LittleField Notes: Early Spring
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
As I begin this column at the tail end of February it feels like spring has been with us since mid-December. Despite winter’s death grip on the east coast, winter here has been most mild, with temperatures well above normal. We’ve had no snow to speak of, one warm rain after another and even a good measure of sunshine.
Why is it then that my winter garden is the most abysmal in years, with very little fresh for these three months and more? Oh cruel conundrum! Where are my lovely Brussels sprouts? All black. My fine cabbages? Shrunken with a distinctly distasteful rotting smell. Collards? Still alive, but instead of the voluminous dinner-plate-sized leaves I’m used to, I have only small pitiful ones such that we’ve enjoyed only two meals worth all winter. Carrots? All but the bottom inch or so turned to pure orange mush.
The aforementioned mild winter was unfortunately punctuated by two prolonged bitter cold spells, one shockingly early in mid-November, and the other a short time later. In total we had something like two solid weeks of 14-degree nights: just too much for my usually reliable over-wintering vegetables. Strange indeed.
I noticed that city folk seemed to take no notice of the early cold. To them the sunny days and clear nights were an event to be celebrated, and really, who can blame them, the sun being scarce as it is in these parts. It clearly illustrates the different values placed on the weather according to one’s occupation. Why would one make particular notice of an unusual cold snap while walking from heated home to heated garage to heated car to heated office? City folk have, for the most part outsourced their weather worries to farmers. An arrangement that works perfectly well – as long as grocery store shelves remain stocked.
Due to my surprising, and for the moment ongoing status as amateur agricultural columnist and full time horse farmer, I am short of time and so find myself scribbling these notes from the seat of the forecart as I rest the horses while harrowing the waterfall pasture. To be here, dragging this field at this time of early, and perhaps false spring, seems to me an undeserved bit of grace. In this singular moment I am almost hyper aware of my own good fortune. I have the rare privilege to enjoy a beautiful and perfectly perfect way of spending ones life: stewarding a lovely piece of countryside with horses. Were I a professional columnist for the New Yorker Magazine, with a hundred thousand readers and scores of young people following my every thought on Twitter, I would not exchange my forecart-office in the field for a real office with a black leather chair and actual desk in the new One World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
Here then, is a snapshot view outside my forecart-office window as it is at this moment: The air is cool but without the bite of winter, which this year never did hold much grip, and now gives way to early spring. New tufts of fresh green poke up through last year’s matted brown. Snow capped Mt. Pilchuck, rising dead ahead in the east, comes partially into view as multiple cloud layers form and reform, lift and shift: a startling display of changing color and texture that one could spend a lifetime watching. Our resident Red Tail Hawk is here, perched off to my right, high in the branches of a big leaf maple. He’s been haunting the perimeters of these fields and woods for several weeks now. He quickly learned that when I drag the fields, voles, shrews and field mice scamper off across the field ahead of the harrow, making easy pickings for the sharp-eyed, fleet-of-wing raptor. And there ahead and a little to the right are the horned cattle, Dexters red and black, resting, lying down the way cows do – heads up, chewing cud, as peaceful as any monk cloistered in Monte Cassino. They watched as I made concentric circles around them all afternoon, not moving until forced to. I would happily have gone around them and left them to their prayerful repose. But heedless of my unspoken goodwill they figured, as I approached that it was time to move on to fresh grass anyway, and up they got, back end first, the way cows do and sauntered out of my way.
There is something refreshing about working a field like this first thing in the spring. With each successive round order is restored: tidy, leveled ground replacing chaotic winter leavings; molehills and manure piles flattened and spread; weeds, stems and brown grasses bent to the ground. I stop often to toss sticks and branches over the fence to make clear the way for mowing later in the year. New growth comes, slow at first then faster as the season swells. It is good to be doing something productive after a long winter of feeding and mucking, like finally starting to swim after hours of treading water. Now Star and Donald are more than rested, he shifting restlessly in the traces, a cool breeze from nowhere brushing my face, the mountain hidden in cloud again. Off we go.
We were fortunate to have Ed Hamer of Devonshire, England, and Ruben de Herdt of Belgium visit the farm for a couple of nights at the tail end of February. Ed is one of the editors of a fine land-use publication simply entitled “The Land.” He also operates Chagfood, a horse-powered CSA, one of only 15 horse-powered farms in the United Kingdom. The two were making a Greenhorns sponsored whirlwind tour of US horse-powered farms. They managed as well to fit in a tour of the Pioneer Equipment factory in Dalton, Ohio.
I was intrigued by our respective opinions of each other’s cultures. What most impressed Ed and Ruben about America was our seemingly natural tendency to innovate when necessary. That if we run into a problem we will scratch our heads, rub our hands together, go to work and fabricate our way to a fine solution. Pioneer Equipment with its many clever innovations is an obvious example of this kind of spirit. That we are innovators makes perfect sense when you consider that we are a young country whose enterprising and creative spirit was necessary for the building of a new nation – quite the opposite of the European experience. Europe has of course been settled for many centuries, with customs, traditions and ways of working long established. Innovation does not come so easily to such a people. However, the natural consequence of such a settled life is the development of a rich culture and tradition. I was deeply impressed by the sense of connectedness and cultural continuity that Ed felt with his native Devonshire and of Ruben to his Flemmish Belgian countryside. This was best illustrated to us when, one evening by the fire, Ed regaled us with some traditional songs of Devon. We were transported by his fine tenor to another time and place and couldn’t help but feel a bit of longing for that deep community and culture of place which can only result when people stay put for generations:
“One day in October neither drunken nor sober
Over Broadbury Down I was wending my way
When I heard of some ringing, some dancing some singing
How well they remember that jubilee day
Twas in Ashwater Town the bells they did sound
They rang for a belt and a hat laced with gold
But the men of North Lew rang so steady and true
That there never was better in Devon I hold…”
What a treat to sit and visit with folks from half a world away who have embraced horse-powered farming and all it has to offer, to walk through the machine sheds and barn with knowing and appreciative agricultural colleagues. Talk flows easily from one like mind to another, generating an enthusiastic exchange of ideas that inevitably leads to inspiration- sometimes much needed inspiration. For who hasn’t, even in the midst of doing what we love, day in and day out, occasionally let complacency set in? We horse farmers are a far-flung bunch in this day and age. As such, it is in making and maintaining connections of like minds that we are rejuvenated and reinvigorated as we wend our way through this often challenging life we have chosen. I intend to someday make a foreign horse-farming excursion of my own, and a little CSA in the heart of Devon will be my first stop.
The price of hay is up, way up, and it’s likely to stay up. Corporate dairy “farms” and soaring overseas demand driven by European drought and Chinese desire for a Western style meat based diet have driven up demand for good hay, most of it from the prime hay lands of the arid western US. If you are a big time commodity hay grower, it’s good news: prices and demand are up. For the small scale farmer with just a few acres of market garden and a team to feed, or the backyard farmer with some chickens and a couple of dairy goats, this is not good news.
For the small farmer just starting out, land prices and availability frequently limit the number of acres that one can purchase or lease at the outset. Certainly if one is growing labor intensive, high value produce for local markets, it is hard to justify putting very many acres into hay. Back when I had to buy hay to feed my team I always felt that at $50 to $75 a ton I was getting very good value for my feed bill. I purchased not only fuel for horse-drawn tillage, but also in turn transformed the manure (that fortunate by-product of hay) into the compost that was the cornerstone of my soil fertility program.
Now with hay prices up around the $250-300/ton mark and climbing, the calculus may start to change for the small farmer. The actual dollar value of growing one’s own feed gets higher every time the state of Idaho or California adds another 10,000 cow, robotically milked, dairy factory. You can almost hear the whooshing sound in the hay market as thousands of tons of good alfalfa hay are funneled to bloated, corporate, confined animal enterprises across the West.
For the small farmer who is struggling with the high cost of hay and who lacks the land base to grow his own, I would suggest the very practical idea of bartering. Maybe you are growing delicious fresh vegetables or fruits, or making fantastic hard cider, and your neighbor has 300 acres in hay, but certainly is not making cider and likely not growing vegetables. Consider trading. Chances are your neighbor would love a chance at some good fresh produce without having to work for it or lay out cash. For several years I traded vegetables for a neighbor’s beef; with another I traded for hay. I have even traded fiddle lessons for hay.
Every time I pick up a newspaper I am reminded that the long arm of a global economy that knows no limits will surely not spare us and our small farms. Despite our best, and usually effective efforts at isolating ourselves from its reach, it will, in ways we don’t always foresee, affect us nonetheless. We must stay smart, stay small and stay the course.