LittleField Notes: On Getting Organized & Devising Handy Contrivances
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
photos by Brendan Foxley
Entropy is the concept that everything in the universe moves from a state of order to one of disorder. I believe, however, that good farming should challenge this cardinal rule of thermodynamics. The good farmer should manage the farm in such a way as to move gradually toward an ever higher state of order: better crop rotations, tighter fences, fewer weeds, better maintained machinery, finer tuned horses, more biologically active soil, etc. Call it reverse entropy.
Contrary to the bucolic notion of the “simple” country life, farming is anything but simple. The operation of a successful farm involves a complex array of decisions involving crops, livestock, weather, markets, strict planting and harvesting windows, life and death, pests and weeds. The challenge is to successfully navigate these turbid waters through the seasons and profit economically, biologically and personally. As vital as it is, “sustainability” must be about more than sustaining the fertility of soil: farmers and the farms they husband must themselves also be sustained. Farms and the people who work them have a greater chance of long-term success, i.e. “sustainability”, when a farm moves inexorably from chaos to order. A precisely tuned and carefully honed farm is something that need not benefit the present generation only; it can and should be passed on to succeeding generations in better condition than when the current generation started out.
I learned about reverse entropy the hard way. I first started farming on a shoestring budget, while burning the candle at both ends working as a school teacher, building our own house and raising a young family. I collected every piece of free junk I could get my hands on: old rusty tools, half rotten boards full of nails, pallets, and all manner of odds and ends. I didn’t have a harvest shed so I stuck an old bathtub and clothes dryer out on the edge of the vegetable field and proceeded to wash and spin hundreds of pounds of salad mix a week. I sat backwards on a homemade stoneboat pulled by a team of tired, but honest grade-Belgians to lay down drip irrigation lines.
You can well imagine these early efforts: short on time, short on money and short on organizational skill, but long on ambition and dreams. Somehow we made a go of it. We threw up some sheds with rough cut lumber for harvesting and tool storage. I bought an old horse barn with no roof for $800 and, with the unwitting (and free) help of friends (true friends), moved it onto the place. I was constantly pecking away at some project du jour and slowly the farm began to take shape. It was moving, albeit slowly, from a place of disorder to one of order. However, just about the time the farm was finally approaching a place of mature completion, we moved.
Upon arrival at Littlefield Farm in 2005, I started over. At that time the place was overgrown, overgrazed and neglected, having been used only as rented grazing land for many years.
Now, after a dozen or so years of improvements I finally feel like this farm too has nearly achieved that elusive sense of order and completeness that a successful farm embodies. That said, I continue to work on the details. And we know that the devil is in the details. If that be true, then we need to root out the devil and make the details work for us rather than against us.
For this issue I thought it might be interesting to show a few of the details that I have put in place at Littlefield Farm that go a long way toward making day-to-day operations more efficient and smooth running. I hope that you will take from this the spirit of innovation and thoughtfulness that I’m trying to convey rather than the particulars. Each farm is unique and you’ll have to find unique solutions for your particular problems and needs. I encourage you to think constantly of ways to make your farm run smoother by becoming more organized and by utilizing simple innovations on your place.
But first a couple of rules:
Constant Vigilance and Common Sense Thrift
Thrift and frugality are wonderful traits that have kept farmers in business for centuries. But if you’re going to keep every scrap of iron, every broken tool handle and every piece of string for a future need, then remember well: when you need it, if you can’t find it, and have to go to town and buy another one anyway, then you should have thrown it away in the first place. Imagine how much time, energy and money are wasted in saving, then losing, then looking for, and finally re-purchasing an item that you were so clever to have saved in the first place. As a former disorganized pack rat, I speak with some authority here. Farming is a busy and often frenetic enterprise and it’s all too easy to let things slip into disarray, which is why getting organized and staying that way require Constant Vigilance. Be thrifty, but know what you have saved, and where it is. Those left over copper pipe fittings should never be thrown in the same box as the extra plow bolts.
Put it Away
I repeat the old adage again as one who has learned the hard way: “For everything a place, and everything in its place.” Put your tools away. Clean them and put them exactly where they go. Every time. Don’t waste hours that you don’t have looking for a hoe that got left in the weeds – which – when you finally find it has a dried out, sunbaked handle and a dull, rusty blade. Instead, walk into the shed, go straight to the hook that holds the hoe you are looking for, and smile with pleasure as you grasp the smooth handle that was oiled last winter when you had time for such things.
Put it Away Clean
If you want to get in the good habit of putting away your tools clean, you will have more success if you make it easy and convenient. Here we have a short, easily managed hose with spray nozzle affixed, a handy scrub brush and cup for a nice cool drink. What you can’t see is the quick release fitting that allows a person to quickly disconnect the hose for filling the cup, a bucket of water for a thirsty horse, or any other purpose.
Manure Spreader Rail
I don’t need a hitching rail for harnessing horses, but I had the problem of where to tie a team safely and securely when loading a manure spreader with a bucket loader. Three permanent chains accommodate two horses or three abreast, eliminating the need to fuss with tying and untying lead ropes with every load. Note the stout log covered with hardware cloth to discourage chewing.
Pig Pen and Manure Bins
These ecology blocks provide a very economical way to construct a manure management system. When the pigs are not present one bin is actively managed for composting, while the other is used for daily stockpiling. In spring the right-hand bin is converted to a pigpen. After the pigs are butchered I simply take down the fencing and push the season’s deep bedded pig manure into the bin until I can get around to spreading it on the fields. Note the portable t-posts set in cement-filled 5-gallon buckets for use in setting up the pigpen on the concrete slab.
Where to store garden stakes has always bedeviled me. They seemed to be always in the way. Even left in a tidy pile on the ground behind a shed, they rot and tend to disappear into grass and weeds. Here is my simple solution: a simple manilla rope sling hung under the eaves of the garden shed.
Multiple Use Gravity Water
I have the good fortune to have a spring which provides the barn with gravity fed water. By installing an inlet and outlet on my water tubs and using the natural lay of the land, I am able to water a turkey yard, chicken yard, and three stock water troughs in and around the barn with one stream of water. It’s dead simple, requires little maintenance, provides constant fresh water and entirely eliminates the need to fill water troughs by hand. Note the heavy galvanized bucket handily placed for dipping in the trough for easy transport of smaller amounts of water.
Inspired by belay pins on sailing ships, I used the ends of broken tool handles to provide a means of securing the ropes used with the track and trolley in between loads when putting loose hay in the barn loft.
Simple Movable Greenhouse
These greenhouses are movable and simply made from inexpensive rough cut lumber. The ends roll up for ventilation and to clear an existing crop while being moved. The advantages of a movable greenhouse are too numerous to detail in this context, but this provides a low-tech solution to the technical problem of how to build a functional, movable greenhouse. At Crow Creek Farm I built two 40 footers that didn’t have walls. Each was essentially a gable roof sitting on the ground and were used for growing low crops like green beans. These houses are inexpensive to build and easily moved with horses.
Two Directional Stone Boat
I built this Stoneboat to be pulled from either end. Here Ole is seen pulling the stone boat into, and out of the shop. In this case, there was no need to even remove the cultivator from the the stone boat to make repairs. With the work finished, I simply hitched Ole to the other end and away we went. The sides of the stone boat are removable, making loading and unloading a cinch.
There you have it: a collection of useful contrivances and solutions that have worked well for me. None of them is too momentous in its own right, but taken in totality these kinds of little improvements go a long ways toward the making of a successful farm.