Hickory Nut Gap Blog/e-Newsletter

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I Wish I Had Paid More Attention in Science Class

When I was a little kid I loved the Young Explorer version of National Geographic.  I loved the science shows like Kratt’s Creatures and Bill Nye the Science Guy. I loved learning about animals and plants and how they work. I would spend hours digging in the creek behind our house looking for salamanders, snails, and crawfish. Though I didn’t really know it at the time, I was conducting a scientific experiment when I took a toad out of the spring house and tried to raise him in a jar in my room by feeding him flowers.

I think lots of kids experience a fascination with the natural world- an absorption in the detail and mystery of life. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, science became dull. I struggled through high school biology and chemistry and then stayed as far from the hard sciences as I could in college. I stuck to history, English, sociology, things I felt that I could connect with more readily. I could get excited about a great book, but not about a new element in the periodic table.

Now that I work on a farm, I only wish I could have retained more of my childhood interest in the sciences. I wish I would have taken biology in college, even if I’d gotten terrible grades. I constantly feel as if I’m having to learn scientific principles backwards. When we encounter a disease in the pigs, I have to identify symptoms then possible origins then I have to research the science to try and understand how to prevent those illnesses in the future.

In the orchard, everything is connected. The bacterial and microbial life, the insects, animals, weather conditions, apple tree age and health… it all interacts in complex and beautiful ways. Understanding at least some of those relationships is crucial in order to make it to September with a decent crop of apples. Right now, for instance, I am thinking about Apple Scab. This disease produces blackened and rotting spots on the leaves and fruit of apple trees. If an orchard is highly infected, much of the fruit is inedible or falls to the ground before ripening.

Notice a little scab on these apples in a painting from 1824 by James Peale

We of course want to prevent that from happening. But it’s not as easy as knowing what to spray on the trees, we also have to know when. That means we have to know a little bit about the cellular activity and reproduction cycle of the disease. We have to understand how temperatures and moisture levels affect the initial release of fungal spores and what organic options we have to try and counteract that release. It’s all science.

I don’t know why it wasn’t more interesting to me in high school, I just know that if I had paid a little more attention, I might not feel so lost when I come across questions like: What is the probability of ascospore release this week…?

Best,

Sweetbread

The Art of Pruning

I don’t claim to be an artist.

Artistry (to my mind) implies a mastery of form or movement. It implies years of practice and concentration added to copious natural talent. It implies deep understanding and a uniqueness of vision or thought.

It also implies beauty, of one kind or another. When someone says “he has mastered the art of farming”, they mean that the individual has developed such a great intimacy and appreciation of the tasks involved in farming that their work has become beautiful. Not just their work, but their farm as well. The flow of beauty between art and artist is not entirely clear, but there is certainly a connecting depth which empowers not only master and craft, but anyone near enough to feel the effects of that relationship.

While pruning the blueberries, blackberries, and apples this winter I have come to realize that even the simple snip of the shears can become an artistic enterprise.

Each tree or bush requires specific attention. Each is unique and full of potential. When I make a cut I have to hold in mind the longevity of the plant as well as its current status. What do I want this plant to look like this year? What do I want this plant to look like in 5 years? 10? The long term health and shape is as important as the fruit producing capacity this year. Maybe I have to sacrifice a cane that looks particularly promising for this year’s crop in favor of one that looks more beneficial in the long run.

It’s also important to analyze the current plant health. I’ll remove any damaged canes and look for signs of disease or damaging bugs. I will also take care to notice other things about the plant like how many primocanes it produced, how the trunk or base appears, and the look of soil surrounding the roots.

Sometimes I realize that I’m not sure exactly what to look for or what certain signs mean. Sometimes I make cuts or lop off branches that I regret a moment later because they make the tree look odd or I see a branch that would have been a better choice. I know that artistry in pruning comes after many years. Years that allow practice and years that uncover the truth about my decisions. (You don’t always know if you made good pruning choices until a couple years down the road).

I have noticed that after a long day pruning one kind of plant, it begins to get easier. Just like you might improve your drawing skills if you drew the same kind of picture over and over for hour. By the end of a day of pruning each decision comes more quickly and more easily.

When I close my eyes now I can see a young blueberry bush, bare still of its leaves, branching out in just the right way. I can see the way it wants to grow. I can see its present and its future, full and green. I can make a few quick cuts and see it open up, fill out, let in the sunlight and breeze. Maybe there is a little more beauty for that.

Cheers,

Sweetbread

If you’re looking for more concrete pruning advice Michael Phillips’ book: The Holistic Orchard is a great place to start. The NC Extension Service is also a wonderful resource with online content and agents who are more than willing to answer questions.

The website is here: http://mecklenburg.ces.ncsu.edu/2010/03/pruning-3/

What Does Pigs on Pasture Mean?

 

Spring is here!

Flowers are blooming, trees are budding, the weather is warming… but more than anything else, the sign that indicates spring’s arrival is that we finally moved our pigs out of the barn and onto pasture!

There is a long tradition of herding animals in this area. The old Drover’s Road comes right through the farm. Farmers from the West drove their mules, pigs, turkeys, and cows to eastern markets along what is now 74-A. The house that my great grandparents bought when they moved to Fairview in 1916 was actually an old Inn. Fairview is about a day’s walk from the city, perfectly situated for the drovers who were pushing their way east.

One thing I will say about days spent herding pigs: It’s not easy. I have so much respect for those farmers who were driving their animals hundreds of miles. We only herd our pigs several hundred yards. We set up fences and gates to keep them from taking off wherever they please. We make sure to have people ready to block off routes that look enticing. And, even with all those precautions in place, we have plenty of disasters.

Pigs are smart. Once they learn a fence line (especially an electric line where they’ve experienced a good shock) they are loathe to cross it. Our herd has been in the barn all winter, enjoying deep bedded warmth in a small and well defined area. The most difficult part of herding them to new pasture is getting them out of the barn. They know their space, they have rooted right to the edge of the fence line and made the contours their own. When we take the fence down, they can still see the line where their rooting stops. They know from experience that they shouldn’t cross that line.

One trick we learned that helps us get the herd over that mark is to spread fresh hay on either side. This disguises the line and the pigs also like to root in it, searching for food or anything else exciting (pigs find a lot of mundane things exciting… bits of wood, rubber, metal, basically anything they can gnaw on). Once they’ve crossed the threshold, they are perfectly willing to go as far as their chubby legs can carry them.

This week, when we moved the herd out the barn, our biggest issue was that one group moved out over tate line quickly but a second group was more obstinate. Pigs are not like cows. They don’t have the same strong herd mentality. One group took off toward greener pastures while the rest refused to leave their home of the past four months. Zach had to sprint off after the first group and herd them into the corral while Walker and I stayed back to watch the second bunch. Eventually we had to grab several unused metal gates and use them like plows to slowly push the pigs out over the line. Once they crossed it, they ceased to have any qualms about leaving the barn. From there out it was as simple as stopping traffic along Sugar Hollow to allow the porky fellows to make their way to the corral and rejoin the herd

It feels great to see the pigs out in the pasture, happily rooting through dirt and grass, stretching their legs in the wide open space. I also like joining in the tradition of the drovers. I am glad that our route only takes us down the road a little ways and not over mountains and across hundreds of miles of rugged terrain. Hats off to the drovers. They must have known their animals well by the end of a trip like that.

 

Happy springing,

Sweetbread.

 

 

Wet and Cold and Downy Fluff

Chicks arrive via the post office!

Capricious March weather means lots of layers and a steady stream of hot tea and coffee when available. The one place on the farm that will be consistently warm over the next few weeks is our baby chick brooder!

250 yellow fluff balls arrived at the Fairview Post Office this morning. We had to clear out the brooder and put in a nest of fresh hay for the little guys’ home for the next few weeks. It’s always difficult to tell how March weather will affect our first batch of chickens.

Last year we scheduled our first group of chicks just two weeks earlier, at the end of February. While they were fine in the brooder, once we moved them out onto pasture the weather turned nasty. We had several frigid March weeks full of sleet and snow. Because our birds are pasture raised and we have a system set up that doesn’t have a lot of provisions for cold weather, we lost far too many chickens to the freezing temperatures. Chickens will crowd together in the cold to share body heat but they are overzealous in their push for warmth and often smother several of their fellow birds during a frosty night.

Unfortunately for us, Walker decided to go on a two week Vacation to Germany that coincided exactly with our chicken debacle. Jake (the intern at the time) and I had to deal with the daily frustration of frozen fowl without the reassurance of our fearless farm manager. Every morning was the same. We’d slosh our way up the pasture to the house and peer gloomily inside. If there was a dark mass of birds in a corner of the structure, it meant that several had been smothered. We would tally up our losses and make a report of how many we had lost that day, each time bemoaning the dwindling number that would be left for our customers.

We were beginning to give up hope for that first batch, to the point that I remember sending Walker emails apologizing for the fact that we probably would lose the entire group in his absence. The damage wasn’t quite has bad as we’d anticipated but, but the time we sent that first group of broilers to the processor, they were a bedraggled and scrawny few.

We pushed our schedule back for this year in hopes that we won’t run into this problem again, but it’s difficult to tell when winter will release Fairview from its grasp entirely. In any case, the babies are cozy and dry for now, cheeping happily in their new home and bathing in the warmth from the heat lamps. By the time they go out on pasture,  I hope all the vestiges of cold have vanished. I hope the winds are warm, the sun bright, and the nights balmy. I hope spring comes in earnest!

best,

Sweetbread

Warm and Happy to be out of the box!

 

Early Spring

It doesn’t seem possible that it’s still February and we’re enjoying nearly two weeks of balmy spring weather. This fickle month has seen some of the biggest snowfall that we’ve had in years and for the past several days I’ve been wearing short sleeves! I’m sure the cold will snap back into place before too long, but it is restorative to remember what it’s like to feel the warmth of the sun and the energy that begins to pervade every living thing during springtime.

Working outside all winter makes the spring seem even more magical and empowering than ever before and already I can feel the excitement that warmth and growth are bringing to the farm. It’s not just an mysterious feeling either. There are real signs, life that is beginning to well up, green tipped buds,  delicate snowdrops and pale crocuses. Last week we had two new additions to the goat herd and already there have been seven calves born this month! Watching them stumble around the pasture in all their ungainly enthusiasm is as sure a sign of spring as anything I know.

There is a certain vitality that I think gets covered up in winter. It hides itself deep down in the roots of trees, below the frozen dirt, under layers of protection and warmth. In spring though, it bursts out. Jubilant. Like all that life has been just waiting for a little encouragement. Even if the weather does turn cold again, spring has begun. There is not holding back the tide of life that has begun to flow. I’m ready!

 

 

 

happy budding!

Sweetbread

Hoop Houses

Some of the farm crew decided recently that, when it’s time to really settle down and build a house, we’re not gonna go with wood, or brick, or stone, or even the slightly more hip clay and straw mixture for our material. We’re going with plastic!

We’ve been in the hoop house building game for the past few months and, not only are these structures large, clean, open, and bright, they are also cheap and amazingly resilient. I mean, the roof blew off our barn just a few weeks ago but the hoop house that is up behind the barn stayed remarkably intact.

Hoop houses, for those who don’t know, are basically greenhouses without any kind of temperature or humidity controls. They’re meant for animals. We recently built two that are 30ft wide x 108ft long x 16ft high. We’re housing 1000 laying hens inside each one for the winter. They are simple structures of metal hoops, spaced four feet apart down their length with a kind of end wall at the final hoop. A sheet of thick plastic stretches over top and on the ends to create a completely enclosed building that heats up quite nicely with a little sun and the body heat from all the animals.

We had quite a time getting the plastic over the first house. Walker, Zach and I chose a relatively calm day after we’d finished building the basic structure of the house. We unrolled the giant sheet of plastic and tied several ropes to one side so that we could toss them over the hoops and pull the plastic over from the far side. As we were pulling up the sheet, as slight wind began to blow and our hoop house cover became a massive, impermeable sail. Walker and Zach held on for dear life but, since I didn’t have a rope in my hand at that moment, I dove onto the plastic and tried to act as an anchor. For a few minutes I thought we were going to get lifted off the ground but eventually the wind died back down and we were able to pull the plastic over our hoop frame and get it secured before any more big gusts could tear it out of our control.

When chickens and pigs are inside a barn for the winter it’s dark and stale, much less appealing than the bright, warm interior of the hoop houses. They are also large enough that, when spring comes around and it’s time for the animals to move outside, we can use the tractor to clean everything out. My recent blog post about deep bedding the pigs in the barn through the winter also applies to the hoop houses. Chicken and pig manure is too concentrated in nitrogen to make good compost by itself but the added biomass of carbon from the hay we spread in the buildings provides for a great composting milieu.

So far, our experience with these houses has been very positive. They are relatively easy to build (if you have the right tools) and sturdy (though I suppose a few years wear and tear will be the true judge of that). I do hope they work out for the chickens though, because there are a lot of birds strutting about in there and they seem pretty content right now!


Best,

Sweetbread

Snowberry

When I rolled up into the barn lot this morning, I couldn’t help but scoff at all the predictions of snow that I’d been hearing all weekend. The air felt warm and breezy; none of that stiff, sharp electricity that so often precedes snow here in the mountains. One of my friends in high school used to claim he could smell snow coming. He maintains to this day that his percentage for accuracy far outstrips the weather channel.

Zach and I were surprised to see a few flakes begin to fall as we moved the cows a little after ten. It still felt too warm, too like a rainy day to be seeing snow. With the cows happily munching away at their new strip of pasture, we headed up to Berry Hill to continue pruning the blackberries. By this point the snow was coming down hard, in big, clumpy flakes, the kind of picturesque snowstorm you might see on a Christmas card, though nearly all of it was melting the moment it touched the ground.

Our management of the blackberries has been slowly improving over the years since we planted the canes. Last growing season we hit a bit of a low point. After a particularly brilliant bloom, the fruit began to set far too heavily on the plants. We tried to go through and thin things out, but our efforts were too little too late. Overproduction caused energy shortages in the plants that lead to many of the fruiting clusters rotting and falling off before they ever ripened. It was disheartening to see so many green fruitlets that would remain hard and dry until they shriveled off the stem.

This year we’re trying to stay on top of our game and so Zach, Walker, and I pruned with much less reserve than in previous years. After taking out all the dead floricanes (fruiting canes from last year), we trimmed back the number of primocanes (fruiting canes for the coming growing season) until only the healthiest remained. We then clipped back all the stems that were too small to support fruit clusters or that were situated in unproductive or particularly crowded space.

By the time we’d finished with the first row and were ready to take lunch, the snow, still falling heavily, was beginning to stick to the ground and to the blackberry canes on which we’d been working. It seemed like our blackberries were already bearing new fruit.

 

 

 

Happy Sledding!

Sweetbread

Decadance

The place was impossible to miss. With painted plaster cows lining the street, colorful lights twinkling from miniature grain silos, and old tractor tires recycled into sign holders and seats, Andres Carne de Res is a fixture of the Bogotano culinary and party scene. The restaurant/ bar/dance venue/ weekend escape destination is a novelty in that it attracts tourists and locals alike, all swarming to the party-style atmosphere and world renowned steak dinners.

I was in Colombia for a two week trip to visit my girlfriend, who has been living in the city for the past four months. She’d been living mostly on the abundantly available fresh fruits and vegetables that are ubiquitous in the city. Every street corner has a guy with a cart selling avocado and sliced mango in wax paper cups. We decided that a night of decadence and red meat was in order, though.

As the waitress led us through the maze of wooden tables overhung by low, smokey lamps, we were amazed at how large the place was. When I finally had a chance to ask her the capacity of the restaurant she replied that, in the course of any given night, they fed 2000 hungry carnivores!I thought about the incredible quantity of meat that one restaurant must plow through every night to feed that many people. The menu, which was just as flashy and crowded as the restaurant, was 30 pages long with its own index and glossary and most of the items in it were meat based dishes. One whole page was entirely devoted to steaks, some so large they were recommended to feed eight people!

Meat, especially beef, is a staple of traditional Colombian food. Most restaurants serving Colombian cuisine offer large platters of meats and fried corn patties called arepas. It made me think about the quantity and quality of all this food. In Colombia, when I told people that I work on a farm that raises grassfed beef, they looked confused. What other kind of beef is there? Feeding cows grass in South America is a no-brainer. In Argentina and Brazil there are millions of acres of pampas with climates perfect for growing lush grazing fodder.

For many South Americans, the amount of meat they consume is a function of availability and cost, not necessarily quality. The same is true everywhere but for now, they are getting delicious grassfed beef at the same cost that people in the US pay for their corn-and-soy-stuffed cows. Eventually, those resource rich places will begin to deplete from overuse. How many times have we heard the mantra ‘you don’t know what you got ‘till it’s gone’? While it’s fun to have a decadent 600 gram ribeye steak smothered in buttery garlic sauce now and again, it should be just that, a treat, not the norm.

I know this post doesn’t have much to do with the farm, but it has a direct connection in my mind. Our way of farming touts sustainability and environmental consciousness, but it must be paired with moderation or it renders itself impossible. Eating meat seems a healthy and natural part of life to me, but, like anything good, If you get too much, its bad.

 

It’s a party every night at Andres Carne de Res

 

The 1000 gram beef tenderloin with bacon is a recommended meal for eight!

Traditional Colombian platters consist of grilled corn, arepas (fried corn), potatoes, and lots and lots of meat!

 

So here’s to moderation, and to quality. And here’s to a little party once in a while!

Sweetbread

Deep Bedding the Pigs

Pigs are gross. Plain and simple. Ok, maybe these pigs are cute, but on the whole– not cute, gross.

A Pig may make a nice pet if it is well trained, consistently cleaned, and not allowed to grow to enormous proportions.  On the whole though, pigs are pretty nasty.

Even when they have a huge paddock full of grass and shrubs, it only takes them about two weeks to turn it into a muddy, stinking wasteland. I’m always amazed, when we move our hogs to a new pen, how quickly they destroy every living thing within the fenceline. Granted there are anywhere from 130-200 of them, but it’s still an impressive feat of rooting, mucking, and eating.

It seems strange then to suppose that we can keep our herd inside the barn for a full four months without the space becoming so fetid that it becomes impossible to enter. Surprisingly, the barn remains fairly pleasant through the winter mainly due to our practice of deep bedding.

Every couple of days we roll out one or two round straw-bales, spreading it evenly through the barn (we have to buy our straw because, as you may have picked up from the last post, we no longer have our own hay equipment). This bedding not only cuts down on the smell, it also provides warmth and comfort for the pigs on especially cold or windy nights.

Over the course of the winter we spread upwards of 70 bales which, weighing roughly 500lbs each, comes out to around 35,000lbs of straw! In the spring, when we move the pigs out to pasture, we can take the tractor and scrape that rug of hay and manure out into a pile and let it sit for a few months. It will reach temps of over 100 degrees and quickly break down to a beneficial compost for some of our fruits and vegetables.

They may be nasty, but pigs are an important part of the farm. They may destroy plants, but they help us grow plants too. That is part of the beauty of farming!

Best,

Sweetbread

Goodbye Hay

That’s a bad pun and one that’s not entirely appropriate as we haven’t grown or cut hay at Hickory Nut Gap for several years now. For some reason I can’t seem to begin these blog posts without some sort of joke or catchphrase, even if they’re terrible.

When most cattle farmers find out that we don’t cut hay, they are incredulous. “What, how do you feed the cows during the winter? You must spend a lot of money buying bales”, is a pretty common response when someone finds out we don’t raise our own hay or make corn silage. The fact is though, we don’t need to. What’s the secret?

Strip grazing.

Though you may begin to fantasize of shirtless young farm hands moving cows through languid green pastures, this is not an ag. version of strip poker . Strip grazing and related terms like mob or intensive grazing are gaining ground among agricultural as well as foodie communities around the country. If it’s new to you, strip grazing is a simple idea with extraordinary consequences in the pasture. Basically, our cows are not permitted to graze on an entire pasture all at once. If they were, they would eat only the choicest morsels of grass, leaving or trampling everything that is less desirable. This is not only an inefficient system in terms of food availability, it also depletes pastures of vital nutrients and encourages the growth of those plants and grasses that the animals don’t find particularly pleasant.

The cows run out of food faster, and when things grow back, there is less good stuff to eat.

Instead, we divide our fields into narrow strips with plastic posts and wire reels. The cows are permitted to graze on one strip of pasture for an allotted amount of time depending on the time of year, number of cows, and size of the pasture. When they have consumed all the grass in one strip, we remove the reel and posts separating them from the next strip, and then put up a back fence to keep them off the part of the pasture that has already been grazed.

This method forces the cows to do several things. First, it gives the animals less choice of grasses to eat, thereby forcing them to consume all of the existing forage rather than just the best parts. The hungry animals also eat more of the available grass before needing to move to a new strip. Finally, the manure, which is a vital part of the cow-pasture relationship, is evenly distributed throughout the pasture instead of being concentrated around the richest parts of the pasture with the best grass: fertility distribution made easy.

Strip grazing allows us to utilize pasture space more effectively and draw out our forage through the winter. We stockpile grass instead of cutting it all down and stockpiling hay.  Strip grazing also helps to maintain healthy pastures and keeps us from needing to feed hay, even in the winter when the grass is no longer growing.

This is a long post, but I hope that the material is at least interesting, if not revelatory. Explaining the things I learn on the farm helps me to better understand the concepts myself and see the gaps in my own understanding.

best,

Sweetbread

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