Permaculture

In the comments thread on a recent post, the subject of “permaculture” came up. I have a couple of permaculture books listed in the right margin, and the commenter was interested in the relative merits of each. As I told him, the “Designers Manual” is much more detailed than the average person needs; the “Introduction to Permaculture” is a good practical overview of key principles. I noted that the prices for both books on Amazon are really high. In the days since, Mrs Yeoman Farmer pointed out to me that the “Seeds of Change” site has the Designers Manual for much less than Amazon is currently listing it for — and they also have a number of other relatively affordable permaculture books. I can’t personally vouch for those, but they look good.

Our one big criticism of Bill Mollison’s books is that he is Australian — and his diagrams therefore assume that northern exposures give the most sunlight for plants (exactly the opposite of the case in North America). He addresses this issue in the text, but many of the diagrams still seem oddly “upside down” and we sometimes struggle to understand them. It’s like trying to work on an American car using a Haynes Manual from England; all the information is there, but you have to keep remembering to turn it around.

Some other good permaculture sites include the Permaculture Institute and the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture. The latter is home to “Farmer Dave” Blume; he’s a fascinating and extremely knowledgeable character, and we had the opportunity to attend one of his full-day permaculture workshops in Illinois a few years ago.

One way to think of permaculture is as “permanent agriculture.” Or, as the Wikipedia definition puts it: “an approach to designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in the natural ecologies.”

We have chosen to incorporate some aspects of this approach in our own farm, but we have never been able to set up our entire property following permaculture guidelines. In practical terms, for us, permaculture has meant:

1) Cultivating as many perennial fruiting trees, brambles, and vines as possible. These not only provide fruit for the humans, but lots of “windfalls” and extras that can feed livestock. In the fall, when apples and pears are coming down like crazy, we toss the extras over the pasture fence — and watch the sheep come running at full speed. A few mature mulberry trees out in the chicken yard will provide lots and lots of supplementary feed (not to mention entertainment, as the hens scramble to grab ripe berries every time the wind picks up and rustles the branches). But, as MYF cautions, keep the mulberry trees far from your garden — they will spread and become a real nuisance.

2) Integrating livestock with plants as a system. Our movable poultry pens, serving as tractors, are a prime example. Pens of waterfowl are perfect for clearing new garden beds in the sod. Then make your garden twice as large as you need, and run chickens or turkeys in pens on the unused beds. The birds mow the weeds, get green stuff and bug protein in their diet, reduce the bug population in the garden, and leave fertilizer behind. The next year, those beds get planted — and the poultry pens can move on the beds that had been previously cultivated. We also ran pens up and down the aisles of our vineyard in Illinois; in addition to providing fertilizer and weed control, they also did a number on the Japanese beetles. Next year, we will be introducing bees to our farm; they will provide an important service as pollinators, and will also provide honey.

3) Utilizing large PVC tanks to catch rainwater, and then releasing that water for livestock or the vineyard.

A very important theme of permaculture is that, whenever possible, the outputs from one component of the farm should serve as inputs for another component. Mollison’s book is outstanding in giving ideas for constructing these sorts of systems. (Just remember that North means South and South means North!)

Bottom line: The key to permaculture is to work with your property, taking advantage of its natural characteristics, and fostering connections within it, rather than declaring war on it.

Gosling Adoption

We tried for several years to get our geese to hatch their own goslings, but were never successful. Goslings are fairly expensive to purchase (nowadays going for eight or nine dollars each, not counting shipping), so we didn’t give up easily. But what would inevitably happen is that a goose would make her nest — and then another goose would make her nest right next to it. And then other geese would climb in there to lay, and soon there were far too many eggs for the broody geese to cover. And then a chicken or two would lay eggs in the goose nest, and the goose would return before I discovered those eggs. The weight of the goose would crush them, coating all the goose eggs with sticky egg fluid. The nest material would then encrust itself all over the goose eggs.

I think it might’ve worked if we’d had just one or two geese, plus a gander, and been able to isolate their nests in a private area away from all other birds. We ended up concluding it was easier to simply purchase new goslings.

Which we did again this year. As reported in recent posts, they’ve been doing wonderful work busting sod for Mrs Yeoman Farmer’s new garden beds. Yesterday, however, we ran out of sod for them to consume. I turned the eight surviving goslings loose in the pasture, and after a bit of orientation (and time to overcome their shock at suddenly being surrounded by so much green stuff), they went to work mowing down high weeds along the fence.

And then something interesting happened. Our two mature geese (which we kept because they are too old to butcher; we sell their eggs to a woman who paints them for crafts) eventually emerged from the barn, and slowly made their way toward the goslings. One of the geese seemed especially interested in this new little group, and approached them with her neck extended and head lowered. When she reached them, she shook all her feathers (making herself look bigger and more imposing), and then hissed at me and the dog. Within moments, all eight goslings were following her around. She hissed and honked at every nearby animal, and made little maternal honking noises to urge her little brood to move in the direction she wanted.

A day later, the new goose family is still all sticking together. They slept together in a group in the barn last night, and have been inseparable in the pasture.

You know that expression about “birds of a feather”? Truer than you might think.

And I think we’ll be keeping “Mother Goose” for at least one more year. Craft sales of her eggs have more than paid for her keep…and how do you compute the entertainment value we got yesterday?

So, You Want to Be a Yeoman Farmer…

A reader writes with a few excellent questions:

Reading your post about the lambs today got me thinking – how did you learn to do all this stuff? Did you grow up on a farm? [My wife] and I dream (and pray) daily about doing the same kinds of things you do, but even if I had a farm delivered into my lap for free I have no idea what I’m doing. How does a guy who never even hunted in his life learn as an adult to become more self-sufficient, deal with domesticated animals, etc.?

The answer to the first question is an emphatic No, neither Mrs Yeoman Farmer nor I grew up on a farm. MYF’s grandfather had a large farm in Indiana, which she enjoyed visiting from time to time, but that’s the closest that either of us had gotten to “farming.” I grew up in a suburban Seattle subdivision, and went off to college not even knowing how to change the oil in a car — let alone how to cultivate a plant, load or fire a gun, butcher an animal, drive a fence post, milk a goat, or anything else that I now do on a regular basis. To paraphrase a line from Casablanca, I suppose that I would have despised doing those things…if I’d ever even given them any thought.

As described in this blog’s very first post, we didn’t begin to give farming serious thought until we’d been married a few years and our children began suffering from severe food allergies. That post gives some overview of how we made the move to the country, but I would like to fill in and emphasize a few points in response to the email correspondent’s questions:

First, we bought a large library of books, even before making the move, and continued adding books after the move. Education of this sort is essential background, as it allows you to learn about a wide variety of things and make some decisions about what you’d like to do. Carla Emery’s Encyclopedia of Country Living is the very best, if you only have the time/money for a single book. Your library may have it, but it’s an excellent investment. We spent hours browsing it and dreaming, while still in California. Use this book as a jumping-off point for buying books about specific topics that you find most appealing. Even after moving, we read magazines like Countryside that share the experiences various people have had with various types of livestock — that’s how we discovered Icelandic sheep and found our breeder, for example.

Second, visit other small farms and get to know the families who run them. Even now, we find it extremely valuable to see how other people have laid out their properties and the sorts of innovative things they have some up with. Just yesterday, we attended a day-long beekeeping class at a farm about an hour from here. It was a wonderful experience, and just $75 for the whole family (and includes a follow-up class in August, when they harvest honey.) I went home with a number of new ideas about things we could do with our farm. Even if you have no desire to get a bee hive, this farm is an excellent example of a visitor-friendly place where you can learn a lot and sample some outstanding produce. I encourage my Michigan readers to check out the link above — and for those of you in other parts of the country to look around for similar places. They are literally everywhere. Your best bet is actually not to surf the web looking for them, but rather to shop at farmer’s markets and strike up conversations with the people manning the booths. MYF found the beekeepers because they’d set up a booth at a Catholic homeschooling conference she attended last year; she struck up a conversation, and quickly learned about what they had to offer visitors.

Third, once you’ve gotten to know other farm families, volunteer yourself as slave labor, learning by doing, helping out as best you can. Though some might prefer not to have to spend a long time training you, if they are passionate about what they’re doing, they will want to share that passion. That was our experience, anyhow. It’s how I learned how to butcher poultry, brood chicks, keep poultry in movable pasture pens, dig potatoes, etc. MYF learned a great deal about gardening by talking with others who had cultivated plants in the area and getting a good look at what they were growing; it’s the best way to understand what will thrive in your particular location and its micro-climate.

Fourth, we made lots of mistakes and learned from them. The key advice I’d give: start slow and start small, so your mistakes aren’t too big. I don’t regret having started anything too small. I have many regrets about starting some things too big. A classic example in our case is dairy. We never ever should’ve started with a cow. We should have started with one goat. Eventually we figured that out, many dollars (and headaches) later. In a similar vein, don’t rush into getting livestock before you have the facilities prepared; do not think to yourself “we need to get some chicks started, and I’ll worry about building a chicken coop as they’re growing.” We made that mistake with our cow; we got her before fencing an outside area for her — and we never ended up getting it done. She was stuck with her calf in a small area for the whole time we had her. We learned from this, and securely fenced the pasture before getting our sheep. Likewise, at the beekeeping class yesterday, we were greatly tempted to splurge and buy our first hive. But as I thought about it, I realized I wasn’t fully prepared for bees. I needed to read more, and plan more, and think things through more completely. It would be wonderful to have a hive this year, but I want to make sure we do it right. There is no harm in waiting. As I said, where we’ve usually harmed ourselves most is in not waiting and preparing more.

This is the sort of post that could go on forever (and MYF needs me to dig another trench for potatoes), so I’ll bring it to a close. The bottom line, if you want to be a Yeoman farmer: Read, Visit, Volunteer. You can’t do enough of that. And do as much reading and visiting as you can before moving to the country. It will help a lot in deciding what sort of natural characteristics you should be looking for in a property — and many times, the farmers themselves will know of suitable country properties for sale that aren’t on the radar of most realtors.

But there I go, making this post even longer. It’s hard to stop writing about this question, because it’s something I feel so passionately about sharing. Find someone near you who has that passion, and go see up close how they’re living the dream.

Waterfowl at Work

I recently blogged about how the “chicken tractors” have been helping us get Mrs Yeoman Farmer’s garden ready. As the young birds grow older, they seem to eat more weeds and drop more fertilizer by the day. And as I type this, MYF is out in the garden beginning to till some of the garden beds.

The one pen with 15 ducklings and 9 goslings has been particularly productive. As waterfowl are voracious consumers of grass, we thought it made sense to put them in charge of clearing sod from the brand new beds we want to plow up in the lawn.

After just over one week, moving the pen basically once per day, take a look at what they’ve been able to accomplish:

This is a classic example of sustainable agriculture, and working with nature rather than declaring war on it. And we will enjoy remembering this lesson as we feast on goose all winter long.