Taming a tangled wilderness

We’re unusually free with sharing our successes and failures here at Innisfree on the Stillwater, a fact that is intentional and purposeful rather than naive and dramatic. You see, our desire, along with giving people access to quality, sustainably grown food is also to help educate the vast majority of people who don’t understand what it takes to grow their food on exactly what it takes to grow their food.

In addition to some thinking we’re arrogant for having such a goal, one of the classic responses we get, especially to failures, is that we don’t know what we’re doing. The irony, to a point, is that these critics are right, but for entirely the wrong reasons.

As it turns out, we don’t know what we’re doing because the knowledge of what we’re trying to do, in many cases, has been almost entirely lost, sometimes intentionally. Over the past several decades, there has been a radical revolution in agriculture almost unheard of since the invention of agriculture itself, and often not always for the better. This revolution has happened so quickly that the knowledge got lost before it got written down.

The result has been tragic, from loss of crop diversity so severe that entire annual crops are now entirely clones to animals so closely bred for specific genetics that they die from eating food they’re supposed to be able to eat, along with a population now so far removed from the realities of what it actually takes to feed them that this all seems normal to them.

We don’t know what we’re doing because we’re on the frontier trying to create a bulwark against the threats these kinds of changes represent. We understand we’re not going to overturn or replace those realities, but we also know some level of that knowledge must be salvaged or rediscovered or the potential for disaster is real and imminent.

So yes, we admit our ignorance, not as a condemnation of ourselves, but as a bellwether of the risks we all face. We do this because we desperately want to learn before it’s too late and for others to understand the risks we all face.

Perhaps that makes us arrogant, but the fact is that explorers and discoverers have always had to be to succeed at what they’re trying to do. We accept that aspersion and the challenge it represents because the task must be done.

DLH

Swinging for the fences

The one part of our farming adventure at Innisfree on the Stillwater that has dogged us since the beginning is the fact that we have continued to lease our 100 acres of tillage ground, mostly for the sake of the cash rent. Of course, that lease meant a compromise in the form the use of herbicides and pesticides on that ground every year, but the money was hard to turn down.

Taking back over that ground has always been a part of our plan, and with the upcoming end of the current lease, it has been a regular topic of conversation for us.

This year, as the result of the advent of glyphosate-resistant weeds, the ante got upped with the application of 2,4-D to the entire 100 acres, which fact proved to be a bridge too far for my wife and me. As a result, we’ve decided not to renew the lease and to start working that ground ourselves.

This is a significant step for us, mostly in that it involves a loss of about a third of the farm’s cash income over at least the next couple of years as we transition to new endeavors. Irrespective of the cost, we plan to follow through on this because it is the right thing to do.

Sure, maybe we’re radical and idealistic, but we actually want to leave our little part of planet earth better than we found it for future generations. And so, we will take that ground back over and farm it the way we believe is right.

For us, that means planting about 40 acres of it in grass hay and about another 30 acres of it in fast-growing hardwood trees we plan to sustainably lumber for a variety of farm uses, especially for fence posts for our animal operations. The remainder will function as both a prairie area and for small food plots.

This transition is going to be risky and stressful, but neither of us have any doubt it is the right thing to do. We firmly believe Innisfree represents the future of agriculture, and that fact alone makes what we have decided worth it.

Here’s to hoping and to swinging for the fences.

DLH

[UPDATE: Edited for content]

The test of time

I recently discovered that the building housing my coffee roastery is falling down. It’s an old brick garage, quite possibly converted from a carriage house at some point, that had the misfortune of taking a direct hit from a barn roof that blew off a decade ago. We’ve nursed it along to this point, making repairs along the way, but now the needed repairs are far more serious.

My first instinct was to seek out a professional to see how much it would cost to repair it, but then something odd happened.

I looked at the building.

If you could see it–I haven’t taken pictures, so you’ll have to take my word for this–you’d realize like I did that the people who put up that building in the first place weren’t professionals in the way we think of them today–that is, as specialists. The bricks aren’t always quite straight. The mortar work isn’t perfect.

In fact, most of our farm wasn’t built by professionals. It was built by the people who lived here. Ofttimes, they learned as they went, sometimes under the tutelage of someone who already knew, but just as often they just figured it out on their own. The did what they did out of necessity and need.

And the work they did has been good enough to last more than a century. We have a corn crib that could date back to the 1820s, built from hand-hewn beams. Our house was built in the 1840s, likely by the people who lived here from bricks fired right down the road . Our barn was built in the 1860s by the same people. And that garage probably dates to the 1880s.

What I saw when I looked at that garage was the labor of people who cared about this farm the way that I do. It’s not perfect. The years have taken their toll. But it was work they did that stood the test of time.

And it is work I can do too.

So, instead of hiring a professional or knocking it down to put up some ugly, sterile modern building, I’m going to teach myself masonry. I’m going to learn how to rebuild a garage they built 140 years ago. And maybe, somewhere along the line, I’ll have the chance to share what I know with others who want to know.

And that idea, I think, is what this farm is all about. I’m thankful I looked a that not quite straight wall with its not quite perfect mortar. It taught me something, and it’s a lesson I plan to learn.

DLH

Some thoughts on bureaucrats, school lunches, and the lies we tell ourselves

Bureaucrats tend to obfuscate the truth with words, and far too often, people fall for the resulting lie. Take school lunches as an example. As recently evidenced by the whole debacle over the NeverSeconds weblog, bureaucrats will continue to insist that they are doing something even when it is clear they are not.

In this case, they insist that they are feeding the children forced into their care for part of the day healthy, balanced meals that provide the best nutritional value for children of that age. At the same time, they blame rampant obesity, at least partly the result of malnutrition, on the parents despite the fact that the schools control the kids for as much as 10 hours a day.

Yet, if one looks at the bureaucrats, one has to wonder how they are remotely qualified to make such assessments. Two things immediately come to mind: they are rarely specimens of healthy lifestyles themselves, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bureaucrat eating the food they force on the children unless themselves forced to do so.

And so we all agree to the lie. The bureaucrats believe their own lie that they’re feeding the children well. The parents believe the lie that the bureaucrats are doing the right thing. The kids get fatter. The food gets worse.

There’s a way to put this all to the test: challenge your bureaucrats with something simple: eat lunch everyday in the school cafeteria. If the food’s that good, it shouldn’t be a problem, should it?

Then, watch the ways they squirm out of doing it. That should be proof enough, shouldn’t it?

And if it’s proof, then we have a problem: we’re malnourishing our kids on the orders of our government.

It seems to me we should be doing something about that.

DLH

Could “earthing” help us rebalance our charged modern lives?

I’m usually skeptical of the claims of most “naturalistic” cures for things, not because I don’t believe they can work, but because history demonstrates they’re no more of a panacea than modern medicine. Yet, there are some concepts that are so logical and contain such an element of historical veracity that I can’t help but believe they’re true.

Food Renegade‘s recent article on the book Earthing: The Most Important Health Discovery Ever? rings with that kind of veracity for me, simply because it speaks to ways humans lived with a great deal of success for thousands of years before now. Basically put, we’re suffering as modern people because we don’t walk barefoot in the grass enough. Does that seem too simplistic? Read the article and see what you think.

DLH

Broadforking, gardening, and growing your own food, expanded and refined

Earlier this week, I discussed the idea of using a broadfork as a method for tilling the ground instead of using a tiller and and why this method is superior to traditional tilling. Of course, this method still has its own related expenses and may seem like a daunting investment of resources and time to some.

Yet, it doesn’t even have to be that complicated. Most people can get away with no till gardening by simply using a pitchfork, a garden trowel, and a pointed hoe. This method is especially good for small plots and raised beds.

It is possible, and in fact preferable, to plant directly into a yard that has never been tilled. Simply select a plot, loosen the soil by sticking the pitchfork into the ground and tilting to about a 30 degree angle. Then dig holes or rows for the plants or seeds. You can control the grass between the plants with a pair of hand garden sheers.

Now, I will grant that some kinds of plants do better in this kind of planting environment than others. Tall and climbing plants do very well, as do densely sewn cereal grains. You might have to add fertilizer if you do this with corn, but then again native cultures planted in ways similar to this for a long time with great success.

If you’re nervous about this kind of planting, consider starting small. Buy a locally grown tomato plant (or whatever kind of vegetable you might eat) and plant it. Starting small can help build confidence, and before you know it, you could be growing a lot of your own food.

The point is to do it. Try it and find out what you can do.

DLH

Broadforking and policulture

Over the winter, I came across an interesting concept while reading Eliot Coleman‘s Four Season Harvest: the idea of using a broadfork to loosen soil instead of a tiller to grind it.

As it turns out–and anyone who has played in the dirt for any length of time probably already knows this–what we call “top soil” exists in strata that has very specific and different properties based on depth. In a wild environment, plants  take advantage of each of these strata in entirely different ways, but when we till our gardens, we blend these strata together and deprive our garden plants of the ability to use them. Further, by blending these layers, we churn deeply buried weed seeds to the surface and create an environment where broadleaf weeds can thrive.

The damage tilling does is not finished with just the previous effects. Tilling exposes deep dirt, that because of its organic content holds moisture, to the air and sun, which causes it to dry and lose some of its properties, hence the reason so many gardeners have to water so intensively during the summer and fall. In addition, exposing this deep dirt exposes fragile compounds usually protected from oxidization and sunlight to both, causing them to decay into other compounds that are not as beneficial to plants.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, and this idea goes further than even Coleman does, tilling destroys soil covering plants like sort grasses, clovers, and other ground plants that help prevent soil erosion, help maintain a proper ground temperature for growing, help retain water in the soil, and help prevent weed plants from taking root.

Now, I understand that most gardeners will balk at what I am suggesting here, yet the conclusion is almost unavoidable: tilling our gardens (and our agricultural fields) is bad and counterproductive. And, the evidence is all around us.

Find a wild grass area and study it closely. What you will find is an amazing policulture environment containing dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of individual species of plants that all somehow managed to grow together without tilling, fertilizing, herbicides, pesticides, or mechanical watering. They are able to do so because they work together in a meaningful way to produce soil conditions constantly receptive to new growth.

Using a broadfork to loosen ground, in addition to other techniques such as intensive and cooperative planting, help a gardener (and a farmer) come much closer to mimicking natures course than anything machines might be able to do. By using such techniques, a gardener  promotes soil health and soil growth without having to add too much to what is already there.

Of course, this kind of technique comes with a price, as does everything: it is far more labor intensive than the garden tiller, yet I cannot help but imagine most of us could use the extra work.

DLH

My 10-10-10 challenge

I often hear a lot of people claiming that the world cannot feed itself. They say there are too many people. They say there isn’t enough land to grow all that food. Some, even recognize that there aren’t enough farmers to grow the food we need. They throw up their hands and lament that we somehow need to reduce the population if any of us are going to survive.

I call bullshit on their entire line of reasoning.

There’s plenty of arable land and plenty of people to grow on it. When I say plenty of land, I mean your yard. When I say there are plenty of people to grow food, I mean you.

In other words, I challenge you to grow your own food, starting right now.

It’s really simple, and it doesn’t even require you to plow, till, or anything else. Find a 10 foot by 10 foot section of your yard. Mow it like you normally would at this time of year. Get a stick and poke holes in rows in that 100 square food patch about 5 inches apart with the rows around a foot apart.

Into those holes, plant Maris Widgeon Wheat or Hard Red Winter Wheat. If you live in an area where the winters are warmer, consider planting Hard Red Spring Wheat the same way in the spring. If you live in an apartment, consider asking your landlord or a friend with a yard if you can plant there. Do all of this by 10 October 2010.

Do nothing else.

Do nothing else, at least until next summer, that is. I cannot guarantee your little plot of wheat will grow or thrive, but statistically most of you will grow some amount of wheat in the coming year. Further, you won’t have to mow that patch of grass at all, and the combination of grass and wheat will keep down the weeds, attract beneficial insects, and improve the fertility of that section of yard. It is entirely possible, come next June or July, you will have a harvest of wheat that will fill a five gallon bucket.

From there, you can cut your wheat down with a weed cutter, garden sheers, or even a weed wacker (you’ll probably lose some that way). You can thresh it with a pillow case and a plastic bat and winnow it with a sheet and a box fan. You can dry it for a few minutes in a low temperature oven. You can grind it with a blender. From there, it’s flour and you can do whatever you want with it.

What you could very well have done, by next summer, is have grown enough wheat to make a loaf of bread a week for a year. You will have also prove that you can grow your own food and feed yourself without a lot of extra work. If you can do that, what else can you do?

It all starts by 10-10-10.

DLH

Why do you have grass?

One of the arguments I hear often about why we have to continue modern industrial farming practices is because there just isn’t enough arable land to grow enough food for everyone. I almost always wonder what the latest person who said such a thing is doing with his or her yard.

Seriously, what are you doing with your yard? How much did you spend seeding it, weeding it, mowing it, and fertilizing it this year? For what? Because it looks pretty?

See, my farm has several dozen acres of grass: grass that cows eat right off the ground or that we mow and bale for hay. For me, grass is a foodstuff for animals and part of a system that promotes good soil health and fertility. Frankly, other than a patch of grass around the houses and other buildings that we mow to keep the critters and building destroying plants at bay, the rest of our grass is food for something or unmowed meadow.

What about you?

I’ll grant that, especially in cities, controlling the places that pest animals tend to congregate is an always pressing problem, but does the answer have to be grass? What about vegetable gardens? What about replacing grass with attractive–and edible–stands of wheat or oats or barley? What about fruit trees or creeping vines like squash, pumpkin, or watermelon?

Heck, you wouldn’t even have to do all that work yourself. I’m betting that, if you advertised your yard as available for planting, someone would be willing to do the work for you for rent or in return for part of the proceeds.

Imagine all the arable ground that would suddenly become available if yards became, essentially, micro farms. This isn’t a new idea either. In many other parts of the world, entire large, extended families feed themselves every year on a fraction of an acre.

Now, I know that people have all kinds of aversions to this kind of idea, most of which I do not understand. But, beyond the perceived images of degraded status and the irrational fear of one’s home looking like a farm, what is the real problem?

To me the idea of growing one’s own food under one’s own control represents the height of independence. If your yard is a garden, do you have to worry about the price of food or the gas needed to get it? If things go badly and you lose your job or the economy goes south, will you go hungry if your yard is full of food?

Of course, for what I am suggesting here to have any real meaning, all sorts of things would have to change. People would have to be willing to do the work. Cities would have to realize that small plot raising of fruits, vegetables, and grains will not diminish the property values in their borders any more than the bursting of unsustainable, speculative housing value bubbles might. Communities would have to believe that a fundamental level of self-sufficiency is  a far better way to ensure their continued existence than begging for grants from state and local governments might appear to be.

And once those changes occur, then even more radical practical ideas can move forward. Ask yourself what’s worse: the occasional cluck or crow of a chicken or the incessant barking of your neighbor’s yippy dog?

DLH