Archive for the 'land stewardship' Category

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.

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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….

A very practical food security workshop

By Tom Read

A lot of Texada-grown vegetables and even some local chicken went into the lunch served at our recent Micro-Farm Workshop, thanks to a dedicated group of Texada Garden Club volunteers.

Farmer, author and teacher Robin Wheeler came to Texada Island last Saturday to lead us in a six-hour “Micro-Farm Workshop,” sponsored by the Texada Garden Club.  Linda and I found the experience quite rewarding, and so did many others from what I observed. Here are a few highlights of the workshop, from big picture stuff to fascinating (to me) details.

By my count, 47 people came to the workshop on a mild, sunny morning, with 31 from Texada and 16 from Powell River (who arrived 30 minutes late due to an ambulance run that delayed the ferry). The Garden Club, of which I’m a member, had estimated a maximum of 50 participants would attend. So we were a little tense as people kept streaming into the Community Hall — would we run out of food at lunchtime? As it happened, there was more than enough food for everyone, and many of us felt pleased to see such a strong turnout.

Why so much interest in learning about growing food year-round, and building more capacity in our community to provide for a reliable local food supply? The term “food security” is not exactly a media buzz-word these days, but I think the concept is on folks’ minds in this community even if not in those exact words. In conversations I’ve had with fellow islanders over the last few months, many seem to sense that there’s a certain economic, environmental and energy-related volatility afoot in the world, where food prices and even availability might become a concern quite suddenly.

Robin briefly mentioned better food security as a key reason for the workshop, then she moved into specific ways we can do more to create a local food supply for our individual households and as a community. Here are some samples:

We learned how to understand our land better, including mapping of wind and water flows, soil types and most important, sun exposure.

We learned that seaweed is great for soil conditioning, but that we should collect it only in the fall, not in spring. That’s because spring seaweed contains fish eggs and provides both shelter and food to young marine organisms. If we take seaweed at that time of year, we could disrupt marine life-cycles. Besides, there’s lots more seaweed on local beaches in the fall, and it contains less woody debris, too.

We learned how to start a garden on heavy clay soil: use “sacrificial” deep-rooted plants first for a few years to break up the clay chunks, plus add more organic matter to the soil. Then plant vegetables.

We learned about the “spiral cut” on trees adjacent to a garden. This technique lets in some sun without killing the trees, as occurs with cutting off tree tops. The spiral cut removes selected branches in an upward spiral all around the tree, leaving the tree in balance and growing normally. This preserves the trees while letting in filtered sun, changing a fully shaded area where nothing will grow into a partially shaded garden that can grow some types of food plants.

We learned the critical necessity of planning at planting time how to preserve and store a crop so that you’re ready with adequate space and tools when the moment arrives for harvest.

We learned about the simple, affordable deer-fence building technique of using scrap wood, such as fence posts made from cedar tree tops left over after logging, and slabs from a local sawmill to fill the space between posts. Yes, this requires some annual maintenance, but it’s a really quick and cheap way to build a fence that otherwise might cost thousands of dollars.

There was so much more to this workshop — these few samples simply don’t do it justice. As I review my notes from that day I can see many more ideas and suggestions that I’d like to put into practice here at Slow Farm. Seems like there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Of apples and alders, of gleaners and poison

By Tom Read

Gleaned apples and an alder branch symbolize the food-versus-herbicide conflict that’s common elsewhere, and now could come to Texada Island if spraying goes unchallenged.

Gleaned apples and an alder branch symbolize the food-versus-herbicide conflict that’s common elsewhere, and now could come to Texada Island if spraying goes unchallenged.

Yesterday I missed my self-imposed posting deadline because Linda and I were out gleaning apples and pears. Texada Islanders are fortunate to have inherited a legacy of a few dozen century-old farms and orchards, some of which lie abandoned today. Typically, the farm buildings have vanished, and formerly productive fields now lie quietly under a canopy of alder and Douglas fir.  You have to know where to look to find these old farm sites.

But the orchards remain.  Sometimes they’re engulfed amid towering Douglas firs and thus rarely bear much fruit, but yesterday we were fortunate to find a bounty of heavily-laden heritage apple trees ready for picking, and so we gleaned. In some cases permission is required to glean, and in other cases the old orchards are publically accessible.

We obtained permission as needed, and took home fruit that otherwise would have fed a few deer or rotted on the ground. Today, we’re busy making apple and pear sauce, jam, and fruit leathers. There’s a delectable aroma in the house today, and a feeling of well-being as we prepare a supply of locally-grown goodies to last until next summer.

Alas, today — even as I write these words — something quite different is happening to about 20 acres of young alders which happen to grow under the 500-kilovolt power lines that cross Texada’s midriff. This is the day those young alders will begin to die, as they are girdled with a herbicide, sprayed one “stem” (tree) at a time. This is the doing of British Columbia Transmission Corporation (BCTC), a spin-off of BC Hydro that’s now responsible for maintenance of high-voltage transmission lines, among other things.

The herbicide, a poison that targets only broadleaf trees, is advertised by BCTC as harmless to other plants, animals and ground water. It is being applied by an off-island contractor, supposedly all in one day. BCTC claims that it will not be necessary to apply further herbicides on this acreage for up to 30 years, except for some minor touch-ups next spring.

Something had to be done to those alders now because they were growing too close under the powerlines. BCTC acknowledged that Texada’s Official Community Plan (OCP) contains language opposed to spraying herbicides or pesticides on this island. Most other organizations that regularly engage in maintenance of roads, gas pipelines and the like have respected Texada’s OCP.

After some prodding by our regional district, BCTC seemed at first to respect local opinion on this issue when it belatedly invited proposals for alternatives to spraying, such as manual and machine removal of the trees. The corporation actually received just such a seriously thought-out proposal last week from a local logging contractor qualified and willing to do the work. And local loggers sure do need the work, with logging itself at a near stand-still.

Obviously, the corporation chose spraying instead, albeit very targeted spraying in an out-of-the-way location that most Texadans won’t ever see. But there is a connection, in my opinion, between what is happening to those alders and our island’s gleaning tradition. I knew, as I picked apples, that nobody had sprayed any poisons anywhere nearby. If we let BCTC and others start spraying here unchallenged, will we still find it possible to grow clean and healthy food on our island a few years from now?

We need to do better in the future.

The ATV as a tool

By Tom Read

Here I am yesterday returning from working on our latest pallet fence, bringing tools back home in the wagon. The quad and wagon can haul up to 14 pallets in one load, then distribute them over rough ground to create a fence line.  By the way, I don’t bother with a helmet at home in mild weather because I never drive faster than 15 kph, and there’s usually no other vehicular traffic on our property.

Here I am yesterday returning from working on our latest pallet fence, bringing tools back home in the wagon. The quad and wagon can haul up to 14 pallets in one load, then distribute them over rough ground to create a fence line. By the way, I don’t bother with a helmet at home in mild weather because I never drive faster than 15 kph, and there’s usually no other vehicular traffic on our property.

All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) like to play.  These rugged little gasoline-powered four-wheelers are also known hereabouts as “quads,” (which I like better for no particular reason) and they’re built and marketed for fossil-fuel-burning recreation. Advertisements show the machines splashing through mud or in mid-flight on an obstacle course. Lots of Texada Islanders own quads, often using them for motorized exploration of the island. I’ve taken a few such excursions, too, and I’ll admit it’s fun. But that’s not why we bought our quad and wagon three years ago. For us, it’s primarily a tool.

When we moved to our seven acres in the Slow Farm area of Texada back in 2000, it never occurred to us that transportation on our own property would become a critical concern. Seven acres is big enough to have a significant number of steep hills, plus several clearings and a creek flowing right through the middle of everything. To get around we developed our own network of roads and trails. Our self-contained transportation network carries some heavy stuff: lumber, gravel, sand, soil and compost, fence posts, firewood rounds and split firewood, tools, furniture, buckets of wet concrete and concrete blocks, wood pallets, bee hives, and, in years past, many bales of hay and straw.

Up until 2006, we typically used our lone motor vehicle, a mid-sized pickup truck, to move these things. The only alternative, and it got used a lot, was a battered wheelbarrow. For example, sometimes I wanted to fill a few potholes or move just four hay bales or maybe a half-dozen concrete blocks.  In such cases I’d often choose the wheelbarrow, because the truck couldn’t go on the little trails behind the house or garden, or it simply seemed like too much trouble to use a whole truck for such small loads. I vividly remember, not fondly, the struggle of pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with rocks and gravel uphill so I could fill post holes for a new garden fence. Then, as now, the leaky wheelbarrow tire would require inflating daily with a hand-operated tire pump before it could go into service.

Then along came an opportunity to buy a quad and wagon, and soon thereafter we traded in the truck for a new little hatchback passenger car. The car can haul a 5’x10’ trailer, a passable pickup truck substitute. But the quad, which is much cheaper and easier to maintain than the car, can haul just about anything, anywhere, using very little gasoline. I’ve mentioned the wagon a few times, but it might deserve an essay of its own. One of my favourite uses of this thing is to haul seaweed from Raven Bay to our compost pile, then hydraulically dump the seaweed (or soil, or firewood, whatever) exactly where it’s supposed to go. The four fat tires provide excellent stability and can support a load of up to 1,600 lbs.  It’s a wonder.

The quad also has a winch, which I used last year for pulling the entire quad and fully loaded wagon up a steep and very rough hill when it wouldn’t otherwise make the grade. We also have a specially-made harrow, a gift of our friend and neighbor Marv, enabling our quad to smooth out rough ground and collect medium-sized rocks from our fields. Our quad came with a plow attachment which helped keep our driveway clear of last winter’s snow, too.

This small-scale machine has become so vital to everyday work at Slow Farm that I now consider it even more important than the car. In a pinch, such as when we were snowed in last winter, the quad can take me into town for groceries, and it enabled us to visit friends on New Year’s Eve while the car was literally stuck in a snow bank.

So if anybody tells you that quads are frivolous, you can mention that you’ve heard they can be quite useful. It’s a tool, not a toy.

Pigs can do that?

By Tom Read

Here's our field. Would you choose clearing it by hand for planting new crops?

Here's our field. Would you choose clearing it by hand for planting new crops?

We’ve got access to about four acres of good, arable land here at Slow Farm on Texada Island. This land has a farming history going back about a century, but it’s been fallow for the last 40 years or so.  Here’s the problem: What’s the best way to remove the grasses and other “weeds” now growing in profusion on this old farm field in preparation for planting new crops, without damaging the soil?

Before discussing our tentative answer, which you might guess from the title of this post, I’d like to mention a few of the considerations we use for land-use decisions.

First, we view ourselves as land stewards, whether the land in question is officially “owned” by us or not. Our minimal standard is to do no harm, and ideally we’d like to leave the place better than we found it. Thus, we don’t just rush in and change things. We take our time to think about our actions in some detail before actually doing anything to the land.

Second, we strive for frugality. This requires living within our means and making full use of resources already at hand. We must avoid the temptation of buying our way out of problems. Thus, if the “problem” is how to remove grasses and weeds on a field without damaging the field’s fertility, then we will have to solve this problem affordably.

Third, our goal is to create a sustainable and resilient food supply from this land. Therefore, we must solve our land-clearing problem without creating more problems in the future, which means recognizing that everything is connected to everything else. This will become clearer below.

So let’s look at some alternatives we’ve been considering for solving our problem:

Option 1:  Use well-sharpened hand tools to mow and kill the grass, then to loosen the soil, a little at a time each day. This method is detailed in Steve Solomon’s (must-read) 2005 book Gardening When It Counts, and it’s by far the simplest and least expensive approach. We already own the tools. I could use the exercise. Most days I could afford some time for this effort. And this solution can be sustained as long as I’m in good health. But four acres? One acre is 200 feet x 200 feet, or about 40,000 square feet – then times four. That’s a lot of digging for a middle-aged guy with office-worker hands and a shovel. We don’t need to clear it all at the same time, of course, but the scope of our clearing effort at any given time is still a lot bigger than the typical backyard garden.

Option 2:  Borrow or barter a gasoline-powered rototiller from a neighbor and start tilling. I discovered that renting such a machine from Powell River is out of the question due to the $15/hour cost and same-day return policy. But if we could find one on Texada then we might complete the clearing job in a week. Solomon also discusses this approach, including its flaws.  The obvious ones: fuel cost, noise, breathing fumes, transport of a heavy machine, and “if you break it you’ll buy me a new one.”  Less obvious: plow pan compaction, strained muscles and possible back injury, vibration damage to capillaries and nerves in hands, fossil fuel dependency and excess carbon emissions. Plus, we would have to borrow/barter the machine every season.

Option 3:  Buy a walking tractor, by far the best machine for solving our problem. Unlike rototillers, which they superficially resemble, walking tractors are made with precision engineering and can last a lifetime. They’re widely used on small-scale farms in Europe and Asia, and they’re much more durable, comfortable and versatile than rototillers. Walking tractors come with a power-take-off, which allows you to choose from among an amazing variety of special-purpose attachments. One such attachment, the Berta rotary plow, would be quite nice for solving our soil-working problem. The Berta operates like a horizontal auger, churning through the soil without leaving a plow pan. It can easily incorporate standing cover crops into the soil.

I’m not a boys-with-toys kinda guy, but I want this machine. Alas, we can’t afford it – the purchase would be about $5,000+ up front, then add ongoing fuel and maintenance costs. As a fossil-fuel burner, the walking tractor has some of the same drawbacks as the rototiller, too. These include noise, having to breathe fumes, planet-warming emissions and keeping us dependent on the oil companies.

What to do?

Option 4:  Pigs.  When we mentioned our soil-working problem to An, our chicken mentor, she said “pigs can do that.” It turns out she’s right. I phoned the BC Ministry of Agriculture office in Courtenay, where the very knowledgeable Jill Hatfield confirmed that, under the right conditions and management, pigs can indeed clear grass and weeds from a field without damaging its fertility. Indeed, pigs can do this while simultaneously loosening the soil, fertilizing the land and feeding themselves. Pigs have other virtues: they’re self-reproducing, we can grow their food right here on Slow Farm, of course they’re good food for omnivorous humans and there’s even a market for “weaner” piglets for people who want to raise their own pork. They might even be fun to watch, too.

Pastured pigs are easier to keep confined with electric fencing equipment, which we already own from our horse-keeping days. Linda and I enjoy animal husbandry. We can see ourselves patiently caring for a few pigs, letting them do the work of land-clearing while we look after their health and well-being – right up to the moment when they become our food. Flaws? They’ll probably leave the field a bumpy mess, so we’ll have to drag a harrow (which we already own) with our quad (ATV) to smooth things out before planting. That’s a bit of fossil fuel use, but if necessary I could use a hand rake instead without any great sacrifice.  And neither of us knows how to slaughter and butcher pigs, so we’ll have to pay someone for that work, at least initially.

Of the four options we’ve considered thus far, options 1 and 4 seem to make the most sense for us. A combination of me working with hand tools and a few pigs having a rooting-in-the-grass fiesta should meet our decision criteria: protect and improve the land, frugal, and sustainable without causing future problems. So that’s why, after a few hours of research, we finally found a couple on Vancouver Island who are following much the same logic on their acreage and who are willing to sell us a few weaners. We promptly placed our order earlier this week.  If their sow is actually pregnant, as suspected, we should take delivery after her delivery sometime in July. In the meantime I’ll keep digging.


Post facto

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