’ve started harvesting directly into buckets of cold water, so as to flash-chill the peas and keep them perfect.
“It’s time for a new, conservation-minded view of the microbial communities that live on and in us”
With this tagline, an article in the current issue of American Scientist nicely captures an argument that is fundamental to organic farming, though the authors never directly make the connection to agriculture. The piece describes the complex interactions of microbial activity within the human body, a system medical science is only beginning to really understand. A series of fascinating details emerges through the piece, discussing the incredibly specialized microbial communities (“The skin on our right forearm, for example, harbors a different microbial community than that of our left forearm”) that work together to produce a functioning whole.
Once establishing the importance of these communities, the authors go on to discuss their fragility, and how easily the human body’s functions can be disrupted if the microbial community is disturbed. Naturally, this leads to a discussion of the role antibiotics play:
“Because antibiotics kill bacteria indiscriminately, collateral damage far exceeds target destruction, and our microbial supporting cast is decimated in pursuit of the pathogen. Under the old view of human-microbe interactions, we accepted this collateral damage as a small cost to pay for ridding ourselves of bacteria. Under our proposed ecological model, however, we can understand that we no longer need to destroy the village in order to save it. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are properly seen as agents of major perturbation. Recent studies make clear that antibiotic exposure reduces the diversity of resident microbial communities and makes it easier for pathogens to invade.”
The basic argument being made here is very applicable to agriculture as well. Soil, too, is a very complex chemical and biological system, hosting an incredible diversity of microbial life that is integral to balancing and maintaining soil health. At the core of organic agricultural methods is the principle that nature has created a very dynamic, stable system that we are best off supporting rather than replacing. Instead of reducing soil and plant nutrition to just a few key elements (N-K-P), organic agriculture seeks to maintain the soil as close to a natural condition as possible. Instead of relying on herbicides and pesticides to eliminate all problems, organic agriculture seeks to maintain a healthy balance of pest and predator. In the same way that it’s worth being sick now and then to strengthen the immune system, it’s worth having some pests and weeds because they’re integral to the larger health of the soil and the ecosystem. I’ve seen many reports that medical researchers feel people are weakening their immune systems due to over-reliance on drugs; the same dynamic happens in soil that is regularly disturbed, sterilized, and chemically imbalanced by artificial inputs and treatments.
In addition, the over-use of artificial substances (whether antibiotics or farm chemicals) can actually be directly counter-productive by encouraging the development of resistant strains of bacteria, weeds, or pests. No spray can kill 100% of all pests or weeds, just as no drug can destroy 100% of harmful bacteria. The inevitable result is the survival of the few individuals whose genetics gave them more resistance, and over time these strains can become far more problematic than the original concern. This is actively happening in both the medical and agricultural worlds.
The author notes that “In much of the developed world, and certainly in the United States, we appear determined to make the planet microbe-free. The advertising, pharmaceutical and home-products industries have tried to persuade the public that every microbe is the enemy. But the more we learn about the biological world, the less this perspective makes sense.” The same dynamic is present in agriculture, and the result is ever-more reliance on artificial inputs as the natural ability of the soil and ecosystem to maintain a healthy balance is undercut.
I could go on for pages (I haven’t even touched on the obvious implications for antibiotic use in industrial meat production), but hopefully this demonstrates the underlying connections that can be made across the board. Organic farming is often characterized as an unscientific, pseudo-pagan, Earth-Mother belief system characterized by mythology rather than science, and this reputation is earned in some circles. However, the perspective we take is that true organic farming is deeply rational and scientific when approached with the philosophy outlined in this article; that we are best off understanding and working with the complex natural systems already available, rather than attempting to engineer a new reality without understanding what we’re replacing.
Goats are playful. They like to climb. Flat fields really aren’t their natural habitat. So when they decide to be themselves, interesting things happen, especially when the goat in question is an energetic, headstrong young buck. Saturday morning we went down to the goat paddock for the morning milking, intending it to be an efficient affair before heading in to market. Then we saw this (click on photos to enlarge):
Yes, he’d figured out how to climb up the sides of our hoop structures. Generally the method involves taking a running leap onto the side of the hoop, and getting your hoof just deep enough into the tarp to get purchase on a steel rod, so you can clamber up the side like a crab until you’re proudly perched at the summit of Mt. Cattle Panel (read more about these structures at the link above).
The benefits were clear. Not only was it insanely fun, as he was demonstrating by racing between the milking structure (blue tarp) and the housing structure (silver tarp) and climbing both, it also gave access to some higher-up branches that had otherwise been out of reach. Above, you see him enjoying the bounty while Garlic tries to figure out how SHE can join in.
Naturally, this was of concern. First, we didn’t know how long the tarps would last before breaking and leaving a young goat hanging five feet off the ground with his legs stuck through a cattle panel. Second, it appeared that his weight was gradually bending and deforming the hoop (see above photo). However, we really needed to get to market and didn’t have time to fully address the problem. We had just enough spare material lying around down there to put up barriers around the milking structure, but had to leave the housing structure to his whims until we got home. Of course, we arrived home around noon to find this:
Yes, he’d jumped on the hoop until it had deformed so low that all the others could join the game, and together the combined weight of five goats was MORE than enough to permanently squish the steel and produce the result you see above. Naturally, since this is their housing and shade, they were all still attempting to squeeze under it for their afternoon nap. Not an easy task with horns.
So we pulled the whole structure apart, dragged the deformed panels out of the paddock, cursed for a bit while threatening the buck with early butchering, and decided we didn’t have time to build a new structure that afternoon. So we moved all the hay, feed, and other supplies out of the milking hoop (which is normally off-limits to them) and let them have that as an overnight shelter. The next day we found the time and energy to drag down six more cattle panels and build a new housing structure, complete with cattle panel barriers along the side to forestall any further extreme sports. You can see the results below:
It was really a pretty funny incident, other than the fact that it was a hot, humid weekend with a mile-long to-do list. Still, watching the little bugger race around taking flying leaps onto the hoops was pretty amusing in its own way.
By the way, those who’ve been following the goats may be wondering why we’re still milking. Regardless of the snakeroot situation, we still need to milk the does to (a) help remove any possible toxins from their system, and (b) maintain the status quo until we can make a final decision on whether to dry them off for good this year or return to using the milk that’s currently being dumped twice a day. We’re pursuing that decision through research, a lab test, and more. Look for an update soon, when we get the lab results back. So far, everyone is healthy and signs indicate that they didn’t eat enough to really cause problems for us or them.
Reading this blog, you’d barely realize we grew vegetables, much less that produce is the core of what we do. Certainly, recents events have drawn us away from the garden and field, but we’re getting back on track. Here’s an update on our status as we stand on the doorstep of summer.
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.
Many visitors here make comments along the lines of “You do so much work” or “You work too hard”, and I usually don’t have a good answer because we don’t really look at our lives in those terms. The closest I come to expressing our point of view is a favorite quote from Calvin & Hobbes: “It’s only work if someone makes you do it.” That’s not to say we don’t do a lot, and there are days when we can feel overwhelmed with the projects we’ve taken on. Keep in mind, though, that the value of the life we’ve chosen is that everything we do is integrated into a larger whole, and has a purpose that helps achieve our greater goals.
One friend came out to work for an afternoon in exchange for produce and dairy products, and commented something like “It’s so different from yard work”, even though our tasks in the field that day were about as repetitive and menial as it gets. I think she could sense that every task has a relevant purpose that feeds back into the goals of growing good food and supporting ourselves. For example, even something like clipping grass has a greater purpose, because those clippings can be fed to chickens to save on purchased feed and eventually become meat and eggs. We’re doing it for a deeper reason than to impress the neighbors.
“Doing so much” also depends on your life choices. A 2006 survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics offers some fascinating statistics on American life, and how we fit in (or not). The study breaks down the average time spent by people on various activities, compiling these numbers into hours per day for all population and those engaged in the activity. So, for example, the national average time spent per day watching television is 2.58 hours. 79.5% of people do so daily, and they average 3.24 hours. That’s over three hours right there that we choose to spend on cooking real food and managing our animals rather than slouching in front of a screen.
Anyway, here’s my estimate of an “average” day for me, keeping in mind that every day varies with weather and tasks. One day a week I’m probably spending indoors on yogurt and/or cheese making, house cleaning, records & computer work, and so on.
Wake up between 6:30 and 7:00. Making and eating breakfast takes about 1/2 hour, and dealing with the goats and chickens takes 30-45 minutes (milking, feeding, checking water, etc.) Usually Joanna is off to work around 8:00, and I’m starting in on whatever I need to do that day. I eat lunch around noon, usually at the computer so I can read news, check email, and keep up with demands from my various orginizations and projects. This may take anywhere from 1-2 hours depending on demands and how tired I am (I may take a nap during this period). Then back out to tasks until anywhere from 4:00-6:00, at which point I start dinner and clean up the kitchen. We make just about everything we eat from scratch; the “fastest” meal here involves pulling some leftovers from a previous meal out of the freezer on especially busy days. One of the advantages to our way of life is that we always have stocks of ingredients available to work with, whether fresh produce or canned/frozen items from past seasons, making cooking easy and flexible. Joanna gets home around 6:30, and we milk & manage the goats before eating dinner. By this point it’s usually around 8:00, and we may do some more chores until dark, or if we’re especially wiped out, crash on the couch for an hour and talk or watch online clips from The Daily Show before showering and attempting to fall asleep around 10:00.
Or look at it this way:
Sleep: 8 hours
Cooking & food prep: 2-3 hours
Eating meals: 1-2 hours
Managing animals: 1-2 hours
General farm work: 8-10 hours
Indoor/online work: 1-2 hours
Hobbies/unrelated recreation: little to none
It’s not for everyone, and I respect those who wouldn’t want to live this way. From one perspective, we have little to no downtime. From another perspective, everything we do is part of our lifestyle and furthers our values of good food and self-reliance. To me, spending 2-3 hours a day cooking or preparing food (including cheese-making) isn’t work or drudgery, it’s an integral part of our values the way that going to church might be to others. Also, even considering just a regular 8-hour work day for me at actual farm tasks, given that I don’t spend an hour commuting, 3 hours watching TV, or 1 hour excersizing (in the gym sense), that’s almost 5 hours a day I can devote to cooking, animals, and other lifestyle-related things that close the circle of being an integrated small farm. It’s what works for us, and what allows us to live and eat in ways that respect our values.
It’s only work if someone makes you do it, and just about everything I do here is by our own choice. It’s a tradeoff I’m quite satisfied with. Even on the most exhausting, stressful days, the alternative (working for someone else so I can pay someone else to do all these things for me) has little appeal.
We lost Loki Tuesday night to Cytauxzoonosis, a nasty tick-borne disease hosted primarily by bobcats. He started looking ill on Thursday, but spent the weekend at home on medications after a vet visit on Friday. By Monday he was clearly still declining, so we returned to the vet where blood tests confirmed the diagnosis. The disease is almost always fatal, killing within 5-6 days of symptoms appearing, and Loki succumbed Tuesday evening. There is currently no known treatment or antidote, and it is very difficult to prevent. Anti-tick products are only so effective, because they take time to kill or dissuade a tick, and Cytauxzoonosis is conveyed very quickly from a single bite. Even suburban indoor cats get it, as a single tick carried into the house on a pant leg can be enough. It’s simply not possible to prevent every tick bite on a farm-based animal, pet or no.
Loki was a cherished member of our household. He joined us at a young age less than two years ago, when Joanna brought him home from the Humane Society to help with mouse control and to keep her company while I was away working in Virginia. We’re both deeply cat people, and Loki was the best cat either of us have ever known. He led a cat’s dream life, with a wide array of forests and fields to explore and hunt in and a warm, comforting home to return to. He was friendly and loyal, following us on long walks through woods and fields no matter the weather, happy to curl up on a soft, warm lap, and quick to purr. He was independent and curious, ever ready to climb a new tree and investigate a new sound or smell, and often staying out all night exploring and hunting. He was mischievous, loving to pounce on unsuspecting feet, hide under beds, and get into the kind of trouble all real cats do. He was an integral part of our daily lives, and losing him has crushed us.
Death comes with all life, but it is fair to ask ourselves why the death of a cat is agony when the death of a deer or meat goat is acceptable. I believe that the value of life is integrated with its purpose and nature, and the end of life must be judged against those concepts. If the form of death complements and respects the purpose and nature of the animal’s life, I see that differently than a death that contradicts them. A meat goat whose life is spent happy and healthy is fulfilling a natural end as food; it was bred and raised for that purpose and a humane slaughter respectfully fulfills that. This is part of the reason we eat primarily meat that we produce; we respect the value of life more deeply when we are involved in all aspects of it. However, a pet that was bred and raised for companionship is intended to achieve that for as long as possible, and an early and unintended death subverts that purpose. Loki was less than two years old; were he fifteen we would feel somewhat differently. As it is, something deeply meaningful to us has been taken away, and we have lost a beloved friend far too soon.
We brought him home Wednesday morning. I built a small box from scraps of cedar milled from the farm, and we laid him there on his long-used fireplace blanket with one of the fur mice he loved to play with on wintry days. He is buried along the cedar path leading between the house and market garden, where he accompanied us for so many days as we went about our lives together. We plan to build this spot up with stream-rock walls, to become a perpetual raised garden at the heart of our farm and lives.
We have a large collection of photos and memories from Loki’s time with us, and I plan to compile a page of these, though I do not have it in me right now. We’re grateful to have known Loki, to have given him a happy and fulfilling life, and to have received the unwavering loyalty, friendship, and joy he provided. We miss him deeply.
On the type of small, diversified operation we’re developing, a variety of small buildings and shelters are necessary. Greenhouses, storage, animal shelters, and so on are all needed, but I’m leery of building permanent structures. Real (wood or metal) structures cost time and money, and plans often change as new things are learned or decided. For example, I had designed a nice 10’x20′ permanent goat shed to be built out of our milled cedar, but decided that such a project was getting ahead of ourselves, as we were sure to learn more about our needs and those of the goats as time progressed, and why lock ourselves into something before we knew what we were doing?
Enter our favorite temporary building, the cattle-panel hoop structure. This is something we first saw demonstrated at the annual Small Farm Today trade show in Columbia, and we’ve adapted it for our own use. Basically, it consists of a series of 4’x16′ cattle panels (a strong yet flexible grid of metal rods), staked to the ground, and flexed into an arch. These provide a very strong, sturdy, yet flexible base for a greenhouse or structure for less cost and bother than building a solid wood or metal structure. Cattle panels sell new for around $20, but can often be found used.
One side of a panel is staked to the ground with 1/2″x3′ rebar, then flexed into an arch before the other side is staked in. A floor 8′ wide produces an arch just under 6′ high. The rebar is important because these panels, while flexible, take a lot of pressure to stay in place and 3′ rebar pounded deeply provides the necessary strength. Each panel is erected next to the others, and fastened to its neighbors with looped wire at many intervals along the hoop. Cover can be provided by plastic sheeting or tarps; the latter are stronger and easier to attach using office-supply binder clips and twine tied from the grommets to the base of the panel.
I find that an 8’x12′ structure using 3 panels takes me 1-2 hours to build from start to finish. We have three of these structures currently, serving as chicken house, milking shed, and hay storage, and more are in the works as greenhouses and other storage. They are easy to take down and move if plans change, and generate no waste as everything can be reassembled elsewhere as needed.
This sort of structure is easy, affordable, completely reuseable, and stands up to weather quite well, as it’s able to flex in high winds and won’t rot or decay. Thick tarps ought to provide reasonable hail protection, and are easier to replace than shingles. We love these structures, and it’s something many folks with small farms could consider using. For our chicken house, we simply lined the inside with straw bales for insulation and built plywood and screened walls for the ends. For our milking shed, we staked additional panels across the ends (one loose as a gate) to keep the goats out as needed. For hay storage, we just left the ends open and place the hay on a raised platform to keep it off the damp ground. For greenhouses, we cover the hoop in clear plastic and built ends with windows and doors as needed. Flooring can be gravel, wood chips, straw, or a combination depending on need.
Using these gives us quickly available structures, while letting us learn and experiment with interior floor layouts so that when we do get around to building a more permanent hen house or goat barn, we have a better sense of what we want to do. This is certainly not our idea, and a Google search turns up many versions, but this is how we do it and it works wonderfully for us.
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.