Entry 5

My farm, in the off-season

Winters are to farmers what summers are to schoolteachers: time to regroup and rethink what did and didn’t work. Since I rely heavily on the ideas of other farmers, I couldn’t be without a weekly newspaper called Capital Press. Its motto: “Serving Farms and Ranches in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California, 75th Year.”

Instead of sections like Business, Sports, Arts, and the World at Large, Capital Press has Ag Youth, Small Acreage, Rural Life, and Adding Value (my favorite). Here’s a sample of headlines from this week’s newspaper:

“U.S. may ruin potato trade deficit—Exports down, imports up” (Banner story in big CAPS.)”Palouse farmer reaps corn experiment. Ron Kile—Harvesting 20 acres of corn with a wheat header is not for the faint of heart. Corn stalks bunch up and have to manually be pulled away. Kile says he’ll ponder the problem over the winter.” (This is front-page news!)”Culture Clash—When city people move to the country, the result can be anything but neighborly”” ‘Bugscaping’ fair offers practical biocontrols””Proud of those carrots””Economist perceives opportunity in farm crisis””Workshops address mud, manure, pasture””Farmers clean up with goat cheese””Wild plum winery evokes exotic spirits”

What I love about Capital Press is the way it welcomes and honors EVERY type of farmer—small, large, chemical, organic, straight-up, and renegade. Agriculturists are up against just too many problems not to rally and share ideas free of finger pointing.

One new tactic I’d be inclined to share: fighting weeds with felt.

Here in my upper garden, an area about 250 feet by 80 feet, I’ve ended up with a serious thistle problem. I have pictures from eight years ago of beautiful rows of basil, peppers, rhubarb, asparagus, raspberries, etc., and the occasional thistle. Canadian thistle is a nasty, stubborn plant that challenges a farmer’s tenacity, for sure. It spreads like gossip.

But I think I’ve found a solution. When I was rebuilding my house, I had to install a gravel “burrito” around the basement of my building for drainage. I ordered some construction felt for the tortilla wrap part of it, and I got to looking at that felt for weed control. First off, it lasts for years. It’s nontoxic and it lets water through but nothing else. Over time, I’ve purchased about seven 15-foot-by-100-foot rolls and spread them over my problem areas, then covering the felt with straw. The thistle has been slowly dying under there, but water and oxygen get through for the earthworms and microbes. In fact, when I peel the felt back to check, my ground is teeming with big, fat, healthy earthworms, a farmer’s most important farm animal. The thistle-killing seems pretty far along, so last month we laid out a grid pattern and cut through the felt with small X’s. Then we planted a strawberry plant in every X. That way we still have weed-control happening, but we’ll begin again to use the ground for food.

(I just checked the time I have left to write this diary and I’m running late. This is why I don’t wear a watch. I’ve noticed a lack of wristwatches among farmers. Things just take the time they take!)

Mustard-meal field trials

I’ve also found another possible thistle-thwarter: my mustard-seed trials. (They’re growing down on my lower three acres, near where I have 60 varieties of garlic already planted. Garlic gets planted in the fall and comes up (“rows up,” we say) first thing in the spring. Farther down, we have 2,000 irises for bouquets and bulbs, sunchokes, and a new orchard (30 trees), which grew a bumper crop of pears, cherries, and apples this summer. I’m hoping we’ll get nuts next year. (Can’t say for sure.)

Two years ago I heard our governor was giving money away for “Idaho Specialty Crops.” I wrote a grant and got $50,000 to experiment with growing mustard (the plant—not the kind used for deli sandwiches). Working with the University of Idaho, we’ve determined that certain varieties of mustard naturally deter thistle. Harvesting the seed and running it through the expensive oil-press we just purchased gives us two things: meal and oil. (This winter my husband, ace mechanic and tinkerer, will mount the press on a trailer so other farmers can get in on this.) The meal looks like green cornflakes (as in the breakfast cereal). It’s water-soluble and high in nitrogen, so we add it back to the soil. (Adding enough nitrogen is always a farmer’s biggest challenge.) Once there, the meal deters all kinds of weeds, not just thistle. The oil (and this is the really cool part) goes into our diesel tractors and runs our trucks. And for trips to town, we can even use it on old diesel-powered Mercedes-Benzes and Jettas!

I’ve been rural from day one

I’m out of time, but I’d like to end with a little story. When my friend Cindylou and I were flying home recently, we sat next to an older, dignified gentleman traveling alone to visit his son. As he and Cindylou began to exchange pleasantries, I heard him say, “We are rural people.”

I love thinking of myself as “rural people.” It sounds tribal and indigenous, like a National Geographic term for a nearly extinct society. (And when you read real-estate ads or pay your property taxes, some days it feels like we could be dying out.) Or like a term for some kindred group—Welsh, Nez Perce, Seminole, Old Country. We are rural people.