11.5.2015 Patience, Snake Oil and Fools

In the “Gotta Have It Now” world we live in, farming is certainly a round peg that refuses to be shoved into a square hole. When you’re a farmer, the closest thing you get to “having it now” is the daily egg collection or the daily milking. If you’re into sprouts in a big way, you can harvest in only a few days. Radishes take a little more than a month from seed to finish, but most crops take several months and when you move into livestock, the timetable keeps pushing outward.

Farming really schools you in the art of patience.

But there are times when the economics of farming compel the farmer to nudge things a bit. It may be putting chickens under lights to spur winter egg production. It may be artificially inseminating cows to get improvements in the herd and the cows calving on spring grass and not in winter snow. It may be adding a mineral or fertilizer to help that critical cash crop get to maturity.

Since I am still new to farming (only five years into this adventure) and I am fortunate enough to have a husband with a good day job that pays the mortgage, I have been content to let nature teach me at her own pace. When in doubt about a course of action, I generally leave things to nature. If a planting succeeds, then I’ve gotten lucky. If it fails, I want to know why. Failure can be an effective teacher, if you’ve got a sense of humor.

So a couple of weeks ago I attended a three day seminar at Simple Soil Solutions in Gladstone, Virginia. The seminar was devoted to the concept of the Soil Food Web and how to nudge your land into pest and disease free production with compost teas and extracts. Sounds a lot like snake oil, doesn’t it?

Well, here’s how it’s supposed to work. Depending on what you’re trying to grow, you want your soils to have more or less fungal or bacterial activity. The fungi and bacteria feed specific kinds of microbes and other tiny creatures which in turn provide plants with exactly what they need when they need it.  You manage the bacteria and fungi levels with various compost teas and extracts. If you can get your plants into the correct matrix they won’t suffer from disease or pests.  No pesticides, fungicides, herbicides needed.  No crop rotation.  No lime.  No fertilizer (other than compost and compost teas.)   It sounds so simple.  It is what nature does, just quicker.  BUT all the yummy things we like to eat have different soil and microbe preferences.  And that’s where this idea gets more complicated.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard or read about this method. More like the fifth. It’s a beautifully simple theory that mimics the way nature builds soil and feeds plants. It’s also a beautifully simple theory that operates in the totally chaotic system that is nature. In other words, it’s not as easy as it sounds. It requires a little bit of equipment, time and expertise to analyze soil and compost samples and the good sense to really look at plants and soil up close and try to figure out what they are telling you.

I’ve finally collected the equipment I need – a compost tea brewer, assorted sprayers, and a good microscope. I make decent compost too. But interpreting plant and soil speak – well, that’s the tough part. Heck, I’m still learning to identify the plants in my pastures and the weeds in my garden.

During the seminar, I started making a lot of connections between what I was seeing and what was likely going on in my soil.

  • Perennial shrubs are starting to invade my pastures in spots. In the permaculture world this is called succession – the gradual and natural way grasslands become forest. Those shrubs are telling me the pasture is getting a little too fungal. (Virginia really does want to be a forest and forests are very fungal.) This has occurred naturally over the last five years as I’ve been pretty casual about pasture management. I try to keep my grass tall and the horses moving around to keep them from eating the grass down to bare soil. What’s really cool is the soils in the pastures have loosened up considerably, meaning they are much less compacted than they were when we bought the farm in 2010. Five years ago, heavy rains resulted in a lot of surface water moving down off the front field over the driveway and flooding the front yard until it could find its way down to the dry creek bed and off to my neighbor’s pond. Now, heavy rains penetrate deeply and the only water on the driveway during a heavy rain is from the driveway itself. That’s awesome. One of the big things I’ve gotten right.
  • In the garden, where there were so many failures this year, I had one curious success: The Hail Mary Corn -planted after the spring brassicas had been eaten to oblivion by cabbage worms and harlequin bugs. The corn grew quickly and was mostly untouched by corn worms (had a big problem with those last year). Each plant gave me two large ears and two medium sized ears and a fifth ear that never quite developed. Happy corn! The corn’s success also explains the demise of the brassicas. Too much fungal activity; not enough bacteria working in the soil. This also explains the poor results with my squash, cucumbers and garlic.
  • The fungus that destroyed the first crop of plums – well, I’m still thinking about that one. Fruit trees need a fungal dominated soil, but clearly I have the wrong sort of fungus there. I suspect it has something to do with the duck bedding I dump around the fruit trees. It’s mostly spent hay, with a few spots of concentrated duck poo. Probably ought to compost that part. The good news is I made friends with VDOT’s roadside trimmers last week. I handed out a lot of business cards with “woodchips welcome” written on them. They’ve already delivered a load and promised many more. That will help all the trees, but I will still have to do some compost tea applications to get good fungi growing on those trees before the nasty fungi have a chance to take over. Hoping I can pull that off in the spring.
  • Artichokes, asparagus and comfrey are very happy in the orchards. I’m not sure what that indicates other than maybe I ought to take up artichoke and asparagus farming. My husband’s family had an artichoke farm in California that got confiscated during WWII (they were Italian Americans). So maybe karma is trying to fix the wrong the government committed upon his family 70 years ago. Or maybe artichokes grow happily here because I’ve unintentionally created a happy place for artichokes. The ones I have are perennial here with no winter protection, but I grew them from seed and they just aren’t fit for eating.  I’m trying some new varieties from seed.  Cuttings are hard to come by on the east coast.

I would dearly love a couple of weeks to just sit and ruminate on the seminar, reread Teaming with Microbes and the Holistic Orchard, spend some time with the microscope. Maybe then I could bring all the pieces together in the right order and next year might really be amazing. I just don’t have a couple of weeks. My farmer’s market goes year round, so I’m still planting and picking every week. We are also in the process of putting up a second hoop house (Got the side walls, baseboards in today. The 3 purlins are loosely attached and just need proper alignment and tightening. Maybe next weekend we can get to the end walls and the plastic. There’s a lot of drilling holes through steel involved in this build and that’s really slowed us down.) There’s still tons of garlic to plant, blackberries to cull and garden beds to put under cover for the winter. One person just can’t do it all.

But I’m going to try, and while I’m at it, I expect I’ll be dreaming about the magic snake oil that makes all the bugs go away and gets me that fifth ear of corn . . . Farmers – the most patient and optimistic people you’ll ever meet. Or maybe we’re just fools.

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