Saturday, July 10, 2010

Great Farm update

Here's an update on our home-based sustainability activities on the Great Farm.

Later this year a group of new students will come for a day to help out and learn some of what we're depicting here, and we always have lots of existing students over to see what's going on, so these aren't completely private activities. We put them to educational use too.

The subtitle of this collection might be "something for everyone:" photos of farm productivity in some detail.

First are this year's baby chicks, no longer quite so young. These are replacement layers. They're picking the bugs out of the trailer, bugs that came from a dead elm I cut to slow the spread of Dutch elm disease, and to use for firewood. The bugs are not the actual cause of the tree's death, so it doesn't hurt to cut and move the trees around. It's the fungus that weakens the tree bark and lets the bugs in that is the real cause, and that spore is spread on the wind.

The chicks are welcome to the elm bugs. Proper "free range" poultry should be ranging around a farmyard, where their job is to clean up slugs and ticks and eat leaves and waste feed and turn it into eggs for us to eat.

Then there's this year's pork and bacon at age about 10 weeks. I moved the piglets from the little pig sty to the big one, which has an open-air run. These girls have never had so much fun before, with real dirt to root in and all kinds of piggy treats thrown over from the garden. The pigs will get all the waste from the garden from here on out, lots and lots of green stuff, weeds and plants that we're done with. It's very thrifty to keep pigs next to a kitchen garden. They will eat all of that waste happily and turn it into meat for us to eat.

They'll also help prepare the compost we need to raise the veggies. Our garden is exceptionally fertile, thanks to these pigs. You can see a lot of old hay in the picture. This is sheep bedding from lambing season. I cleaned out the old pig sty, which earlier was the lambing pen and full of soiled hay used for bedding, and moved all that bedding into the pig's open air run, where with rain and time it will become compost. We'll make about two tons in total. It won't get used, of course, until after the pigs have given it another going over and mixed in some dung and urine for good measure. Pigs make the best compost out of sheep bedding.

Another part of the farm ecology is sheep eating trees. Most people don't think that sheep will eat trees, but they just need a little help. If you're getting firewood, and leave the branches on the ground temporarily, and can let sheep into the place where you've been cutting, they will thriftily clean up all the leaves. Leaves are very good for sheep feed. The branches are then much easier to handle and can be moved out of the way and piled up tidily. There's a balance to strike with this. You can cut more wood, and eventually you'll get more sheep pasture and open land for farming that way, or you can cut less wood, and keep the land in growing trees for firewood and feed.

Either, way, the sheep get to eat.

We're trying to make a parkland, which is a combination of woodland and grassland. In these pictures, you can see the light newly hitting the ground, previously bare forest floor. Next summer that ground will grow grass and clover. I will make sure of this by sowing it this fall.

Other than satisfying our need for feed for sheep, we like the partly open feel of the parkland, and we're trying to conserve some beautiful elm trees and some heirloom apples. The elms need distance from each other to reduce the threat of the fungus. The apples need to see daylight to grow fruit, and they also need pruned back into health, and so the competing trees must be cut away. I am also leaving some young conifers, the pines, spruces and tamaracks, to make saw logs in ten or fifteen years. They're between twenty and forty feet tall right now. When they're sixty feet tall and a couple feet around, we'll get a local sawyer in with a bandsaw mill, take some of these trees for lumber, and use it to make furniture and repair building. Until they get bigger, they're of no use, not even for firewood, since like most New Englanders we don't burn softwoods. But the sheep do like to use the broad conifer branches for shade, so they can stay until they're lumber size. We'll make sure to plant other trees in their place, most likely fruit trees.

For years to come, we'll have grass, leaves, firewood, lumber, and fruit from our orchard/elm/conifer parkland. Meat, heat, furniture, buildings and food. This particular area was previously Israel Thorndike's orchard, so those apple trees have some historical significance. I'd particularly like to get the apples back into production and see what they taste like.

I expect back in the day most European peasants and the workers that originally cleared Thorndike's Great Farm knew all these tricks pretty well and practiced them assiduously. Aimee and I are of course both descended from long lineages of peasantry and were in fact trained pretty well in the modern American and English versions of peasant gardening and food preservation as kids.

But this whole farm approach is more advanced stuff we didn't learn from our parents and grandparents. As society industrialized this kind of knowledge was lost. We're learning or relearning as we go. Sometimes we make mistakes.

But for the most part we seem to be extracting food and energy from our small plot fairly efficiently, and using the activities to move it in the direction of further productivity gains.

A hundred or more years ago in my homeland of England, this was a popular poem among English yeomen. Thoroughly Jeffersonian in sentiment, and thus also thoroughly American, it has always resonated deeply for me:


Though the wealthy and great
Live in splendor and state
I envy them not, I declare it
For I grow my own hams
My own ewes, my own lambs
And I shear my own fleece and I wear it

I have lawns, I have bowers
I have fruits, I have flowers
And the lark is my morning alarmer
So all farmers now
Here's Godspeed the plow
Long life and success to the farmer

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