Fall was long and busy. Kelly spent countless hours, occasionally accompanied by friends, mulching trees with wood chips. She mowed the grass in the alleys and organized the Morton building. I was her helper after work and on post-call days, but she did the bulk of it. Hard for me to imagine with so many hours invested, that she is not bonding with the land.
We priced out an 8-foot high deer fence, but decided to rest our already severely taxed credit line. Instead we bought 1000 tree tubes from New Farm Supply. The tubes are made out of milk-carton paper. 1000 was enough for about a third of the trees. Over a couple week’s time we installed them with the help of good friends. They will last a couple years. The tubes. We hope the friends will last longer than that.
Once the trees grow out of the tube tops the deer will browse them again, but at least the trees will have a head start. I noticed that our six acres of forest somehow grew very tall in spite of deer pressure, so I hope at least some of our trees will JUFFIO--just figure it out, even though nobody thinks that is possible. If we have livestock, we will need perimeter fencing, but that’s a ways off. Probably. Maybe.
Our deer are nocturnal, or at least elusive, like ninjas. We secured agricultural hunting permits that allowed us to take does out of season. We had lots of hunters try lots of times, but nobody got a shot off. Eventually our hunters stopped wasting their time. It’s odd. You can hardly walk ten paces without seeing deer tracks and so many of our unprotect trees are chewed, but I have yet to actually see a deer on our property. Also odd is that deer have tastes. The cherries are intact, but the hardwoods, except for the walnuts, are browsed. Deer devoured the buds of the white pine seedlings, but didn’t touch the spruce trees (planted as an eventual poison barrier to sprays from the conventional farm field to our north). We anxiously await to see which of our trees intend to survive.
Every day is moving day and has been since late summer. We spent the early winter taking down most Hartwicke Dr. garden beds and moving the soil, bucket by bucket, to the farm. I also moved many rocks--surely more than a ton altogether. Some were the size of muskmelons, others too heavy to lift into the bed of the truck by myself. Moving rocks makes no sense whatsoever, but I did it anyway because, well, I guess I like rocks, and because I carried them here from other places (which also does not make sense) to be part of my haphazard landscaping plan and because the new owners will likely pay someone to cart my rocks away. Also, moving rocks is a good workout and I need to get stronger if I hope to be able to lift cows and tractors like real farmers do.
Winter overslept, so we worked in the fields, mulching trees and planting prairie well into December. “What is prairie anyway?” you ask. Prairie is a catch-all name for multi-species communities of plants that have lived here quite well for hundreds of years. Animals (bison) grazed, trampled and fertilized the prairie in mutually beneficial balance. These grasses, sedges and flowers preceded modern people. Prairies were well-adapted to their environment--both drought and flood tolerant. And their deep roots helped build soil especially with animals mowing and fertilizing. It was this deep fertile soil that supported a boom in wheat production in the 1930’s at least until the soil turned to dust, which was carried away by the wind because the prairie plants had been replaced by wheat. Oops.
Prairie also helps the land hold water. Some of the deep roots die from time to time creating channels into which rainwater can seep. The dying roots also add water-holding organic matter. Our consultant farmer, Peter Allen, said it well: Your whole field is going to be one giant rain barrel. The benefits of prairie installation seemed far too logical to ignore.
A guy by the name of Scott Weber further inspired me and I further inspired Kelly. I first heard Scott talk at the Garden Expo in 2015, and I went back to hear him again this year. The title of this year’s lecture was “Prairie Installation without Herbicides”. Conventional so-called wisdom is that you have to kill everything with herbicides first, then plant your prairie seeds. The use of poison is supposedly justified by the greater good. I could almost see the point, but I am always a skeptic when it comes to the need for poisons.
Scott refuses to let his thinking be bound by convention. He showed slide after slide of beautiful prairie fields on his farm. Miraculously (or not) none of his prairies were preceded by herbicide application. He instead mows a couple times in the summer after the prairie is planted. Mowing knocks down the annual weeds and gives the prairie plants a chance to compete. Scott promotes planting prairie seeds on snow, which I tried on about in a half acre triangle we call the walnut grove, which is actually a walnut-chestnut-hazelnut- persimmon-paw paw-oak-honey locust grove, depending on which trees survive the challenges of tree infancy.
The largest prairie planting was done before the snow, but after hard frost. I used the all-purpose seeder, a gadget pulled behind the tractor. The seeder comes with extensive instructions, which, paraphrased, say that the user just figure it out. After much deliberation, calculation and consternation, I trialed-and-erred out the settings that would caused 4.5 acres worth of prairie seed to spill out fairly evenly over 4.5 acres. With rain capture in mind, I started at the highest point in the field and worked my way down the slopes. You’ll know if our prairie installation worked if you drive by and see a field of grass and wildflowers. Putting seeds on the ground is nature’s way, so I am confident something good will grow.
In February I caught the fungus bug. That’s sounds like a disgusting toenail affliction, but I mean only to say that we are going to grow mushrooms as part of our farm business enterprise. I kind of didn’t even ask Kelly if she agreed, and she kind of doesn’t even really like mushrooms, but she does support producing things we can sell. Mushrooms make sense because we have logs and wood chips to grow them on, and a shady forest. It’s a least worth trying on a small scale: 50 logs for shitake, 50-75 for oyster and a 100-square foot bed for wine cap mushrooms, which will grow on straw or wood chips. Fun fact: oyster mushrooms will grow on box elder logs. Box elder is the dandelion of trees, so we have about a 400-year supply of oyster mushroom logs.
We ordered 50 rootstock apple trees onto which we will graft scion wood from other apple trees. There will be another blog post about that. These might be the last trees we buy as already-growing trees. The rest will come from seeds. I realized--just like with vegetables--I like growing things from seed. Last fall I collected hundreds of seeds from various, mostly-free sources--our existing forest, along bike paths, behind our soon-to-be-former-house, my mother-in-law’s back yard, next to the tennis stadium. Pretty sure I was the only one filling my tennis back pack with acorns that morning. If all goes well, a small nursery operation will grow out of this seed collection, which includes oak, walnut, dogwood, mulberry, apple (purchased Antonovka seed and some from a roadside tree to trial as rootstock just for the hell of it), chestnuts, basswood, sugar maple (to grow harvestable logs for shitake mushrooms) and redbud. What we don’t sell, we can plant in our fields or use to replenish the openings in our mature forest. I even ordered Korean pine seeds--one of the varieties whose cones yield large pine nuts. The Korean pines, cousins of our white pines, are a longshot, but who knows? Maybe on my 90th birthday, if I still have teeth, I will eat a handful of pine nuts from our own trees.
We will still grow vegetables, but we don’t intend to have a conventional CSA like the ones who supply boxes of vegetables to subscribers. We are strongly committed to the cultivation of an agriculture-based community, but we are too early in the process to know how that will evolve. The vegetables are for us to eat and share. Maybe there is some vegetable we will sell--perhaps rhubarb or asparagus or garlic or some value-added product, like tomato sauce. Kelly thinks there is at least a small market role for vegetables, and I do like growing and eating them, but it seems sensible to keep the priority on perennial agriculture.
Found out from our tax expert that we have to put in 500 hours a year to be considered a business and not a hobby farm. We laughed. That’s not even close to being a problem.
Areas of focus now: 1) Live on the farm. 2) Establish the nursery. 3) Start the mushrooms. 4) Plant a garden. 5) Graft and plant 50 apple trees. 6) Maintain the already-planted trees and berry plants. Watch for berries to harvest. Near-horizon ventures: 1) Build a chicken coop. 2) Hire some chickens to live there. 3) Consider farm-to-table dinners and other forms of agri-tourism. 4) Fence the garden.