Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 2
from issue: 35-3
Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 2
by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance and generally sound advice from Kerry Gawalt — both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, Vermont
BY OUR MISTAKES DO WE LEARN
“Political stability, the quality of the environment, hunger and poverty, all of these have the same roots. In the long run, the solutions to each one of these challenges we face lies in the restoration of our most basic of resources — the soil.” – Rattan Lal, agronomist at Ohio State University
My paternal grandfather, Harry Leslie, was a city boy, and a tough little scrapper. He went to work in the woolen mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts when he was 12 yrs old. When the workers went on strike, he and the other boys were sent out with sticks to rap on the fingers of the scabs who were trying to climb out of the freezing canals where the striking workers had tossed them. My grandfather was a man of few words. When relating the story of those strikes to us, he summed it up this way; “Those cops really put the wood to your head.” For working class people like Harry the one thing they most valued, the one thing that really mattered; was having a job. When he was seventeen Harry joined the army to go fight the Germans. Although he had never been on the back of a horse, he was assigned to a cavalry division.
The Great War was the last one in which the Army fielded horses. As soon as they shipped the men and horses across the big water it became clear that modern warfare held no place for the horse. The men dug down in trenches with the cold and the rats and there they sat, gas masks at the ready, never knowing when the shells might come slamming in. When they weren’t exchanging fire, they played cards and smoked a lot of cigarettes. The men in the cavalry were more fortunate than most in that they did get to ride up and down the front lines as messengers until the telegraph wire was laid out. Then they had the job of spooling the cable out off the back of the horse. Harry liked that job alright. He was getting shot at but at least he was out of the lice and the rats and the stench. He had a good horse, name of Lucky. The horse got shot out from under him. Harry would always finish this story by saying; “Too bad for the horse — lucky for me”.
I didn’t take well to going to school. In fact before I even got to grade school, I got thrown out of a kindergarten that was run by some nuns. It seems my behavior was too disruptive. I remember that on the first day of the first grade I stood in the dusty old school yard with no trees in it and stark metal play structures and the whole of it surrounded by chain link fence and I got this sinking feeling that the good times were over — I’d been hoodwinked, trapped by the system — and I was none too happy about any of it. I have a distinct memory of sitting at my desk and staring out the classroom window at a big hayfield that lay out beyond the fence. I was supposed to be memorizing numbers but instead I was ignoring the drone of the teacher’s voice and watching the progress of a farmer in the distance mowing down the hay on his bright red tractor. There was something sensible and serene about that sight that mesmerized me. I wished that I could be out there with that man on the tractor instead of stuck in that stultifying classroom.
A KNOCK-OUT PUNCH
As a two-year old our mare, Mari, was such a good natured horse that, after we had been ground driving her for awhile, I decided to try and ride her. One sunny morning she was standing in the paddock grazing and I approached her side and scratched her on the withers and then gently as I could I took a fistful of mane and jumped and swung a leg over and the mellow yearling mare turned around and looked at me with mild eyes as if to say, “Oh, now the monkey is sitting on my back”. And then she turned around and resumed grazing.
When our gelding Tristan was three and was already working regularly in harness I tried to casually climb on his back in the same manner I had done with Mari. But where Mari was a dreamy mare, Tristan was a good natured but nervous boy with a very busy little walnut of a brain. I should have known better than to think he would react as nonchalantly as the young mare once had. He was hanging out by a cement feed bunk and I tried mounting onto his back from the lip of the bunk. As soon as my hind-end made contact he shot off like a firecracker and ran the ten or so paces to an abutment wall and then threw on the brakes. I went flying over his head, just barely missed bashing my face on the three foot high cement wall, and then tumbled and rolled across the gravel drive until I skidded to a stop. I picked myself up and surveyed the damage. Road rash on the forearms and palms of the hands, torn pants and scraped knees, a bruised and humbled ego — could have been a lot worse.
When we first brought Tristan home we gave him two weeks to get acquainted with our other two horses across the fence before turning them all out together. When we did turn them out we took them to a 5 acre field so that they would have plenty of room to keep out of each other’s way. The poor little boy was pretty nervous but the mare and the older gelding were far more interested in grazing than in bothering the new comer. Kerry and I were in the field to observe and intervene if necessary. I had dropped to my haunches to wait and watch. Tristan came to graze nearby for reassurance. I reached over to touch him on the shoulder to comfort him but he startled and bolted and let loose a sidekick that caught me on the bridge of the nose. Quicker than I had time to think about what was happening I found myself flat on my back and seeing stars dance before the clouds.
I imagined that what I experienced is about what it feels like to be hit by a professional heavyweight boxer. Even so, it was a glancing blow. If he had caught me full on he could’ve done me in. I like to think that maybe he checked himself in the last instant. As it was, the blood flowing out my nostrils was profuse enough that my EMT- trained spouse insisted on a visit to the emergency room. The physician’s assistant informed me that there are varying degrees of what constitutes a broken nose and that mine was of the milder sort of cartilage rearrangement. He then went on to tell us that just the week before a farrier had been brought in dead on a stretcher. He’d been shoeing heavy horses at the county agricultural fair when a young draft horse kicked him and severed the femoral artery in his thigh. He bled out in the ambulance.
Meet anybody who has worked around horses for any length of time and sooner or later they will pull out some war stories. I guess all these kinds of morbid accounts are there to comfort us with the thought that no matter how bad our present situation; somebody somewhere once had it much worse. I still bear a small scar on the bridge of my nose to remind me of the importance of giving young frightened horses all the space that they need.
Horses are tough animals. When they interact with each other even horses that are friends will on occasion bite and kick. For the most part, they hold these behaviors in check — the implied threat from a dominant horse; laying her ears back flat and lowering her head — is usually all it takes to drive a subordinate away from a pile of hay. When the biting and kicking do occur, the horses in a herd seem to hold themselves in check, the same way a dogfight, or a fistfight between two neighborhood kids, seldom turns lethally violent. Every horse owner has to be aware that the young horse will try to treat the owner as if they were just another horse. As the young horse contests to find its place in the herd it may aim bites and kicks at the human.
One afternoon during the first winter that we had Tristan, I entered the horse paddock to retrieve the grain dishes. Tristan was in a rowdy and playful mood and excited about the prospect of being fed. He galloped around and nipped at the other horses and kicked up his heels. I tried to remain calm as I went about my task and not let myself be flustered by his display. But then, just as I was straightening up from collecting a dish, he veered towards me and fired off twin cannon shots with his back feet and landed his hooves onto my chest. I saw the feet coming but had no time to react. In the next instant I was flat on my back. I was wearing a winter coat and insulated overalls, but the impact still felt like the hardest punch I’d ever taken. I popped up to my feet irate as a disturbed hornet. I noticed that our friend, Don, who was helping out with milking chores, was watching the whole scene from the door of the calf barn. He had a look of horror on his face. Don had taken a big leap up from caring for his flock of sheep to becoming a relief milker for our herd. He had no previous experience working around large animals. At first he had been intimidated by the size of the cows but he stuck with it and got good at the job. However, the horse seemed to him to be an unmanageable beast and now his worst fears were being confirmed.
But even with Don as a witness, I was so flush with rage at my little horse that I peeled a rail off the fence and started to chase him around the paddock. I screamed a string of obscenities and tried to bust that plank across his butt. By this time, the other two horses were worked up into a panic as well — everybody running in circles. I couldn’t catch up with Tristan so I hurled the board at him and threatened him with certain death if he ever kicked me again. Fortunately, my aim was poor and by that time my ire was spent. I wasn’t seriously hurt and luckily I hadn’t hurt the horse. I felt dreadful, I’d lost my cool and was certain that all the patient positive- reinforcement work I’d been doing with the young horse would now be shot to pieces. But by the next day, all seemed to be forgiven. Despite my having broken the golden rule of never losing my temper and trying to do the horse bodily harm, Tristan didn’t act shy or leery of me and behaved like his usual goofball self. Ten years down the road he has never kicked me again. And for my part, I have never tried to break another plank across a horse’s hind quarters. Our friend Don, on the other hand, is still afraid of horses.
ALL THINGS MUST PASS
In a sense, Vermont of the mid-twentieth century was simply an Appalachia North — albeit a shrewd and conservative Yankee version, yet with enough similitude of mountain-culture (in the music, the dance, the spirituality, and the isolated small farm existence) to make the comparison valid. The poverty here was certainly real. Old timers who grew up on farms here make the wry joke; “Great Depression? — we didn’t notice”. The landscape itself, rolling mountains punctuated by deep river bottoms, curtailed the size of the farming communities and kept things close-knit and rural and more approximate to that ideal of the Jeffersonian Democracy that had been all but abandoned in the rush to industrialize agriculture in other less rugged parts. The people who survived by farming in this region did so because this life engendered in them faith and conviction, generosity and fortitude — for them matters of victory and defeat were always a cyclical affair.
And the mountains here are the same Appalachian chain that extends from Maine to Georgia. The same mountains that some 300 million years ago were heaved up from the floor of an ancient sea bed and piled up to heights that once dwarfed the Rockies—only to be mollified by the giant animate carving tool of glacial ice, mountains whose forest-built soils draw from those same sea bed strata of calcium rock to grow sweet grass and fine cattle and yields of arcane sea fossils and even the occasional whale bone to the turning of the yeoman’s plow.
The place that we now farm was once two farms. When Cobb Hill co-housing purchased this land, two adjoining properties were acquired simultaneously. The entire piece comprises 270 acres. Our co-housing village and farm headquarters are situated on what was the Hunt Farm. The Hunt’s had their cows housed in a Gambrel-style barn that was built circa 1900. Typical of many stanchion flat barns of that era, John Hunt had 60 Holsteins crammed into a barn built for 40 Jerseys.
On the other side of our property stands the Curtis House. This little white clapboarded cape tucked into the north end of the valley was built in the 1770’s and is reputed to have been a way-station on the Underground Railroad transporting black slaves to freedom in Canada. Will and Jane Curtis were “flatlanders” who moved up to Vermont from Connecticut sometime in the early 1950’s in order to live the “good life”.
Their immediate antecedents on the property were a couple of woman “spinster” farmers who lived in that house and worked on that land and had a relationship which, though unusual was, in a Vermont already tolerant relevant to the times, accepted by their neighbors, probably because they were honest hard workers who were ably farming the place. The spinster farmers had a couple of hired men working on the place and they built what we know of today as the “Curtis barn” to house their dairy herd. This barn had a simple yet ingenious system in place for bringing water to the facility. They laid in piping from a spring uphill in the pasture that fed down to the barn with fresh water year round. This water system fed the cow water bowls beside each tie-up and delivered water to the milk house for wash-up and for keeping the milk-cans cooled in a cement reservoir. The cold spring water flowed continuously through the reservoir and kept the milk cool without the need for refrigeration.
As John Hunt is want to tell it, he first met Will Curtis by way of helping to tow his stuck tractor out of the muck in the place that would soon after be excavated and christened forever after as “the Curtis pond.” The Curtis barn was built to house twenty milkers. Will Curtis would load the full milk cans from his Jersey cows onto his truck and haul it to the creamery in nearby Windsor. The creamery was adjacent to the railroad tracks. Bottled milk and fresh butter were loaded daily onto rail cars ready for market.
Will and Jane sold off their cattle sometime around 1965 when the federal government required all dairy farms to switch from storing milk in cans to having a refrigerated bulk tank installed. The bulk tanks represented a considerable expense and only the farmers who were already on the road to mechanization could afford them — so a lot of old-timers called it quits with that regulation. Being authors and academics, the Curtis’s fared the transition out of farming better than most Vermont farmers at the time. They taught and wrote books and Will gained a good bit of notoriety for his regular naturalist commentary on Vermont Public Radio entitled; “The Nature of Things”. Once they had sold off their cows they soon after worked out an arrangement that allowed the Hunts to steward their land, so even though a legal boundary line still separated the two farms, in practice our land was already being farmed as a single entity from that time on.
OUT OF THE WRECKAGE
The small farmer tends to be an all-around useful kind of person that the new world order doesn’t have much use for anymore. The order of the day is to become a specialist. One-hundred years ago our current herd size of 18 cows would have constituted a large farm in Vermont. Of course, at that time the farmers would have been raising all their own grain and forage crops with a team of draft horses, as well as feed for pigs and chickens, and quite probably managed a substantial kitchen garden, apple orchard and maple sugar bush to boot. The average herd size in the state today is 100 cows. Sometimes when people hear that we only milk 18 cows they don’t quite take us seriously as real dairy farmers. But we are receiving payment for our milk that actually approaches cost of production, we are earning an equivalent to the payments received by a farmer with 60 cows who belongs to a coop. This doesn’t mean we are raking in the chips (cow, buffalo, or otherwise), it just means that our business is operating in the black — which given the current state of the dairy industry — has to be accounted as a measure of success.
At this time, in addition to ourselves, our farm business has three employees — one who works year-round primarily at milking and barn chores, and two who are engaged seasonally in the full spectrum of cattle and garden. We offer our workers a starting pay of $8.00/per hour plus milk and meat and veggies. We also pay FICA, farm insurance, and workman’s compensation. We wish we could offer more, but as it is, we are often paying our employees more than we pay ourselves. When we started up our operation our initial goal had been to have a herd size tailored to the carrying capacity of our land. We began with seven heifers purchased as calves in 1998 and grew the herd out of that original stock. Very soon our herd size had to take into account the needs of the fledgling cheese business that purchases our milk as they came to terms with how much volume they would require to make that business viable.
There is a popular saying that if you want to make a small fortune in farming you’d best start out with a large one. Last year (2010) we had a rolling herd average of 17,000 lbs. The herd had a butterfat average of 5.0 and protein was at 3.7. We sold 20,000 lbs. of milk to our retail customers and 190,000 lbs went for cheese and frozen yogurt processing. The remaining 13,000 lbs. of milk went to feed calves, the farm crew (and a small quantity of waste milk that was disposed of or fed to pigs). Cobb Hill cheese sells for $10.00/lb wholesale and from $14.00 to as much as $18.00/lb retail depending on the venue. In order for Cobb Hill cheese to make a product that is consistent and commands a good price and is in continued high demand, they must start with a basic ingredient of the highest quality clean milk. We provide them with a milk that tests clean and maintains a somatic cell count (SCC) under 100,000 ppm (the state requires the SCC be under 500,000 and the raw milk sales protocol requires it to be under 250,000). The SCC is recognized as a basic indicator of herd health. We participate in the Dairy Herd Improvement program (DHI) and undergo a regular monthly testing of our milk. Last year we had a total of $91,000 in dairy sales. This figure is coupled with a total of $36,000 in produce sales through the CSA, wholesale, farmer’s market and farm stand, and an additional $30,000 in catering, beef, and resale of retail items at our farm stand. As good as these numbers are for a small operation like ours, we still only managed to pay ourselves a combined income of $20,000. Of course, income estimates for the farmers don’t include a tally of all the food we produced for our own household.
We developed a cost of production estimate for our dairy after applying to go through the Farm Viability Enhancement Program. This program is administered through the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board in collaboration with the University of Vermont (UVM) extension service. Over the course of a year we met monthly with a farm business consultant to develop an in-depth business plan specific to our farm operation.
The next step we took after Farm Viability was to participate in forming a Dairy Management Team (DMT). The DMT is composed of a team of consultants of our choosing and a facilitator. For our team we chose our veterinarian, a dairy nutritionist, our financial consultant, and a pasture management specialist. We meet regularly to discuss and problem-solve ongoing management issues.
Kerry has been looking at ways of keeping our CSA going year-round. She opened a sales account with a local natural foods distribution company so that products that we don’t produce, such as pastured poultry, stone fruits, apples and strawberries, could be included in an expanded share or simply available in our humble farm stand. She has also been buying in some storage vegetables to augment what we are producing. From there it was an easy step to also make available some fresh organic produce in the winter coming from afar. Because we have a low volume of sales and lower overhead than a store we can keep the prices a little more affordable. However, this new facet does represent a contradiction to our ethic of attempting to eat local and with the seasons. It is always fascinating and at times a little disconcerting to watch how seamlessly the macro-economics of trying to make a living as a farmer in such an out-of-balance society can morph us into shapes we never would have dreamed of when we were getting started. This year we will be putting in a refrigerated walk-in cooler (we received a grant through our participation in the Farm Viability program) which will allow us to put up more storage-share vegetables. It will also give us more flexibility to harvest, say green beans, when they are at peak ripeness and hold them for a couple of days, rather than waiting until CSA harvest day.
We manage our dairy herd as a business, which sometimes means making difficult choices about the fates of individual cows. But from the time they are born until the time they die, we try to treat each animal with the dignity and respect and kindness they deserve, appreciating the unique personality and life force that each one of them brings to the farm. We also know from a business perspective that the cows will only give back as much as we put into them. But beyond that pragmatism, and even with the life and death management decisions which sometimes must be made, we grow to love every cow — and isn’t it finally just the love that we find in it that makes any human endeavor worthwhile?
Our farm business comprises the dairy farm and the CSA market garden. As members of Cobb Hill co-housing, we are co-owners of 270 acres of forest and farmland. We have free-lease from the community to manage about 60 acres total of Cobb Hill land; 17 acres in hay, 35 or so in pasture, and the balance in garden and green houses (two high tunnels and a propagation tunnel). We have a working team plus two younger Fjord horses. The horses are the source of traction power in the garden and also lend a hoof with mowing, raking and tedding. This year we intend to work with them skidding out firewood as well. We are operating on the premise that livestock are the essential component to land restoration and maintenance of a healthy farm system.
Imagine any relatively intact eco-system anywhere on the planet and then think of what it would look like if all the animals were removed. It would soon be a barren and degraded landscape where all natural cycles would begin to unravel to the point of the extinction of most of the remaining species of flora and fauna. An unthinkable scenario, and yet this is precisely how we North Americans manage tens of thousands of prime agricultural acres. It was not always so. Prior to the advent of chemical fertilization every farm needed to have a diversity of swine, poultry, and cattle on the land. It only made sense, both in terms of food production but also in terms of managing the fertility of the fields.
On our farm the hill pastures are too steep and rocky to raise crops, but when managed with intensive rotational grazing they produce abundant grass. Rotational grazing doesn’t simply aim to feed livestock; its principle aim is to use the livestock to grow more grass (biomass above and below the soil). The cows make grass farmers out of us. By sizing temporary paddocks appropriately and moving the cows every 12-24 hours, the forage has time to recover and the cow’s manure is distributed evenly across the field. The cows receive minerals in their grain ration, some of which are also deposited onto the fields. Our cows in turn, take this roughage and transform it into life-giving milk and meat. The cow not only nourishes us, when managed conscientiously her presence on the farm improves the land, her manure feeds the soil of the gardens and the fields, and her controlled grazing sequesters carbon by increasing the organic matter and bio-mass production of the pastures.
In an average season we have ample pasture but we do not have enough tillable acreage to raise all the hay we need (not to mention soy, corn, and small grains). By grazing our own hay fields after the first or second cut (depending on how the season is going) we can bring the cows to the feed rather than using all the expensive and labor-intensive machinery to bring the feed to the cows. Here too, the cows are moved in a concentrated and rapid rotation so that the effect on the hay field is similar to a mowing. By increasing the availability of quality gazing land to the cows we can make a substantial reduction in the amount of purchased grain they need. We conduct regular forage tests of both pasture and hay so that the protein level in the grain mix can be tailored to match. Purchased grain is one of our most expensive inputs, accounting for almost 25% of our total expenditures. Since our current land-base can’t supply all our hay needs, we can either maximize the hay potential, or maximize the grazing potential, or do a hybrid of both. Right now we have an excellent relationship with a neighboring farm just 10 miles up the road; they contract with us in the winter and guarantee to make us a set number of dry-wrapped round bales at a pre-set price. It is much easier for them to make wet bales but they do the extra work of making dry bales to accommodate the needs of our cheese makers. Ensiled feeds are highly nutritious and readily digestible by ruminants, but the Alpine style cheese made at Cobb Hill is a low salt product and as such is more vulnerable to disturbance during the make from the intrusion of harmful clostridium bacteria which can be present in haylage or silage. It is for this very reason that the making of ensiled feeds is completely banned in Switzerland.
The manure that the cows produce while stabled over the winter is stored under cover and then turned in windrows. The resultant compost is then spread by the horses onto the tillable acres of the farm to raise high value crops and hay. As the organic movement has turned corporate, this state of affairs sometimes makes for strange bedfellows. In New England many small organic vegetable producers have entered into a symbiotic relationship with dairy farms. The organic farms needed the manure and the dairy farmers have come to look upon their manure stores as a waste management problem. The dairy farms do utilize the manure as a fertility supplement but they have become dependent on chemical fertilizer and are usually happy to sell manure by the ton to veggie-growing neighbors. Many of the dairy farms in our region have increased their herds far beyond the carrying capacity of their land. This means they are also producing more manure on the farm than can be absorbed by their own fields (particularly since the institution of a ban on winter spreading). Very few of these farms grow any grain and most buy in soy as well. While many farms still raise a lot of their own feed, they tend to concentrate on growing alfalfa and corn for silage and to rely on synthetic NPK to maintain production. However, with the cost of chemical fertilizer rising along with the price of petroleum, some mid and large size dairy farms are rethinking attitudes towards manure and are retooling to get that homegrown fertility back out onto their croplands. The organic farmers who have shied away from livestock production may also have to retool as a result.
As the small and mid size dairy herds (60-300 cows) go under, readily available sources of manure are disappearing along with them. Some of these farms have replaced the dairy cows with beef animals, and some have been absorbed by the expansion of neighboring farms, but many more have simply left the land fallow or open to development. Some organic producers have to look far afield for sources of animal manure. For instance, thousands of acres of organic rice are grown in Arkansas. These vast farms are devoid of livestock. To maintain soil fertility they ship in the manure from giant feedlots in East Texas. The manure is shipped in tractor trailer loads from 50,000 cow beef-finishing operations. While we may applaud the fact that these farms are utilizing this resource in lieu of applying chemicals, we must concede that this is not exactly the small diversified sustainable model first envisioned by the early pioneers of organic agriculture.
The sugar in the packages of organic cereal, snacks, and beverages for sale at the local food coop or Whole Foods store is often grown on land in South America that, prior to certification, was old growth forest. Producers of organic cane sugar have discovered that there is a more rapid gain to be made on organic commodities by leveling virgin forest rather than transitioning land already under cultivation for the three years necessary for certification. This same pattern is also repeated with some of the organic grain being shipped to the north.
Commercial fertilizers are chemical compounds applied to agricultural soils to promote plant growth. They are commonly applied directly through the soil for uptake by root systems. Organic fertilizers are composed of organic matter and are derived from naturally occurring compounds such as blood meal and bone meal, mineral deposits, peat, or manufactured through natural processes such as the composting of plant debris and animal manures. Organic fertilizer is also applied directly through the soil, or fed to a cover crop preceding a cash crop, or alternately by foliar feeding for ingestion through the leaves. Chemical and organic fertilizers are also applied as side-dressing to stimulate growth in heavy-feeder crops such as broccoli or sweet corn.
Chemical fertilizers are made of inorganic chemicals or minerals or derived from chemical processes. Both organic and chemical fertilizers provide the essential macro-nutrients that encourage plant growth. The difference is that the organic fertilizers do so by building up the humus (soil infrastructure – organic matter and accompanying biota), while the chemical fertilizers use the soil as a kind of sponge medium to transport soluble nutrients to the plant roots. When the farmer relies on chemical fertilizer as the sole input of the macronutrients the level of soil organic matter and accompanying micro flora and fauna will be inexorably diminished until the soil is essentially reduced to a dead medium. Soil in this condition is much more vulnerable to compaction and wind and sheet-water erosion.
When practiced with integrity, organic and agro-ecological farming methods are more environmentally sustainable and can maintain or even increase soil organic matter levels. Humus also contains many essential micro-nutrients that are missing in standard chemical applications. Every type of fertilizer aims to deliver the three major plant nutrients; nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N-P-K). Additional applications of the secondary plant nutrients; calcium, sulfur, magnesium, as well as the trace elements (micronutrients with a role in plant or animal nutrition); boron, chlorine, manganese, iron, zinc, copper, molybdenum and selenium, are made as deemed necessary through soil testing. The bio-extensive gardening model that we follow in our market garden does not draw as heavily on the nutrient bank of the soil as do more intensive methods. We initially adopted the wider row spacing to accommodate horses, but have since observed that as the wider row spacing reduces plant density it reduces nutrient draw, and also improves air flow and encourages upright growth habit.
Organic no-till methods are taking the benefits of organic farming a step further by greatly reducing the amount of soil disturbance usually associated with raising herbicide-free produce. Tillage for weed control continuously disturbs and aerates soil with the result being a loss of nutrients (particularly nitrogen). Organic farms that rely on fossil fuel powered traction for cultivation may also begin to cancel out the environmental benefits of not using herbicide by all the increased tractor use mechanical cultivation requires. No-till encourages the return of microscopic fungi to the soil which further enhances the ability of plant roots to access the nutrient and mineral reserves. The humus of the forest floor is alive with a maze-like network of soil fungi but they are largely missing from repeatedly tilled agricultural soils.
Potash is the term commonly used to refer to fertilizer containing potassium salts (element K). The name derives from the old practice of leaching and evaporating ash in metal pots. In colonial times whole forests were leveled and burned to produce this valuable fertilizer which was also a key ingredient in making a variety of products including; textiles, glass, lye, soap and baking powder. Potash was a major export product to Great Britain. As the land was cleared for agriculture, potash was a lucrative bi-product. Looking back now, it is hard to imagine the world view of those colonial settlers that had them viewing the magnificent old growth forest in terms of its commodity value as ash.
The name Muriate of Potash comes from the Latin word, Muria, which means brine. Muriate of potash is mined from ancient sea beds. It is rich in potassium, but when used as a soil amendment it can be harmful to the soil bacteria because it releases chlorine as it decomposes. This release can actually burn soil biota. Wood ashes are a much friendlier choice of potash for the sustainable farm. They contain approximately 6% potash and also have significant quantities of lime. In former times it was a common practice to burn corn cobs and to then apply the ash to the fields. Regular application of composted manure will also gradually increase the potassium levels in the soil.
Nitrogen is plentiful in the earth’s atmosphere, but only a few plant species (mainly legumes) have adapted a capacity for nitrogen fixation; the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to a plant soluble form. The air we breathe is saturated with nitrogen; however plants lack the capacity to extract it. The majority of grain and maize and fruit and vegetable crops require that substantial amounts of nitrogen compounds be present in the soil. All plants require nitrogen. It is a vital nutrient — absolutely essential to healthy plant growth. Nitrogen is the keystone element for the manufacture of proteins, enzymes and nucleotides that all animals manufacture in their bodies through the ingestion of plant material or animals that feed on plant material.
The industrial process of extracting atmospheric nitrogen in the form of liquid ammonia was first perfected in the early 20th century by the Germans who used the technology to produce nitrates for the manufacture of armaments during World War One. In peacetime the technology was soon employed to produce fertilizer for agricultural fields. In the beginning it seemed like science had performed a miracle. However, the process of nitrogen extraction requires a tremendous amount of heat and pressure which in turn requires enormous inputs of fossil fuel energy. Currently, 1% of all human energy consumption is directed towards the manufacture of plant soluble nitrogen, and 25% of all the energy that is used to produce food for people on the planet is directed towards the nitrogen fixation process. It has been estimated that half of the organically assimilated nitrogen in the average first world citizen’s body was produced in a factory!
If the ground is fertile, the root systems in the soil will absorb the nitrogen that is present, but the stock is quickly depleted. The legume family of plants has evolved a symbiotic relationship with rhyzobia bacteria that allows it to access the airborne nitrogen which is present in tiny pockets within the soil. A well aerated soil with a high volume of organic matter will have more nitrogen available for the rhyzobia to catch. This bacteria takes up its home in the flesh of legume roots and forms nodules. The legumes provide energy to the bacterium, which in turn breaks down the chemical bonds of the free nitrogen, producing enough to feed the plants and even storing an excess which will eventually feed the soil. When grown as a full season cover crop, legumes such as clover, field peas, summer alfalfa, or vetch, can augment the readily available supply of nitrogen for cash crops in the market garden. However, in the case of a heavily harvested legume, such as alfalfa grown as a forage crop, the nitrogen fixation may not prove adequate enough to feed the plant itself and supplemental nitrogen in the form of manure or compost may be required. Alfalfa also demands a lot of potash and can deplete stocks of it in the soil in which it is grown. We have seen this on our sandy loam hay field and have accounted for it with applications of compost and wood ash.
Lime used for agricultural purposes is usually derived from pulverized limestone or chalk deposits. Some limestone such as dolomite are also rich in various forms of magnesium. Lime is most often applied to increase the pH levels in soils. It is also essential as a source of calcium for plants. A topsoil like that in Vermont, whose parent rock is composed of limestone, may nonetheless become depleted of this essential nutrient through the effects of continuous cropping and the leaching of heavy rains or irrigation. Wood ash as a source of calcium fertilization has the benefit of being a bi-product of a local renewable energy source. Fertilizers derived from crushed rock such as limestone, rock phosphate, and greensand, must be mined from the earth and packaged and distributed through industrial processes.
As a young man in the early 1980’s I indulged in the bohemian lifestyle of an erstwhile art student, spending much of that time studying Fine Arts at the Museum School in the city of Boston and the rest of the time hiding out like an outlaw in the backwoods of Vermont. I also hitchhiked across the continent several times — just to see what was out there — even rode the rails in an open boxcar. For months at a time I threw my lot in with the homeless, although at some level I knew I had a safety net, a “home” to go back to when things got too lonely or rough. I picked up odd jobs. I went to bakeries to beg for day old bread. I dove into dumpsters behind grocery stores and restaurants to find choice morsels. I slept in old barns, city parks and graveyards. In urban centers, I went down to the bus stations and subways to play my flute for coins. I saw the heartland and also the backside and the underbelly of this vast nation. In all that time of hitchhiking and wandering no one tried to rob me or do me harm. On the contrary, I was more often than not blessed by the kindness of strangers who helped me on my way with a few dollars or a home cooked meal or extra driving on their part to get me further down the road. Looking back now, I can only guess that some angels were watching over my benighted innocence.
I am fast approaching the fifty year mark. Looking back on those days thirty years ago, when on a whim and a prayer I would up and hitchhike across the country, well, it is hard to believe when viewed from my current grounded perspective of complete immersion in farm life that I was ever once so footloose and free. Or was I so free? Out there on the open road with no connection, no responsibility, no enduring relationships, no social role, I often felt anxious and isolated — alone. Now I am rolled up in a bundle of relationships and responsibilities and a lot of living beings depend on me to show up every morning to take care of them. I probably spend 95% of my living days on less than one square mile of ground where I do my farming. All this stability is of my own choosing. It is all born of my daily “YES” to being an intrinsic part of the web of life that constitutes this place. It is all part of my freedom to choose to faithfully love and serve within this entity we call the FARM.
I have seen firsthand how contact with the animals of our farm can touch persons who are feeling disconnected and isolated from family and friends. I was a vegetarian for 14 years and a vegan for a couple of those. When I chose to become a farmer I became aware of the importance of animals upon the land for maintaining fertility and a healthy diverse ecology and also of the role horses could play in replacing fossil-fuel intensive methods of agriculture. Animal rights activists and small sustainable farmers who believe in respecting the dignity of domestic animals should stand united against the abuses of industrial agriculture. Small farmers stand for environmental restoration and the humane treatment of livestock. We love and respect and maintain the life of our cows and sometimes we have occasion to eat a cow. We do so in the full knowledge that someday we will become the grass that the cows eat. And yes, any farmer worth their salt has intuited at a basic level that without LOVE none of the work we do makes sense.
We know that we cannot eliminate suffering, so the question becomes; how can we dispense with unnecessary suffering? Our herd management focuses on keeping the cows healthy. If we keep the cows healthy — comfortable, well fed, and living in a clean environment — high milk production and profitability will be natural outcomes. We find ourselves convulsing towards a new paradigm. The business as usual questions still linger; does this farm pay for itself? Can it turn a profit? But edging up just behind such questions, laden as they are with an antiquated set of assumptions, come forward questions dealing with the nature of true viability. Does our farm business sustain life? Is it ecologically sustainable? Is it humanely and socially sustainable? Does our practice of farming help us extend our sense of morality beyond the human sphere?