Tuesday, February 23, 2010

New Fave

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robinia_pseudoacacia describes a new favorite tree. Well, it's been a favorite for a long time, at a distance, when it blooms in the spring, but I'd never learned to know it up close.

Out of the depths of the woodshed, which housemate DK had stacked late last winter from the huge mixed piles our arborist friend accumulated over at the woodlot, came a supply of wonderful wood to see us through this especially cold winter.

With housemate DK, at first, and then WWOOFer KK more recently, doing most of the woodstove "work", I didn't really pay much attention to what was going into the woodbox, just what was coming out of the stove: HEAT.

But with DK having moved on to new digs in town, I get more opportunities to poke at the fire, and I started noticing this wood in the wood box. Deep furrowed, solid bark over yellowish-grayish, dense heartwood, it reminded me a bit of hedge. Certainly it was nearly that heavy in weight. And in the woodstove, it behaved like hedge: catapulting showers of sparks like the 4th of July out the door as I pushed the coals around. Not quite as intense in the pyrotechnic department as hedge, but definitely enough to get your attention. Another thing I noticed was the particularly pleasant smell of the woodsmoke from it.

It was certainly not nice, quiet, dependable, bland oak. And it was a trifle too lightweight, and too pale a color, for hedge. The tree had been reasonably good sized, not some odd little foreign ornamental cut out of yard.

I finally got a chance to ask the arborist the other day. Turns out it's Black Locust, the same tree whose fragrant, white trusses of flowers enchant me in early summer in certain groves along my bus route.

A real dilemma: I would love to grow it here at the farm for firewood, especially because it grows back quickly from the stumps in a sustainable production method called "coppicing". But apparently it's toxic to livestock, and invasive in some situations.

But no thorns. Fixes nitrogen. Fragrant, showy flowers. And fabulous wood that grows quickly. Worth thinking about.

The Planning Season

Nope--not a typo. Planning, not planting.

Winter is the season for planning, here at the farm. The whole coming season stretches out before us with the calm expansiveness of the snowblanket outside the window. Anything is possible. A time for dreaming.

This year I'm dreaming big and long, trying to dream enough for a lifetime or two.

Today I let a big chunk of the winter's worth of planning go free, to fly as it will, buffeted by the whims of politics and rumor and economics. Like Luna chasing sticks on the snow, under the stars on a crystal clear COLD night, I have little control. My dreams will come back, but not necessarily at my beck and call.

OK, enough riddles and metaphors. This afternoon at 4:00 I handed my Conditional Use Permit submittal materials to my friendly Planner at the Lawrence/Douglas County Planning and Zoning Department. We've been working on this for about 2 months now, more intensely as the deadline drew near.

I'm sure I could have picked over it and tried to make it perfect for next month's submittal day, but why bother? The public comment period, when neighbors and other interested parties can pick it to pieces, will quickly dispell any notions I have about perfection!

In about 3 months, we'll know the results. Hopefully the staff will understand and support it, the Planning Commission will agree with the staff's recommendations, and the County Commission will approve it substantially as it is, with a few additions along the way as we think of things we forgot in the haste to meet the February deadline, and maybe some tweaks to accommodate the neighbors' opinions.

So what's it all about? Essentially, a Conditional Use Permit is a temporary "rezoning" that allows activities that are not permitted under the existing zoning for the land. There are some surprising things that are not "permitted" on land zoned for agriculture, and there are some funny regulations that have sprung up as city regulators tried to exercise a little prudent control over activities in the county, at the edge of the city. So, legally I cannot camp on my own land...if you aren't a friend or a relative you can't go birdwatching here...and I can't have more than one animal per acre, whether it's a bison or a chicken.

Enough is enough. I need to focus my energy on farming, not continually defending my right to farm, continually explaining to folks that yes, my land IS "developed" from fence to fence, even if it doesn't look like anything but a rather scruffy open field on Google Earth.

Today's submittal asks for permission to allow a very limited number of folks to camp at the farm while they are working here. It outlines all the activities the farm plans to do in the foreseeable future, so that they can be "grandfathered" activities if the regulations become even more restrictive. So that we can invest in our future with the assurance that we will not be breaking the law by holding an open house for sheep shearing (Mar. 20, 10:00).

What's our "foreseeable future"? Most CUPs are written for a duration of 10 years, with a review after a few years to be sure the conditions are being met. That sounds like a long time to many businesses, but for a farm? Goodness, I feel like I'm just getting started after 13 or 14 years! I talk a lot about how my grandmother turned 100 last fall, and I'm just barely over 50, so I need to plan for the next 50 years. So initially I was going to boldly ask for a 50 year CUP.

This morning, an email came through from the Grower's list, which spans both Kansas and Missouri: a request for information about farms that might be celebrating their 100th year of ownership by the same family in 2010. Seems there are already some 7000 (seven THOUSAND) "Century Farms" in Missouri already! I know there are many in Kansas, as well...I know people who run them.

So, why not? Dare to dream the real dream that I've been dreaming all my life. Dare to think that this farm could BE a Century Farm someday!

The CUP asks for a term of 100 years.

I can't do it alone. I don't WANT to be around for it's 100th birthday.

But I will die happy knowing that the land will have the right to be a farm for that long. Hopefully a wonderful, adventurous, happy 50 years from now.

After finishing a big project like this, there's often a period of wandering, drifting, a bit of sadness, a lost feeling. But I don't have time for that this year. I'm leaping out of the frying pan into the fire of another big project: More planning, this time for PLANTING season.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Eating in Season

One of my long-term "practices" (in both habitual and zen/spiritual sense) has been to try to focus my daily diet on things that at least COULD be grown at Pinwheel Farm, and that COULD be reasonably available at the season in which I'm eating them. This is a big step towards eating locally, eating homegrown, etc... but a bit more managable when I'm so busy. Even though I'm still shopping at Dillon's, I'm at least training my taste buds to more local habits.

With the full-time job and so many other important pursuits, I have to admit that my diet has degenerated to new lows in the past year. I eat what comes prepackaged from the grocery store or from Burger King. How embarrassing for someone who produces such amazing vegetables and meat!

So it's been a real treat, and balm to my soul, to come home each night to a dinner plate prepared by WWOOFer KK. The last two nights have been especially local/seasonal.

Last night, it was spring rolls. Homemade whole wheat wrappers (definitely localable/seasonal) filled with Jerusalem Artichokes (harvested on the farm last week), onions (localable/seasonal; could have substituted green onions from the high tunnel) and PWF's Mutton and Pork Summer Sausage. YUM! I could have scarfed all 3 down last night but savored two then and saved the third for my lunch on the bus today.

Tonight was even more local/seasonal. Barbecued walnuts and apricots with acorns.... WHAT???? Well, it's a food chain, right? KK asked one of the "tree rats" that has been decimating our favorite tree crops for years to star in tonight's main dish, and then didn't give it the option of saying "no, thanks". Actually, if we do get a crop of apricots and walnuts this year thanks to her skill with a .22, I may experiment with developing an apricot/walnut barbeque sauce to serve with next winter's squirrel dinners.

A salad from the high tunnel--baby chard, shepherd's purse, chick weed, green onions, carrots, and salad turnips--complemented the squirrel nicely, dressed with a celeryseed dressing sweetened with PWF honey. Biscuits (localable) balanced the plate and filled in the empty corners.

Someone on the bus was grousing gently today that their doctor had told them to try to eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. It just seemed like a lot of stuff to them. But as I crunched and chewed through my small but incredibly colorful salad, I got to thinking that it probably has several times as many vitamins and minerals as a similar sized salad from a restaurant or grocery store. The leaves are dense, not watery, and deeply colored, not pale. The plants have especially deep roots because they've grown slowly over the winter...bringing up minerals from deep in the soil. They haven't been force fed water to bulk them up.

That leg of squirrel, small as it was, probably was more nutritious than any store-bought meat. It was raised on the fruit (grrrrrr) of trees rooted deep in healthy soil, drawing clean water up through their roots. It certainly bore no resemblence to bland, pale store-bought chicken.

The cost of such a meal is hard to calculate, though. Do we include the bushels of fruit stolen by squirrels over the years? If so, it was a very pricy affair. If not, it hardly cost a thing.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Real Hoot

I was diligently studying some documents related to my on-going farm development plans on the computer, when I was startled by the haunting, deep call of a Great Horned Owl. It sounded like it was right at the table with me, it was so close.

I lept up, slid across the vinyl kitchen floor to the entryway in my sock feet, and quickly donned full winter gear. The temperature has dropped from 32 degrees last night to a mere 5 degrees tonight. Brrrrr! But the clouds from the drizzle and sleet and snow of the day were swept away by the vicious cold wind earlier this evening, and now it is clear and bright. The stars twinkle as they do only when it is so, so cold.

I went out the back door, and the owl called again from the direction of our wonderful huge silver maple. I answered, feeling very rusty indeed at this foreign language. It has been a long time since I've had a conversation with an owl of any species, and Great Horned is not my best dialect. I'm better (in my human opinion) at Screech (a haunting, breathy whistle descending in shivers down your spine) and Barred ("Who cooks for you? Who cooks for YOU all?").

But it answered back after a few minutes, anyway. I haven't lost this voice, entirely.

We carried on for awhile. When it didn't seem to be inclined to move towards me, I walked further out towards the barn, thinking more distance might lure it to fly closer. But it remained in its invisible spot in the branches of the magnificent tree. Eventually I decided to walk towards the voice, and try to see exactly where it was perched.

We kept exchanging phrases, and I slowly moved towards the sound. No sneaking up on anything: The frozen snow crunched loudly under my feet. It took awhile, but I finally found it: straight above my head on the highest branch, as I stood under the spreading branches.

After a few more hoots, it flew off to the trees on the west side of the garden. I searched out the deaf dog, and we went back into the house, deeply satisfied.

If you have had this experience, my words will conjure up the very smell of the cold air and the glittering stars. If you haven't, and pictures would help, go to the children's section at the library and find the book Owl Moon, and you will have a better idea of the experience.

It is something a camera cannot capture.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Very Blue

A new WWOOFer arrived last weekend, and one day we took a hike out through the pasture to the wilderness area to show her the lay of the land.
At the northeast pasture gate, I stopped short. An unfamiliar bird had caught my eye, hopping around in the big elm tree nearby. What WAS it? The breast looked pale orange, but the back was too pale for a robin, and it was much too small.

"WOW" said KK. "It's REALLY blue!"

Well, yes, it was sort of a blueish gray. But she's an Easterner, not used to our Kansas wildlife. I looked at her, about to explain what BLUE really is. Silly me! I realized that she was looking at a different bird!

On a fence post near the elm, sat the male bluebird in irridescent hue. And in the elm hopped his mate, a pastel version. Hopefully they are scouting out the bluebird boxes that we finally got put up last year.

Your good fortune is that I happened to have the camera with the zoom feature in my pocket!
The tree, by the way, is one that has grown from a wind-blown seed just in the past 12 years or less.

Woodshed Resident

We went out to the woodshed a few days ago to haul some wood to the front porch rack. I like to keep it nice and full...then when a cold or a cold day sneaks up on us, we don't have to venture out too far to keep the house warm.

I noticed a few elm twigs on top of the wood piled in one end of the shed. Didn't think much of it until I started taking some of the wood out. Each piece I took off, I found more "evidence" of a guest, probably a hispid cotton rat (commonly known as a "pack rat"). We've found them on the farm before, but don't see their nests as distinctly as I used to find them out in the Flint Hills. Typical pack rat nests are several feet in diameter and about as tall, dense piles of sticks forming an elaborate hut over their stashes of food and trinkets. In a nest on a farmstead where there were children, I found a toy soldier, buttons, marbles, bottle caps...pretty much what you'd find in an 8-year-old boy's pockets.
This critter has put together a pretty good stash for the winter, using our handy pre-fab stick pile (a cord of mixed hardwood for the woodstove). There was lots of bright green, crispy leaf "hay" (American elm, as near as I could tell), and a pile of twigs that had been stripped of their bark. Then we looked up and realized that the critter had also been dining al fresco on the roof-top...chewing the bark off of a thankfully unwanted elm behind the shed.

A pile of poop solidified my suspicions as to the creature's identity, though since I don't know what woodchuck poop looks like, I have retain a shadow of a doubt. I DID once see a woodchuck sitting on the roof of the woodshed, chewing on a branch. But then the squirrels do the same. Popular dining spot. I've also seen a hawk perched there....Possibly why no one seemed to be home in the woodshed hideaway.
I am quite satisfied to have a packrat in the woodshed. If I am going to be host to packrats, I certainly don't want them in the barn, or under the hood of the truck making a nest among the wires.
When I mention pack rats, many people go, "ew, rats!" thinking of that vicious scaly-tailed vector of bubonic plague and scourge of sailing ships, the Norway rat. But hispid cotton rats are a bit smaller than a pet domestic rat, often a bit fuzzier, a pleasant grayish-tannish in color, with fur on their tails. Not so scary at all.
And obviously pretty clever at setting up house.