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Thursday, June 26, 2008
At the moment, the Missouri is forecast to once again reach a stage height of 25' at Jefferson City, well below the 1993 record of 38.3' but enough to start flooding lower areas, and this forecast doesn't include all the oncoming rain. It's been cycling around that height for weeks now, so this is nothing new, but it's a lot of water and continued heavy rains across the basin could keep the trend going. So far we've been fortunate that the rain pulses are just far enough apart to allow the Missouri to drop again before the next pulse arrives, but that may not last. Much of the region is saturated, and can't hold much more. More and more folks are quietly saying that this reminds of them of '93, when this just kept happening; the rain just kept coming and the rivers just kept rising. We'll see. There's a long way to go in the Missouri basin, but that's what they thought in Iowa and along the Mississippi not that long ago.
As ex and current geologists with experience in rivers, we're fascinated on a scientific level by these dynamics. There are many good websites to use when tracking these events, mostly those managed by the National Weather Service and the USGS. When using these, however, you'll notice massive gaps in stream gage coverage; this is due to major budget cuts in river monitoring that have really hampered our ability to accurately study, track, and predict river behavior. Read coverage of the Iowa floods carefully, and you'll find the experts bemoaning the cuts that have kept them from doing their job.
In any case, for an overall view of river conditions, visit http://water.usgs.gov/waterwatch/. This national map shows streamflow conditions for all gages monitored by the USGS, and you can click on a state to zoom in, then click on any gage to see recent conditions.
Another good site is the National Weather Service's Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Center, which takes similar data to the USGS site and presents them in a slicker, more intuitive interface that really helps present conditions, as well as offering river stage forecasts. As above, click on individual gage sites to view graphs, data, and predictions. The link above is to the Kansas City forecast region that covers most of the central/northern Missouri area I wrote about above, but you can scroll in any direction through the country. Also, at any particular gage, scroll down to see a location map and table of how different gage heights affect the surrounding area. It's a good way to get context for the river conditions.
Finally, as a way of documenting the wet conditions this spring and early summer, here's a link to the National Weather Service's 1-year rainfall data for St Louis. This is a live, daily-updated graph, so if you're reading this months later in the archive it might not fit my description. But as of late June, you'll clearly see that we spent most of the winter slightly dry, but around mid-March the rain just started falling and is now 12" above average. The comparable temperature graph shows the cool side of this agriculturally terrible spring, which has hurt everyone from gardeners to grain spreads.
So for now we just wait, watch the streams rise, and pay attention. Our permanent raised beds are generally saving us from larger disaster, as they keep the roots of our plants above the accumulating water, but that only goes so far. When the soil stays constantly wet and never gets a chance to drain, it will start to stunt and hurt the plants, so we're concerned. The biggest worry right now is our beautiful stand of 200+ heads of garlic, which is in the process of forming bulbs, only a few weeks from harvest. Garlic needs fairly dry conditions to do this properly, and can rot easily in overly wet conditions. A friend has already lost at least half her garlic to waterlogged fields, and we're in danger. Losing this crop so close to harvest would really hurt. Overall, though, as I've written before, these conditions cement our commitment to developing an effective no-till, permanent raised bed farming method here, because in the long run it will insulate us as much as possible against these sorts of conditions that are causing even more trouble and damage for more equipment-dependent growers.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Peas are fairly easy to grow, but tricky to harvest. They ripen fast, with a narrow window to get them just right in order to hit the maximum sweetness and texture. We grow vining peas, which produce a continous crop as long as conditions allow, as oppoesd to bush peas, which ripen all at once, and only once. Below, you see a comparison of developing peas:
The top pea is not ready yet; still too small and too thin. It won't be very sweet. The middle pea is perfect; starting to round out, but not yet cylindrical. It will be juicy and tasty. The bottom pea has gone too far; it's bloated and round. It will have lost some sweetness and be a bit tough. I try to check every day to make sure I'm getting each pea just at its peak.
Like some other produce (greens especially), peas are sensitive to heat after being picked. They really ought to be chilled instantly once they're off the plant; sitting in a bucket in the sun for even a few minutes and they may start to lose some of their peak sweetness and quality. We've started harvesting directly into buckets of cold water, so as to flash-chill the peas and keep them perfect.
This is a lesson learned, ironically, from industrial agriculture. At the Great Plains Vegetable Conference in January, I heard a fascinating talk about the methods large farms use to increase quality, such as driving refrigerated semis directly into the fields so produce could be instantly chilled. The point driven home in this talk was that if these folks go to such lengths to preserve what quality they do have, small farmers growing really high-quality produce ought to take the same care. With our new water line and hydrants in the garden, we can now harvest greens, peas, and any other relevant produce directly into cold water, improving both their quality and their shelf life.
Monday, June 9, 2008
With this tagline, an article in the current issue of American Scientist nicely captures an argument that is fundamental to organic farming, though the authors never directly make the connection to agriculture. The piece describes the complex interactions of microbial activity within the human body, a system medical science is only beginning to really understand. A series of fascinating details emerges through the piece, discussing the incredibly specialized microbial communities (“The skin on our right forearm, for example, harbors a different microbial community than that of our left forearm”) that work together to produce a functioning whole.
Once establishing the importance of these communities, the authors go on to discuss their fragility, and how easily the human body’s functions can be disrupted if the microbial community is disturbed. Naturally, this leads to a discussion of the role antibiotics play:
“Because antibiotics kill bacteria indiscriminately, collateral damage far exceeds target destruction, and our microbial supporting cast is decimated in pursuit of the pathogen. Under the old view of human-microbe interactions, we accepted this collateral damage as a small cost to pay for ridding ourselves of bacteria. Under our proposed ecological model, however, we can understand that we no longer need to destroy the village in order to save it. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are properly seen as agents of major perturbation. Recent studies make clear that antibiotic exposure reduces the diversity of resident microbial communities and makes it easier for pathogens to invade.”
The basic argument being made here is very applicable to agriculture as well. Soil, too, is a very complex chemical and biological system, hosting an incredible diversity of microbial life that is integral to balancing and maintaining soil health. At the core of organic agricultural methods is the principle that nature has created a very dynamic, stable system that we are best off supporting rather than replacing. Instead of reducing soil and plant nutrition to just a few key elements (N-K-P), organic agriculture seeks to maintain the soil as close to a natural condition as possible. Instead of relying on herbicides and pesticides to eliminate all problems, organic agriculture seeks to maintain a healthy balance of pest and predator. In the same way that it’s worth being sick now and then to strengthen the immune system, it’s worth having some pests and weeds because they’re integral to the larger health of the soil and the ecosystem. I’ve seen many reports that medical researchers feel people are weakening their immune systems due to over-reliance on drugs; the same dynamic happens in soil that is regularly disturbed, sterilized, and chemically imbalanced by artificial inputs and treatments.
In addition, the over-use of artificial substances (whether antibiotics or farm chemicals) can actually be directly counter-productive by encouraging the development of resistant strains of bacteria, weeds, or pests. No spray can kill 100% of all pests or weeds, just as no drug can destroy 100% of harmful bacteria. The inevitable result is the survival of the few individuals whose genetics gave them more resistance, and over time these strains can become far more problematic than the original concern. This is actively happening in both the medical and agricultural worlds.
The author notes that “In much of the developed world, and certainly in the United States, we appear determined to make the planet microbe-free. The advertising, pharmaceutical and home-products industries have tried to persuade the public that every microbe is the enemy. But the more we learn about the biological world, the less this perspective makes sense.” The same dynamic is present in agriculture, and the result is ever-more reliance on artificial inputs as the natural ability of the soil and ecosystem to maintain a healthy balance is undercut.
I could go on for pages (I haven’t even touched on the obvious implications for antibiotic use in industrial meat production), but hopefully this demonstrates the underlying connections that can be made across the board. Organic farming is often characterized as an unscientific, pseudo-pagan, Earth-Mother belief system characterized by mythology rather than science, and this reputation is earned in some circles. However, the perspective we take is that true organic farming is deeply rational and scientific when approached with the philosophy outlined in this article; that we are best off understanding and working with the complex natural systems already available, rather than attempting to engineer a new reality without understanding what we’re replacing.
Sunday, June 8, 2008
Yes, he'd figured out how to climb up the sides of our hoop structures. Generally the method involves taking a running leap onto the side of the hoop, and getting your hoof just deep enough into the tarp to get purchase on a steel rod, so you can clamber up the side like a crab until you're proudly perched at the summit of Mt. Cattle Panel (read more about these structures at the link above).
The benefits were clear. Not only was it insanely fun, as he was demonstrating by racing between the milking structure (blue tarp) and the housing structure (silver tarp) and climbing both, it also gave access to some higher-up branches that had otherwise been out of reach. Above, you see him enjoying the bounty while Garlic tries to figure out how SHE can join in.
Naturally, this was of concern. First, we didn't know how long the tarps would last before breaking and leaving a young goat hanging five feet off the ground with his legs stuck through a cattle panel. Second, it appeared that his weight was gradually bending and deforming the hoop (see above photo). However, we really needed to get to market and didn't have time to fully address the problem. We had just enough spare material lying around down there to put up barriers around the milking structure, but had to leave the housing structure to his whims until we got home. Of course, we arrived home around noon to find this:
Yes, he'd jumped on the hoop until it had deformed so low that all the others could join the game, and together the combined weight of five goats was MORE than enough to permanently squish the steel and produce the result you see above. Naturally, since this is their housing and shade, they were all still attempting to squeeze under it for their afternoon nap. Not an easy task with horns.
So we pulled the whole structure apart, dragged the deformed panels out of the paddock, cursed for a bit while threatening the buck with early butchering, and decided we didn't have time to build a new structure that afternoon. So we moved all the hay, feed, and other supplies out of the milking hoop (which is normally off-limits to them) and let them have that as an overnight shelter. The next day we found the time and energy to drag down six more cattle panels and build a new housing structure, complete with cattle panel barriers along the side to forestall any further extreme sports. You can see the results below:
It was really a pretty funny incident, other than the fact that it was a hot, humid weekend with a mile-long to-do list. Still, watching the little bugger race around taking flying leaps onto the hoops was pretty amusing in its own way.
By the way, those who've been following the goats may be wondering why we're still milking. Regardless of the snakeroot situation, we still need to milk the does to (a) help remove any possible toxins from their system, and (b) maintain the status quo until we can make a final decision on whether to dry them off for good this year or return to using the milk that's currently being dumped twice a day. We're pursuing that decision through research, a lab test, and more. Look for an update soon, when we get the lab results back. So far, everyone is healthy and signs indicate that they didn't eat enough to really cause problems for us or them.