Friday, April 29, 2011


We've had a very wet spring so far this year. It has rained every day but one since April 17th, and the last few nights have been torrential in their output. The night before last night took the cake though. The legacy of flooding rain is writ large up and down our stream, from the falls all the way down to the big culvert just below our property line where Talbot creek crosses under Talbot road.

The farm was logged selectively in 2008 by men with big powerful machines who operated in a hurry without regard for the state of affairs when they left. In the gorge on the way back to the waterfall they dropped several large hemlock tops into the waterway. Last year our neighbor Don counseled me to go cut out the biggest and baddest of the lot in case of floods. He said he'd seen some doozies over the years - the Talbots once lost a combine to the creek sometime back in the 40's. His concern was about the little bridge that connects our farmyard (the house is on one side of the creek, the barns on the other). If a log jam tucked itself into our bridge we'd have big problems in a hurry. Thankfully the worst didn't happen. The logs and sticks that washed out of our woods cleared our bridge and lodged themselves downstream at the aforementioned (and shown) culvert.

The log in the middle of the frame has a large hewn notch in its side and came from our woods almost a mile upstream of this spot. One can just see the notch buried in small branches 6 or 8 feet back along the trunk. I know because I chopped that notch a few days ago when we cleared a trail through the logging slash to make the falls more accessible to small children or older folk who don't want to slog through mud. That notched log lay across the stream and I cut the notch to create a step. Now I know I should have saved myself the trouble.

More depressing, for it is irreplaceable, is the soil we lost in this event. Here you can see right outside our kitchen window the stream tore under day-lilies, exposing their roots.

Here we lost a swath of hayfield 4 or 5 feet wide the entire depth of the stream bed along a stretch 75 feet in length.

Those are two bad spots, but I've already noted a few others with missing/altered stream banks. So what is the cause? Clearly the rain in such sudden quantities can be implicated. The loggers who left trees in the stream contributed, since the wood jams scraping down the stream, catching and releasing, damages the banks as they flow. The previous generations of farmers who ran cows on the stream helped to channelize its course, making it flow faster. Unable to flood laterally, the only option left for the water is to accelerate, and the faster the flow the greater its erosive power. And stepping even farther back I suspect that the extirpation of the American Beaver from the woodlands of the east during the colonial and early American eras also played a role in carving the little gouge our stream now courses down. If you're curious about the incredible alteration in the hydrological cycle the North American/European fur trade caused, the book Water, by Alice Atwater, dwells on the topic for a few chapters. She opened my eyes to just how different our watersheds looked four or five hundred years ago when there were multiple small earthen dams on almost all small streams and most larger streams too.

This is just one small narrative thread that has come to my mind recently. I've been mentally stuck on the idea of causation and legacy for a few weeks now, perhaps because of all the baling twine, barbed wire, and partially rotten lumber I've been pulling out of compost piles, fields, pastures, and tree lines. I guess becoming a father recently has also put my mind to that particular track since I've found myself wanting to leave my child (children someday?) access to a world better than the one I now inhabit. I love it here, and I have a vision for the long term that is even brighter and more beautiful than the state of the farm right now. I don't think I'll live long enough to see everything I can dream up come to be, but it'll be a fun time heading that direction and with a little luck, a sense of humor, and some work I plan to leave future inhabitants of the farm a legacy to be thankful for, not one to be depressed or saddened by. Since I'm closing on a hopeful note I'll part with an image of a section of stream that proved itself resilient under the onslaught. Here there are willows rooted near the waterline low on the bank. Everywhere scrubby growth like this is established held together well during the flood and barely eroded. We now have plans to propagate willows like these up and down our stream.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hen Miscellany

I call him Buster. He is the sole remaining rooster for our flock, and I love his fluffy thighs. He has never threatened us with violence. We appreciate that and bless his life in return. He may also be the progenitor of birds unknown, but this is yet to be seen.

I heard from Edmund that if you want uniform fertilization for your eggs, you need to keep one rooster for every 10 hens. We have 22 hens right now, more than double what is advised. This would not be an issue if our hens were entirely disinterested in their own production.

But this is not the case. This hen went broody at the tail end of March. I went into the egg mobile one day and noticed that her head was unusually low, like you see it here. The Dark Cornish hens are very sleek when on their feet. Their feathers lie close to their bodies, making them look more like dinosaurs than the typical plump backyard hen. The day I noticed something was different, she had fluffed her plumage to fill the entire space of the nesting box.

A hen hatching out a bunch of adorable mutt-chicks sounds lovely to me (and sustainable, for that matter). But what doesn't sound as precious is the idea of her heating a bunch of unfertilized eggs for three weeks (or more) and then cleaning up a filthy mess while she, now disenfranchised, protests. There is just no way to know until one or the other happens. Oh well. We'll see.

So aside from going broody, the hens have taken to laying in unconventional places. Mostly they lay here in the hay.

While collecting these eggs, I heard a hen squawking from above the housing for the well in the red barn. I took out the ladder and found 9 eggs proceeding down the crevice by the wall.

I used them in a quiche with the only other thing we are producing on the farm right now - dandelion greens. It was wonderful. If you are reading this, and are in a climate similar to our own, now is the time! Bring in your dandelion greens before they become bitter!

So, beyond laying in unknown locations, or refusing me access, one hen surpassed the rest and forewent the shell entirely, laying an egg cloaked only in a membrane.

I didn't make anything with that. But I should have, because aside from being particularly naked, it looked perfectly good... when I got rid of it.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

It's Happening!

A few weeks ago Stephen Colbert had a series of shows where he spent time building up to the sale of his portrait. Each bit about the art auction included Colbert saying "it's happening!" in an enthusiastically earnest yet slightly self-mocking manner. During the episode of the auction he used the line several times, and we were greatly amused by it. In fact, I was amused enough to say it myself more than once about almost anything going on here at Cairncrest farm.

The current recipient of the "happening" phrase has been the garden. The garlic has emerged and I can see asparagus tips roughly flush with the soil surface. Normandy's brother Preston, Garth, and I spent hours in the garden the last two days plucking rocks and prepping beds for planting. Onions will be going in very soon, and depending on soil temperatures other crops will follow shortly.

There are many, many ways to layout a garden and grow vegetables. A little bit more detail about our gardening style may be of interest, so I'll try to summarize it as best I can. We dig 4x25 foot beds and then leave a 1 foot wide path before starting the next bed. This shape allows for easy harvesting of the whole grow area without having to step into the bed itself. The length makes for ready access to the middle of the beds without annoyingly long detours down, around, and back up the other side. We also left a few extra wide paths for cart, tractor, wheelbarrow, harvest, and tool staging. The wide paths are woodchipped for weed control. We tried chipping the narrow paths last year, but it was not ideal. Too many chips ended up in the beds and they made weeding the paths much more difficult since I weed them with a razor sharp grape hoe. The hoe hung up on the chips too much. Where I didn't get to spreading chips I found it much easier and faster to drag the tool. So this year I raked the chips back off the narrow paths.

I feel really lucky about the garden site we picked. We chose it out of location more than anything - it was a flatish area with slight southern exposure close to the buildings that receives full sun. It's on a small knoll so when we're working we have good visibility of approaching deliveries or the arrival of friends. The part I feel luckiest about is the soil. When we picked the site we knew the soil would have the final say as whether it would actually turn into a garden. Too much clay is quite a tough nut to crack in a vegetable garden but we don't have too much clay by any means. Testament to this fact is that we've already spent days in the garden digging while there are still patches of snow melting away around here. The ground is very wet, but the soil is still loose. When we had our soil tested this year the cation exchange capacity in the garden read 8.22 meq (this is quite low). Generally clay raises the exchange capacity, sand lowers it. With how low that number is we will most likely add clay over the years. Since it is a limited area I plan to go with the best - montmorillionite (bentonite). Exchange capacity can be thought of as a battery. The charges all need to be in balance to grow healthy plants. By increasing the exchange capacity one makes the battery itself bigger. But making that amendment is not urgent, much less imperative than fertilizer and compost. There's a lot more to tell, but it will have to wait. I'll end with a little plug -

Our gardening bible is Gardening When It Counts by Steve Solomon. He has formulas for COF (complete organic fertilizer), compost guidelines, and planting tips throughout. He gives advice for fertilizing and plant spacing dependent on budget and material availability. In his writing he comes across as a curmudgeonly grandad who wants things done right, and who really wants to see his readers to succeed. We were extremely pleased with the fruit of our labors using his methods last year, and this year looks to be even better since we now have a jump on things as opposed to a bunch of sod. If you have any aspirations to grow some of your own food I cannot recommend a better book. For the energy constrained future barreling our way, this book is "happening".