Tag Archives: farm

Overwintering: The Year Round Experience.

Black opal

I bought this African Blue Basil last year. After waiting for seeds to be produced for the entire summer, I learned that this plant is a hybrid and has the reproductive potential of two mules. With a little cloning this plant has lived on the last three months in my bedroom.

Looking out the window I can finally see the sun’s arch reach over the neighboring apartments, a signal of the approaching spring. Pretty soon gardeners all throughout the Northern Hemisphere will be elbows deep in dirt preparing for another year of foodstuffs.

This year, instead of heading to the nearest Home Depot for the cheapest seeds I can find, I’m utilizing one of the coolest concepts that I have heard of in a long time. I am buying my seeds from a company called Seed Savers Exchange(SSE).

So what I’m buying brand name seeds?

The Exchange realized that as agriculture become more standardized the plethora of seeds that were saved within families for generations were being lost.  The mechanical mass extinction event was taking place and the exchange felt it had to act. The company started an exchange based seed bank.  Members throughout the world share their seeds with the company and other members around the world. Through the organization members are encourage to either buy and sell with each other. SSE also sells to the general public although it only offers an sampled selection of the vast variety of seeds at their disposal.

The seeds they save are all heirlooms, meaning they have been reproduced continually for at least 50 years.  Although these seeds are going to prove to be more expensive than my old shopping habits, I’m going to be winning in the long run. Since all of these will be non-hybrid plants, the seeds will be viable for saving and hopefully regrowing next year.

This weeks step is to buy heirloom seeds.

Seed Savers Exchange

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The life and death of a small farm hog.

Early in the summer these young hogs were living the good life, one day change it all. From pen to pork

Pigs are dirty, smelly, rotten animal,s unworthy of a good life or a large space because they will foul up any piece of earth that you give them.  Although this description fits a majority of politicians, my experience with pigs has taught me they are not the unclean, bestial organisms that I’ve heard a lot of people write them off as.

In that last few months I’ve watched four hogs go from small critters to slaughter-sized meat producers.  We’ve taken two off to the butcher and two more are awaiting their end of days. At first it was almost sad sinking my teeth into the first pig we’ve ever raised for food but as the thoughts started drifting through my mind I took comfort in the fact that these were probably the happiest pigs I’ve ever digested.

I’ve only seen hog operations a few times throughout my life. The first operation I saw was an indoor cage, complete with spillways that allowed for the animal waste to wash into the center of the pen so it could be easily cleaned. The only other operations I have seen were online and the pigs didn’t seem to have very much space to move and breath, let alone stay clean.

The operation that Purring Dog Farm has running for hogs is a humane one. I have spent a little under an hour a day the last two months working side by side the hungry, misunderstood creatures.  Every morning feeding them their daily allotment of corn and whatever else may be on hand.  Throughout the weeks I have watched how the animals think and interact and laughed at the way they’ll  trip over each other like kids on cake, to get the prized commodities of eggs and watermelon.

The last meal for future food.

Rolling in the mud and getting dirty is the way they stay cool, similar to elephants and dogs.  The faint smell of their waste isn’t the first scent that hits when entering their 100 ft by 100 ft enclosure.  In fact the first month and a half that I was on the farm, I only smelled the foul odor of their digested corn once.  Pigs are similar to dogs in the sense that they prefer not to wallow around in shit and urine if they don’t have to. If given enough space they will gladly deposit waste in a far corner of their structure, the only spot left that is green from under use.

Between playing and sleeping all day our hogs still make time to attempt eating gloves and boots while they are still on the wearers feet and one has developed an affinity for using my aunt April as a scratching post. When the first roast was made up, April was having a hard imagining how she could eat it after spending the time watching, feeding, scratching and admiring the 200 lbs of fat and muscle. We all agreed that she made the right decision, in a pan with gar

lic and butter.

The day before we took the black-speckled pink walls of meat to the butcher, my uncle Bill and me made a practice run of getting them into the horse trailer, making sure the next day went smoothly.  Our plan was to herd them, by pinching them in with two doors forcing them forward. After 3 minutes of getting pushed around, we headed indoors defeated and feeling weak. After

The stalkyard and final hours.

tearing through farmers books and scouring the internet more thoroughly than any porn addict, we resigned to faith that the next morning would pan out, expecting the worse. It was a six-o-clock morning, early for us lazy farmers, the pigs had to be in by 9 a.m. or else the official “pig killer” would go home, a man paid by commission not by the hour and who didn’t like to wait.

After backing up the trailer, we went with honey instead of vinegar. By cutting watermelon in half and throwing them to the rear of the transport we found the pigs loved the food enough to jump on in. After two filed in we closed the doors. The day before had taught us not to be picky. We fed them a last meal of their favorite treat, eggs, and left for Morgan’s Meat Processors.

On arriving we had to remove the pigs, this time force was our only option. Getting them out of the trailer was less of a task than getting them in, if you did it right. Hogs do not respond to being pulled but they will eventually let pushing them make a difference. The last time we saw our hogs they were playing together and wallowing in the puddles of mud, in a stalk-yard like coral.  After filling out the cut-sheets before their eyes, we took off waiting for a call telling us the deed was done. Hanging above the entrance to the slaughterhouse a sign reading “absolutely no unauthorized personnel allowed.”

Later, when we picked up the freshly processed pork, 127 lbs of the tastiest, best kept meat was waiting for us. Ethically speaking the practice was sustainable but on a level of understanding that everyone can agree with, I can say, home-grown pork beats anything you’ll ever find on a shelf. The twinge of guilt I felt while watching the pigs play out their last few minutes of life was only a reminder that every meal involves a life and suffering. I don’t doubt for a minute though that if the roles were reversed, those hogs would have been more than happy to call me a meal. And life goes on …

What the “F**r trade” does sustainability mean anyways?

Green is the new everything.
It’s no secret that the recent cultural turn towards sustainability has met its vast success because it’s now cool to “go green”. When a Pabst drinking hipster will yell at someone for not recycling, we are looking at a strange, confused, yet hopeful future.

The words green and sustainable are inescapable part of our daily lives for many now but the terms have become empty because of the amount of times and reasons for their use.

So what does sustainable mean?

For the amount it is used, finding a clear-cut definition of what sustainability means isn’t the easiest task.  Words like organic, local, green have all become closely associated with sustainability and people who use anything with those tags seem to think that the product their associated with is sustainable. You can’t trust a label to authenticate that a product isn’t harmful to our future.  Instead, you have to carefully consider the different aspects of what the product is and how it is made

While searching for the definition of online I ran into a sight Ecoedge.ca.  Douglas Barnes, a permaculture designer from EcoEdge Design, a company that creates sustainable systems for homes, farms, gardens and water systems, seemed to have nailed down the wobbly question of what the word means.

“A system is sustainable if over its lifetime it produces or stores more energy than it consumers in its creation, operation and maintenance.”

At first this definition may seem overly complicated or thick but later in his definition Barnes gives an example of how this can be applied.

“Think of a bank account as an analogy. How long can you continue your lifestyle if you are continually spending more money than you earn? Sooner or later, that lifestyle will come to an end.”

This is just one corn farm I encountered going cross-country. As of 2007 PBS stated that 20 percent of U.S. produced corned is turned to ethanol but is that good? Two articles at the bottom of this post contradict each other in an attempt to answer this question.

Before stumbling upon this definition of the word, I was using a different view for looking at sustainability.  My definition was that if something isn’t causing harm to earth or people then it was sustainable but the statement was vague and left a lot to interpretation.

Barnes interpretation of sustainability gives an in-depth description of what to consider when purchasing products or creating sustainable systems.  But sustainability has absorbed so much and the word has swelled to such giant proportions, with arms reaching so wide, that it cannot be bound by one definition alone.

Merriam-Websters dictionary defines sustainability in the way that I have seen it used frequently.

“A method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” Or “Capable of being sustained.”

No matter how you choose to look at sustainability, it becomes a matter of perception whether or not something is sustainable. I asked Barnes to break down sustainability into categories, hoping to somehow make a shortcut to deciding whether or not something is sustainable.  What he offered me was something less than I expected, the unadulterated truth.  There is no idiots guide to sustainability or 8 fold path towards a renewable world. To be a  sustainable consumer it requires individuals to be well-informed and think independently.

“Sustainability is a very holistic concept … artificially breaking it down into categories has inherent problems. Consider grain-fed, shed-raised dairy cattle versus pasture-raised cattle. If you look at the methane emissions from the grain-fed cattle, they are lower than that of the pasture-raised cattle. Considering the cost of this release of a greenhouse gas that has 22 times the heat storage capacity of CO₂, one might be tempted to say that grain-fed dairy cattle are more sustainable than pasture-raised cattle. But this ignores the costs in fuel, soil, and water table damage (and associated health costs that go with polluted groundwater) involved in growing, processing and transporting the grain – not to mention the costs involved due to increased instances of E. coli in grain-fed cattle.

“So, you can see the difficulty in categorizing sustainability. Things are so intertwined that one really needs case-by-case consideration.” Barnes stated.

When I consider my future and think about steps I’m taking towards a sustainable existence, I’m realizing the importance of research.  I’m also starting to get the concept that if I truly want to explain my journey to the end of my destructive ways, I’m going to have to justify why the steps are important, both to myself and to whoever reads this.

Buying a product or starting a practice solely because it’s generally accepted as sustainable isn’t enough. If my mind ever seems to miss a detail, I’ve killed enough brain cells to make this happen more often than I’d like, I fully encourage anybody to fill me in. I don’t know everything and I’m quickly realizing that I almost know nothing.

On that note it’s time for a weekly step.  Lately I’ve been filling my head full of all sorts of anti big ag propaganda, “King Corn”, “Food Inc.”, “Fed Up” etc … in all of this listening and learning I have realized one of the big enemies in our world comes from corn. The sprawling fields of corn that cover the waist of our nation and produce one hell of a boring scene to any road trip, are one of the United States sustainable curses. In more ways than one this corn breaks dooms our world to a poor existence.  Having crops grown in the midwest and shipped to all parts of the country means that by the time consumers can get their hands on this corn, it has taken more energy to ship the carbon based gold than it can produce.

I admittedly have a bias when it comes to corn. After watching crop after crop of the sensitive food source get wiped out by bugs and soil problems, I can only imagine what goes into making thousands of acres of perfect, weed free corn.

This isn’t the only breach in the definition of sustainability that corn has made.  Many of the methods used to produce a majority of American corn spit yellow phlegm in the noble face of sustainability.  The soil used to grow these crops have often become depleted of nutrients required to grow natural corn leaving us with a chemical hybrid, ever heard of crop rotation?  It would seem that a lot of farmers have not.  Instead of letting the ground restore itself, chemical fertilizers powerful enough to level buildings are added to the crops and as a result our environment takes the hit. A result of soil not getting organic substances, such as compost, is that our land is slowly being hit by desertification, leaving a future dust bowl within reach.

While the lawyers and the companies behind the chemical fertilizers will vehemently fight the gloomy light that has been cast on their products, their ploys at reassuring the public are about as convincing as big tobaccos argument that cigarettes don’t cause cancer, just fun.

Now that I’m finished with my long-winded rant this is my step

The beauty of capitalism is that we can make votes that count.  Every item we choose to purchase effects what companies will start offering. If consumers demand sustainable products then businesses will start to sell them. This week I’m voting, no, on one of big corns major products and no longer buy products containing high fructose corn syrup.

I personally like taking elimination steps because by cutting something out, you aren’t required to spend any money and right now I am broke.

Corn syrup definitely makes us fat, but is corn ethanol good for us? Again I find myself tripping over my own feet trying to find an answer.  Ultimately, I’m still stuck within the hazy fog of whats important and realizing that E-85 is shadowed area, perhaps lacking the green tint that it promises.

It takes less energy to create than it produces according to the USDA’s article Net Energy balance of Corn-Ethanol. This fact alone seems to stand up against the Eco Edge definition, but this is only one aspect of the crows nest

The doublethink kicks in when you do a little more research however.

A team of researchers from the University of Minnesota and Stanford University as well as a few other organizations say that it may be energy efficient but it isn’t sustainable in a paper entitled, Climate change and health costs of air emissions from bio fuels and gasoline.

To market, to market to process a pig …

We took the pigs into market today. We woke up at 6 a.m. expecting another morning of being pushed around by muddy creatures twice our weight.  Yesterday we tried corralling the pigs with flimsy doors, a bad idea.  When trying to pinch in on the pigs they lost their usual, calm demeanor and started lashing out like 400 lb seven-year-old’s throwing a temper-tantrum.  Today we took a different approach.  Instead of trying to make the pigs do anything, patience was the word of the day.  Backing up the horse trailer just past the inside of their enclosure, we seeded the “hog cart” with watermelon, their favorite, and played the waiting game.  Eventually two of the surprisingly powerful and glutinous animals found a way into the food only to find the gates locking behind them.  I wanted to be able to capture this process from beginning to end on video but we had no camera man on hand and herding pigs did not prove to be an easy task.

We figured, however, that pigs deserve at least the most simple of human respects and gave them their favorite food for a last meal, eggs.

Weekly step update #1

This is the first check-in about my progress on the trail to living a sustainable life.   These are the changes that I have pledged to make so far and this is how well I’ve been keeping with them.

My "green canteen" isn't the only stainless steel container in the house. My aunt and uncle purchased these because before all they were using was plastic bottles and eventually they decided to get away from leaching plastics.

No more plastic bottles:

I have been doing good on this front.  Soon after taking on the challenge I realized that I didn’t buy that many water bottles anyway, my family is a different story.  Ultimately I decided to swear off all plastic bottles in general.  Recently it’s come to my notice that instead of going with plastic when I stop into a 7-11 what my hands end up latching onto is usually a can or glass bottles.  I’m going to have to do a little research to find out if this is actually progress towards reducing my impact on the earth, or if I’d have to give up glass and aluminum to make a real difference.

Watch labels and avoid foods with the chemicals calcium chloride and calcium disodium EDTA.

When I came up with this step I was having severe stomach problems and starting to move towards an sustainably farmed food diet.  Both of these chemicals are known to be associated with stomach problems in high doses and they are both preservatives, like arsenic used to be.

I have started to read labels due to a gluten allergy I recently found out I have, but I have slipped more then a couple of times on eating calcium disodium EDTA and calcium chloride which sneaks into more foods then you’d suspect.  Tonight I ate Calcium disodium EDTA in Italian salad dressing.  I didn’t read the label until after eating.  The horseradish sauce from Arby’s also contains the chemical.

No Coffee from large chain stores:

Calypso Coffee

So far I have been able to accomplish this goal completely.  In the town I’m currently there are no coffee shops, just diners.  In downtown Knoxville I have discovered a few coffee shops that are locally owned and on the farm everything we drink is made from grounds bought at Ingles.  I’m stilling sipping down the coffee purchased from Calypso Coffee in Coeur d’Alene Idaho.  It still taste like sweet nectar in comparison to anything I’ve been able to drink since.  To ensure that coffee stays fresh you can put it in the freezer until grinding and when you brew it up, it will be almost as good as it was when you left the shop.

Planting a garden:

A radish eye's view of the garden.

I’m still in the process of starting my garden but proactive steps are being taken.  The garden I planted earlier this year is being managed by my mom back in Oregon until I get back.  Out here the lettuce and arugula aren’t making but radishes and spinach have survived the scorching sun and are living well.  Today we purchased a flat of peppers from the feed store in town for $1.  These are all healthy plants.  When we went in to buy feed, the owner said we could get em for half off.  Shortly after that he changed his mind, and said we could take the whole bunch for a buck, he wanted to get rid of them. This is another reason why I like to shop at locally owned businesses.  If someone made this type of deal for us at Lowe’s or Home Depot they would be fired, but locally owned shops give you a personal experience with the owners and often this deal works out in everyone’s favors.

New step towards sustainability for the week: Learn to can food.

I’m actually really excited about this step.  Canning my own food has been something I’ve wanted to do for some time now and I’m finally at a place where it’s possible.  After shopping around a bit I was able to find out where to get the cheapest canning supplies in town.  In my quest for finding the cheapest canning supplies I searched the nearby Farmers CO-OP, K-Mart, a local hardware store and Ingles.  Between all the shops prices ranged from $8.49 to 9.99 for pints and $8.99-10.99.  The ultimate winner in the battle of the prices was Ingles with Pints at $8.49 and quarts at $8.99.

My aunt started canning last year and this year I have already made a few attempts but none have been what I would call completely successful.  What I’ve learned is that canning is a safe business when precautions are taken.  If corners are cut too short though consequences can be deadly.

Our recent forray into the world of canning involved packing 14 quarts of pickles. Unfortunately all the lids didn't seal, so we're going to be eating a lot of pickles this week.

Canning becomes a sustainable concept because durring in many areas the options of local food drops off.  If buying food locally and seasonally, canning can extend the time your eating home grown green beans from a couple months to year-round.  Not only is canning a good choice to keep healthy, local food around but after you get past the start-up costs canning is as expensive as buy jar lids.

Storing food isn’t only for the individual looking to spend hours in the kitchen, however.

One simple way to keep cucumbers fresh for a long time is to wait until a jar of pickles runs out but keep this juice and container.  If you add a new batch of cucumbers to the brine and leave the mix in the fridge after about a week you’ll find another batch of crisp fresh pickles just waiting to be consumed.

Digging In: Cultivating for a small garden.

Not everyone has access to a tractor but as far as cultivating goes there probably aren't too many quicker or more efficient options.

It’s been hot lately which means the soil has been dry and easy to work, a blessing when it comes to tearing up a plot to grow a garden in.  In my experience cultivating, it is almost impossible to start upturning the earth when your working in a sticky sludgy ooze. So for a while I was playing the waiting game to actually start digging in.

Last week sometime I took advantage of the hot spell that we’ve been experiencing ( days of 90 plus) and dug in.  This time around I used a tractor to work the soil with.  I know that the goal of this garden is to show that planting can be done in a small city space and using a tractor is very counterproductive to that goal. But in the past two years I have used three different types of tools for cultivating, a tiller mounted on the back of a tractor, a Rear Tine rototiller, which is about the same size and shape of a lawnmower, and a human powered small garden cultivator.

When I was planting my home garden in Oregon earlier this year I used the small garden cultivator to tear up my 8×8 garden space and then used it again to plant 3 flats of Zinnias, but after the long days of work here in Tennessee the tractor called and I answered.

This is a rear tine rototiller. Automatic rototillers can shred the time it takes to cultivate a garden, however, this super time saver comes at a price.

Like I said though, it’s not an easy task to get a tractor in the city and especially into a community garden plot or apartment garden.  You might find a mob of people chasing you because you tore through there property to get to a spot and the 15 mile per hour max speed of the machine your using probably won’t be able to keep you ahead of the crowd for long.  You may get a few of the rioters with the front end loader but you’ll probably lose the fight ultimately. In the city the best options are rototillers and hand cultivators.

A rototiller is excellent for small to medium sized gardens.  Many are self powered and according to my uncle, the farm owner who has used many varieties of tillers, rototillers do a finer job of tilling than its cousin, the mammoth tractor.  It’d be hard however to till much more than an acre with any type of hand-pushed rototiller or even “self-powered” varieties that still require a lot of pushing and tugging to maintain a good line.

This is the down and dirty, cheap but effective manual cultivator. Running $25 this is perfect for small gardens

Small garden cultivators are perfect for the size of garden I’m working on right now.   If you don’t have room to store a rototiller or if they would cover your gardening area in a couple of pass overs with the one to two foot wide machine then I would definitely suggest using the garden cultivator.  They require elbow grease and aren’t for the lazy, but neither is gardening. A huge advantage to these types of cultivators is their price.  A small garden cultivator will run you around $25-30 dollars depending on where you shop. Even the smallest rototillers start at $200, a large investment for a micro garden.

If you are like me and trying to start a garden on a budget, then it’d be worth searching around for a friend or parent who already happens to have one of these tools around.  If all that you can get is a automatic rototiller then that seems perfect, but none of these options are terrible for borrowing.

Digging In: a crash course in gardening

  1. I chose this spot to dig in because it gets hit by sun at least 8 hours a day and was a former pasture for our chickens. Chicken poop loads soil with nitrogen and acts as a natural fertilizer. I can't gurantee the same for the human equivilent.

Three days ago I broke earth near one of our corn fields to plant a few rows vegetables in what I call the experimental garden.  The point of this garden is to show how little effort and money can be used to make a garden that will at least supplement store bought food.  Generally speaking the bigger the garden, the more food that will be produced and as a result the more money saved from not having to buy carrots and radishes at your local WINCO, or Whole foods, depending on which end of the grocery chain spectrum you come from.  But for many people, especially those who live in the city, a large garden isn’t possible.  For this reason I only made this garden 10 feet by ten feet.

The first major thing I had to do was find a spot to plant in.  From what I’ve been able to gather so far is that gardens are a bit like real estate its all about location, location, location.  You pick the wrong side of the house to plant in and you’ll find yourself with a bunch of dead seeds filling a hole in the ground, mixed with a bit of sweat.

The best places to start growing food depends on what you plant (I admittedly don’t know very much about flowers and won’t really talk about them because it wouldn’t be much more then hot air and empty print). Most vegetables enjoy a lot of sun and will fail to produce much more then disappointment if they don’t get it.  If a spot gets more then six hours of sunlight a day  it is considered Full Sun.   There are some food-plants that survive with less sun and they can thrive in Partial Sun.  A spot is considered Partial Sun if it gets between 4-6 hours of light a day. There are more than these two categories, but for vegetable gardening these are the two that are really important.

This website offers a deeper description of all the different amounts of sunlight that different plants need.

“Sun, Shade or Perhaps Something in Between”

For this project I wanted Full Sun.  I have a limited time to get from planting to harvest and need strong, fast growing plants.

Here’s a good generalized list of what plants need how much light.  This website also has a lot of insight into starting gardens in general.

http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/CoopExt/4DMG/VegFruit/muchsun.htm

I am admittedly breaking some rules in my attempt to get up quick and get out.  I have radishes, spinach, arugula, and two types of lettuce that I’m putting underground.  The lettuce will grow but this late in the season it’s going to come out bitter. However, lettuce grows quick and I have a little under 50 days here in Tennessee before I need to start cutting off heads and pulling up radish for my return trip home.

I would suggest looking up the website to some master gardeners or colleges with agriculture programs in your area to see the best times to grow in your region.  If there isn’t anything near you, or if your too eager ( I fell into this category my first time around.  I just wanted to get something in!), you can always just read the packet and get a good idea of what you can plant and when.

Tomorrow I’ll explain the process that goes into turning your ground over to get something that you can actually plant in.