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.
Every day we become more aware and thankful for essential workers. None can be any more essential than farmers. But every year there are fewer of them. Farmers and ranchers make up just 1.3% of the employed US population, totaling around 2.6 million people. Today, there are about 2 million farms in operation in the US, a steep decline from 7 million in 1935. (businessinsider.com)
Of that only 5% of current farms are family-owned. (Wikipedia) and less than 1% of existing farms are organic. So a third generation farmer who has been certified organic for the last 25 years is a rare person indeed. Ron McLean is that person.
His family has owned sub irrigated bottomland along the Colville River north of Addy for all of his life. His grandfather had a dairy herd there when dairy was good money. His father farmed grain as agribusiness went through the “green revolution” and Ron learned the trade growing up.
The farm is just as big as it was 45 years ago, around 700 acres, over a square mile. He farms 520 acres of it. Holding on to land that keeps increasing in value while the value of your crops keeps decreasing is tough. Years ago the farm had a gross income of $50,000. It was a decent living in the 1960s. Now it wouldn’t cover the cost of operations.
It was helpful that the family invested in buildings and equipment when they could. Having silos for his crops allows Ron to wait years until the price is right for his crops. Sometimes that is 2 or 3 years. Along with infrastructure, staying in business means having capital, so you can wait out the price fluctuations. Being able to raise your own food and repair your own equipment helps with that.
Besides the cost of doing business going up, the competition from around the world for bulk commodities has been driving the value of crops down steadily since the year 2000. That is not just true of conventional crops but also – and maybe especially – of organic crops. Aiming for that higher value, foreign countries are less ethical in policing their products. For instance, Whole Foods sells a “California Blend” of organic vegetables that comes from China where organic certification inspections are practically non-existent. (www.fooddemocracynow.org)
McLean just planted his organic peas when I talked to him. Last year’s average price for conventional dry peas grown in Washington was $1.20 per pound to the farmer. Organic peas are worth over twice that. If it is that profitable to sell organic crops, why are only 1% of our crops grown organically?
There is no simple answer to that. As a farmer you need to pay attention to a lot of factors. One of them is yield. Success with conventional crops is usually measured in yield. But growing more on the same amount of land no longer means making more money. While the cost of chemicals and equipment keeps going up and the value of crops competing in a world-wide market keeps going down, the solution is most often to “Get big or get out.” But once your soil gets used to more minerals and chemicals, it won’t yield without them. Ron views it as a kind of addiction that takes 3-5 years for withdrawal.
Recently Ron has been able to sell his crops to Brad Murphy and his family at Red Bridge Farm Livestock Feed in Kettle Falls. Other organic farmers growing livestock are wary of the risks in quality and supply when depending on foreign suppliers for feed. Red Bridge offers a secure domestic source for organic feed. Business keeps growing as word gets out. Brad has been able to rejuvenate the grain silos and railroad connection in Kettle Falls. He is able to store, grind, mix, sell and ship organic feeds all from this one location.
Staying small means paying attention to your soil; the market; your equipment; the weather and your own health. Ron developed a dislike for the chemicals his father was using when he was young. The mix of hard work dust and dirt is hard enough on your health without breathing fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides.
The health of your soil underlies the whole enterprise. To keep his land producing Ron rotates winter wheat, peas, wheat again and then fallow ground. The fallow ground allows him to control weeds like yellow thistle and replenish organic matter. The peas build nitrogen in their root nodules. The rotation discourages pests from accumulating year after year.
Staying small means looking at your net profits and not just your yield per acre. The bottomland is your bottom line. You can’t just buy your way out of every problem that the farm throws at you. Ron says you have to keep trying new things and learn from experience. Part of his experience is that you need to work the soil in order to get anything out of it. Soil quality does not just improve on its own if you leave it alone. As he says “Do nothing, get nothing.”
I am posting this picture and link to a gizmo I made to mix and move mulch from the soil yard to wherever I need it. There are doubtless improvements that can be made but it is very helpful so I am sharing this video.
We all feel like we are in command of our actions. And sometimes that command includes input
from “gut feelings”, “intestinal fortitude” and “having the stomach for
it”. Seldom do we consider that our
digestive system is in charge of our actions.
And it is even more rare to admit that our digestive systems are under
siege. But that is exactly the gist of a
presentation that John Ellis, naturopath and owner of Meyers Falls Market,
intended to give on March 24th, before the Corona Virus triggered a
cascade of cancelled gatherings. A talk
with him later revealed the dynamics of this conflict.
Looking to count how many cells are in our bodies and how
many of them are actually from our own DNA can be tricky as Ed Yong for Science
Alert magazine writes: “More recent estimates, put the total number of
human cells at anywhere from 15 trillion to 724 trillion, and the number of gut
microbes at anywhere between 30 trillion and 400 trillion. Which gives a ratio
that can best be expressed as ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.” Some put the human percentage at 43%. “The
remaining 57 percent are bacteria, fungi and
single-celled eukaryotes that live in our guts, in our mouths, on our
skins, and in the female reproductive tract,” says Sarkis Mazmanian, a
microbiology researcher at Caltech. So
really we are each a living army of microbes.
The bacteria in our systems weigh more than our brain and affect how we
These microbes have a remarkably higher turnover rate than
the cells from our own DNA which can be good or bad news. Ellis points out that 80% of our immune
system is in the large intestine. The
microbes in our guts are actually the first line of defense against most of the
material entering our bodies. They can
change completely in 24 hours so we can start reinforcing those defenses
immediately by eating well. Napoleon
Bonaparte is said to have proclaimed “An army marches on its stomach.” The microbe army in your stomach marches on
the foods you eat. So those supply lines
are critical and often that is where the battle begins.
Ellis notes that it would take eating 30 of the commercial
apples in stores today to equal the nutrition of 1 apple from 50 years
ago. So even the foods we eat are not
getting the foods they themselves need to become nutritious. The soil itself is becoming a hydroponic soup
of agrichemicals. As one farmer put it
at a recent Soil Conservation District meeting in Colville “There’s not a worm
left in the Palouse.”
Refined sugars and processed foods have most of their
nutritive value stripped out of them. Animal-based protein can be even worse. For instance, animals raised in feed lots
don’t get to move around much and it turns out that moving around is what kills
toxins in their bodies (and in ours as well).
To make up for the natural foods and activities that would
keep animals healthy, they are given antibiotics. Ellis says that of the 35 tons of antibiotics
consumed in the United States every year 32 of those tons are fed to feedlot
animals which pass them on to us. So the
microbial army in our guts is not getting what it needs to march. To make matters worse, it harbors antibiotics
and our biome suffers heavy losses from those.
Ellis gives the herbicide, Atrazine as an example. It causes
endocrine disruption of the human hormone system that is effectively chemical
castration particularly in males. The American male sperm count has decreased
from 50% to 80% in the last 10 years depending on what reports you study. (Pesticide Action Network ) Compounding the
effect of agrichemicals are prescription drugs, alcohol, smoking, air and water
forces are aided behind the lines, so to speak, by detrimental bacteria, fungi
and yeasts. “Detrimental” might be
over-simplifying what goes on in our guts.
With trillions of microbes playing different roles health is more a
matter of balance than elimination. We
have only been able to sequence the DNA in microbes for the last 10 years. Labs can only grow less than 1% of them
outside of a living digestive system. So
nutrionists are basically working with a black box, changing inputs and
watching effects without identifying the whole process.
“A spoonful of sugar may make the medicine go down in a most
delightful way” but it is sure to be consumed by fungi which will include
candida. Too much candida can bloom when
antibiotics take out the bacteria that keep it in check. Then it contributes to itching, bloating,
vaginal infections and trouble sleeping.
Furthermore it can act behind the lines of your guts defenses to promote
There are indications that yeasts, parasites and some other
microbes promote their own favorite foods by causing cravings for things that
are not really good for the rest of the system.
Jazmine Polk relates how her cravings for pancakes loaded with sweets
drove a bad case of Candidiasis. But the good news is that she was able to cure
that by changing her diet. She
eliminated sugars, grains and alcohol and switched to eating green vegetables,
meat, fish, eggs, salad, almonds, walnuts, herbal tea, green juice, and
unsweetened coconut water. (health.com)
This is basically the kind of diet that Ellis recommends
along with bone broth, aloe juice, probiotics and prebiotics. “Prebiotics are
a type of fiber that the human body cannot digest. They serve as food for
probiotics, which are tiny living microorganisms, including bacteria and yeast.”
(medicalnewstoday.com) Probiotics are
the reinforcements our systems need to balance out our gut biome.
The transition may not be entirely easy. Not only might you have cravings for
unhealthy food, you might not have the right biota to digest healthy
foods. Ellis points out that there are
2500 species of microbes in our guts but we are probably missing 500 species
that have gone extinct. The missing
microbes have a ripple effect where other organisms depend on them for their
own nutrition and so are also in short supply.
These microbes might still be found in aboriginal populations and recovered
through fecal transplants.
Another impediment to getting the benefits of fresh leafy
greens might lie within the greens themselves.
Endocrinologist, Dr. Zach Bush, had recommended a green vegetable rich
diet to his clients in rural Virginia. He
was surprised to see that they were still getting sick. Looking into it he found that glyphosate (Roundup)
had been taken up by vegetables after it got into the water and air. It acts as an antibiotic. Besides destroying
bacteria in your gut, it opens up holes in your gut membrane. “Your gut
membrane is the largest barrier to the outside world: it covers two tennis
courts in surface area and is the thickness of half of the width of a human
hair.” The injury that Roundup does to
your guts “starts
to activate the immune system, and we become reactive to our foods. So, we
develop allergies of all sorts, pollen allergies and environmental allergies,
but also all the food allergies that have become so prevalent in our children
today.” (Dr. Zach Bush on Salon.com)
This membrane is the real front line of the gut war.
Luckily the battle is not necessarily lost. Nature has a way of balancing the biome if
you are only exposed to more of it. Dr.
Bush says “The microbiome we breathe will ultimately populate our gut through
different mechanisms. Touch it. Consume it through fermented foods.” He advocates getting out in nature as much as
possible, walking barefoot, going to the mountains and the ocean.
John Ellis realizes that people who have not been eating
celery, cabbage, broccoli, kale and asparagus regularly don’t digest it
well. These foods just seem to cause
flatulence for them. To build up the
microbes that will help digest these greens he suggests overcooking them at
first, like you would cook baby food.
Over time cook them less and the bacteria and other microbes in your gut
That part of John’s recommendations reminded me of some
advice Randy Greenland gave to the
workers at a log mill where I once worked while we sat around a fire in the
yard eating lunch. He talked about a
really healthy horse he had. After a
ride when its saddle was taken off it would roll on its back, jump up to its
feet and fart loudly. The adage he
related was “A fartin’ horse will never tire.
A fartin’ man’s the man to hire.”
It all started with an account I was reading about a naturalist whose main job was taking care of displaced orangutans near Borneo. He became curious about small trees that were thriving around a large tree of the same species that was dying. He wondered if they were related and also why something that was killing the older trees seemed to be helping the younger ones. That goes against our standard idea of disease as something that hurts everything and in turn must itself be completely destroyed. He dug up the roots and traced them back between the trees. They were connected and the old mother tree seemed to be feeding the young ones with its last bit of energy and creating space in the canopy to bring light to the young trees.
find the reference again when I looked for it.
But then I came across a TED [Technology, Entertainment, Design] talk by
Suzanne Simard about trees. As a forest
biologist Simard wondered if trees of different species shared information with
She concocted an experiment using a
little plantation of trees set in an older forest. Trees produce sugar
carbohydrates during photosynthesis. She
set up pairs of trees and covered a birch tree in clear plastic and a fir tree
in black plastic so that the clear one would be photosynthesizing sugars and
the other would be just using sugars.
Then she introduces radioactive carbon-14 carbon dioxide gas into the
clear plastic tent. She did that to 80
pairs of trees until a mother grizzly bear chased her back to her truck. She
waited in her truck for an hour or so while the mother grizzly bear and her cub
settled down in a nearby huckleberry patch and the birch tree under the clear
plastic photosynthesized using carbon 14.
tested the trees with a Geiger counter. The fir trees under the black plastic showed
up as having carbon-14 that it could only have gotten from sugars created by
the birch tree.
That was over 30 years ago. Many tests on trees of the same species,
trees of different species and trees near their offspring showed that most
shared sugars, particularly if they also had the same DNA. In fact fir trees sent sugars back to birch
trees in the winter when the birch had lost their leaves. So yes trees could be mothers to younger
trees and good neighbors to companion trees of different species.
check this out in my own patch of forest, I walked up an old road. I saw lots of young trees near old fir trees
on the wet side of the hill. As I got to
the top of the grade a group of deer ran off with their white tails waving
behind them. They had been standing in a
grove of pine trees. But the ground
underneath was bare except for pine needles, not even brush. It was a good place for deer to wait with
clear views and open escape routes, but not really a forest of mother trees or
more was going on here. I contacted my
friendly local foresters for some advice.
Jay Berube retired as a forest ecologist in 2003. This companion tree line of thinking was not
well known back then. It was known that
trees of the same species adapt to their local environment and matching seed
stock to their locale was important for resistance to diseases such as root
rot. Jay noted that pine trees do better
in dry ground than fir trees. The fir
trees were growing young to restock the wet side of the hill. The pine trees depend on fire to regenerate
but must resist it somewhat to survive.
So an open grove with no ladder fuels for fires but pine needles on the
ground was a perfect for them. Berube said that pine trees are
allopathic and actually prevent other plants from growing. There were younger pine trees growing in road
cuts with some serviceberry trees for companions. And just a few hundred feet away was a dense
stand of young pine that had regenerated after a fire or farming disturbance
with no other species underneath.
finding from Suzanne Simod’s studies was that mixed species forests are more
resistant to disease. The reason for this
is not simply that the bugs are more spread out between their preferred host
species but also that they share signals that certain pests are around and the
trees develop resistance to them. The
combination of spreading out the target species and help from the companion
species must act a little like “social distancing” and give trees more time to
“flatten the curve” of infection.
But it is
not just trees that are involved. The
pathway for this communication and exchange of material is not roots alone. (TED.com)
Mycorrhizal fungi act as the highways between the tree roots. Several species of the hundreds of possible
fungi may work with each tree. They live
on the sugars from the trees but also bring water, minerals, sugars and signals
from the rest of the underground biome to their hosts.
So the take
away is that “as below, so above.” The
plants in the air, like the millions of organisms in the soil help each other
out. The hallmarks of a healthy
environment are not only diversity and abundance, but also cooperation. Survival of the fittest means survival of the
most cooperative. Approaches to
management that attempt to eliminate “pathogens” using chemicals and mechanics
that involve massive collateral damage ultimately make plants even more
susceptible to drought and disease.
Insects, animals and birds also cooperate in this biome.
Bill Berrigan reminds us that “There is so much
more to learn about tree’s interactions that we should not be making cutting
decisions that may hurt the trees and the soils that they grow in.”
It’s been a tough winter so far. Our small greenhouse cover collapsed and big
parts of two elm trees broke under the heavy snow crashing into the
vineyard. Only one vine was hurt but
there is a lot of cleanup to do.
Cleanup for me means lopping off the smaller branches and
sledding them out to a pile near the shredder.
Branches about the diameter of an arm are stacked in a rack where they
can be cut into smaller pieces to burn for biochar. The pieces big enough to make firewood are
cut to length and stacked to dry. So
eventually the whole tree is ready to recycle.
Figure 1 Rack for cutting branches
I was surprised one morning to see a doe standing on the
edge of the woods watching me take our food scraps out to the compost
pile. As I walked back by, there she was
chowing down on the budding tips of the elm branches I had piled up to
shred. It got me to thinking about the
whole process of digestion and nature.
One of my mentors in understanding natural farming is Youngsang
Cho. In his book, JADAM Organic Farming,
he has a lot to say about the philosophy of farming. (JADAM is an acronym for a Korean phrase meaning
“People that Resemble Nature”.) I’m sure
there is a better translation but his advice is rooted in the 16th
Century BCE admonition of Asian Philosopher Laozi Dao De Jing who said “The
wisdom is always found in nature.”
An example is that nature lays down a carpet of leaves and
grass before winter snow sets in.
Therefore late Fall is the right time to put a layer of mulch on your
growing beds. You will notice that in
the Spring after the snow melts and before grass springs up the flattened
leaves and dead grass have a web of fungus on them. I noticed that canes, pine needles and stems
that I shredded and left out in tubs earlier in the winter had a similar white
fuzz on them. Fungus is uniquely suited
to breaking down the complex molecules of wood.
It can work in the wet cold of winter preparing the way for microbes
that like warm earth and old fungus.
That doe was part of the continuous cycle of digestion. Her dung is a rich gold mine that will add to
the microbial feast in the soil.
Youngsang Cho says that all microbes are beneficial, especially if local
and especially if found under leaf mold.
This goes against some conventional wisdom that fears the rotting parts
of plants left on the ground will spread disease in the Spring. He points out that the minerals and other
nutrients most used by a particular plant will be most abundant in the rotting
remains of that plant itself. Sure there
will be mold or insect eggs but he further notes that “one mold spore can
produce 1 billion in 10 hours.” In fact
he uses that multiplication through microbial teas to fertilize plants and also
fight disease. You cannot eradicate mold, weeds or other organisms. You need to manage the soil to promote health
and out-compete disease.
Weeds fill a vacuum.
Find what the soil needs and fill that need. Cho admonishes that “The good and bad are
one.” Too much of a good thing can be
bad and visa versa. Planting the same plant in the same place is what Nature
does all the time. Having just that one
kind of plant in a place is something nature never does. Cover crops and a rich diversity of organic
matter are also what nature does.
Getting back to the deer and the elm tree, I tend to think
of nature as one gigantic digestive system and the soil is a big part of it. Looking at it that way you can think of good
soil management as a kind of diet.
Running branches through a shredder or having them trampled by cattle is
a bit like chewing your food. Getting
the ground wet is like adding saliva and sending food to the stomach and beyond.
Any of you who have made bread or made wine, know that a
tiny bit of yeast given some water, warmth and sugar can become a roiling mass
of microbes in short order. Components
of a soil diet mimic the components of a healthy diet in many respects. You can pretty much guarantee that the
microbes will be in the ground already including some yeast and fungus (which
are closely related). Water and warmth
come naturally in the Spring when rapid growth occurs. To carry the analogy further we can group soil
components like food diets as carbs, proteins, vitamins, minerals, sugars and
Minerals are the rocks or soluble elements in the dirt itself. Although a great deal of fuss is made over the proportion and availability of minerals in sand, gravel, clay, acidic and alkaline dirt, the bottom line is that microbes move these minerals into organic compounds and balance out their contributions to overall soil health. Reducing descriptions of soil health to a periodic chart seen through a spectrograph without acknowledging the trillions of microbes, 99.9% of which we cannot replicate in a lab or identify (JADAM Organic Farming, page 59) misses the fact that each kind of bacteria is a tiny chemical factory that makes these minerals available to other microbes as organic compounds, all of which by definition include carbon. Adding boron, lime and other refined minerals can have lasting good or bad effects. “Good and bad are one.”
The biggest proportion of a good soil diet is carbon-rich
cellulose – straw, wood chips, shredded branches and leaves. These take a long time and many
transformations to build the soil. But if
you want long term organic matter and microbial life, start there even if you
don’t have anything else.
For the protein part of this diet I would suggest the really
rich components of manure, rotten fish and spoiled grain. These give a quick boost of nitrogen and a
healthy source of probiotic microbes that can leap into action with a little
warmth and water. Like protein, a little
goes a long way. “Good and bad are one.” Too much too soon will burn your
plants. (In humans too much protein can increase inflammation.)
For vegetables I would add, well, vegetables. Basically fresh cut green grass and other
plants that feed worms and larger biota.
Rotting green material takes up some of the nitrogen from manure
etc. So it can be used as a buffer. It works from the bottom up so crushing a
cover crop and planting through the debris can feed the crop and suppress
Amazingly, food grade sugar itself can be used as a
fertilizer. I have read of molasses
diluted in water as a crop stimulant. As
with any sugar I would proceed with caution.
I’m imagining hordes of ants and flies with overuse. Nevertheless bacteria and fungi get sugar
from the roots of photosynthesizing plants so it is a part of the soil diet.
In a related news item, eating charcoal reduces flatulence
in cows (bbc.com)
Cattle ranchers tell me that cows will eat charcoal when they feel like it (not briquettes that
have binders etc. in them). In Australia
a farmer added it to cattle feed as a way to incorporate charcoal into the
soil. It is known to retain moisture and
provide shelter to keep bacteria and other microbes from being leached out by
rain. As a bonus charcoal (biochar)
Although that was the main objective for the Australian
farmer, Doug Pow, adding biochar to feed
can also reduce up to 20% of methane released by cows. Methane is 25 time more potent as a
greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide so it is a big deal. (bbc.com)
Part of Pow’s breakthrough was that he imported cow dung beetles that
immediately bury cow pies and stop further release of methane as well as adding
the carbon to the soil. So, yes, add
biochar to your soil’s diet.
I tend to think of this mixture as a mulch rather than a
compost. As a top dressing the hyphae
from the fungi can grow without being broken as they would be when compost is
worked into the soil. But timing is also
a factor. Richer feed in the spring,
some special snacks before harvest and a lot of cellulose before winter: sounds
like a healthy soil diet to me.
There are also a number of “herbal” remedies for soil
problems, but this is probably enough to digest for now.