When we bought this farm- 160 acres- it had a "rough corner" - a steep rocky ravine, with a dry bottom. About 40 acres of forest there, some good timber, but this bit is not even close to being tillable. Brought the over-all price of the land down a little.
No water in the bottom, although just over the fence with the neighbor to the south, there is a spring that runs all year, most years; have only seen it stop running once, I think.
The ravine, which we call "the valley", looks like it might well have once had a full time stream running in it. Typically, around here, when the original lands went under the plow, the water table dropped, and some streams went dry.
I've hoped, year after year, that what we were doing here might bring the water back. Year after year- dry.
But. This year:
We have water. And not just a little- there are seeps feeding this flow all the way through our land- ending, in fact, exactly at the fence with the neighbor to the north. It's about a quarter mile of spring and seep fed creek, that wasn't there before. (You can hear a chickadee singing "spring-soon" early on, and then a wild jungle-bird call, quite loud. It's not fake- it's one of our pileated woodpeckers; just lucky to catch it.)
This is a lot of water, up from nothing. It's crystal clear- unless we've had heavy rain, then we get run-off from the neighbors' fields, and it's muddy as can be, until the next day. There are green mosses and algae living in the clear water- making oxygen.
It's been 30 some years. For me, this is crazy exciting. And satisfying. I think, maybe, we've brought something back, that was supposed to be here. Is water important? What a question.
Now the stream runs, and even babbles. Middle Child says he can hear it, from the house, if the wind is still. He says it really changes the feel of the valley. I knew it would. Running water hits the human heart, and hind-brain, directly.
I can't hear it; unless I'm close. Too much time with tractors and chainsaws. (Yes, I ALWAYS had ear protection of some kind- except once, helping out a neighbor... I don't think the standard ear muffs do enough, over time. Now I wear ear plugs AND muffs.) Yeah, that makes me a little sad, but seeing the clear clean water, and having it there for my kids, makes up for it.
When we bought the farm, it had been managed in the locally normal fashion, since about 1845. Three quarters of the land had been cleared and plowed. About 1/4 of it had been savannah grass, that was all plowed. Most of it was really too steep to be plowed, but it was anyway; these days 3/4 of the tilled land is technically classified as "highly erodible". There had been cows, too; the forest had been grazed periodically, though luckily about every other owner had NOT put cows in the woods, so it wasn't totally degraded. We had much better wildflower populations than usual.
But the land had been used very hard; there were several places where clearly it had been plowed at one time, but erosion gullies had cut so deeply that a tractor could turn over in them. Now these places were pasture. Before we bought the land, a soil survey done in 1956 said there were between 12" and 18" of dark topsoil on the north hill- in corn and hay strips. In 1976- we found between 0" and 6". A foot of soil was gone, in just 20 years.
The farm is hilly, and the soil is light, a "loess" type, technically silt-loam. Good soil. The truth is, most farms in the US have been used this badly, at some point. Many, many still are. Even good farmers are pushed by many forces to cut corners, get higher yields, more acres plowed- a few more dollars for the bank. As long as you use a plow, the process only moves in one direction. You will lose the soil. I didn't like that.
How I got to that place, philosophically, is another long story; perhaps another time. Right now, I just want to describe the directions we took. Much of this was not fully formulated when we began- we learned as we went.
Reader RC, in comments on the previous post, was kind of demanding an exegesis (careful, your academia is showing!) of my claim that the food we produce here is "Not Organic- It's Better!"
It all ties together.
I wanted to focus on "tree crops", building first of all on J. Russell Smith's book with that title. Mostly because of erosion here that I felt was really out of control- far beyond "unsustainable", moving towards "desertification", rapidly. Did you know that there are cities in Italy- which were seaports for the early Roman empire- that are now 50 miles inland? Plows. And wheat. What do they grow on those hills now? Grapes and olives.
First- get rid of the plow. Russell Smith documented many aboriginal peoples who harvested their staple foodstuffs from trees. He, however, was not a biologist- he was a geographer. I could see opportunities he could not, because of our different perspectives. So I started focusing of some specific "tree crops", and some specific pathways of my own.
No, it's not "Permaculture®". I never heard of Bill Mollison until things here were fully developed. I'm interested in crops- and feeding cities; and I really don't think permaculture is.
Many "horticultural" crops, including apples and grapes, often include the plow still, or at least a periodic disc cultivation of the surface. We only disturb the soil during the first year of establishment. Then we have grass, which we manage in a number of ways. The grass is a problem, more often than not at this point; but we're working on ways to integrate other practices, without going to cultivation. Cultivation is bad because; it causes erosion, it destroys biodiversity, it costs huge quantities of fossil fuel, it costs money and time- year after year.
Second- No spray. Ever. Meaning, no pesticides; no insecticides, no fungicides, no general herbicides. No toxins. Not even "organic" ones. Two exceptions; we use a little fly spray in the greenhouse (the same stuff used in dairies), and we have, in the past, used a little Roundup during year 1 of plant establishment. But I've almost quit doing that, too; probably will. Don't need it. We do, rarely spray a little fertilizer, if the plants are starving. I don't think the frogs like it though, so we try not to.
I didn't set out to go "no spray"; in fact in the early years, I just took the received wisdom, and used the "at least!" dormant oil spray universally recommended for fruit trees. (Turns out, it's a big mistake; don't do it.) Little by little, over the years, I've experimented (I did do all that PhD work) - quite formally - and learned; and had a number of wildly useful and illuminating accidents happen. I'd need a long book to go through them; maybe some day.
It was my new non-horticultural tree crops that taught me that dormant oil is a mistake. Took about 10 years to figure that out; it was not a snap dogmatic decision, but an insight based on long trained formal observation. No, it's not published- just haven't had time.
That worked this way: the first time I saw nasty caterpillars eating all the leaves on my young trees- I was outraged, of course, as one is. MY plants, you vermin leave them alone! But. The scientist/ecologist/parasitologist/ethologist in me insisted that I wait, and watch; at least a couple of years. This is a new planting here; perhaps this caterpillar is exploding just because it has a new food source; and given some time, perhaps a predator, or disease, will catch up with it, and control it without having to resort to poisons. I was out on new ground, crops no one had grown this way, so there were no experts to tell me otherwise.
So I waited, for several ticks of the annual clock. You have to give predators and parasites plenty of time to show up- they may be quite rare, and they don't reproduce at the high rates the herbivores do.
Here's the thing. So far, in 30+ years - 100% of the time; outbreaks of this bug or that- fade. Typically, in year one of a new bug, it'll look like slaughter, and over and over, I'd think "oh, boy, here it is, I'm finally going to have to spray." But- scientifically; the only way to know that is to wait, and watch. And I've had the luxury of being able to do that. In year 2 - every time- the damage caused by the bug has dropped; away from the "where's my spray gun?" point to at least the "that's ugly- but not killing us" point. In year 3 - it's less yet.
Except once- and that pest was a foreign invader; we just needed some different genetics; it's over, now.
That's a really huge deal, in fact. The rock bottom dogma of conventional agriculture and horticulture is that you MUST spray, because you're growing these plants in an intensive monoculture, and there is no alternative... oh, wait...
Third. No monocultures. All of our plantings have species mingled, a couple rows of this, then 8 rows of that. We've specifically striven to include diversity in species and genetics and physical structure, just for the sake of the diversity. More diversity means more critters can live here. The more species living here, the more stable the entire system is. That's an ecological dogma. But humans have never acted like we believe it.
It's true, and it works.
For example; back to dormant oil spray. The idea there is that you're suffocating the eggs and dormant forms of your pest insects, which overwinter right there on your tree, all ready to start eating come spring. The scum. Sounds good, and logical, and the oil is not really even a poison, so why not? Everybody on the planet says it's a good idea.
I did dormant oil spray on our apples for 10 years, just like everybody. Then- extrapolating from what I was learning in my other crops- it occurred to me, via my parasitologist/ethologist training. If you were a pest predator- where would you lay your eggs?
In fact, I already knew the answer- they lay them right next to their food source; eggs or dormant bugs- right there on your tree. We know this. But we don't act like it. Spray your dormant oil spray- and it kills off your predatory insects- better than it kills their prey. Because of relative population numbers and reproductive dynamics- herbivores tend to be abundant and reproduce fast, predators are few, and reproduce slowly; even if they're minute wasps instead of wolves.
The field of agriculture is rife with embedded double-think; and food is so sacred (the staff of life! the new oil!) that we never examine basic and hidden assumptions. All good farmers simultaneously believe, with all their hearts: a) they grow FOOD. b) the world will starve if they don't produce all they can. c) farmers never get paid enough for their work- because they over-produce so much it's dirt cheap.
Some of that has changed a little, just recently, but those are all rock solid core beliefs for farmers, any time in the last 50 years. And, in case you didn't notice- they're contradictory.
So, when my little lightbulb went off, after a mere decade, and I realized I was doing something that I knew did not make rational sense- I quit spraying my apples. At all.
Gasp! You can't grow apples without spray! Everybody knows it!
Well, I do. Yes- I had to grit my teeth through several bad years, when bugs ate everything. But- have faith, my children- if you feed them (and don't poison them) they will come. Predators - birds, frogs, insects, shrews, mice- parasites- bacteria- viruses- oh, my.
Hey, it's an ecosystem.
If you plow- you can't have one. You go back to dead sterile soil- and nowhere for the ecosystem to live. The wasp pupae need a safe, stable place to overwinter, and bare dirt is not it. We have permanent, deep sod; everywhere between the trees, with many species of plants in it. And a few pines, in the apples. Among other things.
If you spray - you can't have one. No sprays are species specific, the claims notwithstanding. And in any case; if you wipe out the deer; you also wipe out the wolves. Guess which comes back first? Now- we've had multiple visitors, knowledgeable ones, who see our apples (about 60 standard trees) and ask what our spray regimen is. "No spray." "Wow! You mean you're organic!? I've never seen an organic orchard that looks this good!" "No- no spray, at all." ... "What?" ...
The years do vary- sometimes, one bug or another comes up and is pesky. Two years ago, the Minjon apples had a bad apple maggot fly problem. Last year- trivial, really. Codling moth- there's always a little, but it's no biggie, fairly easy to spot. And- we have Amish neighbors who are happy to swap us something for the codling moth affected apples- they make great apple butter or sauce, or cider, if you can cut out the bad core; and they have the labor available to do that.
Fourth. Genetics. Most of our apples are "heritage"- old cultivars that were developed long before spray was so universal. They've usually got the genetic tools they need to respond to pests. One of our worst performing apples is "Haralson" - a big commercial favorite here. Born and raised in the University, released in 1922. Those were the days of dousing in Bordeaux mix- and lead arsenate sprays. I kid you not. Without spray- we get a few to eat once every 6 years, or so.
Finding plants with the appropriate genetics for your land is an absolutely critical part of this. And it's a long process. If you've ever bought fruit trees, you know how the catalogs read: "Absolutely hardy; huge crops of delicious juicy peaches, every year!" The only words in that sentence that are not a big fat lie are "of", "peaches", and "year". And "peaches" is questionable.
Basic hint- the cost of the trees, at planting, is the tiniest part of the investment you will make in a good food tree. Plant lots- plant them thick; let nature sort them out.
Fifth. Fertilizer. You have to feed your plants, one way or another. The organic movement decided that chemical fertilizer is evil, bad for water, bad for worms, etc. Yup, if you're putting it on bare soil, that's likely true. If you're spreading modest amounts on top of permanent sod- getting to the trees, we hope, by timing the season right- or waiting (both work)- it's just not the same thing. Most of the fertilizer used in farming is applied to naked soil- when the target crop has no roots to speak of. It rains- it runs off into the Gulf of Mexico. When we spread fertilizer, it falls on grass sod that has roots 2' deep; or trees that have roots 12' deep. None of it ever gets away; we've tested.
Plain N-P-K fertilizer is an over-simplification of what plants need, of course. But ours also get a steady rain of bird manure, from residents, and migrants; deer, raccoon, and whatsit manure galore- and- spider poo. You'd be surprised at how much poo spiders put out. If they're not dead, and there are bugs to eat. We keep testing for micronutrient deficiencies, to keep track; so far haven't really got any, so far as we can tell.
And, as it turns out- well fed plants just kick off pests. It's when they're starving that they get sick.
Sixth. Tweak, don't Demand. Way back there, I considered talking about "Pestapo" style agriculture. Eradicate everything. And contrasting it with my own "Tweakology".
But I decided that was just a bit too cutsey. It does illustrate a basic attitude, though; pest "control" is not something we do- we do a little pest management. But you will always have some pests, and pest damage...
And you WANT to. If you have no prey- you will have no predators. That's a setup for an epidemic outbreak. Cheaper, easier, to tolerate low pests, and work around them.
Example: mice. Mice are a big problem in some tree plantings; they can eat the bark and roots in winter, killing even big trees in bad years. Lots of orchards put out mouse poison, on a schedule. We do two things; we mow the grass down tight to the ground before the snow comes, and put up "hawk-roosts"; big poles put up in the right places to attract hawks and owls. It works. We have mice. We also have a resident pair of red-tailed hawks, who raise their brood feeding them mice, out of our plantings, every year. Plus tons of owls, who take over the night shift.
We try to nudge a pest in the direction we want; never shoot for eradication. That kind of total control is a trap; you'll have to do it forever, because, of course- you've also eliminated ALL the natural antagonists to the pest you're controlling. There are dozens, at least- probably hundreds - (how many diseases do people get?) but if they have no place to live, they're gone. Clean slate- ready for the pest to explode next season- unopposed.
Ok, better stop, before you all fall asleep. RC- our stuff is better than organic because it comes from highly biodiverse permanent plantings- no plow, no toxins. And full of frogs (one spray of rotenone will wipe yours out for good) and bird nests. Eco-system based pest management.
So far, for us it's working. Which doesn't mean there won't be bumps. Grit your teeth.
The water in the valley- is crystal clear, but may well have some chemicals in it from all the years this land was "conventional". Atrazine, maybe. But for years now, all the water soaking into the ground has been free of toxins. That's hopeful.
Haven't forgotten the hunger issue, but we all need a break. There IS some progress; more are becoming aware- and some of it is as likely due to the noise we're making as anything. Take a look at the articles and links here. More before long.