Saturday, May 21, 2011

Getting to work

The next morning, we sat down with a legal pad to set some priorities. There’s an endless list of possibilities we’ve been excited about since even before we found the property: the garden, compost, chickens, goats, sheep, pigs, bees, and more. And most importantly, how these all fit together. Since the 1950’s when a post-war surplus of ammonia production was channeled into nitrogen-based fertilizers, farms have become less reliant on the interdependence of multiple species. Whereas the fertility of the soil had previously come from cow manure, picked apart and spread by chickens who added their nitrogen-rich droppings, portions aerated by the rooting of the pigs, weeds nibbled by goats and sheep and plants pollenated by the bees, today’s farmers are increasingly motivated by yield; The previously closed and largely self-sustaining system has been replaced by one where specialization on a single crop requires truckloads of nitrogen-based fertilizer to keep the land productive. The result, ironically, is a farm that feeds hundreds if not thousands of people but can’t feed the farmer (unless he *really* likes corn). Of course, there are complex social and economic factors behind this transition that you can read more about in books like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and form your own conclusions, but fortunately, we’re not worried about yield or making money at this point. We just want to create a system that requires minimal inputs from the outside, creates little or no waste and might one day produce enough food for us and a few friends.


Getting the garden going was one of the first priorities, both because we could do some work on it now then focus on other things while it grew and because it represented the quickest way for us to start producing something we could actually eat. There’s a small fenced area off the ragged greenhouse that looked like it had been used as a garden before, but we decided we needed some more space. The idea was to double the fenced in area and use raised beds, both for ease of working on them and to deter the active gopher population. I just know at some point I’m going walk out there and see Ann on the roof of the greenhouse with a .22 rifle scanning the yard for gophers like an Alcatraz prison guard.




We headed out into the garden, armed with our work gloves, mine left behind bythe previous owner in the workshop and Ann’s fresh from the hardware store, and quickly realized that we didn’t really have any tools. Remember, we have some of this stuff; It’s just still at the SF house. Ironically, we’d have had just about everything we needed in the tool kit under the rear bumper of the Xterra, but it was still breaking rocks in customs jail in the Port of Oakland. After a quick trip to the hardware store for a selection of clippers, nippers and snippers, we started wrestling t-stakes out of the ground and trying to avoid being stabbed in the eye with barbed wire as we took the fence down.





For a look at my last experience with barbed wire on a motorcycle trip in the Nevada desert, check out the last 25 seconds or so of this..

The next morning, we picked up a high weed mower from the local equipment rental place. As much as I want an excuse to buy one of those old Ford 8N tractors, I think the best course of action is to rent and borrow for a while to figure out what works best on the property. In fact, the neighbors up the hill and across the street have already stopped by to offer tools, expertise and labor anytime we need it. Country livin’. I spent pretty much the whole day behind that mower, aptly named “The Billy Goat,” first clearing the area for the expanded garden then all around the front of the barn, the part most visible from the street, that made our property look a little like a meth lab. With three forward gears plus reverse and a narrow enough width to get through gates, it was working so well that I cleared another half acre or so paddock, bumping over a seasonal stream gully and cutting underneath the overgrown oaks.




This was the first time I had set foot on parts of the property, so I just followed along behind the Billy Goat as it cut a path through waist high grass all the way up to two old chicken houses and the upper entrance gate. By this time, I was addicted. I didn’t really know why I was cutting the grass. Was it good for its long term health to be cut? Was it to minimize fire danger? I wasn’t sure but I was enjoying myself in this meditative and satisfying chore. Up near the northwest corner (yes, as a matter of fact, I do insist on talking about our little 4 acres as if it was 400), I saw two medium-sized birds fly out of the high grass in a little gully under some oaks. Behind them followed a wild turkey gobble-gobblin’ away. And, yes, I did check; You’re not allowed to make them the featured guest at Thanksgiving even on your own property without a permit and even then only during a prescribed hunting season.



The next day we traded the mower for a rototiller at the rental place and crisscrossed the area we’d laid out for the garden. The tilling was mostly to chop up the grass and level things out as we would be using raised beds anyway. It’s a shame the gophers are everywhere since the soil is soft and fluffy; This coming from someone who doesn’t know humus from hummus.







By the end of the second day, I was hurtin’: Blisters on my hands, tired legs and a sore back. Honestly, I hadn’t felt that tired since our last triathlon, an Olympic distance, a couple years ago. The first beer tasted amazing, but I barely made it through the second one as my eyes were getting heavy.

Finally fumes from the "low VOC” paint we had the guy use had dissipated enough for us to start staying at the house. Despite exposed staples from the carpet having been hastily pulled up in the living room and dust from the fireplace work everywhere, we were officially living in the house. My mom had been hassling us for a week and I finally accepted her offer of a card table and some folding chairs. While the low beach chairs we had pointing out towards the pasture by the sliding glass doors had a certain charm, sitting upright at a table to work on the computer or eat dinner was pretty nice. Otherwise, our new plates from Heath Ceramics, a belated birthday present for Ann from my mom, and the brand new Calphalon cookware from the wedding were just about all we needed. Oh, and the coffeemaker I pinched from the garage of our SF house last time we stopped by to see the tenants. Again, if we only had the truck…


We settled into a routine of checking on the goats from time to time, particularly first thing in the morning and just before sunset. Inevitably, we’d find someone stuck in the fence a couple times a day.


And after one was freed, another would stick its head right in the same hole…


It’s hard to tell how much progress they’ve made on clearing the pasture. They seem to be eating around the thistles but maybe they’ll get to them once the good stuff, like the trees which they walk on their hind legs to reach, has been exhausted. When one goat finds something delicious, they all run over to check it out, a few of the more aggressive ones pushing to the front of the line. One good side effect is that the sheep seem to be learning how to graze, rushing in to nibble after the goats have moved on to the next great thing.

One of the few things we know about goats is that they don’t like the rain, so the past few days of unseasonal showers have driven them to explore their options. We still don’t know quite where Petunia goes when it’s wet, and the sheep seem to just hide under the trees towards the back of the pasture, but the goats found a teetering shed building and packed all nine of them in there. Based on how they were piled in the truck when they were dropped off, I don’t really think they minded.

After a few lunches of leftover burritos and pizza, we decided Petunia needed something a little more healthy. She was not excited about the organic baby greens, preferring apple cores, meat and bread in addition to her pig chow.