Illusive Windfalls of Country Living

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Rake into piles. Mow and shred. Rake into piles.Mow and shred.

Wait a minute, I said after a half hour of a job going far slower than I’d hoped. If I want pulverized leaves for the compost pile and garden instead of leaves whole as they fall from the tree, look there!

In the eddy of the road, drifting leaves pile up, and especially near the edge of the yard where the mailman’s vehicle pulls up to drop off mail, leaves are ground to a fine powder. They’re even inoculated with dirt microbes to speed up decomposition.

An idea is born: rake leaves into the road and let the few passing cars do the pulverizing and pick them up ready for the compost pile or garden. Brilliant. I thought.

I seemed a genius of low-effort homesteading until two days after my plan was hatched. I’d pulled an hour’s worth of leaves down into the road, and the VDOT Volvo road plow came along and pushed all my leaf mulch somewhere else–into the creek around the bend of the road I guess.

And so much too for picking up the walnuts falling into the road below the house. We were letting the cars do the work of husking them, waiting for another week of nuts to go pick up the hard black kernals to dry in the shed and crack sometime this winter.

So I guess the moral of that story is that the state right-of-way is not a venue for making my life easier and what sounds like a good “windfall” idea that might make less work for me is just a bump in the road for the guy behind the wheel of the Volvo Monster Machine– which, come to think of it, we’ll be more than happy to see come the first wet snows of December.

VDOT giveth, and VDOT taketh away.

Second Oldest River

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It won’t be too long before I can tell the whole story and/or direct you to the bigger picture from which these images of the New River and surrounding farmlands in Grayson County have come.

The New begins in North Carolina near Boone and flows north, cutting through the Appalachian ridges to join the Kanawha in West Virginia, and hence to the Mississippi and the Gulf near Nawlins.

In the distance, Mt. Rogers, Whitetop and Pine Mt.–the three highest peaks in Virginia on a perfect October day. Life is good.

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Polyface Part II

polyfaceshed.jpgNone its “many faces” are very showy. As a matter of fact, from the ground or the air, nothing seems all that different about this plateaued 550 acres of Central Virginia valley farmland near the community of Middlebrook.

To the casual observer, it may seem just so much pasture and woods and soil and the occasional outbuilding. But Polyface Farm represents an innovative “foodshed” (think watershed) from which food products flow, grown from the ground up–which seems only reasonable for a farm, after all–from earthworms to pastured chickens and rabbits and cattle, as if the earth really mattered.

Every element of the process holds an elevated status there. Soil is more than just dirt there, and as Joel Salatin says, his farm honors the “pigness of the pig.”

Speaking of which, the Salatins have recently found a more efficient way to use their land to the benefits of his pigs. At 200# the pigs are moved into forest, once the usual venue of pig fattening–in times distant past, feeding on chestnuts. His pigs gain the last 100# on acorns.

Three acres of woodlands (otherwise of low and long-term-only value beyond firewood and a crop of timber every 40 years) takes the place of an acre of pasture for fattening purposes and requires no input of fossil fuels to fertilize, mow or spray for weeds.

As an added benefit of this innovation that allows more pork for fewer dollars and a lower overall carbon footprint, acorn-fed pork tastes noticably better and hence, is in demand.

Phil Petrelli of ChipotleHere Phil Petrilli, Northeast Regional Operations Director for Chipotle, an 800-restaurant chain, stands inside one temporary pig lot at Polyface and explains to SEJ vistors why this relationship for organically raised pork is working for his company.

Everybody wins. Chipotle takes the less desirable cuts–hams and shoulders–while the white tablecloth restaurants want the tenderloins and chops. All the offal is processed on site, and one sign of the business at Polyface having grown too large will be when it cannot compost its own waste.

Saladin spoke at length from the hay shed (top image), a location where he said Michael Pollan had his “epiphany” of the rightness of the Polyface way of doing things with a long-view of food production, rejecting the “faster, fatter, quicker, cheaper” approach that has been the US model.

One consequence of this approach has been the rise in e. coli contamination of the meat supply. As Joel describes it, this is because when beef are grain-fed (instead of pasture fed–and don’t get him started on feeding grain to animals when people are malnourished and dying of starvation) the pH of their rumen (stomach) changes so that acid-intolerant bacteria (like e.coli) survive and end up in fecal material that ends up in slaughter houses that ends up in the meat we eat.

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SEJ Food Shed Trip Part One

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The sun rose to our right beyond wave after wave of blue ridge as the bus headed north along I-81 on Thursday morning–Day 2 of the SEJ conference. Touring journalists could not have asked for better weather for the two hour bus ride north from Hotel Roanoke to Polyface Farm near Staunton.

Following the mission of giving tour attendees the most possible information bang for their buck, an informational data-stream was offered by a number of guides, leaders and experts who took their turn swaying at the front of the bus with a microphone, their purpose–to help us understand what we would be seeing and better understand how the diversified 550 acre Polyface farm fits into the context of future farming practice, not just in Virginia but as a model for a successful and sustainable national bottom-up agriculture.

Tour leaders freelance journalists Joseph Davis and Christine Heinrick and Senior Rodale Institute Editor Dan Sullivan deserve the credit for arrangements at the day’s destinations, coordinating travel, and arranging for the lunch meal (provided by Chipotle and enjoyed at the Frontier Culture Museum near Staunton.)

I took copious notes that day–my handwritting under the best of conditions I can barely read. Taken on a bus at 70 mph, it seems I lapsed into Klingon. I’d planned a long narrative of the trip but life intruded. So I’ll offer a lesser recap in snippets with a few pix, probably in two parts.

  • Farming is a $70B business in Virginia employing 49,000 folks who give their occupation as farmer. (Mention was made that being “just a farmer” was about to change; in the future, farmers–especially those like Joel Salatin who we were soon to meet, would become folk heroes.)
  • The number of farmers whose incomes fall between $5K and $250K are falling; the “small family farm” is disappearing–not because people have stopped needing what those farms once produced
  • Journalists need to be able to tell the stories of farmers, to “give a face to our food” and to encourage readers to “enlarge their educational footprint” with regard to the food they buy and eat
  • more direct relationships are growing between university and school food services and farms and farm co-ops; the trend is toward local production. Even so, it is still difficult to get Virginia products into Virginia schools (the example of apples was given).

Speaker Lyle Estill was a business major before life imposed different directions for him (as one’s occupational life often does.) In 2002 a search for something useful to do with several gallons of used oil from deep frying some left-over turkey began his unexpected career in turning fats into fuels.

He is now co-owner of Piedmont Biofuels whose production from various organic oils and fats has surpassed a million gallons a year. During the past six years, Lyle has learned a lot of biology, chemistry and carbon math. What’s more, he is very passionate and articulate about his experience and his future energy hopes–and his misgivings–about supplanting fossil fuels with bio-fuels of any stripe, especially when food crops are the source. His well-reasoned and informed position is offered–among many other places–in this recent essay.

So this would probably be a good place to end for today and begin in part two where I’ll be better able to read my notes taken from the moving haywagon navigated across Polyface Farm by Joel Salatin–whose erudite and highly-impassioned monologue would fill an entire notepad. I’ll offer more snippets.