by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
Agriculture comes first among human activities. Without it there would be no merchants, no courtiers, no kings, no poets and no philosophers. – Frederick the Great
So the country at large had a toasty, indeed worrisomely warm winter. Nationwide, February was all set to blow away the all time record — and would have easily done so if not for the Pacific Northwest. Here we were trapped in an ice box, depriving the rest of the country of its chance for the record books. It was definitely the coldest winter I remember since moving here some eleven years ago. In this normally mild maritime climate the winter garden is usually a real treat, featuring Brussels sprouts, carrots, beets, kale, and collards. This year the ground froze so hard and for so long that the winter storage carrots turned to a sickening orange mush, the kale hung limp and rotting on woody winter stalks. Cabbages turned first to giant pale green ice balls, then to a sick smelling rotting mess. Even the collards, the ultimate winter champion, fared poorly. Cover crops of oats and peas, which in many years do not die back at all, completely winter killed. This I didn’t mind, since knocking back a live, aggressively growing cover crop of oats or rye in the spring can be a bit of a challenge.
Someone said we only had five sunny days from October 1st to April 1st. I believe them.
For the first time this year I got serious about measuring rainfall here at the farm. I implemented my data collection system beginning April 15, 2016. Using a plumbob on a stretch of cable run through a pulley, I track rainfall in real inches by raising the plumbob marker over a homemade measuring stick with inches marked in sharpie fixed to the side of the garden shed. The rain gauge is close by on a fencepost. I check the gauge, dump the water and raise the marker. If I am to be successful in a data gathering exercise such as this, which goes against my natural inclination, I need a system in place so as not to rely on pencil and any random scrap of paper I may or may not find. With my first year complete, I measured 67 inches, an easy number for me to wrap my head around since that is also my height. That’s more than 5 1/2 feet of rain! Of course that’s nothing compared to the twelve or more feet that regularly falls in some locations due west of here on the Olympic peninsula. Still, it is enough rain to be officially classified as a temperate rain forest, for which classification 55 inches is needed.
Indeed rainforest evidence is abundant this year as bitter grey winter grudgingly gives way to slightly less bitter, but equally grey spring. Some big leaf maple branches are almost completely covered in bright green epiphytic moss, like Tolkien’s Mirkwood in the heart of Middle Earth.
The thick carpet of moss on the stones in the spring below the house belie the fact that they are stones at all. I expect to see fairies dancing on each little mossy knoll.
We are approaching May 1, when ordinarily I would plant corn and set out tomatoes, but the soil is still cold to the touch, more like late March or early April. I can’t imagine having any success with those crops yet. I wait.
Given the Equus Assinus currently occupying the White House, and my extreme aversion to anything resembling his countenance, I’ve decided to latinise the name of our Suffolk stallion. Henceforth Donald of Eagle Ridge shall be known as Donaldus Promunctorii Aquilae. I am confident that, if given a chance, even he would bring more intelligence, honor, compassion and truth to the office of President than the man currently holding that office.
A few weeks ago I started training Stella, our two year old Fjord-Punch (Norwegian-Suffolk). She is of a sweet disposition and has since birth been around harnessed horses jangling in and out of the barn. So it came as no surprise to her when one day I picked up the harness and instead of putting it on her mother, I put it on her. She just stood there — barely flinched. One of the big advantages of raising and training home raised foals is that you know their history first-hand. And provided that you yourself have done nothing stupid to harm the mind of the young horse, the training should go fairly smoothly.
Stella’s training thus far has certainly borne that out. Each step has proceeded in succession without any problem to speak of. I have found that if a horse is trusting and has been regularly handled, the basics will come fairly easily. With Stella, I first harnessed her in the barn for a few days and just let her stand with no further expectation. Then I led her around the barnyard and on out to the round corral to begin the work of ground driving: Whoa, Go, Back, Gee and Haw (these last two at first communicated only through the lines, not verbally until I have hitched to a vehicle and can swing right or left).
Horse training at its most basic level is largely a matter of pressure and release. You apply pressure to the horse: to the right or left side of the mouth for gee and haw, both sides for whoa, and even, steady pressure on both sides for back. The reward is the release of the pressure felt through the bit on the mouth. In order for this to be effective, especially in the early going, the release must happen instantly. Timing is everything. For example, if I want Stella to turn right (gee) I will apply pressure through the lines to the right side of the mouth. At first just a movement of the head in the right direction is enough. In fairly short order she should come all the way around. Similarly, when teaching a horse to back, one step is enough at first. When a horse consistently gives you one step — ask for two, then three. Pretty soon, if you have patiently laid the groundwork, she’ll keep walking backwards all the way to the barn for you.