2009 in Review
"So long, 2009...", An Annual Retrospective...
by Daniel Botkin, Laughing Dog Farm, January 1st, 2010
...2009 was a year of hope and tragedy, of ironic and absurd contradiction and manic extremes...
...And this year the spring rains we prayed for finally came, and came -- and then didn't stop. It rained beyond what most fields and gardens could absorb. And then some more. We felt badly for all the folks living in the soggy bottomlands, along flooded streambanks and rivers. We commiserated with many farmers who simply couldn't enter their fields to farm... We on the other hand were extremely lucky to be situated on an extra-sunny hilltop with well-drained, sandy loam.
And we were also fortunate on this drenched year to be already set up with "permanent", no-till, raised beds, terraced gardens and protected hoophouse plots. In 2009, we actually had the kind of breakout gardening-year people like me dream about... consistent, diverse, nutritious and delicious, from gate to gate, January to December! Only the tomatoes were a big disappointment... And even then, we managed to save lots of great, heirloom seed!
At Laughing Dog Farm we really didn't accomplish any grand or magnificent thing this year, like a house rennovation, a baby, or a book... but rather, many small, slowly manifesting and still evolving ones. Let me explain...
...This was the year that our beloved 2008 goat orphans came of age and themselves bore wonderful dairy kids, worthy of their heritage. That alone was worth the ride... As you can see, I adore dairy goats. I am ever in awe of their zen demeanors, their ruggedness and their fecundity.
Read on down to where Leylee narrates the drama of this year's kidding season 2009 at LDF...
This was the year Leylee entered 7th grade in a terrific new school, Four Rivers public charter school in Greenfield, every bit as good as the best private schools we know. Her teachers are serious, friendly, competent, interested in their subjects, and the curriculum is dynamic and socially conscious. Sheesh! So, remind me why they can't all be like that?
This year Divya took a leadership role playing, singing and helping lead sacred "kirtan" chants led by Rick Roberts of Montague, with gigs in Amherst, Greenfield and at Kripalu Institute in Lennox, MA! Leylee, who also loves chanting, attended the Omega Institute's kirtan intensive Labor Day weekend and was again invited onstage to sing with kirtan masters Miten, Guru Ganesha, Minose, Deva Primal, Krishna Das and others... What a kid!
In 2009, *el mundo entero* cried huge tears of joy and relief to finally throw off the ugly and catastophic "Bush era" and to bear witness as an apparently progressive, black American man, a brilliant statesman and purveyor of hope, was elected to the U.S. Presidency ...
... Only to see him one year later mired in two wars and compromised by the death grip of partisan politics. Of course we still have great hope for Obama's (our) legacy, for "Change" and for a survivable future for our kids. But he's (we're) going to need muchos cojones, on all fronts, as we've now witnessed with climate change negotiation, two unendable wars, and with the deeply flawed health care "reform". Gasp...
Of course Michelle's taking up the torch of First Foodie with her wildly popular 2009 White House organic garden was a welcome tonic for farmers and locavores, everywhere! We appreciated all the wonderful, implicit messages surrounding the President's wife championing an organic garden, all the collective, national remembering of down home wisdom and do-it-yourself ingenuity, of good nutrition and other "home grown" solutions.
Yet concurrently, Mr. Obama's agriculture policies, notwithstanding a new face and tone, remain deeply stuck in a decidely pro-industry status quo. Obviously he's reluctant to take on Corporate Agriculture and the Food and Energy interests just yet. Eeeek!
2009 Garden News
This year due to the rain our beloved (outdoor) heirloom tomato plants fell woefully behind and then languished in the wet fields... We did however harvest modest quantities of hoophouse tomatoes -- plus enviable harvests of winter greens, leeks and lettuce, pretty much all year long. We succeeded in 2009 like never before with summer and everbearing strawberries, raspberries, cut flowers, pole beans, peaches, plums, heirloom squashes and potatoes.
And we grew a truly dreamy crop of garlic… including several new varieties such as “Rosewood” “Inchillium Red” and “Siberian Stripe”. Needless to say we've eaten like royalty every day and night, all year long, with soups, salads, stirfries, pizzas and veggie roasts as regular favorites.
Mentorship at LDF
This year we hosted one terrific, long-term WWOOF volunteer, Mathew, and numerous short termers. Matt found us last spring, and struck up an enduring acquaintanceship with LDF. He was persistent about his intention to intern and learn here and kept coming back to visit and to help. By early summer, he'd won me over and was living in the tower and working here nearly full time.
There is a personal transformation that occurs when volunteers really settle in to the life here at LDF and make it their home. That was the energy of Matt this summer. He not only wanted to learn about food farming, permaculture and homesteading, he also wanted a place to settle and be. Matt was bright, curious, funny and competent and we hit it off great. He seemed also to thrive in the work and the sanctuary here. Like me he was often absorbed in many projects at once, aside from the tending and harvesting of veggies. I never had to worry whether he had something to do at any moment, as he always had a full agenda of gritty, but essential, farm tasks he’d peck away on: fixing latches, handles and gates, and organizing tools and hardware. These are the kind of things which tend to be put off by me as "unessential". However, Matt got them done, one by one reminding me the pleasure of working gates and pot lids with handles...He was also invaluable in pruning, cabling and harvesting the ultra-laden 2009 peach trees and in keeping the squash bug infestation under control. As a result we had the most awesome peach harvest, and also a fine crop of the famous marina di Chioggia winter squash.
Aside from Mathew who ended up staying most of the summer, we also hosted various short-term WWOOF volunteers including Justin T. from Westchester, Cecily A. from Philly, Carolyn S. from Australia, and Robert R. from Maryland. Each came and sweated and laughed and ate with us for a week or two. Each continued soon on their voyage, but left behind their friendship, their essence... and a mended fence, a table of seedlings, a heap of braided garlic, and/or a beautifully mowed farm... We thank all those who came to visit from afar, to help and learn this season.
In 2009 we offered over 12 different workshops pertaining to permaculture gardening, seed saving, hoophouses, goat husbandry and horticulture, including slide lectures:“Farming the Fringe” and “Backyard Hoophouses” for the Mass. Master Gardeners Symposium in S. Deerfield in March. We look forward to another active season of teaching and mentoring beginning with a class on managing farm internships presented at the NOFA winter conference January 16th in Worcester...
This year we also received lots of positive feedback from the Youtube "how to" video series shot and posted in 2008 by Expertvillage.com. There is clearly a hunger across the land, not simply for "local", but also for serious, basic knowledge and know-how on do it yourself, backyard food production. I'm stunned by how few people know basic composting, basic seed saving or germination, basic food processing info and skills. Now, finally the tide is shifting and we're seeing new interest in all things foody. Yes!
2009 LDF goat narrative by Leylee:
The year 2009 began with all our goats extremely happy at the innauguration of President Obama. To celebate they began having kids at the first hint of spring. First to freshen was young Lakshmee, daughter of queen Flossy. One fine March morning she unexpectedly dropped adorable twins, one boy we named Indra and one girl we named Kali. Next was the beloved favorite Ghandari who gave birth to a snow white girl, Kunti and a chocolate-headed boy, Pondu. She freshened on a warm spring Tuesday, I remember it like it was yesterday.
The third goat to freshen was the prized milker of the barnyard, Cowey. All day she was showing extreme signs of birth. Finally after a long day it was time for bed. Another day without birth. How long can she wait? But then strange noises began coming through the baby monitor and dad ran out to the barn with Divya at 3:00 AM. After an hour of intense pushing they knew the moment was near and called me (sleeping with the cell phone) to the scene just in time to see the first of Cowey's triplets, (little Kumba, followed by Karna and Karma) get born. Three adorable, white baby girls.
Fourth up was BeeBee (Baby's baby) the beloved daughter of our original goat Baby. Having never given birth before BeeBee was quite upset and startled at the arrival of her single daughter Bubala. But she came around to be a fine momma.
Last, but most certainly not least was, the queen of the barnyard, Flossy. She was big alright and her size played tricks on us. By the time she finally popped, it was nearly summer! She gave us the cutest triplet bucklings ever, sons of the great Radayah. We named them Prelata, Chaca and Krishna. Chaca has stayed with us to became our stud this year and also serviced dairy does in Wendell and Shutesbury.
"One Straw Revolution" Masanobu Fukuoka
Farming this sacred hilltop in 2009, we have been once again reminded how the so called "soft" technologies. the slow, cheap, low-impact and simple solutions can be the most powerful and effective of all -- The quiet dripping of water over the gushing torrent of interventionist solutions.For example, this year we observed most dramatically the cumulative power of planting continuously, with, beyond and “against” the seasons, in fact throughout the entire blessed calendar year. A little goes a long, long way. A little heat, a little light, a little lettuce...
The miracle of winter grown greens:
Just a few days ago, on New Years Eve, I was out there planting small quantities of spinach, lettuce, kale and cilantro, plus garlic, in the nearly frozen hoophouse soil. Four nights ago it was 3*F with brutal NW gusts. Who would have guessed that all manner of greens, brassicas and alliums planted (with a prayer) in the absolute dead of winter, could actually sprout and grow? They won't all grow, and they won't grow right away. And they won't grow quickly. But, invariably, some will come up. Slowly at first, as if stuck in slow motion, some seeds will awaken and begin to germinate (when consecutive daytime temps climb above freezing). And as frigid winter weather ebbs inside the winter hoophouse, more will slowly come up. They may not look great. They may not be worth much, but they will be there, nonetheless, quiet survivors, super-early pioneers ready for further action should the temperature rise for real.
I actually enjoy how fall/winter-planted seeds emerge in slow motion, pre-hardened to the world by enduring and surviving daily, repeated frost. Interestingly, the resulting food also has a unique "winter sweetness" and “nutrient density” that finds children fighting over scraps of spinach, chard, beet greens and kale, food they'd reject in the summer months. What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. Yes?!
Also, the ability to germinate and keep alive large numbers of seedlings and plants (even through the darkest winter months) without a lot of fuss or work, opens creative production schemes for any aspiring gardener or food producer.
Wood Heat in Hoophouse
Truth be told... after three winters doing without, I have just this month installed an old woodstove inside the hoophouse. While bragging about how much mileage we've gotten from the unheated 65'x26' hoophouse, I almost forgot that there’s no law against added heat inside the winter greenhouse, either. ;) Ironically, as soon as this old wood burner was installed and fired, I promptly shut it down, realizing it would take too much fuel and too much tending to make a significant difference, day to day, through the entire winter. However, I have been lighting fires when the temps hit the single digits and plan to do so pre-emptively against oncoming blizzards as well.
How do plants survive such brutal temps?
Established, winter-hardy plants have the uncanny capacity to go into a protective freeze/wilt and then pop back to life just fine when the temperature rises. They do this, we see, over and over, day after day after day, surviving many months with no heat at all. The new greenhouse woodstove, I'm realizing, is really there to buffer against extreme weather events (snow load, severe frost) in the fall and winter. And I'm sure it'll come in handy in the spring, as well, as we aggressively push the new season forward...
We continue trialing locust-slatted field hoops...
Many of the practices of small-time food growers have been radically altered over the last few years by the myriad uses of hoophouse culture, plastic, row covering and cold frames of all sizes, shapes and functions. Even the White House garden just got their first "low hoop" tunnels. I've followed with interest other gardeners' and farmers' experiments with alternative materials (fiberglass, bamboo, etc...) to build functional, "permanent" field (low) hoops, superior to those typical (flimsy) wire ones. To be able to quickly and efficiently construct big, strong, cheap, semi-permanent field hoops anywhere, anytime would be a huge BOON to backyard gardeners and sustainable agriculture, everywhere! This is especially relevant to the "little guys" who can least afford a state-of-the-art hoophouse. Yes?
At LDF I’ve been experimenting for years with green, locust slats as a bendable, low-tunnel hoop material. I insert the ends into the soil (or attach to base "timbers") bend them appropriately and lash a series of bows together into a sweat lodge-like tunnel. Most folks know of the legendary rot-resistence of this rock-hard, yellow wood. Purlined together (lashing with rags, etc) and covered with greenhouse poly I've been impressed with their form, relative strength and function... the only caveat over the years being their tendency to collapse under glacial forces. (severe snow and ice loads on top and sides).
This year, with Blue Sky's help (Colrain Tree Service...) I increased the gauge of locust slats and narrowed the width of the tunnel and added three purlins. I'm very excited about the composite strength of my latest 40' x 7' tunnel which was erected over some leeks, parsley, kale and cutting celery, moments before the onset of "hard" winter, four weeks ago. The length of slats used for this project was 13' and width was 3" x generous 1/4".
Although I'm still going to broom off the worst snows of winter, the thing has a rigidity and bounce to it that is reassuring.
Heirloom seed saving salvages a bad tomato year...
Despite the weak tomato year, we were able to harvest enough specimen fruits to save a wonderful, updated selection of our favorite heirloom tomato seeds. For the sixth consecutive year I've issued a new edition of eight carefully selected favorites, with viable seed affixed to the page with gluestick.
We have now sent our little annual heirloom "seed collection" page to fellow gardeners and farmers throughout the US and also to Jamaica, France, Italy, Russia, Canada and Haiti. All the feedback has been great. Seems the heirlooms survived and flourished over the ages not for nothing.
Yeah, I get it, that's how they got to be "heirlooms"... Sheesh!
Contact me if you'd like to purchase my 2010 collection ($20 includes post/handling) which include Pineapple, Black Pineapple, Aunt Ruby German Green, Orange Sunshine, Black Prince, Blonde Fig, Isis Candy and Black Cherry. Most farmers like to take a break in winter. After this frightful tomato year, I for one, am ready to get back at it. It is clear to me that the use of meticulous garden hygiene, plus blight-free seeds and seedlings will be critical as we face the possibility of further tomato blight in 2010.
I see there are still two missing links in the LDF legacy..
The first relates to the Bigger Picture and our desire to connect our horticulture and husbandry work here on the farm more directly with world affairs. The second relates to the intention of LDF to be a more vital, more (peopled) active community today, and to our intention to connect and collaborate more deeply with others -- and indeed to ultimately pass along this hilltop farm, project and vision, over the next decade, in a successful and generous way to other inspired, slightly younger folks, who might do it justice...
Irony of blissfully growing delicious stuff while the world burns...
...And there is always a bit of irony and sadness for me that the copacetic, agrarian life we enjoy here on Laughing Dog Farm is such an incredible and rare priveledge, surely beyond the means of the vast majority of the earth's people. And though we are grateful for the opportunity to role model a bit of what's possible using enlightened, organic, "permacultural", micro-farming techniques and to mentor folks in backyard food production, we're simultaneously humbled by the vastness of the collective challenge before us. It would be good to share more deeply on this with like minded folks in 2010...
As the year winded down there was a fascinating thread on the (highly recommended) local permaculture listserve addressing the question of what “human permaculture” might look like. Several folks posted and there were stories of farming and permaculture projects stymied not by Nature or technology or Cash, but by the utterly untamble challenges of "group process". There was voiced a huge, consensual "Ay", that "getting along with one another" was in every way "as critical as swales or bio-char or sheet mulch" in building more integrated and sustainable energy systems, habitats, living sites and food supplies. But there ended the conversation and the list forthwith returned to chatting about cover crops, backyard chickens, raw milk and the like…
I for one want to continue the dialog and field studies on "human permaculture". It’s not so much that I still long for a more tribal life or think that communal living is a "nobler" or more virtuous way to live. Rather I think as human beings on earth in 2010, sharing all these mind-blowing natural and unnatural conondrums, we’re simply and inexorably linked, for better or worse. Our collective fate is, clearly, joined. In other words, we need each other. It isn’t merely a personal choice whether we work out the human social riddle...
Yes, folks... it is undeniably true, WE NEED EACH OTHER TO SURVIVE...
So, here's wishing everyone a stout barn,
rich fodder and good company,
... and Peace for the New Year, 2010!
Laughing Dog Farm