Muck, Fire, and Daylight Savings: A Spring Update from Fox Holler Farmstead

We’re in the middle of another marathon kidding season, with no time to relax during the ever lengthening days.

Yesterday I made our first plantings of peas in the garden, which was a bit optimistic. Every year I swear that I’m not going to plant too early, and every year I do so anyway. Only time will tell, I s’pose. It’s been a busy few weeks on the farmstead that only a steady, cold rain could take me away from. Anyhow, here I am again to share with y’all some works in progress made lately, and our plans for the next month as the vernal equinox nears, and we transition back into pasturing, planting, and aiding photosynthesis. Photosynthesis, the process by which plants utilize solar energy and atmospheric carbon to store energy in the form of sugars, is a more literal form of Daylight Savings than the strange form of temporal manipulation we practice here in the U.S. Photosynthesis is the actual storage of sunlight energy. Personally, I’m really not into the practice of shifting the time of day back and forth. While our human constructs and associated schedules shift with the hour, the reality of my day to day requirements remains the same. I must awaken before the sun to tend to our livestock, regardless of the numerical time. If we could instead reclaim the term to mean a more profound practice, then I’m onboard.

Fossil fuel energy originates with sunlight. If we view growing plants as similar to solar panels, and the soil as a battery with enormous potential for capacity, then it follows that fossil fuel extraction is akin to draining that battery. As anyone in an offgrid living situation can probably attest, a battery can be drained until it has completely lost its ability to maintain a charge. Soil loss in the form of depletion, erosion, deforestation, pollution, and “dead architecture” and development decrease the overall holding capacity of the battery beneath our feet. The stakes grow enormously higher when we look at how much carbon we need to sequester in order to slow down our tailspinning climate. As weather extremes and natural disasters increase, we lose more battery capacity. In already brittle climates, like sub-saharan Africa, the Middle East, and the American West, every drought and dry spell damages the resilience of the soils, until they can no longer support vegetation, therefore photosynthesis, and therefore carbon sequestration. 

We are very fortunate here in Northeast Missouri to not be experiencing such acute symptoms of climate instability at this time. In fact, we are very privileged to have access to land that can sustain and support peak photosynthetic processes. And like all privilege, it comes with responsibility. As stewards of the land, we owe it to future generations of all species that we maintain our soil  battery, and raise the production of sunlight sequestered carbon. As a species, we must enact a dedicated program of daylight savings. One in which we endeavor to save every drop of daylight we can in the rich depths of our living soil.

Much of our work this season at Fox Holler Farmstead will be along those lines. We have already begun gathering data on how much carbon we are sequestering with our practices, and will continue to carefully monitor it to determine which practices make a positive difference, and which practices we should stop performing altogether. We’ve engaged in some experimental pasture burning to remove thatch from our paddocks. This will allow more sunlight to reach bare soil between grass clumps, and hopefully allow the grasses to grow more densely. We are making some alterations to our grazing patterns to hit quickly growing spring pastures more frequently before the heat of summer slows growth. And as always, we are planting more trees this year in another attempt to increase the photosynthetic potential of our pasture. Our focus will be on establishing selected hybrid hazelnuts, pecans, paw paws, Asian pear rootstock, forage oaks, and a few highly interesting mulberry specimens. Approximately 130 trees in all are going in next month.

As is always the case this time of year, we are in the middle of goat kidding season. The weather has alternated wildly, even for March, with one night as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and some days reaching the mid 70’s. We’ve had a few cold kids to deal with, and assisted in one birth, but have managed to only lose one kid despite the adverse conditions.

As the cold rain drips outside, and soil temperatures are not yet warm enough for the grasses to break dormancy, right now is an extremely vulnerable time for our pastures. It isn’t appropriate to begin grazing and pasturing our livestock, for fear of denuding land, setting back oh so important vegetative growth. We limit our animals to barns with outdoor loafing yards or sacrifice areas. For the past few years we’ve followed up in these areas by planting quick growing annuals and vegetable crops that can sustain ourselves and our animals. This year will be no exception, but we’ve already been “sowing” these trodden, muddy areas with another important material: sequestered carbon in the form of biochar. 

We’ve been producing biochar since last year and are hoping to reincorporate this important form of stored solar energy back into the soil battery with the natural trompings and stomping behaviors of our pigs, goats, and cattle. I’m excited to see how this will affect the upcoming plantings in this area. I’ll report more on this later in the year.

In the larger scheme of things, in context with the world’s social, political, economic and environmental issues, playing with trees, goats, and biochar may seem overly optimistic. A bit like planting my peas in mid-March. If I knew I was totally alone in doing it, maybe I wouldn’t even bother, and from where I am, it sometimes does seem that way. But I also take some comfort in knowing I’m not the only one out there, putting in this work. Everyone of us who strives make a difference does… some of those peas will push their way out the earth and capture some sun eventually. And when others are there to witness the almost mundane work of supporting photosynthesis, they too may feel the same level of inspiration that I find in the process. I hope that this year we can all see each other’s efforts, and encourage more people to engage with this simple, timeless, and highly important work of stewarding and regenerating Earth’s precious battery.

Published by Ben

Working hard at being simple.

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