Littlefield Notes: Of Peace and Quiet
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA. Photos by Joe D. Finnerty
New tractors each year, and each one makes more noise than the last. The one in the valley now sounds like a big bulldozer. Round and round the alfalfa field, in fury. What thoughts it represents, what fury of man, what restlessness, what avidity, what despair. — Thomas Merton
Walk with me for a moment to the edge of the Waterfall Field. We can lean on the gate and let our gaze soak up the mid-summer scene: a perfect blue sky and not a breath of wind. The river runs straight and true the length of the field from end to end, though at this time of year the river is so low it can’t actually be seen from where we now stand. A neat row of maples, alders and wild cherry define the boundary between field and river, wildlands and cultivated. In the stillness you may hear the sound of salmon splashing; spawning in the gravely shallows just below the field as they perform a final act of procreative self-sacrifice.
Look to the far side of the field, opposite the river and you will see a western red cedar that will take your breath away. This giant was overlooked, forgotten or, as I prefer to think, left on purpose when this field was cleared back in the 1890s. It must have stood then, as it does now, a colossal sentinel, a gateway of sorts leading to the equally impressive waterfall cascading over solid granite with enough volume and force to make its own wind. I like to consider that even in those days when the woods of the Northwest offered the irresistible lore of timbered gold, a young man, proving up on this land stood poised with ax raised, and overcome by the sheer loveliness of the scene slowly lowered his ax and decided to simply let the old giant be, content to leave for future generations a glimpse of the splendors of a once virgin forest.
Movement catches your eye, and in the distance you see a threesome hard at work in the hayfield. Two Suffolk horses, heads bobbing, making good time followed by a man comfortably seated on a mowing machine. The waist high grass and clover falls steadily in neat swaths behind the mower. Swallows dip and dive as they glean their supper from insects flushed by the mowing. What you can’t help but notice is the quiet. From this distance the mower makes barely a sound; and the sounds it does make are so natural and intriguing that you’ll want to crane your ear, cock your head and learn more of this marvelous machine doing good work without aid of internal combustion. The verdant green of the field, the team at work, the placid river, the giant tree and waterfall elicit a scene worthy of a song, a sonnet – indeed a whole symphony!
The reverie is suddenly broken by the sound of a tractor arriving in the field across the river. Pretty soon the unmistakable sound of a baler is heard. The incessant, violent, rhythmic pounding as grass is forced into small squares, clouds of dust billowing up over the tops of the trees. In an instant our world has narrowed by degrees of magnitude, from bucolic agrarian vision to industrial efficiency.
There is a blinding, numbing effect created by industrial process, by the enormous noise of machines doing hurried, often shoddy work. When the world becomes too noisy our minds lose a certain amount of interior space; the world becomes smaller, more insular. Not only are the sounds of the day drowned out, but there is somehow less to see as well; and not just with the eyes, for we see with more than the eye, but with the heart also.
Quiet places are getting harder and harder to find. It used to be that a public library was always a good place to find peace and quiet. Indeed, I have fond memories of going to the classic brick library in my hometown with its endless dark corners and musty smell of old books. And the hushed silence! People, if they had to speak, actually whispered. The only sounds were those of the pages of newspapers being turned by old men and the dull thud of a librarian’s ink stamp on card as patrons checked out books. The irony does not escape me that as I pen these words about pastoral quietude at a table in the local public library I have heard no less than six cell phones ring; also the perennially annoying sound of music coming from several different sets of headphones; also the almost continual din of various electronic sounds including beeps, vibrations, clicks, electronic chimes and oh…now there is a young man nearby who is actually talking to his computer: “undo, re-do, undo re-do” over and over. And then a few minutes ago there was the loud and completely unhushed conversation about a recent trip to the county jail for stealing clothes…I must be getting old and cranky what with me expecting to find books and quiet in a library.
One of the distinct intangible products of small farms is an offering of peace and quiet in a world that seems to get louder by the year. Small farms are important because they grow food for local people to eat, provide income for the farm family, and provide for the stewardship of the local economy and land base. Yet their benefits don’t stop with these tangibles. They also offer an all- important place where one can experience again the quiet of the world. I have witnessed this time and again when city friends have come to visit us on the farm. They are almost desperate to experience a place of peace, which is difficult if not impossible to find in a busy urban world. Small farms, especially if they utilize real horsepower, provide a necessary haven of quiet in a noisy world.
Mangelwurzel (Beta vulgaris)
I want to introduce a very useful vegetable that I believe should come out of the shadows of obscurity and find its way onto more small farms as an important high yielding fodder crop. It is known variously as mangelwurzel, mangold, mangel beet, and “root of scarcity” and even at one time mango. It is something of a cross between a sugar beet and a table beet. Very large in size with individual beets weighing in at several pounds it can be an excellent way for small farms to become more independent of purchased livestock feed. It can be fed to chickens, pigs and cattle. I think maybe horses could be taught to enjoy them as well since we know they relish carrots.
I initially became interested in growing mangels when I pondered how to raise hogs here in the Northwest without purchased feed. Our consistently cool, damp weather is not conducive to growing field corn as is common in the Midwest. In the British Isles mangels have long been used instead of corn to balance a small grain ration. The mangel seemed a logical choice for our climate, which is similar to that of the British Isles where mangels have been a staple for hundreds of years. According to the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, mangels are “much relished by livestock – pigs especially doing remarkably well on [them].”
Mangels are known to do well on poor soils and under less than ideal conditions, hence the name “root of scarcity.” If times are particularly hard they are perfectly fine for people to eat as well as livestock. When cut open they have beautiful bulls eye circles, much like that of a chioggia table beet. With a dry matter content of around 12%, two thirds of which is sugar, it is no wonder hogs love them. The relatively low dry matter content is offset by the tremendous yield potential: between 20 and 30 tons to the acre on fertile ground.
I have found that hogs can eat them whole and I typically have not had too much trouble getting them to do so. However, this last batch of pigs we raised was initially fed for about three weeks on commercial hog feed from the local co- op supply. I don’t know exactly what they put in that commercial feed, but those were the most spoiled and finicky pigs I have ever raised. We had to shred the mangels in a hand cranked root chopper for several weeks to get them to eat them with anything resembling relish. Then we started chopping them into slices with a machete, which is a very effective and efficient way of preparing them.
I have read conflicting reports on feeding beet tops to pigs. However, I have always fed the tops right along with the roots and have never seen any deleterious effects. They seem to thrive on them.
I also feed mangels to chickens. As with the hogs, they eat them well if chopped, but they will also eat them whole, leaving behind only a hollowed out beet shell.
I prepare the soil as I would any other vegetable crop with plenty of good rotted manure and a winter cover crop of rye and peas. We usually direct seed mangels around the first of May with the Planet Jr. walking seeder into beds shaped with the cultivator set up with hilling discs. Each beet seed is actually a fruit – one “seed” will actually have several seeds in it. As a result, sometime in June, when the plants are three or four inches high they must be thinned to about 12 to 16 inches in order to produce good sized roots. I have tried growing mangels from transplants and have not found the extra work of transplanting to be worth the effort, as the transplants themselves still need to be thinned. Mangels tend to be a little slow to germinate, making a careful first cultivation necessary while the plants are yet quite small. Mangels grow with their shoulders well up above the ground making them easy to harvest by hand. However, I have recently found a horse drawn beet lifter that I am eager to try out next season.
In our climate most winters are mild enough that mangels can be left in the field and harvested as needed. In colder regions they should be dug and stored in the root cellar or in a special dirt covered storage mound called a clamp
Mangels, in addition to being good food for people and livestock, also have wider potentialities. There is a recipe for mangel beer dating to 1830. This inspired a city friend of mine to dig up thirty pounds of mangels and try his hand at making mangel vodka in a homemade copper still.
Mangels have been important enough in England that interesting cultural practices have grown up around them. In Wiltshire a game was revived in 2007 whereby teams of three tossed mangels at a large, leafless mangel affectionately known as “Norman,” the winner being the team whose mangel landed closest to Norman. There is also a tradition of mangels being carved similar to jack-o- lanterns, and of making mangel lanterns out of hollowed out roots.
One of the critical components of a healthy localized agriculture that the modern industrial system has lost is that of locally adapted varieties of livestock and crops. Here on the farm in the spring of 2011 we decided to try to turn a bad situation to the good by doing a little selecting for local conditions. We had a particularly nasty, cold wet spring and the vast majority of our 1/3 of an acre mangel crop did not germinate. I ruled out the possibility of bad or old seed by doing a germination test under controlled conditions. The crop was so thin as to be a total loss. There were, however, a handful of plants that managed to grow despite the adversity. What a great opportunity, I reasoned, to select for plants that will germinate under cold, wet conditions. We babied these tough little plants through the growing season and in the fall dug them up and stored them in the barn for the winter. Mangels, being a biennial crop, need to be carried over to the second year for flowering and seed production. Last spring we replanted about a dozen mangel roots and let them produce seed which we will plant this spring. If we continue over time to select for thrift and vigor in our particular microclimate, we will be well on our way to creating a crop uniquely adapted to local conditions. If this little project proves successful, the next step is to get the seed into the hands of other local farmers and gardeners with the hope that they in turn will save and share seed and hence spread little ripples of success and farming independence throughout the region. Magnify this little story by thousands of others like it across the country and you have the beginnings of real change. Like Paul Cezanne, quoted on the SFJ website, said: “The day is coming when a single carrot (mangel), if properly observed will set off a revolution.”