Reflections on July, 2014

Time keeps on tickin’ tickin’ tickin’ into the future.

To produce much of one’s own food is the epitome of self and family health.  It allows the grower to know exactly what went into the production of that food and thus, exactly what went into the bodies of the family who consumed it.  There is no worry about chemical pesticides or fruit being picked too early, or guilt about the underpayment of migrant workers.  There is no concern for wasteful water management practices or uncertainty about the amount of petrol used to ship that food thousands of miles to the plate.  When we grow our own food, we are doing simply that.  We are choosing thoughtful, responsible nourishment for our bodies and minds.

To produce much of our food is one of H.O.M.E. Farm’s greatest endeavors.  Unfortunately, that feat has taken a back-burner while the house is being constructed.  We were prepared to suffer some losses from heat, drought, weeds, and insect pressure.  However, I don’t think we were as prepared for the amount of time it takes to build such a labor-intensive home throughout the pregnancy, childbirth and associated recovery.  Not to mention the time it takes to really bond with a new baby.

Ti-i-i-ime is on my side.  Not!  Food production takes a lot of time that we simply haven’t had.  Our soil is very lacking in organic matter, bacteria, and life in general.  Our top-soil is only 4 inches deep in places.  If we had prepared the soil the previous year, we may have had a meager harvest this year, but we were still in Illinois then, finishing our degrees.

It is the end of July now, well into harvest season, when many farmers are cutting into freshly-picked watermelons and slathering butter onto their cobs of sweet corn.  Our harvests haven’t been nearly as generous.  Frankly, if it weren’t for the grocery store, we’d be slathering a poultice of grasshoppers onto our one cucumber, if the chickens hadn’t eaten it.

A Cucumber on a hugelkultur

Cucumber, before being stolen by chickens

I could go on and on about the death of our crops.  Grasshoppers, aphids, potato beetles, blister beetles, heat, and our own chickens have decimated much of our gardens.  We’ve been letting our 6 chickens free-range.  Overall though, the lack of nutrients in the soil has weakened the growth and protective responses of our plants.  Our cucumbers, peppers, and broccoli were doing so well in their seedling flats.  As soon as we transplanted them into the red dirt, they shriveled up like a person stepping into a bath of ice water.  We watered them well and mulched to no avail.  When our okra finally came up, it was stunted.  I’ve never seen okra that made fruits at a stumpy height of 1.5 feet.  They made really squat little pods too.  The dry beans (Swahili Grey and Calypso) did well for quite some time before they were devoured by blister beetles.  The greens that we planted early on (arugula, mizuna, and bok choy) never grew past their first true leaves before they shriveled and were consumed by grasshoppers.  Those little green and brown hoppers sure are pests.  They’re patient too.  They sit atop the Jerusalem artichokes just waiting for new growth to appear.  I tell ya, this growing season has just been one failure after another.

Fortunately, there are some plants that fared well and will be planted more extensively next year.  Red Russian kale did surprisingly well until the heat came.  It was one of the plants we were proud to point out to guests.  It had pale green leaves with bright purple stems and it grew to be about a foot tall.  And then the heat turned the leaves red before we got much of a chance to eat it.  And then the aphids decided to make homes and leave little eggs all over the back sides of the leaves.  And then the grasshoppers came and finished off what was left.  Next year, we’ll plant more of that and EAT IT before the insects do.

Kale in the "kitchen garden," just prior to devastation by grasshoppers

Kale in the “kitchen garden,” just prior to devastation by grasshoppers

The three-sisters keyhole garden has been quite disappointing.  Everything appeared to be doing well, except for some slight yellowish leaves, due to a lack of nitrogen.  After some time though, we noticed the lack of productivity in the keyhole.  The corn hasn’t had hardly any ears.  The yard-long beans produced a laughable harvest.  The squash and melons have not been pollinated, but have many flowers.  These last two things are due to the keyhole being positioned adjacent to the chicken coop I’m sure.  Oh, the lessons we’ve learned.

Three Sisters Keyhole Garden

Three Sisters Keyhole Garden

Our potatoes are a moderate success story.  We planted Oikos purple, La Ratte from Seed Saver’s Exchange, Red Pontiac, and Yukon Gold.  The potatoes we did in the hay bale (laying them right on the untilled soil and covering with hay) did fairly well, but not better than the ones planted on the hugelkultur.  We ended up with 4 pounds for every 1 pound we planted, versus Aaron’s grandpa, who got 40 for every 1.  He is in SW Oklahoma soil but uses conventional pest control.  I think we could have a really substantial potato crop if we could control the pests more effectively.

H.O.M.E. Farm Spuds

H.O.M.E. Farm Spuds

The rest of the plants that survived the soil, the heat, and the chickens are herbs.  Transplanted from containers of someone else’s soil mix, the sage, rosemary, lavender, and lemon balm have all fared well.  If only we could live on herbs alone.  We got all these plants from vendors at the Norman farmer’s market.

Sage plant

Sage has defended itself against the hoppers

Lemon Verbena and Mexican Mint Marigold

Lemon Verbena and Mexican Mint Marigold

And, in the custom of saving the best for last, our birdhouse gourds are doing wonderfully!  We purchased these little beauties from Seed Saver’s Exchange and will be saving some seed to grow in years to come.  When the vines get brown and shriveled, we’ll chop the fruits off, let them dry out, and then drill a hole in each and hang for birds to inhabit.

Birdhouse Gourds Growing Strong

Birdhouse Gourds Growing Strong

Despite not having the time for much in the way of gardening tasks, we were making a lot of progress on the house this month.  My parents and younger brother came to visit and they helped us work even though the temperature got up to 103.  My dad, being a Scout leader, and my younger brother, an Eagle Scout, showed us how to make cherry cobbler in the Dutch oven on the fire.  I just love to have family come to visit.

Family comes to help build the wall

Family comes to help build the wall

The heat has, at times, been intolerable.  We’ve been taking cooling dips in the birthing tank and we developed a routine for working during the cooler parts of the day, and sleeping during the hotter parts.  We find refreshment in spraying each other with the garden sprayer on the mist setting.  We keep baby cool and hydrated by keeping him in the shade and nursing often.  He doesn’t seem to mind the heat.  It hasn’t been too difficult to return to working on the house.  We have a pack n play set up in the house and one in the clubhouse, as well as a bouncy chair.  He lets us get an average of 5 hours of work done each day.

However, we’re back at the ‘rents house again.  Just when we established a really functional routine between work and baby, Aaron sprained his ankle.  We decided to erect poles ascending up from our central compass points in the domes.  The plan is to make shade over the house so we can get more work done.  He climbed to the top of one of these 20 foot poles to adjust a strap, and long story short, the pole buckled at the base and he slid down about 10 feet before falling and rolling his right ankle.  Because we can’t keep ice cold in the coolers for longer than 2 days, we decided to do RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) at his parents’ house.  I have been thanking the stars that this happened at the end of July, and not mid-October, when the weather is perfect for working.

Poles for tarps to create shade

Poles for tarps to create shade

We got some more chicks and guineas!  15 Buff Orpingtons and 15 mixed variety guineas.  5 of the guineas died during the “polar vortex,” when the nights got down to 60 degrees.  But since the temps have gone back up to the hundreds, they’ve been fine. The chicks and keets (baby guineas) are in the chicken coop inside of a smaller cage, so that the older chickens don’t harass them.  One of our older hens laid some eggs and got the “broody” instinct, so she’s been in the coop constantly with the babies.  I wonder if they’ll bond to her.  They are 2 weeks old in this picture.

Mamma Hen patrols the border of the chicks' and guineas' cage

Mamma Hen patrols the border of the chicks’ and guineas’ cage

I’d like to end with an experience that has given me a new outlook on beef production.  Due to Aaron’s handicap, Julius and I have had to move the cows.  Aaron’s dad has 39 cow-calf pairs on the 150 acres adjacent to us, which Aaron is managing in a rotational grazing operation.  He uses step-in posts and a single strand of woven poly-wire to fence off strips of land.  Limiting the time animals spend on a piece of land allows a longer plant recovery time.   There are a whole stack of functions that are performed by high-density, short duration management practices.  But that topic is a post of its own. In the meantime, here’s a link to a Ted Talk by Alan Savory, the author of Holistic Management.

Learning Rotational Grazing

Learning Rotational Grazing

We awoke the first day of the job and had oatmeal at around 8am.  We didn’t leave the house until 9am, so when we got to the farm at 9:40, it was already 85 degrees.  Julius has done this procedure with his dad many times, so he helped with getting us to the side with the charger.  We walked the half mile over to where the cows are, turned off the electric fence (solar charger) and began pulling up the posts, about 30 of them in the lane.  Then, we used the reel to collect all the poly-line.

Reeling up the poly-line

Reeling up the poly-line

This requires walking back and forth from one side of the pasture to the other about 4 times, at least for a person like me who’s never done this before.  There is shade in the middle surrounding the creek, but even in the shade, its 100 degrees.

This cow is hiding in the only shade she can find

Taking shelter from the sun in a tiny sliver of shade

We can’t bring water because we have to hold posts and reels.  After being in the scorching sun for an hour, I realized that the wimpy oatmeal didn’t have nearly enough protein for this task.  I have a high metabolism.  I know, you’re thinking, lucky girl, but I’m here to tell you, its a blessing and a curse.  I got extremely light-headed walking up the hill carrying the reel.  The heat and sun and empty stomach were making me very weak.  I could see little white stars in my vision.  Julius and I sat in the shade for about a minute to regain my composure.  Then we walked over to the next lane, stepped in the posts into the rock-hard red dirt and un-reeled the poly-wire through the posts.  One last walk is required to make sure the line is sufficient to keep the cows in.  Then we had to move the cows to their new paddock.  We walked behind them slowly, so as not to spook them and got them to the end of the line that we had left open.  Once we got all the cows (the calves go under the fences and that’s okay) we closed the poly-wire and we were done, finally!  On the way back, after this 3 –hour fiasco, dripping with sweat, mouths as dry as a desert, and faces beet-red from the heat, we saw a lonely black cow, standing there, a couple of hundred feet back from the paddock she was supposed to be in.  “You missed the train!” I hollered as we walked past her.

Don't even think about it, Mrs. Cow

Don’t even think about it, Mrs. Cow

This experience in the pasture made me first and foremost, proud of my son for being such a good sport and tolerating the heat.  As well, I felt very proud seeing him moving the cows on his own, like a regular little cowboy.  It also made me fully appreciate what many cattlemen do, either as a hobby or as their primary source of income.  Many of them raise cattle in large pastures with little regard for the soil.  They are cattle farmers.  Others use rotational grazing.  They are grass farmers.  Both of them have jobs that require early mornings, late evenings, and working through the elements.  It’s almost never a simple task.  Something almost always goes awry and needs immediate attention; a fence is down, the pond is frozen, a cow has fallen and broken her leg, etc.  It’s very time consuming.  Personally, I cannot fathom why someone would want to be a cattleman.  It is plain, hard, work.  But I guess I’d better get used to it.  When I came back to the ‘rents to ice Aaron’s ankle that night, he said, “So, I’ve been thinking of starting our own cattle operation.”

Never thought I'd have so many cows in my life

Never thought I’d have so many cows in my life

2 comments to Reflections on July, 2014

  • Good update. Take heart, our potato harvest here in SW MO was disappointing as well. I had planted them on a 2-3″ pad of straw, added some rabbit manure and mulched the rows with about 6-8″ of wood chips. Very inconsistent results from within the same row. Lots of very “scabby” spuds, most of them small. I’m looking forward to pictures of the baby boy. Blessings!

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