The grass really is greener on the other side

The orchard beyond the deer fence, with our livestock guardian cat and vole exterminator extraordinaire Slate

The orchard beyond the deer fence, with our livestock guardian cat and vole exterminator extraordinaire Slate

The grass really is greener on the other side of the deer fence. It may not show in the picture, which I am not enhancing, but every time I step out the front door, that greenness boggles my mind.

When we bought this land it had been “rode hard and put up wet.” Too much taking, not enough returned for decades. That’s what absentee landlords do, I guess. We stopped selling hay, started retaining the fertility and we started seeing a bit of slow improvement. In the orchard, we have practiced chop and drop mulching with the alfalfa. Every little bit helps.

The turnaround, I knew from loads of reading about restorative agriculture, comes from correctly pasturing animals. Now as a city-raised enviro-leaning newbie farmer, this runs counter to everything I have ever heard about the evils of grazing. Then I read (actually audio-read) Joel Salatin’s book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal. He describes how his family has built topsoil by grazing cattle. Whoa! Could this be true?

Then last summer the grasshoppers attacked the orchard. In Utah, grasshopper population explosions occur regularly, going back to the tale of the seagulls saving the first pioneers. We read of a farmer in southwestern Utah that lost 1500 fruit trees. We could see the damage on our own new plantings. In a moment of inspiration driven by desperation, we turned the chickens loose in the orchard. Within a week, we had no more damage. There were still a few hoppers, but no more damage. And the chicken feed bill dropped to near zero.

We didn’t try to do any rotational grazing with the birds. We didn’t do anything except let them be chickens. One day Red caught and ate an entire foot-long snake. They scratched, dug themselves dust bath wallows, and made manure as all creatures will do. Around Thanksgiving we thanked them for their service and moved them to the hoop house for winter. That was the end of it, until a couple weeks ago when I noticed that the grass in the orchard was greening up faster than anywhere else. The pasture just looks healthier out there. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. Seven birds in 3 months eating and pooping, and we can see the results are obvious.

And that, my friends, is why two more rolls of electric fencing arrived yesterday (bloody 70+ pounds of fencing). The goats, the laying hens and the meat chickens, and the geese that are coming later this month all have work to do. We are going to set up a rotational grazing program out in the orchard salad bar. The netting should keep the trees safe-the goats do respect the white fences. When the orchard is resting, they can move on to the south pasture, or into the shade of the cottonwoods. The hens already have a mobile coop. The goats will go on day trips from their year-round pen, and I will be building mobile shelters for the meat birds and geese when they are big enough and the weather warms up.

I don’t understand enough about what happens biologically when the herbage passes through the gut of an animal to say why it makes such a difference compared to the chop and drop we were doing before. I’m not turning in my green chick card-I’ve seen plenty of damage on our public lands from poor grazing practices to say that all grazing is good grazing. But we have an object lesson here on how quickly good grazing practices can reverse decades of destructive management. And I can hardly say that last year was even good grazing practice. We have a lot to learn about how to set up our paddocks for maximum benefit at a reasonable rate of our labor.

So that’s why the herd continues to grow. The current census is 32 chickens, 3 dwarf goats and 8 yet-to-be-hatched geese. That’s pretty light stocking for six acres between the two parcels; we might need more ruminant help but we will see how it goes. The herd’s work is just beginning here. I had a soil test done in 2010, the last year the place was hayed. One benchmark we can use for whether our management is improving the land is the level of organic matter in the soil. We’ll get another sample analyzed this fall. But right now the green speaks for itself-an extremely motivating sight. It’s time to get those animals on the move.

The only fear is that we might need a herd dog. Slate isn’t going to like that, not one bit.

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Six chicks in their first seven days

Six chicks in their first seven days

We are raising chicks again this year. These Black Giants are destined for the freezer, not the nesting box, in about 5 months. As chickies they are still in the cute phase. Make no mistakes: they quickly grow out of it into miniature dinosaurs devouring everything in sight, me included if I sat still long enough.

Why meat birds? Because grocery store chickens are immorally raised: they are bred to put on weight so fast their bones can break, they probably never see the sunlight and they are fed crap like arsenic. Crap that accumulates in their bodies that we then eat. The typical factory-farmed chicken breeding has so dissociated it from every aspect of chickenness that they will literally die of thirst rather than walk 10′ to find water. Should the bloated beasties make it to slaughter, the factory processing is even more scary, a system where 25% of chicken parts testing positive for salmonella is considered normal. To quote Joel Salatin, “Folks, this ain’t normal.”

It might not be normal for a girl raised in suburban SoCal to grow up slaughtering her own chickens, but that’s what has to be done. I can’t buy the chicken meat that matches my values. Our birds are a sturdier farmstead breed that hasn’t forgotten how to take care of itself. They will take longer to raise to table weight, 20-24 weeks instead of 6-8. They will cost a little more in feed even though they will be soon be out foraging for greens, seeds and bugs. In exchange for being well cared for, they will contribute fertility back to the ranch. Right up until their very last moments, they will live good lives on our pasture. Their dispatch will be swift and merciful and with gratitude. And then they will be delicious.

I should be so lucky to live and die like that.

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Luther Burbank

Today, March 7, is Luther Burbank’s birthday. If you have ever eaten a baked russet potato or a bag of McDonalds French fries, you can thank Burbank. Savor the perfection of a sweet Elberta peach? Admired a Shasta daisy? Nibbled a Santa Rosa plum? Thank Burbank, a self-trained plant breeder who developed over 800 new varieties in a career than spanned more than 50 years.

Born on March 7, 1849 in Lancaster, Massachusetts, the thirteenth of fifteen children, Burbank received little more than an elementary education. By his mid-twenties, he had already sold the rights to the Burbank potato, the ancestor of the quintessential American baked-potato side served at steakhouses and family dinners alike and still the most widely planted potato in the United States.

In 1877, Burbank established a farm in Santa Rosa, California and launched his horticultural career as a nurseryman and plant breeder. He sold plants through catalog and by word of mouth promoting novelties like a thornless blackberry and the plumcot (hybrid between apricot and plum). He seems to have independently discovered the principles of Mendelian genetics, which were not available in the scientific literature until after 1900. Even though he “had an uncanny ability to select, sometimes over many generations, for several traits simultaneously toward an ideal type that he envisioned at the start,” academics didn’t respect his methods or lack of credentials. The Andrew Carnegie Foundation funded his work for five years, but terminated it when his lack of detailed scientific records was discovered by his sponsors. Not much of a businessman, he released unproven experimental stock that was resold as “Burbank creations” which undermined his reputation. In his sixties, Burbank sold the rights to propagate his creations under his name; when that company went bankrupt, his reputation was further damaged.

Burbank’s fame and influence persisted, however. Thomas Edison was a friend. Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York, called him “one of the greatest Americans that ever lived.” He was in favor of plant patenting, and four years after his death his letter in support of federal Plant Patent Act was read into the Congressional debate. He was awarded posthumously over a dozen plant patents.

A 1945 summary of his work noted that “‘Burbank introduced over 200 varieties of fruits alone, consisting of 10 different apples, 16 blackberries, 13 raspberries, 10 strawberries, 35 fruiting cacti, 10 cherries, 2 figs, 4 grapes, 5 nectarines, 8 peaches, 4 pears, 11 plumcots, 11 quinces, 1 almond, 6 chestnuts, 3 walnuts, and 113 plums and prunes.” Some, like the Santa Rosa plum, have fallen out of favor as commercial crops but are still grown by home gardeners. Others, like the Elberta peach, are integral to our food economy.

California celebrates Arbor Day today, in honor of Luther Burbank’s birthday. It might be too early to plant a tree in your neck of the woods, but it is a good day to honor the contributions this humble, self-taught plant breeder made to our tables, and to wonder in what garden corner of America is our next Luther Burbank quietly at work?

Want to know more about Luther Burbank?

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No kissing the chicks

Naturally, I am appalled that the Foster Farms is getting lauded for reducing their salmonella rate to 10% in one of their cockroach infested factories (industry standard rate, according to the NBCNEWS article is a whopping 25%). But that got me wondering, what is normal in a farmstead situation? Other than practicing normal good hygiene, is there anything else to do to lower the rate?

I just ordered chicks from Mt. Healthy Hatchery, which had a salmonella outbreak last year. I figure their system is now more closely monitored than most, so I’m not worried. If you order enough chicks, they will send you a free CDC poster on sanctioned safe handling practices. Most important: no kissing the chicks.

Got that? NO KISSING the chicks. Think any of the Foster Farms chicks have ever been kissed?

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A fermentable fedge in the works

Of all my goals for 2014, finishing the permaculture plan for the Bluebird orchard is most critical. The apple trees are coming whether we are ready or not!

The looming deadline adds urgency to my winter reading list and book club. Our number one limitation has been and will always be water. We want to keep water in the soil at all costs. The swales are part of the long term water strategy, as is planting mulch crops, spreading organic material from wherever we can get it, and getting the trees themselves to shade the soil as quickly as possible. Eventually, the trees will help create their own forest ecology, but we have to give them a reasonable chance of success.

Water flows through the soil to the tree roots and exits to the atmosphere through the leaves—perhaps 50% of the water in the soil in a mature will be transpired away according to Mollison. But what about our desiccating winds? The wind is always blowing in Torrey. How much more are the trees transpiring in the wind? I have no idea, but it stands to reason that it is more, a significant amount. The first fact that got my attention, in a USDA agroforestry publication on shelterbelts, is that livestock raised on sheltered pastures demand 15% less winter feed. Winds that cool also dry, so if windbreaks should help reduce water demand as well. I read on.

It turns out that irrigation requirements are in fact reduced. And there are a lot more benefits to installing windbreaks around orchards. Bees can pollinate more effectively in lesser winds. Spraying equipment, if you use it, works better too under less wind. Windbreaks trap snow (more soil water!) and less wind means less soil blown away. Wind can even blow fruit off the trees- -I wouldn’t doubt it in our frequent spring gales.

The Kingbird orchard is planted in the lee of a cottonwood windbreak. R paced out a cottonwood that fell in 2012 and estimates the windbreak to be over 125′ tall. That should offer protection to about 1,000′ downwind. The Bluebird orchard site is completely exposed on all four sides. We need to plant more trees!

But what to plant? Growing up in California, I remember the eucalyptus windrows around the orange and avocado groves. Cottonwoods and poplar are traditional around here. They grow fast, yield firewood but don’t have much else to recommend them. They aren’t the strongest wood, don’t yield anything edible, don’t feed any pollinators and use a lot of water. Can we do better?

If we cast about for new ideas and think about it, we can probably do a lot better. What if we planted a dense hedge using a mix of trees and shrubs? The Bluebird parcel is 400′ long, so we need only reach 40′ high to benefit our apple trees. The English have been doing that for centuries in their hedgerows. What if we deliberately include food crops into a hedge? Someone (not me) coined the term “fedge” for that system. What if we bias our plant selection for home-brewing and wine-making? We just invented the fermentable fedge!

Before we get into the fun part-picking out the plants and trees, we need to set out some design criteria:

  • 4-season wind break
  • Choose drought-tolerant species (we will irrigate but in low water situations the fedge will have second or third priority)
  • We will start with 200′ on the west side, which gets the most extreme winds.
  • The fedge will get extremely little maintenance. No annually pruned wine grapes here. Fussy plants need not apply.
  • The fedge zone soil will be left uncultivated to provide habitat for ground-nesting native pollinators.
  • A long season of blooms will feed our native pollinators and beneficial insect populations.
  • Birds, especially insectivorous birds, will be welcome here.
    Suitable plants for our marginal Zone 6 climate and alkaline soil (no blueberries or cranberries. Elderberries need a more heavily watered spot-we are working on that!)
  • The fedge should produce its own nitrogen and mulch through use of support trees and shrubs.
  • When available, select a variety useful for beer, cider, mead or country wine-making.

The last item is, of course, the most fun. I have been mining though Keller’s country-wine making recipes for ideas. People have made wine out of almost everything (banana wine, anyone?) but there is a dearth of information about cultivar selection. Which plum? Which cherry? And those are ones that are widely grown for table. There’s almost nothing written about mountain ash, other than it ferments. As per standard operating procedure at Stray Arrow Ranch, we don’t know now, but we will know something when we find it out.

The plants under consideration:

Canopy trees

  • Black locust (nitrogen fixer, firewood, mulcher, honey bee feeder)
  • Alder (nitrogen fixer, firewood, fast-growing)
  • Pinon and Korean pine (winter shelter, nuts, wildlife)
  • Honeylocust (may fix nitrogen, smells wonderful in bloom, copious amounts of leaf litter)
  • Black cherry (totally experimental here, used for furniture and wildlife. Will it ferment?)
  • Poplar (planted for fast growth with the expectation to remove as other trees fill in)

Understory trees

  • Serviceberry (fruit)
  • Mountain Ash (fruit)
  • American plum (fruit)


  • Siberian pea (nitrogen fixer, end-of-season chicken fodder)
  • Hazelnuts (will these produce here? no one can say they won’t!)
  • Rugosa rose (hips)
  • Juniper (birds, crucial ingredient in gin)
  • Lemonade Sumac (berries)
  • Currants and Gooseberries (isn’t there a song about gooseberry wine?)

Herbs and ground covers

  • dandelion (for wine and dynamic accumulation of minerals; the one thing I won’t have to plant)
  • perennial arugula (bee magnet, salads)
  • nepeta faassini (bee magnet)

Vines and brambles

  • Honeysuckle (pollinators)
  • Blackberry (in later years; I have concerns about its water needs. It will have to be a thornless variety too)

There you have it, plans for a fermentable fedge. We won’t be able to fit all of these trees into 200′, even planting a little over-dense to allow for abject failures. And some of them are hard to find or too expensive in quantity. But we will plant more next year, until we have the place well sheltered at least from the prevailing west and hardest winter winds. Naturally, it would have been better to have planted the windrows 20 years ago. And as the saying goes, the next best time is now! Now I must get back to perusing nursery catalogs. If there’s a country-wine making fruit you are hankering to try, get your request in now.

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