Chronicles of Less Urban Living, Fresh from In the Night Farm

Organic Gardening

Growing Pains

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 8.

The food I trust most is the food I grow myself.

This year, I’m more excited than ever to see In the Night Farm’s extensive garden space freshly tilled and waiting for a few more weeks of warmth to replace our frosty, Idaho nights.  Rhubarb and onions have already unfurled from the earth.  My cold-weather annuals — kale and snow peas — can be planted this weekend.  I might even risk half a packet of salad greens in the hope of an early harvest. 

I’m just one of many gardeners and small-time farmers eager to replace supermarket vegetables with homegrown fare.  Hours and sweat are a hefty, but worthy, price to pay for guaranteed organic, non-GMO, Monsanto-free produce.

But is it guaranteed?  Not necessarily. 

Here’s Monsanto’s list of seed brands.  Unless you live in agricultural country, most of the names are likely unfamiliar.  But look under “vegetable seed brands.”  See Seminis?  They provide seed to some very familiar vendors:  Burpee, Park Seed, J.W. Jung Seed, Germania, and many others that are making their way from garden centers to neighborhoods as we speak.

Fortunately, the internet is full of lists like this one, and a brief search will put you in touch with scores of sources for organic, heirloom seed.  My favorite is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a company with a conscience, a massive selection, rapid shipping, reasonable prices, excellent customer service, and a free seed packet with every order.

Unfortunately, even buying from a reputable  company may not be enough.  Consider contamination.  Can you be sure the heirloom seed you saved from last year wasn’t cross-pollinated by your neighbor’s Burpee bounty?  It may not be GMO (yet), but it’s still Monsanto.  You have to wonder.

As for GMO cross-contamination, there’s no question that mutant crops have infected the globe.  Ask Percy Schmeiser.

Extra Credit: The Global Spread of GMO Crops by Peter Montague and Organic Seeds Increasingly in Danger of GMO Contamination from Nutrition Business Journal.

Read all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.


Down Under: Root Cellar Update

It’s been a long time coming, but In the Night Farm’s root cellar is nearly complete.

The big hole, dug nearly two years ago with the help of a generous neighbor’s backhoe, now features an underground room lined with shelves. Many of the shelves (which still need to be bolted to the walls) are vented to provide air flow beneath root crops like onions, sweet potatoes, and Yukon Golds.

Yes, potatoes! Many believe these to be a less-than-primal food (and I haven’t eaten a white potato in months), but homegrown taters are a sensible indulgence I’m more than willing to enjoy. If you’ve never tried them, you must! They’re as different from commercially grown potatoes as are garden tomatoes from those supermarket imposters.

There’s also plenty of space, down here in the humid chill, to hang herbs, store sealed packages of dried fruit from the apricot tree and tomato vines, and cluster jars of home-canned dills. We might even throw in a few bottles of wine.

The walls are reinforced, the cracks sealed, the tin ready to go on the roof…and it’s time to start filling in the hole. Now, there’s a primal workout I’ve looked forward to! Really. Digging in the dirt, particularly with a real goal in mind, is tremendously satisfying. Ask any kid.

Poultry To Go

Check out this portable poultry coop:

I found it on CraigsList. The seller wanted $150.00, which seems a fair price when you figure in materials and labor, but Ironman and I are going to build our own using this as a model.

The dimensions, as posted in the ad, are 9 feet, 9 inches in length, 4 foot base width, and 30 inch height. I imagine it’s fairly heavy, and indeed the ad states that the seller moves it around with a tractor. No problem there; it just so happens that I have a tractor.

The primary purpose of the portable coop, as anyone who has read Michael Pollan’s excellent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma will know, is to be able to move your birds safely around the farm so they can forage for fresh plants, insects, grubs, and whatever else they fancy.

You know, real food. The things poultry was designed to eat, instead of the grain-based, packaged feeds that practicality demands for the bulk of their calories. When the chickens and ducks eat real food, the eggs they lay show up on our table with a proper balance of nutrients. That’s a prize worth the investment of a bit of time spent with a screwdriver and staple gun.

And, there’s another advantage. Ironman and I have been wondering for a while what would be the best way to house the guinea fowl we’d like to introduce to the gardens of In the Night Farm.

Squash bugs and grasshoppers have been a real problem in years past, and we’re loathe to use poisons to control them. Chickens will gladly consume the pests — but they’ll scratch up the plants in the process. Not good.

Guinea fowl, however, are reportely excellent garden hunters that snap up insects without harming the crop. They can also be quite loud when disturbed — but we figure that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Out here in the the country, it’s nice to get a heads-up when someone drops by.

Thing is, one buys guineas as tiny and defenseless keets that should be raised near the area in which you intend them to spend most of their time as adults. Constructed using a tighter wire weave than was chosen by the Craigslist seller, our portable poultry coop should make a suitable guinea nursery before returning to its usual duties.

Ah, the projects. They never end. But then, neither do their rewards.

Related Posts
Practically Impossible, The Challenge of Sustainable Living

The Fruits of our Labor

Let us not become weary in doing good,
for in the proper time we will reap a harvest.
~ Galatians 6:9

Digging for Gold

The potato blossoms have faded, the leaves withered, and it is time for harvest. Travis dug the first row of Yukon Golds.

I diced them.

And mixed them with a bit of olive oil, kosher salt, cracked black pepper, and fresh rosemary.

Then roasted them to purest bliss.

Ahh, homegrown potatoes. You simply can’t buy this flavor at the store.

In Shivery June

Three weeks of unseasonably chilly, stormy weather have taken a toll on the gardens of In the Night Farm. Raging winds tattered the leaves of the chichiquilite huckleberries, laid the squash plants flat, and beat the life from the ground cherry and melon seedlings. Chilly nights left the tomatoes and peppers looking tiny and forlorn, seemingly even smaller than when I set them out in mid-May.

On the bright side, the greens and brassicas are thriving. The lettuces are lovely.

So is the arugula, though bolting reduced it to an aesthetic attraction during a few, hot days in early May.

And the peas are loveliest of all.

The Iris Story

Here’s something you don’t know about me:

I grew up on ten acres of hillside in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, in a house with one glass side overlooking a panorama that encompassed miles of farmland spread like a cloak to the foot of the Cascades. We moved away when I was seventeen — an event about which I’d had nightmares for years — and I have been trying to get back ever since.

At In the Night Farm, I am content. True, my windows gaze over different farms, and my horizon constitutes the Snake River breaks instead of a mountain range. Here, I see sunsets instead of sunrises. But here, nonetheless, I am home.

At the foot of my childhood home lay a bank trellised with railroad ties. Between the ties grew prize-winning irises given to us by the professional iris growers who were our nearest neighbors. When we left, my dad took some of the rhizomes to plant at his new home. Five years ago, he passed divisions on to me.

I lived in Pullman, Washington, at the time, and it was winter. Before spring, I moved to Idaho and brought the rhizomes. They followed me from an apartment, to a house, to a duplex, to another house, to a cottage, to a Barb horse ranch, to a rental house, and finally to In the Night Farm. Here, after five years in pots, surviving to send up sword-like leaves but never blossoms, they found a place on the west side of the house.

And, at long last, they bloomed. I know just how they feel.

Practically Impossible: The Challenge of Sustainable Living

You’d think that owning on a farm would make sustainable living relatively easy. Grow a garden, raise some livestock. Hoe and weed, water and feed your way to health and self-reliance. After all, this is how most of the world’s population has lived for thousands of years! Sadly, these days, the simple life is anything but.

Take my latest research on natural chicken feeds. Motivated by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explains the myraid benefits of eating eggs and meat from chickens that eat as nature intended, I’ve been looking for ways to eliminate commercial layer pellets from our hens’ diets.

Feeding poultry a natural diet eliminates the use of (and the need for) antibiotics such as coccidiostat and results in food products whose nutritional content is properly balanced. Like most livestock raised en masse, chickens that eat typical commercial feeds take in more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3’s. In livestock and the humans who eat it, this balance should be tipped the other way, in favor of omega-3 fatty acids.

Balanced fat consumption leads to lower rates of heart disease, cancers, and mental degeneration, so I’d like to know that the small quantity of poultry and eggs I consume represents an appropriate nutritional profile. Hence, my interest in feeding chickens like nature intended — as hunting and gathering omnivores. It’ll only take one acre per chicken.

One acre per chicken?

Let’s see. One acre per chicken…fifteen chickens…Call the real estate agent, Honey. Looks like we need to buy the property next door!

So much for keeping my hens nourished without supplemental feeds. Surely, I thought, there’s a way to feed them naturally without quadrupling our mortgage.

As it turns out, there is. I’ll need: a wide variety of living plants, wild seafood, additional protein in the form of grass-fed meat and milk, nuts and seeds, varied grains (freshly cracked, of course), boiled soybeans or other legumes, sea salt, and oyster shells for calcium.

What? I can’t afford wild salmon for myself, let alone for my chickens!

And it isn’t just the chickens. Raising healthful lamb requires irrigated pasture or extensive range, quality hay, and oats. Pesticide-free gardening means losing part of the crop to insect damage. Irrigation requires electricity to run the pump. Rototilling large plots requires gasoline. Even our organic fertilizer started out as expensive horse hay, and this year’s diesel prices will drive that bill even higher.

And so, in an attempt to fund a more sustainable lifestyle centered around local foods, we are forced to drive nearly forty miles into the city to work. Gas costs us a fortune these days, though we carpool whenever possible and make no gratuitous side trips. We bought a motorcycle to cut back on consumption, at least when the weather cooperates. (I took my first ride on the new bike the other day. Ye gods, I’d forgotten!)

Day after day, I am appalled by the expense of trying to do the right things to spare our land and bodies from the behemoth of our industrialized food system. Why do you think most poultry growers, whether commercial or gentleman farmer, buy pelleted feeds? Twenty-five bucks will buy you a month’s worth of scratch grains and layer pellets for a flock like ours. It’s easy, too! Just open the bag, scoop, and serve.

As much as I would like to, I simply cannot afford to feed my chickens on soybeans, seafood, and hand-split corn. In this instance, like so many others — purchasing enough land to grow our own crops, installing solar panels and a propane refrigerator, even building the oh-so-sensible root cellar — converting to sustainable living is a proposition that implies tremendous financial strain.

Some people manage it. You can read their stories at the Backwoods Home Magazine forum. I suspect, however, that the majority have either lived long and well enough to free themselves from debt — including home mortgages — or are not trying to create a self-sufficient homestead while preserving and promoting a rare breed of horse. Reading the BHM forum is, for me, both inspiring and discouraging.

So, what now? Shall we move back to the city to eat factory farmed poultry and pesticide-laden, chemically-fertilized, genetically-modified broccoli while we wait for cancer to set in? Or, shall we, like other small farmers across our nation, continue to struggle against the economic and political tide?

A horse trainer in my area likes to say, “Start where you can, not where you think you should.” I find that his advice applies to more than just horse training — it’s useful in our progress toward sustainable living, as well.

For now, I’ll hand-pick a daily bucketful of weeds and grass for my hens. I’ll save them vegetable scraps from the kitchen and check prices on bulk legumes at the grocery. I’ll even look into the cost of canned wild fish. While I’ll still buy pelleted feeds, I’ll restrict their use as much as possible.

This decision, like replacing a truck with a motorcycle but still commuting to work, represents a compromise between practicality and perfection. Such choices are often unsatisfactory, but for now, for us, “ideal” isn’t an option. Surely doing our best is better than doing nothing at all.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know how we’re going to make this small farm work.

…but I also don’t know how to give up.

This post is participating in Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. Be sure to drop in and see what else is on the menu!

Digging Deeper

Gardening at In the Night Farm is more than a hobby. We believe in the nutritional, economical, environmental, and political importance of locally grown produce, and there’s nothing more local than our own backyard.

Commercial agriculture, which runs on genetically modified corn and fossil fuels, wreaks havoc on the land and the bodies of humans and animals who consume the resulting “food.” We’re constantly seeking new ways to reduce our dependence on the system.

The switch to local foods is a slow process, not least because we suffer from the typical American addiction to seasonless variety. However, as we grow more accustomed to eating seasonally, we are able to create more meals around our own produce.

Another limiting factor is expense. America’s agricultural infastructure is designed to benefit the monoliths who pump out massive quantities of cheap, poor quality food. Local farmers, particularly organic farmers, are forced to charge more for their crops — sometimes more than consumers are willing to pay.

At this point, Travis and I only dabble in actually selling our produce. We hope to move enough eggs and vegetables this year to cover our own costs associated with raising chickens and crops. If we’re really lucky, we’ll net some extra dollars to put toward a greenhouse.

Our primary goal isn’t to turn a profit, but rather to turn our soil into healthful meals. This is easy during summer, when the crops come on one after another, so quickly we can’t eat them all. But what about winter?

This year, we’re investing in several items to extend the usefulness of our harvest. First, we bought a Foodsaver to preserve the quality of frozen berries, vegetables, and meats. Second, we expanded our collection of canning jars. (Note: Used jars are readily available on Craigslist — it seems few people use them anymore.) Third and most ambitious, we’re putting in a root cellar. Here’s how Travis spent part of the weekend:

Luckily for him, he was able to barter some computer work for backhoe services to dig most of the hole. In the photo above, he’s trimming the sides and bottom in preparation for building the underground structure.

At the moment, the root cellar quite an ugly scar on the hill, but once its walls are built and its roof on, we’ll shovel dirt over the top and let time adorn it with grasses once again.

Come winter, our bounty of potatoes, onions, garlic, shallots, squash, dried hot peppers, and more will be nestled safely under the farm, awaiting a much shorter trip to our plates than the thousands of miles endured by most grocery store produce.

It seems that, sometimes, the journey of a thousand miles ends with a single step.

Digging Ditches

You know summer’s coming when the irrigation ditches fill with water, gated pipe sends glistening streams across the fields, and massive sprinkler systems cast great plumes over the emerald wheat.

Irrigation is a big deal in our corner of Idaho. Despite having just emerged from our snowiest winter since the 1980’s, our reservoirs and aquifers are alarmingly low after nearly ten years of drought. Here at In the Night Farm, we’re permitted to irrigate only one of our five acres…and we’re determined to make the most of it.

Travis spent the weekend overhauling the professionally-installed, automatic sprinkler system that seemed to assume we, like most Americans, would want to surround our house with a neatly manicured lawn.
H.C. Flores, in his book Food Not Lawns, wasn’t the first to note that “58 million Americans spend approximately thirty billion dollars every year to maintain more than twenty-three million acres of lawns….the same-sized plot of land could still have a small lawn for recreation and produce all the vegetables needed to feed a family of six. The lawns in the United States consume around 270 billion gallons of water a week – enough to water eighty-one million acres of organic vegetables, all summer long.”

Now, before you run away with the idea that Travis and I spend our weekends hugging trees and protesting the de-listing of Idaho’s gray wolves, note that we do keep a minimally maintained, fenced yard for Wyrsa‘s pleasure. (Note also that we use no chemicals and feed the grass clippings to the sheep and chickens.) We do not, however, have any interest in pouring time and money into a vast expanse of useless turf.

Instead, we’re revamping our irrigated acre to include a berry patch, a fruit and nut orchard, large plots for vines and corn, and the main garden. This last has been a bit of a problem, considering its size and the unfortunate configuration of the sprinkler system. Travis spent several days digging up sections of pipe and laying them in new trenches around the perimeter.

He wasn’t the only one digging ditches. Forced by gusty winds to abandon my horse training on Sunday afternoon, I retired to the garden, where I planted three pounds of onion sets and fifteen pounds of Yukon Gold seed potatoes. Rather than planting in hills, I’m attempting the trench method of growing potatoes this year.

The seed potatoes are placed in trenches and covered with a few inches of soil. As they grow, I’ll pile in more soil to keep the tubers below ground (and to cover the frost-tender shoots if another cold snap blows through).
This is satisfying work. Every Monday, we look back on more projects completed, more small steps toward the large dream.
Is there another way to live?