Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Thinking Like a Carrot

Hans Jenny is credited with the statement that there is often more life below and within the soil than there is above it, including Homo sapiens. Soil is the medium of the art of growing vegetables. As I reflect on the three growing seasons I've spent on my little half-acre, I recall the first swing I took of my pulaski into the rocky soil I would make my garden. It was frightening. I've long been aware of the value of good soil, composting and maintaining a balance of organisms and nutrients in the soil. I knew this ground was going to take some work. It was gravelly and rocky at the same time. I had to remove piles of vegetation that prefer poor, acid soils. It was wet or dry, with not much spongy organic matter to hold moisture at an ideal level.

Elliot Coleman, one of America's authorities on organic farming, emphasizes soil fertility as any wise grower does. But he also emphasizes using resources within a farm rather than importing them. This principle appeals to me because of its efficiency. Spending money on rotting organic waste seems counter-intuitive, especially when most rural homes are surrounded by one such renewable resource: lawn. We have at least 3 acres of mowed lawn. (We reduced our lawn by more than half when we moved in.) I put a bag on the back of the push mower to collect the leaf and grass clippings. Sometimes the harvest I will get from mowing the lawn is the only thing that gets me out there to fire up the Husky mower. The grass clippings serve as mulch and compost. The leaves add fabulous organic matter to the mix. Of course, the chicken manure and bedding play an important role in soil fertility, but it does need a bit of time to compost. It's very rich and some plants don't like that. So, I tend to grow heavy feeders like squash in a bed to which composted chicken bedding has been added. Then, of course, there are all of the weeds we pull and food scraps to add to the compost.

I have imported some fertility. We lucked out and got a load of rich, black soil from a friend. I also loaded up the truck with alpaca poop last year after a neighbor offered. But I really don't need to do much of that.

After 3 years, the soil here is amazing. I'm still learning a few things: don't put the compost pile too close to the garden if you want to reduce potato beetle attacks. Some harmful fungi can thrive in a slow compost pile. In the future, the compost pile will not be right next door to the vegetables. I'll haul it in to reduce some of the pest attacks I experienced this year. And, I still need to solve the disgusting problem of root maggots. I have learned to rotate crops and it seems to be giving the plants a boost when I do it right.

As I take a break from gardening, I'll do my own knowledge composting by reading some material on soil fertility and pest management.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Like the late afternoon summer sun. Like the shocking red fire of autumn leaves. Like the daily rhythms of friendships.
Each season holds a promise, something to look forward to. But every year at this time, I swear this is my favorite season. What I love about late summer and early fall is the feeling of swimming in a sea of abundance. There are too many vegetables to eat, so much green everywhere, and as much daylight as you need. It's when dinner is fresh from the garden. It's when you can eat all the sweet, crisp apples you want. It's when it gets cool enough to enjoy baking again. The goldenrod and joe pye weed paint the fields in rich color. I have to pinch myself out of a reverie of, "I love everything, I love everything!"

The sunflowers are blooming. The third wave of carrots are ready. The potatoes are pushing themselves out of their dark dugouts. If I'd had grown corn, it would be high. (Thank you, Mr. Pig-face Raccoon for eating all of it last year the night before I planned to harvest.) It all makes me feel like dancing. Or saying prayers of thanks. Or rolling around in a fit of childish, overwhelming joy.

But we're moving. Just as I start, it ends. Suddenly, I'd give anything to have to dig out another Madagascar-sized boulder from the soil to create a new bed. Suddenly, the black fly bites are worth it. And I crave another early April sunburn got by slushing around in the last few inches of icy snow to plant peas and spinach. I realize: This gardening project hasn't really been about feeding myself. It's been about a connection to place. It's been about learning the rhythms of the land and seasons. It includes hauling in wood, usually through a couple feet of snow, after a long day at school. Spending an entire humid afternoon picking blueberries in the sun. Seeing deer and turkeys move through the front yard. Watching birds arrive at the feeders, migrating south or raising young. Listening to the chorus of birdsong, cicadas, and crickets change throughout the year. It's a slow symphony, and I'm grateful just to have had the opportunity to listen. But it's been more than that. I've been drenched during a downpour as I mended a busted chicken coop so the birds would stay dry. I've hauled water, and crossed my fingers, as rain refused to fall for 2 months and our well threatened to run dry. I've waited and worried and planned and sweated. I've loved every minute of it.

Chris got a job in central Michigan. It's a good move for him. It's more than a little rough for me. We have about 2 months left at this house. I'll continue the garden plans and chicken chores. But I'll be looking for homes for the layers and storing the lettuce and carrot seeds in the fridge instead of planting them for a late fall harvest. I'll be saying goodbye to the rocky soil and the bird chorus in the garden. The Rock Garden Project will come to an end in late October.

But it will change into something else, I'm sure. Gardening is in my veins. I'll get my hands on some seeds and some soil somehow, somewhere. I intend to record the late summer and early fall happenings in the rock garden. There's so much left to do! Chicken harvest. Potato harvest. Hop harvest. Carrots, sunflowers, melons, tomatoes...

There is a time for everything, according to Ecclesiastes. It's not that simple, though. As I harvest, I sow. As I rest, I plan. As I tear down, I build. As I mourn, I dance.

"I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless...
A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work."

This is the conclusion: I have gained much because I have loved much and learned much. Everything else is meaningless. But not the love, not the wisdom.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Raising Chickens

We're raising 10 chickens for meat this summer. I say "we" because it's truly been a team effort this year, with Chris picking them up at the post office when they were just one day old and caring for them for 2 weeks while I was away finishing a masters degree, and Sarah foster-parenting them any time that Chris and I are away. Last year we raised 5, kind of as a warm-up. The meat and broth we get from the chickens will supplement the venison and other wild game that Chris hunts throughout the year. We won't buy much other meat. However, we are currently in the habit of buying turkey pepperoni from the grocery store and chicken wings from a restaurant in town. It's important to state that I'm not strict about any of my food choices. If someone prepares me dinner, I'll eat it. I'm grateful for the gift. And, like everything else in my life, I tend not to be dogmatic about any principle. It seems there are always exceptions to any rule and occasionally circumstances that push the ideal across the line of realistic.
We order the chickens with some friends and split the order (10 for us, 50 or so for them). For the first couple of weeks the chickens stay inside under a heat lamp in a warm, dry garage on wood-chip bedding. As soon as possible, I put them out on the grass so they get acquainted with grass nibbling and cricket crunching. If they learn to forage, they'll need a little less feed and, I've heard, may have a bit more omega 3 fatty acids in their tissues. Plus, the cricket-chasing gives them something fun to do. After they have enough feathers, they stay outside in a sheltered, moveable coop. I just move the coop once or twice a day so they have fresh grass (food AND bedding!). Our yard isn't the sort that needs to be pretty. The chickens trim the grass and fertilize it at the same time. I think it's beautiful.
The chickens are a Cornish X, bred for "efficient feed conversion." They get really big, really fast. Last week, during one of our recent deluges, I was moving the coop and noticed that one bird wasn't moving with the coop. I had to pick him up, move the coop, and then set him back inside. I didn't notice any injuries. The next day, I moved the chicken to a smaller coop by itself to let it rest. An online search for advice provided me with two lessons: this breed is notorious for a variety of leg problems, and I should give it a week to rest and see if it gets better. So, I did. It didn't, and now the chicken is marinating in the fridge. It was a relief to kill the chicken yesterday. It couldn't walk. It ate and drank just fine, and until the last day or two, didn't seem to be in much pain at all. But the chicken never should have had the problem in the first place. In the future I plan on finding a different breed that isn't as prone to disturbing leg disorders. Part of the cause is the rapid growth of the chickens. All of the other 14 chickens we've raised have been just fine, but I don't want to raise such rapidly growing chickens again.
If we harvest the chickens when they are about 9 weeks old, the meat will cost us about $.80 a pound (plus the carcasses will provide broth). I haven't checked the grocery store, but I'm assuming this is a great deal compared to anything found there. So far this is the best deal that I can find for chicken. I know that the chickens have been treated well, fed well, and are free of chemicals. I also know they won't be contaminated with salmonella or any other bacteria from handling or processing. I know this because I do the work.
If I didn't raise chickens, I'd probably go backpacking more. I might play more guitar. But I still get to do these things. And having a like-minded and willing friend like Sarah, lightens the load. Having invested all of the time and energy into these chickens makes the meals we'll eat later so much more precious. You tend not to waste anything. You tend not to take it for granted.
So, we have 9 chickens now. They are happy and growing fast. I watched them hunt big fat crickets as I filled up their water tonight. Tomorrow we'll eat spicy Thai grilled chicken dinner. Life is good.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Building an Obsession

Following are just a few thoughts about how I got to this point. (This point being one in which I am ecstatic when I dig a new potato or eat a sugar snap pea from the garden.) When I worked at Cornell Cooperative Extension for the school and community gardens program, I spent one cool October evening gleaning vegetables from a community garden. It wasn't just me. I was with my co-worker, Vicky, and a young neighbor. This 6 year old squealed with delight every time he discovered a handful of neglected carrots. They were buried treasure. Vicky and I laughed and lived vicariously through his youthful perspective. It reminded me of the first carrots I dug up with my mom in our little garden when I was very young. Throughout my childhood I pulled up Queen Anne's lace in search of more bright orange prizes. This 6 year old in the community garden reminded me of the power of that early experience.
I've had a conflicted relationship with food throughout my life. At times I've done whatever I could to avoid it. I've been on diets. I've been off of diets. All of that seems like so long ago. Now I love good food, especially if it has a good story.
I don't have to grow everything we eat. I can go down the road to the Amish farm stand. I can go to the local farmers' market. I can go to the grocery store in an emergency. I'd just rather know the story of my food. I prefer the connection built by sweat equity. Even when life gets busy, I find some small thing to help keep me aware of the bounds of my food shed: a few dried tomatoes thrown into dinner or savoring some fruit preserves from a friend.
I worked on a small organic farm in Fortville, IN. The Sharritts grew vegetables, flowers, chickens, turkeys, and cows for market. I learned a lot working there. That's where I abandoned my vegetarianism. After a day of chicken slaughter, Roger offered me a chicken to take home. It was the best chicken I'd ever eaten in my life. I think it was in part because of the story behind it. I also knew that the animal had had a pleasant life on the farm, and the meat was free of antibiotics.
As I sit here, the story of my food continues. It's difficult to dwell too long on the past in the midst of it.
There's a conversation going on about food. "Locally grown" and "organic" are loaded words in some circles. I realize that, generally, food is an emotionally charged subject. I'm keeping track of how much money and time I spend on feeding myself, because sometimes I question my assumptions about why I put so much emphasis on local and organic food. Is it cheaper? Is it better for the environment? Is it more sustainable for local economies? Is local food a more secure option? A large part of my motivation to raise and grow my own food is simply because it brings me joy.
I'll use this space to tell some of the stories behind the raising and growing of my food.