Sunday, July 6, 2014

If a tree falls … ?

We're awakened at 4-ish on the 3rd by a whoosh and a crash which I groggily process as tree-fall. This morning we venture out to find it and discover that a giant old live oak about a quarter mile from the house has yielded about a third of its mass to gravity. The rest of the tree shows no sign of demise any time soon. The severed third will gradually soften and decay, living on in insect, bird, and soil - a gift back to all that nurtured it.

We wonder on the way back why tree- or major limb-fall isn't a more frequent occurrence here, surrounded as we are by oaks. We count this as only the third major incident within a half mile over the past 14 years. That's probably an under-count, but still, why not more frequent? It suggests a young (or relatively young) forest, not yet at the point where annual deaths = annual births.

But it's definitely not a second-growth forest, because there aren't a lot of stumps. There are a few - widely and randomly spaced, very old and decayed like the one pictured to the left - of what had been mid-size valley oaks, but not more than a dozen or so. So what's their story? Selected because they were of a good size for firewood-harvesting, big enough to yield a major return but small enough to be saw-able and transportable in larger segments, and destined for homes to the east? Or are they relict of the time a hundred years ago when oaks were harvested to power the steamboats of the Delta and the Sacramento River? Were these trees dragged by horse team down to the navigable tidal zone, about a half mile to the southwest, and floated from there to docks or depots that served as wood collection and trans-shipment points?

Mysteries.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Soar like a pelican

















We awake to egret outrage this morning - honks and grunts of protest from a large congregation in the wetlands to the west - and as expected we see American white pelicans as well. The pelicans, now breeding mostly in Nevada and Utah, have dropped in to scour the drying ponds and lagunitas west of the Cosumnes River for stranded fish and crayfish, as they have been doing - no doubt - for thousands of years. The egrets take exception to what they must see as looting by outsiders and assemble with the pelicans in a frenzy of feeding. The egrets make a lot of noise; the pelicans are silent birds. The conflict must seem more than a little ritualized after all of these years.

White pelicans are North America's largest bird; only the (lighter) condor has a larger wingspan. But they soar seemingly effortlessly, working the thermals to gain altitude, large cohorts gliding quietly in coordinated flight.

Yesterday, a mixed cohort - many older, only a few younger - gathered in Sacramento to memorialize my first boss, a "small giant of a man" (to quote one participant) who had played a key role as lobbyist for the Sierra Club in securing enactment of all of the major natural resources legislation of the 1970s.* John Zierold had died in December; he would have been 89 years old last Friday. As remarkable as the man was the group drawn together by his memory, a staggering amount of collective achievement and intelligence in a medium-sized room.

The speeches and reminiscences were exceptional, some of them tracing threads of policy and politics back 60 years. One participant asked reflectively, "Was it John? Or was it the times?" The answer, of course, was and is "yes" - one person can make a profound difference, but only when the context is right, and only with group support. John had the quiet leadership skills, a gift for strategy and tactic, an amazing network of collaborators, and a large well of public concern to draw upon.

The largely unacknowledged elephant in the room yesterday was the reality that the 30- to 35-year period since the flowering of the environmental movement in California has seen isolated victories but generalized defeat. John Zierold's passion was for protecting what he called "Earth's life-support systems." Today, those systems, from soils to oceans to atmosphere, are eroding and being poisoned and acidifying and warming and altering in composition in ways that fundamentally threaten future life on Earth. Many of us have worked hard to reverse those trends, but without meaningful success.

"Was it us? Or was it the times?" I hope that the cohort that we've mentored will be as generous in framing a response to that question at some time in the future as we were yesterday.


*The personal tribute to John that I read yesterday is here.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Buckeye chickens






















These somewhat prehistoric-looking creatures are 5-week old Buckeye chickens. We recently acquired 30 of these birds at 2 days old from a small-scale breeder near Merced. He (Tom Dinwoodie of Central Valley Buckeyes) is a part of a small but significant grass-roots effort to reestablish local breeding flocks of heritage varieties, and to "breed to the standard." Breeding to the standard means selecting from among your flock those individuals who most closely embody the traits described for that breed in the American Poultry Association's Standard of Perfection, the poultry breeder's "bible," and letting those birds reproduce. The indiscriminate mass breeding that goes on in large hatcheries means that most commercially available birds have slipped considerably from the Standard of Perfection.

The Buckeye was developed a hundred years ago by a woman in Ohio named Nettie Metcalf, whose goal was a hardy, large dual-purpose (meat and laying) bird. Developing a new breed is a slow process involving decades of work. Metcalf crossed Buff Cochins, Barred Plymouth Rocks, and game hens and produced her first genetically stable Buckeyes in 1896. Buckeyes were listed in the Standard of Perfection beginning in 1904 (and Netcalf is the only woman credited with the development of a breed). As a dual-purpose bird Buckeyes never had a large commercial presence and were in danger of extinction at one point. They are recognized on the Slow Food Ark of Taste.

These Buckeyes represent the evolution of our thinking about chickens. While we've always treated our birds humanely, giving them access to plenty of pasture, cover crops, and crop residues, we've never given a lot of thought to where they came from or how they were transported or the implication of large "mega-hatcheries" for animal health and welfare. That changed dramatically when we met Jim Adkins of the Sustainable Poultry Network at this year's EcoFarm Conference. Jim and colleagues are committed to restoring heritage breeds through distributed small-scale breeding farms, usually focused on a single species. Central Valley Buckeyes is a small enterprise inspired by Adkins. We don't intend to become a breeding farm (selling chicks) but we do intend to hatch our own chicks henceforth, either using a small mechanical brooder or the natural way using broody hens.

In parallel with this change in course we're pursuing certification of our laying flock as "Animal Welfare Approved." This certification is available to pasture-based operations that provide humane living conditions for the chickens and full-time (except at night) access to sufficient pasture to provide an ongoing source of natural feed (insect and plant-based) to meet most of the animals' nutritional needs. "Animal Welfare Approved" is the only meaningful certification available to egg producers in the U.S. because "free range" means only theoretical access by thousands of birds to a small bare patch of ground, "organic" can mean tightly-confined with no access to natural feed, and "pastured" can also be used without reference to the amount of pasturage actually available. The very specific "Animal Welfare Approved" standards are enforced through annual site audits.

We passed our AWA audit about a month ago and expect to be officially certified soon. It's exciting, because for consumers interested not just in animal welfare but in getting the best possible egg, nutritionally and taste-wise, it's the current gold standard.





Sunday, February 9, 2014

turn, turn, turn


















We have pluot blossoms two weeks early. And we have rain three months late. On Friday we finished the last bit of pruning, planted the last few of a couple of dozen new fruit trees, and fertilized and composted the new trees in a sprinkle of light rain. It felt like a change of season and lifted our spirits. It had me humming one of my favorite Pete Seeger songs.

The rain is timely for our cover crops, fava beans, the lettuce, spinach, and other vegetable crops, and the new (and old) trees. It will also help significantly by greening up some of the dry pasture that the chickens feed on.

But the rain leaves us still significantly in deficit and with a forecast for the balance of the month and early March that is not encouraging. Have I become the kind of farmer for whom complaining about the weather is a constant refrain?!

It is what it is, and we will get through it. Let's be thankful for lives lived as fully and generously as Seeger's. This land is your land!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Cry, California
















The annual EcoFarm conference, which we attend biennially, took place last week. On the way down to Pacific Grove, we drove 100 miles of the Interstate 5 corridor, past vast acreages of almond trees. On the way back we noted a change - thousands of pallets of bee hives had been delivered and parked on the edge of the orchards. That means that blossoming is just days away, fully 8 weeks before the spring equinox.

The enormous monocultures of almonds in the San Joaquin Valley leave no room for biodiversity - no hedgerows, no remnant patches of native flora, thus no native pollinators. The almond trees are 100% dependent on honeybees for pollination, and the value of the pollination service is such that 90%-plus of the honeybee hives in North America are lured to the valley while the almonds are in bloom. Some have speculated that the stresses of transport, the sharing of parasites, and the restricted diet while on almonds have been a factor in the the widespread collapse of bee colonies across the country.

"EcoFarm" - the 34th annual - was as always both inspirational and overwhelming, an intense, compressed learning experience and large social gathering.

We return to just-opening blossoms on our earliest apple, pictured above, and to continued dryness which will mean daily irrigation somewhere on the farm henceforth unless by some miracle we get significant moisture this winter. That possibility seems increasingly slim as dry day follows dry day.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

two degrees



I received in the mail earlier this week a very special gift from a thoughtful friend who's known me all of her young life - an inscribed copy of Wendell Berry's latest book. She's now a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry; he was there for a symposium. I've long hoped to meet Berry and doubt that will ever happen.

Berry is an author, activist, and farmer. His dozens of novels of the fictional Port William community chronicle six generations of rural small town and small farm life in Kentucky, doing so with a depth that astounds, an abundance of generosity, and a healthy dose of gritty realism. His poems are accessible, often spiritual, and frequently very moving. In his non-fiction, he focuses a pithy wit and keen analytical sense on the bloated target of modern culture in general and large scale industrial agriculture in particular. He understands the severity of the climate crisis and the enormous extent to which modern agriculture has contributed to that crisis.

Berry's most noted work of non-fiction is The Unsettling of America, published in 1977. It's a comprehensive critique of modern agriculture with its focus on mechanical efficiency, over-reliance on petroleum and petroleum-derived chemicals, abusive exploitation of animals, and obsession with monoculture. Berry connects the dying of the soil - through erosion, poisoning, and paving - with the loss of community at all scales of public life. A line from "Unsettling" -  The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all - could serve as epigram for the entirety of the Port Williams fiction.

Another quote from "Unsettling" captures both the wit and the thrust of Berry's critique:

Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm — which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commercial fertilizer. The genius of America farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.
 
Reading Berry might be more fun if he were less right. He is right - profoundly and fundamentally so - and the world will catch up some day. There are glimmers, such as last month's United Nations Commission on Trade and Development report titled "Wake Up Before It's Too Late," concluding that small-scale organic farming is the only way to feed the world. 

We need, according to UNCTAD, "a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers." Without the hyphens and tech-speak, it could be Berry.

2014 is the International Year of the Family Farmer. 

Thank you, Maggie, thank you, Wendell, and Happy New Year to everyone!




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Friday, December 27, 2013

sunset for Gaspar














Our venerable senior rooster, Gaspar (blogged about here), met his demise today in the talons of a red-tailed hawk. Tonight's sunset echoed the red of his feathers.

He's our third loss in the last 10 days. Last week, on consecutive days, we lost young hens to red-tails. We responded to those kills by moving our mobile coop (flock inside) from the meadow west of the house to the orchard east of the house, hoping that the added cover and complexity and proximity to buildings would deter the hawk. No such luck.

Hawks have never been a problem in our eight years of pasturing chickens during the day and confining them in coops at night, but we're in the most severe drought that we've ever experienced here (and perhaps the most severe drought in the period of record). The drought has caused a crash in the population of voles (microtus) or field mice, a normally super-abundant small mammal that forms the base of the food pyramid for hawks and owls. Our out-of-control non-native turkey population probably played a major role as well. We haven't seen a single vole for a few months.

The hawks are hungry and desperate. The feed store grapevine tells us that other chicken pasturers in the area are also experiencing kills in areas where hawks have never been a problem. And from our hunter-friends we hear that the local pheasants clubs have to wait to release pheasants until hunters are in the field; otherwise the hawks get the pheasants first.

We'll miss Gaspar, a gentle giant who tended his flock gently but competently. He is survived by his son Sandy, almost a carbon copy.

Ethical questions arise. An animal rights activist friend thinks us remiss in allowing our chickens to be exposed to predators (but has worked hard to mandate better living conditions for egg-producing commercial flocks). She may have a point but both practical and (in my mind) humane factors weigh the other way. Practically, we don't have room to confine our 30-bird flock during the day (but will definitely consider it if predation reduces it to half that size). And would it really be humane to confine a flock that has known the many joys of free-ranging, from eating at will from nature's buffet to taking dust-baths whenever they choose to sneaking into the fig tree for snacks when I'm not looking? Having indulged the natural tendencies of our flock, is it headline material when "real" nature blurs the line and bites back?

I was genuinely saddened to find Gaspar headless and with his chest cavity excavated. He got a proper burial and will soon be nourishing a fruit tree.

I don't like the idea of feeding chickens to feed hawks. But I certainly don't blame the hawk for following its imperative. And I pray for rain soon and a rebound of the vole population.
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