Lessons from the Land: The Cycles of Life
by Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming
The Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming and the Cornell Small Farms Program are teaming up to create a new column called Lessons from the Land, which captures and share the stories of and lessons learned from farmers, homesteaders and land workers around New York and the Northeast. We want to hear stories from growers of all types and sizes, on real topics, that matter!
Each issue has a theme, and upcoming themes and deadlines can be found at http://groundswellcenter.org/lessons-from-the-land/.
Submissions of 400 – 800 words are requested, and can submitted at the website above.
Upcoming Topics & Deadlines:
Stocking Up – June 9 (Summer 2017 Issue)
Diversity – August 11 (Fall 2017 Issue)
The Lifecycle of a Managed Forest
During the winter of 2014-15, timber was harvested from the forested portion of our property, for sale to a commercial lumber company. There has been a forest stewardship plan in place on the property since 1994, recorded with the State of Connecticut and updated several times since the initial plan was written. A stewardship plan is a management document developed by a certified state forester, constructed around the goals of the forest owners. So I knew it was appropriate to harvest mature trees. I also understood that the timber sale would not only provide money for reinvestment in the farm, but that careful logging would help us to achieve other goals of our forest management plan, like improving wildlife habitat and our system of trails.
In spite of this knowledge, it was hard for me to stomach the thought of cutting down those beautiful, stately trees. This forest had been a playground for many of my childhood adventures and explorations. I now own this small, New England hill farm and its woods as the third generation of my family to steward this property. Through the stories, memories, and photos shared by my dad, I know a history of the property that is longer than my own years. I know that the 18 acres of pines had not always been there, but had been planted in the mid 1930’s by my grandfather and his two boys, my father and my uncle. What had once been a worn, upland pasture was now a forest; a legacy left by my forbearers.
My father passed away at age 93, in November of 2014. The timber had already been sold, and the loggers were only waiting for the ground to freeze to commence their work. As I grieved, I braced myself for what was to come. The aftermath of logging, even when it is well done, can look horrific to an untrained eye. I remember listening to a professor from the Yale School of Forestry on a field day several years prior. As we looked out at an area that had been recently logged, the professor commented that while some people would see this area as a mess, he saw a young, healthy, vibrant forest. It was a forest in its infant stages, and to him it was lovely. I tried to keep his words in mind as the winter and the logging progressed, but I cried when I saw the first load of logs stacked and waiting to be loaded onto the logging truck. The end of these trees seemed symbolic of my dad’s passing, particularly since the events coincided so closely, and my grief doubled.
Eventually spring came, and once again I took to the trails. While I felt the absence of those large old trees, I now saw the beauty of the smaller trees that were left behind. No longer overshadowed, these trees seemed to be basking in sunlight. I hadn’t realized how dark the forest had become when dominated by those large, mature trees. I felt as if the saplings were rejoicing in the new openness, air, and light of the forest, and I rejoiced as well. Life was visible everywhere, including many kinds of birds, wild flowers and wild berries. The rebirth of a forest is indeed a lovely and miraculous thing to behold.
North Granby, Connecticut
Today I got a phone call from a man who told me that he was going to die soon. It wasn’t exactly consistent with the scope and tone of inquiries we receive here at the CCE office, but then again, it kind of is. We get so many different calls here that I am no longer surprised by the questions and comments we receive over the phone and by email. My new motto in my office is “we got you covered,” and I feel that this is true of all of the departments here in the Ulster County Extension office. From “how many calories are in a big mac,” to “my dog was attacked by a raccoon last night,” we get all kinds of inquiries here, and are happy to do our best to point each of our clients in the right direction. So when I got this phone call, I was not particularly surprised since this individual had come across an article that I had written about the process of composting human remains.
Most people do not realize the intimate connection that farmers have with death and dying. Breeding many generations on the farm, and living in and with nature, provides both a frame and magnifier into the mysteries and processes of death. Farmers and ranchers understand that death is part of life, and deserves the same reverence and respect as the beginning of life. This man on the phone had a preference that most of us can understand… he wished to be buried on his family farm.
I was more than happy to guide him to the appropriate channels and safeguards to ensure that what he was doing was both legal and safe. To most farmers, a human body is relatively easy to compost simply because we are much smaller compared to some of our livestock. And since nothing on the farm is wasted, most ranchers compost their animals and use the nutrient rich fertilizer that is produced to enrich their pastures or gardens.
Besides farmers, the other major composter in the area is the highway department. With the overpopulation of both deer and cars on our roadways there are many wildlife fatalities every day. The highway department soon realized that pilling up the roadkill would be offensive to both the nose and eyes and would attract unwanted attention from wild animals. They realized that their best option was to compost the remains of the roadkill, which would safely dispose of the animals, would not attract wild animals to the area, and would make a value-added product out of what was previously considered waste. The only caveat is that the composting needs to be carefully controlled and monitored. There is an art to composting. When done right it is beneficial to everyone, but when done wrong, or neglected, there is a real opportunity loss.
The man who called was already aware of the issues and intricacies of composting, and I think that he was seeking more than just technical assistance in that he was looking for some kind words and support in his endeavor. I let him know that I would do all that I could to ensure that he was in compliance and that he could spend his eternity in the most comfortable placed he had ever known… home.
It is not often that I get calls about death, but it helps me to know that death and farming are sisters, and it is in the acknowledgement of their intimate relationship that we are able to our better understand our place and our farm in nature.
Jason Detzel, Livestock Educator
Cornell Cooperative Extension Ulster County
Raising Beef Cattle
“What is growing in this pasture?” asked the Cornell ‘expert’ as she walked Twin Brook Camillus Farm with us. Besides thistles, we didn’t know the names of all the other weeds that appeared on our land, after 30 years of commercial farming. We wanted to make the land environmentally productive and the soil biologically organic by raising beef cattle to market directly to customers.
Thankfully, not all the fields were in as bad a shape as the one we walked, but nothing was sustainable. We started in 2011 with minimum fencing, two feeder calves, and a pre-owned John Deere tractor with a loader and forks. Having just retired, my husband said, “I’m doing this the easy way!”
The ‘farmer’ (my husband) bought a post-hole pounder, for we knew that we needed two to three years to complete the fence around the farm, and thankfully, the ‘farmer’ is a handyman.
Intent on raising grass-finished beef, we bought two more feeder calves the following year so that we could begin our beef enterprise by selling two grown beef cattle in 2013.
While grain-fed beef grow to full weight in a year and a half, most grass-fed beef takes two years to get to maturity. The benefits of all grass to a ruminant animal is found in the fats becoming ‘good’ fats, high in Omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat that’s thought to reduce heart disease and cancer risks. We did not want to compromise the health benefits.
When we realized that our profit would be short the $10,000 gross needed for an agricultural assessment that first year, we raised up pastured broilers that got us to the mark. That, and we flipped a couple of cattle at the auction.
Each year we built more fencing and bought more feeder calves, until we were selling 4, then 6, then 8, then 9 (because one broke its leg and froze overnight), then 10, which meant we were raising 8, then 12, then 16, then 18, until we reached 20, the maximum for our 47-acre farm.
All that time, we were building 3-walled mobile sheds for protection for the cattle from the cold and wind, which they seldom use but which was important for our Upstate NY weather. By dragging the sheds in the Spring to new areas, we use the tractor to scoop up the manure into a pile for composting (good garden soil!).
Many people think that grass-fed animals are just let loose in a big open field until they are butchered. We learned about rotational grazing, so we use temporary fencing to move cattle every two to three days through small paddocks of grass within that larger pasture. We learned that cattle ought to be moved out of a pasture when they’ve eaten down to the last 3 to 4 inches of grass. The remaining grass with its leaves creates new growth through photosynthesis, thus making it possible to rotate the cattle back into that same paddock in two to three weeks. This is what makes small farms sustainable, all while protecting the environment from overuse.
At first, we struggled with hay supply for the animals, so we bought a baler, but now we only bale a little of our own grass and we buy in most of the hay. We should probably sell the baler, but we get free hay from a neighbor if we cut and bale it.
We eat our own beef. We read. We learned that Europeans will never eat an animal that is less than 2 years old, for they claim that older animals have better flavor. While we thought the flavor of our beef was good, we wanted to improve it. We attended pasture walks, conferences, and seminars, continuing to learn. Anything worthwhile takes patience, experimentation, and endurance.
About two years ago, the ‘farmer’ learned how to marble our meat with outstanding flavor. At the end of summer, he separates out the cattle intended for harvesting, then grazes them through 3-4 rotations over a period of 4-6 weeks in a paddock of brassica and millet greens, annuals that are high in carbohydrates.
Oh my! I never want any other beef! And our customers agree. We’re thankful now for sustainable customers. Our patience and learning paid off, and those thistles are gone!
Elaine J. Kennedy
Twin Brook Camillus Farm, LLC
It has only been within the last 4 years that farming seemed as though it would be a viable solution to make an honest living. Since 2009, when my wife and I kept our first garden, there has been some intriguing force that continues to set me on this path, but it was never my intention to be a farmer.
Most of my childhood was spent outdoors wandering in the woods looking for something, but some of the most enjoyable memories that I can recall are of driving through the mid-west, nearly hypnotized by the large fields of corn and soy passing beside our vehicle. Some years later, I now stand in my own field, observing cover crops and dancing bees, planning future systems on our farm, and wondering if my children will view the land in the same way, if not better.
Being a steward of the land was something that just seemed right. After three deployments with the Marines, it seemed reasonable to find time to place my hands into the soil and sow seeds, all the while wondering how a small piece of matter could become a plant capable of feeding many. I found myself investing more time in the garden, viewing other plots, interested in other people’s methods. This childlike wonder still exists, but its sole purpose was to lead me to understand food systems, our relationship to them, and how we can utilize farm practices to sustain our future generations.
I am a farmer, a designer, and a builder. I am engaged with my community and provide opportunities for them to view the landscape through an ecological lens. I assist veterans’ transition into agriculture, and help them to navigate resources and programs that are beneficial to any farmer. But I am a father and husband first, and think of ways to provide nourishing food for my family, while also raising them to understand where their food is derived from and how our influence will either create resilient or detrimental systems.
Much of the world is witness to the impact that inconsistent weather patterns are having on the landscape, and more importantly, to our food supply. For too long, we have implemented practices that uproot soil carbon, leach nutrients, and deplete the fields of any biological activity. Though I do not agree with these methods, I do understand that they have served a purpose, and those large fields of corn and soy are still what inspire me to make appropriate changes within our annual design and plans that will lessen the impact we have upon the landscape.
Our communities are faced with difficult circumstances in all areas of life and our future relies heavily upon the ways we alter or adapt our lives to embody the whole system, not just a part of the system. Often, I ask visiting students if anything in nature grows alone or in a straight line, hoping that someone will say, “actually…”, but that has not yet been the case. My point is, if the foundation for existence, our planet, works in collaboration with other ecosystems and species, then why is it that we have not yet adopted this more diverse approach to growing and raising our food?
The permaculture movement has been moving forward for four decades, regenerative or restorative practices are becoming better known, agroforestry systems are being further examined, and the reason is not because it’s a buzz, but because they work, and our communities are beginning to see that. Preparing for the future means that we focus on planning for resilience through limited tillage, crop rotations, rotational grazing, perennial intercropping, diverse polycultures, etc.; all methods that our ancestors utilized which are capable of lessening the impact of, if not preventing, pests, diseases, compaction and nutrient leaching.
We as farmers can help our families and friends maintain optimal health and vitality. We can rebuild communities by bringing them to the farm and engaging them with the source of their supper. We can plan for and prepare our future generations for any difficulties that they may endure because farmers, designers, and pioneers chose to view the landscape differently and learn from our past, providing wholesome opportunities for our grandchildren. What matters the most is doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do, and sometimes that means breaking old habits and being humble in the face of uncertainty. The land reminds me to be grateful and find time to listen; nature knows best.
Jon, Wild Roots Farm