2014 has been a transitional year for the Farm.
Not so much in what is done here, but in how it is thought of.
The Farm has in the past been a cherished side-line. Something akin to a very intense hobby. It certainly was never explicitly described as such, but in reality that is what it has been. An escape; a burden of love for tradition and family pride. An endeavor to maintain and, when possible, grow. As if it were a terrarium observed from the outside with occasional incursions for the purpose of care and maintenance. A happy wart that appeared on the skin of life.
Now the seemingly shallow pride of continuing a productive tradition has transformed into a central theme of who and what I am. It is an inside-out transition where all the things that I have been striving for over the years have become important day to day activities with the farm at the center. No longer the wart, but instead, the physical body around which all the other conceptual endeavors coordinate. Either I have moved into the terrarium and now look outward, or my vision has cleared.
Moving past that personal drivel... this has been the year in which the farm has gotten the attention it deserved. The workshop is coming along nicely. Tools have a place, though there is still work to be done providing a place for all the tools. Some of the things which have languished for years have been disposed of; Whether selling off a piece of equipment to a neighbor that can use it, or simply hauling stuff to be recycled, those things that do not directly contribute are being moved out. This creates space. Space to store useful items under a roof. Space to work safely and with reduced frustration.
Increased space = decreased time. There are important qualifiers in that equation: Space must be usable and dedicated. Time has to be invested appropriately. Seems easy when laid out like that. It ain't easy. Every decision, every task, every activity comes with a benefit and a cost as well as with a risk. That space->time relationship is fraught with opportunity to screw things up. What seems like a good idea now may turn out to be disastrous or damn inconvenient the following season. Some of the decision making is based on nothing more than gut. And the gut pays the price too!
There has been a lot of researching started this year too. Cover crops are being examined for soil maintenance and input cost reduction. There is a plethora of data available. From government web sites to published papers from universities around the world to commercial sites hawking their products based on 'unbiased studies'. Enormous amounts of data and amazingly little information.
Every farm is unique. Conventional farming is based on - guess what - a set of conventional formulas. Standardization of techniques that supposedly lead to success. Well, as with anything, some do and some don't and some depend on your definition of success. If your out to make money then success depends on a certain set of criteria. If making money is simply a component of running a successful farm, then the set of criteria change pretty drastically.
The goal defined for this farm (by me anyway) has not so much to do with what can be accomplished, but instead of what can be sustained for good purpose. Sustainability has become one of those buzz-words recently. Europe is leading the discussion on the subject as far as I can tell, with African countries quietly, desperately applying the concept wherever they can. Sustainability has many components. When I think about it, life could in a sense can be defined as the process of developing sustainability. Making a rather giant conceptual leap from that corollary: The goal of the Farm is to understand the process of sustaining life. Pretty grandiose, I know, but we are all allowed our delusions of grandeur, and so this has become mine.
Tillage radishes were planted on wheat ground after harvest for the first time this year. I traded wheat straw to a neighbor in exchange for 500,000 gallons of liquid dairy manure. Ten thousand gallons per acre were applied to just short of 47 acres, then lightly disked into the top soil. A week later we applied 6-7 pounds of tillage radishes per acre. We had not had rain in several weeks and the grain drill basically just spread the seed on the top of the ground. I did some cul-de-packing on about half the acres when my back could take the jarring just to toss some soil over the seeds. Fortunately, we got rain about 10 days after planting, and we have a good cover crop of radishes coming in as well as volunteer wheat left over from harvest.
Radishes do several things for the soil: They grow long, large diameter roots which tear the soil apart and break the 'hard-pan' that develops 12-18 inches down, caused by equipment packing the soil. That tearing of the soil provides for water penetration next spring when the snow melts and the rains come. Where the roots, now braking down, penetrate, water goes. They also gather nutrients which during the breakdown process provide food for organisms which in turn provide nutrients in usable form for plants. Additionally, where radishes grow, weeds will not, thus reducing the requirement for chemical pesticides.
Radishes are not the only cover crop out there either. I will be experimenting next year with hairy vetch which, according to some studies, replenishes nitrogen in the soil. This one will be interesting: Hairy Vetch can become a real problem if it 'get away' from you. It is hard to kill. So I plan to plant tillage radishes just like this year across an entire field. Then, leaving about a 12 foot buffer around the edges, plan Hairy Vetch as well. If I am guessing right, the vetch will provide nitrogen and weed control and the radishes will till the soil, so to speak. Should be an interesting experiment.
Wheat has been a boon for the Farm. The Farm has been damn lucky with it and I hesitate to risk losing the benefits we gain. However, expenses for inputs keep going up, and commodity prices are volatile. An offer was made by a neighbor to grow oat for seed on 1/3 of our tillable acres. This would potentially provide a serious reduction in input costs to the Farm while still providing some small income. The offer has not been detailed out yet. I will consider it when the information is available, but I hesitate... Guess it will be a math problem mixed with that 'gut' decision making process. We'll see.
The Farm itself is a whole world, and it is easy to get lost in it. To withdraw and pretend that it encompasses everything. It does not of course. Outside influences on a small farm are many, most of them financial on the face of it, but with deeper and longer term impacts. The Farm Bill, crop insurance, already mentioned are the prices of inputs, equipment costs, taxes, environmental regulations....oh yeah, did I mention weather?
The weather is amazing. I know some sworn atheist farmers whom don't hesitate to pray for a change in weather. Regardless of what one does or does not believe, farming can turn the most avid belief system on its ear now and again..
The Farm gained a corn planter this year. Traded in the old 4 row 36" planter for a newer 6 row 30" model. So now the Farm is independent for growing corn from an equipment perspective. No longer do we have to wonder when we can lease equipment, and will it be available when the time comes to plant. The farm is self-sufficient for this one crop. A damn good thing!
Beans and corn yet to go this year... beans have some white mold on them and we are hoping that the plants stand until harvest in a few weeks. Corn...well, it remains to be seen. Things look good, but I have seen better plants. The wind storm earlier in the year just as the corn was getting to about six feet tall left a lot of it 'goose-necked' at the bottom. We have to hope those stalks don't snap as they dry down, leaving an even bigger mess for combining through when the time comes. Yield-wise, I think we will be ok, maybe 180 bu/acre. Beans will be average as well I think... time will tell, as it always does.
The Farm is good. I am OK. The Farm heals me slowly along with the loving care given by family, friends and professionals. All is well, and the Farm goes on...