Tuesday, June 25, 2013

You can't grow that organically!

It is always a bit of a shock when someone asks me if something -- apples, pigs, turkeys, you-name-it -- can be grown organically. I've heard the questions so many times over the years that it really should not be a surprise to me, but optimist that I am, I always think that I will never hear the question again. Why?

Because every type of food can be grown organically. Prior to World War II, everything was grown organically. Every 19th century farmer was an organic farmer. If something could not be grown organically, it became extinct.

Today, there are some genetically-modifed organisms that cannot be grown organically, but that is because they were created so that they would require the additional inputs that can only be purchased from the seed developer. It is a great idea for growing a crop science company. It is a terrible idea for sustainable agriculture because it is quite simply unsustainable. Buying seeds and soil amendments year after year is the opposite of sustainable.

However, if you are reading this blog, I'm assuming it is because you are looking for more sustainable ways of living. And that means you plant open-pollinated, heirloom vegetables. You raise hardy, heritage breeds of livestock. The animals are on pasture, so that they can live as nature intended, and you are not scrambling to fix problems created by confinement.

I have never had a sick pig, and I can count on one hand the number of chickens and turkeys whose lives did not end as someone's dinner (either ours or a coyote's). Anyone who claims they have to feed antibiotics to animals in their daily rations has a management problem -- and if they fixed the management problem, the animals would be healthy. Ultimately, the humans eating the animals would also be healthier, and we wouldn't have the problem that we have with antibiotic-resistant diseases.

If Big Ag wants to claim that raising food organically isn't profitable enough for them, I can't argue. Although I do know plenty of organic farmers who make a good living, they don't live in million-dollar mansions like Big Ag executives. But if anyone tells me that it is impossible to raise food organically ... well, they're just plain wrong.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Vacations from the homestead

On vacation at Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska in May
Last week I gave several talks in the Seattle area, and as always, I encouraged people to start small with their homesteading dreams. I explained that you don't want to get overwhelmed by starting with too much, but I've recently realized another good reason to start small: you need to be sure that you have someone to take care of your homestead if you ever want to take a vacation or even if you have to travel to the bedside of an ailing relative.

Homesteading is a 365-day-a-year commitment when you bring live animals into the picture. Unlike an office job where you can turn off the computer and tell your boss that you'll be back in a week or two, you can't turn off your chickens or goats or tell the weeds to stop growing in your garden. Real life waits for no one.

In my livestock talks, I always suggest starting with chickens because they are about as easy to care for as a cat. You can fill up their waterer and feeder and leave for the weekend, and unless temperatures are above 90 (and eggs might start to incubate) you don't even have to ask a neighbor to pick up eggs for you. However, as many urban chicken keepers have told me, asking neighbors to check on the chickens once a day and gather eggs can actually make your neighbors more enamored with your chickens -- especially when they get to keep the eggs they collect.

Other livestock, such as pigs, sheep, cattle, and goats, need daily or twice-daily attention, and if you have a dairy animal that doesn't have a calf or kids nursing, you'll have to find a farm sitter who can milk. Do not expect to find someone with these skills very quickly. It is much easier to find a dog sitter. However, you can also plan kidding and calving with vacations in mind so that you can leave home when you don't need to have someone milk for you.

Although taking a vacation from the homestead is more challenging, it is not impossible. With a little planning, you can have your fresh eggs, homegrown produce, and vacations too.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Garden Vertically With a Sandwich Board A-Frame

by Chris McLaughlin 

Sandwich board A-frames are simple to build, store, and modify. If you're not worried about storing it, you can forgo the hinges, and screw or wire the top of the structure together (where the boards meet).

This sandwich board A-frame in this photo was made with plastic poultry/garden netting because it's what I had on hand, but you can switch out the plastic netting for any other climbing materials that you'd like. Also notice the short, rectangle "planters" at the bottom. We had extra fence boards and added them on later to create a small bed for the shallow-rooted green beans. If I wanted to plant a vegetable with deeper roots, I would simply add however many extra boards to the planters at the bottom.

Gather your materials: 
  • 6 fence boards, 4"-6" wide, 6-foot long
  • Jigsaw 
  • 6 wood screws, 5/8"
  • 2 sets of metal hinges 
  • 16 wood screws, 1 1/2"
  • 1 roll of 3-foot-wide poultry or garden netting 
  • Manual heavy-duty stapler (T-50) 
  • Drill gun with screw bit 

Assemble your sandwich board A-frame: 

1. Take two of the 6-foot fence boards and using your jigsaw, saw them in half so that you now have four 3-foot boards.
2. Place two of the 6' boards vertically on the ground in front of you.
3. Take one of the 3' boards (that you cut) and lay it horizontally at the top of the 6' boards so that the ends of the 3' board lay over the top ends of the 6' board.
4. Secure one end of the horizontal top board to the top end of one of the 6' boards with two, 5/8" screws. Do the same to the other board ends. This will give you one frame.
5. Using the remaining two 6' boards and the remaining two 3' boards, create another frame.
6. Make sure the 3' cross board is "on top" (meaning that the 6' long boards are pressed against the ground) and lay one frame down in front of you.
7. Take the second frame that you created and place it flat on the ground above the first one. Remember, their 3' cross boards should not be touching the ground.
8. Space the two hinges evenly apart on the 3' cross boards. Using two, 1 1/ 2" screws, attach one of the hinge flaps into one of the cross boards on the frame, and the other hinge flap to the cross board of the second frame. Repeat for second hinge.
9. Stand your sandwich board A-frame up. Unroll the garden netting partway.
10. Starting at the outside bottom of your A-frame, staple the end of the netting to the bottom of one panel.
11. Roll the netting up and over the other side of the entire frame all the way down to the bottom of the other side. If you're using netting that's much wider than your frame, simply use sturdy scissors or wire cutters to trim the material even with the sides of the frame.
12. Staple the netting to the bottom cross board. Add staples up all four sides of the A-frame at about 8"-12" intervals.

Remember to stand the frame up before you secure the netting (or whatever material you're using) to it. If you add the climbing material while it's flat on the ground, there won't be enough give in the material to allow it to bend into an A-frame. Your sandwich board A-frame is now ready for the garden!

Chris McLaughlin is the author of Vertical Vegetable Gardening (Alpha Books; December, 2012), The Complete Idiot's Guide to Composting (Alpha Books, 2010), The Complete Idiot's Guide to Heirloom Vegetables (Alpha Books, 2010), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Small-Space Gardening (Alpha Books, 2012. You can visit her online at A Suburban Farmer.
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