Thursday, April 28, 2011

At rest

Noon: Rest From Work (After Millet), Vincent Van Gogh
My feeling about rain has changed.  When I worked in an office, waking up to rain in the morning was an added annoyance.  It inevitably meant a wet dash to the subway entrance, a humid ride packed against variously wet bodies, a head-down final push to the office building doors, and then a day spent looking out at the rain against the office window with the remove of an emperor from a far-off hill.

I appreciate the varieties of different rain now; the shades of gray that exist on the spectrum.  I used to just think about it dichotomously: "it's sunny" vs. "it's rainy".  Now there's misting, spitting, sprinkling, pittering, pattering, pouring and down-pouring.  Weather is more of a living thing apt to get up and change and less like the stage of a set.  I guess that is to say, I am more in it now.

Today, rain means rest.  I may pretend disappointment at not being able to get out there and go to work, but truthfully, my body needs the rest.  New aches in various joints and stiff muscles just want to be for a bit.  

Rest means you have a chance to think and this morning I find myself thinking about being at rest.  I was reading an article that called the United States a country of movers, with "about one in seven Americans changing their residence every year".  I know if I look back on my twenties, it was true for me: I thought in one to two year time horizons at the most, lived in seven cities in ten years, and can recall each apartment I lived in but not their addresses.

American's love to move and everything about movement: we love our cars, our highways, moving to new jobs, looking for new homes, looking for new things to buy, voting for new goes on and on and it's always about what's over the next bend in the road being more alluring than what we have in front of us.  I've felt it before in jobs and relationships: if it's not working out, the old itch to just pack it in and take my chances on the unknown road ahead.

Now, it's obvious that many people move because they have no other choice: they are looking for better schools or jobs or more affordable housing or health coverage.  But still, we have somehow built a culture where individual movement is the answer to finding a better life, something akin to, if you don't like my prices, shop elsewhere!

So, the constant churn, the continuous movement of people in and out of places, the general and unforgiving restlessness of life as we we live it today. And how does anything really ever get built or fixed amidst this type of constant movement?  How do we stick around someplace long enough to see it turnaround?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Beyond I

It was an Introduction to Economics class in graduate school and the professor was busy drawing a graph on the blackboard.  He had just finished saying that self-interest drives all individual actions in the market (i.e. the world) and it was from this understanding of what explains human behavior that we understand the world.

The class was quiet as people took notes, scribbling in notebooks or typing away on lab-tops.  No one found this statement questionable.  I tried to imagine what they were writing down -- "self-interest", "human", "understand", "the world".

It was clear that this solely self-centered idea of humanity, of what causes us to move and act in the world, was the heart of the philosophy of economics and capitalism.  It was the hook that the whole system hung on.  If we had at one point lived in a world dominated by principles of serving others, economics taught us to serve ourselves first (which might end up serving others in the long run).

It is a bleak, cynical view of humanity that doesn't stand up to many of the things I have seen people do in the world around me.  It is not a social philosophy I want to have to live inside (but mostly don't have an option).  I asked the professor how this economic viewpoint would explain acts of charity or good-will; people working at a soup kitchen, volunteering to clean up a park, recycling, buying local, offering their employees health care even though it reduces their own profits, or stopping to help push a stranded car out of the mud.

The professor was clearly ready for this question (he has gone on to become president of the American Enterprise Institute, a leading conservative think-tank).  He related the story of one of London's richest men in the nineteenth century walking down the street surrounded by scabby orphans clamoring for money; the tycoon, a giant of industry and faithful believer that every man must "lift himself up by his own boot-straps", threw the boys some coins from his pocket. 

Why would that person do that?, the professor asked the classroom.  Because, as Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he cares about other people's happiness "though he derives nothing from it accept the pleasure of seeing it".  In other words, even if we do something in the world for other people...we still are really only doing it for ourselves.

I woke up thinking about that class this foggy morning after completing our second "work-ation" weekend.  Over thirty people sacrificed a weekend to come up to our farm and help us put up deer fence, drill mushroom holes in logs, and dig stones out of the earth.  Three neighbors lent us wheelbarrows and tools, volunteered to work, or cooked lunch on Saturday to feed a full table of strangers. 

The real beauty of starting this farm has been that it is a direct assault against this tired, worn-out view of a solely self-motivated, self-interested world of economic people.  We see living examples of the largeness of people in big and small ways every day. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Work-ation Weekend #2

Thank you again to our brave clan! We had a few repeat work-ationers and a crop of not-yet-aching bodies up for another weekend of farm work, food and singing by the fire. And although Mother Nature did not cooperate (yes, again), we just slipped on our galoshes and rain slickers and got dirty:

- Another double run to the Dam-Well-Done for organic muck: After one near-disaster of a trailer overboard, we've got a mountain of some fine soil to add to our beds.
- Another round of double-digging: This time we worked on our perennial beds. The team of hard workers prepped seven artichoke bush spots, an asparagus bed and some rhubarb holes. Oh, and they hauled a load of rocks and boulders out through sheer strength and team work.
- A full-day of mushrooming: In the morning rain we plugged 1,000 shiitake plugs, and then when the sky cleared up after lunch, we plugged another 1,000 lion's mane plugs.The silence of no drills around 4pm was a special one.

We hauled the 20 plugged mushroom logs up to their new home in the pine forest, joined by the digging team, an outdoor fire and some ice cold beverages to celebrate a hard day's work. It felt good to bond over food and drink again.

So the positive, generous energy that started over a week ago continued through the rainy weekend. And it seems as though it will continue. Who doesn't love a full belly and a little bit of muscle ache the next day?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Soil diagnosis

The health of one's soil determines the health of one's plants.

Our farm plan contains an extensive review of how to improve soil health. The soil's pH, macro- and micronutrient contents, and cation exchange capacity, among others, are critical indicators of the land's ability to nourish vegetation. We've been adding organic material - such as horse manure, compost, humus and decaying leaves - to our hard, rocky soil. But these efforts have all been temporary as we waited for the results of our soil test...

... And finally! They've arrived.

First, the bad news:
(1) As expected in the Hudson Highlands, our soil is strongly acidic (pH=4.95; ideal range is 6.2-6.8). This means we should be adding an organic material (i.e., lime) to raise the pH. Avoiding a complex chemistry lesson, a higher pH will allow plants to access important nutrients (e.g., nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) in the soil that are otherwise locked up in the soil particles at low pHs. We should be adding approximately 7 pounds of lime per 100 sq. ft. to raise our pH to an appropriate level.
(2) Our cation exchange capacity (CEC) and basic cation saturation (BCS) are both low. Simply, these indicators tell us how quickly our soil will be amended once we begin to add lime and other fertilizers. A higher CEC and BCS means that any fertilizers or other amendments we add to our soil are more likely to get the job done.
(3) We've got below optimum levels of two important macronutrients (i.e., magnesium and calcium), which can be remedied by applying lime and the egg shells we received from our local bakery.

Now, some good news:
(1) We have optimum levels of the two other important macronutrients (i.e., phosphorus and potassium). We also have relatively adequate levels of micronutrients (e.g., zinc, copper, manganese and iron). Once the pH is increased, these nutrients will be accessible in our soil and will help our plants grow.
(2) And... what will surely be a surprise to any of you who have dug into our soil... we have Sandy Loam! Loam is a soil that has 40-40-20 proportions of sand-silt-clay. Loam is a good thing because it is relatively well-balanced. We almost fell out of our chairs when we read this, because we assumed our soil was pure clay. And to top this good news off, we also have very high organic matter content (3.5%) for sandy loam.

There are lots of other factors that go into diagnosing and helping your soil. We are taking very seriously the health of our soil - and also the health of our environment as a result of fertilizing and amending it. That's why we will use only organic soil amendments and we won't use more than the levels recommended by our county extension office. Inorganic or excess organic fertilizers can be detrimental to our environment when they runoff and pollute our water and land. Some states (e.g., New Jersey) have implemented laws to monitor and manage fertilizer runoff. Farmers and households can all do their part by getting their soil tested annually and applying only the recommended amount of organic fertilizer to their soil.

Now... to get to work. We've got to till some lime into our topsoil.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Work-ation Weekend #1

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!... our solid clan of friends, family and neighbors for braving the cold, damp, eventually rainy spring Saturday and helping us out on the farm. With your help, we injected 1000 plug spawn of pearl oyster mushrooms into heavy hardwood logs, strung up nearly 1000 feet of deer fencing around our field, double dug almost 400 sq. ft. of future vegetable beds, hauled 2 heavy trailer loads of black gold and fed 21 hungry bodies. It was amazing to see everyone working hard, enjoying each others company, making group decisions and eating three square meals together.

Longhaul Farm is a project that will take several years to complete. All of the activities we engage with are meant to last, to be permanent in our ecosystem. We are so excited to eat mushrooms next spring and remember all the drilling, whacking and waxing; to look at our deer fence in 8 years and remember the folks who put it up; and to watch the success of our vegetables in our now un-compacted soil with rich organic additions. It takes a special breed of people to work all week and then use up one of those precious weekend days on hard manual labor. It goes to show how much people care about food, their health, their friends.

We hope the kind of energy generated this past weekend lasts through the years and that people feel good about participating in our re-purposing project... and we especially hope we didn't scare anyone off with the tough work. It's going to take our village to build Longhaul.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What we're working on now...

We updated the slideshow on the home page with pictures of our recent work. We'll update again in a few weeks.

Lesson learned

Lesson learned: seeds really do germinate when you follow the instructions.

We sowed our seeds indoors in milk crates with about 5 inches of organic potting soil in them. Following our zone's planting guide, we started with spring raab and members of the onion family (red and yellow onions, shallots, scallions, leeks), and added spinach so we could have some early greens. Once our cold frame was ready, we moved the crates and seedlings outside under protection. Our second sowing a week later included the brassica family: cabbages, kales, collards, broccoli and cauliflower.

I assumed that a sowing would yield a few less seedlings than seeds. And most seed packets actually tell you the germination rate (e.g., Blues Chinese Cabbage @ 97%). Whoa... did our seeds sprout! I certainly learned my lesson to sow less seeds in the future because I spent the entire day yesterday transplanting the crowded seedlings into a holding bed - a bed that is full of organic matter where the seedlings will be allowed to mature until we have enough full vegetable beds to plant them out. You should transplant out seedlings once their first real set of leaves appear (not the first 2 leaves, but the 2nd set). Some of our brassicas didn't have this second set, but they were just suffocating in their crates, so I transplanted them anyway. I also ended up transplanting some into proper sowing flats, with dividers for each seedling, so that I could replace any in our holding bed that don't make it.

Another lesson learned: celery and celeriac seeds like a lot of water for germination. I wasn't paying enough attention to these trays and we'll pay for it: we only got about 15 celery seedlings from a sowing of 50 seeds. Now I read John Seymour or go to our seed source's website for every seed I sow to be sure I am doing it correctly (duh). And that's why there's a packet of Shiso seeds in the freezer.

We've got to get double-digging! There will be dozens of plants to transplant after the first of May.


Jason at our Patagonian parrilla
After a hard day's work in unseasonably hot, humid weather, we constructed an Argentine-style parrilla for our backyard bbq's. Thanks to our friend, Dane, and his master construction skills and work-hard ethic, it was complete in just a few hours. The only things working against us last night were the mosquitoes and fading daylight.

We salvaged everything from around the property - sand to level the parrilla floor, bricks for the walls, cement from the pile of household waste to be disposed of, cinder blocks to allow air circulation. It was a true re-purposing effort.

We were so excited to grill ourselves some chorizo in the slow-cook fashion we learned down in Argentina: First you get some wood burning on one half of the pit. Put the grill on the other half, raised above the floor about six inches. Once the wood has been on for a while and there are red hot coals in the center of the pile, you knock them out and move them under the grill. Spread evenly and keep the wood pile burning to replenish with hot coals when needed. This method ensures a slow, even cook, leaving you plenty of time to enjoy a maté or malbec before the meat-feast.

Mother Nature spoiled our parrilla plans with a night of rain, but we'll be christening it this weekend when a load of friends and family join us for a work-ation weekend.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Putting our money where our mouths are (part I)

We are sick of big banks at many, many levels.  

Maybe this subject seems out of place, but from our perspective it's all part of the same effort to re-think the way we live to make our lives and communities more sustainable.   

Most of us live our lives under the yoke of debt, locked into mortgages and school loans and business loans. Almost all of the mail I receive is for new debt opportunities; shiny credit cards or pre-written checks for big sums of money with my name on it, just beckoning to be used.  Everywhere we look, debt beckons.  

It beckons in the type of high-cost mechanized farming promoted as "efficient" by the WTO and USDA, it beckons in the hopes of buying a home beyond your needs or means and selling it for a big pay day a few years down the line, it beckons in the promise that a college or graduate degree from an elite college will put you on the path to prosperity and general bliss.

I am sick of having to comb through the legalese fine-print of the “Summary of Changes to Deposit Accounts” J.P. Morgan sends me, to learn of their new “Extended Overdraft Fee”, how they will lower the CD interests rates they promised me after the initial term has ended (He that giveth shall taketh back), and how they claim the right to refuse any deposit or credit to my account and imperiously exclaim “we…will not be liable to you for doing so even if such action causes outstanding items to be dishonored or returned”.

We will not be liable to you.  It sounds like it could be the trademark for the whole monopolistic big-bully banking industry today. As the popularity of the academy award winning documentary “Inside Job” makes clear, there are growing numbers of us out there realizing the big financial systems are not working for our interests.

How can behemoth banks sell billions of dollars of bad loans to their customers at the same time as making big money for themselves on bets that the loans would go bad?  If wiping out the savings of millions of people isn’t criminal activity, what is? 

Who will hold them accountable?  I am tired of waiting for political action, particularly by politicians and candidates that must rely on financial executives for the billion dollars of fundraising for the next campaign.  In the meantime, we pay off interest to the big banks, keep our money in their accounts, and none of it improvs the place we live in one bit.  It floats out into the digital, global market, looking for quick profits in whatever corner of the world they can be found.
But what we are most sick of is still participating in the big bank system, which means we're part of supporting the system that makes us sick.  We are guilty by association.  We're done with it.

This is the story of our experiment in holding big banks accountable; a flap of the butterfly wings we hope catches on.  We don’t want to wait for change any longer.  We want it now, on any scale we can get it.

Permaculture applied (part I)

Permaculture is a way of situating yourself in your ecology. Following principles of permaculture, one tries to create stable, sustainable, productive systems that harmoniously integrate the land with its inhabitants. When placing yourself in your environment, you take into account the ecological processes of plants, animals, nutrients, the climate, weather and the landscape, as well as your fellow humans. Part of Longhaul Farm's long-term goal is to create a place that is part of our ecology's permanent culture.

The practice of permaculture is ancient, but the concept was coined in the mid-20th century. I think it was revived in response to the destruction our current agricultural and development practices are bringing to this world. Our farm plan documents our attempt to work with our local environment, providing inputs to it, rather than just expecting outputs. There will be more posts on how we integrate nature's systems with our work to come...

But this first post is meant to point out the importance of including humans in the permaculture culture. This is inspired by our positive connections made with our neighbors and people in our local community. It is just as important to us to collect rain water as it is to maintain connections with people in our lives. Our relationships will hopefully be a healthy balance of give and take, continuously enhancing our quality of life, feeding our minds, bodies and souls with the powerful restorative features of a secure network of humans.

Generosity as a renewable resource

In spite of this modern technology-based, money-dependent, internet-connecting society we have created, there are still real live humans who have generosity to spare.

We've connected with a handful of people in our community who, given the opportunity to act, have wowed us with their willingness. Imagine, two strangers walking into your home or your establishment, claiming to be starting a farm, asking for you to change your behavior in order to help the farm start-up, for nothing in return... what would you do?

We've found that families are willing to change the way they dispose of their garbage. So on top of sorting out recycling for their town pick-up, they now separate out their food scraps and other organic waste so that we can collect it and build our compost pile. The families who have joined our compost collective have said, generally, that they've always meant to compost and that they're happy to change their routine in order to help out neighbors.

We've connected with a few particular employees and managers at our local grocery store, who invited us to take boxes of vegetable scraps that they collect for us on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. The organic scrap pick-up is just between us and them - nothing formal that involves the administration of this chain grocery store. They told us that on other mornings they give their scraps to some of their employees who also have gardens and compost, and were happy to share with us.

We walked into our local bakery one day, saw the staff icing and sprinkling 600 cupcakes, and asked to speak to the owner. She was among the staff working on the cupcakes, and as she continued to dress the cakes with pastel butter frosting, she listened to our request for egg shells in order to enhance the calcium in our vegetable beds. A gardener herself, she trusted our methods and told us to come back on Tuesday to meet the head baker and pick-up buckets of egg shells. She and her bakers were willing to take one extra step of tossing the egg shells in a set-aside bucket, rather than into the normal trash, just because they wanted to. Or because they like to help, or don't like to waste, or decided to start always collecting egg shells for all of their gardens. Whatever the reason, their generosity helped two strangers and they expected nothing in return. (But we did buy some cupcakes... they just looked too good.)

We’ve also had different people in our community agree to share their horse manure with us, load our trailer with piles of this manure, help us find used rain barrels, saws-all our trailer hitch ball, share their winter’s worth of wood ash, keep a bee hive on our farm, split their pile of 10-year old black gold with us, and cook salads for our upcoming work weekend with friends. People are good. They like to help, be useful, connect face-to-face, see a smile. Generosity is everywhere and it just keeps on giving.

And we’ll be giving, too, once the garden does… we’ll be sharing yellow tomatoes with Bobby, hot peppers with Christian, home-baked pies with Christine and Wayne, mushrooms with Sal, fruit jams with Rose and Eugene, and much more. I hope this list keeps growing.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Public enemy no. 1

We have been warned by experienced gardeners to die-hard urbanists alike that we are going to have to do something about the deer.

According to our farm plan, installing a deer fence around the entire perimeter of our garden is our first priority. We have been digging fence post holes, ordering fencing, guidewire, ground staples and cable ties, and making a deer-fence-stretcher. People wise in repelling deer have advised us to dig our fence posts into the ground at least 2 feet, install posts a minimum of 15 feet apart, utilize sturdy trees as posts whenever possible, install deer fencing at least 7 feet high, allow at least 6 inches of fencing to lay on the ground, run a guidewire along the top of the fencing to prevent sagging, reinforce corner posts with angled beams, among other tidbits. These are the basics, but that doesn't mean there aren't a thousand websites dedicated to helping you learn about, purchase and install deer fencing. But even with so many choices, we are really sticking to advice we've heard face-to-face from a few trusted sources.

For example, we are going to make use of the stone wall surrounding the garden. By installing the deer fence about 2 feet behind the stone wall, we give our plants and vegetables a boost of protection, because deer are deterred by the prospects of clearing a 7 foot fence only to land on an unstable stone wall with a 4 foot drop to the ground.

Another example: give yourself some insurance by placing an egg/vinegar mixture around the perimeter of the garden. Mix 2 eggs with 1/2 a gallon of white vinegar and place it in bowls in strategic locations. This apparently wards off deer up to 300 feet.

With the fence and the egg/vinegar concoction going on at the same time, we might never know which provides the best protection. But after hearing the horror stories of whole crops of vegetables wiped out in one night, we are not going to risk it.

This rock's no match

We have been digging all week - and that means we have continued to add to our Rock Hall-of-Fame regularly. Some of them defeat our human power... but they are no match for machine.

My (Jocelyn's) father offered us his ATV during the hunting off-season. We happily hitched on the trailer and drove to PA where it was being stored, anticipating lots of hauling this spring. And boy, have we made good use of it: we've hauled manure, hauled compost, hauled rocks, hauled brush. Lots of long-hauling.