Tag Archives: Farming

Hobbits, Unicorns, and a Cow Goddess

I just returned from another trip out to New York, this time to explore the Schoharie valley and Delaware County. This trip, thanks to the farmers who housed me, really invigorated me.  I think I’ve been feeling a bit disconnected from farming, despite the daily regimen because we’re currently partially uprooted. Being on a farm started by a woman and witnessing the incredible foundation she has built, along with the connectivity she fosters with neighboring farms, has really inspired me not to “begin again,” but to continue with this mission forward to build a farm and fiber business.

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Isadora, the Adorable

The farm where I stayed (had to make this trip out alone so Chris could tend to the alpacas), is technically East Branch Farm, but most of the locals know it as Straight Out of the Ground, a beautiful property with a goddess of a guernsey cow, who is the apple of Farmer Madalyn’s eye, for sure. And it’s easy to see why. Look at that adorable face!

In addition to farming, Madalyn also co-produces a radio show called the Farm Hour Radio.

The mountains are nothing short of magical. The roadways and farmland trace their contours, and in the mornings, mist hovers over the valleys, leading me to look for hobbits and unicorns as much as farmland.

Madalyn connected us with some good folks and resources for farmers and reinforced the awareness that New York is a good state for agriculture. Beneath every county sign I passed, the words “Right to Farm” appeared prominently. The soil in the valleys appears good and the prospect of a fiber mill feels welcomed.

photo 1 (2)Moreover, the locals are fiercely loyal to their agricultural roots and at one stop, in a village where we had been told we could not house our alpacas, a local business owner stormed down to the local village office and demanded to see the ordinance. When the village couldn’t provide any specific wording ruling against alpacas, she called me and said, “You can have your livestock here.” Can’t help but love these folks.

I would like to say we have figured this whole thing out, but after an inspection revealed some significant issues on the house we were under contract to buy, we are once again looking for the farm. However, despite this setback, I feel more confident than ever that we’ll find the right place, because more significant than where we will land is that feeling of where we belong. And it’s there, among the mountains and the hard-working farmers of the Schoharie, where we feel most at home. Looking forward to calling this place home.

Last trip out, we traversed Sharon Springs, where an inspiring couple revitalized a farm into an enterprising business. Madalyn told us it’s not only a thriving business, but they even had a television show. Check it out below. Also, living in the region, a woman I look forward to meeting at some point in the near future, Shannon Hayes, the Radical Homemaker. And so much more I would like to share, save for the time to write it all down…

If you don’t know them already, the Beekman Boys are fabulous.

Begin again with the Beekman Boys:

Looking Ahead

I3NYI ask ‘Topher what he’s looking forward to most in moving to New York and his answer is fast and deliberate, “Chickens!” He also let me know that he would like to be a police car when he is older.

Personally, I’m enjoying the present occupation of thinking about the kind of life we’d like to create. It’s easy to see the end goals: a farm, a fiber mill, a novel, etc. But the in-between goals it takes to reach the larger goals are far more intricate. We are working through the in-betweens right now, and in doing so, envisioning a clearer path forward.

This entire decision to leave “home” was based on the decision to set clear life goals that were not limited by money, work, or other factors. We asked ourselves what our dream life really looks like and then contrasted that with the current situation. Where there was conflict, we needed resolution. This meant selling the house (we’d like to live where we farm), looking at states with affordable farm-land, balancing a need for and availability of outside work with cost of farm, selecting properties that met the criteria for home and future fiber mill, setting up a temporary living situation in between, etc.

This process requires an enormous amount of self-reflection in order to work. Failure to revisit your goals can leave you feeling lost, uprooted, because, of course, we are. Thinking about the end goal keeps us motivated along the way. Sometimes this is as large as revisiting my business plan or as simple as asking ‘Topher about his chickens.

MRI is changing the fight against Malaria

Dr. Terrie Taylor is an amazing woman. She spends half the year away from her Traverse City family and friends, working to combat malaria in Malawi, Africa. She’s tireless, dedicated. And recently, she made an important break-through. Having brought the first magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) unit to the continent of Africa, Taylor was able to confirm children with cerebral malaria died when fluids surrounding the brain swelled and inhibited the brain’s ability to relay to the lungs. Once sick, children rapidly deteriorated, slipped into a coma, then stopped breathing.

Dr. Taylor noticed that children who did not suffer from swelling within the brain, while sick with malaria, recovered fully, which led her to consider treatments not for the parasite, but to relieve the swelling.

Great news not only for children and families in sub-Saharan Africa, but also for the environment. Malaria is so wide-spread, in 2006 the World Health Organization recommended indoor spraying of DDT, which contains cancer-causing organochlorines in the fight to stop the disease. It’s an effective method of immediate disease control, though the long-term implications for human and environmental health led to a previous ban of the biocide.

Dr. Taylor’s work provides an avenue to stop the threat of malaria and in the end, may lead to additional break-throughs that make the disease manageable. Until then, it’s a delicate balance. And lives are on the line. No one knows this better than Terrie. Please read about this extraordinary woman featured yesterday on Public Radio International (PRI).

Conventional versus the Permaculture Orchard

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One of the primary objectives of HTF is to foster an understanding of how we might convert some conventional methods of farming, to ecologically-friendly methods that are equally effective for farmers. We’re working, experimenting with ways to solve some of the more pressing issues for conventional orchardists including controlling aphid populations, use of fertilizers, examining cost-expense ratios, etc.

The conventional farmer approaches growing fruit drastically differently from the permaculcuralist. An obvious example may be found within an acre of each, the conventional and permaculture orchard. The typical apple orchard will contain within one acre, approximately 40 dwarf varieties. The permaculture orchard, just 20 semi-dwarf to standard sized trees.

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The Conventional Approach

Dwarf apple trees go into production earlier than semi-dwarf to standard size trees and produce about 65 lbs of fruit compared with their standard relation averaging 90-110 lbs. However, the conventional orchard grows trees in rows with even spacing that can fit the 40 trees neatly into the alloted space. And no other plantings apart from grass (that soak up nutrients from fruit trees), exist between rows. The permaculture orchard with its 20 apple trees might also contain 4-5 mulberries to attract beneficial birds and insects, along with a polyculture of beneficial plants to build soil, draw nutrients and minerals from below and redepositing in the top soil, and attract microbes and beneficials to stave off infestations often seen in out-of-balance conventional (monoculture) systems.

In terms of apples at harvest, we’ll see a return of 2,600 lbs of fruit per acre in the conventional orchard compared with only 2,000 lbs from the permaculture orchard. However, when you factor in a total caloric output from the growth of other perennial fruits planted within the orchard (not seen in the conventional orchard), output from the permaculture orchard far exceeds that of any conventional system.

Let’s also examine the inputs of these two vastly different systems. The conventional orchard plants dwarf varieties that it can easily harvest and attend to with tractors and sprayers. On average, the input-output ratio is 10:1 for the conventional farm, meaning after fuel, upkeep of machinery, cost of biocides and chemical fertilizers, etc., farming conventionally costs far more than it delivers in terms of resources.

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The Permaculture Approach

Permaculture focuses on a system with a 1:1 ratio or, whenever possible, a system that is self-renewing. It mimics the forest edge, where nutrients are produced and consumed in a closed loop, so additional resources are not used to maintain overall system health. Standard or semi-dwarf trees are less prone to cracking, and tend to require less upkeep, so these trees are planted in place of dwarf varieties. And they are planted where there are natural swales in the fabric of the landscape, rather than in controlled rows.

Any aphid populations are controlled with natural soaps and oils, rather than harmful biocides. However, these solutions must be applied by hand, using backpack sprayers or bottle sprayers. This represents a cost to farmers in terms of labor, but saves thousands by avoiding expensive biocides.

Planting a polyculture also prevents disastrous failures for conventional farmers like the one seen this year for cherry farmers, in which 90% of crops were destroyed by frost. While its still represents a loss, the permaculcuralist may fall back on other produce to supplement income.

These are just a few of the most obvious differences between the two farming methods, but they help illustrate a return to an older way of thinking that involves use of renewable resources, locally sourced, work for local populations, and a healthier and more stable working, living environment for our community. And that’s a product we can all enjoy.

More gardening, less toil

Inputs of nutrients to the food forest garden come mostly from the sun. Light energy is converted to chemical energy and stored as sugar, where the plant or an animal makes use of this food source. So begins the cycle of energy that is passed along down the food chain.

Nutrients in the food forest garden are cycled through the system in relatively small quantities, for having evolved into a very efficient energy distribution system, a little bit goes a long way. Everything from the branching patterns of trees that allow for an even catchment of light via their leaves, or rainfall to their roots to how water collects in natural swales, travels the low land and is distributed back into the atmosphere through the flora. Theses are systems designed to require little to no input. Mimicking these systems can save the farmer or gardener time and resources and begins with examining first the existing system.

Unfortunately, humans are accustomed to being wasteful. Our entire agricultural system is built upon oil and subsidies resulting in the input of 10 units of energy in per every one unit of energy consumed. It’s a system that can only be maintained for a brief period of time and with disastrous consequences.

For example, in some areas of the United States, more than 75% of topsoil has been lost through frequent tilling and erosion, or buried beneath asphalt parking-lots and concrete roadways. While the most obvious natural catchment system exists within the canopy of the forest, another efficient system lay just beneath, in the soil.

You can hold within the palm of your hand, a spoonful of soil or the equivalent of billions of beneficial microorganisms. This living soil regulates everything from water to organic matter, and facilitates the cycling of macro- and micro-nutrients back through the ecosystem.

One way to capture energy and store it for use by garden plants, is to build and maintain healthy garden soil. Rather than tilling, which can disrupt the natural processes unfolding below ground, layer composting in place while including nutrient accumulating plants in your garden design will allow for even redistribution of these nutrients to the building of new soil. This design translates to fewer resources being used externally to manage the system and mimics the mature forest ecosystem where leaves and other debris fall to the forest floor and are recycled into healthy, rich humus. We will discuss soil building in the next installment, while continuing the discussion of principle two: catch and store energy.

Why weeds matter

By definition, a weed is any plant that crowds out cultivated plants.  In nature, plants will only crowd out other plants when the environment is altered and one plant is deprived of some nutrient or gained by another.  While we tend to think of forests as stationary ecosystems, they’re always moving.  As we see in succession, when one layer of pioneer plants has amassed enough biomass to sustain a perennial herb layer, the grasses move in and “crowd out” the pioneers.  As more biomass is generated at the top-soil layer by the bundled root-systems of the perennial grasses, the shrub layer encroaches followed by the shorter, then taller trees.  With each step, we see a more complex ecosystem unfolding until the web of biodiversity is strong enough to sustain minor alterations.  

“Weeds” or those plants we have labeled weeds, contribute to biomass, cultivation, offer a food source for beneficial insects and play a part in the development of the ecosystem.  And in many cases, those plants we’ve labeled “weeds” are far more beneficial than the plants we’ve cultivated.  Dandelions, for example, are completely edible, hold nutrients from the soil and redistribute these nutrients at the end of the life-cycle, are insectary, and offer humans some medicinal value.  Grass, on the other hand, prevents erosion and provides biomass, but otherwise, isn’t very useful to humans, doesn’t attract beneficial insects and takes in more nutrients than it contributes.

Worksheets!

If you’ve read or encountered the Edible Forest Gardens volumes, you’re probably familiar with the useful worksheets located in the appendices.  These worksheets help permaculturalists examine on paper the workability of their matrices.  Thanks to Dave Jacke, these and more are now available in a downloadable (and printable) format:  Visit the website.