Small Farmer's Journal

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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 Spring 2013

LittleField Notes Spring 2013

by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
photos by Joe D. Finnerty

As I sit here and begin typing on the back patio of the farmhouse it is officially 87 degrees at SeaTac airport on May 6. That is hotter than an average July day and breaks the old record by 8 degrees. The pattern of un-normal weather continues unabated with records broken right and left. Makes one wonder what the next 20, 40, 100 years will bring. Be adaptable, be flexible and start saving your own seed, as locally adapted varieties will become more important than ever.

A note or two about this year’s 34th annual SFJ Auction and Swap Meet which I had the good fortune to be able to attend once again: The weather was mostly fine excepting a bit of wind on Friday afternoon during the equipment auction. Spirits were high as people from far and wide converged on Madras for one of the finest small farm gatherings anywhere.

This year especially, I was struck by the great importance of this event. Not only as a valuable marketplace for hard-to-find horse drawn implements, vehicles, harness and tools, but also as a gathering place for like minded people from across the country who come to buy, sell, swap or simply soak up the atmosphere. Folks are drawn to this event because of the irresistible allure of good farming: human scaled, animal powered, regenerative, biological – a way of life that the Small Farmer’s Journal has come to personify.

I spent most of the auction visiting with many different people, giving the event the feeling of one very long extended conversation. Each was varied in detail, but common in theme – a give and take of ideas from the high-minded philosophical to the grease-stained practical. The value of such conversation cannot be overstated. I remember visiting a neighboring farm in my region when I was a wet-behind-the-ears young farmer with a dream. At one point I was overcome with panic as I realized I might not get to all the torrent of questions I had rattling around in my excited young mind. I’ve never forgotten, nor have I properly repaid this early advice and counsel. Lengthy and timely dialogues with fellow farmers had a profoundly positive impact on my early farming endeavors. It is these small ripples of conversation that spread out over the land to create a wave of change.

In days gone by the process of becoming a farmer was as natural as breathing in and out. Chances are your father and grandfather before you would have farmed. Small diverse farms would have stretched as far as the eye could see. Deep, local generational knowledge would have been no more than a stone’s throw, or at most a buggy ride away. I have no doubt that much of the talk of country people in pre-industrial days would have been of crops, stock, weather and such, with each person adding his observations and experience to that of the whole.

Now we have become a splintered lot, a rag tag collection of romantic, agrarian idealists striving to scratch out a livelihood from a patch of ground in a way that is honest and true. Which brings me back to the grand importance of an event like the SFJ Auction. For three or four days we don’t have to feel at odds with the digital-industrial complex anymore. We bask in the good company of old friends and new. We have those conversations that once took place over fencerows, at crossroads and at grange halls across the land, conversations about the whys and the wherefores of a life worth living.

Over the course of the auction I found myself engaged in conversation about horse and cattle breeds; crop rotations and marketing strategies; making loose hay and plowing with horses; hay loaders and harrows. I spoke with young people not yet out of high school and those just entering retirement; college kids and middle aged folks; those who owned horses and those who dreamed of owning them. There were felt hats, straw hats and baseball caps; suspenders and overalls; tattoos and nose rings; leather boots and sandals; men, women and children: a mixed-up diverse gathering of folk all come together under the common banner of good farming. The SFJ Auction continues to be a place that brings us all together and sends us home with a spring in our step and the singularly reassuring notion that we are not on this journey alone.

LittleField Notes Spring 2013

One conversation in particular that I have often had with beginning teamsters over the years involves the relative merits of walking plows vs. sulky plows. I remember distinctly having this same query myself but never felt that I got a satisfactory answer. Here are a few of my thoughts on the matter.

Let us start by considering the notion of plowing quality. That is, how good of a job is the plow doing? Are we plowing at the proper depth? Are we covering the trash completely or partially? Is the furrow slice vertically or horizontally oriented? There is no right or wrong answer to the above criteria. If I am plowing down a cover crop of rye in the garden I may wish to have the furrow slice more vertically oriented in order to admit more moisture and air and thereby enhance decomposition and avoid pickling the organic matter on the underside of the furrow slice. Conversely, when plowing before oats or wheat I like to get as clean and trash free a surface as possible in order to get a good even stand of weed competitive grain.

If we agree that quality of plowing is subject to different criteria at different times and in different fields, then perhaps the most important thing to consider is control. How effectively can I plow to attain my desired field condition based on my choice of plow? The old time plow manufacturers understood this. At one time there were specific moldboards available for every imaginable soil type and condition. For the most part we don’t have that luxury any more. Most of the plows available today, with the notable exception of the Pioneer Kverneland bottom, have the same, general-purpose moldboard design.

In the most basic analysis plowing control can be divided into three distinct levels. Plowing at its highest, most artful level can only be achieved with the walking plow. The next level of control is to be had with a sulky (riding) plow, and checking in at a rather distant third – tractor plowing. I have not plowed with a horse drawn gangplow so have no experience to relate.

LittleField Notes Spring 2013

Plowing with the walking plow is the most iconic of all horse farming tasks. The silhouette of man and team plowing has graced a thousand posters, books and advertisements. The walking plow is what made the Homestead Act possible. It settled the country. With a good team and decent soil conditions a properly adjusted walking plow is a joy to use. With the walking plow you are personally involved with the soil. You can hear it roll off the moldboard, see the land peel up right in front of you and, if you plow barefooted, as many a lad has done over the centuries, feel its undulations and textures underfoot. With handles in hand you can make the plow and horses respond to the subtlest of changes in soil texture or condition.

I well remember one of the first real successes I had with the walking plow. I plowed up a quarter acre town lot that was essentially six inches of topsoil over an old gravel riverbed. I could feel and hear the gravel layer and so kept the plow skimming neatly over the top of the rocky subsoil, never mixing the two layers. Had I been perched atop the metal frame of a sulky plow I would not have been as aware of the conditions just under the thin layer of topsoil. The result would probably have been an unfortunate and irreversible mixing of the two layers.

In theory a sulky plow is as adjustable as a walking plow. A close inspection reveals that the only difference between the two plows is that the sulky has a frame, seat and wheels affixed to the beam and lacks handles. The beam, clevis, moldboard and landside are all identical. Instead of hands on handles, levers and wheels are provided to adjust the plow to the conditions at hand. It is usually necessary to stop the plow and make an adjustment in reaction to something that just happened, whereas with a walking plow minute adjustments are made constantly as the plow moves through the soil. We will leave the specifics for another time, but suffice it here to say that when perched atop a sulky plow you are removed by one degree of proximity to the soil and so a certain degree of control and finesse will be sacrificed.

LittleField Notes Spring 2013

This is not to say that good plowing cannot be done with a sulky plow. They are generally wonderful tools which, when properly adjusted, do a perfectly satisfactory job of plowing. The biggest advantage of the sulky over the walking plow of course, is that the operator simply rides along rather than walking seven miles to the acre. The walking plow will give you a hearty appetite and sound night’s rest.

Tractor plowing is another matter entirely. I’ve only done it once. I borrowed a huge tractor from a neighboring dairy farm years ago to plow up a few acres of ten-year-old alfalfa with roots as thick as small tree trunks. My Belgian geldings Lester and Earl and I were struggling mightily to bust it up with the old walking plow. So I went big. I’ll never forget the feeling of being up high up in the tractor cab with all the noise and racket and that thing lurching and churning through the soil, pulling four bottoms and just making a mess of the place. If the plow bottoms jerked sideways or otherwise pulled free of their earthly moorings all of a sudden I had four furrows askew rather than one. Needless to say it was not an experience I want to revisit. I’ll stick to the slow and steady, the quiet and true. Step up boys!

Spotlight On: People

Elsa

Elsa

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from issue:

I headed out with a gut feeling not that something was wrong, but that in these conditions there soon enough would be if I did not try. I made my way more or less by instinct across the open field and through the frozen swamp. In amongst saplings, rocks, and old rusty metal and wire there is a large, red haired calf half steaming where mom is aggressively licking her and the other half is iced over where her hooves and legs appear frozen to the ground.

Portrait of a Garden

Portrait of a Garden

As the seasons slip by at a centuries-old Dutch estate, an 85-year-old pruning master and the owner work on cultivating crops in the kitchen garden. To do this successfully requires a degree of obsessiveness, the old man explains in this calm, observational documentary. The pruning master still works every day. It would be easier if he were only 60 and young.

LittleField Notes A Trip to the Auld Country

LittleField Notes: A Trip to the Auld Country

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I’ve come to the north of Scotland this October almost by accident. And I find myself standing on the windy, rocky point of land that is northernmost on the isle of Great Britain. The sea lies before me: the flooding tide from the Atlantic pours in on my left where it collides with the North Sea pouring in from the right, the opposing currents whipping up a frenzy of white capped, tidal confusion: for sailors past and present, treacherous waters indeed. Straight ahead, across the seething waters of Pentland Firth lie the Orkney Islands, my ultimate destination.

The Craft of the Wheelwright

The Craft of the Wheelwright

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In these days of standardization and the extensive use of metal wheels you might think there is little call for the centuries old craft of wheelwrighting, but the many demands on the skills of Gus Kitson in Suffolk, England, show this to be very far from the truth. Despite many years experience of renovating all types of wagons and wheels even Gus can still be surprised by the types of items for which new or restored wooden wheels are required.

Fjordworks A History of Wrecks Part 2

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 2

It is always fascinating and at times a little disconcerting to watch how seamlessly the macro-economics of trying to make a living as a farmer in such an out-of-balance society can morph us into shapes we never would have dreamed of when we were getting started. This year we will be putting in a refrigerated walk-in cooler which will allow us to put up more storage-share vegetables.

NYFC Bootstrap Videos The Golden Yoke

NYFC Bootstrap Videos: The Golden Yoke

I couldn’t have been happier to collaborate with The National Young Farmers Coaltion again when they called up about being involved in their Bootstrap Blog Series. In 2013, all of their bloggers were young and beginning lady dairy farmers, and they invited us on board to consult and collaborate in the production of videos of each farmer contributor to the blog series.

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…

UCSC Farm & Garden Apprenticeship

UC Santa Cruz Farm & Garden Apprenticeship

UC Santa Cruz is thrilled to welcome applications to the 50th Anniversary year of the UCSC Farm and Garden Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture. The 39 apprentices each year arrive from all regions of the US and abroad, and represent a wide spectrum of ages, backgrounds, and interests. We have a range of course fee waivers available to support participation in the Apprenticeship.

B. Adroit's Profiles in Passion: Herscel Gouda

B. Adroit’s Profiles in Passion: Herscel Gouda

Excerpt: Um, ya, you’re just gonna have to read this one.

Farmrun A Reverence for Excellence

A Reverence for Excellence

A portrait of Maple Rock Farm and Hogstone’s Wood Oven, a unique farm and restaurant on Orcas Island where the farmers are the chefs, A Reverence for Excellence strives to be an honest portrayal of the patience, toil, conviction and faith required of an agrarian livelihood.

Carriage Hill Farm

Carriage Hill Farm: Crown Jewel of Parks

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“Thank you for taking the time to visit our farm.” This is one of the responses that I give to the many visitors as they prepare to leave Carriage Hill Farm, an historical farm which is part of a much larger system of 24 parks within the Five Rivers Metroparks system. The main emphasis of our farm is education and interpretation of an 1880’s family farm with all the equipment and animals from the 1880’s time period.

What We Really Lose

What We Really Lose

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A few minutes with my Old Man will bring you stories Hollywood could never write. Stories of driving the canned milk to town at age 12 in the family pickup, not having a car to drive, driving new Cadillacs, eating home raised meals, eating at the Four Seasons as Presidents walked out while he was walking in, farming with only horses, then new tractors, then big tractors, then not farming, then doing it again with 50 year old tractors, then once more with no tractors.

Mule Powered Wrecker Service

Mule Drawn Wrecker Service

This will only add fuel to those late night discoursians about the relative merits of horses over mules or viciversy. Is the horse the smarter one for hitching a ride or is the mule the smarter one for recognizing the political opportunity which this all represents? In any event these boys know what they are doing, or should, so don’t try this at home without horse tranquilizers. Remember that politics is a luke warm bowl of thin soup.

Almost a Veterinarian

Almost a Veterinarian

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In 1976, after reading the memoirs of a much-lauded veterinarian/author from Yorkshire England, I got it into my head that I would make a good DVM myself. It was a rather bold aspiration inasmuch as I was a thirty-three year old high school dropout with few credentials and no visible means of support. It was a shot in dark: I hadn’t been in a classroom for fifteen years, but I made my way back to Guelph, Ontario, where the only veterinarian school in Canada was located.

Livery and Feed

Livery & Feed

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A livery stable, for the benefit of those who never heard of one, was an establishment which catered to horses. It boarded them, doctored them, and bred them, whenever any of these services were required. It also furnished “rigs” — a horse and buggy or perhaps a team, for anyone who wished to ride, rather than walk, about the town or countryside. It was a popular service for traveling men who came into town on the railway train and wanted to call on customers in cross-road communities.

Ripening

Poetry Corner: What A Boy Lies Awake Wondering

This is a poem from Paul Hunter’s book Ripening.

Building a Community, Building a Barn

Building a Community, Building a Barn

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One of the most striking aspects of this development is the strength and confidence that comes from this communal way of living. While it is impressive to build a barn in a day it seems even more impressive to imagine building four barns or six, and all the rest of the needs of a community. For these young Amish families the vision of a shared agricultural community is strong, and clear.

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