Newsletter #9 – July 2009

05/08/2009 9:24:33 AM
manu in garden.docx

~ Thompson Small Farm ~

Newsletter #9 – July 2009


Hello All!


I (Jon) think we had a baby yak born this month.  Andrea would know.  But I can’t remember.  Not whether it was born or not, but whether or not it was this month.  If so, this was then the month of our open-house!  Thanks to all who attended, we had a lovely time having you here, and we will do it again before the end of the season.  We all watched the baby yak (Morgan) being born.  We’ll send some pictures along with additional ones from the farm.  This is the first calf born to Brie, her mother.  It has her curly hair, and she is a good, calm mom.  It plays a lot with Wild Bill and Francois, the other calves.


This month, as you know, our delivery truck broke down.  This raised a lot of conflicting emotions, as the vehicles here always do.  (We are of the belief that if we as a society going down a tube into a pit of unsustainability, we are doing it in our cars. And they are most certainly driving us, not vice-versa.)  So many ironies, here.  First, there is the fact that alternative farmers cannot farm close to the centres they serve because cannot afford one that close.  Then, there is the fact that when you farm, you have to have a vehicle – the days when there was a town on the railway lines every nine miles so you could get there sustainably by horse and wagon are long over.  And then, you need a BIG vehicle, because you will be hauling heavy stuff.  Our farm truck is a diesel Ford, 1994 (again, doing this, you don’t buy a new $50 k rig), with a massive 7.3 litre engine – a vehicle that can go a million miles – with repairs of course.  A trailer full of heavy horses alone demands this.  So the cart is now pulling the horse – a once efficient system turned on its head.  Well, at least the thing is good on fuel, on the highway anyway, but this is a relative statement.  Fact is, using the term “efficiency” in reference to any motor vehicle – be it our truck, or a Smart Car or Prius – will always be more than less oxymoronic by definition, unless perhaps it is in speaking of the freight train.


The repair bill for our truck could be in the neighborhood of $4,000.00, which sounds like a lot (it is), but is pretty standard maintenance on such a conveyance.  (I could buy a very good team of horses for the cost of this one repair, by the way, that would serve me for 20 years.)  This bill will need to be paid for out of a business venture, which, this year, will gross less than $20,000. When you look at these sorts of numbers, you can understand the conundrum we are in not just here on our little patch, but as a society.  We must find sustainable systems.  By definition, this is not optional.  This means, usually, de-industrialization.  But to attempt to be de-industrial when surrounded by an overwhelmingly industrial world (and the word overwhelming is nowhere more apt), not only makes one intensely vulnerable, it may well prove impossible.  Once you drive a motor vehicle, that single act alone invests you heavily in the industrial economy.  And the industrial economy, it seems, demands an industrial wage.


So once again, we are trying to imagine a way to cut the motor vehicles completely out of the farm system.  We are not yet sure this can be done at this point.  We are open to your suggestions. What we are contemplating, however, is making more of our errand trips to the local towns with the horses and wagon.  This will not alter an extremely precarious small farm economy as long as we are doing distant deliveries, but it will help bring back to our towns an imagery that we believe needs to be back in peoples’ faces.  We will be stuck in a purgatory of mere gestures towards sustainability until we hit some critical mass.  One of more trains, more horses, more CSA and other alternative farms, far less personal motor vehicle use.  Each of us must contemplate if we can be leader here.  And try not to do it quietly!


Otherwise, it has mostly been a very good month here.  The gardens are really coming along, although the variety is not what we had envisioned for this year.  Lost to vagaries of Alberta climate this year are: corn, beans, cucumbers, radishes (so far), red-fife wheat, about half the potatoes, broccoli, brussel sprouts and cabbage we planted (other half doing okay), etc.   Doing well are the oriental and other greens, turnips, kohlrabi… that sort of fundamental marginal-climate stuff.  Reminds me of my great-grandparents, who homesteaded outside Lethbridge beginning around 1905.  Lost all their cattle, frozen solid, in 1906-’07 in the big historic blow that killed the last of the cattle barons.  But they had a garden.  All that grew that year was turnips.  But at least they had turnips.  That’s not to say that there aren’t those managing to grow a much broader range of produce in Alberta, today.  But look under the skin and you will find some way in which they are forcing the natural conditions to a degree that cannot be considered in keeping with sustainable goals.  Usually, they are pouring the water on every day in volumes that pool on the ground, or they keep heated greenhouses.   Neither of these practices are good for us, in the long run.  The way to do it right in our minds in this place is to use the rain and runoff water, get it to the fields economically and sparingly, (hope that the Great Mystery will help you with this!) mulch like crazy to hold it in, and be philosophical about just what it is you’ll be eating if you’re an Albertan. This is something we need to incorporate in our psyches as growers as much as anyone else.  


We continue to be blessed by a great crew of helpers.  Amongst them, a young Israeli woman who taught us much about native edibles, as well as young French woman who was not impressed when the mice took over her car.  I loaned her a live-trap.  The mice went in and died, lying there spread out on their bellies as though they expired while launching off little diving boards.  “Don’t feed these mice to any of the animals,” the woman told me.  “They got into my medication.  I think that’s why they died.” 


Some people advise you should avoid doctors at all costs.


We began cutting some hay from the road verges this month, as it looks far better than much of the field hay this year.  Normally, only a few of us small fry do this, as the big boys mostly have hayland on a scale larger than most eastern farms.  But lo-and-behold, this year most of the good verge-hay around our place got cut just before we were able to claim it.  Our new neighbor – (Mighty Joe Young we’ll call him) – whose self-built mountain range masquerading as a house now dominates our eastern horizon so he can overlook his newly purchased 20 square milesclaimed the grass.  He made a few bales of it, and is now letting 90% of it sit and spoil.  I gave him a call.  The wife, who is friendly enough, asked me what they should do with it.  Use it, I more or less told her.  “I’ll need to tell my husband,” she answered, “We know nothing!”  Another irony of our times, I thought.  The largest new farmers – some of who promise to be the largest farmers yet, in a world already dominated by giants – have utterly no idea how to farm – even less than the drive-and-spray sons and daughters who’ve inherited most of the land out here. (Hell, even less than us – HA! )  Well, of course they don’t – you don’t buy 20 square miles with farm money.  Anyway, if they don’t rake that hay soon, we will.  There’s no way we will let it rot when we could use it so badly.  Or to do so on principle.  The question remains why someone who lays claim to such an instant empire needs to cut verge hay.    But here is something again that is ominous for us on our little patch.  This man intends to purchase every farm he can.  Word on the street is that 20 square miles is not nearly enough for him.  If he gets a hold of the adjoining land we are renting, and he intends to, the odds of him honoring old agreements are nearly nil.  “Might as well sell it to me now,” he apparently told the owner.  “I’ll get it anyway.”  We would loose most of our grazing land if she craters, and men like this are emphatically not about sharing.  Theirs is the Walmart approach to survival – life is a competition, not a collaboration, best won by owning everything. We tell ourselves there is lots of verge-hay, but now Mighty Joe wants that, too.  So here’s another hurdle.  What effect will such newbie empire builders have on sustainability efforts?  Now that the global economy is collapsing, their advisors are all telling them, “Buy farms!”  And they are.  Oh well, cross that bridge we tell ourselves. 


Our old #9 MacCormack-Deering haymower, circa 1948 and rebuilt last year with help from, among others, CSA member Mat Schaeffer, is doing a skookum job when hitched to the girls, Raven and Gwyneth, or alternatively, Raven and Emma.  This model was the pinnacle of horse-powered technology, an elegant machine that was the last of its line before being replaced by unsophisticated tractor implements that substituted brute force for excellence of design.  Up and down the road we go, laying down the green grass, the “high-gear” scissor-action blade whirring gently, the gearing positioned mostly behind the axle (unlike other models) so that in tandem with my bodyweight in the seat, much weight is counterbalanced off the neck of the horse.  The horse machine spreads the grass thinner over a larger swath than the tractor machines, and it dries in one hot day because of this, ready to rake.  The verge hay cures a nice bluish colour – blue hay. Two calories back for every one expended, we’re told, in contrast to one back for at least ten expended when a tractor is your power source.  (Who said the latter was efficient?!)  We’ve got a nice pile of loose hay started, and we’re hoping to claim more.  Last winter our herd lived on it, and came through well.  Ted Andrew of Dunphy sold me 12’ wide dump rake that we hitch behind the cart.  Sebastian the wwoofer from New Brunswick who falls asleep so suddenly in the truck that he drops anything he may be holding (don’t ask him to drive!), rides on the cart beside me and gives a mighty heave of his strong arms when the rake fills as the horses continue plunging forward, dumping windrow after windrow for later forking.  The Clydesdale horse has a longer, more fluid stride than any of the other heavy breeds, and the resulting smart clip can get things done in short order.  We are honored to be working in partnership with them. 


And we’re reveling in the comraderie that working on a human scale with others brings to life.  Many hands not only make light work, they bring on a whole new dimension of meaning. Community is life. 


Thank-you again for your support!


          Andrea and Jon and our many wonderful helpers.

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