2020 in review

Hey y’all. I am fully aware that for lots of folks, 2020 was not a great year, from toilet paper shortages to overstuffed morgues, fascism on the rise to certain economic ruin for the working class. I can’t begin to reflect on our own year here on the farmstead without first acknowledging the considerable pain folks are going through. Make no mistake that the coronavirus pandemic is, in essence, an environmental disaster, the result of a global human culture gradually infiltrating corners of our planet’s wilderness in search of food.

I lay no blame at folks who eat bats and pangolins, just like I lay no blame at folks who eat Oscar Mayer bologna. The vast majority of “consumers” in this time are victims of an extractive economic system. It was made worse, particularly in the US, by the politicization of all things, for the gain of a select few. It has revealed shortcomings and vulnerabilities in our social and material systems. I don’t have the answers for how to shift that, at least not the answers anybody is going to like, but I did see some promising signs that slow and small solutions exist. We’re going to need them, for the systemic effects of this pandemic will pale in comparison to a future of climate instability. If folks started 2020 by hoarding toilet paper, imagine 2035…

When I imagine 2035, from where I’m standing now, I see outcroppings of hazel and elder along the borders of verdant silvopasture orchards, pigs lazing beneath chestnuts and heartnuts… ducks, turkeys and chickens waddling, strutting and pecking through the oakleaf duff. Contented cows and goats ruminate in the shade after a morning spent grazing native grasses and forbs. Fatter and lazier, I inspect the gardens, because the kids are running the show now. I’ve run out of places to plant trees, maintenance to perform… neighbors are welcome to grab a bushel of apples. We have abundance to offer to many, and this is normal now, as our culture values resilience over the quick fix.

I can’t speak for the rest of our culture, but if I had 15 more 2020s, I’m pretty sure there’d be a lot of chestnuts available around here. In 2020, we had a lot of success in planting trees, improving pastures, raising new types of livestock, honing our homestead skills, and winnowing away some practices and ideas that weren’t serving the project. I had the opportunity to make new friends, meet new eaters, and expand infrastructure. Being a person who enjoys my space, social distancing and isolation has me looking forward the first half of 2021. I’ve had the chance to share our bounty with some new folks, and almost none of them have had the chance to see my face without a mask, which probably helped sales. We’ve always worked hard to grow what we can, but 2020 was the first year that it felt like we did more than break even… at least it appears that way now on day 3 of my year end book-keeping. Also, I’m heavily pro-rating or straight up ignoring some infrastructure upgrades, for my personal emotional health. Here’s a few examples of the lessons, observations and gradual steps forward we’ve made this year.

Our pig program has actually profited financially and dare I say, ecologically, for the first time since we began. I started the year off by acquiring bulk waste food products from an industrial recycling facility, in hopes that turning food waste into swine feed would be a viable and sustainable alternative to using arable land to grow grains for livestock. While I maintain that there is still some potential in this practice, particularly for those raising more typical breeds of pigs, the high calorie, low fiber, low nutrition base of our western diet proved to unhealthy for our kunekune pigs. After two months of witnessing our breeding stock grow too fat to breed, I fazed out the “candy” as we called it, and returned to a mixed diet of grass, hay, vegetables, organic barley and some sprouted wheat as a treat.

Come grazing season, inserting the pigs into our pasture rotation sort of fell into place. We gradually learned to move goats and cows into the paddock first, to bring the grass back into a regrowth pattern. After adequate rest, the pigs were moved in to graze and stimulate growth once again, keeping the grasses in a state of vegetative stasis. We learned that given enough time, the pigs will eat the entire paddock down very nicely, seldom testing the fence. A bit more time for rest and regrowth and a poultry flock was allowed to glean what they could from the same paddock, kicking and spreading dung and removing potential parasites and their invertebrate hosts.

While we have no signs of pregnancy in our sows yet, I can formally state that I have witnessed acts of consumation by our breeding stock, and the new diet seems to have promoted the desired effect.

At year’s end we commenced to home butcher a few pigs… more than we had initially set out to handle. While I’d always been holding that we’d do at least a couple of them on our own because of all the unique products that can be made, not to mention being able to perform a true zero waste slaughter, and how much more humane it is to slaughter a pig without transporting it away from the only world it knows, it soon became a necessity, as Covid 19 put serious strain on our local butcher shops. I am so thankful for the opportunity this problem afforded us.

We had a lot more eaters for our pork this year, many of them from outside the bubble of our local-er community, which has been very encouraging. I love working with folks that share similar passions about food, and being able to customize a whole side of pork to meet their household needs and culinary fantasies is rewarding in and of itself. I feel like I’ve really managed to hone my butcher craft this year, and have no intention of putting a pig into someone else’s hands for the purpose of slaughter ever again. I don’t care what the law is.

A final note on feeding our pigs: I’ve always known that pumpkins and squash make excellent nutrition for our pigs part of the year. This year I learned how valuable field beets, like mangelwurzel, can be to fill in the gaps when squash is unavailable. I hope to do a better job of growing beets for pig fodder in succession in 2021. Also, I am beginning to work on transitioning the pigs to an almost entirely hay-based diet for the winter and am still working through the ins and outs of doing this. They seem to be enjoying the reed’s canary grass hay, which is widely available and much maligned in our region, as the grass isn’t considered palatable to most livestock and it spreads like the dickens. Feeding bales of reed’s canary is working for our pigs, and my hope is that by keeping our chickens and pigs together for the winter, most of the seedbank leftover in the hay chaff will be thoroughly consumed by the birds, so that we don’t end up spreading it through mulching and manuring.

This was the first year that we raised turkeys, after being asked to by eaters for years. I discovered that I love doing it. I truly enjoy being around turkeys, like the impact they make on our land, like their ability to forage… just really like their personalities. It didn’t fetch a huge profit, mostly due to the high cost of poults, but if we are able to get them to breed naturally, I foresee turkeys as having a lot of potential for us in the future. Smaller turkeys were in demand this year, which was potentially good for us, because that’s what we’re doing.
Other than breeding, one limiting factor for us is what a customer base for turkeys looks like. Most of the folks who got turkeys from us this year expressed high satisfaction… but then there were the handful of folks that contacted us from mostly urban areas to seek our birds out… stop me if I’m ranting. Nevermind, you can’t stop me.

I know that there are a lot of folks living in urban areas who are conscientious eaters, willing to put their money where their mouth is. And I’d like to be hand feeding them. There are people out there who want to have a relationship with their farmer. Not anything weird, but, you know. If that’s you, and you’re local to us, please, let’s talk. But if I’m the last option because Whole Foods is sold out, don’t bug me. The worst is when I receive a dozen email thread from one person who ultimately decides that they’d rather not have a heritage breed turkey. Well, sorry, I only want to raise animals that can replicate themselves. I’m not quite sure that I’m able to express this very well in words right now, but there’s something about the allure of that big city money that inevitably hollows me out, because, speaking generally, urban people have a lot of options when they have money. It’s hard to stand out when there’s no way to build a relationship with them, or if they don’t care about our methods of growing. Organic, pasture-raised, I think some folks choose to buy a turkey with these labels for the status, there I said it. The other 364 days a year, they don’t give a good god damn how their food was raised. We’re seeking eaters who want to take stock of their impact on the planet and support something different, a food/soil/climate/human relationship that is not extractive. I prefer a grower/eater relationship that is beyond transactional. All of y’all who ate with us this year, or who’ve supported other non-mainstream avenues for nutrition, thank you so much. Growing food is something I’m passionate about, capitalism, not so much, so you gotta make it fun for me.

Ducks did well for us as they always do. I must admit I was too busy to harvest duckweed as regularly as I’d like, so stepping up my alternative fodder game is a focus for 2021. I’d also like to improve on our pasturing set up for ducks… they have a high potential for intensive management, but I’ve always been lazy about it and just let them free range, which creates an incomplete, unfocused graze. We started feeling overwhelmed by the amount of ducks hatched this season as there’s never really been a huge market for them, even though we really like eating them ourselves. Fortunately, we tapped into a new market up in Fairfield, Iowa, and between that and creating some value added products like duck sausage, rillette, and ham, I’m sure we’ll continue to raise ducks into the future, hopefully with more focus on directing their grazing effectively.

Other than how we grazed our chickens in 2020, which I’m very proud of, I feel like we had a lot of lessons to learn this year, primarily in managing our flock population. Our layer flock is aging, and between having fewer clutches brooded, some predation, and somehow neglecting to order any replacement hens, we have quite a few changes to make in our flock this year. Egg production was uneven, with a major glut of eggs and no way to sell them this spring. Our portable chicken wagon has no tires anymore… we need to fix that problem soon, because it limits how frequently the birds can be moved when the pastures are wet. In the long run, I’d love to dispense with our fossil fuel based mobile coops altogether and design a system where the chickens can be rotated through permanently fenced areas, or with animal traction, but I haven’t gotten my head around it yet. Still, I am very happy with how we ran our birds behind the cows this year for fertility distribution (shit-kicking), and they seemed to get more from the pastures once they’ve been eaten down. The chickens created few if any pasture dead-zones, also good news. After years of being unintentional about our breeding and overall flock composition, I’m excited to have just put in an order for 50 new birds arriving in April.

The goats have had a really good year, I think. We’ve yielded some quality cheeses and found a solid market for yogurt, they’re healthy looking, better nourished than ever I think, and the mixed silvopasture areas we’ve been managing them are coming into their own with lush growth, valuable shade, and varied nutrition. Cooperatively sharing labor has really come into a good place this year. When comparing goats to cows, which we’re still relatively new to, it’s sometimes difficult to see the benefits in terms of yield, not to mention how stubborn and naughty they can be, but I’m still happy with their postitive impact on the landscape, ability to utilize marginal areas like slopes and hedgerows, and overall resilience as a homestead animal. I’m personally content with the scale we’re currently at and value goats for their grazing/browsing flexibility and light hoofprint.

On a similar note, we now have three cows… Sugar, the matriarch, Bessie, who we’ll begin milking sometime next year, and Frankie, who, cute as he is, will be our first beef raised here. I’m excited about the prospect of having two cows to milk, because that means extra cream, and that means ice cream and butter. I’m also excited to raise our first grass-only beef cow, and hope we can pull that off. This year the grazing program for the cows went pretty well I think. Rotations were quick, the average paddock lasting two days or so, and being able to provide gravity feed automatic water most of the year was a game changer. The cows have seemed healthy and content, and most importantly, they provide ample, much needed fertility. I think cow grazing has left us with some well-maintained pastures, but I recognize the fine line we walk in using animals in a way that is beneficial to our soil and climate and using them in a destructive manner… I hope that I can tell which side of the line I’m on in the future by investing more in soil carbon testing and keeping better records, so there you have it, those are my resolutions for 2021. And of course, mastering the art of ice cream.

Gardening was a mixed bag. I made one major improvement, a really big one in fact, which was setting up drip irrigation. Had I not, I don’t think I’d have kept up on things. Definitely one of the highest uses of plastic. Okra, greens, garlic and peppers all did very well for me, and we had an exciting first ever harvest of watermelons, which I’m keen to do again. Sweet potatoes had a lot of rodent damage, but I think the yield would have been really good, and our squash got hammered by pests. We yielded less than half on our squash, which was still a lot, and we also ran into some issues with disease in our tomatoes, not to mention some stunted growth due to a difficult transplanting season. I think a lesson I’ve learned, and hopefully I’m correct here, is to stick with what I know works. I got overly ambitious and tried raising too many varieties… inevitably, many of them weren’t resistant to pests and disease the way I’d have preferred. Some diamonds in the rough: Chad’s improved Amish Paste tomato, Leuchtauer paprika pepper, Burmese okra, Thai lettuce, and green striped cushaw, which while bland and bad at keeping sure doesn’t mind squash bugs and makes some lovely pork. My record keeping was poor this year, but intuitively I feel like my yields could have been better, despite probably growing the most vegetables overall that I ever have.

Gardening, for some reason, left me feeling very depleted emotionally this year, I’m not sure why. I mean, mostly it was the squash bugs. I think I learned a lot of lessons in the garden this year, about timing, seed selection, and prioritizing certain crops. We expanded our garden space significantly this year, and I think some combination of strategy and perhaps the perfect Mary Poppins-esque intern could set things straight. Also, there was a one-eyed rabbit living in the hoop house and lower garden area for like two months who I could never catch that decimated our cowpeas… I have no idea where its other eye went, but the dogs finally caught it and I’m glad.

We had a very ambitious and ultimately succesful year in tree planting, with what seems to have been a high survival rate. While a fair amount of the chestnuts I planted in fall of 2019 failed, about half of them didn’t, which feels encouraging enough to keep at it. We yielded our first hazelnuts and cornelian cherries ever, and successfully established lots of pear rootstock as well as thornless honeylocust, and some high quality hazelnut cultivars. Black currants and elderberries all took well, but we had significant losses in our willow plantings, which I can live with. I’ve got plans and most of the parts to build a portable irrigation system for establishing our trees. Between that and breaking my planting into two seasons this year, I hope that I’ll increase how many trees I can successfully get in the ground, hopefully without feeling burnt out. In 2021 I’ll be focusing on apples, heartnut, more hazelnuts, and more chestnuts, in addition to some grafting on the pears and mulberries.

On a final note, and again, recognizing this was a challenging year for many, 2020 was really pretty ok for me, personally. I gained some skills, some perspective, enough of a market to keep me in the game, and maybe even some serotonin, I dunno. My brain is working better, and my heart is keeping up for the most part, even though I do feel like my body is weary and worn out. I was able to prove something that I wasn’t confident about at the beginning of the year, that growing food sustainably is valued, and even perhaps a viable occupation if I keep at it. I feel that our need to improve infrastructure, improve design, measure our impact and record our results is more important than expanding my market this year, so I’m letting the chips fall where they may on that one, and hope to retain our friends and fellow eaters, hopefully gain some word of mouth in that arena. Here’s to another damn year, let’s hope it’s a year of healing, learning, and way fewer squash bugs.

Published by Ben

Working hard at being simple.

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