LittleField Notes: Late Blight, Early Hopes
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
Every fall I am cursed with the early death of my tomato crop by the unfortunate onset of late blight, or perhaps I should say the late blight: the infamous blight which caused the potato famine, that lead directly to the mass exodus of the Irish to America. Late blight was on my mind because of an insert I saw in the Fedco seed catalog on a recent winter morning. The catalog featured a description of conditions favorable to late blight, “…cool temperatures, moist conditions, still air and lack of sunshine favor sporulation.” Wonderful – a perfect description of the western Washington river bottom that is Littlefield Farm. So my tomatoes are forever doomed to suffer a black and bitter end. This is an irony not lost on me. Now that I live in a USDA hardiness-zone-nine, sea level climate, my tomato season is significantly shorter than when I lived in Wyoming in zone-three at 6,200 feet elevation. Then, as now, it was best to grow tomatoes in a hoophouse. However, a hoophouse does a better job of protecting against early mountain frost than it does against the early onset of late blight. Depending on the weather, by early to mid September my tomato plants will display ugly signs of distress: blackening leaves and fruits with increasingly splotchy black patches until eventually the plant simply gives up and dies.
It seems odd to write about the end of last year’s tomato crop while sitting here on the cusp of a new planting season. But that’s what comes of diving into seed catalogs in late winter. One is reminded of crops past and future. There is nothing like that yearly ritual of ordering seeds to invigorate ones agricultural spirit, to renew excitement for the coming season. With a dog curled at my feet, cup of coffee in hand, fire blazing in the wood stove and seed catalog open on my lap, I can’t help but feel a certain sunny optimism for the coming year as I read the glowing descriptions of each vegetable variety. Here is a sampling of some of the delectable delicacies I can look forward to this coming year: “always tastes good, occasionally sublime…rich flavor with an extraordinary velvety texture… extremely ornamental curly purplish-red cinnamon-scented sharp flavored… bright pastel-green bumps and fluting cover the curvaceous lines of this exotic beauty.”
Nunc omnis ager, nunc omnis parturit abor;
Nunc frondent sylvae, nunc formosissumus annus.
The trees are clothed with leaves, the fields with grass;
The blossoms blow; the birds on bushes sing
And Nature has accomplished all the spring
I don’t necessarily subscribe to the celestial calendar and its rigid, mathematically defined dates dictating when one season becomes another. I favor instead an offset version of the seasons that more closely mirrors what I see in the garden and fields and woods. As I write this in late February I can already feel and see spring all around: crocuses blooming in the front flower bed, grass beginning to grow, returning songbirds welcoming the morning- and my favorite marker of springthe evening chorus of tree frogs resounding at near deafening levels from the pools and ponds below the house. I try, usually unsuccessfully, to have all of my winter machinery repair and home-improvement projects done by March 1st so I can begin in earnest the work required of fields and garden: harrowing, plowing, planting, spreading the accumulated winter manure pack on hayfields. If I waited until March 21st to start spring fieldwork it would simply be too late.
Despite my insistence that spring starts at our place around the 3rd week of February, I also have an appreciation for the celestial markers that give us the calendar definition of spring. March 21, the vernal equinox (from the Latin for equal night), features equal daylight and darkness. The day before the equinox is more dark than light, the day after- more light than dark. As Earth continues its gradual rotation toward the sun we are graced with more and more light until its peak at the summer solstice near the 21st of June, the celestial 1st day of summer; followed of course, by the long slow decent into darkness again, through the autumnal equinox and culminating with the darkest day of the year, the winter solstice.
I suppose, given the vast and varied macro and microclimates the world over, the only sure way to mathematically codify the change of season is by marking the progress of the sun through the sky, hence the almost universal adoption of celestial seasonal delineations. Human beings have been compelled to celebrate the significance of equinoxes and solstices at least since the era when Stonehenge was constructed some four to five thousand years ago. These ancient people certainly recognized with great humility their utter dependence upon the predictable passage of the seasons and felt compelled to codify important celestial events along the natural timeline of the year with a singular monument such as Stonehenge. I fear that our urban, largely indoor world has lost its bearings, lost touch with how the passage of the sun through the heavens is indeed what makes life on our fragile world possible. My little corner of that world is cloudy most of the time so marking the exact point of the sun’s rising or setting on a particular date, as the ancients did, is a somewhat futile exercise. But I do feel a growing excitement and anticipation as the days lengthen and the slumbering earth awakens around me. In the end it doesn’t make much difference whether you adhere to calendar spring or biological spring, it is here – and it should make you smile.
I am struggling a bit with certain aspects of the winter management of the farm. I am reminded that we farmers are frequently forced to compromise. What is best for one aspect of the farm does not always translate into best practice for another. In particular, I am currently dissatisfied with conditions in my winter loafing yard.
To provide some context I will share an observation that I have repeatedly made over many years of casual observation. On the way to town there are several homes on small acreage with two or three saddle horses nibbling at a small patch of pasture. There may be a loafing shed in one corner, but the horses essentially have free access to the pasture year around. These small fields tend to be dominated more by noxious weeds than luscious grasses and clovers. In forest and pastureland each plant is in competition with the other for sunlight, moisture and nutrients. It follows that animals left to graze for extended periods in one place will repeatedly choose plant species most favorable to them. This type of unmanaged grazing essentially selects for less desirable plants, favoring those rejected by grazing animals with abundant light, and discouraging any remaining quality forage plants by mercilessly and repeatedly nipping them short. For this reason pastures where horses, cattle or sheep have grazed extensively with no rotation and no rest, will frequently feature a putting-green-like carpet of grass interspersed with canopies of weeds. Many landowners then spray poisons on the field to try to correct their self-created problem. Horses are particularly hard on grass when granted unlimited access. Given the chance they will eat sod right down to soil and turn a grassy patch into a mud patch.
Unwilling to allow the horses unlimited access to my carefully tended pastures and hayfields, I have opted instead to utilize a winter sacrifice area. Though this loafing yard is actually fairly large, in our wet, mild, winter climate where the ground rarely freezes, the horses manage in short order to turn it into a muddy mess, though there are a couple of well-drained slopes that stay firmer and dryer. I also have a loafing shed with feed bunks that I keep well bedded with sawdust so the horses have a dry place to eat and lay down. I also bring them into the barn every morning where they are fed in tie stalls. They stand on well bedded wooden stallfloors allowing their hooves to completely dry out each day. Ensuring that horses hooves are allowed to dry out for a period of time greatly reduces the risk of hoof abscesses caused by bacteria that flourish in consistently wet conditions.
Despite these efforts I still am troubled by seeing the horses standing in the mud while the sky endlessly drizzles as it oft-times does here. At this point though, other than the measures I am already taking, I don’t have good alternatives. Interestingly, I have begun to think that perhaps the horses don’t mind the mud as much as I think they do. Our Suffolk stallion Donald got me thinking about this recently when I had him in a 10-acre field by himself. Completely surrounded by beautiful green, firm pasture grass he repeatedly went to a corner of the field by the water trough and rolled in the mud. A horse wallow, I suppose, not unlike the ones formerly used year after year by the once vast buffalo herds on the Great Plains. I don’t suppose we will ever fully understand why a grazing animal would want to smear mud all over his back, but it must be well worth the trouble and not disagreeable to him as it would be to us.
Sweat on the Collar Pad
I would like to follow up on last issue’s LittleField Notes and write a bit more on the idea of “sweat on the collar pad” vis-à-vis horse training. I had suggested to Ben Saur that one of the best ways for his horses to quiet down was to use them daily, or as near to daily as practicable. I brought up the old adage about the benefits of “sweat on the collar pad.” I can almost hear pencils on paper scratching out angry replies to my seeming lack of interest in gentle training techniques: “What about proper groundwork? And how about developing trust? Remember John Lyons, Ray Hunt, Buck Brannaman? These guys ride their horses in the round pen without so much as a bridle…”
Let me be clear: proper groundwork, preparation and a sense of trust between horse and teamster are absolutely central to the successful training of horses in harness or under saddle. There comes a point however, when a horse needs to leave the controlled confines of the round corral. This is the point at which we must introduce him to the world of work, show him our expectations and ask him to overcome a great deal that is contrary to his nature. A horse is not born knowing how to stand quietly. Nor does he understand that he cannot run or trot whenever he feels like it. Nor does he understand that when he walks away from the barn he needs to travel steadily in a straight line and not continually try to turn back. He needs to feel comfortable walking at the pace we set for him. He needs to feel at peace and be at ease standing for indefinite periods of time while we do the work that needs to be done. After all, we are talking about work horses, not backyard pleasure horses. Hopefully we get pleasure from the working, but as farmers we really are trying to accomplish real and useful tasks with our animals, and that requires lots and lots of repetition. Daily repetition makes our animals comfortable with the work, confident in their own ability and in ours, and gradually reduces anxiety (horses are nervous creatures, after all) regarding the process. There is a bit of a parallel here with teenagers. Studies have shown that kids involved in extra curricular activities are less likely to get into trouble than those with lots of idle time before and after school. A horse that is whiling away his time standing in a stall or pasture will likely cause more trouble on the rare day that he does work than the horse that is routinely kept busy at meaningful work. Like busy teenagers, he’ll be tired at the end the day and he’ll likely come to the work the next day with a willing attitude rather than a contrary one.
I had a conversation with a draft horse person at a recent horse progress days. We were talking about horses and horsemanship in general and she recounted seeing a Holmes County farmer step off his motorized forecart with attached round baler, walk in front of the machine and lay down, crescent wrench in hand and make an adjustment while four Belgian horses abreast stood by with an absolute and assured quiet. This man was an excellent horseman I am sure, but it was likely not any fantastic round pen program or secret gentle way that caused those four horses to stand the way they did. These same four animals had likely plowed, disked, harrowed and planted that 20-acre field. Now they were mowing, raking, and baling it. That’s what you can expect from horses worked day in and day out. The horses were no doubt grateful for an opportunity to rest, but it was more than sheer exhaustion that caused them to stand patiently. A well trained, oft-used horse will be as comfortable with quiet standing as he will with quiet working.
This business of working horses enough for them to be consistently quiet and patient comes with a bit of a catch-22. One must work the animals a fair amount just to get to the beginnings of a quiet working routine. This means there will likely be some rough going at the start: horses that walk too fast, want to prance, won’t stand still, try and rub the bridle off. I have many times heard folks remark that their horses will not stand and are not particularly well mannered, so they don’t use them- too much trouble. Of course if they were used, they probably would not do the things that are causing them not to be used in the first place. Round and round it goes. And so, too often the horse stands in the paddock while the horse owner drives the tractor out with its hay and packs off its manure. Tractors serving horses: not a recipe for quiet, gentle teams and fulfilled teamsters.
So…. go hitch up your horses and use them; use them every day, use them every other day if that’s all the time you have, but use them. Leave your pickup in the driveway; use the wagon. Leave the tractor in the shed; use the forecart. It only takes a few extra minutes to harness the team and you and your horses will be rewarded handsomely for the effort.
I heard an illuminating little piece on the radio the other day about lagging sales at John Deere Company. It told how the only reason the company might make any money at all this year was because of its financial services sector. First you buy from John Deere a $300,000 (not an exaggeration) tractor. Then, because nobody can actually afford a $300,000 tractor, you secure a Bank of John Deere loan so you can pay the asking price plus interest on their product. Unbelievable.
This short radio story was like a snapshot of modern American agri-business, a window into the cold reality of modern American commodity farming: bigger farms beget bigger tractors, bigger tractors beget bigger loans, bigger loans require more land to pay the interest which requires bigger tractors…ad infinitum.
I still use the John Deere two-way plow that I traded twenty years ago for a sack of potatoes- with no interest. It’s a nice plow for use in the garden because it doesn’t leave a dead furrow. I think maybe I will send John Deere, that venerable old company, a letter and tell them I’m glad they are still in business- even if they do have to rely on their financial services sector to stay afloat. And I hope they do not forget their roots. Someday they just might need to start making that horsedrawn two-way plow again. And hopefully it will still be green.