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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: Crops & Soil

Propagation by Means of Budding and Grafting

Propagation by Means of Budding and Grafting Part 1

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There are three general divisions or kinds of graftage, between which, however, there are no decisive lines of separation: 1. Bud-grafting, or budding, in which a single bud is inserted under the bark on the surface of the wood of the stock. 2. Cion-grafting, or grafting proper, in which a detached twig, bearing one or more buds, is inserted into or on the stock. 3. Inarching, or grafting by approach, in which the cion remains attached to the parent plant until union takes place.

Making Sorghum Molasses

Making Sorghum Molasses

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Growing sorghum doesn’t take much work, according to Buhrman. You plant it in the spring, work it a couple of times and that’s about all that’s required until late in the growing season. That is when the work begins. Before it is cut, all the stalks have to be “bladed” – the leaves removed from the stalks. It’s then cut, then the tassles are cut off, and the stalks are fed through a crusher. The crusher forces the juices out of the plant. The sorghum juice is then boiled in a vat for four to five hours until nothing is left but the syrup.

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.

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

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After three or four years we could see that the nature of our farming practices would continue to have detrimental effects on our soils. We were looking for a new approach, a routine that would be sustainable, rather than a rescue treatment for an ongoing problem. We decided to convert our fields to permanent planting beds with grassy strips in between where all tractor, foot and irrigation pipe traffic would be concentrated.

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.

Cabbage

Cabbage

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Cabbage is the most important vegetable commercially of the cole crops, which include cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, collard, broccoli, and many others. It also ranks as one of the most important of all vegetable crops and is universally cultivated as a garden, truck and general farm crop. The market for cabbage, like that for potatoes, is continuous throughout the year, and this tends to make it one of the staple vegetables.

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

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The old way of selecting seed from open-pollinated corn involved selecting the best ears from the poorest ground. I have tried to select perfect ears based on the open-pollinated seed corn standards of the past. I learned these standards from old agricultural texts. The chosen ears of Reid’s average from 9 to 10.5 inches long and have smooth, well-formed grains in straight rows. I try to select ears with grains that extend to the end of the cob.

Peach

Peach

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The Peach is a showy tree when in bloom. There are double-flowered varieties, which are as handsome as the dwarf flowering almond, and they are more showy because of the greater size of the tree. The flowers of the Peach are naturally variable in both size and color. Peach-growers are aware that there are small-flowered and large-flowered varieties. The character of the flower is as characteristic of the variety as size or color of fruit is.

Bamboo A Multipurpose Agroforestry Crop

Bamboo: A Multipurpose Agroforestry Crop

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The bamboos are gaining increased attention as an alternative crop with multiple uses and benefits: 1) domestic use around the farm (e.g., vegetable stakes, trellis poles, shade laths); 2) commercial production for use in construction, food, and the arts (e.g., concrete reinforcement, fishing poles, furniture, crafts, edible bamboo shoots, musical instruments); and 3) ornamental, landscape, and conservation uses (e.g., specimen plants, screens, hedges, riparian buffer zone).

Cane Grinding

Cane Grinding: An Age-Old Georgia Tradition

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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.

On-Farm Meat Processing

The demand for fresh, local meat products – with no taint of industrial process – is absolutely staggering.

Marketable Cover Crops

Marketable Cover Crops

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Our cover crops have to provide the benefits of smothering weeds, improving soil structure, and replenishing organic matter. They also have to produce some income. For these purposes, we use turnips, mustard and lettuce within our plant successions. I broadcast these seeds thickly on areas where cover crops are necessary and let them do their work.

Ginseng Culture

Ginseng Culture

U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1184 Issued 1921, Revised 1941 — The evident preference of the Chinese for the wild root and the unsatisfactory state of the general market for cultivated ginseng have caused grave doubts as to the future prospects of the industry. These doubts will probably be realized unless growers should strive for quality of product and not for quantity of production, as has been the all too common practice in the past.

Propagation by Means of Budding and Grafting

Propagation by Means of Budding and Grafting Part 2

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Budding is the operation of applying a single bud, bearing little or no wood, to the surface of the living wood of the stock. The bud is applied directly to the cambium layer of the stock. It is commonly inserted under the bark of the stock, but in flute-budding a piece of bark is entirely removed, and the bud is used to cover the wound. There is every gradation between budding and grafting proper.

Low Tillage Radish Onions

Low Tillage Radish Onions

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The radishes came up quick, filling the garden canopy completely that fall, and the following spring we found the plot was clean of weeds and rows of open holes were left where the radish roots had been growing. Well, we had a few extra onion plants that spring and decided to plant them in these holes, since we already had very clear lines laid out for us and a clean seedbed. What we got were the best looking onions that have ever come out of our gardens.

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.

Wild Potatoes and Calcium

Wild potatoes bring increased calcium for better tubers.Have you ever cut into a potato to find a dark spot or hollow part? Early research shows that these defects are likely the result of calcium deficiencies in the potato — and that tuber calcium is genetically linked to tuber quality.

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