Spring Forest Plants!

Spring may be my favorite season.

I love walking in our woods and seeing the Earth wake up from its Winter slumber.

Here are some photos I took this morning…

Cercis canadensis, the Eastern Redbud, is much more pink and magenta than red.
Redbuds are “nitrogen fixers”… that means they pull nitrogen from the air to be used for its growth. It also provides some excess nitrogen to surrounding plants.
The flowers are also edible!

 

Asimina triloba is the Common Paw Paw, the largest native North American fruit!

 

Another photo of Asimina triloba, the Common Paw Paw.
Its scientific species name, “triloba” refers to the flower’s three-lobed calices and doubly three-lobed corollas.

 

Silene virginica is known as Fire Pink.
It attracts and is pollinated by the Ruby Throated Hummingbird.

 

Prunus americana is the American Wild Plum.
Their fruits are edible, and while sweet they are also very tart.

 

Carya ovata, the Shagbark Hickory.
Bud in the foreground and trunk in the background. The trunk is what gives this tree its name!

 

Carya ovata, the Shagbark Hickory.
Now with the bud in focus.

 

Viola sororia, the Common Blue Violet… but considering its purple color, I prefer its other name, the Common Meadow Violet.
Edible flowers and leaves!

 

Oxalis violacea is the Violet Wood-Sorrel.
The flowers, leaves, stems, and bulb are all edible and taste sour (in a good way), similar to a lemon.
Also known as the “Wild Shamrock”.

 

All photos in this article are ours. If you would like to use one, please let me know!

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COURSE: Introduction to Permaculture!

Introduction to Permaculture at the Bauernhof Kitsteiner
17 June 2017 (Saturday)
9:00 am – 4:00 pm
*Limited to 30 participants.

John Kitsteiner will be teaching a 1-day course at their family farm, the Bauernhof Kitsteiner. This course is designed for the person who knows little to nothing about Permaculture. The first half of the course will be lecture based, and the second half of the course will be a guided tour of the Bauernhof where Permaculture design is being put into practice.

CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL COURSE DESCRIPTION!

Grass-Fed Lamb!

So excited to see that the smallest of our lambs still falls within expected weights of conventionally raised Katahdin lambs… and we are producing a healthier, grass-fed animal with no antibiotics, dewormers, or vaccines… and our small section of Earth is being healed in the process!

Looking out over our pastures!

This process is taking a few months longer than conventional, but the only real cost is the time to move paddocks. And this is kinda fun thing do.

Just under a year ago, our ewes had their first lambs on our farm. Today I’m taking the smallest ram lamb to a new butcher to be processed. This Katahdin Hair Sheep lamb weighs 97 lbs. He is 99.9% grass fed on our rotationally-grazed pastures. They get a small bit of fermented grain to help lead them to a new paddock and to keep them friendly. They also have a free-choice, kelp-based mineral supplement.

If the butchering goes well and our tastings pass the test, we will soon be able to start selling USDA-approved, locally-grown, beyond-organic lamb!

 

All photos in this article are ours. If you would like to use one, please let me know!

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Pig Plows and Wildflowers

I don’t own a tractor.

There may come a time when I change my mind, but I actually hope to never own one if I can help it.

But I still could use some earth turned from time to time.

Fortunately I have pigs.

And they can beautifully plow up a field. I have struggled to bury a shovel blade in the same soil that my pigs move through with seemingly no effort.

And they only use their nose!

Pig plow in action.

Pigs who root are happy pigs!

Pigs are amazing animals.

This same plowing efficiency is why some people do not want pigs in their pastures. That’s understandable. Especially if it is a good pasture. The pigs will tear it up.

The key to grazing pigs on pasture… and yes, I do mean grazing… my pigs love fresh grass! …but the key to grazing pigs on pasture is to make sure the soil and pasture are not destroyed by the pigs in their process of tearing it up.

And that’s not a contradiction.

A pasture that is torn up and left with patches of bare soil has the real possibility of being destroyed. A pasture that is torn up and then quickly covered again with grasses and other pasture plants is not destroyed, but is stable or even improved.

And this is the process we are implementing on our farm.

The rolling hills and valleys of our pastures.

Our farm has some areas of pretty good pasture and really bad pasture. Not surprisingly, the worst areas are on the ridges of our many hills. The topsoil is very shallow or even non-existent and has almost no organic matter.

These infertile, poor-soil ridges are the perfect place for our pigs.

This is our “soil” on the ridges… not very good

Between the Broomsedge and erosion already present on the ridges, it was pretty easy to see where we should start working to repair the soil.

Here’s our plan:
We set up a paddock on the ridges. We use poly braid electric fencing with a portable electric solar charger. The paddock will not extend too far on either side of the ridge where the pigs can cause significant erosion. We just want the soil turned over. We add hay to the paddock. The pigs eat some of this, but mainly they nest in it at night. After a few days, and this all depends on the size of the paddock and how much rain we get, the paddock will be sufficiently pig-plowed, and the pigs will be ready to be moved to the next paddock. The day before we move the pigs, we will broadcast seed in the pigs’ paddock. The pigs will trample the seeds into the soft earth. The manure and hay will add a good amount of organic matter to start the soil rebuilding process. The seeds will bring even more biomass and biodiversity to rebuild the soil and pastures.

 

Our pigs have plowed up this paddock and are ready for the next one.

This brings us to the seed.

I have many requirements and desires on pasture species. Therefore my seed list is very diverse.

Here’s the basis of our seed selection:
We desire pasture plants that can feed our animals. We desire plants that produce a lot of biomass (leaves, blades, stems, roots, etc.) to build the soil. We desire plants that can pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and put it into the soil. We desire plants that can break up our clay soil and subsoil compaction. We desire plants that have deep roots that can withstand drought and pull nutrients from deep in the subsoil. We desire plants that increase soil microorganisms and life in general. We desire plants that yield a steady progression of flowers through the season to provide pollen and nectar for pollinators. We desire plants that provide habitat and food sources for beneficial insects.

That is a lot of desires for a seed. No one plant can do all that. There are some species that fulfill many of these requirements, but we also desire to increase the biodiversity of our pastures.

We are going to do this with seeds from two sources, Walnut Creek Seeds and Prairie Moon Nursery.

The bulk of our seeding will be using the Walnut Creek Seed Super Soil Builder Mix. This is a mix of species that will meet the majority of our desires in pasture plants. The seed mix includes:

  1. Field Pea
  2. Cow Pea
  3. Sunn Hemp
  4. Oats
  5. Pearl Millet
  6. Radish
  7. Ethiopian Cabbage
  8. Sunflower

We will also be sprinkling in a small amount of seed from Prairie Moon Nursery every time we seed with the Super Soil Builder. These are seeds from prairie plants native to North America. The majority of these species had original distribution over much of the east, including my home in Tennessee. These plants will fulfill our desire for pollen, nectar, and habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. They will also greatly increase the biodiversity in our pastures as there are over 100 species in our mix!

The species from Prairie Moon Nursery include:

  1. Wingstem (Actinomeris alternifolia)
  2. Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
  3. Yellow Giant Hyssop (Agastache neptoides)
  4. Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum)
  5. Prairie Onion (Allium stellatum)
  6. Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis)
  7. Pasque Flower (Anemone patens var. wolfgangiana)
  8. Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana)
  9. Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnate)
  10. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
  11. Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  12. Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticallata)
  13. Heath Aster (Aster or Symphyotrichum ericoides)
  14. Smooth Blue Aster (Aster or Symphyotrichum laeve)
  15. Calico Aster (Aster or Symphyotrichum lateriflorus)
  16. New England Aster (Aster or Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
  17. Sky Blue Aster (Aster or Symphyotrichum oolentangiensis)
  18. Canada Milk Vetch (Astragalus canadensis)
  19. White Wild Indigo (Baptisia alba)
  20. Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis)
  21. Decurrent False Aster (Boltonia decurrens)
  22. Pale Indian Plantain (Cacalia or Arnoglossum atriplicifolium)
  23. Great Indian Plantain (Arnoglossum reniforme)
  24. Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides)
  25. Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)
  26. Pasture Thistle (Cirsium discolor)
  27. Lance-Leaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)
  28. White Prairie Clover (Dalea candida)
  29. Leafy Prairie Clover (Dalea foliosa)
  30. Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea)
  31. Illinois Bundle Flower (Desmanthus illinoensis)
  32. Showy Tick Trefoil (Desmodium canadense)
  33. Illinois Tick Trefoil (Desmodium illinoensis)
  34. Midland Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)
  35. Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  36. Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
  37. Bush’s Coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa)
  38. Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)
  39. Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata)
  40. Biennial Gaura (Gaura biennis)
  41. Cream Gentian (Gentiana flavida)
  42. Wild Licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota)
  43. Showy Sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus)
  44. Early/False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
  45. Rose Mallow (Hibiscus laevis)
  46. Great St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
  47. Kankakee Mallow (Iliamna remota)
  48. False Boneset (Brickellia eupatorioides)
  49. Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)
  50. Meadow Blazing Star (Liatris ligulistylis)
  51. Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya)
  52. Marsh Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)
  53. Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata)
  54. Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
  55. Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
  56. Glade Mallow (Napaea dioica)
  57. Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium)
  58. Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis)
  59. Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
  60. Tube Beardtongue (Penstemon tubaeflorus)
  61. Narrow-Leaved Obedient Plant (Physostegia angustifolia)
  62. Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana)
  63. Prairie Cinquefoil (Potentilla arguta)
  64. Slender Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)
  65. Hairy Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum var.pilosum)
  66. Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum)
  67. Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
  68. Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
  69. Sweet Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa)
  70. Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba)
  71. Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis)
  72. Late Figwort (Scrophularia marilandica)
  73. Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa)
  74. Maryland Senna (Senna marilandica)
  75. Royal Catchfly (Silene regia)
  76. Rosin Weed (Silphium integrifolium)
  77. Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum)
  78. Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)
  79. Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
  80. Stout Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)
  81. Grass-Leaved Goldenrod (Solidago graminifolia)
  82. Early Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
  83. Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida)
  84. Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
  85. Purple Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum)
  86. Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis)
  87. Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)
  88. Hoary Vervain (Verbena stricta)
  89. Yellow Crownbeard (Verbesina helianthoides)
  90. Common Ironweed (Veronia fasciculate)
  91. Missouri Ironweed (Veronia missurica)
  92. Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
  93. Heart-Leaf Golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera)
  94. Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)
  95. Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens)
  96. New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)
  97. Shrubby St. John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum)
  98. Early Wild Rose (Rosa blanda)
  99. Big Bluestem PLS (Andropogon gerardii)
  100. Side-Oats Grama PLS (Bouteloua curtipendula)
  101. Bebb’s Oval Sedge (Carex bebbii)
  102. Plains Oval Sedge (Carex brevior)
  103. Brown Fox Sedge (Carex vulpinoidea)
  104. Canada Wild Rye PLS (Elymus canadensis)
  105. Virginia Wild Rye PLS (Elymus virginicus)
  106. Dudley’s Rush (Juncus dudleyi)
  107. June Grass PLS (Koeleria macrantha)
  108. Switch Grass PLS (Panicum virgatum)
  109. Little Bluestem PLS (Schyzachyrium scoparium)
  110. Indian Grass PLS (Sorghastrum nutans)
  111. Rough Dropseed (Sporobolus asper)
  112. Prairie Dropseed PLS (Sporobolus heterolepis)

Note: There are a few of the species listed here that may be toxic to livestock. Then why would I add them to our fields where our sheep and pigs and other animals may eat them? First, none of the species are extremely toxic. Second, toxicity is almost always dose dependent… meaning, a little bit will not cause trouble. If a whole paddock was filled with a mildly toxic plant, then yes, an animal could be harmed. But we are adding so few of each plant, that I am not concerned about this. Third, these are native prairie plants that have been grazed by herbivores on this continent for thousands and thousands of years before modern humans altered the ecosystem… meaning, grazing animals have and can live in harmony with these plants. Fourth, when animals have a choice, and that is key, they will choose the plants their bodies need. Many of these “toxic” plants are likely medicinal to the animals in small quantities. If herbivores have plenty of options for grazing, they will eat what is needed and desired, and not more. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but in light of the other reasons listed above, I believe the benefit from this huge increase in biodiversity is worth the very small risk.

As this system matures, I will add photos!

 

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Patches of Spring Regeneration

It’s not much yet, but I’m still excited to see these bright, Spring green patches of grass coming up in a pasture that was recently covered with Eastern Red Cedar seedlings (Juniperus virginiana) and Broomsedge Bluestem (Andropogon virginicus).

This is the result after only a single rotational grazing period with our sheep followed immediately with my small riding mower to knock down the clumps of Broomsedge.

We did no reseeding, liming, or calcium application… all of which would be helpful and would speed up the recovery/regeneration process.

It’s these little encouragements that confirm we are on the right track.

 

 

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Dealing with Broomsedge Bluestem (Andropogon virginicus)

Andropogon virginicus, also known as Broomsedge Bluestem (or just Broom Sedge), Yellowsedge Bluestem, and Whiskey Grass is a clumping grass that is native to the southeastern United States, and this includes where our farm is located in East Tennessee.

In the photo above, you can see how thick it has grown in the pastures on our farm.

When we first moved to our farm almost 2 years ago, I knew this plant was going to be a great indicator species for me to monitor the health and regeneration of our pastures.

Broomsedge in a pasture tells me that the pastures have been overgrazed or neglected or both. While grazing animals will eat it in Spring and early Summer, it is not preferred. It has less nutrition than other pasture plants, and once it dries out in late Summer and early Autumn, grazing animals will mostly ignore it.

A fun photo of our kids right after we bought the farm… but look at all that broom sedge and red cedar taking over the pastures!

Why is it an indicator of overgrazing?

Well, as many graziers like to say, “herbivores eat dessert first”. They will choose the pasture grasses and plants that have high levels of sugar and/or protein and/or mineral content first. Examples of these plants include clovers, bluegrass, rye, timothy, etc. Ideally, our pastures will have high proportions of these plants.

Herbivores will eat their favorite “dessert” plant first, then wander over and eat another “dessert” plant, and then wander some more and eat yet another “dessert” plant. All the while, they are ignoring the less desirable species of grass or pasture plant.

When the animal eats the leaves of one of these plants, the photosynthetic ability of that plant is suddenly and significantly reduced. The plant now has to rely on the energy reserves in its roots to stay alive. It will use these energy reserves to grow new leaves, or as I like to say, new photosynthetic energy generators. Depending on the season and plant species, this new growth (regrowth) will start in 4-10 days.

If the pasture is small or there is a high stocking density (i.e. a high number of animals per given area of land), the animals may east the less desired plants only after they have eaten all the highly desired “dessert” plants first.

If we leave the animals on the pasture too long during the active growing season then, by the time the animals make their way around the pasture, there has been sufficient time for the “dessert” plants to start to put on new growth.

Now, the only plant an herbivore likes more than a “dessert” plant is a “dessert” plant with tender regrowth!

So the “dessert” plants will be eaten again, just as they are trying to regrow. They have used up a significant amount of their energy reserve in their roots to put out new leaves, and these leaves are now gone again. So the plant has to pull even more stored energy from the roots to try and regrow even more leaves. A plant can only do this so many times before it has no energy reserve left, and then the plant will die.

All the while, the less desirable plant continues to grow. It matures. It develops and drops its seed right next to the “dessert” plant that has been grazed, literally, to death. Now that less desirable plant can move in to the space previously occupied by the “dessert” plant.

This is how, over time, a pasture can become full of less desirable species of grasses and plants.

This is exactly what has happened on my farm. The previous owner let a neighbor open graze his cattle (that means let the cattle have free access to all pastures) for well over 10 years, maybe more.

Fortunately, not all “dessert” species were lost. But the less desirable species, especially the Broomsedge Bluestem, were given an unfair advantage for a long time. Now my pastures are covered with it.

We are rotationally grazing our sheep as one method to improve our pastures.

So what am I going to do about it?

First, we are going to manage our pastures with intensive rotational grazing techniques. This is going to make the biggest long-term impact on the health and improvement of our pastures. I have written about it multiple times in the past on my site:

  1. Sheep paddock rotational grazing
  2. Mob grazing with sheep
  3. More evidence of our farm’s regeneration
  4. Rotational grazing Azores style

Second, since this plant is a native to my area, I am not overly worried about it. But it is not an ideal plant. I would rather have more of the “dessert” species in my pastures. The rotational grazing methods we are using will work to regenerate our pastures. But I think we can speed the regenerative process up a bit.

Third, we will speed the regenerative process up by thinking a bit about how the less desirable species grows (in this case it is Broomsedge Bluestem). It is a clumping grass. It is eaten by our sheep in the Spring and early Summer. By late Summer and early Autumn, it will dry out and form fairly thick standing clumps. These clumps will stay standing all Winter long and well into the next year. By staying standing, it will shade out the growth of other pasture species, thereby maintaining its position in the pasture.

On the left of this photo is the field I am actively mowing… cutting the Broomsedge. A swale is holding water almost a week after the last rain. This moisture has helped “green up” the landscape downhill, but that area was also mowed a few months earlier, and so that pasture was not shaded out by the tall, dense Broomsedge clumps.

Forth, I use this information to develop management plans to encourage other plants’ growth. Specifically, I let the animals eat the Broomsedge in the Spring and early Summer. Then, especially in Winter when we will not interfere with the active growth of other plants, I knock down the dried standing clumps of Broomsedge. I do this by cutting it with my riding mower. Yes, I am sure I get some strange looks by my neighbors when I am riding my small mower in the middle of our pastures. But there is a method to my madness. By cutting those standing clumps in Winter, I am preventing the Broomsedge Bluestem from shading out the other plants come Spring. I am trying to give the unfair advantage back to the desired species.

About a week after mowing the area uphill of the swale, there is already new green growth. This is mostly fescue, a cool-season grass that is getting a jump start due to the recent warmer weather AND my letting in more sunlight by cutting the Broomsedge.

There are a number of other techniques that could be used. We could add seed of desirable plants. We do this a bit right now. I broadcast clover seed in Winter (this is known as frost seeding). Other people my use a tractor and seeder to drill (i.e. plant) seed in the pastures. Some people may plow up a field and reseed, and other people may use chemicals to kill all the grass in a pasture and then reseed with the plants they desire. We do not have a tractor, and I am pretty adamant about avoiding all synthetic chemicals on our property. This is how we came up with the methods we are now using.

 

All photos in this article are mine. Please ask if you would like to use them.

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How a Newt Matters

It is hard to capture in words the exact feelings I have about an amphibian.

We all have something… or maybe we had something, in the past sense.

There were certain things or people or places that captured our passions as children. It may have been a specific toy. It may have been a specific celebrity, an actor, or a band. It may have been an amusement park.

Once we grow up, we often look back with fondness at that thing. We may even have nostalgia about it.

But the magic has been lost.

We’ve become adults, and so “we’ve put childish things behind us”.

Me? Not so much.

I am still enamored with almost the same things as when I was a child.

“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” – C.S. Lewis

I was never into celebrities. I’m not a big fan of amusement parks. And while I had a few toys I was fond of, nothing captured my interest like the natural world.

Birds, trees, mammals, rocks, fish, space, coral reefs, insects, caves, reptiles, rivers, amphibians.

That was what mattered to me.

And they still get me excited.

But there are a few select animals that still get me, well, giddy, is probably the best word.  I may hide the external manifestations of those emotions, but on the inside… yeah, it’s giddy.

The Red Eft?

That’s one of those animals. For sure.

Adult form of the Eastern Newt.

I remember reading about the Eastern Newt in my copy of the Reader’s Digest North American Wildlife book given to me by my grandfather. I read through that book countless times, and I still have that book, worn as it is, sitting on my bookshelf.

But there was something about this amphibian that captured my interest. I think it was a combination of the drastic changes this animal undergoes in its life and the absolutely stunning colors it develops.

In general, newts are a type of salamander with, typically, drier and rougher skin. There are a few other ways in which newts differ from the other salamanders, but even the experts don’t have a consensus.

Specifically, the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) lives a life of three phases.

In the first phase, they hatch from an egg in the water and live similar to frog tadpoles.

In the second phase, they lose their gills, change their color, and move to the land; this is the “eft” or terrestrial stage of life, and they live similar to lizards. As an eft, they become bright, almost glowing, reddish-orange, and are one of the most beautiful creatures on earth.

The third and final phase is the adult stage where they turn an olive green and return to the water to live a fully aquatic life once more.

The Red Eft, the terrestrial phase of the Eastern Newt’s life.

As a child, I wanted to find a Red Eft about as bad as a child could want anything.

I spent hours outside whenever I could. Growing up in South Florida, I was surrounded by lush vegetation and wildlife. I found animals of all types.

There were the relatively common Brown and Green Anoles (lizards), large Cane Toads, and Mockingbird chicks found in our yard.

There were the Eastern Mosquitofish, Apple Snails, and baby Muscovy Ducks found in the nearby canal.

Then there were also the less common animals.

For a short time I cared for (with significant help from my mother) a Mangrove Cuckoo with a broken wing, a baby raccoon (which may have actually been an opossum), recently hatched Alligator Snapping Turtles (they went back to the canal pretty quick), a Scarlet King Snake (their bites do not hurt), a Green Water Snake (their bites really hurt), a whole long list of other snakes, a Cuban Tree Frog (it loved to eat cockroaches), and even a Basilisk Lizard (yes… they really can run on water!).

But never did I find a Red Eft.

Fast-forward 25-30 years.

We have now lived on our farm in East Tennessee for about 18 months. We have been slowly repairing an unhealthy landscape that has been overgrazed with cattle and damaged with chemicals. We’ve been seeing a return of life in the soils and pastures. The land has started to heal.

Then a few days ago our current WWOOFer, Jacob, showed me a photo he took of an unknown gecko-type animal.

There it was!

A Red Eft!

The Red Eft found by Jacob, our WWOOFer!

All those exciting emotions I had when flipping over logs and wading in canals came flooding back.

I was giddy.

Unfortunately, the photo was taken hours earlier, and so the animal was already gone. But there was an Eastern Newt on my farm!

In addition to my childhood interests, this Red Eft got me excited for an entirely different reason. It means that our efforts to regenerate the ecosystem on the farm is working.

You see, amphibians are indicators for environmental health. They can be used like canaries in a coal mine. Historically, canaries were brought into coal mines because they are more susceptible to toxic gases, like methane and carbon monoxide, than humans. The canary would die before these gases rose to levels that would kill the coal miners. If the miners noticed the canary was dead, usually because they realized the bird had stopped singing, the miners then had time to get out of the mine before they were killed.

Amphibians breathe and drink through their thin skin, and they are exquisitely sensitive to environmental toxins. As canaries were used to monitor air quality, amphibians can be used to monitor environmental quality. Specifically, the quality of water that runs over and through the forests, soils, pastures, and environments where they live.

In this case, that environment is our farm.

And I now have proof, thanks to Jacob our WWOOFer, that we have newts on our farm.

But I still really… REALLY… want to find one myself!

 

 

For further reading on using amphibians as environmental indicators:

 

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The Trouble with Facebook Permaculture

Facebook Permaculture.

That’s my new term for the day. And it has really been bugging me.

The problem is that I’m guilty of it myself.

I need to say that at the onset. I don’t want to come across in a condescending way, because I do it.

I don’t think we really mean to, but it happens nonetheless.

We get excited about getting something done. We are proud of it. We want to tell people about it. So we do. We get on Facebook or Instagram or whatever social media, photo-sharing website/app we use, and we show the world the wonderful thing we have just accomplished.

We are happy when others “like” our post. We love the positive feedback.

Now, before I get too far, please don’t get me wrong… sharing our successes and accomplishments is important to do. In fact, we ought to do this.

I often think of the people in the mid-1960’s and 1970’s “back to the land” movement. They were one of the first groups of people who left the city to try and be self-sufficient. Most members of the previous generations knew how to be self-sufficient, because that was how they were raised. The earlier generations grew up with backyard gardens and chickens and a more self-reliant know-how and confidence. But by the 1960’s, at least in the United States, there was a gap in the transfer of this knowledge. The people who left the city and moved to the country didn’t have first-hand knowledge. They had to learn it or figure it out.

They may have had a few Foxfire books.

If they were lucky, and not too arrogant, they were befriended by a neighboring farmer or homesteader from a family that never left the homestead. They were fortunate if they had some early successes to build the confidence when tough times came… when a harvest was destroyed or an animal was lost.

Unfortunately, far too many of these “back to the landers” gave up. This whole “living off the land” thing was way too hard. It was all but impossible. So the “back to the landers” went back to the city. Defeated. Disillusioned. Depressed.

Today, we are incredibly fortunate to have the enormous wealth of knowledge found online. We can find how-to’s and problem-solving-solutions within minutes of when we need it. We can find success story after success story. We can find inspiration.

This next generation of “back to the landers”, of which I am one, are not giving up quite as quickly as before. I have no scientific data to support this claim. But I daily see success story after success story from people who are not giving up, not throwing in the towel, and not moving back to the city. It’s not that we are better in any way. I firmly believe that this generation of “back to the landers” are succeeding, in large part, due to the vast resources we have at our fingertips, which sadly the previous generation did not have. We run into roadblocks, and we can more easily find solutions and work-arounds. We are able to Google our way to success.

But this is only because we share those successes.

This is because we are getting on blogs and Facebook and Instagram and telling the world what we did and how we did it.

So for that I am immensely grateful.

But there is a down side to this story. And this is not only found in Permaculture or Homesteading or with the “back to the landers”. It is found throughout this entire generation of people who compare themselves to those they see on social media.

“Gosh,” they say, “Everyone is so successful with everything they do. What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I be so successful? I’ll never be able to ____  Maybe I should just stop trying. Maybe I should just quit.”

This is especially true in the Permaculture world.

We share photos of our huge harvests, of our beautiful pastures, of our new lambs or piglets or chicks.

But we don’t share struggles. We don’t share our failures. Some do. But most do not.

It is not malicious.

It’s just not fun. It’s not exciting. We are not proud of failing.

Our compost pile... that will be in the wrong place for over a year before we are finally done with it.

Our compost pile… that will be in the wrong place for over a year before we are finally done with it.

When all we do is share our success, we make it appear that failures are not common and are not part of the path toward success.

But I think it is important for us to be real.

So I’ll start…

  • We had a litter of piglets that were all stillborn.
  • We had another litter of four piglets, and only one survived.
  • We had a dump truck load of compost that is still sitting on the driveway. We used almost half of it, but we probably will have that pile sitting there for another 6 months… much to my wife’s chagrin.
  • We randomly had one of our ewes die. No idea why.
  • We had two of our pigs die. Not at the same time. But it happened, and we don’t know why.
  • We had a significant drought this Summer, and I lost close to half of the trees I planted a few months earlier.
  • I sliced my finger while breaking down chickens after processing, and I needed to give myself stitches.
  • We got our garden going too late this year, and we didn’t get a harvest from the broccoli, cauliflower, or Brussels spouts. (You can see the photo at the top of the page… this was a quick harvest before the frost… all we got was cabbage, but none of the other crops had time to mature, because we got them going too late.)
  • We still have a section of perimeter fence down from a windblown tree, and I have yet to get it cleared and the fence repaired. And I’ve known about it for at least 6 months.
  • Our geese made multiple nests, laid eggs, and abandoned all of them.
  • We lost every single one of our 23 Guinea Fowl to an unknown night predator.

That’s all I can think of in about 30 seconds. But I am sure there is a whole lot more.

We have had a lot of bad and sad and frustrating things, but the good thing is that our successes have outweighed our failures and our delays. And that is really important.

But it is also important for people to see that this life is not always simple or easy or carefree.

I’m not planning on quitting and moving back to the city. Not at all!

But I am trying to keep it real.

 

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Birding with My Daughter

I officially went birding for the first time with my 5 year-old daughter. I personally love birding (see my previous article on The Benefits of Birding for Permaculturists). I am not naive enough to think her interest isn’t, in part, because she wants to “be like her daddy”. But she has been expressing a growing interest in birds that seems to be more than just trying to mimic me, and I definitely want to foster this.  At night, she reads through an old copy of my Sibley Guide to Birds before bed, so I do believe this is a real interest for her.
The "Beginning Birder Set" I put together this Christmas.

The “Beginning Birder Set” I put together this Christmas.

For Christmas this year, one of her gifts from me was a “Beginning Birder Set” I put together. It included a couple of birding books for kids and a kids pair of binoculars. She has been asking to go birding with me since Christmas, but due to my work schedule we had to put it off. Yesterday, while I was at work, she took her new binoculars and her backpack, filled it with snacks, a water bottle, and her new birding books, and went birding on her own around the house! Well, I was not working today, and so were finally able to go out together this morning. We only lasted about an hour with temperatures in the mid 30’s F, but we had a great time… more importantly, SHE had a good time!
She correctly ID’d a couple birds entirely on her own, and she was the first to spot quite a few birds as well. I had a blast watching her! One of my favorite parts was her asking, “When can we go birding again?!”
White-Throated Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrow (source: http://hughvandervoort.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/White-Throated-Sparrow-53.jpg)

Here is a list of the birds we spotted. Not too bad for a first birding foray:
  • American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
  • Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
  • Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)
  • Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla)
  • Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) – photo at the top of this page. (Source: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/content/dam/news/2016/10/17/northern-flicker-bird/01-northern-flicker.jpg)
  • Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)
  • Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
  • Red-Winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
  • Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
  • White-Throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
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Piglets at the Bauernhof

NOTE: As we are actively growing and developing our herd of pigs, we are offering piglets for sale. We do not ship live animals. Please let us know if you are interested.

This year we have had our first piglets at the farm.

This year we have had our first piglets at the farm.

One of the goals I have for our farm is to develop a good line of pigs. I don’t have a specific breed in mind. But I have specific characteristics in mind. I’ll explain the background of how I chose the characteristics I am looking for.

Here is a photo of our first pigs on the farm.

Here is a photo (over a year old) of our first pigs… the foundation stock.

The reality is that there are a lot of places that have feral hogs and landrace pigs, but not many places have truly native wild pig species. Feral hogs are pigs that were once domestic, but have escaped. These feral hogs can be found around the world.

A landrace is a bit different than feral animals. A landrace is any breed of domestic animal that has been developed in relative isolation from other breeds or strains of that same species. These may be pigs or sheep or chickens or ducks or any other domestic animal. (Note that I am not referring to the American or Danish Landrace pigs which are specific breeds of pig… I am referring to the idea of a landrace breed in general.)

We run a mixed-breed herd of pigs on our farm.

We run a mixed-breed herd of pigs on our farm.

It was common practice for Spanish and Portuguese explorers to bring animals with them on their journeys. They would find a location with fresh water and let a few animals free. These animals would breed and their numbers would grow. When the explorers returned to that area, they had water and meat waiting for them.

But there was a catch.

Those animals had to survive. With no human intervention. With no hay. No feed. No medications. No assistance with birthing. No vaccines. No shelters. No dewormers. No barns. No selective breeding.

Nature was the selecting force. The animals that could survive did. Those that couldn’t handle the parasites, the droughts, the humidity, the cold, the predators… they didn’t. And their genetic traits of being unable to cope were not passed on to the next generation.

These survivor genetics are what I want. And fortunately there are a number of surviving landrace pigs out there.

Our piglets nursing well.

Our piglets nursing well. These are Gloucestershire Old Spots x Vietnamese Potbelly piglets.

 

Our pigs love to eat grass!

Our pigs love to eat grass!

Fortunately again there are a number of heritage breed pigs that still exist as well. A heritage breed is a breed of animal that was traditionally raised by farmers and homesteaders in the past. Over time, commercial breeds gradually took the heritage breeds’ place, and their numbers significantly declined. Many heritage breeds were lost. But there were a few dedicated farmers and homesteaders who kept some of these breeds going, and I am so glad they did. These heritage breeds may not be as hardy as some of the landrace pigs, but they are significantly moreso than the commercial breeds. They also have a significantly better flavor of pork than the commercial breeds. And, to be fair, the meat of landrace breeds are also very flavorful.

Pigs_02

We have a mix of genetics on our farm. Here is a photo when our heard was relatively young.

 

A piglet at sunrise!

A piglet at sunrise!

With all this said, my goal is to build my herd with genetics from a variety of landrace and heritage breeds. And that is exactly what I am doing. Here are the breeds I am using at our farm:

Berkshire

  • Origin: Britain. Berkshire (Berks County).
  • Type: Meat.
  • Flavor: Succulent, marbled, flavorful, pink-red meat.
  • Size: Medium.
  • Color: Black with a white snout and boots and tail.
  • Temperament: Good-natured.
  • Notes: Good mothers. Good foragers. Commonly used as a terminal sire (i.e. used as the male contributor for hybrid meat hogs).

Gloucester Old Spots

  • Origin: Britain. Gloucestershire (Gloucester County).
  • Type: Lard.
  • Flavor: Sweet, very flavorful, well-marbled meat.
  • Size: Medium to Large.
  • Color: Mostly white with a few black spots.
  • Temperament: Very good-natured and friendly.
  • Notes:  Very good foragers. Very hardy. Very good mothers. Originally raised on windfall apples.

Guinea Hog

  • Origin: Guinea (Africa) originally, but this is a southern USA landrace breed (meaning it was developed over time, adapting to its new environment in the hot and humid South).
  • Type: Lard.
  • Flavor: Delicious! On the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste.
  • Size: Small to Medium (adults: 150-250 lbs/68-114 kg).
  • Color: Black, occasionally red, and hairy.
  • Temperament: Sweet-natured, friendly.
  • Notes:  Endangered breed. Very good foragers. Do not do well in confinement.

Kunekune

  • Origin: New Zealand, but originating from Asian breeds.
  • Type: Meat. Being a small pig, they produce select cuts of meat and a lot of sausage and bacon.
  • Flavor: Well-marbled, succulent, tasty meat
  • Size: Small.
  • Color: Wide range of colors, hairy.
  • Temperament: Good-natured. Friendly.
  • Notes:  Excellent foragers. Kunekune means “fat and round” in the Māori language. It is one of the “pet” breeds of pig.

Large Black

  • Origin: England. Devonshire (Devon County) and Cornwall County.
  • Type: Meat.
  • Flavor: Very tasty, juicy, lean but well-marbled meat. Little back fat.
  • Size: Large.
  • Color: Black.
  • Temperament: Good-natured. Docile.
  • Notes:  Endangered breed. A very good forager. Very good mother. Not common in the USA.

Mulefoot

  • Origin: USA. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Arkansas. Developed from early Spanish explorers’ hogs (a landrace breed).
  • Type: Lard.
  • Flavor: Succulent, marbled, red meat. Delicious! On the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste.
  • Size: Medium.
  • Color: Black with wattles.
  • Temperament: Good-natured. Docile.
  • Notes: Endangered breed. Very good foragers. Hardy. Mulefoot hogs have fused toes forming a “hoof”… hence the name.

Vietnamese Potbelly

  • Origin: Vietnam.
  • Type: Meat.
  • Flavor: Flavorful. Can have a lot of fat if allowed/desired – very good for bacon. Being a small pig, they produce select cuts of meat and a lot of sausage and bacon.
  • Size: Small. 70-150 lbs (32-68 kg), but can get well over 200 lbs (90 kg) depending on the genetics.
  • Color: Black or Black and White.
  • Temperament: Very good-natured.
  • Notes:  Common as pets in the United States, although this is a new phenomenon considering how long they have been present on small farms in southeast Asia.

 

Gentle pigs that do not grow too large are important considerations for us as we have our own children as well as frequent visitors to our farm.

Gentle pigs that do not grow too large are important considerations for us as we have our own children as well as frequent visitors to our farm.

 

These are our most recent piglets.

These are our most recent piglets. They are Gloucestershire Old Spots x Gloucestershire Old Spots/Mulefoot/Large Black piglets.

We ultimately want to end up with a line of pigs that need no significant human intervention but are still gentle. They do not need to be fast-growing, but they do need to produce quality, flavorful meat. I do not want tiny animals, but I certainly do not want very large pigs; I have my own children as well as frequent visitors to my farm, so safety is a consideration. I don’t vaccinate. I don’t deworm. I don’t use antibiotics. I don’t help with deliveries. I don’t use a barn; I provide minimal shelter. I feed them fermented grains (no soy and no corn). They eat fresh grass (as much as they can find!). They eat roots and tubers and anything they can find on (or under) the pastures where they live.

This is a work in progress, and it will probably take quite some time before I “arrive” at a final result. Most likely, I will be tinkering with this for as long as I am alive, and that makes me happy.

 

Please ask if you would like to use one of my photos!

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