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Archive for the ‘Growing’ Category

HOMEGROWN Life: Summertime and the Farming is Steamy

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150Ah, summer on the farm. The tomatoes and peppers are coming along. The squash and zucchini are booming. And the cows are trying to get their fill of grass at sunup, before the heat of the day sets in.

Sounds perfect, right? The very picture of abundance, joy, and prosperity so many people think of when they hear “family farm.” The truth is a little more complicated. Sure, summer has its strong points but it also has its downsides.

First, let’s talk temperatures. So far, we’ve only had a few days over 90 degrees, but July and August are the usual boilers around here, in West Missouri. We also have high humidity. In fact, nearly every day I’ve watched a World Cup match, I’ve heard that the brutal temperatures and humidity in Brazil make soccer hard to play. And yet our temperatures and humidity in Missouri have actually been higher than those in Brazil. While farming is not a 90-minute endurance of speed, like soccer can be, it certainly takes a lot longer than 90 minutes each day to get our work done. And pretty soon it’s gonna be 100-plus degrees, with hot winds and high humidity. It’s like carrying buckets and hoeing in the middle of a furnace.

HOMEGROWN-life-swimming-pool-pigs

Our pigs keep cool by hanging out in the water, too.

Second, weeds. By now, summer weeds are sharp and tough. When weeding the veggie patch, you can hardly pull anything without getting a sticker stuck in your hand or finger. Oh, and don’t forget the poison ivy.

Third, mowing. Sometimes we mow pastures and bale it up (that’s hay) so that the cows, sheep, and goats will have something to eat in winter. Sometimes we mow so that the grass quality will improve for the next round of grazing. Sometimes we mow to kill the weeds starting to go to seed. We also have to mow our yards, which, unfortunately, are usually too large. I hate mowing, but it has to be done. It just never seems to end.

So, how’s a farmer to cope? Easy. Do what every farm family does. Get yourself a cheap little swimming pool. It’s hours of fun for the kids and it takes the edge off. It keeps me cool—and sane. Plus, even for us organic farmers who hate chemical fertilizers and such, the chlorine in the pool can be a very good thing when it comes to killing potential rashes. Yes, here at our house we try to keep the chlorine to an absolute minimum, but it’s still in there.

HOMEGROWN-life-swimming-pool

The Oates family watering hole

I know. I know. It would be nice to live in a place with cool and clean spring-fed creeks, the idyllic “swimming hole” of so many songs and poems harkening back to the good ole days. But not everyone can live along the Current River in the Ozarks. In fact, if more of us lived there, it wouldn’t be very clean and pristine. Not to mention the fact that it’s rocky, with very, very thin soil. In other words, not great for agriculture.

So, those of us in the Farm Belt cheat. We fill up our pools with water and blast that water with chemicals to keep it clean. It might disappoint some of you who think us farmers are strong and hardworking and stoic in the face of summer’s adversity. But we all need a coping strategy. Mine, and that of most farm families I know, is to pop open a beverage (I prefer Boulevard Beer from KC) and to take a dip.

HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

PHOTOS: BRYCE OATES

HOMEGROWN Life: My Goats Have Green Thumbs

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-LIFE-LT-GREENBack before petrochemical fertilizer cocktails, farmers weren’t monocroppers. They ran a closed system, and part of that system included animals. The animals ate the crop waste and silage. They helped work the land. And their waste helped keep the soil healthy. As synthetic fertilizers became the norm, animals and crop diversity fell out of favor. Monocropping huge expanses of land was less work than having multiple crops and caring for animals.

Before we had animals in the garden, we couldn’t produce enough of our own compost to amend the soil. On top of that, because the pile was fairly small, it was nearly impossible to keep it hot enough. Instead, we relied on bringing in commercial compost. Unfortunately, with commercial compost, you don’t know what’s in it. Studies report that persistent herbicides are showing up in “organic” compost. On top of that, there’s no way of knowing what persistent pesticides and fertilizers are also in your commercial compost. Think of all the grass clippings that go into yard-waste bins. Now think about all the crap many homeowners put on that grass to make it green and weed-free. I wasn’t entirely sure that was something I wanted around my food.

Our animals, eating weed trimmings from next door that we know aren’t treated with anything

To be able to amend all of our soil with just compost, we had to bring in at least five full truckloads of compost every season. This wasted quite a bit of gas, time, and money. It wasn’t cost effective for us and it simply wasn’t sustainable.

When we got chickens, I wasn’t prepared for what they could do to my compost pile. Because their manure is hot, it literally made our compost hot. Steaming hot. But being busy, we found we weren’t able to turn the pile as often as we should. So we handed the job over to our chickens. They got all of our kitchen scraps and nontoxic yard waste. They ate what they wanted then turned and shredded everything else. They kept the compost aerated and added their manure to it. When we got the goats, they joined in the fun.

This black gold they gave us was beautiful and plentiful. We completely stopped bringing in compost. With the manure, we needed less material overall because it was more concentrated. This made it easier to spread, taking an afternoon rather than several weekends. It is the perfect balance, as we have all that we need and don’t have any extra. And we feed our animals organic feed, so we know what goes in and out of them.

After our final harvest each season, we spread the black gold over the bed to allow it to continue to compost down further before we planted the next crop. When we got the rabbits, they added a new dimension to our soil amending. Because rabbit manure is not hot, it can be added directly to the plants without being composted. This allowed us to amend the soil while the plants were actively growing. We don’t use it on root vegetables, of course, unless we amend very early, allowing at least 60 days before harvest. With heavy feeding crops, such as melons, squash, and corn, this homegrown compost was a godsend because it insured that we could continue to feed the plants throughout the growing season without worrying about burning them.

But it’s not just fertilizer that the animals provide. The chickens and turkeys, in particular, help with keeping weeds down and also with pest control. When the beds are dormant, the birds get to go out and dig around, eating mountains of cutworms, potato bugs, earwigs, and basically anything else that moves. When we start planting, we fence the birds off from the beds, but they still have access to the area on the north side, where our orchard is. We allow the weeds to grow there as a trap crop for insects, which the birds eat while they also keep the weeds from getting out of hand.

The animals around here definitely earn their keep and provide us with food, directly and indirectly. I can’t imagine doing it without them now.

Rachel-Dog-Island-FarmRachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of arts and crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!

HOMEGROWN Life: Farmer Bryce’s Hoeing Playlist

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150Toil. The word strikes fear in some. It makes others run for the hills. But toil is something that farmers like me must embrace.

Beneath the romantic vision of farming and agriculture lies a lot of monotonous and repetitive labor: hard, physical work. It’s not sexy or interesting much of the time. It’s just something you have to do. This is not unique to farmers. Construction workers, waitresses, factory workers, postal workers, and a lot other professions know the routine. Just do your job and try not to develop anger or resentment or destructive thoughts. Find a coping strategy and deal with it because there are things that need to get done.

HOMEGROWN-life-farmer-playlist

Hoeing, for instance, is one of those farming tasks I’d rather not have to deal with. But it’s 2014. We have something in our toolboxes our parents and grandparents never had. We have podcasts.

So, in honor of hoeing season and my attempts to hold back the growth of early summer weeds that might eventually overtake the vegetable patch, I present my go-to soundtrack. This farming playlist is designed to help you make it through a hard day of otherwise toilsome labor, particularly when you’re not starting out in the morning with all cylinders firing. Here goes.

PODCAST EPISODES

• File under “funny and smart”: For his podcast “By the Way,” Jeff Garlin sits down with fellow comedians. This installment, with Zach Galifianakis, is hilarious at times, intelligent at others.

• File under “still the champ”: Wendell Berry. The man deserves his own category. It doesn’t get any better than Berry chatting it up with Bill Moyers in an old country church for “Moyers & Company.”

• File under “I’d rather be fishing”: I get annoyed by the host of “On Being,” from American Public Media, but she has some great shows. This one’s a sure-fire pick, and it involves three of my favorite subjects: coming of age, fishing, and the joys of humility.

• File under “blow your mind”: Here’s a thought experiment. Try killing time performing a toilsome agricultural task while listening to a lecture on life before European agriculture conquered the continent/s where we live.

BACK TO OUR REGULAR PROGRAMMING

(AKA shows from which I inevitably learn something and smile)

Good Food”: This radio program from KCRW in Santa Monica sometimes focuses on Southern California but often provides a much broader look at food and cooking.

Living on Earth”: Environmental coverage, from Public Radio International.

To the Best of Our Knowledge”: Wisconsin Public Radio produces this national weekend program for liberal arts nerds.

Men in Blazers”: I’ve become a pretty committed soccer fan (Go, Sporting KC!), and this is my favorite wide-angle soccer broadcast.

Dave Damashek Football Program”: A great look at the NFL. Yes, I’m a bit of a jock. Football is a huge spectacle and something I get re-addicted to every autumn.

There you have it. A peek into the mind of a mad farmer trying to prevent the fescue, orchardgrass, and crabgrass from smothering his seedlings. Sometimes music is not enough and you need something a little more substantive. Or ridiculous. Or trivial. Happy hoeing.

HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

PHOTO: MANDY LACKEY/FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS