Sometimes I regret starting this blog. There are times I feel that every move involved with trying to make this hobby farm/homestead successful is being watched like having someone watching over my shoulder. This, of course, is my own insecurity talking. Most everyone is pulling for us and most who follow our journey are either on this journey themselves, or understand full well why we are doing it.
This past two weeks has been quite a learning experience. The spring melt-off in the high country certainly packs some amazing surprises. While I have known and experienced them all in past springs, it has not been with the need to plant a half an acre organic garden attached to the experience. Sure we have had hail at the urban farm, but all of those beds combined barely add up to two of the 18 we have here on the high plains.
We experienced two wickedly intense storms while trying to get the garden in. I’ve posted about their severity in earlier blogs. On top of that we watched most every day on radar, storms just as intense as the hail storm hoping and praying that they would track around us. Fortunately they did, but the two that didn’t….. what damage they caused.
The two garden areas are on a slight decline going from west to east. When the hail and the rain descended upon us and because of the sandy composition of the soil, we had amazing erosion. At the base of the main garden there is now 5 to 6 inches of sediment that had washed down hill. The surface area of most of the uncovered beds bled soil off into the walkways. Of course, now that it has dried, it is all hard as concrete.
Seeing the forest for the trees is a skill. As I have mentioned, and my wife is continually reminding me, this is the first year of attempting this. It is also a giant experiment that will go on for many many years. To expect perfection after all of the back breaking and mind numbing work that has been involved is simply unrealistic. For that, I keep my sanity. For that, I continue to post so that others in as difficult a landscape – or those fortunate enough to be in more opportune habitat – can learn from what we are attempting here.
One personal challenge was trying to keep it all together when my “help” (my wife, my son and my visiting mother) would hit me with a never ending barrage of questions about what to do next when I had no fricking idea. I am pretty good at trouble shooting, but I was as mind numbed from this spring weather as anyone else was. I felt like a worksite foreman simply faking it and hoping the project got completed. Don’t get me wrong, It WAS a 4 person project and I am so grateful for the help, but the questions from the inquisitive eyes that were saying in my mind: “Hey perfesser, what are we going to do about XYZ?” made me want to crawl into a hole at times. But instead…. we just kept moving forward.
I had this vision in my head as we were being pelted by grape sized hail, knowing that many of our plants would be stripped bare by the intensity, about those who have gone before. If you have ever seen a real original homestead out here, they are smaller than a one car garage (sometimes the size of a “Tuff Shed”). Wells were practically non-existent and yet people came out here (after driving off the natives of course) and tried to make a go of it. One of these kinds of storms was a life destroyer. If you lost crops or if your livestock was predated or destroyed, you were not just inconvenienced…. you were dead. There was no “replant and go to the local grocery store” as a back up. Crop failure for a homesteader was a terminal event. Remembering this makes having to eat some crow when mother nature reasserts who is damn straight in control, not such a bitter pill to swallow. On top of that, no matter what happens, the urban farm is also planted and at last glance is proceeding along nicely as usual.
The plants too are amazingly resilient. Of the hundred pepper plants that were stripped to the stems in the hail storm, at least half have begun re-sprouting leaves. We have already replaced them in the garden, but I am now inclined to keep them around in their pots and see what happens. Nothing to lose. If they recover and produce, any kind of pepper fruit, because they are heirlooms and breed true, I will simply save the seeds for next year.
So what did we learn here? We learned that if we have big, deep, snowpack in the mountains, the spring weather is going to be severe. As a result, plan on planting the weekend of Memorial Day and into the first week of June and not before unless it is direct seeding.
Start the plants in the grow room around the first or second week of March, not the end of February and don’t be in a big hurry to get them outside to harden off.
All of the beds MUST be diligently cared for and covered. Straw, held down with burlap and sandbags, will help keep the beds from eroding so badly when the deluges hit. It is one added step, but I see no other way to grow on the high plains if the beds can’t be protected from the elements.
Concentrate on a lot of root vegetables and those that can be directly seeded. Those that have fruit on the vine so to speak, like tomatoes, tomatillos, egg plant, etc., are fragile and are the most at risk for violent weather. They can be done but one needs to wait until the violent storm cells subside before exposing them to the elements.
Lastly, keep one’s perspective. JAZ Farm is an effort in and an experiment about being able to feed one’s self exclusively from the labor of one’s own hands. If it succeeds at all it will reduce the amount of dependency we have on a broken food system. The gap can be made up by fellow farmers, by buying at farmer’s markets and by buying bulk when necessary. This is what being social and developing community is all about. No one is an island and mother nature will remind you of that in short order.
In addition – I also go round and round with my vegetarian and vegan friends regarding livestock. We know from a nutrition stand -point that the human being does not require animal protein to live. I am all on board with that and I agree completely. However, again looking at mother nature and looking at how those who have gone before must have done to make it through the bitter and cruel winters on the plains makes one take pause. The most efficient way to have food through the winter (because wake up folks, they didn’t all have ball canning jars and pressure canners then) was to put your food on feet. Chickens, cattle, pork, all can weather a winter and can all forage for food in ways humans cannot. A ruminant can make it on grass… a human cannot. In order for a human to survive on the plains the grass needed to be converted to protein via a ruminant (animal that can digest grass). Had those “meat animals” not existed, I have to surmise that a large swath of the homesteaders out on the plains would not have survived either…. not to mention the tether of a life line of supplies coming out from the east. As a result, I affirm my food lifestyle as a declared “Mostly-terrian” or Flexaterian as many refer to it. It is best summed up by the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan: Eat food, Not too Much, Mostly Plants.
This first planting season of the JAZ Farm taught a lot of lessons. Not the least of which is an appreciation for the fact that until the oil runs out…. which will happen sooner than most think…. I have some seasons to perfect this fiasco and adventure that has become my non-“real work” obsession. The beans are up, the hail didn’t destroy everything, the beets are coming up, some corn is sending up shoots, the strawberries are getting leaves, unexpectedly, the melons have germinated, and we are much the wiser for all of it. The meat birds are fattening up nicely and the layers are a never ending source of entertainment. JAZ Farm rocks…. my suggestion: get out of the gym and off that bicycle that goes nowhere, pick up a shovel and go plant something outdoors…. you will be the more enlightened because of it.