Real farmers don’t drive pickup trucks

Today I pay homage to my grandfather, James Miracle and my grandmother Myrtle. They had a tractor and a 1949 dodge ram car which made the 5 mile trip to town once a month. They went to buy toilet paper, corn flakes, flour and sugar.
They raised cattle, tobacco, corn and a large garden, bigger than my market garden. They fertilized with manure. No feed bags nor outside hay ever had to be unloaded. If you need it, you grow it on the farm, putting up hay, corn–jams and beans. Milk came from cows, eggs from chickens, vegetables from the garden or the cellar, and the freezer was always stocked with your meat. Feed for animals came from the earth.
I drive a pickup truck. I have a long way to go to reach the heights of my grandfather. Someday you will know I have arrived when I no longer own a truck.

Mob grazing and hugelkultur

We have had some long periods with less than normal rainfall lately, most notably October of 2010 until October of 2011 when we had 8 inches of rain in 12 months at the farm. The ground remained drier than normal until the fall rains in 2013. And we mismanaged our pastures. Hay was expensive and hard to find and we owned the most destructive of all livestock–horses. We half-heartedly tried rotating them, but ended up with no grass anywhere. We knew it was time to put in to practice what we had studied. We planned on a mob grazing program, something we first witnessed in 1990 in Nebraska, from a farmer who had studied the teachings of Alan Savory. For those who want to know more about his studies you might check out his TED talk.
We purchased a small flock of sheep, because small ruminates that eat both grass and browse seemed to best suit our situation. These sheep are crowded in new pasture most every day, quickly eating the tops of the minimal grasses that are there, grinding in the grass seed that we throw out under their hooves, mulching weeds they don’t eat, and fertilizing with their little rear manure spreader. After the sheep leave an area we can then put the traveling chickens on the pasture to clean the bugs from manure and select some tender grasses to improve the quality of their eggs.
Another gift from the drought is lots of dead oak trees. Many of these have now fallen and we are beginning to pile up the logs, throw hay on top and put the livestock in those areas, climbing around, eating hay, spreading their fertilizer and mulching. We are using some of the techniques involved in hugelkultur. Traditionally hugelkultur involves digging and partially burying the logs, but I feel we will get the decay we need without the labor, though it may take a few years for these to become the rich hummus beds we anticipate. In April we plan to plant winter squash because of its vining habit. It should completely cover the logs, offer mulch, retain moisture and provide us with a crop from an area that was never plowed, fertilized by a person or weeded. These areas should never need watering because the decaying logs and mulch should store enough moisture to survive another drought. Their mounds should also reduce runoff during any monsoons.IMG_1162

only mad dogs and Englishmen work out in the noonday sun
only mad dogs and Englishmen work out in the noonday sun

field restoration
field restoration

We are always looking for ideas to improve our farm, reduce inputs, and help our bottom line without backbreaking labor. We already have enough backbreaking labor.

Giving thanks on Thanksgiving

I went outside this morning at first light, about 6:30, to check out the effects of the frost. 28˚. We had given the sheep a sheltered area, but they were all grazing in the open pasture–their frosted wool backs glimmering. I let the hens out. They were fluffed up looking the size of meat birds, more excited than usual. The greenhouse with the tilapia had stayed above 50˚ and the water was still 60˚. Success! All our short haired dogs, that had the rare opportunity to be inside last night, were running full tilt while we went to each livestock area to break the ice layer off their water supply. I wanted to feed the horses some wet alfalfa pellets, but the hose was frozen, so they just got dry pellets. We southern Texans do not do winter on Thanksgiving very often.
When I was a kid Thanksgiving was all about eating. My mother was the perfect southern cook and much of the meal came canned and frozen from our summer garden harvest.
When we had children in Houston the holiday was all about the kids and me cooking together, while Kenan and Granny tried to keep our mess in check in anticipation of the large family gathering.
Today, this Thanksgiving is about growing the food here on the farm where it is quiet, cold and peaceful. It is about knowing the soil, working with the weather, avoiding the pests, understanding the animals and enjoying one another. Of course I will cook and I will eat.
I hope the best for everyone.
I am thankful.

Permaculture at Healing Hands

Yesterday a few of us went to the Healing Hands Ranch in Willis, Tx. This ranch brings in men struggling through poverty and addiction, often homeless, often veterans, and provides housing, job training and an entry back into mainstream society. This group is proposing building an eco village with cob housing, gardens, aquaponic greenhouses–a permaculture homestead with low cost housing, a connection to nature, minimal energy needs and on site employment. This could be a model for future development. This will take some time and they will need many volunteer hands to join in. It is too early to ask for help, but keep them in mind. We all will be working on design proposals in the next few months and hope to begin building early next year. Building cob houses requires more manual labor than materials. Using the unemployed, underemployed and homeless and paying them a living wage will not only help them immediately, but will also provide some skills for future employment. We would like to see families and individuals in an affordable, environmentally sustainable community.

The Wictim Theory

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Boris Aronson, a Russian/American scene designer, was teaching a seminar at the University Of Texas in 1974 and one student asked what I thought was a stupid question. “Mr. Aronson, what is your theory of design”
He replied something like this in his thick Russian accent– “My theory of design is the wictim theory. Last week we began developing the style of a new Broadway show and the costume designer was not there. She could not promote her ideas, so everything went my way. This week I am here in Austin and we have another meeting and my ideas will not be promoted. Last week she was the wictim and this week I am the wictim. If you want to get somewhere you need to be present and constantly advocate your vision. If you are not there the ideas of others will prevail and your vision will become wictim to the plans of others.”
Don’t be a victim of the plans of big Ag, big Pharma and the industrial food system.
Come to the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance annual conference in Bastrop Sept 22 and 23 and help advocate your vision.

Chicken tractor

It is time to take out a bit of the winter garden. This job falls on the chickens. I built a new lightweight chicken tractor out of PVC and chicken wire. I saw a picture of a similar one at the SSAWG conference last month.  One hour with 10 chickens and they should have run out of things to eat, so we move it to a new local.  Mine is 6′ x 10′ and very easy for one person to move. Now I need to build one the size of my raised beds–4′ wide.IMG_0173

I am also building a circular clam-like pen that will go around a fruit tree and fit one or two chickens to weed and debug all of the fruit trees.  That job should take about 400 hours.

Don’t lime your phosphate

Phosphorous is essential for root production and plant growth.  Many potting mixes  have lime in them. The lime is there to counter the acidity of the peat moss often used in potting mixes.  However, I have recently discovered–with help from my friends at Texas Plant and Soil–this can cause a serious problem. Lime is basically calcium (Ca) which is a positively charged ion and it reacts readily with negatively charged phosphorous (P) fixing the nutrient in the soil and making it unavailable to the plant.  We lime the soil to get rid of acidity.  If the soil is too acid, iron will also tie up the phosphorous.  Phosphorous is most available to a plant at a pH of 6 to 7.  However if your soil is too acidic at time of planting, it is too late to lime because you will not get the nutrient to the plant.  Lime at least four months before you plant. As far as the lime in the potting soil is concerned, we quit using peat moss and use partially decomposed hurricane Ike mulch while it lasts.  This keeps the mix less acidic and is a sustainable resource for now.

Our mix

Organic should be the normal

Those of us who grow the worlds food responsibly are subjected to being certified, inspected, taxed and burdened with a mountain of paperwork to acquire the right to sell our food as “organic”.
Those who use deadly poisons, pollute the water, destroy the seed bank and endanger the health of the people are not burdened with such hurdles because they are normal–they are conventional.
Something is turned on its head.

We need to regulate the ones that cause the problem. A certification should be required to use synthetic chemicals. Inspections should be required to approve the poisons and altered seeds that are part of our environmental pollution. A fee should be levied to help pay for the cleanup of the pollution and to research the health effects of these synthetic herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, fertilizers and genetically altered seeds. The mountain of paperwork should document every drop of these chemicals that are put on our food, our soils and our water.
The resulting product should be labeled as an altered, chemically dependent and unnatural food product.
The product we now label as “organic” should carry the label “food”.

Wash your veggies, but don’t expect that to remove the poison.

I have been reading articles about “washing the pesticides off your produce before eating”. It reminded me of a piece on the radio about cleaning up the radiation at Fukushima by washing. I thought the two had something in common, though radiation is obviously an accelerated way to poison people and the planet.
How much gets washed off?
Where does the pesticide or radiation you wash off go?
The pesticide goes into the sewer or the soil where it continues to be a problem. The real truth is that you only remove a small amount of the poison by washing.  Much of the chemical has soaked into the flesh of the plant.
Pesticide contamination might not be the best reason to eat organic food. More people die of complications from fungicides each year than any other agricultural product. It is not known how these fungicides absorb into the food nor how they might affect your body when consumed.
Herbicides, like Roundup, tie up the nutrients in the soil. Nutrients like copper, nickel, zinc, magnesium, iron, and calcium are in short supply or not available at all in plants grown in soil treated with glyphosate. When most of our processed and fast food contain corn and soy from “roundup-ready” grain, we should be having a health crisis in America from the lack of nutrients alone.
Ammonium and potassium nitrate are the primary nitrogen fertilizer used to stimulate growth. Excessive nitrates and nitrates might cause problems in the body.

Synthetic herbicides, fungicides, nitrates and pesticides all work together to contaminate your food and your environment and a little soap and water will not help much with those problems.
All that being said you should wash your veggies. Buy organic produce, wash off the snail residue, the bird droppings or the dirt and eat healthy.

Planting your tomato plants.

Set out your tomato plants as early as possible.  In Houston that should be about the second or third week of February. It takes about 6 weeks for the plant to be mature enough to fruit and they fruit best when nighttime temperatures are in the 50’s or 60’s. We get very little of that temperature range in the Houston area. Once we start having days in the 90’s with nighttime lows in the mid 70’s tomato production will be reduced or terminated. Your window of opportunity is mostly during April and May. If the temperature drops below 35˚ cover the plant with frost cloth or a sheet, etc.  Dig a hole and add one teaspoon of rock phosphate or bone meal in the bottom. Set the tomato in the ground lower than it was in the pot, even burying the seed leaves.  Sprinkle the ground around the plant with a half cup of cornmeal. This will be fungal protection. Tomatoes need to be staked or caged. Indeterminate tomatoes need a cage or stake at least 5′ tall. As leaves near the bottom turn yellow or brown remove and discard them.  You can spray them every other week with seaweed extract and/or compost tea but do not fertilize with nitrogen until the first flower is set.  Then lightly fertilize with fish emulsion or a prepared organic tomato fertilizer. It is usually advisable to add calcium to the soil at that time in the form of ag bone meal, rock phosphate, gypsum, egg shells or even powdered milk (my grandmother’s solution).  Pick the tomatoes as soon as they start to turn red (if they are a red tomato) and let them ripen at room temperature.  Never put them in the refrigerator.