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It’s early in a new year. People are planning ahead for 2021. Looking back on 2020 for hints of what is to come, we see some long food lines in big cities and shortages of many staples on grocery shelves. There is not necessarily a shortage of food, but a shortage of labor due to the corona virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported nearly 5,000 corona virus cases and 20 deaths throughout 115 meat and poultry processing plants in April. (cnet.com) In a crisis, long consolidated food sources tend to break down.
Long supply chains and an increased demand for flour emptied many grocery store shelves but supplies were good and so were sales at local flour mills like Shepherd’s Grain, in Moscow, Idaho. According to its COO, Jeremy Brunch, Shepherd’s has grown since its inception in 2003 from one semi truckload to over 600,000 bushels shipped. Based, Shepherd’s markets through health-oriented outlets on the West Coast by having farmers go to speak to their customers there. The farmers also invite customers to come visit their farms. Knowing your farmer turns out to be good for everyone.
People are doing more than just visiting. There are four new houses being built by their owners on property within earshot of ours. Urban refugees are moving to the country. This is another trend showing no sign of slowing down. In fact it reverses one that has emptied the countryside into the cities the past 75 years. We have learned from the pandemic that there are ways to work from home, wherever that is.
Putting these trends into perspective is the mission of professors like Chris Smaje, author of A Small Farm Future. He begins his book with enumeration of ten emerging crises: population growth; climate change; energy shortages; soil depletion; more waste from and depletion of resources used for producing material stuff; water shortages; land scarcity; health and nutrition deficiencies; a political economy that treats environmental impacts as “externalities”; and a culture that pushes the less fortunate to “the margins of sustainability.”
Obviously, Smaje takes on a hefty load in the book and I won’t burden you with all the details. But his conclusion that relief from many of these crises lies in moving to the country is unavoidable. He points to a model of the relation of cities to the countryside first elaborated by Johan Heinrich von Thünen in 1826. It shows dairy and market garden farms close to the city; forestry next (they depended on wood heat in 1826); arable land for grains, potatoes etc. further out and grazing land furthest away.
Petroleum-powered transportation has disrupted that model so that now we can expect food on our grocery shelves to come from anywhere in the world. But that is not sustainable. A 2010 USDA study shows that our current food system uses fourteen times as much energy to get food onto our plates as the energy value of the food itself. But in the future, conserving production and transportation energy will become increasingly important.
To get a picture of what it would look like to base our diets on just what foods we can grow locally, I talked to Lora Lea Misterly, owner of Quillisascut Cheese and co-author of Chefs on the Farm, a cook book. Eating locally means eating seasonally. Some food keeps on the shelf like beans and peas or in the cellar like potatoes, apples, carrots and parsnips. When an animal is butchered, some meats are best eaten quickly like the heart and liver. Steaks and prime cuts can be frozen and cooked quickly. But others like brisket and leg bones need to braise and cook a long time before they are tender. She notes that as a society we have drifted away from the ways every part of an animal can be used. A lot of that is because it takes more time and is not promoted by big business. Curing meat and sausage can make meats last. Cheese turns quickly spoiling milk into a long-lived tasty treat. Canning, fermenting and pickling preserve fruit and vegetables. If this is beginning to sound like a lot of work, that’s because it is.
Preserving and preparing food takes skill and equipment. Food processing has increasingly become large-scale and far away. That also takes it far from the watchful eyes of customers and into the hands of corporations more protective of their processes and preservatives than the health of customers and the environment. Creating local enterprises to process food locally is a big opportunity for rural folks. Creating a mindset to spend more time cooking and acquiring food directly from farmers is both a road block and an opportunity. Serving healthy food seasonally and locally is another challenge that can enhance a local economy and attract visitors. You don’t go to Tuscany to eat hamburgers and fries.
Like Quillisascut Cheese and Shepherd’s Grain, businesses are springing up that make eating locally with regional ingredients easy. I started to name them but realized that there are too many to list without missing many. Certainly the vendors at the farmers markets are bringing products of their own creation usually locally grown. We also have several microbreweries, wineries and coffee roasters. Bakeries make their own products as do pizza places and don’t forget barbeque. It is usually made with less expensive and local cuts of meat. Meat cutters often make their own sausage, ham and bacon.
Speaking of meat, we are close to sources of bison, venison and wild turkey. Those are all meats that will be lean and may need a long preparation time. You can add in other wild foods: huckleberries, elderberries, morel mushrooms and wild asparagus. Really, we have a lot of local flavors to distinguish our local cuisine.
For tasty recipes, Chefs on the Farm is a good start because it is both local and arranged seasonally. Lora Lea suggested some ingredients for each season:
Winter: potatoes, carrots, onions, pot roast and/or chick peas and beans.
Spring: nettles, eggs, spinach, chard, quiche, asparagus, leeks and mushrooms
I’m a rockhound. For years I have gone on field trips with the Panorama Gem and Mineral Club. On a field trip everyone arrives at a rock site and gets out of their cars. Almost immediately they split up looking for valuable rocks. After a while the group settles down into two groups that I call the “scratchers and the pickers”. The scratchers find a spot they think has promise and dig in. The pickers explore the whole site looking for what is already exposed. Eventually most people dig into one spot.
Finding opportunities for enterprises in the countryside is a little like that. Last month I passed on advice from finance and marketing experts. They suggest that any enterprise should start with knowing what you are passionate about and good at. This month I’m following a suggestion from Joel Salatin in Folks, This Ain’t Normal, to look around your place and take note of what equipment, resources and experience you have that could be expanded in a new direction.
For instance Tor Trousdell, who can distill oils from Lavender, as part of his business with his wife Alex and daughter Rya, Flowing Water Lavender, stopped by with a load of grape pressings that he had distilled to make Raki, a Greek hard liquor. The pressings were surplused from Fruitland Valley Vineyard and Winery. I am going to spread them on my vineyard as part of my mulch mix (if the deer don’t eat it first). So there you have Tor’s idle equipment and experience, Fruitland’s wine waste and my soil yard all benefiting from surplus that might have otherwise gone unused.
There are a lot of opportunities like that on a typical farm. One of my favorites is a “chicken tractor”. This is another idea mentioned by Salatin. It really is “starting from scratch”. Part of its beauty is that it is inexpensive but also that it can be a startup enterprise in partnership with someone who has a pasture but no chickens. In an article in the North Columbia Monthly, July 2020, I related how Ramestead Ranch, now a thriving regenerative farm near Ione, Washington, started from a backyard garden. When the owners decided that they wanted to also produce meat, they built a “chicken tractor”, basically a movable fence/cage that let chickens scratch and graze a new area every time it was moved. They moved it around a 2½ acre parcel. Now they have 16 chicken tractors that they run for 7 months during the summer on their pasture after the four-legged livestock have gone through. In the end they have fryers both fresh and frozen ready for market.
Note in this picture the green trails between the pens. Those are areas that where the chickens have already been through once. Chickens till in the manure from ruminants and eat larva of flies and other insect pests, grass and seeds, then they leave their own enriched manure behind. This improves the fertility of the whole field while producing very healthy chickens for very little cost.
There usually is some resource going to waste on a farm. Sometimes it is just a matter of preservation. I made apple cider from lower quality apples in January. I traded for them from local orchards including Cliffside Organic Orchards. The cider will eventually become wine. But it could have become vinegar, jelly or even cooked down into syrup. All of these things would have preserved them and created another product to market.
The real limiting factor is labor. Many organic farms and orchards nearby take advantage of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (wwoofusa.org). Woofers, as they are known, will travel to live on a farm where they can work and learn farming. A farmer should provide shelter, hopefully food and often compensation to the mostly young people in this program. Many times woofers will stay in the area; purchase the farm or one nearby and become neighbors and friends. So it is a good opportunity for everyone but not without its downfalls since some “workers” are not all that motivated to actually work. It is a good idea to screen applicants early in the winter to find the best fit.
Speaking of visitors on the farm, a farm can also host agrotourists, especially if they have their own RV. The website harvesthosts.com is one such organization that features places to stay at wineries, breweries and farms. With over 1500 locations already listed, it gives farmers the opportunity to get income without building and licensing a bed and breakfast.
United States Census Bureau Director, John H. Thompson said in 2016 that 19.3% of the population is rural, living on 97% of the land while 80.7% of the population is Urban (census.gov). Although there are some opportunities for urban gardens, realistically if you want to grow your own food, living in the country is a better bet than living in a city. With the majority of US citizens at least a generation removed from their rural roots, a great deal of agricultural knowledge has been lost. That may be for the better since most “advancements” in agriculture over the past 70 years have fostered a shift to mechanized farming with petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, all three of which kill the microbes in the soil and are not sustainable. Yet authors such as Jason Bradford, (The Future is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification, Post Carbon Institute, 2019) foresee a dramatic retreat to the countryside as fuel, steady employment, healthy foods and safety all become scarce in urban environments.
So scratching away at the resources you know to be close at hand on the farm is a good start, but you might also do well to become pickers by looking around to the urban population that is headed our way. As local realtors can attest, these folks have money but they could use a few more skills when it comes to livestock and farming. One family that found an opportunity in training is Rick and Lora Lea Misterly, founders of Quillisascut Farm School. While marketing their handmade goat cheese to restaurants in Seattle and Spokane, they saw a need for chefs to understand the seasons, resources and techniques involved in getting whole fresh organic food from the farm to the kitchen. Their straw bale classroom and dormitory offers classes in cooking and farming directly to chefs. They have support for providing this training from other culinary institutes. Students walk away with life experiences that can be used to develop their own sustainable kitchens.
There are a lot more opportunities in this arena. Emerging techniques for sustainable farming and regenerative agriculture are building on ancient methods, indigenous knowledge and new science. If the future is rural, it is also local. Best practices to grow crops and raise animals vary from one place to another. If you can make it as a small farmer, you could also teach others what you know. If your business is expanding, you can branch out and cooperate with others to new products, markets and educational experiences. As usual, if you have ideas along these lines, let’s share ideas. There is always more to teach and learn.
Lots of things happened in the world in December and January. But around here it was mostly about the cats. We already had a wonderful little gray cat, Gray-C. She was inside when on December 8th we all heard a cat meowing at the front door. Cheryl went out to check it out and the new cat came right up to her. Cheryl brought out some cat treats and it turned out that this was the most ravenously hungry cat either of us had ever met. Not coincidentally, she was also pretty fat. We could not tell if she was pregnant or just hefty. By now we are coming down pretty much on hefty. We named her Spicy to reflect her tortoise shell coloring.
Gray-C was not thrilled. Spicy went right up to our dog, Gretchen, and both were fine. She also just sat down and was not threatening to Gray-C, but Gray-C was having none of it. Spicy was not getting into the house on Gray-C’s watch. I should note that Spicy is about twice as big as Gray-C. Temperatures were dipping into the twenties at night. We set up a box in the shop with a heating pad in it. Spicy loved that. Cheryl got the wood stove in the shop going. It is a tiny stove and needs to be fed every few hours or it goes out. That got to be old quickly, especially because we had to leave a door open a crack so Spicy could get in and out. A week later I installed a cat door on the office, which has a sub-heated floor. It was a big hit. This is Spicy’s new home.
Meanwhile the two cats did touch noses once on the 12th, but Gray-C immediately took a swipe at Spicy and backed away. It was getting on toward Christmas. Cheryl strung Christmas cards on our wall. We mailed out our cards and newsletters. Cheryl got the tree lit and decorated. Gray-C explored the barrel the tree was sitting in but left ornaments alone.
Things took a turn when Gray-C decided to try entering the new cat door to the office. Spicy bolted out after her and the chase was on. I had to separate them. She took a turn for the worse the next day when I went to feed her and she wasn’t hungry. Maybe it was the egg yolks I fed her the night before. Google shows they are good for cats but I won’t try that again. She slowly recovered both her ambition and her appetite. But she was lonely and not fond of staying in the office all night by herself.
So one night near New Years we awoke to the sound of a cat snarling and found that Spicy had pushed through the back cat door and Gray-C was there to stop any forward progress. We ushered Spicy out the back human door and got back to sleep.
It turns out that Spicy is as good a hunter as Gray-C. When she took over Gray-C’s favorite winter hunting spot under the bird feeder, they got into another fight. Gray-C lost but only her ego seems hurt. There have been an unusually large number of pine siskins around the feeder this year. Unlike the usual customers, chickadees, nut hatches etc. the siskins feed as a big flock mostly on the ground while a few knock seed out of the feeder. Feathers started appearing on the carpet in front of the office toilet. The feeder is gone now and hopefully the siskins will move on too so I can put it back up.
It’s not like cats are the only thing going on around here. Both cats have been out to the revamped crushing pad that has become a small cider mill. I’ll link a video of making cider to this picture. The cats are not the biggest fans of cider operations. That would be the deer. The sound of commotion out there now brings them out of the woods in hope of finding fresh apple pulp to munch on.
Since snow has been light so far, I have managed to shred a lot of pine cones and prunings and mix them with compost, old manure and biochar to mulch the vineyard. On the 29th I brought home a big metal bin to burn wood into biochar. But that will be a tale for 2021. In the meantime, Spicy is snoozing on an old office chair and Gray-c has taken to sleeping on chairs by the dining table so she can spot any potential invasions.
There is a lot to lose as you get older: health, friends, memory, and often dreams. I sometimes think that maturity is just a matter of giving up on things you will never be great at to concentrate on those you can do well. When even those start to slip, I ask myself “who will carry on what I’ve started” and beyond that, “who will take up all the tasks and ideas I would like to see happen but am too old or too busy to start by myself.”
Ordinary people can start organizations that grow and prosper long after they have moved on. Looking at things I have helped start that are still thriving, the ones I cooperated with others on stand out. There is another list of businesses I have been part of that no longer exist. I started out to write this article about business ideas that younger people could develop and make a living at that would change the world for the better and support a family too. Along the way I thought “Why not ask other people if they had thoughts about opportunities they see?” No matter where the ideas come from, I want to relate lessons learned from innovators and entrepreneurs who envision a community they want to help build.
In a very 2020 family Thanksgiving event, I participated in a zoom meeting with my family during which my brother-in-law, Roger Ellison, showed us a brick that he made out of clay and recycled glass. It is part of his continuing series of experiments to develop a way to make his own bricks to use in kilns where he makes biochar. He also announced that he had sold his first cubic yard of biochar. I decided that this called for a dedicated zoom meeting with Roger about opportunities.
I was curious about how Roger makes biochar on San Juan Island but also how he manages to sell it since I also make biochar and am considering selling it. In small quantities it sells for $30 a cubic foot. As you can see in this picture, the startup equipment is not necessarily sophisticated or expensive. The downside is that in small quantities it takes periods of time off and on during most of a day to make a couple cubic feet.
This is not the place to discuss the whole process. But one of my first questions was if he knew of any trials that showed in quantitative terms the advantages of having biochar in your soil. It turns out that he did. Biochar Market Analysis for San Juan County and the Pacific Northwest by the Northwest Natural Resource Group lays out the whole situation for the product and the market. Roger sent me a copy.
One of the first observations in that analysis was that very few people know what biochar is, what it is used for, where it comes from and how much it is worth. It turns out that those are questions anyone needs to answer about any product before going much further and the analysis done for biochar could be a model for any market analysis of any opportunity we want to consider.
Biochar is charcoal without anything added. Think of it as a sponge made of pure carbon. It is usually made by burning off resins from wood or other plant waste to leave only charcoal. In the study, biochar was shown to increase crop production; increase soil biology, increase water and nutrient retention; increase nutrient density in food; aid soil structure and permanently remove carbon from the atmosphere. There was no question that biochar was a good and valuable product.
The study went on to point out that even at fairly good market prices 30-40% was taken as retail markup, packaging and transportation took additional time and money. Income ended up around $20/hr. The product faced huge hurdles in retail consumer understanding of its value. Commercial farmers looked at it as an expense meant to reduce costs of other fertilizer additives. That did not often produce sales because many farmers lease land and have little incentive to increase its long-term fertility at the cost of short-term profits. Most farmers prefer to produce biochar themselves but seldom can afford the time or investment to do that in significant quantities. So despite its inherent value and low production costs, selling biochar is not necessarily a money maker. I wondered how Roger managed to sell biochar for a profit at all.
The answer is that he sold biochar along with plants, fruits and vegetables at the Farmers Market. So his overhead was spread out to many products. Additionally, Roger sells all of his products through the San Juan Islands Food Hub, an organization that lists products and takes orders online and lets consumers pick up their orders at a central location. It is a cooperative organization run by the producers (https://sjifh.com). There are similar organizations in other Western Washington counties and near us in Spokane. Local Inland Northwest Cooperative, (LINC Foods), lets farmers list produce they have to sell online (https://LINCFoods.com). Farmers bring their crops to a central warehouse and from there LINC distributes it to restaurants, schools and this year, directly to individual consumers. This cooperative approach diffused the costs of retail markup, sales overhead, transportation and distribution.
Sensing more opportunities, I called Dan Jackson at LINC Foods and asked him what kinds of products they were looking for. He said that he gets that question a lot. His advice was that LINC, and the customers they serve are looking first for quality. You can get almost any variety of food you want from groceries and the wholesale distributors who supply them. If you want the best quality, you look to farmers and more direct sales such as LINC offers. His next piece of advice sounded similar to Aristotle’s “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”. In this view there are opportunities everywhere, not just ideas in articles like the one I imagined this would be. It takes passion and dedication to succeed but it also takes knowledge of the market and experience in production to achieve the quality needed to sustain sales.
Realizing that I needed more seasoned advice, I contacted Barry Lamont at Tri County Economic Development (TEDD) (https://tricountyedd.com/). His first advice sounded a lot like Dan Jackson’s and Aristotle’s, ask yourself what you want to be doing. He said 95% of businesses in Northeast Washington are Limited Liability Corporations or Sole Proprietorships started by people with their own dreams. You don’t necessarily need a lot of money or a lot of employees to get started. Jobs are opening up in the service sector such as yardcare, healthcare and home maintenance, because of our aging population (that would be me). Lamont also suggested that tradesmen like electricians, heating and cooling technicians, carpenters and plumbers are in demand.
He noted that if your startup ideas require more money than you have, it is really tough to get money from banks. My father, a bankruptcy attorney, told me “Banks only lend money to people who don’t need it.” The first thing banks will look for is security, what can they grab if the enterprise fails? The good news is that TEDD is a secondary lender, which means if a bank turns you down, you can apply through TEDD. It has government funding sources but doesn’t approve all loans. What they are looking for is experience. You need a good business plan and a history that will make their loan approval board believers in your idea.
Lamont gave me a lead on excellent market research. It is available through the market research guru at the Spokane Public Library, Mark Pond, (509) 444 5312. For example, a watercolor artist wanted to know the market for her art and asked Mark Pond for leads. In a matter of minutes, Pond had a list of possibilities so detailed that he drilled down and found the name and address of a woman who bought a lot of art and lived in the artist’s home town.
I’m still going to pursue describing enterprises I would like to see initiated to help our health and that of the soil, especially if readers like you send them to me. But before listening to anything I have to say, people wanting to start a career need to ask themselves who they are now and what they want to become. In the meantime before I start promoting ideas, I have a lot of questions for Mark Pond.
Every month I review my journal entries to compose a post on this website. You might notice that there are a lot of entries for November. That’s because the website crashed during a power outage on Friday the 13th in November. I had just changed the bottled wine page to replace out sampler 12 pack with a sample 3 pack. But the crash took out those changes and everything for the previous 3 months. Maybe there is something to the Friday the 13th phobia.
At any rate this site is back but a lot of catching up led to everything being behind schedule for December. I could go on about everything that is late but then I would be even later. So moving on…
Our main wood guy, Joe Cooper, brought us 6 cords of wood. We had some really cold days and 12 inches of snow in that same storm on the 13th. So the woodshed was full of really good wood but we have burned a cord since then.
Cheryl celebrated birthday number 71 at home. Our daughter April and family came over to celebrate at a distance and brought gifts and BBQ. So we all had a good time and since that was over a month ago and none of us got sick, it was safe and sane.
Food is also good to have going into winter and I noticed that there were notes about food in many of my journal entries. November is the Thanksgiving month after all and food is another good thing to stock up on for winter.
So is wine. Although this was not a great wine year, some friends brought me a big crop of Marquette, a grape that I don’t grow but it is cold hardy, has beautiful color and makes a nice red wine. Like most of my wines and for that matter, probably several other events in November, it will be a couple of years before we know how it turns out. All of the wines I made this Fall were started from their own natural yeast.
In a related experiment, I used yeast from the wines I was making in some pancakes. The color was a mellow mauve and they tasted good, but they don’t rise as quickly as from baking powder. More like sour dough.
There was also a lot of apple cider and wine, compost, biochar and mulch going on too in November and on into December, but later for that.
I have mentioned compost in several articles in this the North Columbia Monthly over the past couple of years, notably Composing Compost in June 2019, and Laws of Nature, September 2020. So it is gratifying to get some positive feedback from readers about their experiences. Recently, J. Foster Fanning, another regular NC Monthly author, sent a picture and a story about raking up the leaves and needles on his Riverhome lawn and leaving them as compost piles rather than burning them.
He wrote: “At some point in the spring I found a big onion and a few potatoes in my basement cold storage spoiling and sprouting. “Well, what the heck,” I thought and hauled them out to the newly piled compost area. I tucked those remnants of non-eaten veggies under the bottom edge of the pile and soon they were covered over by more material being added. I thought nothing of it until a month or so later I noted the slender rich green of onion shoots poking up out of the litter. “Cool!”…today, after a morning of 19*F I found myself working near that compost pile and, well I dug into it and discovered what I sent along to you as an image with this note. Ha! I’m a gardener once again.”
Note that Foster kept the pile wet while watering his lawn. Also note that although onions and potatoes are root crops, he did not actually bury them in dirt, just compost. Years ago I did something similar. I had a bag of sprouting potatoes and a truckload of rotten hay. I spread the potatoes in rows on my uncut field and covered them with hay. They sprouted and grew right through the hay. In the Fall I lifted off the hay and had hundreds of pounds of potatoes to harvest without any digging! I just lifted the rotten hay. I thought this was very clever but heard in a podcast recently that a farmer’s family had been doing that for generations. (A word of caution: on a couple days while I was laying down the rotten hay I got sick and had to stay in bed. It finally dawned on me that the white clouds of mold coming off the hay were making me sick. Use wet hay.)
In my September article I mentioned the recommended temperatures for compost, 130° to kill bugs and 160° to kill weed seeds. I want to back off from those temperature recommendations. Truthfully, microorganisms like pretty much the same temperatures we do, between 70° and 80° F. So you get them in compost no matter what. Sure there are a lot of bugs in compost. I consider that a good thing, not something to be reduced. And yes the seeds that survive can sprout in unexpected places but encouraging temperatures up to 160° to kill them along with the worms and bugs is not a good idea in my opinion. Those “bugs” in the compost do a lot of the work. My compost pile has legions of sow bugs, more officially known as woodlice, and unofficially known as roll-up bugs and many other names. “Woodlice, like earthworms, are generally considered beneficial in gardens for their role in controlling pests, producing compost and overturning the soil” (Wikipedia) My compost also has lots of red earthworms. Those tell me that it is really alive.
As for the seeds; I prepared a soil mix that included compost for a new garden bed this summer. A lot of squash plants sprang up in it. We let one grow and it eventually covered about 100 square feet of garden and produced 6 huge green squash shaped like pumpkins. They taste great and keep well. We are still not sure what to call them.
My garden soil mix is not much different from the mulch mix I use around the vineyard. There is probably more bark and shredded prunings in the mulch, but it still has compost, biochar, spent grape pressings and aged manure. There are reasons for each of these components and a reason to put them down as mulch rather than waiting until the compost pile is through working and digging the compost into the garden bed. Let me explain.
The biggest component of good soil and good compost is cellulose; we are talking shredded prunings, straw, leaves etc. It contains a lot of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, and not much else. Most microbes will not digest it but mycelia (fungi) love it. Other microbes in turn eat the fungi and the whole cycle of soil renewal begins.
But it is just a beginning. If you look carefully at the structure of chlorophyll, the stuff that lets green plants convert sunlight to sugar and other useful things, you will find a lot of nitrogen. When I was a kid you could buy a couple pounds of ammonium nitrate at the local feed store. We used it for making our own gun powder. Those days are gone but commercial farmers still use it extensively to add nitrogen. Unfortunately the straight chemical kills microbes and pollutes the water. For really active compost, you need to add nitrogen that comes naturally from urine and manure. Some of it can be “green manure” like lawn clippings, grape must and dying tomato plants. They have chlorophyll and therefore, nitrogen.
I add 10% biochar. It absorbs a lot of moisture which provides a shelter for microbes since the water does not leach away. If you have ever gotten a batch of biochar wet, you can attest that the water makes it really heavy and that letting it sit around does not really dry it. Biochar also is valuable because, as pure carbon it, does not get digested by microbes and can sequester carbon out of the atmosphere for hundreds of years.
So am I leaving out important stuff? Definitely! Soil is not a Petri dish. Knowing the chemicals is a way to understand some of the elements, but all living matter contains the magnesium, phosphorus, calcium and other things important to growth. The more variety you can throw into a compost pile, the better off it is. Rudolf Steiner, a compost pioneer and father of Biodynamic Farming, advised layers of leaves, wood, green manure and many special inoculants to get compost going. Good compost is aerobic. You want it to be both moist and have air circulating. You can mix in a portion of any finished compost to provide a start for the microbes, insects and millions of other tiny life forms that do the real composting work.
To my way of thinking, compost is just a component of mulch. Fungi are composed of thousands of strands of mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus. When you move compost, you break these filaments and set back its development. By letting these mycelia develop in place as mulch you let them continue to break down cellulose and feed the whole soil biome, but they also link to plant roots and supply nutrients in exchange for sugar. You want them to grow once and keep growing. When I see mushrooms in my vineyard, I know it is fertile. You may think that is mulching is a rotten way to finish the year, but you will love it in the Spring.
Did you ever notice how once you start looking hard at something and identifying it, you begin to see it everywhere? I used to cut my own firewood and started seeing dead snags along every forest road. Then I learned about different kinds of rocks and pretty soon while driving my wife would ask me to please stop staring at the rocks. Well, now I can identify a few kinds of grasses and just can’t help noticing them everywhere.
This was not a “the grass is always greener” kind of thing. If I had been raising animals that browse on grass, hopefully I would be more aware of what goes on with it. I have planted grasses on my underground house and have a lawn of sorts. I used what the seed supplier recommended and now have a lot of those varieties of grass without really understanding much about them.
What got me interested in grass was the way it improves soil. “The height of vegetation on grasslands varies with the amount of rainfall. Some grasses might be under a foot tall, while others can grow as high as seven feet. Their roots can extend three to six feet deep into the soil. The combination of underground biomass with moderate rainfall—heavy rain can wash away nutrients—tends to make grassland soils very fertile and appealing for agricultural use.” (NationalGeographic.com) I also remembered reading in Centennial by James A. Michener about farmers breaking the virgin sod in Colorado where the roots were as thick as your wrist.
Our soils in Northeast Washington are mostly conifer forest soils that are not particularly rich. Deciduous trees that drop their leaves every fall make for much richer soils, but ironically since the nutrients in wet leaves are broken down by microbes rather quickly, they can leach out of the soil more easily.
I began to wonder what is going on with grasses and soil on my place and asked Tamara Beltz, cattle rancher and employee of the Stevens County Noxious Weed Control Board, for help. Together we collected samples of a dozen different grasses. I knew common names for many of them, but those are not much help for research. What I discovered is that there are reasons every grass grows where it does and uses for each as well.
Let’s start with Quackgrass. It turns out that our “Quackgrass” is not everyone else’s. In the Midwest quackgrass is elymus repens AKA couch grass. Ours is smooth brome. It likes good soil and can grow several feet high. It has very aggressive roots that travel under the surface which makes it the bane of gardeners. But actually it is good forage and works well with alfalfa. It takes a little over a month to recover from grazing depending on water. It is high in protein and low in fiber. It is great as erosion control.
Of course some of us just want to get rid of it. Having spent many hours sifting it out of a new garden bed this spring I’m not a big fan. I recommend a 10 inch underground root barrier to keep it from coming back into a garden bed. If you can wait for a season, cover the grass with cardboard and the cardboard with wood chips or spoiled hay. You can place plants in holes dug through the cardboard in the spring.
My house is covered in an orchard grass mix. As it turns out, orchard grass is a valid varietal name for dactylis glomerata l. Ironically it is best grown for pasture in intensive rotational grazing systems not just orchards. According to the USDA, it is a “long-lived, introduced, cool season bunchgrass.” Let’s break that description down a little. It is a perennial (so long-lived) that was developed into several commercial varieties that were sold (introduced) widely. It grows well in the cool and moist spring weather but with roots up to 2 feet deep, it comes back well after being grazed.
This is a good time to note that grass does best when it is eaten down or mowed at least once a year. The ability to spring back after being eaten down to around 4 inches is the key to rotational grazing. The additional light and space from grazing, the deep root systems that give grass a competitive edge over annual weeds when bouncing back and the manure and urine left by grazing herds all make grasslands continuously rich sources of feed and at least when they are first tilled, great agricultural soil.
These traits go very wrong if a pasture is eaten down continuously by cattle that will eat their favorite plants into extinction before eating ever-less palatable plants until only weeds remain. Once the grass is destroyed by tilling, the ground continues to lose organic matter and natural fertility. In Braiding Sweetgrass, a book reviewed by Loren Cruden in the September, 2020 issue of the North Columbia Monthly, Robin Wall Kimmerer relates a story about a student of hers who did a detailed study of Sweetgrass trying to determine whether pulling it or clipping it led to better reproduction. Male professors scoffed at the idea that either method would be better than just leaving it alone. But the study showed without question that “natural” stands which were not harvested were dying out while those that were harvested of half their crop by either pulling or clipping continued to thrive.
Rye grass was in the mix of grasses that stabilized the clay soil on my house. This is another bunch grass. It is also good forage for the same reasons as orchard grass. Originally from Europe, it has been widely cultivated for forage, lawns and soil stabilization. Since it cross-pollinates there are many varieties and although the USDA says it grows 1 to 2 feet tall, I have stands that are 6 feet tall on a wet year.
Both on my place and in some nearby fields the rye grass can grow so thickly that almost all other plants are shaded out. That may be good for hay and pasture but tends to deprive the soil of nitrogen from nitrogen fixers such as clover and lupine. Another benefit of these bunch grasses is that they bounce back from fire while keeping the soil in place.
One more plant considered to be a bunch grass is fescue. Commonly recognized as a grass suitable for lawns, fescue does not spread as rapidly as the others mentioned here but stands up to wear and can grow in thickly even with frequent mowing. It needs the thatch removed to provide space for new green growth. Somehow a favorite variety for lawns is called tall fescue.
We used to have a nasty kind of cheat grass with seeds that would embed themselves in your socks, animal fur or anything else that could spread them far and wide. Amazingly, that irritating cheat grass has been replaced by a fast-growing plant that turns otherwise bare ground into a green carpet in the Spring, and then quickly fades into a red blush with seed heads hanging down called drooping brome. These annual grasses rely on bare ground, lots of seeds, a quick start in the spring and seed production before the ground dries up. They are a staple food of sage grouse because they mature so quickly. Our crop springs up where the snow plow clears out other plants.
One more grass with a bad reputation is crab grass. It grows annually from seed but not very high. So it crops up in lawns where the mower does not affect it. Our variety seems to be Digitaria Ischaemum or smooth crabgrass. Digitaria refers to the finger-like crown of leaves. Although others despise it, I love crab grass. It was the first plant to fill in the aisles between my grape rows and it does not need mowing or much water. Lots of wildflowers pop up in it with no competition for light and it stays green all summer.
Tamara and I found several other kinds of grass, but enough is enough. You get the idea. There are lots of different kinds of grasses and once you start recognizing them, you can really annoy your friends by talking about something they would just as soon ignore. More importantly, grass grows best when being used and managed by people and animals. Green pastoral landscapes in family farm country are beautiful examples of humans and nature working together.
It’s the time of radical changes back and forth. High temperatures without rain have persisted since June but now low temperatures and rain have returned as well. The Fall equinox sounds like one of the most even times of the year for the length of the day and night. But that balance is only a passing illusion during the fastest changing season. September 11th for instance started out at 40° here and freezing in many places, but got up to 90° in the afternoon. So it is with us, big changes on a daily basis. The harvest has begun in earnest as the smoke and fires are fading away.
The weekly rhythm of Farmers Market on Wednesday and Saturday is now squeezed between harvests of garlic, cucumbers (and making pickles), picking pears, harvesting filberts, making marinara and now making raisins and starting on wine. So this may be the last blog post for awhile.
The long hot summer broke into full-fledged forest fires on Labor Day, Monday September 7th in the morning as strong winds out of the North swept through the State. Our power was out by 10 AM and didn’t return – despite many misleading predictions – until noon on Thursday the 10th. These are the times when you wish you had all the backup systems in place, a big cistern on the hill, generators for the refrigeration, solar panels and batteries for communication and lights.
Additionally we needed our N95 masks because smoke rolled in from fires across Lake Roosevelt from us that grew from 7,000 to 14,000 acres over the next week. Add to that smoke that swept up from fires in California and Oregon and we were dealing with smoke for another two weeks. Not that we were out of things to work on without electricity. Birds came back in force to eat the grape crop and I scrambled to put up bird nets. I sacrificed a few early grapes to feed the wildlife but I had to stop their harvest to save mine.
September is also a time of celebration, Cheryl and my wedding anniversary was September 23rd followed quickly by my birthday on the 26th. We managed to eat out and travel to my daughter April’s family homestead near Curlew for a really nice sunny get together outside. April made a big carrot cake. Link to Picture Album
Over the course of the month I made pies that followed the season from huckleberries to summer apples and pears. (Cheryl put birthday candles in my piece of pear pie.) We also managed to enjoy a long season of fresh corn. There are definite advantages to being one of the first to arrive at every Farmers Market. Corn fritters covered in fresh fruit remain one of our favorite summer treats.
The long season stretching into an Indian Summer makes up for the slow ripening of our tomatoes and grapes. We learned that when plants are so hot that they are using more water to stay cool than to grow, they don’t ripen as fast. As the Zen saying goes “Everything is the perfect lesson.”
Speaking of learning, I have had chances to read some very good books and listen to great podcasts over the last month. The drawback is that I am in the middle of several books and seem to be trading off between them morning, noon and night. But I offer these quick reviews and links to encourage anyone else who might want to read and discuss them to do so.
The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs, Joel Salatin: Salatin has a lot of ideas and perceptions about what it takes to grow food responsibly enrich the soil and succeed economically. Unfortunately in this book he as to conjure up justifications for all of these things from the Bible to convince a Christian Base that industrial agriculture and marketing is not the way to increase and multiply.
The Reindeer Chronicles, Judith Schwartz: This is a delightful book full of stories of successful community solutions to agriculture, climate-related and ecological problems. Her focus is on the cultural roots of all these problems and the way to resolve them from that direction.
Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer: Professor Kimmerer manages to marry her scientific understanding of botany with her Potawatomi Native American heritage. She offers a series of stories drawn from her own family and educational experiences to illustrate the unity of all life and how to humbly take up our role within it.
Transitions to Regenerative Agriculture, Terry McCoster: This is a link to a Regenerative Agriculture podcast interview with McCoster. All of these podcasts are incredibly informative. McCosker has been very successful at discovering ways to restore soil and climate health through good grazing practices in Australia. More importantly, he has facilitated ways for over 10% of the country’s farmers to transition to these methods. One thing that has really piqued my interest was a reference he makes to this next book.
The Field; Lynne McTaggart: Although 20 years old by now, this book takes on the immense task of exploring the relationship of science and the life forces previously thought to be the exclusive realm of homeopathy, parapsychology and mystical religion. The Quantum Theory of the Zero Point Field is the unifying theme of this book. It draws on the histories of scientists who are exploring the relationship of consciousness and matter. (Having just Googled ‘Zero Point Field”, I see that this is a big rabbit hole to go down. Stay tuned.)
That’s all for now folks. Breathe deeply and carry on.
This year I have a large compost pile. My wonderful science-teacher daughter gave me a 20 inch long compost pile thermometer to keep track of what is going on in there. There is lots of advice for making compost on the package. A little like a recipe they list what activities happen at different temperatures. Up to 100°, not much is happening. If it was once hotter, it’s time to turn the pile. 100° to 130° the microorganisms are doing well but insects and worms will leave or die. 130° to 160° Things are going well and weed seeds are being composted. Above 160° and you risk starting a fire and killing the microbes.
A compost pile is amazing in that it takes a relatively simple set of input material and turns it into billions of microbes and plant-ready nutrients. But this abundance comes with a caution. You can overdo it and cause a small-scale extinction event. In Farmers of Forty Centuries, by F. H. King, you can learn how people have been leveraging nature to create compost for thousands of years. Indeed throughout history people have leveraged knowledge of nature to their advantage. The wheel, fire, the Pythagorean Theorem (foundation of trigonometry), steel, atomic energy…are all based on the laws of nature. They usually have mathematical foundations. They also usually can be used to create beneficial or harmful outcomes. Ironically the laws of nature don’t dictate what is good or bad, what is within the law, or what is outlawed. Only human laws do that. Nature cannot be disobeyed. Sadly, it can be ignored.
In his book on the human race, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, notes that one of the most powerful inventions shaping the history of mankind is fiction. A common belief in a human-based fiction makes money (an otherwise useless and inedible commodity), valuable. Belief in country unites tribes and towns of people who otherwise don’t know each other into powerful forces who build cities and wage wars. Belief in its laws creates the character of a society.
In the same book, Harari cites the admission of ignorance as the foundation of science: “Modern science is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus – ‘we do not know’. It assumes that we don’t know everything. Even more critically, it accepts that the things that we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge. No concept, idea or theory is sacred and beyond challenge.” Because it allows us to ever more closely identify the laws of nature, science has proven to be a powerful tool.
So here we have two sets of laws, one we just made up and the other we discovered by admitting ignorance. You may think by now that I have drifted a long way from compost. But I’m just getting back to that. Compost is a natural product in cycles of life and death. Some of the most perfect compost is found under deciduous trees because their leaves drop just in time to be soaked in moisture during the winter. They mold with fungus which in turn is digested by microbes, insects and worms to fertilize the trees again in the spring. By looking at what makes soil rich we can learn a lot about the laws of nature that are not defined exactly by mathematics.
The hallmark of good soil is an abundance of life. A key indicator is carbon. We are after all carbon-based life forms. The more roots, bugs, humus and other forms of organic carbon that are in the soil the more nutrients, more fertility and more crop yield will result. A part of that abundance is diversity. The more different kinds of organisms are in the soil, the healthier it is. Some of those organisms are weeds. Some of the weeds compete with crops for light and nutrients. Some organisms are pests. But don’t be too quick to say some organisms are bad and some are good.
Weeds and pests can tell you a lot about your soil and your management. The arc of evolution bends toward abundance. What we are seeing is that balance and abundance are the same. If elk are too abundant they eat down the brush along creeks. That makes the water too warm for fish. If wolves are too abundant, the brush and fish thrive but the wolves begin to starve because there are not enough elk. Somewhere in between there are the most elk, the most wolves, the most brush and the most fish that the environment can sustain. That is the natural balance.
Somewhere in between there are also the most people. Humans dominate the environment. Nature does not exist outside of us. We are nature. In the April edition of the North Columbia Monthly I wrote about mother trees. Trees of different species share water and nutrients directly with each other and with their offspring. Plants communicate with chemical signals to each other about pest infestations and drought. None of them stand alone outside of the web of life. Each participates according to its own nature and identity. Each has a role to play and each role is important in its own way.
When the environment changes due to fire, cold, drought, landslides, plowing, pesticides, overgrazing, etc. some organisms die back or become extinct, others that played minor roles before, emerge as dominant. Nature goes on building back to more diversity and abundance. People can help that process. They can add compost for example. We see that as good because it benefits us. Nature doesn’t care. But we can learn a lot from nature.
This is a time of turmoil. There is a pandemic disease and political unrest. Human laws are changing and we can believe in better ones. Agricultural practices are changing and we can discover better ones. Recently we have learned a lot about the life and world view of Congressman John Lewis. His philosophy of non-violence in many ways mimics the laws of nature. Although people hated and attacked him, he did not hate and attack them back. He did not advocate their elimination. He didn’t even advocate changing the name of the Edmund Pettis Bridge. It is part of the environment, part of history. What he did advocate was inclusion of all people, votes for all people and malice toward none.
The characteristics that make a biome strong are diversity, abundance, reciprocal cooperation and communication. Full participation with a balance of power between living members of the biological community makes for a healthy growing ecology. Those are the laws of nature. Those laws don’t change even though organisms have changed over eons. Survival of the fittest does not mean killing off all the competition. It means supporting what each being has to offer.
We are in a time of crisis. How we will survive will be different than how we live now. We have tools in fiction and ignorance that can help or hinder us. The laws of nature favor abundant life. Will we?