Friday, November 28, 2008

Farm Fowl Fiasco


If anyone sells you a so-called “free range chicken” don’t believe them.  Animal activists and organic farmers have spread the notion that it is cruel to cage birds.  They say chickens should be free to roam and scratch cow pies turning them over and dining on the windfall of insects found therein.  It is cruel to confine thousands of chickens in one industrial setting where they lay eggs onto conveyors and their manure is ferried out to waiting lagoons by rotating belt.  Visit a chicken farm so described and the stench is horrible because all of the nitrogen in that manure ammonia gas escapes in volumes enough to make you run for the door.  It’s the same with turkeys.  I once worked at Berry Hill vineyard farming wine grapes.  This 40 acre vineyard was placed on the side of one of the few high ridges in Orange County, Virginia.  The hill’s one redeeming feature was its height so the state police put a tower there for their radios and Horton Vineyards planted a vineyard there high above the frost.  The owner of this property also placed a confined turkey feeding operation high above his neighbors so the nauseating stench would not bother anyone, except of course the birds who have little to say in this matter.  Think about this next time you carve into that Butterball breast for Thanksgiving turkey.


It was with visions of free range chickens wandering my pastures and gardens eating insects and scratching at the ground that I bought my first 40 chicks from McMurray Hatchery.  Chickens, like honey bees which I also bought, arrive by the mails.  I believe I paid $4 postage to the postman who probably burned up $6 for fuel driving up to my house to deliver the young birds.  “Peep, peep, peep”, they make this delightful little sound as they stand there neatly aligned in little rows of downy feathers.  They look like tennis balls with legs except they are much smaller.


When chicks arrive you are supposed to keep them warm.  The rule of thumb is to keep them in 95 degree heat by hanging a heat lamp over their bedding reducing the temperature a few degrees every week until they are ready to move outside.  If the chicks stand to far away from the heat lamp it is too hot.  If they huddle underneath it is too cold.


McMurray Hatchery promised me an assortment of laying hens and meat birds.  I had chicks that in 10 months or so would be laying white, brown, and even blue colored eggs.  Or so goes the theory.  Tossed into the mix was an assortment of what they called “meat birds”.  These were Cornish and White Rocks hens.  All of my new chickens were females. 


Out in the pasture meanwhile I had had 4 hens and 1 rooster that had been laying eggs for some time.  These chickens I had gotten from Pearmund Cellars.  Chris Pearmund had moved off the property to a newly-built house so no one was taking care of them so he said I could take all 5 and a couple of bags of food too.  So one morning before daylight I snuck into the hen house and plucked the hens from their roost and tossed them into pillow cases.  I had read that this was the easiest way to capture chickens—i.e., get them while they are sleeping so I bundled them off blindfolded as it were like some kidnapping victims ala Secuestro Express.  They clucked quietly inside the pillows as if this is something that happened every day.


I was not completely new to chickens because my father had had them on his 500 acre farm when I was a boy and his second wife’s parents had them too.  But I only spent the summer with my dad and his new bride so responsibility for the taking care of the chickens rest with someone else, certainly not me.  I think two of the sharecropper’s sons who lived on the farm took care of our flock because I don’t recall my dad doing the same.  So I was a debutante chicken farmer and consulted a book.


My son loved playing with the 5 chickens that I spirited away from Pearmund Cellars. He did what we called “chicken tipping” whose name we borrowed from the sport called “cow tipping” which is what I imagine they do in places like Kansas where tipping over sleeping cows is the only game in town.  The thing about chickens is no matter how you rotate them they keep their head pointed straight up.  There have sort of an onboard gyroscope.  So Nathaniel did not knock over sleepy chickens he just picked them up and rotated them.


I bought a book on chicken coop construction and built a cheap mobile one from some galvanized tin, chicken wire, and 1x1 lumber, staples, and an extra large pallet.  The idea was to drag the chickens from one place to another so they would scratch at the ground improving the soil and put down fertilizer with their manure before I moved them to another spot.  Chicken manure, also called “litter”, is higher is nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium that manure from cows or horses.  That is one reason so many local farmers here in Virginia buy chicken manure to spread on their pastures.  It is cheaper than fertilizer.  If it is composted then it adds carbon to the soil.  If not then it decomposes in place in what is called “compost sheeting”.


Everything was going swimmingly out in the pasture.  The chickens were happy in their mobile chicken coop.  I installed an electric polywire fence that was also moveable around their hen house.  This kept the Labrador retriever out.  The chickens did not stay inside since they could all fly, but this did not bother me because they flew up in to the trees where I assumed they would be safe from predators.  The chickens no longer trusted my hen house because I constructed it too light.  I wanted it to be light enough so that I could easily move it around but it had the density of a lightweight, hobby aircraft.  So it did what most airplanes do when the wind blows:  it took off.  More than once I came home in the afternoon to find my chicken coop upside down with a handful of angry birds standing on top staring at me.  I learned to fix that problem by pounding stakes into the ground and attaching a heavy chain.


Back inside my kitchen problems were starting to develop.   My house sounded like some kind of petting zoo as the chicks went “peep, peep, peep” whenever they were hungry which was pretty much all day long.  I filled a plastic tub with oak sawdust shavings of which I had plenty since I had bought a whole dump truck full to make compost for the pasture.  Then I set out some watering cans.  But the meat birds quickly started growing faster than they laying varieties so I then divided the flock into two.


Most Sundays I would go to the grocery store and buy one of those roasting hens that have a thermometer inside.  They mainly come from Perdue which has most of their farms east of me on the Eastern Shore of Maryland across the Chesapeake Bay and west of my across the Shenandoah Valley in Harrisburg.  But now that I know what I do about meat birds I have pretty much lost appetite for the same.


White Rocks hens are bred to grow quickly.  But the problem is they grow too quickly often ballooning to a weight for which their legs cannot carry them.  The McMurry catalogue advised that the birds should be slaughtered at only a few months before they developed problems walking.  To breed them with a deficiency seemed sort of cruel to me.  Worse they got to this weight rapidly by eating.  One would not say they ate “voraciously” they ate “compulsively” like mad men.  Had they been humans they would have been confined to a hospital bed rising only to join one of those hotdog eating contests you see on the news.


The laying hens were happy now that I had moved them away from the White Rocks who fairly stepped on them as they clamored for move food.  Soon the Rocks learned to hop since flying was not something they would ever be able to do with their heavy weight.  They knocked over the watering cans and made quite a noise.  I found it hard to talk on the telephone doing my day job.  My house was beginning to smell.  It was still winter but on sunny days I put them out for a little exercise and to air out my house.


I was glad when the icy winds of March gave way to the halcyon days of April and I could move my chicks outside.  The laying chicks were still tiny so I put them in my unheated greenhouse to keep them out of the wind.  The Rocks were waddling now and quite fat and smelly.  I put them into the mobile hen house inside the polywire fence.  The problem with the fencing was it was made to contain goats.  The mesh was quite small and the fat little Rocks were able to push themselves out a jolt of 4,000 volts of electricity not withstanding.  I dreaded walking down to the hen house because the Rocks would come racing out to meet me outside the safety of the electric fence when they thought I was bringing them corn.  The dogs would not go outside and the cat had cut a back flip when she first encountered the wire.  But outside the fence there was nothing I could do to protect them.


By this time my rooster had disappeared leaving only a pile of feathers below the spot where he had been roosting in the tree.  All kinds of predators like chickens:  fox, raccoon, skunk, possum, and of course my Labrador retriever.  There was not much I could do to protect the chickens if my retriever was going to eat them and if they pushed their fat little bodies through the fence netting.  Soon they were disappearing at the rate of 1 per day.  In the day it was the dog and at night other predators.  Worse Will my black lab taught Molly my livestock guard dog to chase and kill chickens.  Molly is a Great Pyrenees which is a breed that is bred to live and care for animals.  It was supposed to guard and not east chickens but will changed all of that.  Soon they ganged up and hunted like a pack in their murderous charge across the farm


My herd of chicks dwindled to only a few and all that remained were a couple of Rocks and the adult birds I had gotten from Pearmund Cellars.  So I slaughtered and cooked one of the White Rocks.  It was so tough that I could not finish it.  This is where I learned what others had told me.  The only birds worth eating are those industrially-raised chickens whose feet scarcely touch the ground.  So called-free range chickens might be good for eggs but their meat gets too tough if they get any exercise at all.  Of course all my birds had muscles from running for their lives.  This was no Kobe beef like meat.


Most everyone I know here in Rappahannock County has had the same experience with chickens.  Too many predators are after them so the only people who successfully keep  chickens here pen up their birds.  This defeats the whole notion of “free range chickens” since chickens confined to one place are not really living in the wild.  So I put my last birds in a small pen but then let them loose because my wife at the time, Gricel (long story), told me it was cruel.  I let them all out and the next day found nothing but features.





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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Showdown with the Buck

Tomorrow I am going to buy one more doe.  This will bring my herd to 11 does and 1 buck from which I plan to grow the herd to 40 animals and sell meat to immigrant buyers.  (Gringo’s don’t understand goat meat so why bother trying to explain it to them.)  Probably 8 of the does I have now have been bred by the buck and when I buy 1 more this should give me perhaps 10 kids (offspring) born in the spring.  It’s difficult to predict the number of offspring this year because the buck has also been breeding with the yearling does which might or might not be able get pregnant and does which have never kidded usually have less offspring that those who have been bred before.  Two of the does that I started my herd with have never been bred while three more that I bought from Steve Shippa have kidded before.  A young doe or one that has never kidded before will deliver a single kid while a doe which has kidded before can have doubles or even triples.  I wouldn’t call them “twins” or “triplets” because it’s not the same as people.  I mean there are not going to all have the same freckles or the same propensity for mathematics or ballet.  It’s just an ordinal number we are talking about here.


I had read in the goat instruction manuals—it makes sense to call them that since regardless of their title or whether they are books, web sites, or newspapers they all aspire to the same goal---to never turn your back on a buck for sure one is in the “rut”.  Now this concept of “rut” has me a little confused.  The old joke for humans—to wit, women need a reason to make love and men only need a place--applies to goats as well.  Males the two-legged and four-legged kind are as Maureen Dowd says, “as predictable as a pile of wood”.  We are ready to fornicate regardless of the calendar.  Given that what exactly does the rut mean?  The does come into heat ever 21 days so it would make no sense that the male only wants to breed in the fall which is when the rut occurs.  There is a reason that deer hunters pile into the woods in November: this is the beginning of the rut.  Any motorist can see this as well as the normally aloof and careful deer male looses his tendency to stay hidden from view and bumbles around the countryside crossing highway and byway completely oblivious to oncoming traffic.  When he is looking for love he loses all sense of reason and this is when he is most vulnerable to the hunter’s weapons.  The same thing happens to men of course.  They lose the ability to think clearly when confronted with décolletage, the sight of a woman’s ankle, an hourglass figure, or the mane of her hair.  Plato in “Phaedrus” says love is an illness that heightens one’s sensitivity.  Otherwise stoic men become silly putty around women when they fall in love.  Their pride is easily wounded and they are prone to sulk.  So the “rut” must be the season when the otherwise easily aroused male is aroused all the time.


Maybe this was what was wrong with my buck one brisk day in November when this otherwise docile creature reared up on his hind legs and showed some aggression.  The buck had been quite rough with the females knocking them about as he mated with them and lowing loudly but had never shown aggression toward me.  But this day he started to rub his horns on the temporary shelter I had built for them and threatened to knock one side down so I moved in to put it back up and then he turned on me.  He came at me with his 260 pound girth and shoved me to the ground as if I was an afterthought.  I was still unaware what was happening when confusion turned to fright as he pushed me toward the electric fence.  I pulled myself out of there unscathed and pondered what to do as he stood between me and the exit.



 I don’t think I panicked but I forgot what I had read which is when the bucks starts coming for you grab his beard and hang on tightly.  That was sort of difficult to remember as has shoved me around in the dirt.  


The more I thought about this the more I realized I could have been seriously hurt.  Farming can be dangerous.  This same week I had gone to the doctor because I thought I had gotten some fertilizer in my eye.  The nurse put die in my eye and found no scratches or dust and then cleaned out my eyes.  A couple of years ago I almost killed myself when a tree I was cutting down with my chainsaw fell on me, breaking my jaw on both sides, and pinning me to the ground in below freezing weather.   When I had my bulldozer a pine tree I pushed over bounced off the roof of the cab.  And finally I had quit climbing trees in a deer stand because I could imagine falling and hanging there in the wind, snow, and rain for weeks until someone came looking for me.  So I phoned up Steve Shippa who sold me the buck and told him my problem.


Steve as I have already written is the one who sold me the buck.  I admire him for his dexterity with goats.  He showed me how to catch the females by squatting down and stretching your arms out wide thus making yourself look larger.  Catching the animals is always a problem when you need to deworm them or give them vaccinations.  Goats that you milk are generally tame.  But meat goats do not get handled by people each do so they are more skittish.  So I paid the neighbor’s kid $10 to help me the last time I did this but he just stood there without a clue what to do as he watched me dive to the ground trying to catch all the goats.  Steve knows better what to do.  He is sort of a wide fellow anyway.  So when he stretches out his arms and squats down how he looks like Barney Rubble as he corners and cows the hapless creature.  Animals are rather dumb. So the goal is to just make yourself look like a bigger animal.  They don’t realize we are humans with all of our doubts, our fears, and our failings.  They just look at us as either one of their herd, a passerby, or possible a threat.


This was made clear to one of Steve’s friends when he made the mistake of leaning over and showing his backside to a buck when does I heat were nearby.  This fellow was a big man but his buck was even bigger.  The buck charged him from behind knocking him to the ground and giving him a concussion.  The only bit of luck here was he was farming goats and not some 2,000 pound cow.


Every American kid has seen those television cartoon depictions of the nativity scene where the wise men come to the baby Jesus with frankincense and mur (whatever those might be) wearing shepherd’s clothes and carrying a long hook.  It turns out this 2,000 year biblical device actually exists.  It’s sort of like the ancient basket wine press: elegant in its simplicity there is no need to change its design over the years however primitive. Steve has a goat hook and I am looking to purchase one.  You can use it to reach out and snare the goat by the neck.  So you corner them with outstretched arms and then snare them by the neck.  In other words a six foot tall human gives himself another 6 feet of reach.  Quite effective.  This is how you catch a goat.


So Steve I knew would know what to do about my buck which had turned on me.  He said none of his bucks had ever gotten out of hand because he had learned rather quickly to grab them on their smelly beard, jerk their head up, and look them in the eye.  Goats, he said, are like dogs where pecking order is important.  Either you dominate or you will be dominated.  I needed to reestablish dominion over the herd.  He told me to get a bucket of water and pour it right into the bucks face as they hate that.


This is what I did.  I poured two buckets of freezing water into the buck’s face and he backed down.  I would say he went running his tail between his legs except the goats tail always sticks up and not down.  So this ruse is working and the gently giant has not challenged me since.  But I have learned not to turn my back on him.  Water works because goats hate water (rain).  What is odd is they do not mind snow.  One farmer from the Northern Plain states had written that he would look out across his pasture for his goats after a heavy snow and only see little humps on the horizon.  He called his goats and up would pop up their heads.  Still goats hate rain.  Whenever it rains on my farm I can always find my goats in any of the small sheds I have built on the property.  The stand together patiently waiting for it to quit raining.


That same week I had to confront the other danger on the farm: ticks.  I had read in the newspaper that 20% of the ticks here in Rappahannock County were infected with lime disease.  Lime disease causes arthritis-like symptoms in people and is a serious illness.  A dozen years ago I had the human vaccine but they quit making it I believe because it was either not affective or it gave people the very problem it was designed to prevent.


It had never occurred to me that dogs could get lime disease.  I spent all my time worrying about my kids when the same week I had fought with the goat my Labrador Retriever Will suddenly went lame.  I thought he had broken one leg.  He hopped around on three legs and climbed into my bed and lay there no even getting up to eat or drink water.  So I took him to the vet and was surprised when he told me the dog had gotten lime disease.  He gave me 21 days of antibiotics and some pain medicine.  I find it quite remarkable that these bacteria could actually cause an animal to go lame.  People I understand have a much harder time getting over this problem.


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Friday, November 21, 2008

The Vineyard Gets Defoliated

He who loves not wine women and song remains a fool his whole life long.—Martin Luther

Last night I was reading Saint Exupery’s “Le Petit Prince” in French.  I read it every year so that I won’t forget the language of Voltaire which I spent so much time trying to learn.  This book is elegant in its simplicity.  The boy in this book is bothered that adults because, being adults, their thinking is muddled and cannot see what is clear to children.  The boy draws a picture of a boa constrictor snake that has swallowed an elephant.  From the side an obtuse adult would imagine it looks like a chapeau.   He shows it to an adult who without hesitating pronounces, “This is a chapeau”.  Bothered by the adult’s ignorance he then shows it to Le Petite Prince, the benevolent child-like creature who has dropped out of the sky.  The Prince with child child-like innocence says, “It’s a boa that has swallowed an elephant.”  This proves the point that adults are dense.

This year in the vineyard I learned an important lesson.  Like most dimwitted adults I had to learn from experience.  Emmanuel Kant would call this experience “a priori” which means I had learned from doing rather than thinking.  Perhaps a clever child would have grasped this before me. 

I had been on top of my spray program spraying the vineyard every couple of weeks and even every few days depending on the weather.  Still both Rosewood Hill and Castleton Lakes Vineyards were defoliated.  The leaves fell off so I had to pick the grapes too early.  The white grapes were ripe enough to make wine but the red grapes had not yet ripened.  There was enough sugar in the red grapes to make wine but with red grapes you need the seeds and stems to ripen otherwise the wine will be bitter.  So instead of making red wine this year I made rosé.

The rosé that I made was fine.  It was pink and sparkling clear.  In the past I had made rosé which had turned orange like a California mass-market zinfandel rosé.  Orange does not denote a flaw, but aesthetically it is not as pleasant as pink.  So I would not repeat my mistake I took my grape juice over to Bill Gadino at Gadino Cellars and he checked the PH of the wine and it was 3.4 which is just right so I did not need to add acid.  Bill told me to inoculate the wine and let it ferment overnight before pressing it off.  This would give the wine more skin contact and thus more color and of course more tannins.  (Tannins are a color preservative).  The last time I had made rosé I had pressed the red grapes right away and then inoculated the juice.  The resulting wine was not color fast.

I am one who is generally not able to keep secrets so I went around telling everyone I knew in the Virginia wine business of my troubles this year with the grape vine canopy due to all the rain.  Plus I like to remind these guys that I am farming commercially so one of them will give me a job.  I told Chris Pearmund of Pearmund Cellars, John Delmare of Rappahannock Cellars, and of course Bill Gadino.  They all told me the say thing:  for the 470 grape vines that I am farming I need to apply 30 gallons or more of water if I am using captan to control downy mildew.  These men farm large vineyards with thousands of vines.  So they have tractor mounted air blast sprayers.  I was still using a backpack sprayer which looks like a gasoline powered leaf blower except it has a 2 gallon water tank mounted on the top.  There is no way I could haul so much water.  I would have had to pass through the vineyard 15 times in order to spray 30 gallons of water.  I would have looked like Jean Cadoret the hunchback of Pagnol’s “Jeane de Florette” who kills himself trying to haul water to his parched farm.  I needed to use much more captan but it was not possible until I bought a tractor mounted sprayer.  That would be possible for Castleton Lakes Vineyards but at Rosewood Hill the rows were too closely place for a tractor to navigate.  Merde.  A priori once again.

I had been farming wine grapes for 6 years successfully without a problem but the weakness in my program manifested itself this year because in May and June we had torrents of rains, which infected the vineyard with downy mildew.  All of this rain caused powdery mildew too which killed the yellow squash in my garden.

I felt not so bad when my vineyard friends told me of some other vineyards they knew of that had been similarly been defoliated.  But I walked away from talking with the managers of one of those defoliated vineyards confused because he told me had had lost his leaves because of powdery mildew and not downy mildew.  Now I was not sure which disease had overtaken the vineyard.  It should be easy to tell the difference.  Downy mildew causes the leaves to get oily looking and turn yellow.  Powdery mildew causes the leaves to get covered with powdery looking spider-web-like growth.  But now that the leaves had all fallen off I began to doubt my prognosis.  This was a problem because one disease you treat with sulfur or hydrogen peroxide.  For the other you use captan and other chemicals.  The only good news was that the fruit had not been infected so I had at least maintained adequate control for that.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Rodale's Organic Comes to Rappahannock

Dr. Timothy LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute, is a frustrated man.  He is frustrated that his organization, focusing on organic farming, is outspent by Monsanto, that evil agribusiness whose Roundup glysophate herbicide, he says, is poisoning the soil and whose genetically engineered, patented seeds cannot be reused.  He is frustrated that while small and local farmers have embraced the organic movement the vast majority of commodity corn and soybean row crop farmers and the vast majority of acreage have not and probably will not.  For they have no incentive to change as they are propped up by a system of subsidies that encourage what he calls a monoculture of agriculture that fattens our children with sugar they do not need while delivering food which is low in nutrition—the ideal here being what organic producers call “nutrient dense” food.  He is frustrated that the price of gasoline is “only $4 per gallon” thus delaying the great upheaval in the culture that would cause policy makers to finally embrace his idea of paying farmers not by the number of acres they plant but by the tons of carbon they return to the soil.  This idea is called “carbon sequestration” and was the topic upon which he spoke at the RCCA (Rappahannock County Conversation Alliance) annual meeting at the Link yesterday.

Perhaps one reason he cannot sell his ideas to the great unwashed masses is Dr. LaSalle runs with an elite crowd.  Instead of delivering his stump speech at county fairs and agriculture conventions to people who actually farm for a living, this PhD arm-chair agronomist puts forth his ideas to people who with visions of Wendell Berry hold up farming as some kind of ideal way to slow development and preserve open space without having actually to make a living trying to do so.  In front of a well-heeled crowd in Rappahannock County—the whole county of course can be called that---he spoke yesterday of sharing his ideas with fellow elitists Al Gore, a part-time farmer who made his fortune with Google stock and Leon Paneta, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff.  Dr. LaSalle zips around in his rented Toyota Prius from one model farm owned by a Carnegie to that of a Rockefeller.  This is farming not as a livelihood but as prototype where profits do not matter and where produce is held up as some kind of artifact to be photographed for the magazines.  Dr. LaSalle knows this and for this reason he is frustrated.

The Rodale Institute for many years been researching and writing about organic farming to conventional farmers who mock them as a bunch of granola crunching hippies.  As if to make that point exactly at the end of Dr. LaSalle’s speech a woman who in her youth probably was a granola crunching hippy stood up and delivered a 5 minute impassioned, somewhat awkward diatribe of her definition of “organic”.  Dr. Salle addresses that head on when he said that, “This is not a bunch of granola crunching hippies. It is science.”

Rodale is trying to cast wider its net of influence by speaking of organic farming as a way to reduce green house gases and return carbon to the soil.  His timing is good because global warming of course is in the news and that crisis which he longs for is perhaps upon us.  The Kyoto accord (which he would like to see renegotiated) is affecting policy in Europe and Japan.  But it’s difficult to see Iowa corn farmers or California growers, who of course farm everything, stop using fertilizers simply because Dr. LaSalle wants them too.

Dr. LaSalle laid out his ideas in a presentation and in his paper “Regenerative Organic Farming: A Solution to Global Warming”.   At the Robert Rodale Reserve in Pennsylvania 29 years ago they laid out side by side test plots of conventional chemical farming plots next to those that were organically farmed.  The chemically farmed plots are no-till drilled with corn and soybeans using paraquat, glysophate, atrazine, and presumably some cultivation to burn down, rip out, or suppress weeds before sowing seeds in the soil.  The conventionally farmed fields are then treated with postemergence herbicides to control weeds.  In the organic fields there is no tillage nor chemicals.  Instead a roller crimper is used to kill the cover crop of rye or the legume hairy vetch.  Vetch adds nitrogen to the soil and rye and vetch both create a dense matt through which weeds cannot easily grow.  Corn or soybeans are then drilled into the mulch and grow relatively weed free. 

A byproduct of all of this 29 years of research, much to Dr. LaSalle’s satisfaction, is that the organically farmed soils over time have seen their organic matter increase.  “Organic matter” is of course carbon.  This is the carbon sequestration of which he talks so passionately.  Soils that are high in organic matter are better able to tolerate both drought and flood because the humus--which acts as a sink to soak up all of this carbon dioxide which is causing global warming--also soaks up and retain water.  If only he could convince the US Army Corp of Engineers, he says, there would be no more Mississippi River floods.

Rodale’s idea is that farmers can forgo fertilizer if they build up the soil using no-till organic practices.  Row crop farmers in Virginia would tell you they already use no-till practices and have been doing so for a generation.  Deep tillage of course is the culprit that destroys organic matter in the soil and releases it into the air in the form of carbon dioxide.  But they still use too much nitrogen.  When they grow corn they inject liquid nitrogen right into the soil.  It would be better to plant legumes like clover which naturally add nitrogen to the soil.  Manufactured nitrogen is problematic in two ways.  It takes lots of natural gas to extract nitrogen from the air.  (Chemically air + natural gas = anhydrous ammonia.  Ammonia is basically nitrogen.  You then take this ammonia and add carbon dioxide to create urea which is another form of nitrogen).  And nitrogen destroys soil microbes and burns roots.  These soil microbes help break down compost thus adding carbon to the soil.  But it is unfair of Dr. LaSalle to characterize all fertilizers as “chemical fertilizers”.  Plants need large amounts of phosphorous and potassium too.   Those are made without petroleum.  Phosphorous is made by using strong acids to release phosphates from rock phosphate which is mined from the soil.  Potassium is also made from mined materials using acid to release them.  Nitrogen is just one component of the fertilizer troika “N,P,K” which is respectively nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium.

Dr. LaSalle says that much of his research is not relevant for the rolling pastures that dominate Rappahannock County for we don’t grow corn here except for those few farmers who feed it to their own cattle.  Here our cover crop, grass, is basically our only crop so it would not make too much sense to kill it with a roller crimper and try to drill seeds into the resulting mulch matt.  Those seeds would not even germinate since they require soil contact not to mention that is would be cost prohibitive to tear up your pastures every year.  Instead Dr. LaSalle says the way for Rappahannock farmers to return carbon to the soil is loosen up the compacted soils—compacted by the heavy hoof of the cow--with a yeoman’s plow and practice rotational high density grazing.  This is a practice where cows are shepherded from one plot to the next for often only hours at a time where their manure drops onto the soil in high enough quantities to form a layer of compost which improves the soil by adding organic matter and of course sequestering carbon.  Lots of farmers here read about and believe in such practices but maybe only Cliff Miller is actually doing this since it requires lots of fences and lots of time spent moving the herd.

As for logging Dr. LaSalle simply says we cannot have any of that.  He says the forest holds twice the amount of carbon below the soil as above it and felling a tree releases much CO2 into the air.  Anyone who owns timber land in Virginia knows if you simply forget about your forest eventually your trees will fall over dead.  Not all of us are so rich with university grants that we can simply let our most valuable agriculture product just lie there for others to marvel at.  All of what Dr. LaSalle says makes sense.  He just needs to find a way to communicate his ideas to those who wear overalls instead of pullover sweaters.

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