Friday, April 14, 2017

Kansas City Progress, Oklahoma Naivete, and Iowa Short-Sightedness

“Everything's up to date in Kansas City,” marveled cowboy Will Parker in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, set in 1906 and debuting on Broadway in 1943.

“They gone about as fer as they can go
They went an' built a skyscraper seven stories high
About as high as a buildin' orta grow.”

My guess is that audiences found that prediction as comically nonsensical in 1943 as we do today.  With two skyscrapers planned for downtown Des Moines that rise 30 stories and more, a 7-story “skyscraper” sounds more like a bungalow.  Never mind that the tallest building in the country -- the 104-story One World Trade Center in New York -- is only the 6th tallest in the world.  

That’s the problem with the present tense, of course:  we don’t know what we don’t know.  In 1906 a 7-story building really sounded like something.  We make judgments and assumptions based on wisdom accumulated to that point – what else, after all, do we have? – but only fools presume that that’s all there is. 

I found myself humming that classic piece of musical naiveté while reading the newspaper’s reporting on the Iowa State Legislature’s budget recommendation that would effectively eliminate the 30-year old Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture housed at Iowa State University.  Named after Iowa native Aldo Leopold, an internationally revered conservationist, ecologist, and educator who championed the need for development of a “land ethic”, the Center’s mission has been “to identify and develop new ways to farm profitably while conserving natural resources as well as reducing negative environmental and social impacts.”  In its three decades of work, the Center has sponsored research, trials, educational efforts, and worked with farmers to enrich both their work and the land they cultivate. Much of the conservation progress in Iowa that has been realized in recent years can be traced to the Center's research and educational efforts -- work that, by the Center's own assessment, is still in its infancy.

In announcing the budget proposal, however, Rep. Cecil Dolecheck (Mt. Ayr) mused that  “…the center’s mission of researching methods of sustainable agriculture appears to have been achieved.” 

Yep, they gone about as fer as they can go.

“Research on sustainable agriculture,” Dolecheck went on to observe, “can continue at ISU, but it can be done through the College of Agriculture.” (Des Moines Register, April 12, 2017)

Given that land grant institutions like Iowa State have largely become wholly owned subsidiaries of “big ag”, focused more centrally on corporate profitability than soil sustainability, that option offers thin encouragement.  Meanwhile, the land continues to erode, the soil continues to deteriorate, waterways are increasingly unswimmable and toxic to wildlife, and farmers, for all their available tools and technologies, earn less and less for their labors while spending more and more for the privilege. 

But apparently research on sustainability has gone about as far as it can go.  Perhaps next the Legislature will impose a 7-story cap on new building construction because everybody knows that’s “About as high as a buildin' orta grow.”

One thing is almost certainly true in this sad saga of environmental ignorance and disregard.  As we accelerate our disinterest in matters of sustainability, the Leopold Center’s mission toward that end will indeed grow obsolete.  “Sustainability” will no longer be the relevant need.

“Regenerativity” will, of necessity, have urgently taken its place.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

And So it Begins

It is started.
On Ash Wednesday.
The first seeds of the new harvest have officially been sown.

We cleaned and straightened the greenhouse last week; spread a thin layer of soil over the plastic-covered shelves, arranged the warming cables and tested the sockets, the timer and the lights. The resilience of the electrical connections always astounds me as the fluorescents warm to a glow, announcing with light that winter has been survived. Lori had rearranged the packets in order of germination schedules, and then we waited -- until yesterday and today. Premium potting soil, met with a little warm water, shaped by a forming tool into soil blocks and nestled in trays as open and receptive arms for those tiny repositories of potentiality sprinkled in and gently covered. I've felt more than a few shivers of excited anticipation. It is started.

I know it might be impertinent, here at the commencement of this contemplative Lenten season, to play on Jesus’ ironic words spoken from the cross at the season’s other end -- “It is finished” -- but this, too, is an auspicious moment. And I rather think Jesus would approve. After all, isn't it elsewhere in scripture noted that “unless a seed falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”? If I might be momentarily theological, the irony of Jesus’ own pronouncement is that only in the most literal, limited and pedestrian sense was anything, on that Good Friday afternoon, really “finished.” Ever since that moment believers have asserted that a whole new reality was only beginning.

So it is that the first of our assembled and readied seeds have fallen into earth to die in order that they might bear much fruit. First the comfrey and nettle, then the sage, marjoram, oregano, thyme and lemon balm. Next week the greenhouse population will expand as peppers of assorted varieties join the parade, and then tomatoes and brassicas and more. The volume only grows louder as the shelves grow heavier and more crowded as the seedlings progress toward May’s transplanting. It will seem at once like forever until then, and only tomorrow.

Either way, there will be ample to keep us busy, and we are ready -- the spray bottle, the sprinkling can and the stored rain barrels with saved water from autumn. And a calendar focused on the process.

Another shiver of excitement. Because it's nice to turn away from decay, for a time, and focus instead on growth.

It is started, indeed.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Mulch, Manure and the Great Circle of Life

Anticipation, yes, but preparation as well.

It was over 60-degrees in central Iowa yesterday, with higher temperatures anticipated today. It's disconcerting for mid-February, here in the midst of USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 5 more typically buried in snow for weeks yet to come. But sunny, warm and clear, we took advantage, hitching up the chipper/shredder to the Club Car and settling it in near the former compost pile that degenerated into a brush pile catch-all bound for uselessness that we intend to reclaim and repurpose for wildflowers.
Because nothing is finely useless. More and more in agreement with those regenerativists who assert that there is no such thing as “waste”, and with the first of Barry Commoner's Four Laws of Ecology that “everything is connected to everything else”, we went to work regenerating and reconnecting. In a process parallel to bucketing up my neighbor's alpaca manure -- which came out the back end after going in the front end as hay which had sprouted from the soil -- and now returning it to the soil, we fed the stalks and spent vines and branches from previous gardens into the front end of the shredder and mounded out the back end a pile of mulch that will return organic matter to the soil to nourish future vegetables and flowers.
As soon as the soil is workable -- which will likely be sooner rather than later if this weather pattern continues -- we will free and remove the abandoned compost cages, level the surface, prepare the seed bed and scatter the seeds, which will draw strength from all those apple cores, onion skins, pepper stems, egg shells and other by-products of the kitchen which had accumulated there, plus that mulch from yesterday's shredding...
...and blossom.
And the butterflies and bees will feed there, who in turn will pollinate the orchard and garden, which in turn will grow and fruit to feed us, who in turn will gather our kitchen scraps and spent branches and vines and... are beginning to recognize the circle.
 Meanwhile, we have already been busy pruning the fruit trees, and earlier this week settled into its location the new chicken coop that will shelter the several new hens that will arrive in the coming weeks. And the contractor slipped in on Wednesday and accomplished the prairie burn -- that once-every-three-year intervention mimicking those ancestral lightening-ignited fires beneficial for invigorating the native grasses and wildflowers.
Because spring is coming...and growth.
And while it's fun to anticipate...'s better to prepare.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

New Toys -- With Time to Read the Manuals

We made this move over five years ago in order to learn how to grow food on different terms -- "different" meaning without all the artificial inputs and applications now so presumed as to be labeled "conventional agriculture."  We had concerns about peak oil relative to how energy intensive agriculture has become.  We had health concerns relative to all the toxic chemicals routinely applied to fruits and vegetables we subsequently ingest.  We had culinary concerns relative to the commoditization of produce into the narrow portfolio of varieties developed to travel and pack well but not necessarily taste good.  Think about those beautiful tomatoes in the grocery store that might as well be plastic.  Try to remember the last apple you ate that actually had much flavor. 

So it was that we settled into our ten little acres, carved out a garden and went to work, immersing ourselves in more "learning experiences" than I care to remember, though I think I've written them down.  Though "this" and "that" have changed along the way as we have gained more skill and learned how to pay attention -- and to what -- several principles have guided our efforts throughout. 
  • no chemicals, 
  • a bias toward heirloom and open-pollinated seeds, 
  • and a minimum of mechanization.  
The latter of those is a balancing act between our principles and our bodies, cognizant of the reality that we didn't undertake this work as kids but at a point somewhere beyond middle-age, and nurturing the hope that we can continue doing it for some time to come.  Sustaining our bodies, therefore, becomes as important as sustaining the land.
And so it is that we are dramatically changing our cultivation plan.  Essentially patterned after the work of a Canadian market gardener named J.M. Fortier, the system inverts our current trench pattern that employs 6"-deep X 8"-wide trenches spaced 20" apart, and replaces it with 30"-wide raised beds spaced 18-20" apart. 

Why?  We have valued much of what the trench system has offered, but many of the tools we have accumulated along the way -- the wheel hoe, the broad fork, and various long-handled hoes -- are difficult to use effectively in these narrow spaces, meaning most of the cultivation happens on our hands and knees with hand tools.  The wider beds will enable us to make better use of the tools...and our bodies...standing upright.

Of course making the switch requires another tool, which was delivered yesterday.  This kind of gear-driven, two-wheeled, walk-behind tractor is common in Italy where it was manufactured, but is still something of an anomaly in this country which prefers vast fields and hulking machinery.  The implements we purchased are the standard tiller, which we expect to use sparsely, and a rotary plow which will actually create the raised beds.  Once the beds are made and functioning, the tractor will be used for occasional bed maintenance and new projects.  In between those uses, we will revert to our more basic-but-better-utilized manual equipment.

So there will be new work to do this spring in the garden that will swell to around 3/4 acre.  New lessons to learn.  New experiments.  Broadening comprehension.  And hopefully new things to eat. 

Earlier this week it all seemed closer at hand than the calendar might suggest as temperatures soared to almost 60-degrees with bright sunshine.  But as the tractor was being unloaded in our driveway it must have seen its shadow.

The sun rose this morning on 3" of fresh snow -- and counting -- with a high temperature not expected to move out of the 20's and lows tonight back down into the single digits. 

Which, of course, is fine.  It gives me time to read the manuals.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Foretaste of Spring in Winter

Even though the calendar and accompanying thermometer insist that it's still the dead of winter, the foreshadowing hints of spring are already peeking out from under the blankets. Garden seeds have long-since been in hand (though a few keep trickling in along the way) and a shipping date has been set for the seed potatoes a mere 6-weeks down the road.  Days are growing longer since the winter solstice – by minutes, to be sure, but lengthening, and already enough to encourage the chickens to lean ever-so-slightly in the direction of more active egg production.  In the wake of a couple of farming conferences we have begun to reconceive our garden layout for a massive overhaul that would enable a completely different (and hopefully more companionable) cultivation practice. More and more convinced that we are squandering a valuable opportunity by keeping them separate, we have made conscientious plans to create a workable access integrating the chicken yard more functionally with the garden. In recent days we took advantage of the milder weather to make needed repairs to the wind-whipped deer fence, re-securing the garden perimeter for the nearing days in which something is again inside to protect. Half of the fruit trees have received their winter pruning.
And over the weekend we brought home 45 bags of organic compost and potting mix from our Wisconsin supplier. Seventy-two cubic feet of “stuff”. Now neatly stacked in the barn, the compost will eventually benefit the fruit and nut trees and flower beds, with any leftover heading for the garden. The potting mix will be transformed into soil blocks -- brownie-sized cubes that will host the variety of seeds for their first season of growth in the greenhouse.
And then it all accelerates from there -- the watering, the transplanting, the weeding, monitoring for insects and disease, and, with any luck, the harvesting. Sitting here comfortably on the sofa before the glowing fireplace, it seems a bit of a mirage – the ephemeral flickerings of a possible reality yet a long way off.  And in some ways it is. Between now and spring’s actual arrival there will almost certainly be snow to shovel and blow, insulated overalls to keep pulling on and off, ice-broken branches to gather and stack for later feeding to the chipper, more workshops to attend and a greenhouse to ready.
But the process is starting. It's time to sharpen shovels and blades and make sure everything is in working order. It's time to inventory the rest of the tools to determine what needs replacing and simply needs to be brought closer to hand. It's time to start conceiving which crops will need to rotate to where.
All of which already begins to sound like work.
But last night, nestled squarely in the middle of January, rummaging through the freezer and drawing out greens and peppers and apricots from last summer’s bounty while considering options for the last remaining potatoes, we savored again a few of the reasons why we do it, and why we already looking forward.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Prepared to Prepare, But Left Instead to Repair

Over the weekend I completed an online certification course in fruit tree management – an increasingly pressing matter given the ongoing establishment of our little orchard populated now by 3-dozen fruit and nut trees that have yet to experience a trim.  Pruning was a major focus of the course – how, when, where and why.  We learned to recognize the difference between platform branches and scaffolding branches, the suckers and the leader branch.  We differentiated between blossom buds and leaf buds and to know the varied purposes of winter pruning and summer pruning.  And I'll have to admit that as daunting and intimidating as was the initial idea, nervous about imposing serious arboreal injury, I'm now somewhat eager to begin.

But nature may beat me to it. 

Overnight and through the day freezing rain has glassed the driveway and sheathed every blade and branch.  Various parts of the city have reported power failures from weight-broken lines, and more locally miscellaneous branches already litter the yard with almost certainly more to come as the Swarovski yard of the moment threatens to become a horticultural holocaust tomorrow.  Less of a pruning than a purge, this thinning has more in common with last week’s fox invasion of the chicken yard that left multiple hens indiscriminately killed.

Perhaps I'm being melodramatic -- I'll admit to that level of guilt.  But nature can, indeed, be brutal.  The ice is beautiful, to be sure, but we’ll see how the juvenile trees withstand the assault.  And then we will see how to pick up the pieces and go on.  Literally.  Stick by stick this week as it was feather by feather only days ago.  In both cases nature’s random abortion of potential fruit.

It makes me look forward to summer’s drought…or will it be flood…or yet some other way the realities might intervene in the imagination?  We’ll see. 

For now I've got my pruners handy.  On the off-chance they will still be needed.

Less in order to prepare, I'm guessing, than repair.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A Friend in the Midst of Nature's Harder Edge

Carol King many years ago wrote the soundtrack for the evening: “You've Got a Friend.” Which is good, because as it turned out I needed one.
It was time to close up the chickens for the night -- dusk, or a little after. Perhaps 15 minutes before I had checked out the window and observed them still out and pecking about so I hadn't rushed. I hauled myself into an overcoat, pulled on gloves, grabbed the spotlight to check all the nooks and crannies and headed out.
I heard the commotion, but only in that vague, scratching-at-the-edges-of-consciousness way that is muffled by more preoccupying thoughts. My first real sign that something was amiss was bumping into Sam the rooster up near the deck and heading for the front yard. Glancing past him I saw the girls scurrying all around the coops, at least one on top, full of agitation. And a blur near the fence, sprinting away. As I surveyed the area with suddenly sharpened attentions I noticed first one still mound, and then another. And then another. Three dead hens. Three of my precious favorites I would later realize -- a Lavender Orpington, an Ameraucana and one of the young Bantam Dark Brahmans.
"Did you see the foxes?" a voiced interrupted. So lost in trying to assemble in my mind the reality of what had happened I hadn't noticed my neighbor approach. “We saw two in our front yard moving this way. Then we heard the commotion up here, and all the alpacas were out, looking this way.”
He joined me in the chicken yard as we surveyed the carnage and gathered up the remains. He stood watch as I secured the survivors and commiserated alongside of me. “I'm so sorry,” he said softly. “I know how attached you get to them. Do you need some help carrying them?”
“Oh, I can manage,” I started to respond, willing the sick taste and emotions back down my throat -- and then remembered the truant rooster. “But you could help me find the rooster and get him back inside.”
As it turned out, he hadn't gone far. We spotted him up near the driveway beyond the front porch. But as Art and I eased behind him to encourage him back toward his enclosure it became clear that he had no interest in returning. Rattled and disoriented by his own particular PTSD, the closer we maneuvered him to the chicken yard the more averse he became until the only recourse was to wedge him between our crouching bodies long enough for me to grab him and forcefully carry him inside -- further agitating well as me.
All the while Art stood nearby, sympathizing, opening doors and securing gates and willingly serving as my compatriot in sadness. Together we took one last walk and look around. Finally we snapped the gate closed behind us and paused -- one last fragment of shared silence between us -- and went our separate ways.
Lori and I keep reminding ourselves, whenever such sadnesses occur, that "this is nature”. Though I suspect I will never adjust my soul to the hard truth of it, the reality is that it’s not all pastoral serenity and bucolic bliss out here a few miles remote from the madding crowds; more than quietude and harvest and the daily simplicity of gathering eggs. Here in the rawness of God’s order are pests and diseases in the garden and thieving birds and squirrels in the orchard. There are moles tunneling through the yard, and there are predators above and around the chicken yard attentively watching for and eventually seizing their hungry opportunity. It's beautiful out here, and serene, but it's also torn feathers and blood, rot and thorn.
Thankfully, in the midst of it all, there are also friends who appear when you need one, who stand nearby pretending not to notice the tears, who volunteer to help carry the carcasses and, from their own experiences with this hard and natural order of things, understand.
When you're down and troubled, and you need a helping hand...” the lyrics spontaneously recalled, “'ve got a friend.
I'm grateful, because I needed one. In more ways than one.