Back Issue Vol: 43-2
We share our ranch habitat with our work horses, cattle, poultry, bees. We also share it with a vast assortment of wildlife. As an example, we have spoken before of the trials and thrills posed by the visiting herds of Elk. Usually our thoughts go to the challenges and intrigue of how we balance our commitment to improving the wildlife habitat that is our ranch with a need to control or mitigate the damage the elk do to our farming and fences. A recent tragedy brought into focus the possibility of an inverse.
What happens to this young farmer dropped into a spy thriller without a parachute can’t help but come as a shining surprise. In Miller’s world Nature seems almost to relish its potential to thwart human misdeeds, solve man-made problems and meet human needs — as if human greed and autocratic control were minor failings easily forgiven, as if the whole planet still deserved a many-tongued voice and a diplopod dance to a vast harmonic measure. This is a dark comedy to brighten the night sky, a novel as purgative, a bracing and serious ride.
Deep in the cultural trenches and personal histories within small farming is the oft shared love of seed catalog mining during fall and winter. We might say it is all about the enthusiasms that come with planning another year’s growing but I know it is also about a tangible immersion in the practical literature of planting choices. As many of you know already, with Fedco Seeds of Maine we have catalogs which are educational, testimonial, encouraging and genuinely bracing. And equally important we have all of that in a form that can and should be trusted and preserved. This is ‘our’ sort of seed company. Let’s go further ‘out on a proverbial limb’ and say their catalogs are our sort of reading material.
Grasshoppers, both young and old, injure crops in but one way, that is, by gnawing and devouring them wholesale, and where very numerous they have been known to consume almost every green thing in sight. Even the bark on the tender twigs of trees is eaten by these ravenous insects, which are known to gnaw the handles of agricultural tools, such as hoes and rakes, in order to secure the salt left upon them by the perspiring hands of the farmer.
“There it is!” I smack the table and point at the computer screen, where pictures of edema-stricken sheep enhance an article on ruminant parasites. “Barber pole worm,” I read, “is a blood-sucking parasite found in wet pastures. The first thing to be done is take the flock off the affected area and put them on uncontaminated grass.” Okaaayyy. It’s Winter. Like that’s gonna happen. I take down as many notes as I can and tape the scrap envelope to the fridge. “Visible. Lives in the abomasum. Can survive outside of host for 2-3 months. Lives in the bottom four inches of grass. Can be found in water droplets. Will lie dormant until host is vulnerable, as in pregnancy or Winter. Resistant to most commercial parasitizes.”
The project went according to plan and without a hitch. The cider was ready to drink in a month or so and tasted passably delicious, though rather uninteresting and far from extraordinary. I was still troubled by the expert home brew store pronouncement that making natural cider was impossible. After all, haven’t people been making alcoholic cider for centuries?
We recently acquired a full color McCormick publication which included, at its core, this information on their binder designs. In a previous issue we published the mower portion. There is additional info we will offer in a subsequent journal. It is our mission to keep such material alive.
We have a double standard for planting density in the bio-extensive market garden. We plant all the vegetables in widely spaced rows to insure plenty of moisture, fertility and air circulation for each plant. For the cover crops in the fallow lands, we take just the opposite approach, seeding at a high density to quickly provide ground cover, weed suppression, and biomass. One reason we have been slow to adopt cover crop cocktails is the very low recommended seeding rate — sometimes as little as 30 lbs per acre — in order to give all of the different species in these diverse mixes lots of room to grow. The mental shift to planting cover crops at a density comparable to our widely spaced vegetables has not come easily.
In our archives, we have a big Starline plan book with detailed engineer’s drawings of what were once popular and dreamed of dairy barns. These designs represent an apex of the era of mixed crop and livestock farming, a system which frequently centered on a milking herd of a dozen to four dozen cows, a handful of beef cattle, some hogs, chickens and perhaps even sheep. Across the upper latitudes of the U.S. and all of Canada, these massive barns provided ample space for hay and grain storage along with winter quarters for livestock.
Every year my family has to alternate between two methods for how we get our Christmas tree. My husband, having grown up acquiring trees from regular Christmas tree farms, loves the perfectly pruned and bushy variety. I love tromping around the forest to find the perfect Charlie Brown version to take home. The farm owned and operated by Emmet Van Driesche in western Massachusetts might have the best of both worlds. It is a wild place, yet cultivated. His Christmas tree farm is unusual – as stated in the title – because it is a coppiced Christmas tree farm. Coppicing is a traditional method of woodland management where the trees are periodically cut down to their stumps in order to entice them to put out new shoots that form into trees in their own right, given proper care and time and space.
The war between my two farming mentors, Lowry and Tightwood, had escalated since the Canadian Thistle Crisis. Now the men were inspecting Lowry’s just-planted pea patch and arguing over the origins of mere pigweed. Lowry thought our local pigweed variety originated on Tightwood’s farm. Tightwood asserted biblical origins: “It’s in the Good Book. When the Good Lord cast the demons into the pig herd, some got confused and thought he said pigweed. That’s why pigweed is so devilish.”
Each episode of Around the Farm Table ends with a meal, made from the products from the farms featured in that show. With the volunteer firefighters, many of whom are also dairy farmers, we had a meal of Wagyu burgers, green bean salad and homemade pickles spiced with horseradish, as we discussed, in detail, the vagaries of putting up hay, and how fires can get ignited in barns. Little did I know that they would soon be coming to my aid.
These days, you realize you’re starting to live the life of a herdswoman. You walk out into a field, tall grasses, the fawn-like ears peeking up amidst the weeds – little noises letting you know it’s time to stop for a quick bite or snack before journeying forward. It’s the height of summer, and the old orchard’s apple trees are starting to show fruit. The doelings discovered apple leaves for the first time yesterday, and now they beg for you to lower a bough so they can munch the tree’s sweet leaves.
Does farming pay? Can a young man of brains and ambition, who has his way to make in the world, find in agriculture a fair field for his efforts? These questions have been asked from time to time for as long as I can remember, though more often and more earnestly of late years, when combinations of capital and the tendency to do business on a large scale have narrowed the field of individual enterprise. Many young people, chafing at the idea of being mere cogs in the industrial wheel, are looking earnestly for some opportunity through which they may become masters of their own business.
Our current ability to do without full-time homemakers relies on technologies that we may not be able to count on in the future – electricity on demand, highly processed and storeable foods, gasoline for commuting, shopping, and entertainment, etc. In a sustainable and responsible culture, there will be meaningful, even essential, work to be done at home. I’ll outline a few contributions of homemakers to a post-industrial society and offer my own experimentation, its successes and its failures.
That neighborly spirit was strong during the threshing season. Threshing crews were common and necessary in the 1930s through the 1950s. Our Oak Grove Ridge had about 12 to 15 farmers that were on the threshing ring. Frank Fradette owned the threshing machine whose sole purpose was to separate the golden kernels of oats from their stalks. The stalks were spit out a big pipe by a powerful blower and formed a straw stack. The oats kernels were hauled to a granary for storage. Frank Fradette pulled the threshing machine with a big orange Minneapolis Moline tractor.