Greetings from the Farm

Mendocino County

Well, in truth, far from being a farm. Maybe a third to half acre depending upon what we’re counting. Our home is under a grove of maybe two hundred year old valley oaks between a stream, which is dry two thirds of the year, and a red oaked ridge to the west that finally stretches wildly up a couple of thousand feet. It’s very quiet, except for the bird “clamor,” and nights are starry. Our water originates from a spring that is shared by others; in spite of the drought, it so far continues to flow – with wonderful water.

Wow, it rained, thanks apparently to El Niño and a warming ocean. The plants look so thrilled. The winter garden is being planted: beets and carrots, peas, lettuce and broccoli, cabbage, spinach, chard, and kale, Asian greens, and onions, garlic, and leeks. We’ve planted a thousand onion and garlic bulbs, or so it seemed. We learned from Peaceful Valley’s fall catalog that we can also plant potatoes. Wow, and no watering. Of  course we can’t grow tomatoes, corn, beans, and squash, but winter is otherwise a wonderful time to garden in our climate. But, lest we forget, the cooler summer and rain are vagaries of ever-changeable weather and solar sunspot cycles and not indicative of climate trends – greenhouse gases continue to accumulate.

I was born and raised on a Great Depression/WWII Iowa farm and would likely be there still, if I could have found a way to afford to stay. When I graduated from high school, the industrialization of agriculture was well on the way, beginning with heavy mechanized equipment expenses. I always wanted to return, as Wendell Berry did, but could never find the means. I sometimes tell Marlene of my continued wishes for a real farm, to which she laughs and asks me how I would have the energy to operate it. OK, I’m almost 74 years old and, since I insist in “farming” without power tools, I have about enough to keep me busy. This is especially true since time is wasted reading and writing and walking and just poking around.

Both the problem and the fascination with this place is that it is like no other in which I’ve gardened: Iowa, the Northwest, the old cooler, wetter Bay Area, or Kauai. Wendell Berry’s old farmers insist that one can’t learn farming from books; one must learn from those with dirt experience. I agree, but who around here has had experience with the effects of climate change? The warming and drought present a situation for which there is little precedence except, sort-of, in the Southwest and Northern Mexico. Every step is an exploration of possibilities. I want to tell you about some of these.

When we moved in almost eight years ago, there was no evidence anyone had attempted to grow almost anything here, except for some lawn that had become a gopher-infested dog run. Blackberries and poison oak infested the stream bank. The areas that were to become row vegetables, fruit and nut trees, and a chicken yard were annual grass covered and adobe hard. Because of these challenges, the first step was to build raised beds with wire underneath and to chase gophers. We’ve been fortunate to be able to get several loads of grape pumice, press remains, each year, which I compost and spread here and there and everywhere.

Much of my adult life, wherever I’ve been, rental or owned, I’ve planted fruit trees. For several years while on Kauai, I planted an orchard of dozens of tropical fruit trees of many different species as well as over fifty varieties of bananas (yes, fifty, and each better than those in the supermarkets) and large gardens. In the tropics, a tiny treelet can become a large heavily-bearing tree in three or four years – imagine mountains of mangoes. Given our present valley oak ceiling and that experience, I was early attracted to building a permaculture forest garden, that is a garden of perennial herbs and fruiting shrubs, small trees, and vines growing much as such plants would in a mature forest. It’s happening, with many failures but many successes. What was pretty much an adobe desert has become filled with herbage, including several large trees that I planted bare root a few years ago.

One tree of which I’m particularly pleased is an Asian fruiting mulberry, which has been bearing heavily and is now over forty feet high. The birds love it. On Kauai, two of our favorite trees were breadfruit and jackfruit, so I’m fond of their mainland mulberry and fig relatives. As has the mulberry, several figs are also becoming large trees. A friend warned me that mulberries have terrible surface roots that spread over the ground and ruin lawns. Since this one doesn’t, I assume the reason others are experiencing problems is that their soil is shallow and hard with only a lawn crust. Ours is deep creek bottom, as evidenced by the oaks.

Instead of blackberry and poison oak, the stream bank now is lined with willows, mint, erosion-tough perennial grasses, bamboo, flowering cherries, elderberries, bears’ britches, and vinca major as well as the native bay, oak, and alder. Coyote bush has favored us. A pile of adobe apparently heaped up when the house was built has become a California dry-land garden with sages, California fuchsias, lavenders, feather grass, rosemary, oregano, artemisia, and related plants. Around this, more watered, a navel orange, a mandarin, and several blueberries are growing in the sun, while behind is a fig, a miniature persimmon, several currents, and other woody plants including two paw paws. A friend told me a short while ago that his paw paws were bearing this year for the first time in fifteen years; I hated to tell him that ours are after only six years. On the far side are heavily bearing elephant heart and Santa Rosa plums. There is nothing neat about this garden or much of what I plant; it is an attempt to purposely create a feeling of wildness. This adobe may be hard to work, but it is rich and water apparently lies not too far down.

We had a couple of Japanese dates, but the deer who visit our front yard seemingly found them delicious. Somewhere we read that a strong fish line stretched a foot or so off the ground would be a barrier deer wouldn’t cross. From our one experiment, it appears to work most of the time. We do so enjoy watching the deer, especially the several fawns that were born this year, on the hill behind our backyard. The other evening, we watched a doe, her two fawns, and a two point buck walk slowly along the hill just beyond the fence. While we fence them out of the vegetables, I don’t like fences that much.

The finches are a much worse problem. We must cover our leafy seedlings or they shortly disappear. I finished planting a couple dozen lettuce starts one evening and lingered before covering them the next day until 1:00. By that time, they had all disappeared. Such is the thanks we get for offering bird feeders. Aw, but the color and song. So, we are now covering every seed and seedling we plant with white row cover.

I didn’t have fencing for two almonds that I planted this last spring. Until just the other day, the deer left them mostly alone. One morning, they were almost stripped. I had no fencing. What to do? Nearby, a horsechestnut had fallen over. After I had collected what could be utilized for firewood, some long branches remained. In Eric Sloane’s book described below, he tells of pioneers using tree roots removed after felling the trees to build fences. An idea blossomed: I used the branches to form barriers around and over the almonds, which so far is working.

We have been watching the economy wither for, what, three years or more since it was pointed out to me that so many were purchasing houses with funny-business mortgages. I’ve felt since, surely, the late sixties that this American civilization is held up by an essentially quixotic belief that life is becoming better and better for almost all of us and this will continue for the rest of our lives and those of our descendants unto the stars. This is but a dream and we’re now waking up. It is a culture all based on money-denominated values, and money has value only when we share a belief it does. Such might work on a small scale, as Adam Smith supposed, but not on this grand scale with manipulators sowing confusion at every turn. How much is a house really worth to you?

The question we’ve long explored is how can we detach from this madness? Growing our own food is one obvious answer. In another small way, I’ve found is to use hand tools whenever possible. There is a lot of joy here. Very fine gardening, woodworking, forestry, and general purpose hand tools are still available, produced by hand as works of art. Some few are manufactured here, but mostly we look to Europe, especially Germany, and Japan for the finest ones – wish we had a skilled local blacksmith to produce them for us as in the old days. Indeed, if one has the skills, these tools produce far better results than all those electrical and petro-tools filling our hardware stores. Of course, I’m influenced by the fact I was born and spent most of my first ten years on a Midwestern farm that had no electricity or indoor plumbing and was tilled with horses. I was hand-milking cows by the time I was twelve and raised on raw milk.

Recently, I happened upon one of Eric Sloane’s wonderful books in Dave’s bookstore: “Diary of an Early American Boy: Noah Blake 1805”, which was published in 1962. Fifteen year old Noah was growing up on a farm on the recently-frontier, maybe Ohio. Two paragraphs struck me as apropos to our future:

“In modern times when everything a person needs may be bought in a store, there are very few handmade things left. So we are robbed of that wonderful satisfaction that comes with personal accomplishment. In Noah’s time, nearly every single thing a person touched was the result of his own efforts. The cloth of his clothing, the meal on his table, the chair he sat in, and the floor he walked upon, all were made by the user. This is why people had an extraordinary awareness of life. They knew wood intimately; they knew the ingredients of food and medicine and inks and paints because they grew it and ground it and mixed it themselves. It was this awareness of everything about them that made the early American people so full of inner satisfaction, so grateful for life and all that went with it. Nowadays, modern conveniences allow us to be forgetful, and we easily become less aware of the wonders of life.”

“We’re apt to ponder why almost everything of the old days was initialed and dated. It was because almost everything was made by the one who initialed it; the date was added because everyone was so completely aware of the times in which he lived.”

Interestingly, 15 year old Noah was apparently no longer attending school and was working responsibly and hard. Yet, he evidenced no complaints and was a fine writer.

As one reads that book, it becomes clear they didn’t make everything themselves. Specialist craftsmen were relied on for much. Blacksmiths made saws, axes, scythes, and other metal objects that required exceptional skills; woodworkers constructed barrels, buckets, wheels, wagons, and cabinets; weavers produced cloth; millers ground grain; rope makers wove ropes; and tanners, cobblers, and harness and saddle makers worked leather. And let us not forget the potters and brickmakers.

I don’t much like machines. Over thirty years ago, we bought a Troy-built Horse rototiller to till our gardens. It lasted us for eighteen years before we sold it and I loved it. Only later was I to learn about “Ploughman’s folly” by Edward H. Faulkner, which was published in 1945. Faulkner’s recognition was that as a mold-board plow is drawn across the soil, the base of the furrow is compacted. As a field is continually plowed year after year, the compaction becomes increasing impermeable to roots and the resulting soil becomes only as deep as the plow. It turns out that most rototillers suffer from the same fault. So, when I determined to turn a piece of adobe sod into a vegetable garden, I used a rototiller here only the first year to break up the top few inches of hardpan.

The second year I double-dug it by hand using a shovel and fork, which loosens the ground to about a foot and a half deep. Since then, each year and sometimes more than once, I only deep fork it. My deep fork has 7 tines each 14 inches long, a long horizontal bar on which to balance my weight when shoving the fork in the ground, and two long handles with which I can pry the ground up. The garden’s tilth is now such that deep forking is fairly effortless, though still great for arm and back strengthening and tuning balance. No tiller gets that deep and, we are told, it also disrupts the soil’s natural layers. Anyhow, after working a few hours with a shovel and fork or with the deep fork, I feel I’ve done something personally pleasing, which I never felt with the noisy smelly tiller – or with any of the many jobs I had during my so-called working years in offices and classrooms. I feel the same antipathy about chainsaws, but do so like my table saws and rechargeable drill – which doesn’t mean I’m unprepared to do without them.

The garden soil is now tilth-rich and deep, but I feel it will take a couple more years of grape pumice, winter cover crops, and chicken and rabbit manure to get it where I want it. Anyhow, we pretty much feed ourselves vegetable and fruit-wise with what we are growing ourselves or gathering nearby. We also have a dozen chickens producing eggs and rabbits for some of our meat: six does and two bucks. We buy additional meat, beef and pork, and milk from local farmers. An adventure: the two of us have personally butchered a pig the last two years and will do so again this one – it seems we must keep this secret from local vegetarians; by doing so, we debone everything but the ribs, which saves immensely on freezer room. Marlene makes wonderful bacon. One problem we still must solve is how to produce for ourselves or acquire locally the means to feed our livestock and some grains for our own bread-making use.

We are raising a fair amount of so-called Indian corn from seed originating in the Southwest and Mexico for cornmeal. We are experimenting with barley as a winter crop this year and quinoa, which is also drought-tolerant, next summer. We are also experimenting with grain sorghum and amaranth, both of which are drought-tolerant and productive as summer crops. Each of these latter can be fed to livestock without threshing and are nutritious human foods as well – In her “The Encyclopedia of Country Living,” Carla Emery has tempting recipes with which we shall be experimenting.

Vetch grows wild on the hills around here and I’ve planted and will plant more seeds here and there. It appears to make good hay. I learned to scythe from my grandfather and find I still remember. Like deep forking, I find it enjoyable. Sigh, the scythe is Austrian-made. We also plant vetch as a winter garden cover crop.

A related hand labor task ahead is to dig ditches to route water flowing from the hills behind into our gardens. I’ve been waiting for rains to loosen the soil, which it now appears to be. I also plan to install water barrels under the house’s eaves. There are no end to projects and I crank away.

Our potatoes produced a good crop this year. It’s early, but the Jerusalem artichokes and yacon appear to be doing well. It happens that cana can be a significant root vegetable; two varieties we are growing appear to be very productive and promising – one named edulis is over six feet tall with many shoots and isn’t blooming, while the other is about 5 feet and has bloomed all summer with lush peach flowers; new shoots are just starting. We planted four varieties of sweet potatoes we hoped would produce, but the cool summer hasn’t helped; we will continue our attempts next year in a raised bed. The difficulty with root vegetables is that they all require deep rich soils that are not allowed to dry. Solution: mulch, mulch, mulch, with additions of rabbit manure, all of which worked fine for the potatoes.

Then, there are those hungry gophers that so love root crops. We had been using those expensive battery-operated vibrators, but really hated to use the batteries. A couple months ago, we purchased a windmill from Lehman’s that is advertised to deter moles. It is finely constructed entirely of metal by a Georgia firm and mounts on an eight foot ½ inch steel pipe. If it works for moles, I’m thinking it will for gophers as well and save all those batteries. Then, there is gopher plant ….

We have some marvelous weeds that are spreading everywhere: radishes, mustards, parsnips, chicory in various forms, dandelions, chard, and dock. All have edible leaves in at least the spring and often much of the year. All have tap roots, which seem to be ignored by the gophers, that pull nutrients from deep below. We allow them go to seed and spread, even assist them.

Of every annual vegetable that grows well here, we are saving seeds. Since we can’t get sufficient separation, often hybridization naturally occurs, So, we are attempting to develop so-called landraces adapted to this place. Hybrid seeds originating from commercial sources are supposedly one-size-fits-all in regard to growing regions, but none are. Thus, when we purchase seeds, we try to find heritage sources that have environments close to our own. I hope our community at large can begin exchanging vegetable seeds from plants that have been successfully grown here with non-hybrid heritage origins. To be successful, we must share.

I’m attempting to increasingly concentrate on perennial vegetables, such as sorrels, good king henry, and kale from the Isle of Jersey that has been continuing to spread rooting as it goes for three years now. The root vegetables I described above are such. I intend to offer plants at the Farmers’ Market next spring. I’ll be looking preferably for trades, not money.

Even though we raise much of our own, as I noted we still depend upon local farmers for meat and milk and would for some grains as well, if any were available. Most of you will likely also rely increasingly on them, so preservation of our farmers is a imperative task for all of us – that is, those farmers who produce for local consumption. Theirs is the one local business of which we can’t do without.

The factors that drive everything are increasing heat and drought. Yes, the sun spots went out this year, which temporarily cooled the sun, and El Niño is bringing a rainy winter, we hope. But, the ocean continued to warm. As reported in a recent Guardian, a catastrophic 4C increase in global average temperature. 10C at higher latitudes, with widespread drought is now projected for around mid-century if changes aren’t made soon. Atmospheric greenhouse gasses continue to collect, glaciers are rapidly crumbling on Greenland and in the Antarctic, and polar seas are now projected to be ice free by 2012. In the far normally-wet northwest corner, Bellingham, WA, had a record high temperatures this summer with water rationing. Meanwhile, the G20 conference that was expected to deal with global warming was a washout, Obama’s global warming speech to the UN was more about economic growth – he promises only 5 percent reduction by 2020 and hopes new energy sources will compensate. Other preparations for Copenhagen appear to be far too little and too late.

Every UN member must approve a Copenhagen treaty before it takes effect. Those in developing countries are saying you first to the United States. If we are to have a two-thirds chance of keeping the world’s temperature under 2C, a German team headed by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, who ranks among the world’s half-dozen most eminent climate scientists, warns that according to one scenario the United States must cut emissions 100 percent by 2020 – in other words, cut out carbon emissions entirely within ten years with the rest of the world following a short time later, since everyone expects the U.S. to go first and only then will they agree. If cuts were to be shared equally around the world, Schellnhuber’s team calculates that by 2020 every person must be restricted to an annual emissions quota of 2.8 tons of carbon dioxide per person; Americans emit twenty tons per capita annually. We’re in a catch 22 situation: the world economy fails soon or we burn up – if it isn’t too late already – but, the world’s politicians and population at large can’t deal with these options. How could they? Can you? Are you willing into reduce your utilization of electricity to 1/7th your current level? Your auto driving by the same amount? Your purchases of groceries and clothing? How about police and fire protection and other government services such as the mail, sewers, and fresh water? Suppose you have to cut 100 percent? So sad.

By the way, some are advocating eliminating meat production, claiming that cows in particular are the cause of our climate problems. Certainly factory production is a huge problem, but before intensive agriculture destroyed their range and slaughtered them, great herds of buffalo and elk spread across almost all of the territory now subsumed by the United States. There is now persuasive evidence that without ungulates’ sharp hooves breaking up hardpan soil, seeds can’t find purchase to sink their roots. As always, simple solutions usually aren’t.

I refuse to feel hopeless. I’ve planted hundreds of trees in my life, dozens just since moving here. Even while living and working in Silicon Valley, we attempted to live close to the Earth, minimize our impact, and plant, plant, plant. If we all do this, the problems will be solved. Throughout all the ages humans have been on the Earth, we have thrived with far less. But, if so, capitalism, except for local exchanges, will fail. For the Earth, may it be so.

A goody saved for the last: a few months ago, we purchased a quarter cup of kefir grains. We have regularly been producing kefir since and our grains have grown to fill a pint jar. Of course, we could eat the excess, but we’d like to share. Kefir grains give the appearance of being hard curds. When they are added to fresh milk and allowed to sour at room temperature for a day or so, kefir may be strained off and the grains collected and added to more milk to continue the process indefinitely. This is the classic kefir that originated on the Western Asian plains hundreds, likely thousands, of years ago, not the commercially cultured look-alike. We are now preparing a gallon of fresh raw cows’ milk every day or so and using the resulting kefir instead of yogurt, which is much more intensive to make. They each have those wonderful lactobacillus, but kefir has a more extensive mix. We got our grains originally from a person who was making kefir from raw goats’ milk. We’ve not found pasteurization to be necessary, since kefir bacteria are so active that they overwhelm any that may be delivered in the milk. Incidentally, I had thought I was unable to digest milk, but since I’ve been drinking milk that hasn’t been homogenized, the problem has disappeared. So, if you can’t get fresh raw milk, I urge you to consider Strauss’ non-homogenized cream-top milk.