Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sustainable Farming in a Warm Winter

This post was written in early winter, 2012, and only now finished.

Good article on an important topic:

Long, sustained cold weather helps kill grasshopper eggs in the soil, as well as other types of insect eggs. But there are many countervailing forces at work; humidity encourages a killing fungus among grasshoppers, so a bumper crop of nymphs in the spring may fizzle in a hot, humid June before doing much damage. Likewise, we could constantly till the soil during a mild winter like this, to expose as many grasshopper eggs as possible to the killing cold of a sharp winter night, even if the days are mild. But that would dry out the soil, and expose it to erosion by the wind, and disturb the beneficial creatures sleeping beneath the surface, like the salamander we found a couple years ago and didn't kill because we weren't using a power tiller.

My choice to avoid even "certified organic" tampering with "God and Mother Nature" is based on the premise that if we grow a wide variety of stuff, some things will do well in any given year, even if some fail. I believe that true "sustainability" is found not in heroic measures to save a particular planting of a particular crop, but rather to use the least possible effort/inputs to raise the most we can of something, anything, everything. With the diversity of livestock and veggies, sheep eat weeds (if that's all we grow) and chickens eat grasshoppers (more profit there), so even total crop failure produces something.

"Least effort" means avoiding many conventional and organic practices: irrigation (unless we need wet soil to harvest carrots, for example), raised beds, double digging, biodynamic compost, pest control, fancy packaging, etc.--basically, anything that takes extra human or industrial energy. It means putting seeds or plants in the ground so that they grow naturally, and harvesting and marketing with a minimum of cosmetic "fuss" (trimming, bunching, and pre-packaging). We do rinse the dirt off our veggies, because we want to keep our dirt on the farm, and not transmit weed seeds off-farm. We also rinse veggies to remove "field heat" and slow the metabolism so that things store better.

We also tend to be sparing about "forcing the season" for most crops, despite our selective use of row covers and the high tunnel. Forced plants are not healthy, happy plants. Tomatoes planted outside from seed bear nearly as early as those started early in a greenhouse, grown too long in the pot, and set out in soil colder than they like. There is usually little return for extraordinary effort to keep tomato plants from freezing in the fall...the quality of fruit is declining rapidly as the day length shortens, and it's better to just pick all the green fruit and ripen indoors or make green tomato pickles. The plants we cover are ones that like the cold, and the covers keep the tips from frost-biting so that quality is better. We also cover crops for practical handling reasons, like keeping the silver maple and elm seeds and autumn leaves from ending up in your salad without tedious hand-sorting as we harvest.

Doing less work for each crop means we can do more work on other things...and a mild winter also gives us time to catch up on things we usually struggle to squeeze in during the growing season. We are glad for a mild winter this year, for having time to lay down wood chips on muddy paths, to begin clearing and mulching long-fallowed garden beds that will be put back in cultivation this year, to sort and repair tools and generally get ready for the coming season.

There is an emotional level to sustainability, as well as practical--our inner energy, as well as physical energy, should be conserved and used wisely. A great deal of that has to do with reducing occasions for resentment, frustration, disappointment, and anger that we often feel when things don't go well. A key to this is remembering that "expectations are pre-meditated resentments". If we farm with hopes instead of expectations, leaving room for different outcomes than we are hoping for, then it can be easier to accept gracefully that things have not worked out as we foresaw.

Farming IS "a slot machine, not a Coke machine". If we expect that we will get X volume of crop from planting Y volume of seed, we are sure to be stressed. Instead, we plant seeds (mainly for things that have grown well in the past under these circumstances) and offer basic amenities (superior soil, natural rain water, attempts at weed control, a blanketing mulch to moderate extremes), and have faith that something will come of those modest efforts. It usually does. With wonder, we watch new sprouts emerge from the ground. With anticipation, we watch luscious leaves unfurl into succulent salad greens. With gratitude, we reap a harvest that has grown mainly without any effort on our part. The wonder is that it happens season after season, year after year, way more reliable than a slot machine...except for those few rare years that just go wrong. Even then, likely something went right or got done...and next year will be different.

One of the hardest things for beginning farmers is to have faith in this process of trusting that on the whole, things will go right and a crop will result. And to let go of the mostly erroneous notion that if we intervene with every little thing that seems to be going wrong, we will turn the course of things in a significant way. It's easy to overlook the energy--physical and emotional--that can be invested in watering to "save a crop" during a drought season when no water can be enough, compared to the small investment in simply making a second planting, mulched well, so that hopefully one or the other will be at the right stage to produce despite the drought, and perhaps both will bear full fruit after all, doubling the crop.

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