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?
The epic 12 inch snowfall on Friday the 13th caused power outages all over this region. We were without power for 17 hours. But the biggest impact for this website was that the server farm in Kettle Falls which hosts Barreca Vineyards.com had power fluctuations that destroyed the server for our website. The restored backup lacked blog posts for the last 4 months along with inventory changes. We have a more regular backup system now but this is the first post since the blackout. The lost posts will be restored soon.
On a day like today with temperatures in the 90s, the best place to sit in the vineyard/garden is under the Filbert tree. It’s relatively cool and shady. And if you are some kind of a nut, like me, you will feel right at home.
I originally thought that I should stop listing all the things that went on since the last blog in the current blog, my journal entries are basically just a rehash of the things I checked off my to-do list each day. Instead I planned to write a snapshot post about the vineyard today and sat down under the nut tree just to take it all in. It didn’t take long to realize sitting there that I was just checking off another thing on my to-do list even though technically I wasn’t doing much. Another hazard of this approach is that I can’t really sit in the vineyard looking around without mentally adding lots more stuff to my to-do list. So I settled on a kind of hybrid approach, just posting pictures and blabbing on a little about each one.
I finally got a chance to talk with Eileen Napier on the phone. She called with a headset while driving on her hour and a half commute to the Liberty Lake Farmers Market from her home near Ione, Washington. I had just gotten up and only had one shoe on. The conversation was not as hectic as it sounds. I’ll get back to the farmers market part but what was on my mind at first was a podcast I had listened to the day before. Joel Salatin, the famous inventor of the “chicken tractor” (I’ll get back to that too) and author of many books on natural farming, was talking on http://regenerativeagriculturepodcast.com/ about his family farm heritage. He said “The average age of a farmer today is 65, so about 50% of America’s farmland will shift in ownership in the next 15 years.” Joel expects this to be the biggest peaceful change of land ownership in human history. The pressing questions on the podcast were who would be the next generation of farmers and just as importantly, how would they farm.
Many children of farmers are moving to the city. Farming is just not fun anymore. Farmers have one of the highest suicide rates of any labor group. (CDC.gov) I was talking to Eileen because she is in a new generation of farmers that were not raised on a farm. Her family began farming intentionally. Well maybe not knowing full on what they were getting themselves into, but they were willing to grow into it. Feeling that it is fun to farm was key to their success.
The Ramstead Farmers: Stan, Jean and Eileen
They began out where many of us who have our own gardens started, wanting to grow good clean food. To grow food without what Eileen terms “chemical dependencies”, you need to learn about all of the food cycle. You can grow fruits and vegetables with soil, seed, sunshine, fertilizer and water. But all of those things are part of bigger cycles. The soil is teaming with life that breaks down dead organisms and feeds them back to living ones. Seeds evolve, are selected and sometimes are modified. Clean water comes to us from the sky, circulates through the ground, animals and plants and goes back to the ocean and the sky either cleaner or dirtier than it arrived. The food we grow feeds our bodies and much of that goes to waste. Still more plants go back into the soil, sometimes through animals. In fact that is where Eileen’s family decided to step into a bigger cycle. They wanted animal protein. They decided to grow animals.
They started on 2 acres with a chicken tractor. To be clear, that is not a mechanical tractor powered by or controlled by chickens. It is just a movable pen sometimes including a chicken house that is used to feed chickens and bring their energy into eating insects, weeds and whatever is in their way. Chickens fertilize the ground as they are moved from day to day. This not only adds a lot of nutritious food to their own diet, it eliminates a lot of expensive feed. They still need good grain feed. (Salatin noted that before combines fowl meats, like chicken and turkey, were more expensive than beef or pork, which sheds a new light on the luxury of a Thanksgiving turkey dinner.) The Ramstead gets non-GMO grain from Red Bridge Farm Store in Kettle Falls but not as much of it as they would for chickens cooped up in a pen. And in turn they also deliver meat at Red Bridge Farm’s store to customers near Kettle Falls.
This gets us into a whole new cycle and a reborn twist on farming. In order to make it in a world of mass markets and centralized slaughter houses, they needed not only to grow food; they had to sell it at retail prices directly to customers. Farmers markets are a current version of the way people bought and sold food for thousands of years. But with Ramstead Ranch, and hundreds of other farms, farmers markets are only the beginning.
Eileen doesn’t look at the Liberty Lake Market as merely a way to sell meat, but also as a way to do research into what products people want and how customers prepare their meat. She collects and distributes recipes. She invites people to become part of the cycle of life at Ramstead Ranch as customers who get regular deliveries. And she educates people on how and why they manage their land the way they do.
These parts of the cycle include doing classes and tours at the ranch. Education is a two-way street. Ramstead now provides five kinds of meat: chicken, turkey, pork, beef and lamb. At every step of the way expanding from one kind of livestock to another, they had to learn from books, neighbors and the Internet how to raise those critters: what breeds to select; what to feed; how to birth; what diseases to look out for; what else they could use like wool and hides… Salatin imagined a high school counselor telling an especially bright and hard-working student. “You are really talented. You could be a farmer.”
Passing that information on is not just paying it forward for Napier, it is also another income stream, agritourism. Part of her mission as a farmer is to let people be inspired by the beauty of a farm that works with happy animals and healthy plants. That part is really impressive and can also be seen on a video of a year in the life of the ranch available through their website. You don’t usually think of a ranch as a place where sheep run over to check out new visitors, giant hogs like getting their backs scratched or a herd of cows and horses runs over at the sound of a whistle to be let into a fresh pasture. But that is life at Ramstead Ranch. (https://ramsteadranch.com/)
A lot of the literature about regenerative agriculture, or any farming for that matter, will be about the details of things like grazing sections of pasture hard enough to include eating weeds but not so hard that the plants can’t regrow. You will read about a balance of nitrogen sources and carbon. But you seldom read about the communication between cattle and the soil microbes that Eileen calls her “invisible livestock” or connections between new farmers and old ones. Eileen says that she can learn from other farmers no matter how completely she agrees with their techniques. Fostering people-to-farm connections broadens the scope of how life on a farm naturally works and what a farmer’s job really is.
There is a vision and a hope in the path that the Ramstead family has explored for making the change that Salatin sees coming in how we farm and who are our farmers. It lies not just in the techniques, the joy and the beauty of how we can farm but in the connections we all can make by joining the herds on places like Ramestead Ranch.
It’s raining right now. Through April we had hardly any rain. It was the driest on record. Since the beginning of May, it has been raining every few days or even more often. And so it goes for Spring as a whole, weird. The human side has been very different and except for the rain, the nature side has been carrying on in grand style.
The key date for me was March 14th, 3 months ago. It was the second day of the annual Rock Show at the Ag Trade Center in Colville. Covid 19 was becoming an issue and the rock club expected it to be lightly attended, which it was, but not nearly so bad as we expected. That was the last time public events were allowed. Masks and gloves were not a standard. Those were the days…
I took a break from the show to pick up our 1984 VW Vanagon from our mechanic, Jeremy, the Subaru Guru. We had a 2001 Subaru engine installed to convert our blown original VW drive train and electrical system. I wanted to get it home before the predicted snow arrived since it doesn’t have winter tires. What a ride! It goes 55 mph in third and gets better gas mileage than the original. But it also will drain the battery when sitting still for a couple of days. So by April 21st we put a cutoff switch in that shuts off the entire electrical system and a new battery. It was ready for the Farmers Market that started a couple of weeks later.
The next day I started filling hundreds of empty Talenti gelato containers with rocks collected over 16 years with the Panorama Gem and Mineral Club. I had stored them in cardboard boxes on a pallet under a tarp after taking them out of the travel trailer that we gave to my daughter April’s family. Her husband, Tony Huston is doing a fabulous job of restoring it but the cardboard boxes absorbed moisture over the winter and were falling apart. I even found a shed snake skin in one. The clear plastic containers now have labels and are in boxes similar to milk crates in the storage shed, very waterproof.
A week later I started reviewing many year’s worth of bank records and similar correspondence that I had stored for my father. Most of those papers were recycled since they were not needed for the probate after Dad’s death last year. That recycling gave me a dry spot for the rocks. Before they could be stored, sorting and labeling the rocks took weeks of time and lots of space in the greenhouse. Covered space was becoming an issue.
By March 20th the snow was gone and pruning grape plants was under way. At the same time that I prune grapes, I start cuttings for grape plants. I also transplant grapes into bigger pots using my own custom mixture of potting soil. The pots take up space in the greenhouse. The cuttings take up space in the crushing pad (where I crush grapes in the fall to make wine). That greenhouse-like covered space is in front of the storage shed. The cover (not to be confused with the new and very sturdy greenhouse itself that we built last year) was crushed in a heavy snowfall. (I know “crushed crushing pad”, just too ironic.) So rebuilding the cover over the (let’s call is a) “greenpad” was also a priority.
We got the greenpad covered April 11th, the day before Easter. I’m very proud of and happy about it but will spare you the technical details. Now it has about 400 grape cuttings rooted in little 4” square pots which will be transplanted to bigger pots starting soon since many are already outgrowing the small ones. As you might imagine my thoughts are full of plants, compost and pruning.
As if that was not enough, this has been an epic year for battling the most persistent pest in the vineyard, leafhoppers. They were especially bad this year because I didn’t put my usual control measures into practice last year while building the greenhouse. So I read up on leafhopper control and had a range of possible techniques set up. They all worked to some extent but there are 3 or four generations in a summer. The first wave of attack is over and I have almost finished thinning out possibly infected leaves. Ironically leafhoppers are somewhat beneficial toward the end of the season because they shrivel leaves and that allows more light onto the clusters and speeds ripening.
The real key is to have strong shoot growth this time of year. To that end I have been applying compost-mulch (a mulch mix that becomes a layer of compost on the surface of the ground). It has been almost too effective in some places with dark green grass growing above my knees. Mowing it down will create another layer of mulch and continue to improve the soil. Since leafhoppers are most damaging on the first 2 or 3 leaves, strong growth beyond that overcomes the problem. I’m seeing new shoots growing out of the same nodes where the first leaves were most damaged.
Only a real microbiome nerd would carry on about his compost pile, but I am going to do that anyway. Last year I brought home a couple of huge bags of rotted feed grain mix from Red Bridge Farm Store in Kettle Falls. I had to have my neighbor Vern lift the pallet off my truck with his tractor. With a little more age and dampness over winter it has become really stinky and clumped together so that it would not blend with the rest of the mulch mix. I realized that it would compost if I could layer it in with pine straw. I added some other compost and aged cow manure along with layers of freshly thinned grape leaves and shoots. Then I watered it down and it started to work. You could see steam coming off it in the morning. A long thermometer now reads almost 140° for the center of the pile. I’m hoping it is finished working by the end of the summer so I can add it to my mulch mix if the wild turkeys don’t tear it apart looking for worms.
Okay. Moving on… The hummingbirds came back on April 21st. Asparagus came up. Trees, bushes and flowers bloomed in their regular succession. People were sheltering in place. Schools closed. Businesses shut down. Traffic was at a minimum. It was a beautiful quiet Spring except for the cacophony of birds, squirrels, deer and coyotes that felt they had free reign to make all the noise they wanted. Eagles are particularly rambunctious in the morning.
With lots of water and long days the flowers are exuberant. Cheryl took pictures of many of them. I wish I had taken more. But to celebrate the occasion I have gathered them together in a little picture album. You can also click on the picture of this iris, descended from many that my brother John gave us years ago, to see the album.
No spring would be complete without hunting for morel mushrooms. With fewer fires last year it took more hunting. We explored some likely places and only found a few even though some of those were in our own vineyard. Then Cheryl picked up on a conversation about the fire on the North Fork of Mill Creek last year. On Mothers Day we headed out on an obscure forest service road in the general area. It was easy to spot the burn, much bigger than we imagined and the road wound right through it. Spotting the mushrooms was a little harder. They were not everywhere, but tucked into cooler, wetter places. Cheryl started searching up a fire trail on the edge of the fire. It turned out to be a great area and we came back with a couple of baskets full that graced our meals for weeks.
But we had our own boisterous gathering to attend, the Farmers Market. They started on May 6th and it rained. It rained hard, about a half inch in Colville. Amazingly it was a very good market day. And every market day has been better than our average last year. People are really into planting their own crops. I sold most of the grape plants I had right away and started potting more. Luckily many that I had written off as nearly dead sprang back to life in the rain under the shade of the old filbert tree. Grape plants sold at about the same rate as wine. I have had to stop bringing them to the market since it is past the ideal time for planting and the inventory has been picked over.
Today was the first market day that Cheryl and I have missed (June 13th). Thunderstorms were predicted. They didn’t happen but a Black Lives Matter protest did happen in Kettle Falls. A lot of our friends were already there when we arrived. So were a substantial group of opposition protesters with tasteful signs like “F**k Antifa”, big Trump flags and no face masks. Still they stayed to themselves and we got a lot of approving honks and waves. Rain fell on us all.