The New Farmer School
Just a few years into our adventure in our new location at the edge of the foothills, we bought a mature wild turkey from a neighbor who raised them in confinement. There are three main types of wild turkey north of the Rio Grande differing mostly in the details of plumage, mostly limited to the feather tip banding. The Eastern wild turkey has gorgeous rich deep chocolate brown tips, the Merriam's turkey of the interior west has ornate ivory tips, and the Rio Grande turkey's feather tips are an intermediate buff. This first turkey of ours was a Rio Grande tom. We named him "Normandale Furnace."
Turkeys are an odd creature aesthetically in that they are both homely and extremely handsome at the same time. They shine like burnished metal in the sun while their heads look a bit like a burn victim through one lens while at the same all that naked warty dangliness sports its own deliciously saturated reds and blues and turquoises. They are also one of the largest birds of flight on the planet, up there with the condors and the pelicans.
Alas, Mr. Furnace was not a flighted bird. There is some conjecture that large birds of flight raised in confinement from an early age never develop the muscles to fly, and won't be able to develop them later, either. I don't know if this is true of not. I wonder if it simply didn't occur to Mr. Furnace to try. And so the flight muscles remained atrophied from lack of use. At any rate, he never did try and one night a fox had a go at him, leaving him alive but with a fair bit of his skin stripped off the flesh like an early Texan in the aftermath of a social event attended by the Comanche. There was no recovery in the cards for Mr. Furnace and i killed him, reflecting on how so much brutality in nature arrives in the most exquisite of guises (foxes being amongst my favorite things) and on the most beautiful sun-shiny days and clear starlit eves. None of this precludes mayhem, bloodshed, a partial skinning, possible evisceration even.
We got to thinking then, wouldn't it be super to have flocks of Mr. Furnaces' about raised semi-feral such that they could fly out the reach of predators? And breed and raise their broods to do so, too. A roving flock to enjoy in our our woods and chomp down on when the stomach dictated. So we called up the late Dirt Willy, the guy you called in Alberta for all your wild turkey needs. "Dirt, you got a two-four of Eastern wild turkey poults for sale?" Yes I do.
We chose the Eastern turkey for the fact that Alberta already has flocks of Merriam's turkeys somewhat further to the south of us, and The State was not keen on folks letting privately owned stock of the same stripe out at large. Also, we reckoned that the darker plumage would serve the birds better here inside the edge of foothills woods same as it did in woods of the east. Raising the poults went off without a hitch. Our big guardian dogs helped to keep them safe in the pre-flight weeks during which we locked them in at night when the phalanx of varmints from waiting foxes to grizzlies, unwarsed in shadows, were embolded to close ranks on the otherwise slumbering farmyard like a tribe of Lucifers. They were very lively buggers and were only maybe one-sixth or even less adult size when they began testing their wings. We rigged a selection of perches at varying heights and in defiance of the young turkey's reputation for being almost unbelievably stupid they grasped the intent immediately and were soon roosting on the higher perches some twelve feet off the ground.
They grew and grew, roaming the farmyard not entirely tame of us yet very suspicious of carnivores and then we were fortunate to witness them, full sized now, on a most momentous evening. Soft and perfect dusk. As though by prior consensus they gathered just a few yards from the back door at a middling angle beneath the big leaved Balm o' Gilead trees on the west side of the house, with an eye to the high sturdy boughs. A few of the females began to bob with wings cocked slightly open, calculating trajectory. And then as if on cue several of them exploded upwards, followed by the huge young jakes. They made it, and what a stirring, jubilant thing it was to witness! Soon the rest of those remaining followed, all successful.
So as you can see, it was all coming together like Walt Disney. They consistently avoided predation and we looked forward to this rich new addition to our plans for our environs fully fruiting. I had visions of Eastern wild turkeys infesting the foothills forests in the same way i dream of a mix of bison and yak replacing all those imbecilic beeves it was not exactly heroic of us to have salted the lands with.
Then it all came apart in the spring. For whatever reason, the entire flock decided the best place to conduct their mating rituals was smack in the middle of the paved road off which our dead-end one extended. They would make the trip on foot, a half mile, and then conduct their rituals in the centre of the asphalt. Dancing and circling like Druids. Pictures appeared in the local papers and stories began circulating of the toms attacking passing motorcyclists. I became concerned for my own liability. I imagined writing my memoirs from a tight cell behind close bars, "Wild Turkeys Ruined My Life."
I called Dennis who raised wild turkeys in liberal confinement, similar to the way most Canadians are raised today. He agreed to take them. But first i had to catch them. In the end, this was only partially successful, and a cadre of 'em ended up in the freezer.
Dennis raised them successfully for several years not far to the east of us, and then decided to try the same thing we had. He actually had hens nesting in the woods. But the foxes got all the eggs.
There hasn't been a single successful introduction of turkeys into the wild using domestically-raised stock.
- Joseph Campbell
C GEORGE SOPER. COPYRIGHT ON BEHALF OF THE AGBI, BY PERMISSION OF CHRIS BEETLES GALLERY, SPECIALISTS IN THE WORK OF GEORGE SOPER. WWW.CHRISBEETLES.COM
All animals - the human one included - experience their phases of life. Birth, infancy, healthy growth, the relative stasis of maturity, decay, death. At some point during maturity, the zenith - the peak - is reached. That stage of life at which the system is functioning at the optimal level for producing the best of outcomes. Human beings have some control over how long this peak extends in our individual lives based on the decisions we make about how we live. Hopefully we make wise ones - avoiding falling into excesses of greed, gluttony, lust, acts of hubris, etc - and barring random Acts of God it's a long, rewarding ride.
This is also true of civilizations, that they experience these phases of life. And if they are founded in durable concepts and run carefully with an overarching wisdom governing the outcomes of our indisputably enormous cleverness, with the right checks and balances and an eye to maintaining optimal scale, we can similarly extend that period during which the maximum benefit for the maximum number of citizens prevails.
I wonder looking at the trajectory of the modern world, which let's say for argument's sake began in late 18th Century England with the birth of The Industrial Revolution, at which point between then and now did we enjoy our zenith? That point during which we were reaping the maximum benefits for the maximum number of people at the same time as enjoying a model that was arguably sustainable, that is, in overall harmony with its ecological context and therefore with the potential for enjoying the long-haul? What did life look like then?
I picture this continent being at its zenith when it had the most hybrid vigor. That is, there were lawyers and businesspeople and doctors and firemen and architects and professional composers and musicians and academics, all the likely suspects of today in fact thriving in towns great and small with gorgeous structures built to last at the same time as there were mounted tribesmen chasing bison over epic swards while clans of the backwoods scions of rugged Ulster Scots up mountain coves made the air ring to the strains of Celtic folkmusic grafted to African rhythms and a mixed race of French/Indigenous lead a similar hybrid lifestyle on Red River of the North. Both ends of the human spectrum and everything in between. Specialists and generalists alike, with plenty of room both physical and economic for a multitude of approaches and economies. Underwritten in the settled places by mixed family farms practicing an enduring, human-scaled agriculture based on renewable power sources. Clean water and air for all and surrounded by a diversity in nature. The ultimate freedom of human expression in other words at the same times as allowing for a much greater freedom of natural expression than we currently see.
The people who populate this vision are still amongst us. All the types are extant, but their ability to express their range of natures is sorely compromised. Given the awakening of the realization that we are at a juncture where the current model has become morbidly maladaptive, could we then begin work to re-create these conditions of true diversity? To use time honored yet ill-advisedly abandoned approaches alloyed with those modern advancements that show the most promise for affecting our longevity for re-introducing such hybrid vigor to our model? As a vaccine against our current steepening decline? Could we work to broaden the parameters while reducing the scale once again? To recover our cultural health, our vitality, reduce human conflict and conflict with nature? To enjoy the economic resiliency that such a model possesses? Choosing wisely this time, drawing from the vast breadth of all our experience and wisdom could we make it last for the sake of our children and other lifeforms? I don't know the answer to this. I don't think anyone does. But I know i am far from alone in asking these questions, in envisioning such an outcome.
And I know it is worth attempting.
Lucy Kemp-Welch, art
"The world needs less 'or' and more 'and'... "
- Jim Dinning, former Alberta Provincial Treasurer
Mr. Dinning, above quote, was speaking on the CBC Calgary morning show. He was talking about our approach to the future in a time of global climate crisis. Speaking of affecting the proper headspace for forging solutions.
I couldn't agree with him more, although I doubt Mr. Dinning has in mind what I do as being included in that "and." I also wonder if he understands the full nature of our context, our circumstance today, being that our current mode of existence, our current model of civilization is incompatible with life on earth, including our own. He may, I don't know. I do believe many who didn't understand this even five years ago are understanding it now. Perhaps not verbalizing it quite yet, but feeling it, feeling it in their core. From the elders who have been around long enough to have developed a knack for synthesis of events into a larger whole to young adults and even youngsters only on the verge of adulthood become deeply skeptical of the narrow notion of "progress" that has been mainstream, it's a truth that is seeping into the collective subconscious. That our current civilization - global now - is in textbook decline and fall. I'm sure there'll be more on that to come, but in the meantime you may find this an interesting primer including as it does include the baseline reasons for the fall of civilizations: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/key-components-civilization/
Diversity is a key to resilience. A culture with a broad range of economic options is a resilient culture. We make much of diversity being a strength here in my country, Canada, in fact, but is my country truly diverse? I'd argue that it is not. We have one economy, for instance - a cash economy. And the bar is very high. To live in any comfort requires a LOT of cash, relative to the times of our ancestors. There is no more cheap land. There is a crisis of affordable housing. There is no real space left where the climate nurtures settlement in those proportionally insignificant fringes of this vast and mostly very nasty, barren second-coldest country on earth. Where anyone would want to live. (What proportion of Canadians for instance experience a definitive "Canadian winter" on an annual basis? Or have ever experienced one in full for that matter? Most of us living in extensions of moderate American climates?) There is an industrial economy dependent on the burning of endless oceans of hydrocarbons meeting our needs. There is a system of "just in time" delivery which like the rest of our system today, provides for next to no wiggle-room, as was painfully obvious for instance during the recent rail blockades. A system devoid of and with no room for patience with anything that stands in the way, regardless how legitimate. Most of us are urbanites now. Not much diversity here at the foundational level, anymore. We've winnowed away at diversity and at our options for diversity as we've grown and gelled into what we are today.
How about being multicultural then, another thing Canada makes much of? We certainly give the outward appearance of being so in places like Toronto and Vancouver and increasingly elsewhere. But functionally? I don't believe it. I believe we have one culture here, a techno-industrial culture of material affluence focused primarily on growth in order to maximize profit, personal, household, national. Not satisfaction, not wellbeing, not right-livelihood, not mental health, not ecological health, not diversity - human or in the rest of nature - not human scale, not aesthetic living spaces, certainly not sustainability, not humane conditions for our livestock, not a future worth contemplating for our children, perhaps not even for ourselves depending how old - but rather maximum material profit. That is our culture. The people who come here agreeing to this. There are no nomads. No goat herders. No pastoralists, most places. No healthily functioning hunter-gatherers. With the exception proving the rule...
Indeed I would argue that nothing could underscore the painful fact of our functional monoculturalism here in Canada better than our nascent foray into Reconciliation with our indigenous peoples. For the first time in the country's history we have gotten serious about extending some of the balance of power, some leverage to a culture within our borders who are significantly NOT on board with the way we do things, with the status quo of techno-industrial, developed-nation life. A very different culture. Our first serious stab at multiculturalism.
And how has this been working for us?
Not much wiggle-room there either it seems, even at what is really just the bi-cultural level if we're honest. This is just with two competing cultures flexing their powers. What if we were to throw a few more opposing cultures into the fray? Yikes! In reality, it seems to me while through the homogenizing forces of monoculturalism as brought on by techno-industrialism and globalization we are as a country, and a globe no less, rapidly laying waste to what little is left of the former diversity of human and other lifeways, we are at the same time a civilization of profoundly byzantine complexity affording us little flexibility to rectify our problems. The mechanisms governing our global economy being so complex that the parameters surrounding their healthy functioning are no longer adequately comprehended by anyone, making for a very tenuous grip on things. Another fundamental cause implicated in the collapse of civilizations, in fact. Each new layer of complexity leading to an ever heightened vulnerability in the system such that the whole thing eventually comes down for the impossibility of even fathoming all the balls in play, their trajectories, let alone keeping them in the air. One tiny screwball - say for instance a stab at true multiculturalism in a system with room alone for total consensus to function - and the cascade of disruptions this engenders, each one of which we must attempt to separately address, may prove fatal to the system or compound a series of events fatal to the system. And yet what are we calling for to address our deepest woes today? Colossal windfarms. Electric cars. Vast arrays of solar panels. Artificial intelligence. Trips to Mars, even! All the attendant layers. More and more and more complexity. Ever heightened vulnerability. And this is just pertaining to our economies. Nevermind trying to come to grips with our effects on the parameters governing the functioning of ecosystems, which can never be fully known.
"The ability to exert control on economies depends on having sufficient control of the
- Michael Harre et al, University of Sydney, Australia
I personally doubt we can avoid the collapse of our current mode of existence, our global civilization. For one thing, all classic signs suggest we are very firmly in its throes already. Are we surprised? Having long acknowledged our model being unsustainable? We shouldn't be.
Where we are now, as the inevitable outcome given the basic flaws of the model we have been subscribing to since probably the beginning of the industrial revolution, being the difference between having a problem - something that can be solved - and being in a predicament, which can only be negotiated. Successfully or not. You are in a canoe. You hear the rapids ahead - a problem. The solution being to paddle to shore. Fail to do this and you find yourself in the rapids - a predicament. There is no solution to being in the rapids once you are in them. Your only hope is to have in place the systems skills beforehand to come out the other end. Or barring that, to be able to make necessary adjustments on-the-fly in time to avoid being swamped.
So lets get the skills in place, I say! We cannot know where the ultimate tipping points lie, the thresholds beyond which negotiating our predicament will become much more difficult. Let's acknowledge where the present model is headed without focusing on the inevitability of where this is all going, but rather focusing on the possibilities for engineering what awaits us on the other side. On the freedom we will have to do better with a clearing of the slate. Starting in the present. Let's aim to increase our functional diversity for a change. Towards more "and" in the system.
"An emphasis on a point of no return is not particularly helpful for bringing about the conservation action we need. We must continue to seek to reduce our impacts on the global ecology without undue attention on trying to avoid arbitrary thresholds."
- Professor Barry Brook, Director of Climate Science, University of Adelaide
*Part Two next week...
I visited the webpage of WHOAS. (Check it out if you wish - https://wildhorsesofalberta.com/.) There was one horse up for adoption at the time. He was a young gelding, not quite three judging from his teeth, liver chesnut in colour and the name they had given him was “Eli.” He has an excellent disposition, and has proven to be friendly and willing his description went. The two photos suggested a well-proportioned animal aside from the head, which looked rather long for rest of the critter, relative even to the reason we coined the term, “horse-faced.” I decided to go check him out in person. Here was the real deal, after-all, just beyond our doorstep and ready for a new home.
I should mention that I have long been fascinated with tales of tough breeds of horse forged in the crucible of harsh lands. Breeds like the Morgan horse, the Canadian. The Newfoundland dog. Which isn't a horse, but rather a dog. But you know what i mean, right? I fancied that if I were to one day keep a horse explicitly for riding, as opposed to our big Clydesdales that have been doing double-duty as riding horses, I would seek out one of these breeds. The caveat here being that these breeds have been around for many, many horse generations at this point, and are umpteen generations removed by pretty cushy times from the forces that resulted in their outstanding breed qualities. It only makes sense that these qualities will have endured a certain dilution of their seminal potency.
Yet in the great expanse of hills on the eastern fringe of which is located our farm roam the largest bands of wild horses, or mustangs, in Alberta. Horses that are 0% removed from unforgiving evolutionary pressures. (There is debate over whether they are more properly termed “feral,” but everyone around here calls them “wild,” “wildies” or “mustangs” and that works for us.) I had known for years that periodic trapping initiatives occurred in order to cull these bands, which are not popular with some ranchers for the fact that they eat grass they’d prefer went towards fattening some horde of squat beeves. Wouldn’t it be something to get your hands on one of those for riding I’d been reflecting of late. What could be better as a mount for these hills than a horse forged in these hills? But i wasn't sure how that might be practically effected. Until now.
First impressions of Eli were very good. The length of his head was in reality perfectly proportionate, forced perspective being to blame in the photos. I spent some time with Bob Henderson, who formed the society in 2001.
The society seemed to think our farm was a good match for Eli, and we agreed to adopt him.
This was in October. Born and bred in the hills to mustang parents, Eli had been running wild until August, when as sometimes happens with bachelor males, he entered the pasture of a remote farm to woo the domestic mares there, in company with some of his adolescent friends. WHOAS was called to come and remove the horses, as this is one of the functions of the society, to help keep these animals out of trouble. The horses were trapped in a corral and trailered to their facility where basic preliminary gentling was accomplished by a handful of experienced volunteers. Eli had learned to stand in a stall tied and to lead on a rope in a halter. He was suspicious of me at first, and I spent some weeks going to visit him daily at the facility before trucking him home well into November.
He was kept in the corral with access to the big barn where I kept up the routine of tying him and graining him with oats daily to help him settle in and become used to me. He got to meet our Clydesdales through the slats of his corral fence, further separated by a solar-powered hot strand (electric wire) spaced to keep the horses off the fence but almost able to touch noses. The big Clydesdales spent a lot of time at that fence. A month later they were introduced in the central paddock and all has gone as expected there, that is to say, plenty of jostling to establish herd hierarchy with no injuries. The little mustang looks half the size of the big horses, which he pretty much is, but he holds his own, even managing to mount the big girls when they are receptive. He’s gelded mind-you, and it’s a waste of time for the girls beyond being pleasant society, is guess. Like dancing with the castrati.
Training Eli has been a joy. In very short order he “joined up” with me, following me about like a dog and calling to me when I first left the house. Contrary to what you might expect from a horse with wild genes in him that go back to explorer David Thompson’s era (1800), this horse has proven more sensible and less excitable in training than even some of our Clydesdales, a breed legitimately famous for its calm nature. It’s as though natural selection, in addition to weeding out all the physical liabilities in these horses, has weeded out the mental ones, too. And this of course makes perfect sense. In a natural environment that includes puma, grizzlies, and big packs of the world’s largest wolves, or even just random grouse exploding into flight from underfoot, an overly flappable horse would not last. Too much energy would be wasted. Mistakes would be made, potentially fatal ones. Condition would suffer, and winter would come. Injuries might happen and there would be the wolves. And so they have become like the zebra in relation to the lion. They know when it’s time to worry, and just as importantly, when it’s not, and they process the distinction efficiently.
I’ve measured my new boy for a new saddle, a nice one that will fit me, too. This comes in March. He has learned so fast that I could easily have been riding him by now in the training saddle, but I am in no hurry. Wait til the snow and ice are gone and the footing is better for that. In the meantime, it took him about a day to learn to respond to bit pressure, to get used to the pressure of my foot in either stirrup, and he now takes my full weight flopped over the saddle like a halibut calmly enough to be sniffing around for something to nibble whilst I am up there.
I’m very much looking forward to this coming season. It's February end and Eli is losing his winter coat. I’ll keep you posted.
Thanks for reading!
In the 1970’s, there began a movement that lead to the development of the various “Organic” certification and labelling systems and bodies. These systems have been a measured boon to food quality, and therefore to human beings, the land - to the entire biosphere - the world over. Having taken us this far, we at Thompson Small Farm believe that there is still further to go. We believe it is time we reinvented the term “Organic” and the systems and governing bodies that lie behind the term.
To help us illustrate to you why we believe this, we’d like you to take at look at these two pictures, each depicting a modern, working farm engaged in wheat-harvest, and tell us which picture, at first glance, you think best represents a system we might label “Organic”.
I expect that by basic instinct, most people would choose the picture on the left, the first picture, as being a better representation of an organic farming system. Paradoxically, the first picture is of a working Amish farm that has no Organic certification, while the second picture is of a farm with Organic certification.
If you are thinking "there is something wrong with this picture," well so are we. You already understand, instinctively, without having to give the situation any subsequent thought, why the term "Organic" needs redefining, why the Organic systems of certification need revamping.
But let's do give it some further thought. Why do our instincts tell us one thing, but Organic labeling tells us another? The reason is that while both pictures represent a fundamental system - food production - one depicts a system that is fundamentally sustainable, the other a system that is fundamentally deadly. One depicts a way of life that has the potential to sever our ties to processes like the tar sands, the other requires that we mine the tar sands for all they're worth, and then find some more tar sands to mine, and oil shale to frack, and etcetera on into perpetuity. One picture depicts a system that is embedded with its own limits of scale commensurate with the healthy requirements of a living planet, the other depicts a system which knows no limits of scale. One depicts a system that sustains communities and family enterprise, the other a system that symbolises the ruin of the family farm, rural communities and the corporatization of our lives. One depicts a system that has the power to combat climate change, the other the very system that created the problem. One depicts a scene that is all about local scale, the other a scene that has no choice but to be globally scaled. We could go on.
We do think it is a good thing that the farm depicted on the right must fulfill the requirement of using no agricultural poisons in the production of our food. A very good thing. We are by no means condoning abandoning the strides towards food purity the Organic movement has made, nor the principles that guide us to produce the purest quality food. On the other hand, keep in mind that when you are looking at a tractor - any tractor, (it needn't be a behemoth like this one) just like when you are looking at a horse, you are looking at all the things that go into making that object possible. When you look at a tractor you are looking at tar sands, oil shale, the removal of entire mountaintops in places like West Virginia and British Columbia, the poisoning of watersheds, the wage enslavement of once autonomous people in factories and mines, the compaction of the soil, emissions, smog, climate change, a culture of conquest and war, cultural genocide, the list goes on. How "organic" does this seem to you? How "clean", in reality, is the food a farm like the one in the second picture produces? We would argue that the poisoning goes on, it's just been outsourced away from your person. Temporarily. The problem being, it is still making its way back to you, in myriad ways.
How about the horse as a fundamental power source on the farm? In the case of the horse you are looking at a power source that necessitates a human scale of enterprise. You are looking at a power source that reproduces itself, that gets all it needs from the farm, from the produce of the sun - the horse eats what you can grow as fuel, and doesn't require a massive industrial process to convert that fuel into work, nor to be there available to you in the first place. You are looking at a power source that produces emissions that are actually useful to the land: they give back to the land what is taken out as fertilizer. You are looking at a power source that is fundamental to pasture management systems that build, rather than degrade, topsoil and create a carbon sink that helps combat climate change. You are looking at a system that does not require any of the deadly processes listed in the case of the tractor in order to exist and function. You are looking at a power source that does not compact the soil. You are in fact, looking at the only solar powered tractor known to man. And while it is true that much of the equipment that is used in horse-farming today is derived from industrial processes, it is also true that the level of scale to produce such equipment can also come from the farm itself, re-utilizing materials such as steel that are currently available in vast abundance without further degradation of the biosphere.
And that's the bottom line, why one picture just "feels organic" and the other does not. One picture is a picture of sustainability, and the other is a picture of a terminal condition. Only one of these pictures depicts a way of life that has a future. The picture on the left, then, depicts something that is organic, while the picture on the right depicts something that is, in reality - regardless of how we label it - not.
And that's what we'd like to see taken into account where any Organic and other similar labelling systems come into play. Sustainability. For if a farm is not sustainable, if it is failing to work towards severing ties with all the fundamentally deadly processes we've provided a brief list of, how can it possibly be considered "Organic"?
Rediscovering systems that are truly organic, that are sustainable, is not going to happen as an event. It is going to continue to happen as a process. It is going to happen as a transitioning that is initiated on a proactive farm-by-farm basis, at a pace that is ideally comfortable for the farmers involved and works with their economics rather than against them. It is going to happen as a process that is driven by a people, a customer base, demanding that sustainability be the issue that is brought to the fore in food production. All the while keeping in mind that change, any change - even positive change - requires us to step outside our comfort zones and develop new ones. The pioneers of the Organic Movement were part of this change, part of this process. Let's not drop the ball now. Let's keep producing quality food while adding incentives to farmers who can demonstrate they are taking steps to make their farms one day truly sustainable. "Organic" in a holistic, rather than just a specific, sense.
Revamping food certification systems is one way we could offer incentive to farmers to do so, and would provide further assurance of quality - Big Picture Quality - to customers. Focusing not just on food purity, but on the even more important issue of sustainability.
My late Uncle Cletus, second-eldest in a family of thirteen, explained the family-planning in those
“What’s that?” said
“I’ll set a trap,” said
“Better go kill a chicken. It will soon be
“I’ll kill a quail.
The others grew so fast.”
“Maybe this one will be
“Yes - start right. Control its
“It can be a
“It’s still a
“Get it out from under the
“We should find it some clothes –
it leaves little to the imagination.”
“It’s a quiet one,
“It doesn’t want to attract the
“What sex is
“How soon can we put it to
“Soon – simple
“That’s a good
“It has a lot of
“It’s a December
The thing is, Andrea and I didn’t have thirteen children, but we did have something small, hairy, and unexpected arrive this December.
Mable is our sole remaining milk cow. This is after selling her mother, Mary. It seems like a terrible thing, to sell someone’s mother, but Mable doesn’t seem to care. Her mother was a full-blood Jersey, a breed prone to milk-fever, so we crossed her to a Milking Shorthorn sire, a breed not known for milk-fever. This made sense, to us. Mable has the red-and-white colouration of the dad, overlaid with a nice brindling.
Now, here’s the thing about yaks: you can cross a yak with a cow, but the resulting bulls are sterile. The cows remain fertile. Prevailing wisdom surrounding yaks says that if you wish to accomplish such a breeding, you must separate the yak bull together with the cow you wish to breed. He is something of an elitist, you see, and will only breed a cow when the pickings get – or are rendered – slim.
Mable was not separated from our small yak herd and we didn’t worry. We thought one day we might separate her with Clint, our yak bull, when the time seemed right. Anyway, she started bagging-up in early December, but not much, so we didn’t think much of it. “She’s becoming a woman,” that sort of thing. Nothing else to cause alarm seemed to be occurring.
It got cold, so we put her in the old milking barn, the one built by Arnie Arnesson way back when and that we put a new metal roof on because it was on its last legs, although it should stand now for a long time. Log barns, so the prevailing wisdom goes, don’t fall over, they just get more squat over time, like the folks that build them; and all the other folks, too. We hope the prevailing wisdom surrounding log barns has more substance behind it than the prevailing wisdom surrounding yaks. You see, it had only been a few days that Mable was snug in her barn when I went in and thought,
“Who let that mongrel in here with the cow?"
But I was wrong. Mable had given birth. A little calf was there, small, hairy, red-and-white like the mom, and already
frolicking about, his name: Herman Nelson. Half-yak, one-quarter Jersey, one-quarter Milking Shorthorn. Not only did we have a new calf, we had learned something more about Clint, our yak bull, Herman’s dad. Something that we hadn’t thought about before, something that would not have occurred to us: he was not much of a reader. And this is the thing about yaks, the other thing. Their calves are small, like a sewing machine. They make no more difference to the mother’s girlish shape than a couple of beers make to the shape of a long-haul trucker. The result being that they tend to simply appear, if you are not watching closely. If you do watch closely, they appear anyway.
Just like our ancestors did.
The Percheron goes gay;
The Shire will lean against his load
All through the longest day;
But where the plough-land meets the heather
And the earth from sky divides,
Through the misty Northern weather
Stepping two and two together,
All fire and feather,
Come the Clydes!
- Will Ogilvie
Gwyneth, one of our registered mares, at pasture. I am blessed in recent years to be sharing my life with the most magnificent of the heavy horses, indeed with one of the most splendid creatures ever to grace this earth: the Clydesdale horse. More, I have had the double blessing to share many a working day with them – training, ploughing, discing, harrowing, haying, hauling, and sometimes, doing my bit to teach others to do the same.
The Clydesdale horse originated in the Clyde River valley of Scotland, at least in ancestral form. The Clydesdale of the modern era is a mixed bag, however, the most so of all the heavy horse breeds. Herein lies its versatility, say some. While there are more powerful horses for working the furrow alone, or for taking to pulling contests, none is better for more jobs than the Clyde. Their breed standard calls for the ideal of substance without coarseness; neither grossness nor bulk, but rather quality and weight. An apt description, a person is led to think, while one is there in front of you.
Seeding Canadian peas with four abreast of our Thompson Small Farm Clydesdales. If you ever were to hitch a Clydesdale with a Percheron or Belgian and make off down the road, you might note that the others take almost two strides for every one of the Clyde. This is a function of build. The Clyde has the long cannon bones and high rump of a nomad, albeit a very powerful one, the other two are “shorter coupled,’ having shorter bones combined with a hugeness of mass that can indeed be aptly described as coarse by comparison. This makes the other two very powerful, but comparatively slow. I well remember three days I spent mowing hay with Skeeter Thurston, an ex-pat Nebraskan, on his ranch north of Elmira. He was one of the rare ones, and I’ve known a few of them here in Alberta, who believed us foolish to entirely turn our backs on the old, millennia proven ways, and lived their beliefs. We hitched our teams to McCormick-Deering Number Nine machines, the Cadillac of the old horse-drawn mowers, these ones with six foot sickle bars; he with his team of American Belgians and me with a team of our Clydes. He instructed me to lead off, and away we went around that relentlessly hilly quarter under the late August sun, traces jingling and knives whirring, but never making such a racket that the call of the Meadowlark was lost to us, nor so obtrusive as to scare away the sentinel hawks bent on the mice we would stir. By the time we’d made a circuit, my Clydesdales and I were no longer in front of Skeeter, we were coming up behind him. Skeeter suggested that my horses were in better shape than his that summer, but it is also true that it is this quality of covering ground that prompted one old Clyde breeder of Saskatchewan whom I got to know a little while making use one of his stallions to quip in good-humored rivalry, “Sure the Belgian can haul a little more of a load. Me, I prefer to use a Clyde and actually get the job done!” It is this same quality of a long, smooth stride that made them ideal for road and town work, and today, for riding.
"Bay-with-four-whites" Clydesdale. An excellent example of the breed. It is said that the demise of the horse era heralded a new age in which horses were, on average, treated much better. I suppose this is true, for those horses that weren’t turned into dog-food, and there were literally millions of them that met this fate. (Although I suppose, really, it was not so much the dog but the tractor that ate them.) In more recent decades, the heavy horse has made a minor comeback, although I fear that forces may again be turning against them. In fact, although the Clydesdale horse is probably the best known of the heavy horse breeds on this continent today, thanks in large part to the advertisements of the Budweiser beer company, it is ironically also one of the rarer ones, and is under watch by various Rare Breeds societies.
Aside from a precipitous drop in numbers early in the 20th Century, the end of the horse era created some other issues for the Clydesdale. When they were being bred for the farm, the colour of the horse took a back seat to quality. The Clydesdale evolved as a colourful, even flashy horse. The best ones tend heavily towards roaning, which in this breed is actually more of a bold marbling and splotching, than it is the subtler overall wash of flecking called “roan” in other breeds. Against a background of just about any colour a Clydesdale horse can be overlaid in a liberal splashing of white, with the white predominating in extreme cases. It is these roan horses that carry the quality genes in this breed. One second-generation Clydesdale breeder of renown assured me that if you take the top ten Clydesdales at any show where true quality is the concern, eight of them will be roans or have a strong lineage of roaning. Yet today with the Clydesdale, we see a trend towards uniformity – solid bay with four white feet, or “four whites,” as seen in the Budweiser hitches. While there are many fine bay Clydesdales (left), quality will suffer if this is what you are breeding for alone in this horse. Worse for the breed has been the fashion towards black Clydesdales (with the signature four whites and facial blazes, of course.) One colour that is rare in a Clydesdale is black, and it is hard to breed one of real quality.
Sarah, a "blue-roan" daughter of Emma, in wolf-willows. But worst of all for the quality of this breed has been the modern trend that is affecting all heavy breeds to produce an excessively tall, lanky animal with less muscle – again, an animal of poor quality. While the Clydesdale is leggy for a heavy-horse, it is meant to be subtly so. But now we see a case of fashion over function predominating in many show rings. Some very strange looking ‘work’ horses have been the result, and it is no exaggeration to say that some of them are tending more towards huge, mutant track horses than otherwise. I see this as a trend driven by distinctly urban sensibilities, rather than rural ones that were the genesis behind these breeds. We’ve seen this with many dog breeds as well, the impetus being towards producing attractive nitwits. The trend mirrors our own human trajectory with the sweeping move away from the land we’ve experienced in recent decades. The less useful we become ourselves and to ourselves, the less useful we expect our animals to be. The danger here being that when the day returns that demands a general competence of us, we will have lost all ability to meet these demands. And so will have our animals.
The result of poor breeding. Too tall, too skinny. I can think of no better anecdote to illustrate how far this has gone than our own experience stemming from our most recent breeding of our mares. Not far east of us on the Bergen Road and just north on the 766 there lived a man named Dale Rosenke, who bred splendid Clydesdales. One look at Dale’s sizeable herd was all it took to know that here was a man unscathed by the vagaries of modern horse-fashion. Here we saw a cornucopia of colour coupled with the best of what the old breed standard called for in the way of substance, with roans aplenty amongst the more solid bays and chestnuts, and with nary a black to be found. Dale said simply, “I breed primarily for quality.” We talked awhile of quality in horses, and in others things, the increasing lack thereof, and then he suggested he had a particular stallion we’d probably like to use. This stud went by the unpretentious nickname of “Wally,” and he was in my mind the best Clydesdale stallion I’d seen to date. Dark-brown with four whites and a modest blaze, he was not over-tall nor prohibitively big, (hugeness having its limitations as an asset in working horses as it does in all else in life) perhaps just shy of seventeen hands, yet he was beautifully built, with a short back and an abundance of powerful muscle, bone and “feather”, just the right amount of leg, and indeed, nothing that would conjure the term “coarse.” He moved wonderfully, with action and stride. A perfect old-school working Clydesdale. We had him on our place for a couple of months, and he also proved to be a gentleman, like his owner. (Perhaps too much so. He only impregnated one of our mares.) A fine Clyde stallion of yore, Sir Everard, whose son earned $300,000 in stud fees. Dale was by this time looking to downsize his herd somewhat. The downside of producing quality in draft horses these days being that you may have trouble finding folks who want it. Dale confessed, “Things are getting a little out of hand on the numbers front.” He offered to sell us Wally. If we had needed a stallion on the place, we’d have jumped at the opportunity, but we are not primarily breeders, needing a full-time stud with all that this entails. Wally ended up being auctioned, along with a few other stallions, taller and lankier and while still by no means of the inferior type to be found in some show rings, they were not to my mind of Wally’s calibre. These other stallions were Dale’s attempted concession to economics, he told me. (“I have to sell some horses,” he said.) These latter stallions brought multiples the price Wally did. Wally sold for meat prices, as I heard it. I only hope he didn’t sell for meat. A hundred years ago, I feel certain the reverse outcome would have occurred.
The good news is, Wally’s genes are alive and well now amongst our little herd of registered Clydesdale horses, along with the genes of other fine examples of the breed, from Alberta to Ontario. We are eager to see how our latest youngsters turn out.
Emma and her new foal, Jenny. And with that in mind, it’s time to go do some training with “Bonnie,” one of our bay two-year-olds. It’s winter now, and a good time for this work. She’s smart, and training her is mostly a joy, as it mostly is with all of them. It would be encouraging to see a real renaissance in the working horse. I personally know of no younger men who are breeding Clydedale horses on any significant level. I hope they are out there. Donegal Clydes of Saskatchewan is dispersing their herd in 2014 and selling the farm to boot. Dale Rosenke has lamentably passed. Will their horses be scattered to the four winds? Will these random horses be bred as ours are, and if so, with any conscientious plan towards quality? Who will carry on the lineages of these magnificent beasts in a world focused instead on high-tech electronica, third rate subscription T.V., giant pickup trucks that are the Tonka Toys of the neotenic and other idiot claptrap? We are going to need them again, although most don’t understand this yet. It will be deeply challenging to us to admit that life is not the steady upwards trajectory of wonders this waning Golden Age has led us to fantasize it is, but rather a cycle of growth, maturity, decay and death that still applies as much to civilizations as to the lives that comprise them. That we need to make some paradigm shifts, that industrial technology has taken us firmly beyond the point of diminishing returns by this stage, to where it is doing us all real harm on a myriad of levels. We, my partner and I, are encouraged to be living right now in a an area where some of our neighbors have never entirely turned their back on the working horse – they still pursue significant aspects of their livelihoods, worthwhile livelihoods, from the saddle.
Jon goes haying with Raven and Gwyneth. The horse remains to date the only sustainable power source available to us, on-farm and potentially off, that is even remotely practical. In the horse, if we care to resume where we left off, we will find great hope and inspiration, as we always did before this brief Age of Distractions. If we are wise, we will begin to gradually and strategically reincorporate the horse back into more areas of our daily lives as the era we have lived through continues to grind slowly down. If we are lucky, some of these horses will be Clydesdale horses. To behold these beasts is to glimpse magic, to spend a day working them, poetry, to count them amongst your friends… well, life gets no better than this. Blue blood for him who races,
Clean limbs for him who rides,
But for me the giant graces,
And the white and honest faces
The power upon the traces
Of the Clydes!
But it doesn't work. Just as she's about to shout at the interloper, a streak of wolf-large whooly fur rockets out from behind her, followed by another and yet another These are our protectors, our livestock guardian dogs. They are almost on the fox before it realizes the very real peril it is in and bolts. By now our two other farm dogs have joined the chase. The fox won't be getting a free lunch from us, not today. Still, it is very lucky not to have been shredded.
Sounder (that white thing) guards the field chickens free ranging from the eggmobile. The working group "livestock guardian dogs" is composed of a number of breeds, including but not limited to: Great Pyrenees; Maremma; Akbash; Komondor; Ovcharka. The origin of these dogs is lost in antiquity, but it seems they share a common ancestor that originated perhaps in Asia. They are designed for a pastoral style of livestock husbandry, that is, one that relies on free ranging stock out on open pasture. They are raised from pups right alongside those animals they are meant to guard, and long instinct borne out of careful selection over millennia instructs them that their job is to watch over this "family" and all it contains, and to guard it with their life. (In our case, we raised our pups alongside our chickens. The yaks and the draft horses don't need protecting.) They tend to be large dogs, capable of standing a chance against a wolf or bear if necessary. Custom sometimes suggests the dogs should receive a minimum of human contact in order for them to bond with their animal charges, but this hardly seems to be the case, Ours are extremely bonded to us yet do an exemplary job guarding, and at only slightly over a year old, they will only get better - it takes these dogs up to three years to fully mature. At any rate, we cannot imagine the loss that would be ours should we not have their friendship as we do - they are delightful creatures, full of character and personality. Furthermore, any dog this large, and programmed for savagery as the situation requires, certainly needs socialization with humans. Unless you are Ghenghis Khan, an individual infamous for harnessing his anger to produce a desired outcome. Then again, while some people who come on your place will certainly deserve to be bit on the ass by a large carnivore, Mr. Khan did not live in such a litigious age as we do today. Call a Komondor's bluff and you'll find out it's not bluffing. Amongst the breeds that compose this group of dogs are those famous for wandering large distances. I once had a friend who raised Pyrenees on his farm, for instance, this being one of the roaming breeds. When I drove over the prairie to visit him in winter, it was not uncommon to begin encountering the tracks of his dogs in the snow many miles out on the plains before I reached his farm. Two of his pups were our first livestock dogs, in fact. We couldn't keep them on the place, nor to be honest, anywhere near it. I suppose we got them a little old to bond properly with the stock. Whatever the case, and while I personally found their free-spiritedness both fascinating and endearing, the dogs were effectively useless to us when they were five miles away and the coyote five feet from the fence. We reluctantly returned them. Ranger. Our livestock dogs that are on the place now - the brothers Sounder, Ranger and Hunter - are a trio we rescued as young pups. Their mother is a Komondor, a huge and intriguing breed that is more aggressive yet less prone to wander, their dad one of my friend's old Pyrenees. Since spring has come on and the chickens are out ranging well afield, these new dogs have become pretty much the homebodies, tied to their job. But there was a time last winter when i was off deer hunting in the big woods that abuts our place, several miles deep into the sylvan fastness, and came upon tracks on a steep and trackless slope that i first took to be those of a pair of very large mountain lions. Wolf-sized prints. (There are lions here that leave such large tracks.) Then I detected claw-marks, which the lion of course, having retractable ones, does not leave. The prints were too round and catlike, however, to be those of wolves, found here as well. Then it suddenly dawned on me why these prints were looking so familiar as I continued to examine them. They were the tracks of my own pack! I was happy knowing they were out engaging the wilds as I was.
Our dogs are interesting to us on many levels, not the least of which includes how their physical appearance lends insights into the ancient ties between the livestock guardian breeds. For while both their parents were entirely white, two of the brothers are predominantly grey. A person might well wonder why this is so, yet in learning more about this guild of canines, will discover that other guardian breeds known from geographic regions abutting those from whence the "Komondorok" (plural for Komondor) and Pyrenees sprang indeed commonly have markings, hues and patterns not unlike those of our crosses. Breeds like the Pyrenean Mastiff, and the South Russian Ovcharka. The long buried lineages emerging readily from the ether of long ago with a little genetic coaxing. Hunter sleeps (lightly?) where he's needed: up against a henhouse. It is normal these days when new laws are passed out in the country for them to represent some level of inhibiting nuisance to those rural folk living traditional rural lives. So it was with relief and hope that we reviewed new ordinances in our home county of Mountainview.
In Mountainview County, it is now writ in law that a barking livestock protection dog is not to be considered grounds for nuisance complaints. Nor is a livestock protection dog that is roaming off-property in the pursuit of its duties to be considered a "dog-at-large." Rather, these dogs are now being protected as the vitally contributing rural citizens that they are, essential elements of a productive rural fabric.
Now that's the kind of "progress" we need to see more of. Laws that actually favor, rather than hamstring, traditional farm economies.
To produce the best chicken and eggs possible, we must raise the birds on pasture, and so rather than focusing primarily on the chickens, we must practice farm management principles that are best for the health of this pasture first.
Grass is designed with grazers in mind. Grazers in nature run in tight herds and move around a lot. They stay tight as defense against predators, and they move around so that the grass beneath their feet is always fresh. Any given blade of grass is nipped off once and left alone as the grazer moves on. The root of the grass dies back according to the amount grazed off above the surface, and the dead root elements decompose into topsoil. The blade of the grass then has a growth surge in response to being nipped, and the roots do too. Nip it more than once in too short a span of time, however, and you stunt the blade and the root, both. Hence the old adage, "Keep down the shoot, kill the root."
The first step then in raising the best chicken and eggs, is to have a herd of large grazers to keep the pasture healthy and prepare it for the chickens. On our farm, this herd is composed of draft horses, yaks and dairy cows. In order to mimic the patterns of natural grazing just described, we move them daily to fresh pasture, enclosed tightly in a temporary paddock delineated by solar-powered electric wire and just large enough to completely graze in one day, no larger. They're on there, they hit it hard, and they're gone, leaving the grass alone to respond naturally. They aren't brought back to the same spot until the grass is ready. Your grass tells you when and where to graze the animals, in other words. This system is called "mob grazing." It is not only a key to healthy pasture, it is a potent tool in combating climate-change, for while over-grazed pastures which are the norm today lead to desertification and absorb little carbon-dioxide, and ungrazed pastures emit carbon dioxide from their thick decomposing thatch of dead, unused grass, mob-grazed pastures maintain optimum growth and absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide.
This method on its own, done correctly and with attention to detail, would result in very good pasture at about four times the volume a conventionally grazed pasture provides, but now we incorporate the chickens to add diversity to the system, for resilience is contingent on diversity. Our meat and egg birds are rotated onto the paddocks the big grazers have prepared as the grass is coming back, for the chickens don't like the grass too long. The meat birds are kept in large, movable pens to protect them from predators and the elements, and the more agile egg birds range out from fixed-coops and a mobile "eggmobile," protected by big, shaggy dogs whose working lineages are lost in antiquity. They nibble the grass without having the impact of the herd animals, and they eat the insects and take in all the nutritional elements of a healthy sward. They add their droppings to the grounds, an incredible injection of soil health-inducing nitrogen that the grass would not be able to incorporate were it not for the fact that it were being mob-grazed and kept in a hyper-productive state. The chickens in turn take in many healthy antibodies and of course receive plenty of ultra-violet from the sun. This way, we circumvent the need in today's large and vulnerable meat birds for the constant infusions of antibiotics required to keep them alive in the crowded, stressed battery barns they were genetically designed for, and where the chicken you're used to eating comes from. And the eggs you get our way have been shown to be six times more nutritious than conventionally raised. And so as a by-product of keeping our pasture in the best shape it can possibly be in, we get the finest chicken and eggs possible. We also build topsoil, maintain healthy herds, feed draft-animals that provide us with the sustainable power that machines cannot, at the same time as combating climate change.
It's a most elegant system. Enjoy your chicken! Mob-grazing on Thompson Small Farm. Note previous day's paddock in the foreground.
This year, the hungry gap ended for us on May 21st. (A couple of days before this was when Gwyneth gave birth. Our first baby Clydesdale of the season, a lovely young filly.) The animals, some thin and even a bit bony from a too-long, if fairly flaccid winter, were eager as always to get out on the grass. Gwyn and her brand-new filly break the Hungry Gap together. Every day or at most two, our herd is moved from one small pasture to the next, given only enough area to graze off completely in that brief period. The patch is not then grazed again until the grass has come back fully. This is called "Mob Grazing," and is the most efficient way to maximize the health of your pasture and the volume of grass, especially when it is a mixed herd doing the grazing, as different grazers eat the grass in a different fashion. Horses crop it down close and prefer shorter grass, for instance, while yaks and cows use their big tongue to encircle a swath of the tall stuff and pull it into their mouth.
Our first paddock, the one we traditionally break the gap with, is a mixed aspen-balsam-spruce savannah, a small patch of considerably less than an acre. The animals love it in there, it is cool and lush, and they sure are a pleasure to behold in this setting. Soon their condition will be noticeably improved, and in no time they will be back in prime shape.
Across the Great Plains are legions of abandoned granaries, many still in quite good repair. In them, by their own choosing, nest the feral pigeons, descendants of domestic birds brought to this continent hundreds of years ago, which in turn are the descendants of the wild ancestral rock dove, a denizen of remote sea coast cliff fastnesses. Were an enterprising person to outfit these bins with working doors and simple barred entranceways of a size to admit pigeons but exclude their main predators, the Great-horned owls, here would be a ready source of emergency food for the plains-dweller, a variation on the urban "food forest."
Wild-type Rock dove. Pigeons have lived alongside man for thousands of years with the first images of pigeons being found by archaeologists in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and dating back to 3000 BC. It was the Sumerians in Mesopotamia that first started to breed white doves from the wild pigeon that we see in our towns and cities today and this undoubtedly accounts for the amazing variety of colors that are found in the average flock of urban pigeons. (And if you think they're dirty, you're looking far too closely at the bird as opposed to the city.) To ancient peoples, a white pigeon would have seemed miraculous and this explains why the bird was widely worshipped and considered to be sacred. Throughout human history the pigeon has adopted many roles ranging from symbols of gods and goddesses through to sacrificial victims, messengers, pets, food and even war heroes!
Miraculous they are. We keep a loft of pigeons at Thompson Small Farm. When I look at these birds up close, I am always struck by their marvelous beauty. Everything about them is perfect, sleek and sublime, nothing extreme. They are to me, the "a-priori bird," the bird that could be used as an example of "best in design." But looking at them as they interact in the loft is only the beginning of the enjoyment they bring. Along with ravens, pigeons are among the few birds that fly seemingly just for the pleasure of flying, and not just with some utility in mind. And well they should, as they, again like the ravens, and along with the falcons, are amongst the most superb avian athletes we know. They can fly for days on end if necessary, and have been known to average speeds of 125 kilmoetres per hour on their journeys. Morning chores around here are brightened by the spectacle of our pigeons on the wing, one moment mere specks high up and off to the horizon, and then close at hand, diving, twisting amongst the buildings, the wind shearing audibly through their pinions, their hues and forms marvelous against the backdrop of any sky, clear blue or against black storm clouds when they may appear as sparkling snow. Thompson Small Farm pigeons at their loft. Pigeons are considered to be one of the most intelligent of birds, being able to undertake tasks previously thought to be the sole preserve of humans and primates. The pigeon has also been found to pass the ‘mirror test’ (being able to recognise its reflection in a mirror) and is one of only 6 species, and the only non-mammal, that has this ability. The pigeon can also recognise all 26 letters of the English language as well as being able to conceptualise. In scientific tests pigeons have been found to be able to differentiate between photographs and even differentiate between two different human beings in a photograph when rewarded with food for doing so.
Pigeons and doves (which are two different words for the same group of birds,) are the only birds that dip their beaks into their water source and simply suck the water up, like a mammal - all others must "dip and tip" their heads. They are even easier to care for than chickens, being incredibly hardy (they often begin nesting in February, even in our climate, without any artificial heat source) willing and capable of caring entirely for themselves provided there is a source of forage on the land. And giving back almost as much as chickens and on some levels more. Perhaps if you are an urbanite frustrated by laws limiting your keeping of chickens, you should look into the legality of establishing a pigeon loft!
Or better yet, keep both.
Yet it is here that Andrea and I decided to start our CSA (have you read our "Dumber 'n a 'Possum" blog entry yet?) It was trial-by-fire, or for the more amphibious of bent, sink-or-swim, as we had jumped right in with both feet and no life-jacket. We needed a system of growing that could withstand pretty much the worst conditions nature could throw at a gardener anywhere actual soil occurred. The system we came up with we feel worked admirably, and we're confident it could be adapted by anyone, anywhere and yield gratifying results. We'll outline it for you here.
A fine high-plains April morning. Thompson Small Farm, 2009. Those barely discernible smudges are Clydesdale horses, about ten metres from the camera. We start in late March or early April with a small greenhouse, which at this time of year, especially at night, will sometimes need some supplemental heat. We have provided this heat at intervals woodstoves piled around with rocks for thermal mass, electric and propane heaters. We like the stone-heaped woodstove method best, as it appeals most to our desire for self-reliance. Next, we either mix our own potting soil mixture or get some bagged stuff, and you can probably guess which approach we like best there. Out come the soil-block makers, an assortment of sized punches ala Eliot Coleman's "The New Organic Grower" (refer to our online store, which contains most of the reference works you'll need and which we, by their inclusion, endorse - including this one.) The punches create blocks of soil that hold together and negate the need for pots - a real blessing! We use the 2 inch size almost exclusively. You can pack a lot more plants into a space using the one inch size, but you need to re-pot them into two inch anyway, so why not skip this step?
Seedlings, to make a long story short, are raised to optimal transplant size in these 2-inch blocks set into flats, about 40 - 50 per. While they're growing, we've been out there preparing the soil. This year, we've been feeding the animals on the garden space over the winter, in order that their ordure will generously anoint the land by spring. By doing this, you save on work spreading organic matter - it comes straight to the land from the horse's... it's there already. So this year, preparing the garden space will consist of harnessing the Clydesdales and driving them around the garden with a dual gang of spike-toothed harrows trailing, spikes in the flat position, to spread out the manure piles over the area. Next, we'll be turning the soil - not too deep - with a plow (horse-drawn, of course. If all you have is some machine, well, you'll have to make do with that for now. Hopefully you'll have animals of some description for manure, or you'll have to get your hands on some of that too, or better yet, compost.) The soil must be moist and friable for this step, but not too moist. Plowing is best done in the fall, so that the frost action can work on the turned soil over the winter, but if this system of "soiling the land" over the winter is used, you'll have to do it in spring, to work in the nutrients and organic material. That's okay. Just remember that when plowing is done in the spring, the disc-harrowing that always follows must be done immediately following the plowing to conserve soil moisture. So then, we disc harrow the plowed land. (If you plow in fall, the harrowing can wait til spring, and becomes the first tillage step.) Disc harrowing, back and forth and across and at all angles breaks down clods into a nice seed-bed, but the edges of the discs also compact the soil some, so we follow this step with some spring-tooth harrowing, or cultivating as some call it with this implement, to loosen the soil back up and give it loft. (We recommend "Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules," available through our store, for an understanding of equipment and the applications. It's the same sort of stuff you'd be using with a light tractor.)
Now comes the making of raised-beds. Raised beds needn't have borders, and in fact this would be far too labor and infrastructure intensive for larger scale gardening anyway. Instead, they are just raised rectangles of soil, in our case about five metres long by a metre wide, by perhaps a hand-width or a little more high, allowing for from two to four rows of plants. In the past we've made these beds by hand, with a hoe, once the horses have helped us prepare the soil. It takes maybe fifteen minutes per bed if you've loosened the soil adequately, as needs be. If you can't get enough soil up into beds, get back in there with the spring-tooth harrow. This year I've added an application to our basic home-made stone-boat, a set of adjustable discs on a rear-mounted frame that i'm hoping will assist in making the beds with the horses doing the bulk of the work. The discs can be set wide or narrow, to heap the soil or make a planting furrow. We'll find out how this works!
Raised beds are one of those steps that can make a night-and-day difference between small, stunted vegetables, and big proud ones. This is because the loosened soil, raised above the cooling thermal mass of mother earth, warms more quickly and allows for better penetration and retention of moisture and oxygen, not to mention root-growth. So, once your field is arranged into beds (leaving room to walk between and larger corridors for bring wheelbarrows and such out there,) let some time elapse, if you have the luxury (you won't some years,) so the weeds can get a start. Once they've sprouted, hoe them under. Hopefully there won't be too many, but this is a way of pro-active weed control, and it's added organic material as well. Now, a top-dressing of compost is in order, if you have it on hand, although it may not be necessary if you've fed the soil adequately as we've described. If you've got it, and you should have it, then use it. Just sprinkle a thin layer atop each bed - you don't need to work it in. Follow this with a thin layer of mulch - leaves, grass, straw, old hay, whatever. The mulch helps further with weed-control, adds further organic matter for soil building, and holds moisture. It's incredible, in fact, how much effect mulching has on soil moisture. It can spell the difference between needing to water liberally every day or two and just being able to rely on rainfall, or at the most, watering weekly. But it must be thin at first, as it also cools the soil, something you don't want to do in the spring, and defeating one of the purposes of the raised beds.
You're now ready for your transplants. Before you bring your flats of soil blocks containing the baby vegetables out to the field, spend a few days introducing them to the full, unfiltered sun in increments, or they will be unhappy, or dead. It takes some "hardening-off" to get them ready for the full elements. Then you can take them out to the field with you. Mind-you, keep those bastards moist! They dry very quickly in the open air. Refer to your reference materials for spacing for the different plants, part the mulch and make a hole and insert the block. Gently squeeze it just before covering to break the form of the block and keep the roots from binding. Don't then pile-drive your fingers around the base like an eye-gouging street-thug as I've seen some guys do in order to anchor the plant. A little gentle tamping, like seating the tobacco in your pipe will do. Once a bed is planted as such, we then water each transplant in, regardless how moist the block is, and then we do it yet again, this time with a pressure-sprayer and a little fish emulsion added to the water. Just a squirt or two into the base of the little plant. We do the fish emulsion thing last so the previous watering doesn't flush the root-establishing nutrients down into the bed. Tuck the mulch back in around the base of the little plant.
If you were somewhere pleasant, you could probably stop at this point. You are not somewhere pleasant, however, at least not for the sake of this instruction. This being the case, you're not done yet! And hey, even in a reasonable climate, the additional steps I am about to outline might just make you legendary. Give it a try, maybe in some trial plots. Anyways, now it's time to get out the 9-gauge wire and cut some hoops from it. You're going to push the ends of the wire into the ground to form semi-circular arcs over your beds at about one-metre (39 inch or so) intervals. They should allow for at least thirty centimetres (a foot) of clearance beneath them. You are in essence making a mini-hoop house over each bed. Over the hoops, you unroll a length of a product called "Agribon" or something similar - a gossamer-light fabric that admits both sun and precipitation, yet raises the temperature underneath by around three degrees Celsius, protects against frost, insect pests, and wind. (Wind robs plants of energy and stunts growth. And by the way, you can use this fabric in your starter greenhouses as well, draping it loose over flats at night to protect seedlings against frost.) You can use soil, rocks, sandbags, logs, or twenty-foot (about six metre) lengths of rebar to hold down the edges of the fabric. If you choose rebar, you can then use the same lengths at some other juncture to erect larger walk-in hoop houses when you need to. Soil is hardest of these choices on this material, but it doesn't last more than a couple of seasons in our climate anyway. We have lately gotten into the practice of buying this row-cover material in sufficient widths to cover two beds at a time, saving on labor. The hoops are still cut to width for one bed - they wouldn't be rigid enough for two beds, and you'd be tripping over them in the rows anyway. Field layout, Thompson Small Farm. Some beds with mature plants are open, some are covered single-beds, and the wider arrays are covering two beds at a time. The corner of a second garden area is just visible in the background. You can open these covers to water, or water right through them, or better yet, it hopefully rains enough that you don't ever have to. As the season progresses, thicken the mulch layer to better hold moisture and suppress weeds. When the plants begin to bulge the fabric, open up the bed to the air. It's always exciting to see what's under there!
Okay, there's our system in a nutshell. If you can't get a garden to grow using this method, you're probably an Eskimo and have many equally rewarding things to do anyway. We find broccoli works very well in a challenging growing climate. Note the 9-gauge hoops that were used to hold the row-cover fabric before the plants outgrew their ceiling.
The cow, a Hereford no more notable for its outward aspect of stupidity than any other cow I suppose, (we don't engage the term "bovine" too often as a compliment,) is lain on her side with her feet on a vaguely uphill grade, and due to the immense insurmountability of her characteristically balloonish midsection, is now powerless to resume any former posture. She'd been there for some time, it would seem, as evidenced by the foetid brown pond adjacent her hoop, in which she had thoroughly plied that only remaining moveable portion of herself indicating that she was not in fact as she appeared - dead and bloated - the tail. (However this turns out, stay back from the tail, I remind myself.)
"Oh Jesus," was one preliminary thought, "She's having trouble birthing and one of us sure as hell will soon be up to our shoulder in her wildebeest trying to turn the calf!" Her tail a paint-brush. Immediately followed by, "Why do all cows seem to live in a perpetual state of diarrhea?" and then the revelation, "It's not enough to make responsible decisions in choosing for yourself only those proper animals that can birth naturally when your neighbor insists on keeping up the tradition of raising only those animals we've thoroughly screwed..." when, praise-be, it became evident that while pregnant, this was not the true nature of her predicament. She was simply defeated by her own preposterous design. Lucky it was us and not coyotes coming to her aid. I am sure, in fact, that if we hadn't been there to lend a hand, this would have been a scene to be immortalized on canvas as "Bessie's Final Gesture," then serving as a symbol - speaking of analogues - for where the process of domestication was taking us all. A bloated carcass to be eaten alive by scavengers.
As it turns out, the fix is embarrassingly simple. Harold applies a lariat to both her hind feet. We heave until she's rotated 90 degrees, (thankfully the ground is slippery with snow and other less pristine substances,) head now upslope, such as the slope was, which is to say, barely deserving the term "slope." She gets up and walks off, as if she's only been napping a moment or two.
Domestic cattle were established in western North America mostly by English elites of the then prevailing Empire in order to better provide for an insatiable appetite amongst the British aristocracy for beef. Big money cleared all hurdles, and with this backing, the cattlemen of the west carried mighty political clout, the remnants of which, despite the cattle industry being in severe present peril, remain to this day. Observe single-family holdings of vast estates here in the west, acquired and held on to for a veritable pittance by the standards of today due to this history of partisan politics. And so worked, and works - barely - the mechanism by which an animal far from optimal for its situation became every bit as sacred to westerners as it is to the Hindu, nevermind that we eat it.
Anyways, to hell with cows, and pity the poor cowboy tending these squalid hordes. Here's a better solution:
The yak was introduced to North America by way of Canada. I believe it was in the '20's that a herd was brought to Brandon or nearby for research purposes, the question being, is this the ideal domestic animal for the Canadian plains and the answer being "yes!" except for the fact that the civil servants involved somehow managed to kill a bunch of them and the project was abandoned, prematurely. Now, it is not easy to kill a Yak with Canadian type conditions. Coming as they do from high elevation Asia, conditions on the Canadian plains are pretty close to optimal. I can only speculate that the animals arrived with some disease. Or could there have been some, uhhh... influence exerted by the beef establishment of the time? Oh well, who knows. The yaks were dispersed to zoos and game farms and became the seed stock for the existing North American herd.
Now, on to the details. Who better than the International Yak Association (IYAK) to further illuminate the superior qualities of this "Cow that should have been"?
"The strength and value of the yak comes from its amazing versatility. Try to find an animal that can fill so many roles. Their fiber or wool compares to the finest fibers in the world and is enjoying growing international interest as companies like Khunu and Shokayintroduce the work of the indigenous peoples of the Himalayas to amazing yak fiber products. Even Newsweek is jumping on the yak wagon! Yak leather is THE Premium Leather for Ecco's top lines not because it is different but because it allows them to produce a superior shoe. According to Ecco's testing, yak leather is up to three times stronger than traditional leathers allowing them to produce lighter and longer wearing shoes. The health benefits of yak cheese are becoming famous world wide. Yak meat is becoming a favorite restauranteurs, chefs, health conscious foodies, and folks looking for a delicious alternative to everyday beef. As a companion animal, you will not find a more intelligent and hard working partner.
"Yak down is the softest yak fiber and is the undercoat the animals grow for insulation in the colder months. It is shed in the spring and is wonderful stuff for woven and knitted garments. The down is a short fiber--about 1-1/2" long with some crimp, and it may be challenging to spin unless it has been carded into a roving. As you can see below, the fineness of the yak down fiber could be equated to merino wool or cashmere, and close to qiviut (musk ox down). Yak down does not have the lanolin that makes sheep wool greasy, so you don't lose much in weight when it is washed. The other fibers are medium length (about 2-3 inches) guard hair that is usually mixed in with the down when it is combed out, and then the long, really coarse guard hair that creates the yak’s “skirt”. A rug woven from this guard hair would wear extremely well.
"The amount of down fiber on the yak’s back may vary between animals, but it has been shown that the cooler the climate and longer the colder weather lasts, the more dense a coat of down fiber the animal grows. The density of the down coat is greater in calves than adults because their bodies have not built up the fat and hide thickness to protect them from a harsh, cold environment. The denseness of the down coat usually decreases with age as the animal builds up more subcutaneous fat and its hide becomes thicker.
"Yak meat's sweet, juicy, delicious flavor is never gamey and is not dry unless overcooked. Although very lean, the juiciness and flavor of yak meat comes from its unique mixture of fats that are low in saturated fats, cholesterol and triglycerides. Yak is a red meat that offers heart patients a new opportunity for fine dining and offers athletes a diet exceptionally rich in body building proteins, minerals, vitamins and the right fats for building muscle mass and good health. This healthy and delicious meat product is a driving force behind the yak’s value and success as a profitable livestock enterprise. "Yak Milk, contrary to legend, is not pink but yak butter's legendary status is well deserved. Yak butter tea is the comfort food of the Himalayas. Yak milk is rich in butterfat at around 6% to 11% and this makes it perfect for yogurt, butter, and cheese. No animal has such a history of carrying heavy loads in extreme terrain. Their sure-footedness makes them the only choice for the world's most famous mountain climbers and folks just looking for a some time away."
Baby Rose, a calf from this year. We would add a few anecdotes here. People interested in sheep but worried about the predator problem (amongst other problems with keeping sheep,) might consider the yak instead: woe to any coyote who would make lunch of a sheep who tries to do the same to a yak - they have little tolerance for such nonsense and he'll just as likely end up skewered! Coming from dry areas, yaks utilize moisture better than cows. Their droppings are not a perpetual filthy mess like a cow's, but rather more like an elk's. Also, they don't swarm around waterholes, streams, or rivers all summer as cows do, destroying the ground, the riparian habitat, and fouling the water. They eat about 1/2 as much as a cow pound-for-pound, allowing higher stocking rates, if that's your goal. They also eat a broader range of vegetation. On our old place they virtually eliminated kochia, a noxious weed nothing else would touch, and put a dent in the snowberry invading the native grasses. They are calmer than cows, easier to handle, and as our friend Ken at Rafter K 2 Farms, a man who has raised both cattle and yaks reports, this is likely due to the fact that there is no comparison in intelligence between a yak and a cow, nor in health issues. They tend to birth easily, naturally, without assistance. We appreciate also that yaks are not prone to rending the otherwise peaceful country air with penetrating, moronic noises ala the cow. A relatively soft and infrequently uttered grunt is their only call. Finally, yaks are picturesque. They seem to fit the wild landscape, to look appropriate there, where cows always seem to detract from any scene beyond the dairy fold. They are much like bison this way. In fact, we have often reflected that a yak can be viewed as a small bison that will make friends with you rather than try to kill you.
We are very happy to have a growing herd of yaks again on our place. Aside from their many uses, they lend us a sense of well-being by their very presence. And hey, maybe things are coming full circle: yaks now have at least token backing from the new generation of British aristocracy. When the young Royals were here recently, guess what they dined on?
Yaks, beautiful and ancient cattle, very much enjoy and vie for attention. Photo: Laura Fetherstonhaugh
Gerald Celente, founder of The Trends Research Institute in 1980, is a political atheist. Unencumbered by political dogma, rigid ideology or conventional wisdom, Celente, whose motto is "think for yourself," observes and analyzes the current events forming future trends for what they are – not for the way he wants them to be. Celente has earned his reputation as "The most trusted name in trends" by accurately forecasting hundreds of social, business, consumer, environmental, economic, political, entertainment, and technology trends.
I recently had the opportunity to however briefly rub electrons over the radio with this man, Celente, one of the folks I have been keeping my eye on for some time, in attempts to make sense of the general unraveling of things. Donna McElligot of the CBC has been growing some big stones, as evidenced by inviting this man on her call-in show, "Alberta at Noon." For Celente tells it as it is. Far be it from him to deliver the normal mandated mainstream pablum most of us are fed by an establishment that would have us all their infant call-children. I was hoping some spare grey stuff might come spilling down the line from his brain-box and anoint me. He did not disappoint. He had plenty of spare wisdom for us all.
Celente is, as we just mentioned, a "political athiest," like myself. Someone who sees Big Politics as a spectacle increasingly removed from the real world, a self-serving sideshow much like the practice of law has become, law having not coincidentally spawned the overwhelming majority of our leaders. Like the legal process, an impediment more often these days than not, or at best, just another business like any other - a casino, say, or an escort service. At worst, an infestation. I'm sure our First Nations, a people who'd been doing quite nicely managing their own affairs sustainably for millenia, viewed it that way once upon a not-so-distant time, if not still. A political atheist is someone who may remind you, "Don't cast your ballot on a dung-heap and expect not to be delivered a shit-beetle." A political atheist is someone who refuses to lend legitimacy to illegitimate people and their illegitimate processes, created by themselves for themselves, through willful participation in that process. A political atheist is someone who recognizes that much as we'd like to be able to make the monsters go away through the simple act of dropping an "X" into a box, free then to slip back into peaceful slumber, it doesn't work that way. Not for long, anyway. Clearly not now. But as this is the case, how then will it work, "going forward" as we so like to say these days? It's an understatement to point out that we need to know this.
I was driving into town to get a thousand pounds of oats when Celente was announced as guest of the call-in show. Appalled at the idea that we might blow this rare chance to cut through the dryer-lint of usual mainstream discourse, that the discussion would be steered towards such trivial matters as the "unfair portrayal of the Tarsands," or worse, "what do you think of the fact that we are golfing in Alberta in February," I got right in there to see if I could not help massage things towards the much-needed wake-up call I knew this man, given this opportunity, could deliver. I needn't have bothered. He needed no help from me.
Celente's message for us was both ominous and inspiring. Here are the highlights:
- If there is war in Iran, it will be the beginning of WWIII. This will be bad for civilization. It will be great for the energy sector. It looks right now as though this is where things are headed;
- Forget Politics, the current system is leading us somewhere we do not want to go - the future is in the hands of the individual, making decisions and taking action locally;
- The human spirit is the root of greatness - we can achieve another Renaissance if we lift our spirits out of the mercenary gutters they rot in at present;
- If we keep on the current path, however, with the economic bottom line our God, ruin is where we are headed;
- The future of the family farm is one of the bright trends of the day, but we've got to abolish the draconian laws we've put in place as impediments restricting free farm commerce (farm-gate sales)...
- Make sure you have an escape plan - you don't want to be caughtin an urban centre in a time of real crisis...
Celente pointed out that those who didn't see our current crises coming were looking to the wrong people, to the specialists lacking in necessary scope. I would concur. It seems to me a given that we not listen to any economist lacking a broader education in the workings of natural systems or the history of human civilizations, for example - they are not equipped for their job. If you've been doing your digging outside the mandated media placed within our most convenient grasp, it's pretty clear where we're headed, and has been for generations. This was one of the primary motives behind our founding Thompson Small Farm, and now The New Farmer School. For as Celente, a martial black belt trainer, points out:
"The first rule of Close Combat is to attack the attacker. Action is faster than reaction. The same holds true for the future. You know the future is coming … attack it before it attacks you."
Dusk or Dawn? It's your call, and mine. How will it be made to work, now? It will work like this: buy local, augment your skill-set, embrace your neighbor, nurture your own community, make your own decisions, know your farmer.