March 11, 2009

23rd Book Excerpts

Another Day on the Farm:

We spent all afternoon tagging our cattle with Radio Frequency Identification Tags the other day. This was not by choice...the government insists upon it. Essentially no livestock can be sold without these ear tags. As the tags are purchased they are registered to the farm that bought them. When the cattle are sold the tags identify where they came from. The intent is to enable tracing diseased cattle back to the farm of origin. I hope this scheme works better than gun registration did. Why am I not convinced that it will?

Current Rant:

I'm afraid that those who expect
everything to be as it was, when the current global financial crisis is behind us, are dreaming. In my opinion, this "recession" is just the tip of the iceberg...a precursor of things to come. The lifestyle which we have taken for granted for the past half century may be thought of as "normal" by most North Americans, but it is not and never was sustainable.

When, and if, this "recession" is over we will find ourselves living in a much different world. Our collective attitude regarding money, personal savings, indebtedness, consumerism, job security, retirement, pensions and confidence in bankers and government officials will have changed dramatically. We will be less inclined to blindly place our trust in others to look after us. Hopefully we will have learned that it behooves us to become more self reliant.

I predict that there will be a general movement back to the land. In some areas this has already started. Thinking people are starting to become concerned about basic, clothing and shelter. Already there's lots of talk about backyard gardens and zoning changes to permit raising small farm animals within city limits.

But the wise will go a step further and put their money in the safest investment they can make...a bit of land in the country. And the sooner the better because "farm land" prices are bound to rise as demand increases for small acreages. The average age of North American farmers is now sixty plus. Most of us will not be farming much longer. We are, or will be, looking for buyers for our land. Many of us would consider sub-dividing our holdings into smaller family-sized farms. If this makes sense to you I suggest that you do not
wait too long to make your move.

23rd Excerpt from “Farmageddon”
(My latest unfinished book)


Pioneers have always relied upon their gardens for the bulk of their food. Now that the plans for animal food products have been taken care of, we’ll tackle the vegetable and fruit side of our pioneer cuisine. The first thing to consider when planning what to grow in a garden is…what grows best in your locality. That is especially important in our harsh climate and short growing season.

My garden will be located about fifty feet from the entrance to the underground house. The ground in that location has a slight slope for good drainage and it is within thirty feet of a beaver dam where water is available all summer long. There has never been a garden in that particular spot so the soil will have to be well worked up and summer fallowed for a season or two before it is put to use.

This summer I plan to work up an area that will be twice the size that is needed as a garden. After working it up and picking off the rocks, a good layer of peat and rotted manure will be worked into the soil. Nothing will be grown there for at least a year. In the meantime it will be worked several times to control weeds and improve the tilth. Peat, sand, manure and sawdust will be worked in as needed.

The reason for having a garden plot which is twice as big as needed is for rotation purposes. When we start raising crops we will seed one half one year and the other half the next year. In a BS situation, the half that was used during the current year will be enclosed with portable steel corral panels for the winter and our small animals will be housed there until spring…the small animals being goats, rabbits and possibly a pig. All of the manure that they produce over the winter will be dropped right there on the part of the garden that will be summer fallowed the next summer. This will not only save the labour of cleaning out the pens but will build up the soil as well.

Most cool climate annual root crops grow well here. Legumes do well also. Fruits in general do not do so well. Since it is vitally important that our garden produces as much as possible, we will stick to the vegetables and fruits that can almost always be counted upon.

Potatoes will be our primary vegetable because they are such a reliable crop in our area. They also store well with little bother. They don’t have to be canned or dried or preserved in any way. In fact they should not even be washed for storage. All they require is a cool dry airy bin and they will keep for months. Even after months of storage when they begin to sprout and shrivel a bit, they are still edible. So, potatoes will be the main dish of most of our meals.

Carrots also grow well in this climate but they do not keep as well as potatoes so most of them will be eaten “in season”. They are an important part of one’s diet however because of their high vitamin C content. They are more trouble to raise than potatoes because of the need for thinning and hand-weeding, but nevertheless they will make up an important part of our diet also.

Beets, turnips and other root crops also do well here but whether or not they are raised is largely a matter of personal preference. As for myself, I can hardly choke them down, with the exception of beet pickles. Having said that, it would be a good idea to plant a few rows of these vegetables as insurance crops. They might taste a lot better if that’s all you have to eat…their more nourishing than snowballs.

Onions and garlic can usually be depended upon to produce well and will make up a part of our garden. They both store well as hanging bunches when properly dried and kept in a cool place.

Legumes will be another major part of our diet, especially beans and peas. Aside from eating them in season, the best way to preserve them is by drying. A more labour intensive preservation method would be canning but I suspect that we will do more drying than canning because it’s easier and fewer containers are required.

Speaking of containers, a good supply of heavy plastic garbage cans would be a real asset in a survival situation. For dry goods they are the perfect storage solution. Beans, peas, wheat, salt etc. would store indefinitely in such containers.

There are not many perennial crops to choose from, but asparagus does quite well here and rhubarb does exceptionally well here. Both of these foods either have to be eaten in season or canned. Strawberries grow very well also. Rhubarb and strawberries will likely be our only cultivated fruits. In general, native wild berries are not very reliable but when conditions are favorable Saskatoons and blueberries often bare well.

Root crops will be stored in open wooden bins in the storage shed. Canned goods will be stored on shelves there as well.

To be continued next time…

23rd Excerpt from “Defying the Odds”
(Available from

Returning to Canada…

Dad and I went back to Washington right away. I soon discovered that Betty and the kids were as enthusiastic as I about the farm. Betty's confidence in me, and trust in my judgement, never wavered…more than once I thought about how lucky I was to have her by my side. And, more than once I silently gave thanks for that thin letter that had since proven to be a blessing.

We started preparing to move and Dad started preparing mom to accept the fact that he would be away for another month, to help plant the crop. Our immigration application had already been approved, so we would be entering Canada as landed immigrants. Our home was listed with a Realtor and we advertised to sell the things that would not be needed on the farm. I built makeshift van‑style boxes for the pickup truck and trailer and packed as much stuff as I could haul on the first trip.

It was around the middle of April when Dad and I left for Canada with that first load. He drove his pickup too, because he planned to stay at the farm while I came back for a second load. My poor old '47 Dodge looked like something from 'Grapes of Wrath'. There was a long wooden ladder tied to the top of the load and an air compressor tank strapped to the front bumper. My tool boxes were sitting on the seat beside me, so the tools would be handy for the inevitable mechanical problems, and a spare tire occupied the floor in front of the tool boxes. There was just barely enough room for me to sit behind the steering wheel.

We had no major problems with the first load. A plugged fuel line delayed us a half hour at Pasco and bucking a strong head wind held us down to a top speed of twenty five miles per hour for a hundred miles or so, but otherwise it went okay. The nice thing was that we had the luxury of sleeping in the back of dads pickup. On the next two round trips, I would be taking short naps slouched over the steering wheel, or leaning back in the seat with a tool box in my ribs, since there was no money for motels and no desire to stop if there had been. As I recall, a loaded trip took around thirty hours and the empty trip back about twenty five hours, with the trailer loaded on the back of the truck.

About halfway to the Canadian border, on the first trip, we had to stop at a highway truck scale. I knew the truck and trailer were both way overloaded and expected trouble. The patrolman looked out of the scale house window…came out to have a closer look…walked around the obviously overload vehicles and said, "Where'ya from?". I told him and he said, "Where'ya going?". I told him and he said, "Good Luck" and waved us on without even weighing the sorry looking outfit. I got the same sort of response at most service station stops and also at the Canadian border.

The last four miles of road to the farm were suffering from the effects of spring thaw by the time we got there. The road had turned into two ruts in a bed of Athabasca gravel—a mixture of dirt, sand and boulders. Once your wheels dropped into the ruts, you stayed there until you hit a rock large enough to climb out on.

About half way up the final steep grade, we met a truck coming down…both of us in the same set of ruts. That's how I first met our nearest neighbour-to-be, Metro Youney. He sized up the situation and, without a word, backed up until he was as able to get out of the ruts, allowing us room to pass—a perfectly normal thing to do during spring thaw in Alberta.

There had been more snow a few days before we arrived at the farm. Although we had intended to immediately start working the fields, in preparation for seeding, it was obvious that it would take several days of sunshine before work could begin. Since there was little that could be done until the fields dried, I decided to go back down to Washington, right away, for another load of stuff. Dad planned to stay behind and do whatever he could while I was gone. (I think he secretly hoped that he could start working the fields by himself but, if so, he was disappointed by another snow storm the day after I left.) By driving twelve hours or more at a stretch, I made it back home in a day and a half.

Betty had been busy packing while I was gone. Her brother stopped in for a few minutes one day as we were loading up for the next trip. I had envied Al ever since we first met, because he had seen a lot of action with the infantry in the Pacific islands. He was just an average sort of guy, but, having heard some of his war stories, I knew he had grit. Anyway, after talking for a bit, he told me that he really admired what I was doing. He said it took a lot of guts to quit a good job and start a new life. Although he liked his job, as a salesman for the Swift Meats company, I think he sometimes regretted not going back to farming when he got out of the army.

It didn't take long to load up the truck and trailer for the second trip. The trick was to take as much as possible on each trip, but leave things behind that Betty would need until the final trip. This meant that the last trip would consist mostly of heavy appliances, furniture and clothing. I arrived back at the farm with the second load just seven days after I had left.

Time was running out, so we decided to start putting the crop in even though the fields were still wet in places. On May 1st, my thirty fifth birthday, we spent the day hauling seed from a nearby farmer. We also bought four tons of fertilizer and some alfalfa seed from the local grain elevator. With fuel and other supplies to buy, funds were getting pretty tight. To my surprise, everyone accepted personal cheques, even though we were unknown to them.

It took about two weeks to prepare the land and seed the crop, but finally the job was done…although we did have to go around some wet spots. As soon as the last field was seeded, I headed for Washington again for the third and final load. This time I would be bringing the family back with me!

To be continued next time…

23rd Excerpt from “But…What About Tomorrow?
(Available from

Organic Farming:

The term organic has several meanings but for my purposes it means plants grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides and in livestock it means animals which are raised without the use of drugs, hormones or synthetic chemicals. However, the term is defined much more comprehensively by the purists.

Organic purists build healthy soils by nourishing the living components of the soil, the microbial inhabitants that release, transform, and transfer nutrients. The organic farmer's primary strategy in controlling pests and diseases is prevention through good plant nutrition and management. Organic farmers use cover crops and crop rotations to change the field ecology, thereby discouraging weeds, insects, and disease organisms. Weeds are controlled with crop rotation, mechanical tillage, cover crops, mulches, and other management methods.
Organic farmers rely on a diverse population of soil organisms, beneficial insects, and birds to keep pests in check.

Organic meat, dairy products, and eggs are produced from animals that are fed organically grown feed and allowed access to the outdoors. They must be kept in living conditions that suit the natural behavior of the animals. Ruminants must have access to pasture. Organic livestock and poultry may not be give antibiotics, hormones, or medications in the absence of illness; however, they may be vaccinated against disease. Livestock diseases and parasites are controlled primarily through preventative measures such as rotational grazing, balanced diet, sanitary housing, and stress reduction.

In a natural grassland or forest ecosystem, soil organic matter accumulates with soil development and eventually arrives at an equilibrium which is mainly determined by the environment and natural vegetation. Unfortunately, once the soil is tilled and cropped, massive changes occur within the soil system. Even when livestock manure and green manure crops have been added, organic matter still continues to decline. Tillage mixes oxygen into the soil and breaks up structure, giving microbes everything they need to burn up organic matter and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In the natural state, much of the organic matter is protected because it is trapped in areas inaccessible to microbes. Tillage changes all this by stirring and mixing everything together. Microbes suddenly find a feast and proceed to multiply, expelling excess nutrients that, if not taken up by the crop, get leached out of the soil.

Every time the soil is turned, organic matter is lost, despite additions of manure and crop residues. Cropped land will have a lower organic matter content than the virgin grassland. Only about sixteen percent of the world's farmland is free of fertility problems or problems such as chemical contamination, acidity, salinity or poor drainage. North America has the largest share of the best land … at about twenty nine percent. In Kenya, the soil is so poor that corn yields are twenty percent of what they are in the American Midwest, partly because farmers can't afford to leave stalks and other plant debris in the soil to improve its fertility. They feed the plant material to animals or use it as fuel.

This decline in organic matter has resulted in the release of large amounts of plant nutrients, particularly nitrogen. A level of organic matter higher than required to produce suitable physical properties is beneficial in that the soil has a greater buffering and nutrient holding capacity, but it does not contribute directly to soil productivity.

Soil organic matter cannot be increased quickly even using optimum management practices which conserve soil organic matter. The added organic matter associated with higher crop yields are accompanied by an increase in the rate of decomposition. Only a small fraction of the crop residues added to soil remain as soil organic matter. Over an extended period of time, returning of all crop residues and using forages in rotation with cereals and oilseeds can significantly increase soil organic matter.

The value of forage crops in rotations with cereals and oilseeds has long been recognized. Several long-term crop rotation studies conducted in Western Canada have shown that crop rotations involving perennial forages tend to stabilize soil organic matter at a higher level than crop rotations involving summer-fallow.

Strictly as a source of nitrogen, the value of a legume plowdown is questionable. The amount of nitrogen fixed by a legume is dependent upon the type of legume, the amount of vegetative growth, the nature of the soil and environmental conditions. However, as a source of organic matter, legume plowdown is valuable, but perennial forage is a more effective means of increasing soil organic matter.

Long before soil scientists understood the reasons, decaying organic matter, as in manure or other forms, was recognized as beneficial to the nourishment of plants. Even though we can now feed plants on diets that produce excellent growth without the use of any soil whatever, the decaying remains of preceding plant generations remain the most effective basis for extensive crop production.

Decomposition by micro-organisms within the soil is the reverse of the process of plant growth above the soil. Growing plants, using the energy of the sun, synthesize carbon, nitrogen, and other elements into complex compounds. The energy stored up in these compounds is then used more or less completely by the microorganisms whose activity within the soil makes nutrients available for a new generation of plants. Organic matter thus supplies the "life of the soil" in the strictest sense.

When measured in terms of carbon dioxide output, the soil is a live, active entity. An acre of the best quality soil exhales more than twenty five times as much of this gas per day as does an adult man at work. Such a soil area burns carbon at a rate equivalent to 1.6 pounds of soft coal per hour. The heat equivalent evolved would convert more than 17 pounds of water to steam under 100 pounds pressure. A 40-acre cornfield during a hot summer day burns organic matter in the soil with an energy output equivalent to that of a 40-horsepower steam engine. Putting that another way, every acre may be thought of as a factory using the equivalent of one horsepower. Organic matter is the source of the power without which the plant-food elements could not be changed to usable forms.

Soil organic matter is also a source of nitrogen. In the later stages of decay of most kinds of organic matter, nitrogen is liberated as ammonia and subsequently converted into the soluble or nitrate form. The level of crop production is often dependent on the capacity of the soil to produce and accumulate this form of readily usable nitrogen.

Attempting to hoard as much organic matter as possible in the soil, like a miser hoarding gold, is not the correct answer. Organic matter functions mainly as it is decayed and destroyed. Its value lies in its dynamic nature. A soil is more productive as more organic matter is regularly destroyed and its simpler constituents made usable during the growing season. The objective should be to have a steady supply of organic matter undergoing these processes for the benefit of the growing crop.

Sod crops have not been fully appreciated as the panacea that they are. Grasses have been treated as the stepchildren of the American crop family. They have not been "cultivated" in the same sense as farm crops; they have been left to themselves, to grow on soils often turned over to them because depleted fertility made cereal cropping unprofitable. They have been incidental in the farming program. Consequently, they have not delivered their maximum potential in animal production.

The Old World, with its longer agricultural experience, shows that the lands still in good production today are those occupied by sod crops regularly for a large part of the time and where clean, or summer, cultivation has been reduced to a minimum. In France and England only slightly more than one-fourth of the cultivated soils are in clean cultivation. In Germany the figure is even less, and there are vast acreages of permanent pastures in all these countries.

In the United States the area in clean cultivation and row crops approaches one-half the cultivated land; and this in regions where the rains are often torrential. We would be well advised to take heed of the European example.

Soil organic matter is one of our most important national resources and it must be given its due as one of the major factors affecting levels of crop production in the future.

To be continued next time…

I would like very much to hear from you! You may send your comments by clicking either the Comments or the Letter icon below. Thank you…Have a warm day…

No comments: