Soil & Hope

January 23, 2021

Here is our compost machine at work. 

There is little as potent as the capacity to create soil. The rise and fall of civilizations is attributed to treatment of soil. When it becomes depleted, food becomes scarce, and attentions suddenly turn to filling the belly, in rapid cascade down Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Conventional agriculture accepts depleting soil by applying substitutes like anhydrous ammonia from the fossil fuel industry in place of basic stewardship. Substituting chemicals for biologic activity is a hope and prayer that does not hold up to time. 

But bovines moving across the landscape in controlled fashion do create soil. Their ingesting, trampling, dunging, and urinating create compost over large areas the way nothing else can. Nature engineered this technique and created herds of buffalo, wildebeest, elk, caribou, and antelope to build soils across the planet. This is what humanity has been living off of for 2 million years. Whether another 2 million years stand before us depends in part on how we treat our soils. 

With Landis' departure, we are learning some lessons. The above is the cow-shed where he held his herd during February and March when calving. He would bed-them-down with straw or old hay to absorb manure and urine, and then clean it out once a year, by spreading the composted material on a nearby field. We are now moving equipment into this unused shed, and I was struck by the soil left behind. Walking on it was a bit surreal, like walking on a bed of peat moss - soft, pliant, deep, and rich.

This is the result of concentrated feeding on 1/8 of an acre. How does one apply that process to landscapes of hundreds or thousands of acres? It can be done through planned movement of concentrated bovines, with long rest periods before returning. The cows in the first picture had not grazed that same acre of land since early September, providing four months of rest. That acre of ground has only had animals on it four days of the entire year, providing long periods during which roots of plants regrow. When grazing does occur, the roots of plants are stimulated to slough off, contributing carbon to the soil, and feeding million of microbes therein. This is the creation of fertile soil.  

Eartags of the cows flashing in the sun offered a striking and optimistic note the other day.

I have been watching a series of short films produced by Deborah Koons Garcia entitled The Future of Food and Symphony of the Soil. In it various soil scientists present their insights into future opportunities. One clear message is their abiding optimism about the benefits of sound management of soil. These dour and serious professionals are almost gleeful about the possibilities of soil stewardship. Soil is like the sun, in that the bounty it offers can be endless. Soil provides great hope, against a current backdrop of struggle around the world.

Your support of our work builds soil and builds hope and optimism. That sure is something to feel good about!

I had hoped to write and send this newsletter yesterday morning or afternoon, but the day had other intentions in mind. It was for me to begin refamiliarizing myself with the east end of the farm, which Landis had been managing for 12 years. We woke up to no pressure in the water system on that end of the farm, which suggests a leak. The first line of attack on a problem of this sort is to deny it exists. Just pretend the problem will fix itself. If we re-prime the pump enough times and watch the pressure gauge fall every time, eventually, the joke will surely be over, especially since 60 cows and calves need water very soon. Well, the jokester had stamina, and required our checking twelve different hydrants to ensure none were leaking. And none were, which was confounding. Finally, Chris reminded me of the 13th, and sure enough, there it was, blowing water out of a hole at full volume. Fortunately, when we originally installed this freeze-proof hydrant, we included a cut-off valve, which hadn't been used in 30 years, until yesterday. This exercise of reacquaintance took about seven hours, in the cold, rendering the writer heartened by the exercise but rather fatigued by late afternoon. 

We have begun modifying this old Tobacco Barn into a hog-management facility. Hogs are relatively easy to raise in the woods, until it comes time to weigh and load them. Then they are impossible, unless facilities are strong enough and properly designed, which we have never had. Rather than abandon raising woodlot hogs, we are investing further into doing so. Here a waterline is being dug to connect to the freeze-proof waterer you see in the foreground. In the picture below, we have begun drilling holes for posts which will support oak planks, which will guide 300-lb animals through a scale and to the stock trailer. We will keep you apprised, as this unfolds over the next few weeks. 

We have two good meals of late to show. The first is mussels with a salad of hard boiled eggs, and a peach pie. Look how yellow the yolks are! That comes from continual movement to fresh pasture, which is difficult to accomplish in the winter. Frozen water is the biggest issue in the hen house, but so far, so good, as the winter has been relatively mild. Mike is doing a great job with these hens. 

The second meal Susan prepared for Inauguration Day. This featured braised short ribs on polenta, with peas. It was deep, rich, and excellent. Short ribs require slow cooking, but they sure have flavor, like a beef stew. 

In the hope of fertile soil, and with gratitude for your essential partnership in creating it.

Drausin Wulsin

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