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.


Food as a fungible commodity

All around the internet, you can find vigorous discussions about how, with the impending risk of international economic meltdown brought about by massive overspending, the smart bet is to invest in things like gold, which is a fungible commodity that will retain its value even if the rest of the economy self-destructs.

While, in some ways, this exhortation to invest in things like gold makes all kinds of sense, typical economic-downturn commodities like it have many disadvantages: they’re expensive, hard to move in quantity, limited in availability, and difficult to produce. These disadvantages mean that, even if one accumulates quite a bit of them, they will be harder to use when the time comes and will eventually run out.

On the other hand, food is also a fungible commodity, and while it often lacks the durability of other commodities, it has the significant advantages of being cheaper, easier to move in quantity, largely available if you want it to be, and surprisingly easy to produce. In fact, before precious metals, gem stones, and oil, food was the currency de jure in most parts of the world for millenia.

What is so amazing about food production is that almost anyone can do it, even on marginal land or land often presupposed not to be agricultural. As I have challenged everyone to do in my “10-10 Challenge” and is discussed in a variety of books like You Can Farm, Small-scale Grain Raising, and The One Straw Revolution, just about anyone can produce quite a bit of food on small plots of land with minimal investments of time and effort. Historically, families in the East have fed themselves and sold surplus off plots as small as a quarter of an acre, which includes raising livestock.

The beauty of small-scale food production is that, if the economy does tank, the food you produce will still have value–perhaps even more value than it did previously. Further, unlike traditional economy beating investments, producing your own food means that you do not have to rely on someone else to produce that food for you, which then means that the other fungible assets you might have accumulated are now available to procure all sorts of other things.

Even if you don’t want to produce your own food, you can still invest in food as a commodity against economic disaster. The company Heirloom Organics sells investment grade seed packs designed for long-term storage and that contain open-pollinated, heirloom crop seeds that will become very valuable if the economy collapses. Companies like Emergency Essentials sell supplies of long-term storage foods like cereal grains and legumes. Even if one does not use these food items himself, they can become a valuable commodity in the case of economic hardship.

Of course, my underlying argument here is that everyone should establish a higher level of self-sufficiency by growing their own food, one of the benefits of such activity being that it can act as insulation against economic hardship. Doing such a thing seems like a double benefit and an easy choice to me.


10-10 Challenge update

Well, my seeds are in, and I staked out the area in my yard I plan to plant. Now the trick is to watch the weather. As I stated earlier, the goal is to plant by 10-10; however, weather can always be a mitigating factor. Generally, we want to plant wheat before the first frost, so impending frost is a good sign to plant now. Also, watch the rain forecast because too little rain can stunt the wheat, but too much rain can drown it.

All of that being said, most wheat is very hearty and will grow even in the most inoptimal circumstances. Usually yield is what is affected most by circumstances, but the wheat will grow.

Also, if you’re going to plant in an area known to be weedy in previous years, consider overseeding the area with something like white clover before and/or after you plant the wheat. Most white clovers grow early and can help crowd out the weeds while giving the wheat a head start.


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.


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?


1st Anniversary

The beginning of the new school year reminds me that I have reached a milestone: one year since I started farming full-time.

It’s been a bumpy year, with big successes and catastrophic failures along the way. I’ve learned more in the past year than I think I have in the rest of my life put together, and for the first time in a very long time, I think I can say I am not the person I was a year ago.

Overall, I think I would give myself a D+ for this year. I had huge ambition and huger plans but very little concept of what I was undertaking. That’s not to say that my ambition and plans for next year are any less grand, but frankly, I was clueless last year at this time, and the past twelve months revealed that lack of understanding for everything it was.

I could go on for a long time about what I have learned, what I have realized, and what I plan to do, but I think the details of those things are best left for different posts. In the mean time, here’s to another year!


Cows in the yard!

They were invited, though.

It’s my first attempt at some pasture management in the form of using the cows to mow some grass that we’d otherwise have to burn gas to get rid of. The cows seem to be taking it all in stride, although one of our dogs wants to have a conniption because the cows are where they’re not supposed to be.

Right now, we have them contained with a double strand of electric fence powered by a solar energizer. My eventual goal is to add line fence to the perimeter of the yard area so that we can graze animals throughout it instead of mowing. Such practices can’t help but reduce our costs, our reliance on fossil fuels, and our dependence on machines.

Plus, it’s fun to watch.


Experimental garden

Returning to Innisfree allows me to indulge in something I have wanted to pursue for a long time: experimenting with growing things that most other people don’t grow for the purpose of seeing what happens.

A couple of years ago, I thought of this idea for a “beer garden” wherein I grow all of the components necessary to make my own beer (feel free to borrow and implement yourself). At the time, living on  a postage stamp of land in Dayton, I didn’t have the opportunity, but now that I am in a position to do so.

To that end, I just purchased hops, barley, and wheat seeds that will arrive in a few weeks and get planted as soon as I can get the area I am going to use ready. It should be an interesting and fun experience over the next few months with, if everything goes right, some tasty results at the end.

What I want to pass on to everyone else is not to be afraid to try things like this. Don’t over-analyze what will grow or not grow. If you want to try something, try it. If it works, great, if not, then you know.

Also, if you are looking for organically grown hops rhizomes, I purchased mine from the Thyme Garden Herb Company out of Oregon. I purchased my heritage grain seed from Bountiful Gardens out of Missouri, one of the only heritage seed providers on the internet that sells in the United States.

Stay tuned for updates as this project develops.