Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Pediobius foveolatus

Would you pay $100 for some dried up bean beetle larvae?

We did!  Here we are attaching the bags to the bean plants (and showing off a really bad farmer's tan).

  After two years in a row of losing most of our bean crop to Mexican bean beetles, we decided it was time to take a chance on some organic snake oil.  It arrived today via next day air: Pediobius foveolatus, a tiny wasp that lays its eggs inside the bean beetle larvae. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Bad rain

   We had a terrible, damaging rain this past week: way too much rain, way too hard and fast. Since we moved to this farm we only got this much rain in a short period once before, but the other time was in early winter. Of course, we'd love to tell the story of how resilient our way of farming is and how it stood up to the stress test, but that's not our story, certainly not the story we're feeling. We lost soil. We had done a lot to prepare for a storm like this, carefully studied where the water comes from and where it wants to go, and then dug ditches and left permanent grassy waterways accordingly. More important, we've kept about three-quarters of our farm in permanent pasture, not wanting to expose any areas susceptible to erosion. Our farm isn't really hilly, but it's definitely rolling, so we've only plowed the flatest ground. But we definitely weren't ready. The ditch beside what we call the triangle and long gardens that's dry 358 days per year was roaring with so much water that we were afraid of getting pulled in and drowning as we were working to clear a small redbud tree that the storm had somehow pulled into the ditch and that was impeding the flow of water and threatening to overflow the banks of the ditch into the garden. That wasn't our big problem, but we say that just to give you an idea of how much water we were dealing with. The big problem was on the side of the long garden opposite the ditch. Probably over a hundred acres drain past the far end of the long garden into the main ditch beside the long garden. We had banked the ground up at the end of the long garden to send any surface water directly into the ditch and to prevent it cutting a diagonal through the long garden, but so much water was seeping through the bank and springing up at the far end of the long garden that we had two or three channels flowing down the length of the garden each with what we would guess was a gallon or two of water per second.
   Who would have known and been prepared for that much water to spring up out of the ground at the far end of the long garden? The answer to that question is clearly a family that had lived and intimately farmed on this land longer than we have. We're reminded of the Wendell Berry quote that we shared with you just before this storm hit: “The only sufficient answer to bad agriculture is good agriculture, which is not just an application of science and technology but a locally adapted way of living and working.” We're sorely feeling the need for better adaptation to our place right now, but that kind of knowledge can't be purchased from an agribusiness corporation or brought in by a white-collar expert. Adaptation takes time. We're learning the hard lessons of first generation farmers on this land. What we really need is the wisdom that comes from generations of intimately farming the same land. There's a saying that the best time to plant a fruit tree was 20 years ago, and the second best time is now. Similarly, we believe the best time to start farming our land was at least two or three generations ago, but we only have the second best option.
   But what might we have done differently and how might we have been farming when the heavy rain came if we had had a more mature farm model? “No-till” farming is the easy answer commonly thrown about nowadays (and practiced on most of the farmland around us), but as Berry said in preface to the above quote, “while there are some advantages to no-till farming, it is a way of growing grains that is totally dependent on toxic chemicals. Moreover, nutrient contamination from no-till agriculture remains a significant problem. The hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico is not going to be remedied by no-till farming...Abuse of land and people cannot be corrected by a scattering of technological 'perfect fixes.'” A lot more could be said about no-till farming, but we'll just add a couple more thoughts here. First, besides the total dependency on toxic chemicals (which alone is reason enough to reject it), the chemical herbicides that “no-till” farming depends on (which are just one set of chemicals) are already failing to kill weeds as weeds are developing resistance to the herbicides. Of course, the “solution” the agribusinessmen and universities promise is new chemicals and crops with additional “stacked” genetic modifications to accomadate multi-chemical herbicidal cocktails. As a brief aside, the second point we'd make with regards to the “no-till” idea is that even if we cleared all our woods and grew “no-till” crops on all our rolling ground -- a practice which inevitably leads to erosion as we've seen on our neighbor's “no-till” land -- our 43 acre farm still would barely be 10% the size of the smallest farm providing a living from “no-till” farming in our region. So even if “no-till” were the answer, it would be no answer for us. But that brings us back to the proposed “solution” of a perpetual string of newer and more powerful chemicals to be used on ever larger and “more efficient” farms. What is a “very small” farmer with 400 acres of “no-till” crops going to do when the herbicides he depends on no longer kill the weeds? What if, even apart from all the mysterious risks, he has specific reasons to believe that the next round of chemicals and genetic modifications is terribly unsafe? His options at that point are, of course, to use the chemicals anyways or give up farming and let someone else use the same chemicals in his place. But a huge part of the reason we're farming is to gain some independence from the course of faith in future chemicals. As if we didn't have problems enough from the chemicals we already have in our air, soil, water, and food!
   So where are we left? We're still farming without any easy answers but with hopes of slowly attaining that generational wisdom. This rain certainly taught us some lessons that we hope we can use to prepare for any more rains this bad. Digging ditches, etc. isn't work we relish, and we'll have to sacrifice some of the garden space near the house (where we can easily irrigate, where deer pressure is least, and that for other reasons, too, is generally most valuable), but it clearly needs to be done. None of this year's crops were really damaged, although there's still plenty of clean-up work to do, and the ground is still so saturated that the tomatoes look like their roots are about to drown. The worst trouble to this year's crops may have been from all the rain keeping us out of the fields for several more days when the Irish potatoes and dry beans and field corn and several other crops already badly needed hoeing before. So those are our big thoughts after the hard rain!