Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Resettling of America

Wendell Berry is a national treasure. He's a productive writer, and is also known for his environmental activism based on a strong moral sense and unique ability to state deeper truths. He is by far known for his poetry and fiction, but his nonfiction essays are what are most compelling to me. (Though I do need to read more of his fiction)

Wendell Berry's book "The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture" was written in 1977, the year I was a junior in college. I read the book three years ago, at age 58, after having just bought 44 acres and returned to the land after decades of urban/suburban life.

In this book, he critiqued the long term trend here in America of urbanization. As more people moved from the land, farming changed into a fossil fueled industrial model.  People's connection to the land was no longer central, and a sense of stewardship was replaced by profit at all cost. He argued that the very fabric of our society became torn. He pointed out several governmental and institutional enablers for the trend. The great urbanization, and decline of family farms and rural America is still where we are today.

The wikipedia article on Wendell gives more info on his views and impact on our culture, so go there for more of that. My point here is to follow up on his observations in the Unsettling book.  He felt that the land grant colleges had become beholden to industrial ag, and no longer helped innovate and research ways for small farms to succeed. He also felt that the government itself was captured by corporate interests, and had abandoned the family farm.

I was part of the urbanization trend, and not so much by choice. Small family farms were going bankrupt in the late seventies, early eighties, and it looked like a dead end trap to many of us farm kids. None of my brothers or I stayed on the farm.  

But now, in 2016, I think we are beginning to see a reversal of the urbanization trend, and I do not mean white flight to the suburbs. While the rural/urban split is still the norm, I have begun to notice that young folks are recognizing the suburban lifestyle feels like something is missing.

As our economic empire slowly declines, there are less opportunities for them in the "knowledge economy", and the service sector is a rigged game and a poverty trap. Living where I do, I have met many young folks who have moved to the area with no more to their names than a car, some clothes, and a glimmer of an idea. They are determined to figure out how to make an intentional living by growing food, and reconnect with the land.

Of course, long term ( two to four hundred years, give or take? ) , resettling the land as a more agrarian culture and economy will be inescapable as fossil fuel enabled mechanization will become more expensive, and eventually very minimal. Human and animal labor will replace hydrocarbons to an uncertain extent over time. We should recall that at one time, well over 50% of the population worked at farming, and they fed the rest of the population. It's not like human scale farming is an unknown thing. It will be fascinating to see what blend of traditional ways and more recent knowledge our future farming will become.

In the coming years, we will once again learn the true cost of food. 

Now is the time to get back through the learning curve of farming without diesel fuel or synthetic fertilizers. Much of the knowledge is still out there, ( I live near Amish, who farm with horses, as well as some homesteaders who are off grid and making a go of it) with a few practitioners already leading the way, but it needs to be spread and shared, and above all, practiced. I find that leafing through the books gives me a good start, but real hands on experience is irreplaceable. I personally am only early in my journey, but know where I am headed.

We are at the very early start of another great transition, and in some ways, it is exciting, but no mistake, weaning off of fossil fuels will be painful and a hardship. The earlier we start, ( with the training wheels on, so to speak) the easier it will be. While inescapable, the reestablishment of community and local connections will be I think a positive result.

( As a post script, I am aware that this reflection is only about the European experience, and does not address the fact that the continent was already fully settled and in equilibrium with the land before we arrived. I may post thoughts on that sad genocide some other time)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

fanning mills

Well, I just today did my first Craig's List purchase. My kids are embarrassed but accepting of my backward "technophobe" behavior, and I still haven't bought anything through ebay, but this item was too intriguing to pass up. 

I have been researching manual threshing, winnowing, and there are not a lot of recent or current developments available. There are one or two gems shared on youtube, and lots of klutzy half hearted gadgets, but no commercial options, or detailed plans. There are a few commercially available "desktop" electrically powered seed cleaners out there, but they are pretty expensive. Of course India and China are teaming with businesses that would appear to be cranking out small scale agricultural equipment, but how does one get more detail than a fuzzy image on the screen or find a local distributor?

So I bought a fanning mill. It is in fairly good shape, and I see what needs repair, and feel confident I can make the fixes.

We are currently growing dry beans for soups, and have been hand threshing, shelling and winnowing. We have the time, and it's not that bad to sit and shell pods for a while each evening, but as we begin to do more and more food preservation and start growing small grains, our time will need to become more efficient.

The one I bought was made by Johnson and Fields, a fairly prominent brand at the time. The model was named the "Racine". The history has been hard for me to track down so far, but apparently Racine Wisconsin was a hotbed for fanning mill manufacturers, so Racine almost became a generic term for this general style of mill. At one time, there were scores of fanning mill makers, and thousands were sold every year for about 40-60 years. 

The history of fanning mills here in the states is interesting for a few reasons. They were first invented in the late 1700's, and as the fertile midwest and great plains expansion happened in the 1800's, there were thousands of small farms needing more efficient ways to process small grains for seed and for market. Going from flails and winnowing baskets to fanning mills was a big step, but once steam powered threshers started coming into agriculture, these fanning mills got tucked away in the barn, or left outside, nearly all to eventually rot and disappear. Seed cleaning is now nearly all done by commercial grain elevators, but there are still a few farmers out there, especially in the upper midwest grain belt that clean seed using electrical powered modern equipment. 

Here is the fanning  mill. You can see the overall shape and size here. 

Here is a closeup of the hand crank, gearing, and the fan blades inside the housing. I plan to change from hand crank to pedal power. The bushing where the crank mounts through the wooden support leg is wallowed out, so I need to fix that.

Here are the screens and the exit point for chaff. I've pulled out the screens for repair and to get dimensions so I can order screen with various sized holes/mesh.

A view of the fan housing from the other side. The fan axle is steel, all the other fan components are wood.

Here is the feed hopper. A screw adjustment allows setting flow rate to optimize speed without overloading the screens.

I will do another post in the future to update with repairs made and our first winnowing trials. Maybe next spring I'll plant what Gene Lodgsdon called a "pancake patch". Just enough wheat to make flour for pancakes on occasion. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Cornish Cross and turkeys- our first attempt

Cornish Cross is a chicken breed that has been specially selected to grow very quickly. It is the chicken you buy in the grocery store.

Last year, our first batch of chickens were dual purpose birds, good at free ranging, and laying eggs as well as a reasonable meat bird. The roosters went in the freezer, but it took around 12 weeks to get to a reasonable weight, and the meat was on the tough side because of their age. Fine for canning, stews, and the like, but not as good for frying or roasting. The hens are still doing fine with egg production, so this year we decided to just get some meat birds, and get it over quickly.

Cornish Cross are known for their lethargic, unchickenlike behavior, as well as the fast weight gains, and they did not disappoint. In a way it was comical, as they lay around a lot, waiting for meal time, and they never did take to the roost I provided.

My wife and I butchered the 25 cockerels at the end of eight weeks, when live weights reached six to seven pounds.

I was careful to only feed them per the instructions with the feed, or they would have had leg problems and be prone to heart attacks. I actually weighed the feed each day, and the feed trough was picked clean every single time by the next meal. Our layers never do completely clean up the feed, and are constantly out foraging, and have used the roost from a very young age.

The chickens are tasty and tender, and we may well do them again, while keeping our foraging layers going as well. Probably next year the by then "old" hens will be bound for the stew pot.

If anything, turkeys are even dumber than the Cornish Cross. We raised the broad breasted bronze. WE kept them separate from the chickens till they were around eight weeks old, having heard about black head and coccidiosis.  They seemed to have more of a flocking instinct than chickens, and like to go hang out with the hens, or follow where the rooster leads. We might try a heritage breed next year.

I butchered our four turkeys around three weeks ago. This was another first, as I had never done turkeys before. Found out our scalding pot was just big enough for a turkey. We got lucky on that, as I hadn't thought about turkeys when selecting it. The tom weighed in at 22 pounds (10kg).

Sunday, August 28, 2016

root cellar upgrade

Our home has a root cellar that the builder attached right to the house, with access through a door in our utility room. Since the house is built in to the side of a hill, the root cellar is on the same level as our main living space, and quite convenient.

Hoever, the builder did a couple things wrong, so I am finally improving the performance with some modifications this summer, in preparation for the upcoming root vegetable harvest.

Only one vent was provided in the ceiling of the root cellar. Correct design has two vent pipes, one that exits from the ceiling, and one that has a pipe extending down close to the floor. When cold weather begins, the cold air flows down the pipe, and warmer air in the root cellar exits through the top vent. this all happens automatically since the colder air is denser and stays down at floor level, displacing the warmer air.

I had to rent a hammer drill and a concrete drill bit, and cut a new hole through the top of the root cellar. The drill worked fine, and a piece of 2 inch ( 50mm) PVC pipe is now set to bring cool air in to the cellar. Please ignore that other hole, which will be filled back in. Mistakes were made.

 Existing pipe is to the right in the middle of the chives patch. The new one will be caulked in and have its return elbows glued on shortly.

The other thing I did was repair the foam insulation board that was covering the roof of the cellar. Since the top of the cellar is so close to grade level, they only had room for a few inches of soil, so they put foam on the roof before backfilling. Over time, this had deteriorated. In addition, there was a water leak between the root cellar and the house foundation wall. It was minor, but getting worse. I redid the foam boards, and used spray foam to fill the gaps. 

This style of foam board has a stucco like coating to help protect it. I'll still be covering it back up with dirt.

Our root cellar should get cold quicker, and stay cold longer, keeping our veggies in prime condition.

Finally got some sand and a couple totes to store root crops in. Those go in next.

I also bought a cheap humidity meter/thermometer, so I can keep track of the humidity, and possibly adjust if needed. 

One more summer photo- Our Roma tomatoes have produced fairly well, but we got some early blight ( I think) that is slowly killing the plants, causing some of the tomatoes to fall off before fully ripening. We're just letting them redden up a bit more in the sun room before canning.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

what to complain about?

Complaining is a well loved traditional small talk topic and group cohesion behavior us social primates engage in a lot. We commiserate about our commute, the local sports team's woes, our children's misbehavior, the restaurant that gets your order wrong, or long checkout lines, or whatever is handy. With farmers, it is especially important to complain about the weather. It is done constantly, and is usually the first thing farmers mention when greeting each other. It's too dry, too wet, too hot, too cold, too windy, on and on.

Only one problem this year. The weather in our area has been wonderful. Not too dry, no exceptional downpours, and rains at uncannily regular intervals, such that we hardly ever watered our garden. Cool enough earlier that the brassicas did well, and enough warm later for the peppers and tomatoes to ripen. So what's a guy to chit chat about?

I've decided this summer to complain about what to do with all the veggies pouring forth from our garden. Too much to eat, too much to process, preserve and store. It's all hitting at once! What a waste, if we don't pluck every tomato and pepper and okra pod, or get those broccoli heads all in before they bolt. And the weeds! they are constantly shooting up and haven't slowed down this summer like they usually do. This is the Queen Anne's lace summer of the century. What's a guy to do?

Seriously though, the weather has been great, and our continual build up of the garden soil with cow manure seems to really be showing results.

So, just this once, I'll briefly stop whinging, and say I'm really thankful for a good growing year. What are you thankful for?

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Our sixth season gardening

It's early July, and we are well in to the sixth season of gardening here on our little farm. We've learned a lot, gotten better at it, but still have a long way to go. While we are planting a large garden that provides nearly all our veggie needs, its productivity and long term health still need improving. Just a look at our neighbors smaller, but lush and very well done garden reminds us that we are still on a journey.

Things that we've noticed so far this year:

We've been putting composted cow manure in the rows for three years now, and each year it seems the soil tilth is better, and the plants are more vigorous. We get some weed seed along with the nutrients, but they are mostly broadleaf weeds that pull or hoe very easily as long as we get them young.

By far our best year yet for peas. Party of it is better soil tillage, better soil because of the manure, better plant spacing, and more careful watering, but I still wonder if there is some other unnoticed variable of spring weather patterns that the pleas  just like this year.

Our first year for Colorado potato beetles. They finally found us. We have about 120 linear feet ( 36m) of potatoes, and about half have shown infestation. We are hand picking every other day or so, and so far the damage is not too bad.

Our brassicas show little cabbage moth damage so far, but will keep monitoring, as we had them last year, and there is still a ways to go. We've been harvesting kale and collards leaves, but the broccoli, cabbage, and brussels sprouts still are at risk.

Much less vole and rabbit damage this year- all the upgrades to the fencing has paid off, and we did not try sweet potatoes this year after last year's vole carnage. Might try them again next year, but need to come up with a trick to keep the voles at bay.

Have been lousy at taking photos, but here is a shot of our yard- we stopped mowing when the birds foot trefoil came on. Since we have two beehives now, we want plenty of food for them.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The last of the hazel nuts ( at least for now)

This past week, our permaculture guru friend planted another 2800 hazelnuts on our farm. This is the last open area that can be planted with large scale methods, with layout conducive to mechanized harvest. Any other trees we plant from here on out will be small numbers, and done by hand.

The hazelnuts that were planted in 2012 were challenged by drought conditions that year, but many survived, though some died back and are slowly recovering.

Here is one of the 2012 hazels

And here are some of the 2014 hazels (around 2500 all told). They had a well timed rain after planting, and are doing well. I don't mulch or use herbicides, but do mow next to the trees the first two years. These trees get little coddling, but the overall input costs are low as well.
And here are a couple of the brand new 2016 hazels, planted about two weeks ago.

All of these hazels were planted with a tree planter kind of like this one:  pulled behind a tractor .

Unfortunately, we had a late hard frost that hit just as the nut trees were at their most sensitive. It also knocked all the sumacs back  on their heels. Here is one of our chestnuts, not sure if they will recover. Interestingly, the hazels had leafed out earlier, and were past the critical stage, and were not affected.

Even many of the large established hickories and oaks in our woods were hit hard. We'll see if these small ones have enough reserves left to recover, otherwise we'll be doing a lot of replanting.

Bonus photo- Our feral chives patch in bloom, that was already thriving when we moved here. Comes back strong every year.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

new arrivals on the farm

We just got our bees this past weekend. Two hives worth, placed in top bar hives with the help of a beekeeping neighbor. Plexiglass observation ports are behind those hatches on the side.

I had read books, visited websites, talked to a few people who had kept bees in the past, but when it came to opening the packages, and dumping in the bees, it was awfully nice to watch it done in person. It seems like there is always some little detail that I hadn't thought to pin down, and also, everybody has an opinion on how to do things. It turns out that is especially the case with keeping bees.  

These bees were bought from a local business, which emphasizes natural  beekeeping. There are no frames or wires or other impositions on the bee's comb making, simply the wood bars across the top, so it will be interesting to see what they turn out. We'll worry about honey later, maybe not try to get any till next year, depending on how well the hives fare.

Two weeks ago, we also started 30 chicks (Cornish Cross meat birds) and five turkey poults. We are still happy with the Black Australorps and New Hampshire Red hens from our first flock last spring, as they are popping out eggs and free ranging just fine, but wanted some chickens to just feed out quickly, and get in the freezer. So far, the chicks are behaving as advertised, eating like crazy, and gaining size so fast, the feathers can't keep up to cover them. They are supposed to be eight or nine weeks to butchering weight and done. I'm weighing the feed and being careful to ration them, as they will eat themselves into leg problems from too rapid weight gain otherwise. Another week or so, and we'll get them out on pasture, and see how that goes. I've heard mixed reviews.

Here are the turkeys just a couple days after arrival. They feathered out quickly, and their proportions now look more like their adult form. The Cornish Cross still look like round butterballs.

We've had a very dry spring, so I worry for the other newcomers, our trees. We planted 50 Korean pines for enhancing our windbreak and for the pine nuts, and will be planting 50 oaks and 50 chestnuts quite soon.I may have to do some watering to get them established and through their first year.

That's enough new arrivals for now.

Monday, April 25, 2016

carrying capacity

I have known about the concept of carrying capacity for a long time, but have been thinking about it more lately, as world news brings more and more evidence of humans bumping up against our planet's physical limits. It also is in the back of my mind as I consider what this 40 acres ( 16 hectares) might ( or should) look like in 20 years.

Carrying capacity is another of those fractal things, where it can be viewed from the planetary level, right on down to plant spacing in a garden row. 

Carrying capacity is also complex in that it's not just the human centric view of how many humans can be supported ( though that's usually what is implied) , but should really focus on long term overall health of the entire biota. And local ecosystems are not static either, evolving and going through cycles on different and sometimes random durations.

In looking at our farm, and food production in general, it can be tricky to draw an appropriate system boundary and fully account all the inputs and outputs crossing that boundary. Thought needs to be given on what a reasonable area is for calculating carrying capacity.

A watershed? A region? A homestead? I happen to live in the Kickapoo River drainage basin, or watershed. No question at all that I still import large amounts of fossil fuel enabled external inputs in our little farm, but I hope year by year to reduce that.

The reality is, humans have been transporting resources and materials across distances for millennia, though of course for the last  century give or take, we are a couple orders of magnitude beyond what can be done with muscle power or water or wind. 
It is pretty obvious that carrying capacity of a specific area is lower if no material movements or cross subsidies are done, and some balance will be struck at a much lower rate of production as we end the fossil fuel era. 

And human activity can affect the "base" carrying capacity absent external inputs as well. Trees can be cut down, soil eroded, square miles paved over in urban areas, with regrowth or healing taking from decades to centuries. In the other direction, trees can be planted, water retention structures built, or complex and resilient plant communities can be nurtured. 

Overall the planetary carrying capacity has been degraded by human actions quite a bit. A couple years ago, I posted about humans as a keystone species that lost our way. The rogue keystone species

I guess I'm still dwelling on it, and still hoping we can renew our role as a positive contributor and an intelligent collaborator with our fellow organisms.

Humans are ( hopefully, maybe?) a special case, in that we are able to anticipate, or imagine possible futures, and then steering our actions in the present to make them so. Human scale agriculture, permaculture, animal husbandry, and similar technologies give us the chance to increase our species' individual carrying capacity, but with wisdom, we could be improving the carrying capacity of a region for all its inhabitants.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

unplannned obsolescence

Og and Trog were creeping up on the megatherium, and each slowly nocked an arrow to prepare their attack. Only two men attacking a huge ground sloth was borderline doable, but they couldn't pass this up. As they drew back and began aiming, Og's bowstring went "twang!" and broke. 

"Well crap" he said. "I didn't bring a spare, have you got one?"

Trog said, "Sure; here, string it up before this beast gets away."
Og took it and unrolled it, and began to string it, but then he looked at it for a bit, puzzled. He then took one of his arrows, and tried to see if the string would fit in the arrow nock, which it did not, it was too thick.

He looked at Trog, and hissed "What the hell is this?" 

Og had been staring intently at the megatherium, but turned and looked at Og, who was almost hopping foot to foot, so anxious was he that the tribe's next week of meals was slowly shambling away, and he had no functional weapon. 

Og whispered back " Do you mean you are still using the OLD strings? Bog has been making the new stronger ones for four moons now. I can't believe this!"

Trog was purpling around the temples now, and said "Nobody told me about this crap, and you know I've missed the last three hunts with that leg the wooly rhino stepped on!" He sputtered "And besides, the old strings worked just fine."

"Well", Og said, "We don't dare try to take down this beast with only one weapon, I guess we are screwed."

Being paleo-Indians, they didn't talk much. This had been a remarkably extended conversation, brought on by extreme duress. They silently trudged back home, knowing that by the time they rearmed, the big lug would be long gone.

And so Og and Trog's tribe did not make it through the winter that year. Oh, there was still some game around, but it was getting more scarce every year, what with more and more mouths to feed, and another tribe taking up residence just two valleys over, and all the smaller game seemed to be quicker and more wary than the big lumbering ones they had relied on for many generations.

14,000 years later:

Steve remembered that he had tucked away the Home Power magazine collection on CD when they had moved, but had't looked at them for ages. When he had finally decided to move to a Mac instead of a PC, that had been one of the main reasons he made a point of purchasing the accessory external CD drive, since the Mac had no disc drive. He was thinking this might be the year to do solar thermal water heating, and wanted to go back and pull up the best articles for review. 

He fed the first CD into the drive. It hissed and clicked, the software finally launched, and the table of contents came up on the screen.

The first article he clicked on did not come up however. Instead, a message said that Apple no longer supported power PC. "But these are PDFs, why does that matter?" he thought.  Steve, not being a computer whizz, had no idea why the Mac was not backward compatible with what he thought was a universal format. 

He played around with different ways of trying to get at the files, but to no avail. How odd, the table of contents come up, but not the individual files. This was over his head. 

He then used bad language, a bad habit which showed no signs of going away.

Yes folks, all those terabytes of research, heartfelt blog droppings, cat videos, and political memes that our species cranks out continually will be as mist over a pond come the morning sun. Slowly fading and gone forever. Oh, some of it might still exist in some sense, but after twenty upgrades and four format revolutions, it will be as useless as a Clovis point would be to try to start your car with.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

genetically modified organisms

OK, Here is my take on GMOs, so I'm getting into the opinion side of things, as opposed to farm updates. (The blog name "Virid views" can be taken two ways. It is both things I see along the journey, as well as my views on what I see.)

I oppose the use of genetically engineered organisms.

Before I list my concerns, this is where I am coming from. My opinion is partly science based, and partly value based. Regarding the science, I will give researchers the benefit of the doubt as I would with any other area of public concern, that they are conducting the best science they can, and that their initial assessments are the best information we have to go on. 

That  said, I do have a concern with the science. While they have not found any health risks to date, it seems like everyone thinks that if it doesn't cause cancer or obvious first order observable effects, it is ok. This in spite of the fact that many other technologies and medical "advances" have ended up causing problems we were not able to anticipate or observe initially. Human hubris seems to be hard wired into the race, not to speak of the powerful drive for profits.

Ok, my concerns:
1. The science on GMOs is preponderately about human health, but not nearly enough about introduction of unique organisms into the biosphere that have not been the result of millions of years of interactive evolution with the rest of the biome. Hubris once again, but in this case, making the assumption that we understand enough about how the ecosystem works that we are comfortable tweaking a variable that could never have happened through normal evolutionary pressure. When we consider the two relatively new areas of research such as epigenetics and the human gut biome, we need to realize that there is a LOT we still don't know when considering the impact of new biotechnology.

2. Industrial agriculture is also centrally controlled agriculture. At one time, a small holding farmer was the epitome of autonomy and self reliance, but ask today's large commodity farmer about their livelihood, and many will say that they feel trapped and don't like how things are trending, but see no way out. They work their butts off like any permaculturist or organic farmer, but in many seasons are just a step ahead of the bank in paying off yearly production loans.  Seed saving is becoming illegal, options for seed become less every year, and profit making is a central motive for much of agriculture research. This is one more area of the economy that has been allowed to become an oligopoly.

The endless treadmill- We already see reports of herbicide resistant weeds, pesticide resistant bugs, and ag tech companies coming up with "stacked" genes, enabling them to kill weeds by drenching them with TWO herbicides that the food crop has been modified to resist. Where does this end?  

4. Competition through collaboration- Long term agriculture practice, to be truly sustainable, needs to work with nature, rather than against it. That does not mean that we return to hunter gatherers, or use no technology, but rather be smart about choosing methods, and have a bias towards initially observing rather than dominating. GMOs are an attempt to dominate and create monocultures suitable only for mans needs, not the overall ecosystem health. If nothing else, enlightened self interest would have us collaborate with, and share a bit bit more with our fellow organisms, rather than risk some tipping point we aren't yet aware of. It's time to move from r- selected behavior to K- selected behavior, and become the keystone species we were meant to be.

5. No turning back, or invoking the precautionary principle- GMOs are a unique technology in that once released in to the world, we can't stuff it back in Pandora's box. Natural powers of replication will take over, and a new stable state of the ecosystem might not be one we like. Just look at the disasters we have already caused by transporting organisms all over the globe (intentionally and unintentionally) into new biomes they were not a part of, and wreaking havoc. GE organisms would potentially result in even worse unbalancing events.

6. Resilience and brittle technology- The more we depend on fewer and fewer food crop genetics, the more at risk we are for a black swan event or single point failure that we have no back up plan for. There is a reason that nature expresses such a wild abundance of genetic variation- IT WORKS. It has stood the test of time, and overall biome health results because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. GMOs help make the food foundations of our society more narrow and unstable.

Some personal history- I was raised on a farm.  Back in 1970, Southern Corn leaf blight decimated the U.S. corn crop.

We had our losses, but not as bad as some. What had happened, was a natural genetic variation that eliminated expensive hand detasseling seed corn fields had been incorporated into nearly all seed corn in the U.S. It turned out that this variation was also especially susceptible to the blight. One dampish year, and disaster struck. By my sophomore year in high school, us rural kids all had summer jobs detasseling again. Seed companies all doing the same thing to save money was brittle or "unresilient" technology in action.

Unfortunately, we have already opened the pandora's box, and we are unlikely to turn back, and in some cases, where GE organisms have already "escaped" or cross bred, we can't turn back. 

In the mean time, some of us plant many varieties of heirloom veggies, slowly figure out how to get a good crop without chemicals, and try to regain resilience.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

sunroom seed starting or why we bought this house

I mentioned in my 2016 garden update post that the sunroom seed starting last year didn't go that well, and I plan to change things a bit to improve that. Here is the sunroom I am using to start our garden seeds. Photo taken the other day on a sunny, late winter day, as sun angle is starting to increase.

As you can see, I didn't tidy up for the photo, lots of things to notice. Firewood stacks, potting soil bags, self watering containers with herbs that stay green all winter, the big windows that admit sun into the living room, and even a treadmill so my wife can get the blood moving in the dead of winter. We have a big sliding door in to the room, and on sunny winter days, we have even left the door open to let warmer air in to the house.

A bit of history on the sun room. When we started looking for a small farm in this area, we soon found that real estate websites were a good way to get a feel for price ranges and features we might be able to afford (without spending hours traveling). 

Originally, I had wanted to just buy open land, and build a house and everything else from scratch. Arranging everything on permaculture principles and our own ideas sounded great. The farm we saw on the internet and ended up buying had a house, but the house had enough positive feature that  I gave up on my dream of building my own house. Looking back, it was a very lucky turn of events, as house building while still working a full time job would have been a nightmare. 

The sunroom was one of the features that sold us on the house ( I have already talked about the attached root cellar). The sunroom runs the full length of the south face of the house, and captures solar heat quite well.  Large windows between the sunroom and the living space also admit lots of light during the winter. I might go in to more detail later on how and why I ended up rebuilding it, but that's another story.

Starting seeds in here- Because of how I designed the roof overhang, the room actually gets the least direct sunlight during summer, when you don't need it, and gets lots of light during winter and the "shoulder months". The problem is that during nights, temperatures can still get too cold for seedlings to germinate or thrive, so I have used heat mats in the past, but not enough. I will use them even more this time. They are powered through a thermostat, so only come on at night when needed.
Like this one:

A future project is to possibly install thermal blinds on the
 large outer windows to close at night,  and fill some barrels with water to soak up heat during the day and release it during the night. Till then, I will unfortunately be using a lot of watts.

As I finally post this, the onion seeds have all germinated, and are looking good. Brassicas will be next to start in about two weeks.

Our first planting in the soil will be peas and potatoes, but the soil isn't quite ready for them yet. Can't wait!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

foraging black walnuts

I just started cracking the black walnuts I gathered this fall. I could have probably started well over a month ago, but just now got around to it. Black Walnuts ( Juglans nigra) are a common tree in the midwest, especially further south. In fact, Here in Wisconsin, we are about at their northernmost extent. What is pretty common across their range is that they aren't that widely grown in nut plantations, but rather are a part of the natural forest makeup or have been planted individually or in timber farms for their prized wood.

One company, Hammons, has ended up with a near monopoly on processing and marketing wild black walnuts by paying foragers to gather and sell at their hulling stations, set up around the midwest. Turns out there are a lot of people looking for a little extra cash, so they hand harvest  around 20 million pound ( 9 million kg ) each year. This is a unique business model for the United States, where nearly everything we eat is a product of the monocultured industrial food system. If you are eating black walnuts, you are eating wild food.

But the foragers can't get to all the trees, and many trees aren't near a hulling station, so scads of trees are left for someone to harvest. There are also many towns and suburbs where large old walnut trees are producing nice crops each year, but few seem to utilize this free food. 

Two reasons- first, they are one tough nut to crack. They are much harder to crack than the English, or Persian walnut most people are familiar with and buy at the grocery store. The husks are a bit messy to deal with also.

Here is the cracker I started using after I realized that a hammer was slow, wasteful and stupid. It works ok, but the larger nuts are right on the edge of what it can handle. I'll be looking for a stronger one.

Second-  they have a stronger flavor ( some might say better) compared to the English nut,  so some are put off at first, and never give them a chance. They are used commercially in confections, baking, and even ice cream, but not nearly to the extent of English walnuts. I personally think they pair very well with chocolate, so when I make brownies or chocolate chip cookies, they are my first choice. I also use them in the granola I make.

And, I suppose, many just don't want to go to the effort at all, since you can buy nice bagged, shelled nuts at the store! End result is there are a lot of walnut trees producing nuts every year that are unharvested or unwanted. I've actually seen Facebook posts where requests are made for anyone to come gather the nuts so the homeowner won't have to. 

My haul from the trees I was able to locate nearby this past fall. That is a lot of hand cracking to do sitting there.

After I first realized and started watching for unwanted walnuts, I started seeing them all over. And when we moved here in 2014, I had to start scoping out the area for more trees, and soon found that there are some experienced foragers in the area, with their prized trees they have "claimed". There are still enough unspoken for, so I was able to find a good number this fall, but hope to scout out and gather even more next year.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Garden plans for 2016

Got all our garden seeds ordered, and have received nearly all of them now. All told, we will be planting 25 different veggies. While we are not expanding our garden (much) we are trying a few new things each year, and here are the 2016 additions.

"potato" or multiplying onions- These onions are supposed to have multiple bulbs, and if subdivided at harvest, can provide both onions to eat and seed bulbs for the next planting. Never have to by onion seeds or sets again! Kind of like perennial onions. That's the claim anyway. We've tried both sets and seeds, with fair results, but onions from seed take forever.  It's actually getting close to time to start onion seeds. They are best planted in the fall, which we did. We'll see what comes up this spring.We will still be starting onions from seed as well.

Flint corn- Corn takes up a lot of room, and is a heavy feeder, but we are trying various corn types because sweet corn is a traditional summer food here in the midwest, and can be canned or frozen and preserved. But flint corn is the best for making your own corn meal, so we are trying the Floriani red variety, as I read a good review in Mother Earth News. 

Beets- Can't believe we hadn't got beets in the system till now. Finally going to plant them. We chose Red Ace variety, but just picked it more or less at random out of the Johnny's catalogue, and don't know how well it will do here. 

Hot peppers- We've done cayenne, jalapeƱo, and regular sweet peppers, but thought I would try poblanos to make our own chile rellenos, maybe make some ancho powder. The Tiburon variety is supposed to be medium hot.

Tomatoes- We'll try Mortgage Lifters this year. This is a classic, and we enjoyed the big slicers ( don't know the variety, we bought transplants from an Amish vendor) we had last year, so we'll do some again. Most of our tomatoes will be Roma tomatoes again, for canning sauce.

Seed starting in the sunroom- we did not do a good job of setting up the trays for warm loving plants last year, will do more to protect them on cool spring nights when the sunroom cools off. Our tomatoes from seed did terrible, that's why we bought additional plants from a local farmer.

The brassicas and other cooler weather plants did fine, but we'll use heat mats for the tomatoes and peppers more than we did last year. It was also a dilemma whether to move them back under lights for those long cloudy stretches. I think we'll just have to be more attentive and move them as needed more this time. A future project might be to install insulated blinds on the sunroom windows to close at night, but that will be a big project, and need to study the cost/benefit more before committing to.

Other new stuff for 2016- 

We are ordering some Korean pines to plant in strategic places. Korean pines are supposed to handle the cold here, and have large pine nuts, suitable for eating. I also want to beef up the windbreak west of the house, to help reduce winter winds.

Double dug spading for the potatoes and other root crops- I've heard about this John Jeavons promoted technique, but it's a lot of work. Will try to use the broad fork more as well, as most of our garden has fairly heavy soil. 

Bees- More on this later, but I'd love to reduce sugar purchasing, and use our own sweetener as much as possible. The box elder syrup worked fine last spring, so we'll do that again, but honey would have the bonus of boosting the pollinator population here. Just ordered the queens, and will be going with two top bar hives this spring.

Meat chickens- yes, we are going to try some Cornish Cross. Our first chickens, Black Australorps and New Hampshire Reds, did ok, but took forever to get to weight, and so the roosters were a bit chewy. The hens we kept are doing great as egg layers this winter, with production only dropping off a little bit. For the meat birds this spring, we'll plan to be careful with feed rationing and get them out on pasture as soon as possible to minimize the problems with Cornish Cross.

Rain water- will be collecting rain water off the pole barn roof, and gravity feeding to the garden to reduce well water usage. The north roof is already plumbed up and will water fruit trees, but the south roof will be for garden use. I have the storage tanks, but will wait till spring to install the piping from the gutter to the tanks.

As usual, I don't have much in the way of photos, but thought this might be fun to show. Off topic, but the pheasants around here are
the goofiest. I'm not sure if local hunters periodically stock the area, or what, but they are almost tame acting, and wander around seemingly aimlessly, making me wonder how they survive. They are happy to forage below our bird feeders right outside the window.

Days are getting noticeably longer now! Can't wait to get those first trays filled with potting soil.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

making hard cider

While it's known in other parts of the world as simply cider, here in the U.S. it's called hard cider, to designate that it has alcohol in it. For a few years now, has been making a comeback. Domestic production has risen 264% from 2005 to 2012. Cider was the drink of choice at one time, but the weird experiment in government overreach that was Prohibition ( 1920-1933) killed the cider industry. 

Good cider apples are different than your typical eating apple, so orchards switched to eating apples during prohibition. When Prohibition was over, grain based alcoholic beverages could ramp up a lot quicker than orchards, as trees take years to reach production. The profitability of eating apples is also hard to overcome.

Any way, cider seems like a very good option for permaculture, as it preserves the crop and the trees do not need annual tilling, planting, herbicides, etc... Currently, some mavericks are planting cider apple trees, but the demand is outstripping supply. Our farm has a few eating apple trees, and several large old "wild" apple trees that we need to clear around, prune, and see what they might be able to provide.

This fall, a nearby neighbor with an apple grinder and cider press invited all to bring their apples and make cider. We saved up several buckets of our apples and added to the mix. The resulting cider was a blend of whatever people brought, with most having no idea what variety they were bringing. We ended up with eight gallons ( 30 liters) of fresh squeezed cider, and needed a plan for what to do with it.

Coincidentally, the prior week we had finally bought home brewing supplies, and were getting ready to make our first batch of beer. So instead of beer, we put five gallons ( 19 liters) in the carboy, slapped on the air lock, and sat it in a back room. ( The rest was drank fresh or frozen for later drinking)
For anyone in South or Central Wisconsin, these folks were helpful and have a very well stocked store for home brewers:

The cider started working, but was very slow. As best I could tell from the hydrometer, we could theoretically end up with 5% or 6% alcohol. These were wild yeast, and you get the luck of the draw in how good they would be at converting the sugar. 

And even more coincidentally, a couple days later I was talking to another neighbor who had recently built a small ( micro?) cydery, and had been making cider for actual sale. He gave me some yeast nutrient, and said it would perk things up. It did. The yeast got to work and did bubble more quickly. After a couple weeks, things slowed down, and we got ready to bottle.

I'd read about the process, but reading and doing are two different things. I don't even remember all the terminology unique to home brewing. You rack bottles with a cane, as an example. When I do start cooking malt for beer, there will be even more terms to forget.

It took us a while to get the tubing to flow down to the bottles, and get a good routine down for filling and capping, but overall, it went rather well. We decided to experiment and put 1/4 teaspoon of sugar ( 1.25 grams) in each of two dozen of the bottles to get a little carbonation. All the others would be still cider, as the yeast had eaten up all the sugar, and would be generating no more carbon dioxide. 

At Christmas, we tried the carbonated bottles, and they did have some carbonation, and were drinkable. The cider we made was dry, tart, and not too bad, but the flavor profile was kind of plain. The still cider tastes the same, just no fizz.  I am getting used to it. Overall, a successful experiment, and now we have to empty the bottles so we can make beer. 

Always things to be done around here!

No photos of the process this post, I need to get better at capturing our escapades as they occur. For why it's worth, here is one of our better apple trees, in mid summer, with lots of apples ripening.