Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Planting dreams...

I have been planting all kinds of vegetables and pulling out some REALLY healthy weeds.   The farmer tells me you can learn a lot about your soil from the weeds that grown in it.  He grows just about anything you can think of.  The planting isn't quite as foreign to me.  I have had my own garden for a couple years now however, this is a much larger scale and it is all done by hand.  Joel stops by usually around the end of the morning after his morning farm chores to chat.  That is when the education really begins!

The farmer is a little behind this year.  This is due to some serious illness in the family so the planting is way behind schedule.  He has three large fields and from what he tells me has nurtured and transformed these lots from a rocky desolate wasteland to what looks to me to be like dark velvet.  I don't think I have ever had my hands in finer soil.

When I am done planting for the day I slide my hands together and the soil comes together and rolls off in the shape of a cigar.  It is dark and full of organic life unlike the dry, lifeless dirt in my garden.  Soil structure, I'm learning, is everything to a farmer like Joel.  A healthy well balanced soil- he tells me- grows nutritious food; food that doesn't need to be sprayed with pesticides because, it grows on healthy plants and healthy plants are not sought after by insects.  Insects cannot digest healthy plant material.  Is this true?  I don't know.  I will do more research and certainly get back to you.  I can tell you this:  Joel had some Japanese something or other that looked like lettuce growing in some seedling trays.  These plants were chewed but, Joel planted them anyways (because he is the farmer and he is the plant whisperer) I would of chucked them in the compost bin.  After two weeks they had completely recovered and the new growth had no insect damage at all and man these things were just screaming with healthy life!...that's why he's the farmer and I'm the idiot apprentice.  Seriously, though, you be the judge.  I'm starting to believe in good soil.

I would guess 90% of the farmers in my state- for one aren't diversified farmers and two know jack squat about soil structure.  You would think living in such a rural state this wouldn't be the case.  This is why I feel very fortunate to apprentice for Joel.

Joel lent me a book to read called The Biological Farmer written by Gary Zimmer.  Hopefully after reading this I will know why my garden soil sucks and why Joel's soil is incredible.

Not bad though a teacher who provides the books!  Anyone who has had to buy their books for classes or visited a university book store can appreciate that!

diversified farmer

I have mentioned the term "diversified farmer" a couple of times.  A diversified farmer is pretty rare today where I live.  Normally you run into dairy farmers or corn farmers or sheep farmers etc.  A diversified farmer is a farmer who has a wide variety of animals or crops or both all on one farm. 

First few weeks..

For the first few weeks my farm duties were limited pretty much to planting and weeding.  Occasionally I got a break because the pigs would get out or some other emergency arose.  "That's Farming" Joel would say.  "You never know what's gonna happen when your farming".  So I would get a break from the planting to help round them up(another first for me: pigs!)...again, Joel mentioned to me the importance of good fences...also, move the pigs more often so they have fresh pasture to root and graze on.

"Those pigs are so strong that they can uproot boulders that I need to use my excavator to move" Joel told me.

"So why don't they just get out right now?" I asked.

"Cause there is food in there to satisfy them at the moment but, they will when the food runs out"  Joel said.

Joel's pigs are pastured (meaning they graze on open ground). He has a portable set up and moves it every week or two depending on the resources available (stuff for the pigs to eat).  The pigs are so strong that they pretty much can leave whenever they want just by uprooting the fencing with their snouts.  If Joel get's busy with something else the pigs will quietly remind him it's time to move by escaping to greener pasture!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Farming is heartache..

I first met Joel (the farmer I work for) on a sunny morning in June 2010.   I was accompanied by a fella I work with, who set up the meeting and has known Joel for many years.  

Farmer Joel was waiting for us out front when we pulled up to the farm.  Joel I'm guessing is in his late forties, he is average height with a white beard.  About five minutes after meeting Joel I knew I had made the right decision.  He gave me quite an education just in the first 30 minutes of walking around the farm.  He talked about diversified farming, soil structure and biological farming most of which just flew way over my head.   This guy seemed different than any farmer I had met before.  Normally when I talk to farmers they just do what their fathers did.  This guy understood farming on a molecular level!

The most important lesson came on our first stop on the tour when we visited the chicken house.  This chicken house is a hoop structure with dirt floors covered in hay with two sides separated by a plastic mesh wall in the middle.  One side is Golden comets (egg layers that lay brown eggs) and the other side is meat birds and pullets (barred rock and some araucana).  It probably houses a couple hundred chickens.  

It was immediately apparent to me that something was wrong when Joel looked at the massive hoop house and quickly started  heading that way.  Apparently, the egg layers (breed: Golden comets) had found a way through the barrier that separates them from the meat birds (birds just raised for their meat value often called broilers) and young pullets (young egg layers).  Of course to me I just saw a bunch of different colored-different sized chickens walking around.  

We entered the house through the meat bird side and it was obvious why Joe was so worried.  About 20-25 small meat birds and pullets laid dead on the ground as a result of being smothered by the older egg layers.  First lesson in farming:  Establish good fences!

What happens, I'm told, is that the egg layers want the resources on the other side of the house and so they try to find a way to get them.  Once they are in as a consequence(maybe out of fear?) the younger birds huddle together in the corners unaware (meat birds are pretty stupid anyways and young pullets are..well..young) that their behavior is going to cause mass carnage.  Kind of like a stampede at a rock concert, I guess.  I witnessed how- when theses young birds are in the corner -the older egg layers walk over in groups and just smother the young ones...pretty gruesome to see, but definitely part of farming and a great lesson to learn on my first day.  

Of course while I am "learning" Joel is thinking about the couple hundred dollars he just lost...

We immediately started grabbing egg layers and putting them back on their side of the house.  This, to be honest with you, was the first time I had ever held a full grown chicken.  A couple of times as a young child I held the little yellow chicks- so this was quite a treat!  At first I was a little apprehensive about grabbing them because I didn't know how chickens took to being grabbed.  I was afraid they would scratch at me or try to gouge my eyes out..of course to you reading this who are familiar with chickens probably think that is ridiculous but, I told you I know nothing about farming.

After all of the egg layers had been put back on their side we stepped outside and Joel lifted his hat a little,put both hands on his hips and pointed to the hoop house.  "I'm glad you got to see this" he said turning to me.  "This is the reality of farming.  If your going to farm you need to be able to deal with heartache" he said.  "Farming is heartache."......

From parking lots to pasture...

Anyone who knows me would affirm that my knowledge base doesn't include anything remotely close to what you would need to run a farm however, I have decided that my true calling in life is not an urban desk jockey but rather a diversified organic farmer.  Some say that I am crazy (some including my wife who I'm quite sure is still hoping that this is a fad I'm going through) others will applaud the dream...
I have always been interested in farming, but never had the opportunity to do it until now.  In June 2010 I was introduced, by a friend of mine, to a local farmer who specializes in organic vegetables, grass fed beef, pastured poultry, pigs and sheep.  This farmer was looking for some help and I was more than eager to offer up my services.  

The deal: I will show up in the morning for a few hours to help around the farm before I head into my office job.  I will do this as close to 7 days a week as my current schedule will allow.  My pay?:  knowledge.  Now, for someone who has spent tens of thousands on college I am aware of the cost of a good education so, I am more than willing to offer up my services a few hours in the morning in return for a good hands on education in farming.... 

This blog will chronicle my journey...I hope you will follow along with me.