Farming With (or Against) Animals

Farming in general, and organic diversified farming in specific, means dealing with animals on a regular basis. Sometimes, you're working with them, sometimes you're working against them. Other times, especially when dealing with a neurotic and curious farm dog, it's a little of both.

Here are two examples of working against the critters.

No. 1:

Farmer Jacob has been having a little mouse problem. Right now, they're tied.

No. 2:

Lydia The Dog is a *huge* fan of rolling in manure or -- even better if she can find it -- something dead. This weekend, she got into the car smelling like a stew of rotten meat and week-old cow pie steeped in a terrific sauce of moldy straw. So, Farmer Jacob had to scrub her. Working dogs are not water dogs, fyi. Seriously, look at that face.

Snow, snow, snow and wind.

I posted this photo a few days ago, thinking I had a good shot of Montana spring weather (click on the photo and notice the icicles on the potting shed roof):

Well, it got better a couple days later when big fat flakes started falling and accumulating:

That all melted yesterday but this is what it looks like today:

I had to hurdle the drift in front of the door to get inside.

More Media

In the Great Falls Tribune: Finding the Perfect Seed

After this was published, I came across Jill Davies' organization, Sustainable Living Systems in Victor: Click on "Seed Bank" on the left-hand side. I'm sure there are others in the state who are saving and exchanging seed in at least some organized manner.

An Old Tractor and Spring Weather

This beast is what will be cultivating and planting my field crops. It's a 1969 Case 1030 Western Comfort King Draft-O-Matic 8 speed diesel. Its power steering is out and the tie-rod ends need work. The inside of the cab is a bit roughed up and the doors and windows don't close all the way. Dave and I got it back to the farm a couple days ago. Jerry, the neighbor, had been borrowing it. It took a while to get it started, but it runs and that makes me happy.

I tried unsuccessfully to start it the past two (relatively) warm days. I need it to move the seed drills and cultivator off the field where my vegetables will go. Today it's snowing so I won't be messing with it.

The Farm Loves the Media

The (almost) local paper featured the Farm's CSA program on Saturday! By 7am, I'd already received an email about available veggie shares. Later in the day I got 2 calls and by evening I'd gotten 5 more emails. I've filled all the Vegetable CSA shares and am picking up more Thanksgiving CSA shareholders. There is definitely a lot of interest in high-quality local produce in central Montana.

Mice, Seeds, and Seedlings

I've got mice problems. A couple days ago I discovered the tops of some of my lettuce and cabbage seedlings had been eaten. I had put all my trays in the subgreenhouse (the greenhouse within the greenhouse) for the night and in the morning discovered the wreckage.

So, the next night I moved all but the onion trays back to the germination rack where I thought they'd be safe. I surrounded the onions still in the subgreenhouse with mouse traps. In the morning, the peanut butter bait on 2 of the 4 traps were licked clean because the traps didn't spring. One trap was untouched and the the 4th had a dead mouse in it. When I checked the trays on the germination rack, I discovered the rack is not mouse proof. More of my cabbage seedlings had been munched and my just-seeded cabbage and pepper seeds had been dug up and eaten, leaving just the outer seed shell.

Needless to say, the germination rack and the subgreenhouse have about a dozen mouse traps scattered between them. Yesterday was the first day of spring and when I check on my trays this morning, I'm praying it's the last day of the open house mouse cafeteria.

Little Farmer in the Big City

The Capitol

What happens when you let a Montana farmer loose in DC? He goes straight to the National Botanical Gardens, then eats a lunch of rabbit stew, roasted root veggies, and fry bread at the cafeteria in the Native American Museum.

I flew into DC late Saturday and had part of Sunday to wander around. I was there to attended the inaugural meeting of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) in Washingon, DC earlier this week. NSAC is the recently merged group of the Sustainable Ag Coalition and the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture - basically a supergroup of sustainable ag policy advocates.

I was invited to participate because I'm on the board of the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) and AERO is a member of NSAC. Essentially, NSAC is a coalition of sustainable food and farming groups across the country. Based out of DC, they advocate for federal policy on behalf of member groups. This allows member groups to work at the grassroots level while having an ally at our nation's capitol. Our first day and a half of meeting on Sunday and Monday was to establish the work priorities of NSAC.

A few farmers from Iowa were at the meeting and somehow convinced the Secretary of Ag, Tom Vilsack, to come speak to the group. I was very impressed, first of all that he came to the hotel to speak to us. But also, he really seems to understand the connection between health and nutrition and local and sustainable food. His short talk was about the "sustainable" USDA and what specifically will make it so. He spoke about sustainable rural communities, energy sources, forests, the future, and the economy. Improving child nutrition and nutrition in schools, specifically with local fruits and vegetables, will be a focus of the USDA, he said, as will fighting child obesity and hunger. Transitioning farmers away from fossil fuels and continuing support for renewable energy will also be a focus of the USDA. He finished by saying they are going to take a jackhammer to some asphalt laid by the previous administration and plant an organic garden with the proceeds going to local food banks. He hopes other USDA offices will replicate the idea. While he knew who his audience was and likely highlighted those issues we'd like the most, he came across as honest and straightforward. I may not agree with his stance on some things, like biotechnology and CAFOs, but I really feel as though he will be a good secretary of agriculture.

Photo by Aimee Whitteman

On Tuesday, we met with our respective congresspeople to talk to them about certain farm programs we feel are important for a healthy food system and for rural and urban America. Many of these programs are funded, but the amount is a pittance. We were asking for a couple things: not to cut any of the programs in the appropriations process and to bump up the funding to levels that could make these programs much stronger and farther-reaching.

I sat down with Brandon Willis, Senator Baucus' ag staffer. I've met Brandon before, and he's well-versed in many of these programs, so there was little explaining to do. He said Senator Buacus hasn't been working on many ag issues lately. That's likely due to the economic stimulus work and his work on health care.

Later in the day, I sat down with Matt Jennings, Senator Tester's ag staffer and a Montana boy. Senator Tester was able to sit down partway through the meeting on his way to another meeting. Talking to Tester and his staff about sustainable ag and rural programs is like preaching to the choir. If there's anybody in Congress who understands the value of these programs to food and farming and to rural America, it's our organic farmer Senator.

Cabbage Pushes Through

Each photo in this series is of a different plant, but imagine if you will, it is one plant that is beginning to push through the soil, lifts it out of the way, and pokes its head into the light.

Slow Money

A friend of mine forwarded me this story from NPR:

Dante the dairy farmer is trying to do exactly what we're trying to do, though we're asking our friends for far less money. It's essentially side-stepping the conventional lending system to seek capital from lenders who value much more than just the return. From our request letter:

"Starting up a brand-new farm operation is difficult, to say the least. We face numerous barriers including access to land, equipment, and capital. Fortunately, we've hurdled the first two barriers: access to land and equipment, both of which we will lease. We are now facing the final barrier – access to capital. We would like to avoid borrowing from a bank. Since we see our farming and the way we've been given access to land and equipment as an alternative to the industrial food and agriculture system, we are proposing an alternative capitalization plan. What we are asking of you, is to invest in Montana and the community by loaning us a portion of the much-needed start-up capital. In many ways we are attempting to navigate outside the system that tends not to value community-based ideals unless a price can be put on it. In addition to a modest return, you will get one share in our Thanksgiving CSA (winter squash, potatoes, onions, and a heritage turkey) and the knowledge you're helping to strengthen rural Montana and build a healthy Montana food system (not to mention, giving two native Montanans the chance to create a living back home). This could be considered a form of highly personal, community-based socially responsible investing. You will be investing in friends, in rural Montana, and in people you know well, who are dedicated to not only the community of Conrad and central Montana, but the greater community which makes up both Courtney's and my network that spans the length and width of our state."

I should mention, one friend we had asked for money reminded me that banks are part of the local community, too. He's right, and earlier this week I went into the Conrad Wells Fargo to talk to them about the possibility of a small loan should we be unable to raise what we need. Aaron, the loan officer, told me they have a few options for small businesses. The only one that actually would work for us would be a small business loan with an interest rate of 8-9%. Though that may be the reality in the conventional lending world, that seems high to me, especially for a small farm starting out. He suggested I visit with the FSA office to talk to them about loans for beginning farmers.

I'm hoping this first year we won't need to use the banks, local or otherwise, but can raise what we need from friends. I suspect, if all goes well, we'll need the banks for our future enterprises, so it's good to talk to them now.

All those friends we've asked have expressed their support, and we've received one loan so far.

First Life

Some of my onions have germinated! Now that they're poking through the soil, I want to get them some sunlight, but it's just too cold, so the fluorescent lights will have to suffice for now.

The sunrise this morning.


It's cold outside. It was 7 below zero this morning and has warmed up to 3 below. My germination rack is keeping my seedlings warm (enough), holding a steady temperature of 60-70 degrees when I seal up the rack with panels of insulation at night. In the morning there were icicles hanging from the bottom of the plastic covering the rack.

I'm quickly running out of room on the rack, though, so this weekend Clyde and I worked on building a smaller greenhouse within the big greenhouse, so I can heat a smaller space.

So Moved

We finally made the big move to Conrad from Missoula. With the help of Court's brother Steve (and Renee and Sam) and dad Clyde, we loaded up 2 flatbed trailers, 3 pickups, and 2 cars with a lifetime of Court's stuff, a lifetime of my stuff, and 4 years of Court's and my life together (plus 3 cats and 1 dog). We (just me, actually) had essentially accumulated a farm's-worth of things before we had a farm. So, with the packing and the moving, I've been slow to get going in the greenhouse. On Monday, I spent the day in the potting shed preparing the germination rack, picking up a pallet of potting soil, and seeding trays and flats of onions. The greenhouse itself doesn't have any heat. It once had a propane heater but the tank and pipes are outdated and wouldn't be serviced by a dealer without an overhaul to the system and money to make it happen. I haven't raised all the start-up capital yet, so spending money right now doesn't sound like a good idea. So, I'm trying to make do with the germination rack. I spent today insulating it and seeding more onions. It's snowing outside right now and the temperature has dropped to 7 degrees - 10 below with the wind. Next week doesn't look any better, with below zero temps and more snow.

The leaning tower of potting soil.

Getting ready to seed onions.

The germination rack, pre-insulation (and pre-below zero temps).
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