Celebrate Bees

In the early spring, when the apple, peach and cherry trees are blossoming I keep the bees interested in pollinating the fruit trees by cutting the grass very short. This keeps the dandelions down until after the trees have finished blooming. It’s my trick to get bigger fruit crops.

Later in the spring there are still plenty of dandelions to keep the bees happy . And there's a variety of clovers and flowers planted for the bees, too.  It’s a pollinator paradise.

Bee FriendlyCelebrate Bees

On a trip to Seed Savers Exchange I bought Blue Boy Bachelor’s Button, Lambs Ear, and Heritage Farm Poppy seeds. The bees love these.

On our farm the pollinators are safe from  pesticides and herbicides. We’re an organic farm, it’s all about health and quality of life.

Recipes to Help Both You and the Bees

Honey Lemonadecelebrate bees

This lemonade is a great energy booster. Not only does it taste great it helps the honey bees and your local beekeeper.

  • 1 cup Fresh squeezed lemon Juice (if you don’t have a citrus juicer this one works great)
  • 1 cup local honey (support a local beekeeper, don’t by commercial honey, It's probably not be real honey, anyway)
  • 6 cups water
  • Put the honey and lemon juice in a blender and mix at high-speed for one minute.
  • Pour into a pitcher, add  water and ENJOY!
  • You can add fresh fruit, raspberries or strawberries taste great. Adding ginger or mint is an extra tasty treat, too.
  • Meyer lemons make this even better, they’re sweeter than regular lemons. When they’re available buy them in bulk and freeze the juice.

Bug Jugs and Bee Safe HerbicideCelebrate Bees

Plant bee friendly gardens and keep them pesticide free. These recipes protect your fruit trees and kill weeds without using glyphosate.

Save the Bees!

 

 

Save

Four years ago we completed an area of direct seeding trees; Walnuts, oaks, and Chestnuts.  The walnut trees are about twelve feet tall, the oaks four to eight and the Chestnuts about five.

The project was so successful that we’re direct seeding other areas. One of them is along the lane.

Some years oaks don’t produce many acorns, last year was one of them. For a successful direct seeding it’s best collecting from trees within a fifty mile range. Outside of this range the variety of tree may not grow as well as local species.

We spent most afternoons last fall scavenging acorns from our timber. On windy days there would be a windfall, other days were sparse.  Because our own trees weren’t producing many acorns  we kept a nut roller and bucket with us. Everywhere we went we’d search for trees shedding nuts.

In October, Decorah, Iowa hosts the annual Northeast Iowa Artists' Studio Tour. It’s wonderful. In one neighborhood in particular, Shagbark Hickory vastly out number all other tree species. I looked forward to the artwork, Keith looked forward to collecting hickory nuts for our direct seeding. While I toured the studios Keith visited with the locals and collected seed stock.

In the fall a seed bed was prepared. Then nuts were scattered across the tilled ground and finally, the seeding rolled for good ground contact. This winter we noticed fat squirrels, with full cheeks, running back and forth from the seeding area. It’s OK, we seeded heavily. The direct seeding is a collection of acorns and nuts from burr, red and white oak along with shagbark hickory.

Direct Seeding TreesThe faster growing walnut’s in our fourth year direct seeding trees are shading out the slower growing young oaks. Next winter the walnuts will be coppiced (cut at ground level) to allow the oak’s to grow above the canopy. The walnut trees will be stunted but make a full recovery.

Last year Keith and I took the Master Woodland Managers program through Iowa State University. It's a wonderful class with combined teachings in the classroom, on timber walks and through volunteer work in managed timber. We’re continuing our education through reading, observation, and attending more classes. And of course, traipsing through the timber. I highly recommend this forestry program, and the book, Forest and Shade Trees of Iowa.

 

How to Improve Soil Nutrients

Salt the Earth

I spent the last couple of days getting the garden ready. The asparagus bed, pumpkin patch, vegetable garden and orchard trees have been salted to Improve Soil Nutrients.

I read about how to improve soil nutrients and the benefits of sea salt for boosting trace elements in an article from Acres USA, January 2003. This winter I re-read the book Sea Energy Agriculture by Maynard Murray, M.D.

Dr. Murray presents evidence of the declining trace elements of soil. When commercial fertilizers are applied only the basic elements are returned to the soil. The abundance of these; nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and lime initially increase crop yield, however, they block uptake of necessary elements.

The science behind Sea Energy Agriculture is that the chemistry of sea life is naturally disease resistant and nutritionally superior. Sea salts added to soils are properly balanced between trace elements and sodium chloride. The application rate is important, too. The application is reasonable to restore the soil’s missing elements without rendering it useless like Carthage after the Romans salted the earth.

The best defense against disease is good nutrition. That nutrition starts in the soil. Plants take up the minerals which are then distributed to the end consumer whether human, livestock or wildlife. These end crops are nutrient dense and superior in trace elements.

In the past I’ve tried getting the geese to weed the asparagus beds. Instead of pulling out the grass they pulled up all the strawberry plants in the next bed over. This year I’m experimenting by using a high rate of Redmond Salt  to kill the grass in the asparagus bed. The heavier application won’t hurt the crop, instead it will restore elemental nutrients while inhibiting the invasive grasses.

Both  SEA-90 and  Redmond Salt are certified organic (OMRI listed). The difference is where the sea mineral solids are sourced. SEA-90 is from an estuary where sea water is captured and dried. Redmond salt is sourced from deposits in Redmond Utah.

As an experiment both products are being applied separately to the orchard trees and garden. Here on the farm there are two areas with heirloom apple trees, two areas with peach trees and one group of cherry trees of three different varieties. I don’t know whether the difference between the two products will be significant, we’ll find out at the end of the growing season.

Redmond salt is sold by a local supplier, which is convenient. There aren’t any SEA-90 suppliers in our area so I bought enough for half of our vegetable garden and half of the orchard trees through Amazon.

Last fall the pastures were salted with Redmond salt, 50 pounds per acre, to improve the balance of the soil.  This spring we’ll repeat the salt application. We’ve seen great promise in pasture growth using sea solids and the livestock prefer grazing the fields where it’s been applied.

How to Improve Soil Nutrients
Peach Trees

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Organic Certification...Done

Organic Certification
Forest Hill Farm's organic certificate

There are 19,474 organic farmers in the United States. We're proud to be one of them. If you think about it there aren't even enough of us to fill a football stadium on any given Sunday. We're a small group who share our customer's appreciation in healthy living. We value the environment more than the bottom line and believe the health of water, soil, and wildlife are our shared responsibility.

Every year I look forward to our annual organic re-certification visit. Our inspector is great, his name is Gary.  He's a wealth of information and very pleasant to visit with.

 Gary  shared a link to a video featuring Roy Thatcher. Gary inspects Roy's organic farm, too.

I appreciate Roy's hard work and ethics - especially regarding quality. While most farmer's biggest concerned is yield, organic farmers greatest concern is quality. We do our absolute best to provide products that are good for our customers and of the highest quality. I couldn't have said it better myself,  thanks, Roy!

Enjoy the video.

Sometimes, I forget....

...I forget what store-bought eggs taste like, how pale the yolk is.

...I forget that store-bought chicken doesn't have flavor, that the flesh is pale, the texture rubbery. Pastured poultry is superior to conventionally raised in every way.

pastured poultry
pastured poultry

...I forget that pasture raised pigs don't smell bad, the meat is tender, juicy, and the fat is beneficial.

...I forget that most families don't cook with lard. They've never tasted homemade pie crust or biscuits.

...I forget that walking out your front door to pick cherries, raspberries, gooseberries and apples, from the trees you've planted, is a luxury. It's a special benefit of arranging your life differently than most people choose to do.

raspberries
raspberries

...I forget that fresh garden produce is a choice. It's trading your time, planning, and labor in exchange for a plentiful harvest.

I forget that there's nothing sweeter than homegrown peaches or the sight of baby ducklings chasing after a bug.

I forget that most livestock producers don't believe in the restorative powers of MIG grazing. Instead of planning a grazing program they allow their animals to forage randomly. This creates a barren pasture, soil depleted of nutrients, and not enough organic matter or cover crop to control evaporation. These poor decisions, made by many farmers, are a choice. A choice that negatively impacts water quality, wildlife, and climate.

There have been several visitors to the farm recently who've enjoyed the beautiful views and learning about grass based farming. Many of them recall memories of their grandparents farms which were like ours in many ways.

Their grandparents had pigs in the pasture and chickens pecking in the yard. Small orchards provided fruit and cider. Large gardens fed the family and everyone worked together. Picnic tables were sheltered under shade trees where cool breezes relieved the heat of the day.

Sometimes I take for granted that each day is my own. I'm greeted by beautiful surroundings with the people I love and the life we've chosen. Our farming practices are intentionally organic.

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On an old oak stump in our front yard grew a Hen of the Woods mushroom. Keith would watch it grow and mature until it was the ready to pick. It was just about perfect.

We were sitting on the front porch when a car pulled up. The dogs were sleeping in the autumn sun, they didn't notice. The driver ran from the car, cut the mushroom, and drove off.

Apparently someone else was watching the mushroom, too. Keith walked around the stump in disbelief, “Who steals a mushroom?”

“Probably the same type of person who tries stuffing a goat into the hatchback of their car.” A few weeks earlier a nicely dressed couple tried driving off with our goat, Midnight and a few of the laying hens.

Poor Keith, I empathized with him. He'd been waiting to enjoying this mushroom for a long time.

Our neighbor, Mike watched the same car pull up to his ditch and cut weed stalks early each summer. One year he flagged them down to ask what they were cutting. What they thought were wild rhubarb stalks in reality was Burdock. Mike just smiled, shook his head and waved them on. He loved re-telling that story.

Here in Iowa folks park along the roadside searching for wild asparagus or morels. The asparagus seekers carry sharp knives and plastic bags. They walk along the ditches and fence rows searching the grass around utility poles.

For some reason the commercial morel hunters irritate me, they don't ask for permission, they're dropped off in an area to begin scavenging the timber and underbrush for saleable product. They wear camouflage and carry handheld GPS devices. Morel's bring a hefty price.

Growing mushrooms is one of our latest projects. We're growing Oyster mushrooms for fun.  Keith loves mushrooms. One year I bought him a shiitake growing kit which was fine, but about the difference between owning a plastic model of a Corvette or the real thing.

It was time for an up-grade, so this year we're growing two varieties of organic Oyster mushrooms; Grey Dove and PoHu.

Keith cut logs from dormant Aspen trees. Each log is about 3 feet long, 6 – 8 inches in diameter. There are about one hundred logs for this year's mushroom project. He used a special bit to drill the holes. Cookie inoculated the logs with sawdust spawn and then capped each with wax. The logs are stacked in the timber, when it's dry this summer we'll use a water tank to soak the logs. The first mushrooms should start growing within a few months. This first year's yield will be sparse, but should increase each season for many years.

DSCN2926

Tapping walnut trees!

Tapping Walnut Trees
Collecting Walnut sap

The local NPR station had a program about tapping trees. Michael Farrell, author of The Sugarmaker's Companion talked about collecting sap from different types of trees. Keith liked the idea of tapping walnut trees and birch trees to make syrup. The Black Walnut trees are abundant in our timber. After reading the book we became interested in the benefits of sap water as a healthful drink, so we're tapping walnut trees.

Keith and our local forester, Jeff  marked trees for tapping. Not wanting to ruin marketable timber, or veneer, the two of them selected twenty-six crooked or damaged trees for this first season's experiment.

The trees cover a larger area so tubing wasn't an option. Instead, collection bags hang from the taps. Walnut's have about the same brix (sap sugar content) as maple trees. The volumes of sap is less, though. Walnut sap is nutrient rich, slightly sweet, with a nutty flavor. It's power packed.

In other cultures tree sap is a valued health drink. Fresh sap is good for five days, after that it needs pasteurization and filtering. It will last indefinitely when it's frozen. To get the benefits throughout the year I'm freezing it in ice-cube trays and glass jars for later use.

Depending on how much sap we collect there might be enough to make walnut syrup, but with a sap to syrup ratio of 40:1, we'll see.

The sap runs for only about five-weeks each spring. Tapping walnut trees is just like tapping maple trees, walnut trees leaf out later than maples so the season might extend longer. When the walnut sap finishes flowing the birch trees are ready to tap. Birch flow starts later in the spring and runs until the trees leaf out.

Sugaring is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and spend time together.

tapping walnut trees
Collecting Walnut Sap

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I grew up on a beautiful tree-lined street where towering Elm trees canopied the yards. One day a tree trimming company drove up the road marking every Elm with a bright red X. The following week they cut them all down, the branches and leaves thrown into a giant chipper. The street was bare. The shade gone. The cool breezes and sounds of birds disappeared. It was so quiet; not a squirrel's chatter or bird's song greeted us when we stepped out of the house. The town replaced the Elm trees with small oak and maple, which wouldn't cast shadow, provide shelter or shade for years. Today the threat of the Emerald Ash Borer is at the threshold of our county. But there's an incipient disease in the rural countryside that's a greater threat than all other tree diseases combined. It's erodible land versus the yellow Caterpillar.

IMG_20140801_115314803 - Version 2

This particular caterpillar takes down a tree in seconds. It can wipe out a tree line or decimate a timber with no regard to the years it took to mature. It's nerve center focuses on destroying every living plant in its path. It doesn't discern old growth hardwoods from fast growing scrub trees. Do you remember learning taxonomy; Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species? Well, this yellow caterpillar isn't in the kingdom Animalia. It's a manufactured machine, its nerve center is the operator. This yellow caterpillar is a bulldozer. Eight dollar per bushel corn brought bulldozer's disease to our county. I thought the falling price of corn would stop the disease, but it hasn't. If anything, it's made otherwise reasonable people into fiends pushing over trees to eek out another row of corn.

Here in north-east Iowa a high percentage of the crop ground is erodible (click here for the Iowa Daily Erosion Project). Decades old trees, some centenarians, that once held ground in place, drank up excess water, provided habitat, shade, oxygen, beauty and so much more are pushed into gullies and piled at the edges of farm fields. Some farmers in our area don't find value in trees. They buy cheap land and 'sculpt' it to their needs. In the process destroyed habitats, uprooted trees, and the bare sloping hillside releases valuable top soil into waterways, never mind the toxins that follow after a crop is planted. Adding insult to injury, some of these farmers have received millions of dollars in government subsidies over the past ten years for maintaining crop ground. It's unfortunate, but often, this short-sighted nature passes down to the next generation, the destruction continues.

Having a passion for trees, especially since moving to this farm, it saddens us to see the vacant ground eroding where towering trees once stood. A previous owner of our farm hired a local 'sculptor' to clear this land. Uprooted trees filled a ravine, the remains mounded into piles for burning. We've planted orchard trees and over three hundred hardwoods with a direct seeding of Chestnut, Oak and Walnut. These will hardly mature in our lifetime, but the planting continues. Dutch Elm and Emerald Ash Borer have nothing on the yellow Caterpillar.

DSCN0019A few years ago, when we were still living in Illinois, the planting season started as soon as the snow cover was gone, or so it seemed, anyway. The land was flat, it warmed up quickly and dried fast. The planting date seemed to get earlier and earlier each year. There was a race to be the first farmer in the fields again. Driving through the countryside you'd twist your head, turning fast and craning your neck to see who was working their ground so early in the season. I call it seasonal whiplash.

Keith slowed our truck to a crawl, then stopped just in front of the sheriff's car. It was blocking the road and the glowing red flares marked the site where a pickup truck had skidded into the ditch. The hood of the truck was peering up from the side of the embankment as the tow truck backed into place. “That looks like Buck White's truck in the ditch.” Keith strained as he looked for Buck.

It is Buck's truck. I hope he's okay,” I couldn't see anyone inside the truck. “It doesn't look damaged, I don't think it rolled.” I sat back and shut off the radio as the sheriff's deputy walked over to us. Keith rolled down the window.

Afternoon. It'll just be a few minutes until we open the road again.”

I leaned over the center console to see the deputy's face.“Was anyone hurt?”

With his hands on the door frame he leaned into the truck, “No, the drivers fine, he was looking over his shoulder when his right front tire caught the soft gravel and it pulled him into the ditch. The truck can't get enough traction in the soft ground, he just needs a tow out.” He waved to the car pulling up behind us and walked off. The audible rumbling of an engine was getting louder in the field across from us. “There's Buck's trouble,” I pointed to the farm field where a tractor was coming into view. It was moving slowly, pulling a corn planter. The doubled up rear tires were flinging mud as it dug into the soft ground. “Buck caught a case of seasonal whiplash. He jerked his head around to see who was planting this early.”

Keith laughed, “You're probably right. It seems much too early and too wet to work a field, let alone plant it. Some guys would just as well mud in their crop as wait for drier weather to plant it.” He reached for the door handle, “I'll see if Buck needs a hand.”

Buck and the deputy were standing on the shoulder of the road watching his truck roll back to the pavement. When it came to rest they all circled it checking its road worthiness. Keith patted Buck's back as they shook hands. He threw back his head, laughing. When he got back into the truck he turned to face me, “You called it. It's a clear case of seasonal whiplash”. Apparently, as Buck was coming around the corner, he saw that tractor in the field. He couldn't believe it, turning to get a second look, he swerved and caught the tire on the gravel's edge. Next thing he knew, his truck was in the ditch.

Who's planting that field?” I asked. The ground belonged to Rusty Little's family.

The Little's rented it to a guy from Boone County. That's a pretty good distance to have to move equipment. He's incredibly anxious if he's planting now. The ground's too cold.” Keith turned onto the road, heading for home.

"A farm is a hunk of land on which, if you get up early enough mornings and work late enough nights, you'll make a fortune - if you strike oil on it." -Fibber McGee

The warm spring weather has every machine shed door wide open. There is equipment parked in every farm-yard, each piece being examined. Grease guns lubricate fittings, loose bolts tightened, hydraulic hoses connected with fluids added as necessary. Anxious farmers can't wait to get into the fields again. Planting time causes every eye to turn toward the weather report. The old timers talked of the Three Iron Men and Ember days. The younger generation watches radar and consults their smart phone.  Now and again a piece of equipment moves down the road under the scrutiny of every farm it passes by. If a planter or grain drill moves along the road, while the fields are still sodden, tongues wag. No one wants to be the first in the field. The scrutiny would be too great. They also don't want to risk crop failure. However, being the last to work your fields invites criticism of your work ethic. Good weather is as critical as the planting date. Planting a few days late makes a difference. Each day, past the ideal planting date, the yield is depleted. For us, planting weather doesn't make or break our crop, we're grass farmers. Although, wet weather will certainly affect the hay crop.

So, with planting season in full swing, let's be careful. Turn your head slowly to get a better glimpse of the farmers hard at work planting their fields. You don't want to suffer from seasonal whiplash.

 

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Goats eating Comfrey

Goats are wonderful about eating brush, shrubs and weeds, but you have to control where they graze. I've tried to grow blueberries without success for the past several years. One year my friend mowed them down with his bush hog, he thought they were scrub trees. I replaced them.  When they started to flower the goats escaped and ate them down to the ground. Again, I replaced them. Despite fencing them in, surrounding them with electric wire, and doing my best to protect them, the goats have ruined them several times. Once the goat problem was solved rabbits took over. But, I haven't given up, someday I'll grow blueberries.

Staking goats in areas with scrub brush and weeds eradicates the problem within a few days. We've remedied a giant rag weed crop and controlled burdock by grazing goats and sheep.

For a second year O'Hare International Airport, in Chicago will control brush by grazing goats and llamas grazing the 120 acres surrounding the airfield. The animals will eat brush, reducing and destroying the habitat of nesting birds and other wildlife which can cause serious danger to aircraft. The grazing will begin in August when the birds are finished nesting and beginning to migrate. When the birds return in the spring they'll find their nesting area destroyed. Without nesting space they'll relocate off the airport grounds.

In 1999 Carson City, Nevada experimented with grazing herds of sheep to reduce the risk of wildfires. They didn't continue the program until the  benefit of grazing became evident. In 2004 a  wildfire threatened the west end of Carson City, but slowed down when it got to the area where the sheep had grazed five years earlier. Carson City resumed the grazing program in 2006. Starting this April, 780 sheep and 900 lambs will begin feeding on Cheat Grass. They'll eat it down before it gets dries and adds dangerous fuel for wildfires.