Monday, May 5, 2008

The water is back.

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.

Every time.

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.


etbnc said...

Thank you.

I wish I could think of a better way to amplify these subtle and important insights.

Embedded doublethink, yes. I'm pretty sure cognitive dissonance makes the world go 'round.

Good stuff.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Ive been lurking for a little while now, and enjoying your blog very much. I particularly liked this post - I have just finished reading Back from the Brink by Peter Andrews - it is an Australian book about sorting out the water issues we have here (water table issues, ploughing, salinity, eroded creekbeds etc) he is not a permaculturalist, he has coined the phrase natural sequence farming. I think you'd enjoy the read, even though it is very region specific.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, great post. I'm a big fan of perennial agricultures. Tillage is inherently harmful to soil structure, flora, and fauna.

But also, I like my annual vegetables and grains.

No till agriculture seems to require either herbicides or very particular crop situations like Fukuoka describes.

Can "sustainable" ag practices such as cover cropping, rotations, compost/manure spreading, counter the damage done by the plow or the tiller or the spader?


Anonymous said...

very interesting post (and not sleep inducing at all). Your methods sound similar to Masanobu Fukuoka, who wrote "One Straw Revolution".

It's hubris to think that nature survived all these millenia without mankind running around spraying and fertilizing and disinfecting and deworming and... Yet it's only a few such as yourself that really figure it out, and have to courage to believe it enough to actually act on it. (Or perhaps it's more accurate to say "not act")


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading your post, just as I love reading about Joel Salatin of Polyface farm who also so carefully views the interconnectedness of all the plants and animals on his farm. This rather than strictly "organic" seems to solve so many problems organically. Best wishes for that water to continue to flow.

Anonymous said...

Greenpa--this is a great post! "Fall asleep"? Never! I could read on for hours about this sort of thing. Have you ever thought about writing a book, kind of a memoir/"how to", in the vein of this post?
Anywho, I have a question--I have a small yard with intensive plantings. Can the ecological approach you've outlined work in that situation? I'm thinking probably "not", because of the small numbers of plants I've got growing. I don't spray (much), and I don't have much in the way of insect or disease damage. What I'm thinking about is my friendly neighborhood woodchuck and the veggies that go AWOL every year! How to co-exist with that?

Anonymous said...

Would the Hawk pole idea work in a suburban environment? We have lots of large trees on our almost 2 acres and have left several dead trees standing (the ones that won't fall on the house or children's play area). If we would eliminate the taller plantings around the house and do one short cutting in late fall, would the hawks start eating more mice. Right now the 5+ foot black rat snake who lives in the crawl space keeps the mouse population in the house under control. (We also patched a lot of small holes in the walls and kitchen cabinets).

Also any tips for encouraging a rather agressive rat snake to stay away from our children's play area. My border collie tangled with it last week not far from the clothes line in area where the littlest likes to pick "flowers" (Star of Bethelhem and purple dead nettle). Before this year, we have never seen any of the larger snakes in that area.


Sam Charles Norton said...

Another lurker - I just wanted to wonder out loud whether there isn't a link between your patience for a return after planting fruit trees and the advice given in Leviticus 19.23-25 which essentially says that you cannot eat fruit from a tree that you plant until after five years have passed - "in this way the harvest will be increased"....

kai said...

I'm very excited your water is back - but I am curious: how much of a snow pack did you get last winter? how much rain did you get this spring? (as compared to "average" - which, since you've been there for the required 30 years that determines climatic "average" should be fairly applicable to you). Was it an early snowfall? Or did the ground freeze hard prior to any snow?

There is an odd little variation on water pooling in vernal pool areas that depends partly on whether the ground froze hard prior to snowfall or froze not as hard after the first snowfall (the snow acting as an insulation layer on the ground, so the freeze isn't as deep). That difference will affect how much of the melt seeps into the groundwater versus how much runs off in overland flow.

Also - please please please talk more about your apple trees. I have 2 - they were here when I moved in. I'm just now (after 3 years) trying to figure out how to better support them, if at all possible (or replace them if they are hopeless - but I hate to do that). Unknown variety. Recommendations on books is most welcome... I've looked into the book in your post, and I'm wondering what other gems you have in your mental library.

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

What a great post, thanks! I had a few acres with sixteen old pear trees and I was looking at ways to save the few good ones, plant other types of fruit etc. We had to sell the place last year. Anyway, really interesting.

jewishfarmer said...

What a wonderful, wonderful post. I loved every word of it and wished there were a hundred more! Congratulations on the water coming back.

We're at our farm 7 years now, and just getting to the point of being able to figure out what its potential is. We have the hawk poles (but we call them giant spruces - the owls have the east side of the house, the hawks the west, and they don't get along real well, but they do keep the girdling to a minimum).

Most of the soil here was so farmed over it was literally dead -I could dig a hole for planting and dig for hours without finding an insect or sign of life. We're working on it - and more importantly, the resident critters are working on it with us, both wild and domestic.

I feel really fortunate to be able to learn from your experience!


Anna Marie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leila said...

The hill that we bought a year ago has absolutely no topsoil. Well, maybe 1/4" in some places. Its all wooded, and I don't think it was ever plowed although it was grazed before the house was built 25 years ago. There is a clearing in the backyard where we decided to put our garden, previously lawn was trying (unsuccessfully) to grow there. The first year everything grew in stunted, yellow, and curled up, even after heavy application of chemical fertilizers. Soil analysis showed N deficient, and P and K non-existant (the test water stayed clear). So we planted lots of winter rye, spread cow manure and spent mushroom substrate. And we are using all-organic fertilizer this time. Hopefully this year it'll do better. But the appearance of the soil is only marginally better. But I did see a couple earthworms, yay! I think it will take many years before it's decent though. Now if I can just convince my husband there is no need to moldboard plow it. And just stick with a single pass with the tiller. But he says must plow or the rye won't be killed off. I'm worried that the plowing will erase all the good of the cover crop by pushing the organic matter too far down. Do backyard gardens really need to be plowed?

Anna Marie said...

I really enjoyed reading this, and I really want to read more!

I must admit, I am struggling with the idea of using chemical fertilizers- grew up with out them, and frankly don't quite understand why anyone would want to use them.

Could you tell use more about your orchard? What practices you have used over the years, and what their outcomes where? Being a wee little undergrad bio-major, I'm facinated, and I want to know more.

Have you ever tried replacing the grass with a legume? Have you ever had animals grazing under the trees? Of course, you'd have to find something that wouldn't bark the trees.

Hope I'm not being too pesky!

DC said...

Greenpa, that's the most uplifting and inspiring blog post I've read anywhere in a long time. It really made my day. THANKS!

Leila said...

Oh yeah, I saw a picture of that seaport in Italy that is now 50 miles inland from all the topsoil that washed off the hills. It's sad that we as a species can't seem to learn from past mistakes.

Susan Och said...

Do you think the new stream cameout of your floods last fall?

katecontinued said...

That thrilling announcement about the water coming back was some hook! This whole essay [strike that] exegesis was a gift. I am so grateful and glad you were born, Greenpa. Like another commenter I am in an urban area. Our little motor home park community garden is working to make the dirt into soil. We know it will take some years. Any information helps.

Greenpa said...

Many thanks for all the great comments here folks. I'll try to address most of them in the future. Crazy busy just at the moment.

One thing: Kai, and Susan Och: yes, it was a wettish year last year, but we've actually had much wetter ones, over all- with no water in the valley as a result.
Snow was on the high normal side, and the melt was unusually slow; but we rarely have much snow runoff anyway- the mice make lovely bath-tub drains right through the frost, among other things- none in a corn field.

Beelar said...

Hey Pa,

Jeez, the creek is running! This is really outstanding. Congratulations, and I'm looking forward to seeing it.

For everybody else, I can see you can tell this is a big deal, and that's good. The process has indeed been gradual; I can remember the first years we had a few clear seeps from our side of the valley feeding pools for most of the summer, and a couple of wet years when there was just barely a trickle through most of the farm if you squinted right. And boy is it gratifying when the little tributary of runoff in the spring, completely clear, runs into the mud runoff in the main creek. But now we don't get runoff from that little tributary any more; it all sinks in.

I do imagine the "floods" last year had something to do with this, pushing a tipping point in our recharge; maybe it'll be less next year, maybe not. You see, I don't know if this was mentioned earlier, but those floods wiped out a lot of houses and roads in our neighborhood- but on our land they just sunk in. Our pond just barely registered any runoff at all. We felt lots of effects from neighboring damage, and had a time dealing with the extremely wet soil on the place, but there wasn't really any flood in the watershed we control. Also, very gratifying. Of course, the flip side of that is "boy, if most other folks were doing it this way, it would have saved a really large number of dollars, associated with a lot of property and sanity." Which is kind of simultaneously uplifting and depressing.

But we're used to that, right? And I gotta say, if you can manage to make the depressing part mostly just the rest of the world, and you can tell you're making just a little progress on that– well, that's budging icebergs. It does take a while. Perseverance is the most certain way to get something done.

Britta said...

I loved this post. Thank you. More things to think about and ponder.

I love the "how-to" posts, or posts about your history on the land and the reasons behind them.

EJ said...

Inspiring post, lovely news about your water!

I'm curious how you test your runoff: None of it ever gets away; we've tested.
This is a question of concern to me as I have a container plant nursery quite close to the river and I want to both minimize and check runoff.


Anonymous said...

I looked for the Post on Monday, found it today. For anyone that farms, news of any local water appearing is as good as it gets.
I learned a great deal from reading the post, not only was it great because of the water announcement, but also because of the information it contained.
I could spend about a week and pound out 100,000 words to compare and contrast our experiences, but I will give the very short version. I have lived and done tree farming as well as small husbandry and vegetables in the tropics since 1979. The details are very different, as my scale now is just a few acres, and was never more than that, no winter here, so more insects, all the fruits are completely different
because we have no freeze cycle, no apples here for instance, YET, I am pretty much on exactly the same regimen you are on and I have been doing that since the beginning.
In one case I did lease a 17 acre farm on the edge of a Rain Forest, and that was already planted out in old growth fruits and shade coffee.
Essentially, the concept that the less we do to the soil, the better off the trees are, is true.
I have had two severe insect attacks in 29 years. In 1996 the pink hibiscus mealy bug arrived from the lesser Antilles and pretty much wiped out half of my ornamental nursery and most of the fruit on the fruit trees that year.
But I only used agricultural soap until the USDA, 18 months later, introduced a tiny wasp predator.
The other scourge started a year ago, it is an unknown origin thrip and we are using soap because the modus is that it is sucking all the new leaves dry, doesn't bother the fruits. Photosynthesis is affected. The USDA is doing nothing, plans to do nothing, and I am worried. They say all the money went to Iraq, so they can't put anyone on the case. Makes sense. Make war, not food.
Well, I am cutting the Bible of my tree life short here in the middle of the first verse. It's that or go on for another eternity.
The idea of growing and managing 160 acres is scary to me as I work on an intimate level with the trees and other plants. I admire those persons like Greenpa that use these methods on massive areas. It is something one must be obsessed by, otherwise, don't even think about doing it. Thank you very much for the post Greenpa and I look forward to more.
Meanwhile, know anyone high up at the USDA? We need a predator really bad. They can go on a junket to a beautiful island {Vieques} to do the research. No one has identified this thing yet and records show it on other islands since 2002. I am getting desperate. Not just my stuff is getting clobbered, but all of the clients I sell trees to are now in trouble too. Of course, lunatic that I am, I would never consider pesticides to be an option. At least it is not a fungus or virus, but with enough debilitation, they will move in next.

Theresa said...

Your water sounds beautiful Greenpa. It makes me glad.

WILDBLUESbysus said...

Very encouraging for a former Minnesotan who spent her summers as a child on Little Boy Lake outside Longville. In these decades since my fondest desire is to move back. Thanks for taking good care of your part of the big woods. Yesterday my seedlings spent the morning out in the sunshine getting ready to go into the garden in a couple weeks. When I brought the trays back into the house, a wolf spider hitched a ride. My first thought was "Greenpa said"... Later I spotted him again with a little fly in his mouth. Changed lives start with changed thinking. Thanks for lots to think about.


Kory said...

I cant begin to thank you enough for this, you have eloquently put in clear and scientific rational then things I had "hunches" about but had neither the space nor experience to try.

Greenpa said...

Eva- " None of it ever gets away; we've tested."

One of the most useful experimental directions we've found is to intentionally "overdo" something; early on.

You find a lot of received wisdom that does not hold up that way; it took my 20 years to get over the universal recommendation of foresters to NOT fertilize trees when they are young. Bull. (not that it's simple!)

20 years ago we fertilized some plants in a formal study; 2 blocks at 0 lbs/N/acre, 2 blocks at 100 lbs, 2 blocks at 200 lbs, and 2 blocks at 300 lbs. N/acre.

200 and 300 lbs of Nitrogen / acre are WAY high for trees, though some people put that much on corn- or used to, when N was cheapish.

Test: multiple soil samples, at 4", 18", and 24" depths. Nobody takes soil samples that deep, usually, but we were looking for escaped fertilizer.

Results, 8 months after application, in the 300 lb blocks; at 4", N at 80 ppm (an ok range for crops) ; at 18', N at 5 ppm; at 24"; 0 ppm.

ie- none, whatsoever, is getting past the huge root systems, even at very high application rates.

Greenpa said...

RC - very cool!

On scale- my place looks half wild, because we can't keep it looking like neat orchard. Some farmers are REALLY put off by the "weeds", which is a barrier to wider adoption; not that it doesn't work, but the demand for neat plantings is deeply engraved on a lot of brains.

In fact, scaling up brings some advantages- lots of the pest dynamics get easier as you get bigger.

On your thrip - ouch. My exceptional pest was an introduced mite- solution was primarily genetic, using material that had co-evolved with the pest. Lucky for me, I already had those genetics in my mix. Not so easy for plain growers who don't have genetic reference collections (I do).

One thing I'd try is extra fertilizer for some of your trees (don't fertilize ALL of them!! you won't learn anything!) I'd even double the fertilizer for some, and watch the tree's performance through the next season.

Time after time, I've seen my plants ignore pests once they are "fully fed"; even really tough ones like stem borers and weevils. I wouldn't wait for the USDA, I'm afraid; most of the feds are lost and leaderless right now...

Texicali said...

Great post! I have been using dormant sprays on my backyard fruit trees, and haven't liked doing it a bit. I guess you just need someone to tell you its okay to skip it. To the anonymous post asking if this is appropriate for intensive backyard plantings I would say absolutely. I have let several different plants become aphid sanctuaries the past couple of years (a rose bush, fava beans, and various bolting winter crops). Before long the host plant and the rest of the garden is overrun with soldier beetles and lady bugs. I do have a problem with slugs, and have diligently been using beer traps and picking them at night. But if anyone has better ideas I would be happy to hear them.

Anonymous said...

Feeding our way out of the pink mealy bug or the thrip won't wash. I might also mention we have been overrun by 5 foot iguanas {escaped non-native pets} that eat the plants even while you are chasing them away. BIG bites out of the leaves. But they don't bother me. And that's my way of saying, what good would fertilizer do in that case? We did already have the borer beetle attack and the plants have fought that off. I'll do some fertilizing experiments, but I fear we are way past that stage. If you had an email I would send some photos of the old mealybug plague and the new thrip attack.
I completely agree with you that the Feds are currently totally useless unless you happen to own a failing investment corporation on Wall Street.
Yet, the new pest is attacking food production heavily, so they will eventually have to deal with it.
I'm considering experimenting with imported predators and hope I get lucky.

Anonymous said...

Yes, please write a book! This was fascinating. I have a suburban lot; the neighbors spray hideous things; we don't, and have lots of bugs; aphids are never a problem on my roses. Although they are on corn, for some reason (Possibly the aphid-dripping plum nearby...). But coddling moths are wicked on my Braeburn apple tree (though maybe if I remembered to pick up all the fallen apples in late fall, they wouldn't be. I am a lazy gardener). But I thought this year I would try kaolin clay spray on the apple; do you have any thoughts on that? (Pacific Northwest, by the way). Now I'm feeling smug about all the years of being too lazy/disturbed by petroleum product to use dormant oil spray. Kept meaning to ... hehe. Thank you for a wonderful, inspiring and educational post. Oh, and your hunger posts inspired me to write a commentary piece for my newspaper, addressing that and other issues.

Zabetha said...

Wonderful about the water! I can only imagine the thrill of seeing/hearing it. And how ironic that your child can hear it but you cannot. Kinda like Moses seeing but never making it into the Promised Land...

Love your blog, I follow it regularly. I sort of disagree with your comments about permaculture, I think permaculturalists are coming around to your view that crops and feeding the cities are in fact important. The definition of permaculture has expanded, perhaps to the point of being meaningless, but at least it's not all that narrow anymore.

Also love your exchange with RC, hope you guys get to expand the conversation in the future.

I've been trying to follow your discussion of what's really going on with global food issues, but unfortunately am distracted by more current events in my life; got that whole discussion "bookmarked" for future reading/action.

Anonymous said...

Greenpa, the running water sounds beautiful!

Sort of off topic, I read today that the City of Sherbrooke in Quebec has decided against running its municipal fleet on plant-based biofuels as they believe it's unethical to divert agricultural products from the food chain. Good news.
- Liz

Unknown said...

Thank you Greenpa,

Everything that you've just written repudiates every.single.word. my father tried to indoctrinate me with as a child growing up on the "farm". This gives me hope, it gives me courage.

Again, my sincerest thanks. It's going to be printed out (don't worry, 2 pages to a side, double-sided ;-) and put up on the fridge.

shadowfoot said...

Great post! Just the thing to beat the gloom in the news...


Anonymous said...

The comments about the orchard "sound" inspirational, and it's interesting to read, but I'd have to hear specifics to buy it, and in spite of the length of the post, there is a real dearth of specifics here.

What varieties do you plant?

What happens when the borers find them? or the plum curculio? or the fungi and the smuts? or the deer?

Do you pick off the mummies? Do you have time to thin fruits?

How much do you actually harvest? What's the quality?

I'm speaking also from over a decade of experience. We've rarely sprayed here, because the whole experience is disheartening, and we find, with bad weather and other crops to attend to, we just don't have time to spray.

We've used Surround, but that washes off, and it doesn't dissuade plum curculio and codling moth, etc. etc.

You may find that you are simply lucky. The complexities of orcharding are difficult to sort out.

I can tell you this: out of 75 trees, many established for 15 years, we got maybe five bushels of apples.

On the other side of town, a conventional orchard continues to sell huge quantities of perfect apples, BECAUSE THEY SPRAY.

I'm pretty much ready to say sayonara to our "organic" orchard and just devote time to my potatoes and cabbages.

If you have time, you can drop me an email: Mikeb at foxhill dot com.

Mike in Maine

Anonymous said...

Mike in Maine- hilarious. I can guess why you're only getting 5 bushels of apples from 75 trees, from your total lack of attention to detail. Gosh, you're "talking from 10 years of experience here" - and that's supposed to trump Greenpa's 30 - plus the all but PhD? And the post suffers from "a real dearth of specifics"? Could it be because- this was not a seminar on apple production? If you want to see the kind of detail Greenpa regularly cranks out, read his reply to Eva, right here, in this thread.
And, I have to say, I'm really curious as to what your expected motivation is for Greenpa to get in touch with you via email. Maybe he's eager for you to enlighten him some more? :-)
Larry D.

Susana said...

Hi Greenpa-

I would love to see photos of your orchard, etc.. It isn't enough for me for you to paint a picture with words. Is it possible to see some photos to get an idea of what planting thick and the sod and no monocultures really means? Also, I keep hearing tilling is bad, but how are you supposed to get ground ready for seeding?

Glad I visited your blog! Thanks.

Greenpa said...

Susana- and a couple others - we don't try to do "no till" in the garden. Potatoes, tomatoes, etc. just aren't adapted to it, and I don't have the time to experiment, though others have and do.

We tried the "potatoes under a foot of hay" deal years ago; and what WE got, was "hundreds of mice under a foot of hay, happily eating potatoes."

No weeds, though!

It's not the food gardens that are killing us- and a little tillage of crops, on suitable land, is also not the problem; it's the industrial scale tillage of totally unsuitable lands; either too dry, or too steep, or too wet (like tropical peat soils currently being cleared for oil palm...) that are disasters.

So- please weed your peppers in peace! No evil there, I think. :-)

Anonymous said...

My 96 year old cousin lived on one place all her life. It has apple trees that were planted by her mother. She never had wormy apples. She taught me that you clean up every fallen apple and feed them to the chickens or the cops away from the orchard. That way the pests can't overwinter in the fallen apples. Seemed to work for her.

Anonymous said...

i've just recently started reading your blog (found you through crunchychicken.. a heckuva gal). this is the first year my family has made an attempt at growing our own food. we have a small garden of raised beds with pole beans, cukes, acorn squash, watermelon, okra, the required tomato or two, raspberries, various herbs and a pair of peach trees. my home sits on your typical suburban lot in the heat of a houston summer. i would really like to know how to encourage as broad a range as possible of birds and beneficial critters to keep my little garden plugging along. i'm hesitent to enourage predatory birds as i plan to add a couple of chickens over the summer. my kids have learned, in a very short period of time, the benefits and trials of composting, peeing in the yard (but what will our friends think??) and thinking through the actions they take and the impact they leave behind.

Doyu Shonin said...

A year later I am still reading this post, over & over. Thank you, sir.

risa b

Greenpa said...

Risa- thank you. Nice to hear.