Friday, March 11, 2011

One Small Step for Pinwheel, and Mankind, and the Planet

About 11 years ago, we enrolled 2.3 acres of our approximately 12-acre farm in the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) as a Riparian Buffer Strip. Setting aside some adjacent odd corners that weren't eligible for the program gave us a total of about 2.5 A (20% of the farm!) that is "set aside". We receive a modest annual lease payment for maintaining this land by keeping it free of noxious weeds and cedar trees, and by mostly just leaving it alone. We are not even supposed to walk in the same place all the time, but the deer don't know that, and we tend to follow their trails on the rare occasions we traipse around out there. We do sometimes mow a path along the slope that isn't in the CRP proper.

In aerial views (try Google Earth for 1480 N. 1700 Rd., Lawrence, KS 66044), you see a shaggy-looking diagonal band on the west of the pasture, and along the north. It is 150 feet wide: 50 feet we planted to trees that would look beautiful, while providing food for wildlife, and eventually for us, and 100 feet we planted to native Kansas tallgrass prairie grasses and forbs (wildflowers) that would provide excellent habitat for wild creatures of all kinds, while slowing any run-off (and erosion) from our farm into the Maple Grove Tributary to the west, and the unnamed drainage channel to the north.

This land was eligible for the CRP program because it had been in row crops--corn and soybeans--when we bought it. On a certain sloping area, in a 100' diameter circle, not even weeds would grow, and the corn would get maybe a foot or two tall, producing nothing. The ruts between rows of corn were as deep as the plants were tall. Old-timers tell us that the 1951 flood left a "sand boil" there--like a sinkhole, but filled with pure sand. Indeed, the soil there is nearly pure sand. No wonder nothing grows.

Not even the trees we planted took hold there, but a few species of the tallgrass mix we planted made themselves right at home. Amidst the little prairie of 10' tall Big Bluestem and Indian Grass, there is a circular amphitheatre of Little Bluestem and Sideoats Grama, spanning both the 50' "tree" band and the 100' "grass" band.

In another part of the area seeded to grasses--near the south end, the highest ground--the taller grasses have done well, but thousands of elm trees have sprouted into an impenetrable woods.

On the low north end, many different tree species that we didn't plant have found their way to the farm by wind and birds: ash, sycamore, ornamental pear, mulberry and cottonwood. The pears are lovely in the spring, provide flowers for bees, and produce lots of tiny, inedible fruit that the birds love in late winter.

Our planted trees and shrubs include wild plum, redbud, buffalo currant, burr oak, walnut, and pecan.

Periodically, the Farm Service Agency or Conservation Service folks have come out for an inspection. We always have a nice hike, and they have approved what they saw. Our "management plan", as far as I knew, was "natural succession", which means that instead of trying to keep it the same for ever and ever, we would let nature take its course and "evolve" into whatever the land wanted its ecosystem to be (minus noxious weeds).

This year heralded a change: satellite imaging good enough that they could sit in the office and "walk around" the farm. I received a satellite photo in the mail with angry red circles: trees in the area that was supposed to be grass.

But I thought we were doing "natural succession"????

"No, you are not, not in the grassland, only in the tree band," I was told. After all these years, cutting down about an acre of trees would take longer than the April 15 deadline "or we will demand a refund of all payments plus penalties and interest"...even if I didn't have sheep shearing, lambing, spring planting, plumbing, policy work, and a full-time off-farm job.

They grudgingly offered that maybe they could change the management plan, if the board approved the change.

After a week on pins and needles, I found out today that they approved the change! The trees can live!

This is great news for me, just in terms of not having to do the work of cutting them down to avoid a payback I couldn't afford. But it's really much bigger than that.

Compared with the original corn/soybeans, or even with the tallgrass, those trees have sequestered a LOT of carbon...meaning that they have taken it out of the atmosphere and stored it in their trunks and roots. CO2 (carbon dioxide) is the "greenhouse gas" that is causing global climate change. Our atmosphere currently has about 388 parts per million (ppm) CO2. Scientists have said for decades, and continue to affirm, that this is TOO MUCH CO2 for life as we know it to continue. We need to get the CO2 level down...down to 350 ppm or below. We need to do this as soon as possible. (for more information see

But how? Well, all the yucky stuff about using less energy in our daily lives, of course. And switching to renewable energy...but not just any renewable. Burning anything releases CO2 into the atmosphere, so though it conserves fossil fuels, burning firewood to heat our homes and ethanol or bio-diesel to run our cars isn't going to solve the problem. Solar and wind--and ironically, nuclear--are good energy alternatives, as well as hydroelectric and geothermal where they can be effectively used.

There's a happier, really green side of getting the CO2 levels down, too: trees. We all need to plant lots and lots of trees, and preserve the older trees we have! Trees to reforest lands slashed and burned to produce lumber and increase conventional cropland. Trees to fill vacant lots and odd corners of land, like the slope along the west edge of my land. Trees around our houses and along our streets.

Trees do so much more than just capture CO2! The CRP trees have nearly obscured most of the lights and much of the noise from commercial and industrial areas nearby, as well as the highways. Lumber is one way of sequestering carbon...using trees without burning them to release their carbon back to the atmosphere. Trees can also reduce energy needs by cooling our houses and slowing wild winter winds. And they can provide food for us and the rest of creation.

I don't know whether the FSA board took all this into account when they decided to let my CRP keep its trees. But these are many of the happy outcomes of their decision. Long live the trees! So that if we're lucky, long live us!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Drowsy Winter, Beginning Spring

Winter turns me more nocturnal than usual, and this winter especially since I've put so many late nights in working on the house project. Nary an end in sight there, though much progress has been made...I've resigned to not being "done" before the farming season starts, and continuing to plug along at it while doing all the usual farm stuff as well.

No idea how that will "work". It's not like I have enough time as it is, without lambs and planting and harvesting and Farmer's Market...but I trust that I will figure it out as I go along.

Today, though, I've realized that I'm beginning to feel "spring", and that means more energy, more interest in poking around in the dirt, more enthusiasm for getting out there and doing stuff. A dim remembrance grows in the back of my brain...oh, that's why I've been so ineffective and slow at getting stuff done this winter. I've been in the cold-induced stupor of the goldfish at the bottom of the stock tanks: alive, and essentially thriving, but in suspended animation.

So, in a few minutes this morning before work, I pulled enough weeds in the high tunnel to direct seed some broccoli and cauliflower transplants, and weeded out a few of the many volunteer Upland Cress and arugula plants. Pesto, anyone? The garlic and regular chives are sprouting, ditto the chard. Lots of Ruby Streaks mustard greens, too.

Chard is amazing! The plants in the high tunnel are now 1 1/2 years old...we harvested for 2 seasons last year, and looks like at least one more season this year. Who knows how long they'll keep going? And all this with no irrigation, inside the high tunnel! There are some new plants, too, germinated by the 1/2 inch of rain last fall when we took the high tunnel cover off for a week.

Outside, there is kale and mustard and other greens under row covers. The sorrel is sprouting up, and there are fresh green leaves hugging the ground under the dead branches of lemon balm.

As I wander, investigating, taking a census of the survivors, I nibble little bits of this and that. The leaves are thick and dense and bursting with flavor, nothing at all like the vegetables in their usual main-season form. I suspect the tiny handful I browsed today had more nutrients than a couple bags of grocery store salad put together. I want to do some research on that, to document that really, even small bits of really intensely healthy plants can make a significant contribution to a balanced diet.

So much to study, experiment, learn and do! Full of ideas this year, as always. Track soil temperatures and learn what the parameters are for various weeds, so I can better use them as indicators. Effects of rain and high tunnel on soil temperatures. How to make the high tunnel cover easier to take off and put on (alone). How to capture and re-direct and store the rainwater that runs off the barn and high tunnel so I can grow more in the high tunnel without
irrigating. How to replicate and manage the micro-climate effect of the barrels of water at the back of the high tunnel.

I visited Mom and Dad in Manhattan, KS, recently: like looking in a mirror! They are dreaming and plotting and planning as well, along the lines of integrated tilapia/vegetable production in their high tunnel. So many possibilities!