Archive for the 'agriculture' Category

Bye, for now

By Tom Read

We're off on a new land-based adventure called Slow Farm, which also happens to be our home. So we'll see you sometime in the near future. Bye, for now!

I started this journal six years ago to provide readers a sense of our lives on Texada Island. Aside from occasional opinionated forays into local and global politics, I feel that I’ve mostly accomplished that purpose. Thus, regular readers may have noticed an inward-facing trend in recent journal topics, with more entries focused on our lives at Slow Farm and less coverage of the wider Texada community.

I may not be writing about the community quite as much as before, but the realities of our community have a direct impact on our lives. One reality, for example, is that the real estate market on Texada has drastically contracted since the fall of 2006. Linda and I have watched our joint livelihood as realtors gradually fade away, so we’ve decided to embark on a new approach to economic survival that fits with our way of life on the island.

As you might surmise from the many Journal entries on gardening and livestock raising during the past few years, we have a strong interest in micro-farming. So we’re giving it a try. I’ll take the lead “in the field” while Linda looks after administration and marketing. We’re also looking forward to working with a lively group of younger partners who share our passion for local, sustainable agriculture.

Given our new direction, there doesn’t seem much need to continue writing Tom’s Texada Journal. But we are interested in documenting our experiences in growing Slow Farm. Linda will take the lead in that effort, which we’ll launch online in the next few months. I’m not sure yet what this new entity will be called, but it will probably have the words “Slow Farm” in the title.

Before saying goodbye to TTJ, I’d like to thank those readers who took the time to provide feedback from time to time. I’m also grateful to David Parkinson for giving me the opportunity to cross-post at Slow Coast. It’s been a great pleasure, and your comments and support have been much appreciated. Thanks, and ‘bye for now!


The Long Field, Part 2

By Tom Read

Here’s how the Long Field looked last week at about 4:30 in the afternoon. The fence is complete, and most of the plowing is done, too.

Back in May I wrote about a field revival project we have underway here at Slow Farm on Texada Island, and now I’d like to report on our progress.

Since my posting titled The Long Field, Part 1 on May 25, we’ve built a deer fence using a combination of local cedar fence posts and imported fence wire (see photo). This sounds easy, but it required about two months of intermittent but laborious effort.  There’s nothing particularly special about this fence — except that I’m very proud of it because the posts are firmly planted and the wire actually got stretched quite tight and evenly thanks to lots of good teamwork and careful use of the winch on our quad. So far, it works!

Next, our plan to use pigs for cultivation of this field got dropped, because we realized it wouldn’t work. The pigs came to us in May as little “weaners,” and would not have been able to accomplish much useful rooting until they grew a lot bigger. Now that they actually are capable of vigorous rooting, it’s already mid-September and much too late to have much impact before a) the pigs get slaughtered, and b) the fast-approaching rainy season would turn the field into an erosion-prone mud pit.

So we needed another way to cultivate the field. Our solution is known as a “walking tractor,” which can provide power for several types of farm implements. Our walking tractor has a rotary plow attachment, which is a true wonder for breaking new ground without leaving a plow-pan or wrenching my arm and back muscles. It can also cut through 2” thick roots and dislodge basketball-sized rocks with nary a hiccup. And it easily turns under tall grass without getting wound up in the long stems. Yes, it runs on gasoline, but for now that is a compromise we will have to accept if we want to make this field productive again.

Bear in mind that the old field we’re reviving hasn’t been used for agriculture in several decades, so to bring it back into production is like breaking new ground. The plow not only turned up uncountable rocks and roots, but we also found many human artifacts. These included chunks of steel probably from abandoned trucks or logging equipment, broken bottles, strands of barbed wire, a few shotgun shell casings (the old brass kind) and — very appropriately — a massive horseshoe (see photo below) that likely belonged to a draft horse or mule.

This one gave a mighty “clank” when our plow churned it out of the ground. Artifacts like this draft-horse shoe tell a story of farming with horses rather than machines. For scale, that’s my hand in the picture.

All of this debris had to be removed from the field by hand. Thus we’ve laboured over this ground quite a few times now to get it plowed and picked clean in time for a fall planting of “coastal pasture mix.” That’s a combination of grasses and legumes that should prevent undue erosion this winter while turning the field into a prime pasture by next spring in time for our future swine adventure, which involves heritage grazing pigs.

As for the buckwheat that we had hoped to plant in this field, it will have to wait for spring, too. Buckwheat doesn’t overwinter well here on the coast, so we’re planning a spring planting, in a different field. That’s a different story, which we’ll relate at some future date.

The Long Field, Part 1

By Tom Read

Here’s The Long Field as it appeared yesterday around 7:30 pm. A few new cedar fence posts are already in position, but we still have a long way to go before this field is restored to productive agriculture.

The acreage surrounding where we live, which Texadans have called “Slow Farm” for decades, has seen farmers come and go for about a century. We are slowly, pun intended, joining that farming history by resurrecting the old fields here one by one. Our latest endeavor parallels the High Road; we call it “The Long Field.”

By mainland standards this field would be considered so small and irregular as to hardly qualify for serious agriculture. Allowing for proper clearances from the road and a nearby creek, it’s only about 500 feet long by 30 to 60 feet wide. But it’s all good bottom land — quite rare on Texada Island — and it has a history of growing food. Decayed but still standing cedar fence posts and half-buried strands of wire fencing remind us of our farming predecessors.

During the past several decades, a wall of roadside trees grew up next to the field, casting deep shadows upon it. Reluctantly, we had to remove those trees to bring back the sun. This work was quickly accomplished a few weeks ago by our friends Stump, Warren and Brian at RAW Select Logging. Now comes the hard part: hand labour to pick out odd bits of left-over branches and the occasional rock, plus fencing the whole field to keep out the deer.

We do not plan to rototill this field. In keeping with our desire to minimize fossil fuel use, we will instead hand-sow a cover crop of buckwheat, to be followed next summer by rotational grazing of pigs and chickens. Our choice of buckwheat was inspired by several attributes: Our neighbours to the south on High Road, Brian and Leslie, are using this crop to improve the tilth on their bottom land this year, so we expect it to thrive on our place, too. We also realized that buckwheat makes great honey and can be planted even in mid-summer for a fall flowering, so it will help feed our bees as they’re getting stocked up for winter. And fresh buckwheat pancakes come well recommended, too.

So much for Part 1 of our Long Field story. Sometime in the future I’ll report back on how we’re doing with this project, as our Slow Farm adventure continues.

Bee check-up and housecleaning

By Tom Read

This was the scene yesterday as my beekeeper friend Ted (right), assisted by bee inspector Carolyn Stoddart, began spring check-up and housecleaning on one of Ted's hives.

In the spring we clean our houses, after a long winter, and so it is with bees. Beekeepers on Texada find that April can bring the right weather conditions for opening a hive to check on its health and clean things up a bit.

By this time there are plenty of flowers and pollen-bearing plants around to feed the bees, but spring weather is notoriously capricious. If a stretch of cold, windy, rainy days ensues, our bee friends may not be able to fly, and could even starve to death if they’ve used up their over-winter store of food. So we help out by feeding some sugar during such wet and cold spells.

I am a novice beekeeper, but I find this activity a fascinating mix of art and science, as is all animal husbandry. When a beekeeper opens a hive that’s been undisturbed since the previous fall (except for occasional feeding as mentioned above), one wants to get a feel for its state of health: how many bees, how much pollen and honey remains stored, is the queen healthy and laying lots of eggs to make new “daughter-worker” bees, are there signs of a potential swarm, are there other creatures living in the hive that shouldn’t be there, such as slugs, sow bugs, snails, mice, and wax moths. There’s also a visual check for the dreaded varroa mite, which so far has not come to Texada Island.

Spring cleaning consists mainly of scraping excess wax off of frames and boxes, and cleaning off the bottom board. Bees are quite clean by nature, and will remove debris and dead bees from their hive by themselves. But after a long winter of staying mostly inside the hive, there’s a build-up of stuff that needs removal, so we give them a little help.

One result of this check-up and housecleaning is that we get a better idea of how to manage the bees as we enter the new season. For instance, a beekeeper will usually ponder, at this point, whether the hive is strong enough to support a division (making a new hive, also known as a colony) or should the bees be given more time to build up their numbers and food stores?

Our goal at Slow Farm is to facilitate an optimum number of healthy bee colonies for our area, and eventually to take some honey when the bees can afford to part with it. This is an agrarian rather than industrial standard, and sets a sustainable example we intend to follow throughout our agricultural endeavours.

There’s no place like home

By Tom Read

We came home to a plum-blossom surprise -- this young tree given to us by a neighbor a few years ago has never blossomed before now. Bees and other pollinators abound hereabouts, so we’re hoping for plums this summer.

Our 3,500-mile road trip from Texada Island to southern California and back is over at last. Our little Toyota Matrix burned about 110 gallons of gasoline during the 19-day sojourn, but this extravagance (for us) allowed us a rare and thoroughly enjoyable visit with family and friends ranging from Victoria, BC, all the way south to San Diego. Our previous road visit to California took place in 2007, involved travelling by pick-up truck and burned a lot more gas. Depending on the global price of oil a few years hence, maybe next time we’ll go by bus and train.

It was a refreshing, though tiring, trip. Being away from our island gave us a chance to see our lives here from a different perspective. For example, I’ve long been interested in the agricultural potential of Texada, which stands in sharp contrast to the huge agribusiness centres along Interstate 5 in California’s San Joaquin Valley and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Any casual traveler along that route sees the vast monocultures of fruits, nuts, vegetables and grasses. My eye also caught the occasional grouping of bee hives, some looking normal but in several cases carelessly piled in a heap — dead.

What happened to the bees? Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that I saw, in nearly every field, at least one grouping of translucent liquid-filled plastic tanks boasting chemical company logos. Bees and toxic chemicals didn’t evolve together, so is it any wonder the bees are disappearing?

And then there was the soil. At 65 miles-per-hour you can’t do a soil test on the passing scenery, but you can see the emerging salt flats — white crystals on the soil surface amid flourishing salt-bush — caused by excessive irrigation and lack of soil tilth in a field that still shows eroding furrows from former food growing. There’s just mile after mile of it.

Along with the ruined soil I also saw signs, literally, of renewed political conflict over water in a place prone to increasing drought. One empty field after another for hundreds of miles contained a political campaign-style sign reading “Congress-Created Dust Bowl.” California agribusiness exists on federal subsidies, particularly for water, but since the state’s rivers and reservoirs have run much lower in recent years, the water-war propaganda has become more intense.

Bear in mind that these valleys provide much of the fruit and vegetables we find on grocery store shelves on Texada Island and in BC. Our dependence on this dying system becomes much more real when one sees it in person.

Which brings me back home to our island, where water is usually not an issue and the soil ranges from Agricultural Land Reserve Class 5 rocky pasture to occasional pockets of Class 1 bottom-land richness. Small-scale mixed farms once flourished here. The time is coming when factory food will no longer be cheap, and small local farms will once again become economically viable. Let the transition begin.

Bringin’ in the slops

By Tom Read

Usually, the slops are waiting for me just inside the kitchen back door at the Texada Island Inn. Today I lucked out when chef Elaine saw my arrival and met me halfway.

It’s Friday afternoon and I’ve just pulled up to the back door of Van Anda’s Texada Island Inn, right outside the restaurant kitchen. At home each day, we feed a small stream of kitchen scraps to our chickens and compost pile, but the volume of “table scraps” flowing from a restaurant kitchen seems like a river by comparison. I’m here at the Inn — known to locals as “the hotel” even though it also includes a restaurant and bar — to pick up the Friday slops.

One of the hotel’s excellent cooks, Elaine, saw my car pull in the driveway, and she brought today’s slops out of the kitchen to be loaded in the back of my car (photo). In return, I gave her a couple of clean buckets from a previous slops pick-up. I make sure to scrub the returning buckets with soap and hot water to comply with the stringent sanitation standards required in a commercial kitchen. Sometimes Linda and I will have dinner at the hotel, then I’ll go fetch the slops and we’ll head home. Of course, there’s never anything left over on my plate.

So why am I going to all this trouble, and burning a few extra litres of gasoline in the process? Answer: I’m retrieving slops from the hotel thrice weekly, all year, because the organic matter feeds our animals and our soil. Food-growing removes a certain amount of soil nutrients every year; if we don’t replenish those nutrients then our food-growing will eventually fail for want of soil fertility. Thus, a constant balance must be maintained between what we take away — harvests — and what we add to offset the soil nutrient depletion caused by those harvests.

Slops use is only one part of the balance. They’re a little heavy on tired lettuce, surplus French fries, deep-fried onion rings and mashed potatoes. So we’re fortunate that we have our own chicken and pig manure and that Texada is abundant in wild sources of soil amendments. Texadans also have access to some very effective commercial organic fertilizers that are sold across Canada but brewed right here on the island from imported ingredients.

The wild stuff includes seaweed (collect in fall only), nettle (collect before it forms seed-heads), nitrogen-fixing trees (Western Red Alder) and lots of maple and alder leaves. If you cut thistle tops before they form a seed-head then these widespread “weeds” also become a good input for the compost pile. How attitudes change! When we started our first garden after moving to Texada ten years ago, I tried in vain to remove all the nettles and thistles from our property — the hard way, by hand with a shovel and a hoe. Now I welcome these useful plants on the farm (but not directly in the garden beds).

But I digress, and must conclude by returning to the slops. It’s a privilege to be given those buckets. They help offset the cost of animal feed, even though I must carefully inspect the slop bucket contents just in case a bit of plastic should find its way there. That’s rare, but it happens. And sometimes I find meat scraps, which become dog treats. As for the travel costs — I’m usually able to combine slops pick-up with other errands, so what’s another stop along the way?  Plus, there’s a real satisfaction in keeping something of value out of the waste stream that would otherwise end up in a landfill at Cache Creek.

Now, if I could only get the hotel to add more seaweed-based items to the menu….

Life in a modern village

By Tom Read

Minor ball players and their coaches gather at the ball field in Van Anda, a de facto village commons (firehall in the background). Photo taken a few years ago.

On Texada Island we often speak of Gillies Bay and Van Anda as “villages.” A few evenings ago I happened across a book at the Texada Library entitled Life in a Medieval Village, by Frances and Joseph Gies. Their book describes the evolution of villages from antiquity, and provides great detail about the English Midlands village of Elton as it was approximately 700 years ago. Elton still exists as a modern village, but it is completely different in function from medieval times. To quote the Gieses:

In the modern world the village is merely a very small town, often a metropolitan suburb, always very much a part of the world outside. The ‘old fashioned village’ of the American nineteenth century was more distinctive in function, supplying services of merchants and craftsmen to a circle of farm homesteads surrounding it.

The medieval village was something different from either. Only incidentally was it the dwelling place of merchants or craftsmen. Rather, its population consisted of the farmers themselves, the people who tilled the soil and herded the animals. Their houses, barns and sheds clustered at its center, while their plowed fields and grazing pastures and meadows surrounded it. Socially, economically and politically, it was a community.”

The modern village of Elton still has a few farmers and sheep, but its residents make a living by commuting to jobs in cities, including London, which is about 70 miles distant. Here on Texada, our villages include merchants, craftspeople and artists, but hardly any farmers. Some of our neighbours and almost all of our teenagers commute to jobs and school, respectively, in Powell River. Like Elton, we see gardens and orchards in many yards. A few cows graze on pasture in the centre of Gillies Bay, and chickens, including roosters, seem well represented, too.

Alas for anyone contemplating an increase in local agriculture, our villages appear to be surrounded by temperate rainforest and ocean, not fertile fields. Appearances can be deceiving, however. We may not look like the Midlands, but it turns out that Texada actually has plenty of agricultural land — the island once supported so many farms that we had our own Farmer’s Institute. So where have all the farmers gone?

One of the main reasons our island and its villages lack farmers today is that local farms could not compete economically with government-subsidized agribusiness. Thus, socially, economically and politically, it would appear that our Texada villages have evolved as mere outposts of global industrial life. That’s because we depend on the same life-support systems as mainlanders for our energy, food, transport, governance, communication, etc. Yet our small population (about 500 people per village; 1,100 for the island as a whole) gives us much closer-knit communities than would be possible in the suburbs or cities. We know each other by sight and reputation if not always by name or first-hand experience.

Medieval villages were especially noted for their permanence, according to the Gieses’ research in the book cited above. English agricultural villages often lasted hundreds of years. Through cooperative efforts they were resilient enough to survive war, pestilence and famine. The modern villages of Texada Island are relatively young (about 120 years for Van Anda and 60 or so years for Gillies Bay), and depend almost entirely for their existence on a global industrial system. Maybe someday we’ll see a book about Life in a Modern Village that describes a deliberate return to sustainable village agriculture accompanied by a diverse local economy, albeit without feudal overlords.

Post facto

June 2018
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