Fencing

So many trees, so many deer.
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L and I have been going around and around trying to figure out a fencing plan. Tired of losing trees and the prospect of putting more in is beginning to weigh on us.  So I’m reaching out to my virtual neighbors for some perspective.

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Perimeter fencing
This would be our most expensive option. 10ft fence running through forest and over a creek seems like a daunting task to install and maintain. It might keep the deer out but elk scoff at fences. Trees regularly fall and maintenance and perimeter checks factor into the deal. A 24 acre perimeter means a lotta lotta fence.

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Paddock or group fencing
We have rows of trees planted on contour but in many different areas of the farm. We could put up fencing row by row or group two or three rows at a time. A little more manageable, but larger groups need height to be a deterrent, smaller groups can be lower  as it provides a very small landing strip for jumpers. Electrifying these might provide training to our year round nibblers.

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The additional downside is that if we do areas larger than the rows themselves (and we do intend to alley graze between rows) we are stuck with massive deer fences to deter leaping over the fence. This could look pretty ugly and “the eyes gotta eat too”.

Cages
Manageable but labor intensive. Lots of fence required if we consider 6-8 ft diameter and more t-posts too. This makes it much harder to pick fruit and prune. Currently we have about 60 fruit and nut trees. 180 T-posts and about 400 ft of fencing material to start and we have plans for many more trees.

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We are asking for your help.
So what do you do? What actually works and what are the downsides? Give us the value of your actual experience with this problem. How much maintenance do you do on fencing, does it seem worth it? Keep in mind we aren’t on this property full time and even a dog or two might not do the trick as we have cougar, coyotes, and bear that would love to snack on them.

Thanks for any help you can offer.

Posted in Farming, Gardening, Permaculture, Tree Care, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 20 Comments

The Reality of Small Farms

A fellow blogger I have developed an immediate respect for has been posting chapters in her book on new farmers. It is a good read and for those in the middle of it or considering farming as a vocation I recommend you check it out. Farmer Khaiti has some great insights.

Here is what I have learned so far, less about the details and more about the feet on the ground aspects worth considering before you dive in headfirst.

1. Get in shape
There was a time when I considered myself a big boy, I ate a lot and really worked hard on the weekends, but I wasn’t in shape. Digging in our clay soil was hard on me. Once while chasing an excavator and cleaning up the trench being dug I was sure my heart was going to explode, and while I didn’t expire I was sore for a week. I hit the gym and corrected my diet dropping 40 lbs. I focused on my core and cardio. I feel like I can work a shovel all day now, but importantly it takes a lot more to make me blind tired. Having stamina means I don’t get as crabby at the end of the day and I can get jobs done. Lifting hay bales and 80 lb sacks will hurt your back, and injuries just get worse on a farm since chores still need doing regardless of how crummy you feel.

You don’t need a gym, 20-30 minutes a day doing cardio and some core exercises will limit injuries and help you get your work done.

2. Curiosity and a need to know how things work is critical

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Assembling parts to make a pump.

Being curious about how things work will help with germination, tractors, building chicken houses, and fixing pumps. Take things apart and lay the pieces out in the order they came off on a table or the floor. Get an idea of what you are getting into by looking it up on the internet on multiple sites. If a plant isn’t doing well pull it up and look at the roots and soil around it. Knowing how things work is the first step to putting things together differently to make things work better. Soil biology, machinery, and construction follow simple rules that allow you modify and engineer your own systems. If something is broken or dead you will rarely make it more broken or dead.

Autopsies are a learning opportunity.

3. Death is part of the equation

Alder chips decomposing with wonderful mycorrhizal fungi. Death gives life.

Alder chips decomposing with wonderful mycorrhizal fungi. Death gives life.

If you are a farmer you are a purveyor of death. We use words like harvesting to disguise the obvious killing but tilling, weeding, and chipping kill entire communities of living things. Not eating those extra roosters will stress my flock. All those bugs my flock eats rack the toll up higher. Death is a part of life so my job is to recognize and respect it, and steer it towards the good of my entire ecosystem.

I have learned to harden my heart to ensure dying is as painless as possible and that those lives I take have meaning.

4. There is no escaping poo
When I tell people I am building a farm they tend to get all misty eyed. “It must be beautiful”. They have clearly never cleaned a coop or shoveled manure. We love poo now. We happily fill our pickup with it to build compost. We laugh to ourselves while driving around our home in a truck smeared with the stuff. Manure is nutrient and we can’t get enough. It gets on your clothes and gloves, and even when things look clean the sweet smell of dung will cling for a long time.

Poo is the promise of new life and fertility.

5. Scale changes everything

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The only way to get the whole view of our small farm is from Google Maps, even panoramas can’t capture it.

If you think you are a good cook try doing it for 10 people. Then try doing it for 100. What works in the biggest home garden doesn’t  even begin to work on a few acres. We mow twice a year and it can take 16 hours in the seat, plus the time hooking up and sharpening the blades. Compost piles are 15 foot wide monstrocities that barely cover anything.

We planted 25 trees and it didn’t make a dent, we have 70 more coming next week. 225 gallon water totes barely last 6 days when drip watering trees for an hour a day. Building our road meant three straight days of rock deliveries at 10 yards a trip. Forgetting to bring that chainsaw file means a 1000 yard round trip.

Everything takes more time and material than we think.

6. What you’ve read is not your farm’s truth
We own a giant pile of books on farming, livestock, and forestry. There are lots of great ideas and guidelines for planting and stock rates, nifty tools and ideologues promoting one way or another to success but there is no right answer to what will actually work on your farm. Experimentation and a willingness to fail (and learn) is the key to remaining sane and finding your own path to success.

We generally do things and assume they might not work as planned. Then we tweak and modify.  Getting used to slow progress is hard but it seems like the more we are in a hurry the slower things take shape. Keep in mind that your farm is actually made up of hundreds of little areas that have their own climates, soil profiles, and change differently over the course of a season. Advice that comes from North Carolina will work differently in the Pacific Northwest. Your grand plan may be to sell 900 roaster chickens but the reality is 4 people butchering for 10 hours straight might harvest 100.

Most of the time we can circle in on success or redefine what success looks like.

7. Observation is your most important tool
Walk your whole property several times a season. Take notes and pictures to assemble a broad perspective. At a more detailed level weeds and native plants that volunteer tell you what your soils are doing and what they need. Flora and fauna that call your place home tell a story, especially newcomers. Look them up and hypothesize about what they indicate.

Where is the water going, pooling, and drying out? Observe yourself and partner too. What is especially hard or time consuming? For instance “L” has always had lower back issues, so we will be taking extra time to build a lot of raised beds in our kitchen garden to minimize stooping. Watering tender crops takes forever, so we are planning a simple irrigation system.

Develop a “Pattern Understanding” and work with those patterns instead of against them.

8. Time and money are the big boundaries
Contractors often say you can do it fast, good, or cheap – pick two. That’s laughable. Pick one. I prefer to do most of the work myself, often to my own detriment. That’s my curiosity at work. But more than a few times I have found myself well out of my element and spending far too much time on a project. Racing to get ahead of weather or deadlines often creates more work and sets us farther behind. Hiring professionals will often get better results as long as we take the time to clearly articulate what we want and what needs to be done.

Time estimation is a skill I am poor at. Scale makes it far worse. Limited access to the right tools, power, and knowledge slows things down to a crawl. What works seems to be designing tasks and projects around skills we excel at. Taking a full day to plan things out and see how things work on the ground instead of our idea of what is on the ground makes actual work much smoother, but we still need to roll with changes and tweaks as we go.

Don’t quit your day job until the core business is underway. We need the cash flow from my work in the office to fund myriads of projects. I am eager to get on things full time but for now squeezing a week’s worth of work into a weekend is the best we can do. I just suck it up and roll with that reality. L is my project manager and I don’t thank her enough for the planning she does. 

Develop a clear plan for the work you will do and prioritize it. Daily.

9. No such thing as perfect boots
Too hot, too loose, not dry, not durable enough. Dirt gets in, water too, and that wet poo. Comp toes protect you but will chafe, neoprene breeds a funk and gets wicked hot in the summer. They also don’t stand up to the shovel. Leather gets soggy and heavy.

Wear your pant legs on the inside and water and dirt will rattle around down there. Worn outside and moisture can wick up to your thighs. Being on your feet for ten to sixteen hours a day will take a minor irritant to the level of a major distraction.

Aching feet or wadded up socks while felling a tree or attaching a 1/2 ton implement to the tractor is the last thing you’ll want to be thinking about.

Get secondhand pants and shirts but pay good money for footwear. Your feet are your farm’s foundation.

Boots

Posted in Farming, Homesteading, Permaculture, Sustainability | 8 Comments

Therapeutic Cedar Rails

Not long ago we had to take down a big cedar in our yard. It had heart rot and had begun to split in two. Since it was a dangerous tree we had a professional take it down in 12 foot sections and planned to use it for posts in our chicken paddocks at the farm.

Having just returned from Kansas for a family emergency my boss graciously suggested I take the day. Getting into our damp forest has always made me feel whole again, somehow fulfilled, and today it made all the difference. Heart rot. Not far from the reason I went to visit family. Even more appropriate was taking this destruction and death and turning it into something useful. It is useful for us, and the time in the woods was useful for me.

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Leap frogging the wedges and methodically following the grain of the log traced the tree’s growth over the years. From a sapling in crowded alder regrowth to the apex species and canopy dominator it truly is. The smell of it and the damp humus made me think of childhood adventures and the physical effort helped put some of the brooding from the previous week behind me.

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I left my drawknife at the farm but my froe and a hatchet cleaned up the rails nicely. I thought of Abraham Lincoln splitting black locust for rail road tracks. My cedar would make someone from those days laugh if I called it much of an effort. Locust is dense and hard and this cedar splits so easily.
 
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While these don’t look that pretty, they will do nicely for our temporary posts. A little rot is OK with me since in 5-6 years the black locust we are planting in the fence lines will be big enough to take over the burden. In the end making something from this mess, finding something positive in the cycle of destruction and rebirth seems fine too.

Posted in Chickens, Construction, Forest Management, Homesteading, Permaculture, Sustainability, Tools, Tree Care | 4 Comments

The Asparagus Guild

I grew asparagus from seed and planted it out in my raised beds here at home last year with the plan to dig the crowns and transplant plant them in a prepared bed out at the farm. Unfortunately I planted the seedlings out too soon last spring and it seems I lost most of them to a late frost.

I do have a wee bit of hope there will be more survivors after reading something Mark Shepard, author of Restoration Agriculture, wrote about his early asparagus experiences. I can’t remember where I read it (maybe in his book?) or the exact details, but apparently he planted a bunch of asparagus – it didn’t come up and he wrote it off as a loss, but the following year – boom! – the asparagus came up in full flush.   I propagated 200 seeds – planted out at least 160 or more seedlings, but saw only about 20 -30 plants survive the frost. Keep your fingers crossed…

The plan is to plant them out in one of the contour beds in zone two we initially prepared a couple of years ago and grew potatoes in. We have since been building that clay soil up with compost, straw mulch and spoiled haylage, so I hope the asparagus will be happy in their new home. Having said that – with the mild winter and unseasonably warm temps in the last two weeks I may have missed my window of opportunity to dig them up while still dormant. Little spears are popping up everywhere. I can’t find anywhere in my research whether or not it would be a bad idea to dig them now or if I should wait until they go dormant this fall. Anyone out there have any advice for me? I wasn’t planning on harvesting anything for another year or so anyway.

The plan is to plant the asparagus amongst fruit trees and other plants in beds we prepared a few years ago and grew potatoes in. There are five of these beds on contour ranging 80 ft to 90 ft long.  I will be planting about five fruit trees in each. I want to design guild of plants in this space that complement each other not only visually, but by their contributions to us, their companions and most importantly – the soil.  Plant guilds are a much more sophisticated version of companion planting. For some great examples of plant guilds check out the free e-book available on Midwest Permaculture. As we plant out the rest of the contour beds adding more trees, shrubs, vines, etc… this will become more of a food forest.

M sketched this up for me while I prepared dinner the other night. It shows the different layers above and below the ground in the first bed we will plant. I wish I had his mad drawing skills…

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  • Asparagus – perennial food source.  The stalks and ferns will die back to the ground providing organic matter and mulch for the soil
  • Globe Artichokes  – besides being another delicious perennial source of food I think they will help hold up the asparagus ferns later in the season. The dying stalks will serve as a “chop and drop” mulch in the fall breaking down and adding organic matter to the soil
  • Sunflowers – like the artichokes they will help keep the asparagus ferns from falling over, add beauty and provide a food/seed source. Being an annual, when they die back not only will they provide mulch material in the fall, the roots will also die out building organic matter in the soil. With its deep roots it is considered a dynamic accumulator drawing up calcium, manganese, iron and zinc from the subsoil
  • Lemon Catmint – mints are an insectary plant that attract beneficial insects. Its roots  accumulate potassium and sulfur. I have a lot of seed that needs to be used up and I think it smells great
  • Strawberry Clover – a perennial ground cover that will serve as a living mulch holding moisture in and fixing nitrogen as the plant cycles. It accumulates phosphorus. I’ve read the strawberry variety isn’t as invasive as red or white perennial clovers.
  • Rhubarb – another tasty perennial food source. I think the leaves will add a nice contrast to the asparagus ferns – the eyes gotta eat too – and when the leaves die out they will become mulch
  • Parsley – perennial, edible, herbaceous plant that is a dynamic accumulator of potassium, calcium, manganese and iron. Since you don’t harvest the roots, this should grow fine with the asparagus. Any deep rooted vegetables or herbs that have to be dug up to harvest are not a good companion for asparagus. You don’t want to disturb asparagus roots.
  • Strawberries – delicious fruits and a nice ground cover. I read somewhere that the asparagus ferns help camouflage the berries from the birds.
Posted in Gardening, Homesteading, Mulch, Permaculture, Sustainability, Tree Care | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Perennial Plantings

I just placed my order for more apple trees to replace those lost learning a hard lesson  and I am working up our schedule for planting them along with a bunch of native bareroot trees and shrubs I ordered a couple of months ago from our local Conservation District Plant Sale:

  • 25 Pacific Dogwood – these will be planted as understory trees to the Red Alder and Douglas Fir in our woodlot along the edges that can be seen from our future home

  • 20 Pacific Willow – these will be planted in the swampy area adjacent to the road as you enter our property

  • 10 Pacific Crabapple – these too will be planted along the road near the willows and may later be used as rootstock for future apple trees

  • 10 Blue Elderberry – my earlier attempts to propagate from seed failed so I ordered seedlings. Half will be planted near our silt pond and half planted along the west end of our curtain drain slope

  • 3 White Oak – just because I still dream of the oak savannah properties we looked at in Oregon years ago when we first started our farm quest.  They will be beautiful replacements for some of the many Douglas Firs we have dotted about the property which will be harvestable by the time the oaks need the space.  The oaks will eventually provide a pannage crop for pigs, albeit a long time from now.
    They will be underplanted with hazelnuts and raspberries – crops we will see sooner than acorns.

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M sketched this up on a piece of grocery bag while he was in Palo Alto, CA last week for work. I’m glad he took a photo of it since he left the original in the airport!  I like to think someone found it, framed it and hung it up on their wall. I would have.

So if you do the math, that’s almost 100 trees/shrubs to dig holes for. It sounds like A LOT – and my back will tell you it is – but we have planted 200 trees at a time out there and it wasn’t even a drop in the bucket.  Scale gets us every time. It makes sense why a good permaculturist will tell you to focus on Zone 1 first and then expand out from there. We are trying to stick to that tenant but getting the perennials in sooner rather than later seems to override our common sense at times. I think it is because of our age.

On top of the trees that are going to arrive in the next two weeks I still have tons of potted trees, shrubs, vines and herbs I propagated from seed last year  waiting to be planted out at the farm. Well, at least I resisted the temptation of the zillions of tantalizing seed catalogs that filled my mailbox this winter… Which is good because I also just went through my saved seed inventory and realized I have a whole heck of a lot of seed that should be used before it is no longer viable.

Where am I going to put it all?  I need that greenhouse… and now that I think of it – it’s in Zone 1!

Posted in Gardening, Homesteading, Mulch, Permaculture, Tree Care | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

The Hard Lessons

This is one of those posts I’m loathe to publish because it highlights a failure on our part. Although it is embarrassing, it is part of “our journey” and the never-ending learning curve, so hopefully someone else out there reading about our experience will not make the same mistake we did.

One of the permaculturists we admire is an Austrian by the name of Sepp Holzer. He is rather outspoken and quite knowledgeable – a self-taught” permaculturalist. We have one of his books in our library, Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture,  in which he discusses a home-brewed deer repellent he calls “bone sauce”. We brewed up a batch and blogged about it here last year as our fruit trees were being heavily munched by deer. The book describes it rather vaguely but it gets discussed ALOT on permies.com so we read through countless discussions to make sure we had the recipe and procedures down before we proceeded to whip up a batch.

I’m sad to report that the trees have not been doing so well. At first we didn’t attribute it to the bone sauce, but then read someone else’s later account on permies.com that if you applied it too late during the dormant season you could end up burning the emerging buds and so we thought maybe we had cut it too close on the timing.  When later in the year several of the apple trees had mushrooms growing out of their trunks, we knew something had gone very, very wrong.

Out of fourteen fruit trees we applied the bone sauce to at least five or six are dead and several others have a lot of dead branches. There is a glimmer of hope though as they appear to have new growth. Only time (and pruning) will tell if they are going to come out of it okay.

WAAAAHHHH!!!

While recently listening to a Permaculture Voices podcast interview with Zach Weiss, (a permaculture consultant in Montana who works closely with Sepp Holzer) we learned that you definitely DO NOT paint it all over the trees or you will kill them. He advised that you “get your Jackson Pollock on” and just splatter a bit with a paint brush.

WHOA! What? We never read anywhere that a little dab will do ya.  We are not blaming anyone but ourselves for wondering how to apply it and just assuming you paint the whole trunk with it. Talk about a hard lesson, a bitter pill, sour grapes…. Blerg! Not only are we out a lot of trees, but now we have lost three years of growing time. Ouch!

If it wasn’t so painful for me, you’d see a picture of one of the poor, mushroom-encased dead trees in this space. The caption would read “Another example of why more is not always better”.

Another new piece of information [to us] was shared by Weiss in the podcast – use raw bones as it is the marrow that makes the sauce work. When we wrote our previous post we were under the impression cooked bones were better… Apparently more thorough  research needs to be done before attempting bone sauce in the future. I read today that someone else did share this information on permies.com, but noted it was posted several months after we had concocted our bone sauce.

Just goes to show you that you don’t know what you don’t know. The curse of the newbie…

 

 

 

 

Posted in Permaculture, Tree Care | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Roll Out the Mulch

West of the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest farmers make haylage instead of hay. You’ve seen those gigantic marshmallow looking things in fields and stacked high in dairies. It’s wet enough that waiting for dry weather can be like rolling dice. Haylage is like sour kraut for cows, it gets pickled as the damp grass stays sealed over the seasons. It smells pickley too. Inevitably people miscalculate how much they need or some spoils and if you are lucky they might just give it away. We use them for mulch.

Haylage bales aka marshmallows

We scored two bales, all our truck could carry. One bale nicely covers a four foot wide bed and gives about 180 ft of coverage. Nice mulch if you can get it.

This bale was soaking wet and it took both of us to roll it out – but someone had to take the action shot!

We are happily taking truckloads of organic cow poo to the farm again. We chatted about business plans while pitching pies and mixing in carbon. No pic of that but you know the process. :-)

Posted in Gardening, Homesteading, Mulch, Permaculture, Preparing the land, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments