January at KW Farms
When January hits, the joyful rumpus of holiday visitors recedes, and things go quiet around the farm. John has his nose in the books and publications that are piled up, about a third of which are seed catalogs.
I enter a phase every year that feels like the hormonal upsweep some women experience right before giving birth, the instinct of nesting. I move files, go through the things that have accumulated on my desk throughout the growing season, answer letters that were sent eons ago, clean out closets - scary. And every day I have a long cook-time project in the kitchen – making tallow, lard, and stock, go through the bushels and bushels of tomatoes from those one hundred plants I somehow thought I needed last summer.
John spends time with his cattle, and we take orders and make deliveries in our meat business; but we relish the relative quietude and continuing dark of midwinter. We’d enjoy it even better with some snow. But, it is a good moment, this season of building, when we express our version of dormancy. Just like the Earth’s tiniest, yet most powerful creatures go quiet before their bombastic explosion in the spring as they approach the happy business of building soil.
After catching up on current events one morning, John asked me if I wanted to go on a date. He had a certain look in his eye, that after forty years, I have come to recognize did not mean romance. This was his “important errand” look. He’d become convinced we needed flu shots, after reading about people dying from the current epidemic. “Wanta come?”
“Maybe tomorrow,” I fudged. I don’t get flu shots. I don’t understand them and I don’t get them. “Right now I have a bank account to balance.” …or a toilet to clean, or that bottom drawer to organize, the pigeon debris to sweep out of the shop. Surely there’s a nest of rattlesnakes to deal with somewhere around here.
There was a long line at the pharmacy where John went to get his shot. For all of December and into January there’ve been long lines of people waiting to get medicine all over town. There might not be a soul in the rest of the grocery store, but there’s a Cincinnati’s worth line back around the pharmacy.
We hardly ever stand in lines in this small town, and when we do, because it is a small town, we most always encounter someone we know. That day, John visited with one of our neighbors who mentioned he’d gotten our generic holiday letter. “Sounds like y’all have given up on organics. I’m just about to.”
This fellow is a broad acre producer who has experimented with organic production, lured by higher prices and hefty growth of the organic market over the last decade or so. “I pour on whatever’s on the organic-approved list, but I can’t get the yields. There’s a reason the prices are higher. You just can’t get near the tonnage.”
In our Winter Solstice letter, I questioned recent additions to production standards for organic certification. Most of the response we got was that people just want access to good food and not be bothered with the grimy backstage happenings, the politics, the sad underbelly of our food system. Their questions boil down to: “How do I get food that won’t kill me and won’t harm the environment? And how do I really know what I’m getting?”
John’s answer to this seemingly simple question is fierce and complicated, a teaspoon of the distillate of a lifetime’s purpose. Standing in the flu shot line, he let ‘er rip.
“I believe in organic production more than ever,” he said, winding up for a lengthy pitch. “Organic farming began as a way to stop digging a hole. It was the first time any action was taken to protect us from the nasties – toxic chemicals. Back then, not as much was known about about building soil, but organic opened the door to understanding the threat modern ag practices pose – threats to human and environmental health. What we have learned is that healthy, lively, well-balanced soil produces healthy, lively, well-balanced plants, that make for healthy, lively, well-balanced animals. It’s better not to approach organic production in the same way you do conventional ag – by pouring on some chemical or other. You need to start with building the soil.
“There are the five principles of soil health. How I remember them is to imagine the time when the topsoil was built across the plains, back when the great grazing herds came moving across the plains. Bison, deer, antelope, elk – moving in big bunches. They didn’t stay long, finding what was available, moving with the seasons from east to west and back again. There was a great variety of things for them to eat – all kinds of native grasses.
“Maya TerKuile has an old photograph taken at the turn of the twentieth century of a guy riding a horse across the San Luis Valley. And his chaps are wet from the dew in the grass he was riding through – all native range. It was thick and it must’ve been three, four, five feet tall. Can you imagine? We’ve lost most of that. But, back then there was some of every kind of grass and its roots stayed in place all those ages and ages.
“As the herds moved over the ground, they disturbed the surface, trampling in their gifts of urine and dung, dislodging seed heads and leaving the litter of their meals, just like modern motorists, only the animals’ litter worked magic. It made top soil.
“Humans have been plowing for 7,000 years, supposedly. Although, it was minimal and it didn’t interfere with what the bison were doing. Things really went to hell in a handbasket in the 1930’s. There were attempts to reestablish grasslands in the southern plains where the Dust Bowl happened. But, we’ve pretty much pissed away one of our greatest natural resources and we’re still plowing! Plus, a little later, after World War II, we started using chemical fertilizer made from left over ammunition. Then we were using pesticides and herbicides. All this stuff gives you immediate gains, but in the long run diminishes the life in the soil. And you end up worse off than you began.
“It’s just like how antibiotics kill your gut flora and you end up getting sick from something else. You have to eat yogurt and kefir and kraut and stuff to rebuild all the bugs that are your natural defenses. I think that’s why we have all these food allergies now – we killed all the bugs, our little friends in the soil and in our guts. We’ve chemicalized them away and our bodies think food is our enemy, which, really, it may be. Modern genetics. But, that’s another topic.”
In truth, the neighbor’s turn was up long before, about the time the Colonel began explaining the principles of building soil health. But, had he stayed in line, this is what he would have heard – because it’s what John wants him to know, what he wants everyone to know: that if we are to save the world it will be with grass and animal impact. It is what Nature provided for taking carbon out of the atmosphere where it does harm, and putting it in the soil, where it belongs, where it breeds life and health, and produces truly nutritious food.
These are the five principles of soil health, as espoused by the Natural Resource Conservation Service and other people in the soil health movement. These are the things that built the topsoil the life of our planet depends upon:
1) soil armor – keeping organic matter on the surface of the soil: any kind of plant litter or crop stubble.
2) minimizing soil disturbance – plowing, tilling, use of chemicals, overgrazing.
3) plant diversity – use of a variety of species of crops and ground covers, annuals and perennials, legumes, grasses, forbs, and brassicas.
4) continual live plant root.
5) animal impact – well managed grazing that mimics the impact of the great grazing herds.
Here are some good sources of information about soil health: