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notes from the farm

Posted 12/26/2007 9:07am by Leaf Myczack.

One of the main characteristics of commercial food production is the quest for uniform appearance of product. Taste and nutrition it seems, play a secondary role for the suppliers of mega-sized food outlets. American shoppers have been conditioned to judge food by appearance alone. No matter what type of produce you look at, the impression is that fruits and vegetables come blemish free, have uniform color and size, and grow year round. Lost is a sense of seasonality and product diversity.

The real foods movement began in California over 40 years ago and started with peaches. A small family farm grew an hierloom peach as its' primary crop. Tasty and quite delicious, the peach had one aspect that hurt it commercially. It seems that where the fruit was shaded by contact with the tree leaves, it would not produce the same color as the rest of the exposed to the sun peach skin. It in no way affected the taste of the peach, it only affected the color of the peach skin. Because each peach was slightly different in color from the others, it was rejected by wholesale food buyers who wanted a product with a uniform color. Fortunately a woman with more brains, vision, and taste buds than these corporate food suppliers, came to the rescue and began a local foods movement based out of her restaurant. The rest is history.

A garden or orchard is a collection of micro-climates; more sun here, more shade over there, more soil moisture here, a little drier there, soil composition slightly different throughout. As a result, plants have slight variations, even those growing next to each other of the same varieties. A prime example is purple top turnips. We grow a lot of turnips each Fall from seed we saved from the previous Spring. Our customers remark how wonderful and sweet they taste. The turnips come in many shapes and sizes. Some are round like balls, while others are long and more cylindrical. Others are more squat and flatish. All are tasty and nutritious. Most would never make it to the super-market shelf because of this hodge podge of shapes and some superficial blemishes.

Eggs are another example. We do not grade our eggs by size or color. When you open a box of our eggs, your eyes will be greeted by a diversity of shapes and shell coloration. This is because we have many different breeds of hens, although even within the same breed there can be great diversity in color and shape. Again our customers return again and again because of the wholesome taste of our farm fresh eggs. However, we have lost some business because we couldn't supply uniformly large eggs, or folks couldn't get past the multi-colors (shades of brown, and green) of the egg shells.

Uniformity of color or shape comes with a high environmental cost. Sprays, food dyes, and food waste are employed liberally in order to get the desired results. Perfectly good food is rejected, not because it is inherently inferior, but because it "doesn't look right."

The "Eat Local" food movement has addressed this issue through the advent of small organic growers like us who provide the customer with the same quality food that we eat. When you know who grows your food, and how it was grown, the need for uniformity of appearance seems irrelevant at best. Diversity is not something to be avoided, but embraced. Our customers are a diverse segment of our community, and for that we are grateful.

-Farmer Leaf

 


Posted 12/19/2007 7:44am by Leaf Myczack.

In the last weekly blog, "Restoring native soil fertility," I described how we accomplished this task of enriching the soil here at the Broadened Horizons Farm. Now I would like to list some of the benefits of undertaking a long term, methodical soil enrichment program.

The most obvious benefit of fertile soil is that one can feed themself with wholesome, highly nutritious food. As the soil fertility improves, the quality of the product also improves. Appearance of produce is not nearly as important to us as nutrional value. We grow some wonderful "standard profile" specimens, but we also grow a large number of "irregular" shaped and slighly blemished produce. What matters for us is how it tastes. Good soil adds good taste to the food.

Our customers in search of nutritionally loaded food understand the health benefits of eating wholesome food grown organically on healthy soil. They have come to appreciate the superior flavor and strong natural color inherent in our farm produce. There is nothing weak or pale about our food. Eating healthy food from healthy soil should make the eater healthy, whether it be human, or livestock.

Healthy, naturally balanced organic soil resists plant diseases and pathogens, weed pests, and soil-borne parasites, eliminating the need to spray poisonous insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides on the land. If one has trouble growing healthy crops with good seed, then the problem lies within the soil. The answer is not to harm the soil with chemical quick fixes, but to build the soil to enable a long term and sustainable improvement to take place.

Fertile, well aerated soil drains water from the surface which prevents surface puddling, which in turn can drown plant seedlings. Conversely, it helps retain moisture during dry times. The soil fertility encourages an abundance of beneficial earthworms and organisms, which in turn enriches, oxygenates, and aerates the soil. This in turn creates more plant matter, which will be returned to the soil as "food" for soil organisms. Re-establishing this self-perpetuating circle-of-fertility is of the utmost importance in creating a sustainable garden or orchard.

Loose, fertile soil is easy to plant in, and guarantees good root penetration. When planting, I mostly use a small, pointed masonary trowel for potatoes, garlic, and onions. I just stick the point in the soil, wiggle it back and forth a couple ot times, and then drop in the bulb or tuber, and let the soil fall in on top of it. The results speak for themselves. The same at harvest time; a gentle wiggle and tug to remove the onion or garlic or potato vine. This eliminates damage to the food through accidental slicing or stabbing by eliminating conventional digging methods.

Fruit trees in fertile soil can accelerate their growth sequence through their early stages, thus reaching fruit bearing maturity up to five years earlier than trees in mediocre soil. If a fruit tree or berry cane is advertised as tolerant of poor soil, don't keep it there-enrich the soil until it mimics your best garden soil. The better the soil conditions, the better the growth and disease resistance of the fruit tree or berry cane.

In summation, fertile soil is easier to use, grows more food with less time and effort, and produces a more nutritious product. It costs time to work in a disciplined, harmonious manner with the soil under our feet, yet in the long run we save ourselves from lots of money related expenses. And we have the satisfaction of knowing that the soil fertility and harvest improved under our stewardship.

-farmer leaf

Posted 12/13/2007 10:16am by Leaf Myczack.

Back in the early seventies when I was just entering the world of agriculture as a vocation, an older  woman named Ruth Stout had been dubbed by Mother Earth News as the "queen of mulch." Her approach was to never till the soil, but to just keep adding mulch to her garden. When it came time to plant, she simply parted the mulch and placed her seeds on top of the ground, then replaced the mulch. My initial attempts to duplicate her method ended in dismal failure. What I had overlooked at the time is that over many years of mulching, she had built up wonderful friable soil.

With my failure to replicate Ruth's success, I reverted to the shovel and fork and turned up and over the garden soil. It was hard and exhausting work and slow. In subsequent years we used a horse to plow, and although that is also hard work, it was much faster. The downside was that caring, feeding, and sheltering the horse took lots of extra work. I resisted a mechanical tiller for a number of reasons; cost, fuel, noise, pollution, but most of all, the destruction of earthworms and other beneficial soil dwellers. Today we use Ruth Stout's method with great success. What changed?

In Bill Mollison's "Introduction to Permaculture,"  he writes that "the soil ecology, over some years and with the proper attention, can be changed and improved." He also states that "bare soil is damaged soil, and occurs only where people or introduced animals have interfered with the natural ecological balance. Once soil has been bared, it is easily damaged by sun, wind, and water." Conventional cultivation of the soil then not only damages soil life processes, but may even cause more extensive soil losses.

At the Broadened Horizons Organic Farm, we practice a form of no-till cultivation that is based on thick mulching of the ground in order to suppress plant growth. We have an arrangement with a local horse farm (two miles away) to pick up all their stable litter. When they clean the horse stalls, they pile it up where it is readily accessible to load into our truck and 4 X 8 utility trailer. Each week we move a ton or so of this manure / litter mix to the farm and pile it on our crop growing areas. We then turn the chickens loose to pick through and level the piles. They cheerfully do the work- a) because chickens love to scratch in loose organic material, and b) there are little food treats of corn and oat kernels for them to eat.

A six inch layer of this litter will suppress and kill mature fescue grass in a couple of months. By the time the litter has rotted down and is safe to plant food crops, the ground has turned a rich black color, free of all but the most persistent deep rooted plants such as burdock. These few holdouts can easily be dug out. After the seed has been planted, we mulch the ground with grasses we cut from our field areas. We also use wet leaves from drainage ditches when available. This activity mimicks nature in that litter from dead plants is deposited on top of the soil and digested from below. The ground covering mulch enriches the soil, prevents soil moisture loss, suppresses undesireable competing plants, and feeds beneficial soil organisms. 

This same process of soil enrichment can be duplicated anywhere if we view all the organic litter generated by nature on our lot or homestead as a resource. We would do well to abandon the myopic contemporary view of it as "yard waste."  In the natural cycle, there is no such thing as waste, only organic resources.

 -Leaf

Posted 12/4/2007 7:34pm by Leaf Myczack.
I am not the only one confused about what season we are experiencing. The calendar of course says we are in early December, and therefore it should be nearly the season of winter. That would mean wet and cold under “normal” conditions. A time when most plant life is dormant, and the abundant seasonal rain and snow turn the land wet and squishy underfoot, but not so this year.

Probably due to the severity of this year’s drought, many trees and plants went into a seemingly static state. Almost all-new growth stopped, and plants and trees seemed to have allocated themselves the existing minimal ground moisture reserves based solely on survival and not on expanded growth. While a plant’s normal goal is successful reproduction and perpetuation, it usually creates a healthy and vigorous plant before forming the reproductive organs / flowers. It was fascinating to watch a portion of a plant’s foliage die off in order to have enough moisture to form a seed head. Some plants mostly skipped the foliage to concentrate on creating the next generation.

Early into the drought, it became apparent that we would not have enough irrigation water to take care of all of our fruit trees or berry canes through the summer months if the drought deepened. As farm water resource manager, I made the decision to allow some of the fruit trees and berry canes to naturally shut themselves down in response to the drought. My intuition told me to step back from the role of farmer and take on more of the role of scientific observer. I believed that through evolutionary response to the vagaries of weather and climate, that plants would have an appropriate response to soil moisture shortfalls by going dormant. Subsequent plant activity bore out the correctness of my belief.

However, when we entered a cycle of more regular rainfall beginning on October 19th, a strange phenomenon occurred. Responding like desert flowers to a rare rainfall, plants and trees sprang “awake” and began to exhibit new growth even though the normal growing season was supposedly winding down based on the shorter daylight hours available. Warmer and wetter than normal weather during the month of November fostered this late season growth spurt. Our rose bush next to our farm sign acted like it was spring and produced big red roses in time for Thanksgiving. The methley pear trees are still leafed out at the ends of branches and they exhibit the pale green tips of unfolding new growth. They seem oblivious to the occasional frosty night.

In a protected niche behind the greenhouse, purple salvia merrily bloom forth at the same time that paper-whites are pushing up slender leaves. Other plants are burned to a dead crisp by the icy death grip of a hard freeze, while some saplings seem reluctant to yield their leaves, as do some of the mature trees nearby. It is as though the summer growth cycle was suspended for a couple of summer months, and then rescheduled for the fall months. Plants from different seasons are growing at the same time, when normally their growing paths would never cross.

While plants may have evolutionary response mechanisms that work to protect them, it would appear that a combination of extreme weather anomalies this year has disrupted the once normal seasonal transitions of many species. As farmers, we must learn how to successfully operate within these new and unique climate gyrations. As part of a sustainability-teaching farm, we are ready to share what we learn with those who seek information on weathering these new agricultural challenges.

-Leaf

Posted 11/28/2007 7:00am by Leaf Myczack.

The community weather climate is influenced somewhat by the collective micro-climates it contains. For example, a tree filled neighborhood, with minimal vehicle traffic will normally be slightly cooler on a summer day than say a commercial strip along a major thoroughfare. It can even subtly change from yard to yard depending on the topography, vegetation, shade area, etc. Most micro-climate areas around a house and yard will occur where there is summertime shelter from the hot sun, and wintertime protection from cold winds. Above ambient moisture such as found with a creek, pond, or water-garden, or even roof runoff, will also produce a micro-climate.

So why are micro-climates important? Let's begin from a strictly economic perspective. If you had the ability to positively alter the temperature around your house a few degrees year round, you would significantly lower your energy consumption. Energy costs are on an upward trajectory and they will only get more expensive.

The two weather conditions we face are heat and cold. One low cost, natural factor that can address both issue are trees. By planting the right type of tree in the right location, one can block summer sun and winter wind with equal efficiency. Conversely, it would be counter-productive to block summer breezes and the winter sun. So it is very important to plant the proper type tree in the proper location.

Our farmhouse was built as a low cost "starter house" with a conventional design based on the road rather than the sun direction. The majority of glass was on the north side (facing the road), while the south wall had large solid runs punctuated only by two small and one regular size windows. Deciduous trees were planted on the north and east sides of the house, while pines were planted slightly away from the house on the SE and SW corners of the yard area. The pines were too far from the house to shade it in the summer, but with the lower angle of the winter sun, they effectively blocked most of the daily winter sun.

This misplacement of the trees, and the poorly located windows in the house, caused the house to be colder in the winter and hotter in the summer. In other words, it cost a lot of fossil fuel energy to keep this house at a comfortable temperature for the occupants. Even though it is a small and simple house, it was disproportionably expensive to heat and cool.

Our need for an energy efficient farm operation prompted us to undertake a short and long-term strategy that would drastically cut our utility supplied energy consumption. You can read the details of our plan in a previous blog, tagged-Cutting the electric bill without cutting comfort. (click on the sidebar tag) Much of the long-term energy savings will come about from landscape work.

On farms of my boyhood, tree lined wind brakes protected fields, crops, and buildings from harsh New England winter winds. Somehow we have forgotten the basics of shelter design with the advent of cheap fossil fuel energy. However, now energy, both economically and environmentally, has gotten much costlier.

We can meet this energy challenge through intelligent design principals that are quite ancient in their wisdom. The answers are in the natural world-all around us. We just have to be observant enough to understand the message provided by the micro-climates we experience around us.

-Leaf

 


Posted 11/21/2007 12:20am by Leaf Myczack.

It seems that each day more bad news is reaching us that indicates the global climate crisis is steadily worsening. As we humans push past the planet's biologically sustainable threshold with our species overpopulation, widespread deforestation, rampant pollution and excessive use of fossil fuels, the normal weather patterns are being thrown into disarray. Our overall climate condition seems to be shifting from benign to hostile as witnessed by the exceptional drought we are currently experiencing.

While there are a few things we can do to lessen the negative impacts on the overall global climate, there is much more we can do on the local level to create positive climate improvements. These landscaping-type activities are referred to as creating beneficial micro-climates. We also have the ability to create hostile micro-climates if we fail to keep the big picture front and center in our long term planning.

Some simple examples of beneficial micro-climates are; a grove of shade trees in an open field, a pond, the shady side of your house, a rock pile, and a hedge or vegetated fence row. Local examples of hostile micro-climates are paved parking lots and driveways, non-shaded exposed rooftops, outdoor fires, and plowed or scraped earth. What all these examples have in common is the ability to measurably raise or lower, soil moisture, humidity and temperature in a given space, making it different from the overall ambient humidity and temperature surrounding the area of micro-climate.

Beneficial micro-climates assist in the process of propagating bio-diversity and promoting life, whereas hostile micro-climates restrict or diminish life.

The two cycles we are working with to naturally moderate local climate conditions are the rain cycle, and the wind cycle (which steers the rain cycle). It is learned through observation that extreme plant damage from drought and freeze is primarily caused by wind exposure. Other farmers have also observed that ground crops protected by tall grasses (or "weeds") are significantly less damaged than their more exposed counterparts, all other factors being equal. This would suggest that something as simple as a patch of tall grass or tall plants, acting as a wind brake, could be the difference between plant survival or plant loss.

Here on the farm we use every opportunity to create beneficial micro-climates. The cumulative impacts from this work are readily seen in the lush pockets of vegetation, the abundance of biodiversity, and the pleasant conditions created. We can leave a hot, dry area of the farm and go to a cooler, more moist area and be refreshed, both physically and spiritually. During a drought situation, this coming into this body-mind balance is especially needed to ward off anxiety and depression.

We have a twofold purpose when we do restoration work on our eleven acres. One is to renew the land through thoughful stewardship, answering the needs of the land in order to meet our own needs. The other is to renew the primal spirit through positive conscious interaction with all the natural components of our farm. To be master gardeners in co-creating an environment that is both biologically wholesome and functional.

When we dig a pond, we don't just bring water to the land. We bring an element capable of supporting a wide array of both aquatic and terrestrial life, which in turn supports a larger circle of life. When the pond goes dry, the life it supported disappears and the empty hole becomes a hostile and barren micro-climate. The only difference between a lake and a desert is the water! This is why we work so hard to keep the rainwater in the ponds.

(to be continued next wednesday Nov. 28th)

-Leaf

 

 


Posted 11/7/2007 10:00am by Leaf Myczack.

As I mulled over the term "common sense" the other day, I realized that the currently in-place cultural consensus belief of wide, spacious, homogenized green lawns has produced an environmentally desensitized populace. In other words, we are culturally committed to a costly and time consuming effort that effectively works against our essential and basic biological needs. Due to peer pressure, most people readily participate without questioning the merits.

Broad lawns make for biological wastelands. Wide tire riding lawn mowers (small tractors in reality), buzz cut large swaths of "open" land while continuously compacting the soil. Week after week, back and forth, covering every square inch of imposed lawn, snipping off any new growth that might emerge. Most residential neighborhoods would have it no other way.

Philanthropist Barbara Tober, as quoted in the Augusta, Georgia, Chronicle said "Traditions are group efforts to keep the unexpected from happening." A native American story describes tradition as the seemingly small and lightweight grandmother being carried across the river on the back of her strong grandson. Each step of the way she becomes heavier until he is staggering under her weight and nearly drowns. A lot of our cultural traditions are now codefied into enforceable laws with real punishment for offenders. This adds to a staggering weight.

When we initially looked at turning this rundown, overused, dried up farm into a model of sustainable agriculture, we had to start with how to manage energy consumption. Because small farms like ours are marginally in the mainstream economy, we have to be extra-aware of the consumption costs of non-farm energy, i.e., electricity and petroleum products. These are two very large items that can be trimmed significantly so that they don't dominate the route of the farm cash flow.

Gasoline and diesel are both expensive and politically volatile. We decided to not buy a tractor, and to think of farming in a less petroleum way. This meant limiting the amount of land we would mow and conventionally cultivate; however if fit in nicely with our plan to manage hives of honey bees.

To mow these fields as many have suggested, would be to stop the soil restoration process, and to kill the very food source the bees depend upon. To mow the so-called grass lawn areas around the house and sheds produces the same result, and deprives the essential pollinators a food source.

Two events occurred together this year that solved the farm lawn-mowing issue. This year's late freeze and exceptional drought has caused us some anxiety about the long term health of the large maple trees around the house. Not only do they provide needed shade from summer sun, but their early spring flowering is a major source of nectar and pollen for our bees who are just emerging from winter hibernation. The other event was the electric utility sent crews that trimmed trees in our area. They were looking for a place to dump truckloads of ground up leaf and wood material cleared from the powerlines. They delivered for free!

By using the woody mulch to cover the ground under the trees, we accomplished many beneficial results. The mulch works to shield the ground from the sun, thus retaining ground moisture for the tree. It also works as a slow release, soil-building, natural source of nutrients for the trees and acts like a sponge to soak up any rainfall. At the same time it is smothering out the grasses that persistently competed with the trees for topsoil moisture and nutrients. Eliminating the grasses created a large non-mowing zone, thus producing a continuous yearly savings of worktime and money, while also conserving fossil fuel use, and preventing harmful air pollution around our dwelling.

By breaking with tradition, we were able to use common sense in a creative and healthy way. This is the easiest way to effect significant change. We hope you'll try to put common sense ideas to work for you and the planet.

-Leaf

next week's blog -cutting the electric bill without cutting comfort

Posted 10/31/2007 12:21am by Leaf Myczack.

 

Our local area has a current year rain deficit that now measures 14 inches. That translates to 14 inches of rain over the entire ground surface of East Tennessee. Many surrounding communities have mandatory water use restrictions, and Atlanta's 4 million residents are projected to be out of water by December 31st. The situation grows more serious each day.

A region doesn't just biologically collapse without numerous stresses bearing upon it, mostly resulting from human induced activity. Our current contemporary living model based upon excessive resource consumption, egregious waste, and domination over the natural environment is working against our long term self-interest in survival.

We seem to be nearing (if not already in) a crises situation and yet our dominant political response is to do nothing differently. The end result of this head in the sand approach will be to create regional water wars instead of regional water solutions. Already the state of Georgia has filed suit against the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent them from releasing interstate river water to downstream Alabama and Florida.

Here on the farm, our water resources are carefully managed because we understand that without water-there is nothing! We are currently in the harvest time for this summer's crop. Areas we watered have bumper yields, areas unwatered produced little useable food.

It is my responsibility to manage the water allocation to the poultry and the food growing areas in a prudent manner. It requires a well thought out schedule of water needs, the short and long-term gallon amounts available between infrequent rain showers, and maximizing the benefits of the water used. Without conservation measures such as using non-leaking and non-spilling poultry waterers, specific target watering, and heat deflecting and water retaining ground mulch, our 2,500 gallon containment system would be grossly inadequate. Careful use of every drop is critical during this prolonged and record drought.

It is well beyond time to rethink the way we conduct our daily lives concerning the impacts we are having on the life sustaining environmental envelope that we live within. The era of oversized everything is about to hit the wall. Our national epidemic of obesity is the clearest metaphor for consuming way beyond our needs. To maintain a sustainable existence on the earth, we must learn to return more than we take. In next week's blog, I will discuss how we accomplish this practice of give-take-and give back to the land in order to enhance, rather than degrade our living home.

-Leaf

Posted 10/23/2007 11:23pm by Leaf Myczack.

Last week I talked about pulling the emergency lever as our farm water reserves had dwindled to under 30%. In the water storage world, the storage pool is the top 60%, and then one is in the life maintenance pool. This is the water held back to support all the critters that are now calling our rainwater catchments home. Some we placed there (fish to eat mosquitos), some came on their own (frogs & turtles), and others flew in (dragonflies, kingfisher, and green heron).

We moved our two inch gasoline powered water pump to the back of the nearby river slough and set it up. Water sucked out of the Tennessee River is then pumped slightly uphill through two-hundred feet of 1.5 inch fire hose to a pipe connection that runs under the county lane and onto our farm property. From that feeder pipe, we can direct water to the main pond through a two inch pipe, or to the two feeder ponds through one inch pipes. It's not a fast process, but it is steady and it gives us a tremendous advantage to be able to replenish the ponds during drought conditions.

Tonight as I write this Blog, rainwater is dripping off of the house roof from many gutters, pipes, and spouts into overflowing cisterns and barrels. It is sweet music to our ears and it fills us with new found hope. Over the previous thirty-six hours, we have received two inches of rain. It is the perfect rain for sowing winter greens, and earlier in the day, Hawk and I walked through the rain, broadcasting a mix of kale, turnip and mustard seed over newly moist soil.

All through the summer we have been tweaking our rainwater collection system, constantly improving the delivery path from rooftop to container. To behold it in action is a wonderful validation of our design efforts. Without lifting anything more than the end of a garden-type hose, and opening and closing a couple of valves, we can strategically place hundreds upon hundreds of gallons of captured rainwater where we can most effectively use them to water our poultry flock, our fruit and vegetable crops, and our wind screen landscaping plants.

We all know about Jack & Jill going up the hill to fetch a pail of water. If their parents had utilized good design, then they might have used gravity to deliver the water downhill, unspilt, and right to their doorstep. Good design begets efficiency, and efficiency saves energy. Saving energy is the gateway to sustainability; whether it be human, mechanical, or electrical energy being conserved.

A poorly designed farm or homestead will wear down the occupants by forcing them to endlessly repeat wasted motion. Our teaching farm is a living example that a poorly designed enterprise can be successfully restructured by following perma-culture (permanent agriculture) based guidelines. Our energy-free, gravity powered rainwater collection and transfer / storage system is our best proof.

-Leaf

Although this recent rainfall is nowhere near enough to end the drought, it has given us the needed soil moisture to resume field work and the delayed planting of fall crops.