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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

LittleField Notes Fall 2011

LittleField Notes Fall 2011

by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA

Everyone seems to agree about the weather these days: the new normal is that there is no normal.

Despite last issue’s cantankerous ruminations about the ruinous effects of the damp weather on our hay crop, the barn is full of top quality forage after all, though it took three more weeks than it should in a so-called “normal” year.

The oats are threshed. The deer took to bedding down in the oat field this year and ruined close to 25% of an otherwise excellent crop. An important aspect of homegrown oats is the abundant straw that the crop produces. We blow the straw from the separator wind stacker directly into the barn loft, ready for use as bedding in the stalls below. I intend to grow more small grains in the future and am working up a new rotation which will involve bringing more old pasture-land into cultivation.

The hay tripods mentioned last issue that we experimented with didn’t work out so well. Friend Sykes (Humus and the Farmer) used some 2,000 of these on his British farm in the 1930’s, so the method certainly merits further experimentation, especially in those times when it seems we just can’t go more than two or three days without rain. Farmers in very wet climates around the globe have used similar drying techniques for centuries. Austrians and others have hung hay on wires to cure, while others have made small stacks around a single pole with air access from below.

LittleField Notes Fall 2011

We built our tripods from alder poles wired together. The wet hay was piled carefully on cross members, forkful on forkful until a moisture-shedding, eye-catching stack was completed. The cross members are wired at such a height that the lowest hay does not actually touch the ground. In this way air is free to circulate up through the center of the stack allowing the hay to slowly cure over time. By some accounts, because of the slow, moist cure, a form of microbial alchemy occurs by which the hay changes in beneficial ways that conventionally cured hay will not – like making sauerkraut out of grass, yet clearly distinct from silage because the process is aerobic rather than anaerobic.

In the end our four tripods did not cure the hay as hoped. We put the mown grass into stacks too soon and stacked the hay too thickly. I think at least one day of dry weather in the field and one pass with the tedder will be necessary. The density of the hay in the stack is also of vital importance. Ours was stacked too thickly to allow for good airflow. Aside from a few quality pockets, most of the hay in this first attempt at tri-podding was yellowed at best; molded and heated at worst.

LittleField Notes Fall 2011

Back to Basics

I have received some nice comments from folks about my earlier columns wherein I related the detailed workings of our barn set up and livestock management system. It got me to thinking about other kinds of very specific information people want and need. It seems to be true that the majority of young farmers just starting out in this current small farm revival do not come from a rural background at all. They clearly have a passion for farming and many feel an almost primal desire to learn the ancient practice of gaining sustenance from the soil. Despite their obvious enthusiasms, budding farmers springing from an urban background very often lack some of the most basic skills needed to get successfully through a typical season on the farm.

There is a certain set of skills and knowledge that tend to fall through the cracks of your average farm how-to book. Books of a more specialized nature are also abundant but often seem to take a fairly simple subject and make it seem daunting in scope and detail. What follows are a few tidbits of knowledge that I have found useful over the years – the little things that will inevitably need to be learned at some point in the farmer education process. Many of you will feel that the points made here go without saying; hopefully you will bear with me for the sake of our young friends just getting started.

I have learned a great deal from my Dad, David, who is one of the handiest guys I know; some from old-timers on ranches where I worked as a young man; some from books; and I continue to learn from my own sore knuckles and stubborn determination.

LittleField Notes Fall 2011

Hard Work and Long Hours – Let’s start with this one. I don’t think books ever really make it clear just how much absolute physical and mental endurance a season of farming requires. The romance can get pretty thin on a chilly March afternoon while trying to install a 300 foot row-cover over baby salad greens in a 30 mile an hour wind. But the work will reward you. That’s why you do it. Don’t let it scare you, but don’t tell yourself it will be easy either. There is no cubicle with soft chair and high-speed internet access in the potato patch.

Day Off – Just as important as working hard is taking a day off. A farm will never see every job crossed off its to-do list. You must have the discipline to take a break regardless of how much work needs done. Once you get back to it you will no doubt have fresh energy and renewed enthusiasm for the work at hand.

Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosy – No, seriously, I once encountered a grown man who had an interest in agriculture and was attempting to change the oil in his car. He didn’t know which way to turn the wrench. Remember these important exceptions: connections to propane tanks are going to be reverse threaded; when you need to grease the hubs on your wagon or buggy the right wheel will be conventionally threaded while the left will be reverse threaded.

Oil and Grease – Machines need to be well lubricated. The time spent oiling and greasing will save you time spent fixing breakdowns and resting your horses. I buy WD-40 by the gallon- literally. I use it regularly on chains and moving parts where I need a light lubricant so as not to attract too much dirt and grime and on stubborn bolts and nuts that need help. As for grease, look for zerks on some machines and grease cups on others. The grease cup is filled with grease and screwed back on forcing the grease where it is needed. Well-lubricated machines run quieter, have fewer breakdowns and have lighter draft for which your draft animals will be grateful.

Milk Cow (or Goat) – Don’t let anyone tell you that if you want a house cow you have to milk twice a day, exactly 12 hours apart for 365 days in a row. I keep my calf on the cow for the whole lactation. If I need milk I separate the cow and calf in the evening and milk in the morning. If I need to be gone for a few days the calf will do the milking for me. In the latter stages of a lactation cycle after weaning, I have at times gone to once a day milking with good success.

LittleField Notes Fall 2011

Positive Ground – We use a 1950 Farmall Super M tractor for powering the McCormick stationary threshing machine. I recently learned that the Super M’s electrical system has a positive ground. This is a new piece of information for me – very handy to know when trouble-shooting or trying to jump a dead battery.

Heat is Your Friend – Inevitably you will find yourself working on some old machine that you dug out of a fencerow and you will need to remove some rusted bolts, loosen a stuck connection, or move a gear that hasn’t moved since the Roosevelt administration. Heat, a hammer and WD-40 will save the day. An oxy-acetylene torch is an essential tool on the farm, although before I finally got mine I used a little inexpensive propane torch and a weed burner with mixed success. Heat expands metal and breaks the bonds created by rust. The use of a little heat, a squirt of WD-40 and some light hammer taps – with each step repeated as necessary – will eventually budge even the most stubborn of seized bolts. Be careful not to use more heat than needed. Also a word of caution about heating cast iron: most cast parts on old machinery are not easily replaced and must be treated with extra care as they are prone to cracking and once cracked are nearly impossible to weld.

Pliers/Leatherman – When I was a young whippersnapper learning to work horses I had the good fortune to work with a man named Frank Rodifer. Frank took me under his wing selflessly, and with a twinkle in his eye taught me everything he knew. He had a leather holster on his belt in which he kept a pair of pliers. He emphatically believed that having a pair of pliers about you was just as important as having a knife in your pocket. How true. I now carry a Leatherman – a wonderful tool with pliers and knife as well as some other handy items. Pliers are essential for everything from pulling cotter pins to removing bound up hay caught in gears of a hayloaders or manure spreaders. You don’t want to have to run all the back to the shop for a tool when you could just as easily have it on your belt. Nowadays there are countless multi-tools on the market. I like a basic one that doesn’t try to do too much. Inevitably with some projects you will simply reach a point where you need to actually go get the tool box, but for all the little moments during a typical farm day when you need to get something done often the pliers on your belt will save the day.

Compost – Do not get nervous by overly scientific and detailed descriptions of the particulars of making good compost. Yes, it is a scientific endeavor, and the more meticulous you are the better. However, what you really need to know is that compost needs just four simple things to thrive – air, water, nitrogen (green stuff, manure), and carbon (brown stuff – straw, leaves etc). Air is added by turning, moisture by rain or hose, and carbon and nitrogen are supplied by your organic additions. All will be well if you remember that piece of bumper sticker wisdom, “Compost Happens.”

Failure and Patience – Books generally seem to imply that if you follow their carefully laid out program for success all of your wildest farming dreams will come true. They are right. You likely will be successful, but mixed with success will undoubtedly come a healthy dose of failure. Spirit crushing humility will be thrust upon you time and again. This I can promise: sick animals, insect infestations, inexplicable germination failures, marketing rebuffs, and countless weather related challenges. You must develop an ascetic and abiding sense of patience. Otherwise you will turn into a miserable, blubbering farmer watering your fields with your own tears of frustration. You are engaged in a delicate dance with Creation where you are not the leader. The sooner you learn this the happier, and in the end, more successful, your farming will be.

LittleField Notes Fall 2011

Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

Apple Cider Autumns Nectar

Apple Cider, Autumn’s Nectar

by:
from issue:

While autumn’s beauty is food for our souls, autumn’s harvest provides food for our tables. Along with the many hours and days of canning and freezing our garden produce, harvest time also means apple cider making for our family. We have been making apple cider, or sweet cider as it is commonly called, for six years. Beginning slowly, the demand for our juice has resulted in a production of over six hundred gallons this year.

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Concerning the Bioextensive Market Garden

One of our goals when we first started farming here was to develop the farm as a self-contained nutrient system. Unlike the almost complete recycling of nutrients which can take place on a livestock operation, we are always amazed – even a little disturbed – to see how many tons of fertility and organic matter leave the market garden each year with so little returned to the good earth.

Raised Bed Gardening

Raised Bed Gardening

by:
from issue:

Raised beds may not be right for everyone, and our way is not the only way. I have seen raised beds made from rows of 5’ diameter kiddy pools, and heard of a fellow who collected junk refrigerators from the dump and lined them up on their backs into a rainbow of colored enameled steel raised beds. Even rows of five-gallon pails filled with plants count as raised beds in my estimation. Do it any way you care to, but do it if it’s right for you.

Beating the Beetles – War & Peace in a Houston Garden

Blooming that is, unless the cucumber beetles arrive first.
And arrive they have … “At first I thought they looked like big, yellow lady bugs.” Paul said, “Then I looked…

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Follow-Up On Phosphorus

We like to think that the bio-extensive approach to market gardening minimizes the risk of overloading the soil with nutrients because the fallow lands make it possible to grow lots of cover crops to maintain soil structure and organic matter rather than relying on large quantities of manure and compost. However, we are now seeing the consequences of ignoring our own farm philosophy when we resorted to off-farm inputs to correct a phosphate deficiency.

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

This is the account of how one farm put more horse power into the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of its potato crop. Ever since we began farming on our own in 1994 one of our principle aims has been the conversion of our farm operation to live horse power wherever feasible. This has meant replacing mechanized tools such as tractors and rototillers and figuring out how to reduce human labor as we expanded upon the labor capacity of our work horses.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 1

Our mild climate makes it too easy to overwinter cover crops. Then the typically wet springs (and, on our farm, wet soils) let the cover put on loads of topgrowth before getting on the soil. Buckwheat is the only crop that I can be certain will winterkill. Field peas, oats, annual rye and crimson clover have all overwintered here. Any suggestions?

Cane Grinding

Cane Grinding: An Age-Old Georgia Tradition

by:
from issue:

Most sugar cane is processed in refineries to give us molasses, brown sugar, and various kinds of white sugar. However, some South Georgia farms that raise sugar cane still process it the old way to produce the special tasting sweetener for their own food. One such farm is the Rocking R Ranch in Kibbee, Georgia. It is owned by Charles and Patricia Roberts and their sons. The process they use has not changed in the past 100 years. This is how it is done.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

Cultivating Questions: Ridge-Till Revisited

Delay ridge building until early fall so that the cover crop on the ridge does not grow more than 12” tall before winter. The residues from a short cover crop will be much less challenging to cultivate than a tall stand of oats, especially if tangly field peas are mixed in. Waiting for the winterkilled cover crop residues to breakdown as long as possible before ridge-tilling in the spring will also make cultivation much easier until you gain familiarity with the system.

Carrots and Beets The Roots of Our Garden

Carrots & Beets – The Roots of Our Garden

by:
from issue:

Carrots and beets are some of the vegetables that are easy to kill with kindness. They’re little gluttons for space and nutrients, and must be handled with an iron fist to make them grow straight and strong. Give the buggers no slack at all! Your motto should be – “If in doubt, yank it out!” I pinch out a finger full (maybe 3/4” wide) and skip a finger width. Pinch and skip, pinch and skip, working with existing gaps and rooting out particularly thick clumps.

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

by:
from issue:

We are approaching this from a seed quality standpoint, not just a seed saving one. Saving seed is fairly simple to do, but the results from planting those seeds can be very mixed; without a basis of understanding of seed quality, people can be disappointed and confused as to why they got the results they did. Both the home gardener and the seed company must understand seed quality to be successful in their respective endeavors.

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

For those not familiar with this tasty, nutritious weed, purslane can be a real challenge to manage in vegetable crops for a number of reasons. The seeds of this weed remain viable for many years in the garden, and generally do not germinate until hot weather — that is, after many of the market garden crops have already been planted. To make matters worse, this succulent plant often reroots after cultivation. Purslane also grows so close to the ground that it is impossible to control by mowing.

Beautiful Grasses

What follow are a series of magnificent hundred-year old botanist’s watercolors depicting several useful grass varieties. Artworks such as this are found on the pages of Small Farmer’s Journal quite regularly and may be part of the reason that the small farm world considers this unusual magazine to be one of the world’s periodical gold standards.

Walki Biodegradable Mulching Paper

New Biodegradable Mulching Paper

Views of any and all modern farming stir questions for me. The most common wonder for me has been ‘how come we haven’t come up with a something to replace plastic?’ It’s used for cold frames, hotbeds, greenhouses, silage and haylage bagging and it is used for mulch. That’s why when I read of this new Swedish innovation in specialized paper mulching I got the itch to scratch and learn more. What follows is what we know. We’d like to know more. LRM

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate Part 2

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 2

Finding just the right cover crop-tillage combination for crops planted the last half of June has always been a real challenge in our location. While surface-tilling mature rye and vetch in May works well for fall crops established in July and August, this cover crop-tillage combo does not allow enough time for decomposition and moisture accumulation for end-of-June plantings.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT