Monday, April 19, 2010

An Elemental Life

If you want to get in touch with life at its roots, life at an elemental level, there's nothing like a hundred acres of farmland (or raising small children!). The reality of the land is both more beautiful and less romantic than the world of ideas (where I usually live). The Farm resists idealization, the soil is resistant to theories. Land is always this specific land, and working the place always means working with this particular combination of the basic elements.

The ancients viewed the world as composed of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. That scheme turns out to be inadequate for purposes of physics and chemistry, but it's remarkably useful for capturing daily experience with the concrete specifics of life and work on the Farm.

Here's an example: when we got the Jeep or the Polaris stuck in the slippery rain-soaked mud, we wrestled with earth and water. To avoid those problems again, we need to work with the earth (soil) and the water and not against them. The messy details all come about from the way these ingredients interact!

And here's another example: we burned off about 20 acres of CRP grassland last week. It was an impressive interaction of fire and air! We were careful, well-manned, and well-equipped, and nothing bad happened: all the stuff that was supposed to burn did, and nothing that wasn't supposed to burn did! No injuries, no running around screaming in terror! All in all, a successful day. But here's the rub: we were "in control" only in a limited way. The direction and speed of the wind, and the heat and the speed of the fire, were more important for our success than our plan or our tools. A contrary wind could have cancelled the whole business, and fire in the wrong place would have turned it upside down.

To live and work happily with the Farm is a series of adjustments and accommodations, a dance of compromises between our human intentions and the elements we are given to work with. The elemental life of the Farm is a life in which we are not sovereign, not the masters of all we survey. We have to learn to live with only limited control.

Monday, February 22, 2010


What equipment do you need on a hundred-acre farm, at least a third woods and more than half CRP? That's a good question! I admit that, like most guys, my instincts favor as much equipment as possible: lots of engines, blades, tools, gears, and so forth. Any project which requires the acquisition of new tools is a good project. If The Farm were purely a hobby, and if the budget were unlimited, then there would be no practical limit to the equipment we could accumulate. But both of those "if's" are far removed from reality. The farm cannot be a mere hobby, not as long as it's a real home (for my in-laws), a real neighbor (to the other farms around it), and a real habitat (for deer, turkey, quail, rabbits, etc.).

Every "real" farm needs a tractor, right? Well, that depends. A few farmers, of course, still use animal muscles as their main machines: horses, mules, and oxen still pull plows and wagons and other equipment as well as they ever did, and they have advantages. They eat grass and grain that can grow on the land, instead of consuming fossil fuels that have to be purchased with cash. And animal manure can return nutrients and energy to the soil. The muscles of animlas, and of the men and women who work with them, are limited -- and those limits are important in themselves, for they remind us that we are not sovereign or omnipotent.

But no, we did not opt to keep draft animals to work our land. Neither did we buy a tractor. Because over half The Farm is in CRP, and much of the rest is woods or drainage creeks, there is only a limited amount of land to work, so a tractor seemed like overkill. At the same time, the hills and often muddy soil dictated a machine that would handle terrain. So we got a second-hand Polaris Ranger 6x6. With it we can drag logs up out of the wooded ravines and haul tools to work on fences. It has plenty of power, and plenty (though not unlimited!) traction. What it doesn't have that a tractor would have is a PTO hook-up and hydraulics.

The Ranger gets us around and drags stuff or pulls a small trailer. But we're going to need a couple of other items, too. For one thing, we need a big rough-cut or trail mower to knock down the high weeds and grass and start clearing some trails in the woods. I'm looking at self-powered mowers with angled pull bars, so we can mow easily along fences. When it's time to burn a piece of the CRP, mowing a wide strip of firebreak might help prevent things from getting out of hand. For the same reason, we need to get a disc that we can pull with the Polaris. We'll disc or roto-till the firebreaks, and also use the disc to prepare food plots (sunflowers, millet, maybe even barley), and of course get the garden plot ready up next to the house.

It all starts to add up pretty fast! What about a post-hole auger? that would probably have to be a one or two-man hand-held, rather than a machine mounted one, because we have long stretches of fence running through the woods to build and maintain. A spreader/planter would be nice for those food-plots. Do we need a tank & sprayer to haul in the Polaris for fruit trees? And we've felt the need for a snow-plow blade several times this winter.

But we're trying to take it slow. The goal is not to have all the toys any boy could ever want, but to maintain, use, and improve this piece of land in some kind of sustainable fashion. And that means keeping costs down. Besides, the garage is already full.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Buzz

In an earlier post, I listed beekeeping as one possible productive use of the hundred or so acres which I call The Farm (but which my wife prefers to refer to as "the country estate"). Yesterday I spent a day at a beekeeper workshop, hosted by the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association. It was time well spent. A couple of colonies of prime honey bees will soon be moving into luxury accommodations on the property.

I wasn't sure what to expect. I think I imagined a dozen or so retired introverts, tentatively exploring a new hobby. What I found was a crowd of 200-300 enthusiasts of all ages -- and that was just the beginners. A father and son were buying additional hive boxes and frames for their suburban yard. A couple from my own neighborhood have been keeping bees for years (they went to the advanced class). Farmers were there to learn how to add another cash crop to their operations. Vegetarians wanted to learn about meatlless livestock. Vendors were displaying and selling a wide range of equipment.

Hardly any mention was made of the cultural or philosophical or political reasons to encourage people to keep bees. Colony Collapse Disorder has taken a serious toll among commercial beekeeping operations, and nobody knows exactly what's behind it. Bees are so important and beneficial to both agriculture and gardening that it is almost a civic duty to at least consider keeping a couple of hives.

But the hundreds who showed up for the Saturday workshop needed no persuading. They were there, as far as I can tell, because they had already made up their minds that keeping bees was something they wanted to do -- whether for profit, or because they liked to eat honey, or because the bees would benefit their orchards, or out of sheer love for Western Civilization.

What people were looking for yesterday -- and what they got -- was not the why of beekeeping, but the how. How is a new hive assembled? How do you work safely around the little beasties? How do you get a new queen? How do you recognize and treat common bee pests and diseases? How do you harvest the honey? It was a full load of practical information: from honey-supers to small hive beetles, weighing the relative merits of different kinds of hive tools and the argument about queen excluders (a.k.a. "honey excluders" depending which side you're on).

The thoroughly down-to-earth focus of the whole day, and the ease with which I could get practical answers to all the dumb, novice questions I had, was refreshing and empowering. I've now ordered a beginners kit which will include structures (bottom board, boxes, frames, foundations, and covers -- and, yes, queen excluders!) for two hives and the basic tools and protective clothing to get me started. Queen kits will be ordered soon! Watch this space. . .

Saturday, January 2, 2010


"Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest."
(Wendell Berry)

Winter is a good time to think of the forest. The pace of life slows down enough that you can listen to the slow beat of the forest's heart. We realize that trees are our main crop: and this crop we harvest where we did not plant, and we plant what we will not see through to full maturity.

Most of the leaves are down, and you can see more clearly how the land lies, and how the trees stand on the landscape. The gullies are more severe in some places than I thought last summer. There are a lot of trees down, either cut by the previous owner or dead from disease or pests. It looks like the guy who used to own this land was thinning out the shagbark hickory, so we have several years' worth of solid firewood out there, if we are willing to do the work to drag it out and cut it up.

And as winter settles in around us, we are more dependent on the woods, because the main heat in the house is a wood-burning stove. A few nights with temperatures in single digits make you love good firewood, make you a connoisseur of the hard, round chunks that will burn hot and last for hours through the night. That shagbark hickory we've been cutting and splitting packs a big energy punch: roughly 25 or 30 million BTUs per cord.

But you cannot consume a forest forever, so winter is the time to plan how we will re-plant trees in the spring. The Missouri Department of Conservation offers bundles of bare-root seedlings (mostly native species well suited to our area) at very reasonable prices. We  put together an order which is a winter dream of our children’s (and grandchildren’s) forest, not ours.