Friday, July 29, 2011

What was lost, must be remade.

I have become slowly obsessed with the notion of growing cereal grains over the past year and a half. Although I am very interested in open pollinated heirloom garden veggies, the grains are captivating me. I think the biggest part of the allure is the impossibility of growing these (or so I thought). I am stubborn and decline to give up on impossibilities.

For most of the last century, the modern concept of grain is a 10,000 acre plot of one crop, with a fleet of combines running across it. This seemed to be so far out of reach for me. I kept my focus on tomatoes, cukes, lettuce and squash, all safe, all traditional.  I was also calculating how much feed costs for my chickens, let me tell you it is a lot when you have 100. Then, by association I started to think about what goes into chicken feed;  corn, soy, mystery pellets, millet, wheat. After making this short list, I had an idea. What if I grew everything I needed?  Novel idea on a sustainable farm, isn't it?

I have this problem. Curiosity is never something I can sit with. When I have a question rattling inside my head, I look for answers. The Internet is a rabbit hole that I frequently follow to the point of falling asleep at the keyboard at night. I bought a book that I enjoy very much, and I think it started me on the correct path for a future with home grown grains.  It is "Homegrown Whole Grains" by Sarah Pitzer.  It is a beautiful little book with pleasing illustrations and nice introduction to both the culture of the grain crops and their uses, including recipes.  I also found an old pamphlet that I downloaded from the Library of Congress (for free). It is "Wheat Culture in Tennessee" by J.B. Killebrew 1877.

This old book opens the possibility of growing my own wheat here in TN. It also gives a first hand account of a history that is most likely completely lost to us. And since it predates the oil boom, it provides information on cultivation that is in keeping with organic methods. There is a list cultivars  that when crossed according to the table included, provides particular results that are either good or bad for the local climate, which by the way, is apparently on an isotherm with the north Mediterranean. The booklet lists the Mediterranean as the birthplace of wheat, and therefore TN is particularly suited to this crop. Who knew? 

So I start looking for the wheat listed in this book:  Old Lammas, Pearl White, Clustered Red, Boston Red, White Cove, Dark Cove, Donna Maria, Oxford Red, Satin White, King's White, Northumberland, Pearl. Gone? None appear in searches, who is growing them? No one? Are small secret samples of these hidden away in the vault of some multi-national company? Perhaps. What would be more tragic is that they are entirely lost. To believe the importance of this statement, one must understand the history of wheat in the US. From what I have found, wheat has been brought here by European colonists, grown, saved and cultivated in various regions. The varieties they carried here were the successful ones.  If you journey for two months across the Atlantic Ocean in a wooden washtub under sail, your are not going to carry wheat seed that you are ambivalent about. You are going to bring that which gives you the best chance of immediate success, what your people have grown for hundreds of years, seed that will keep you from starving to death.

So, our wheat heritage reaches back for milena only to be thrown away in the past 100 years? Are we crazy people?  Farmers were convinced by company XYZ, that the wheat #345 is the ticket to instant success. Throw away grand-pappy's wheat and grow ours, you won't regret it!  And they did. You cannot fault these farmers of the petroleum generation, they were trying to keep their families from starving to death too, except this time they were doing it by exchanging wheat for money. The money protected them. The wheat no longer protected them. 

What drove this ousting of the old varieties? Markets driven by the bushel. The higher yield of these new varieties pulled everyone along. Only problem is that these varieties were bulk and no substance. Heirloom wheat, what is left of it, is purported to have 20% or more nutritional content than "modern" wheat selected for high yield. Yield= bulk.

The solution, if you are into sustainable agriculture, is to redevelop your own wheat, a landrace of wheat as it is known.  This is exactly what some are doing, and it is what I hope to do. One must first start with a seed base. It is preferable to use an existing heirloom variety (today this is the only legal way to do it in a world of plant patents) and save seed from the best plants over several generations. The idea is that these seeds will be the best adapted to your local micro climate, your neighborhood.  The link below gives instructions on how to do it. 

There is something very beautiful about a patch of grain growing. It is like a movie scene, when the seed heads are set, I am compelled to extend my arms to the sides, palms down and just barely brush my hands across the tops of the grain heads as I walk through the field. It is like a blessing.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Folklore of Deer

If you have a garden, or a farm, chances are you will have a discussion with someone about deer. There is mythic lore associated with these critters. I never realized the magical properties they possessed. The the terrible truth comes out about Bambi. Everyone reviles his appetites.  Everyone has a story, a tale of battle against these creatures.  They travel in herds and wipe out entire plantings.  Anguished tales of one particular crop being wiped out completely. Often they will do so in a way that is completely unexpected, and unseen while you are asleep.

So far, they are eating my green beans, and inexplicably trampling them. They have also done a strange bulldozer trick in the corn field. The corn for the most part was knee high, except in one area where there we dumped a pile of cow manure. In this spot the corn was 6 feet tall. Wouldn't you know that the deer chose to crash straight through the beautiful tall corn, when all around was corn that they could just step over easily.

To give the impression that they are experts in the matter, every gardener is ready to offer their fool proof method for exacting revenge upon the deer. Its all in a misguided effort to cover up the monumental truth; they just can't stop the little boogers.  Of course it is a sign of perfect etiquette to stand and listen to your fellow gardener proclaim proudly that they have triumphed over the animal kingdom, and it is very good manners to nod and smile and agree to try their methods. Deep down you know the dirty secret;  whatever it is, its not gonna work.

Now I realize that I will probably put some of you in a tailspin. You will protest and possibly write back to me, calling me a fool. You will loudly proclaim your personal triumph over the animal kingdom and say to me " I, I alone have done this, and it really, really works".  "I have never had a problem since" is the phrase uttered as a bookend to this rant.  You my friends, are deluded and in textbook denial.  The deer have got you.

Some of the lovely and broad ranging methods I have heard for eliminating deer damage:

bars of soap tied to the plants
human urine scattered about
garlic juice sprayed on the plants
scattering of moth balls
spraying ammonia on the ground
spreading around human hair swept from the barber shop floor
hot pepper juice/sauce/powder
dried blood

And then there are fences. Deer, in their mythic power are somehow able to leap the highest fence, 8 ft seems to be a nice round number used for deer fence. I understand that deer will still try to give it a shot. There is also the light as gossamer plastic deer netting. It is supposed to thwart the deer because they cannot see it, and walk straight into it making for a very unpleasant experience for them. Ha! If the deer can't see it then I can't see it. It is only a matter of time before I become hopelessly entangled. Then I have heard that deer do not like jumping over wide fences, as in a cattle fence laid down at a 30 degree angle all around your garden, I cannot comment since I haven't tried it either.

So you say, "try electric fence". That doesn't work if the deer don't bother to touch it, but sail right over the zappy part without so much as a touch. I know, put a peanut butter smeared streamer of aluminum foil on the fence.  I haven't tried that one yet.

Fact is, in this universe, you are paired automatically with your equal and opposite deer nemesis, the best you can do is hope to tip the balance in your favor for just a little while.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


What does one do with 15 acres of hay and no money to buy tractors, mowers, tedders, rakes and balers?  Can't just let the hay lay down. Weeds and cedar trees take over a field in short order. What to do then? I have made the choice of an Austrian style scythe for my hay mowing needs. Crazy you may say. I don't think so. For certain it is physical work, for sure it is sweaty and hot at hay time. Some men drove past with a truck and trailer load of square bales looking at me like I was an insane person. Perhaps.  I have used this tool quite a bit.  Without the beef cattle roaming and trampling in the barnyard as they were last year, the barnyard has grown up in dock and other assorted broadleaf weeds.  I mowed them all down in about 20 minutes, and collected the cuttings for green compost. If I had tried to do this with my Husqvarna string trimmer it would have been a nightmare (even though the Husky is a fine tool that I appreciate very much). The stems were just too tough, and though the trimmer would have triumphed eventually, it would have been with great effort. The trimmer is actually more tiring than the scythe in uses like this. It is heavy and needs multiple swipes for the same effect.

The real beauty of this tool is in mowing hay. First, I have to say that the key to enjoying this is that you have to want mow hay by hand to begin with. If you have all the hay mowing implements and want to save time, it is highly unlikely that you will derive any pleasure from this work.  There is something akin to meditation in the process.  You swipe the scythe from your waist, and keep your arms extended. The core of your body does all the work. With practice the swing of the stroke becomes rhythmic and even, and the natural tempo I would guess is a multiple of your heart rate and breathing once you get in a groove.  The magic is the first time a slice arcs through the hay and makes that beautiful ringing scritch sound, the hay falls to the left in a windrow. The activity lends itself to certain songs of your liking and that fall into the natural beat of the snath.  I sing to myself as I go along.  Pick a song, any song, the right one will settle into your brain.

Then there is the raking and turning and curing. I defy you to have an easy time buying a long handled hay rake with wooden pegs like gap teeth. Even on line, all you can find is some hardscrabble permaculture guru with a blog on how he made his own from scratch (it is very nicely done by the by). The other alternative is to visit the old junk shops and antique booths on consignment, and hope someone has cleaned out Papaw Clive's barn and put a rake up for sale. It is equally difficult to find a real deal pitch fork. Not a spade fork, not a manure fork but a real deal 3 tine pitchfork, you know, for pitching hay. Again, we raid old Clive's tools of the trade to turn the hay as it dries, and then to neatly pick up the hay and put it loose in the barn (shut your mouth! no bales?). Or "gasp" make a haystack.  Besides reviewing the paintings of the French Masters to see a haystack, one has to visit Romania or some other like place where they have perfected the technique and still make outdoor haystacks. Modern farming scoffs at this, but truly it is no different from the practice of leaving round bales out in the field for 3 years. Do some checking, you can even rake the external hay down the sides of the stack and make it lay just so, such that it sheds rain. Alas, what we have all forgotten in this country.

So we watch the sky, we "make hay while the sun is shining".  No joke. A good rain or two can turn nice cut hay into something no better for animals than having them eat rope. The sun is at once a friend and and an enemy to hay. The hay must be dry before it is put away for storage, but it can also parch the nutritional value out of it. Many a barn has been lost to the heat generated by rotting green hay in a big mass. There's a knowing to curing hay.  My father tells a cautionary story about rotting hay. My Dad has some great farming stories from his youth:  Old man Gass (this is what Dad calls him) across the street put up all his hay in a beautiful old barn one season. Clearly the hay was still uncured. Sometime in the night, the barn and hay caught fire from the heat of decomposition, all three stories of it.  It burned so hot that it melted the shingles on the roof of the nearby farmhouse.  Richardson, the living  great grandson of a Revolutionary War soldier came running down the street from his farmhouse a mile away, wearing a night shirt, night cap, boots and toting an oil lantern, ready to lend a hand. American Gothic, neighbors looking out and caring. Nothing the fire department, Gass or Richardson could do would put this blaze out.  It lit the night sky, and hay and barn burned to the ground.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

It's too darn hot 'round here to bake bread.

I don't think there is anything that can stop me in my tracks like a fresh baked loaf of homemade bread. It is too darn hot to bake that stuff inside the house. I am crestfallen, what does one do in such trying times? Why, you just make a cob oven, that's what!  "Yippee, a cob oven!" you say. "What's a cob oven?" It is the most fitting thing a person can do with acres of TN red clay just inches under foot.

Cob is a combination of clay, sharp sand and chopped straw. Ok, still not clear about what it is?  It is basically an earthen dome, outdoor oven that has been used for perhaps thousands of years for cooking.  It is also called a Quebec Style or Crouching Groundhog oven.  You don't really need much to get it going. I bought a copy of Kiko Denzer's book "Build Your Own Earth Oven" and it is really detailed about how to put one together.  It is this guy:

So, hopefully, LJF will have a snazzy wood fired clay oven on the property, just small pace or two from the back porch of the cabin.  Life is beautiful and the bread will be good! Don't forget the pizza.