Harvesting Potatoes

With most crops, there are no real surprises at harvest. As the crop matures it’s easy to tell what kind of returns you’ll get at harvest time.

But not so with root crops. The crop is hidden underground. Sure, it’s possible to dig up a few and have a peek. But until you start digging them all up, you really can’t be sure whether the year has been good, fair or bad.

Yesterday I harvested potatoes and I’m sorry to say that the harvest was disappointing. Not a total failure. There will plenty of potatoes for us this winter. But not the kind of return I’d expected.

Yukon Golds

Yukon Golds

French fingerlings

French fingerlings

Once again I’m reminded of how important diversification is on a farm like ours. Every year we know there are going to be disappointments, but we have no way of knowing what they’re going to be. Likewise, every year something is going to surprise us with returns beyond our expectations. But we don’t know which plants are going to do that either.

So we grow over 100 things and most will be winners. We don’t put all our proverbial eggs in one basket.

If we were potato farmers, we might be worrying about how we’ll pay our bills. But we’re not. And with bumper crops of cantaloupes, watermelons and eggplant, we’ll have plenty of food for our customers today, even if we won’t have many potatoes.

In 1845 Irish farmers began digging up their potato crops and we horrified to discover that a blight had ruined most of them. Close to half of the Irish population had become dependent upon potatoes as almost their sole source of food. And they only grew one variety. So when that crop failed, people starved. Eventually over a million people starved to death in Ireland and a quarter of the country’s remaining population fled to America.

That story demonstrates tragically the risks of monocultures and dependency upon single varieties of foods. And, amazingly, in our food system today we are increasingly converting to monocultures and growing ever fewer varieties of vegetables. We are putting ourselves at great risk, unnecessarily.

 

We’re thankful to have potatoes this year. But even if our crop had been a total loss, unlike those Irish farmers 170 years ago, we wouldn’t starve. We’d just eat something else instead.

There are important lessons to be learned in both our story, and the story of the Irish Potato Famine.

Journaling

I started keeping a journal when we were on vacation many years ago, as a way to remember what we did, where we ate, etc. The second time I did that, I continued to make entries after the vacation was over and that evolved into a fairly consistent practice of journaling.

I was inspired by Cherie, who has always kept a journal. I’ve never been as diligent about it as she is, but it did eventually become part of my regular routine.

Many of my journal entries were written while I was waiting for a flight or riding on an airplane. In other words, when I had down time that I could use to capture thoughts.

It’s interesting to go back now and read some of those long-ago entries. The way I lived then was in many ways the polar opposite of the way I live now. Many of the things that worried me greatly then are things I can’t even recall the details of today. Those old journals are good reminders of why we quit living that way.

Nowadays I don’t keep a journal any more. I have one that I write in once in a while, but it’s a document on the computer rather than a book, and when I make an entry I usually just dash off something about the events of the day. No more long reflective musings while in some miserable airport.

There is value to journaling, I think. That’s because there is value in serious reflection. Of course one can seriously reflect, without writing down one’s thoughts. But I found the discipline of hand writing it out helped me sort through whatever was on my mind. And reading the entries years later helps me remember things I would otherwise have forgotten.

Just thinking this morning about whether I should return to a regular practice of journaling.

Any thoughts from current or former journalers will be appreciated.

Lesson Learned

Yesterday we did something very unusual for us–we took part of the day off.

But we didn’t go to the beach or anything like that. Instead we visited a midweek farmers market in a nearby city, investigating whether it might makes sense for us to become a vendor there in the future.

Because we were away from home at lunchtime, we did something else very unusual for us–we ate at a restaurant.

We chose a funky coffeehouse joint where we’d eaten in the past. The last time we were there we both had delicious vegetarian omelettes, and Cherie ordered one again this time. But my eye was caught by another item on the menu–identified as one of their specialties. Fish and chips.

It was a gloriously salty deep-fried lunch. I cleaned my plate and was a happy man.

But only for about an hour. Then my stomach commenced a full-scale riotous protest. I’ll spare y’all the details.

I can’t remember the last time I’d eaten deep-fried food, but it’s been many years. It seems that years of healthy food have left my innards unwilling to accommodate greasy french fries and battered deep-fried fish. Lesson learned.

The other meals I had yesterday were more to my body’s liking. For breakfast–shakshouka and cantaloupe, for supper–a pork chop, an okra/peppers/rice dish and watermelon. Everything but the rice we grew ourselves.

That’s the kind of food my stomach is used to now.

Deerland

I’ve just finished reading Deerland by Al Cambronne, a fascinating and disturbing examination of the effect America’s deer population explosion is having on our ecosystems.  Some of the effects were already known to me–car crashes, the spread of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses and, of course, the destruction of vegetable crops. But I didn’t previously realize that the elimination of forest understory (aka deer food) was causing the loss of songbird populations and preventing natural regeneration of forests. In much of the country now, nature is severely out of balance. Today there are 100 times more deer in America than there were a century ago. Not twice as many, not ten times as many. One hundred times more.

Here’s a taste of the chapter addressing farm losses (appropriately titled “We Get the Leftovers”):

Tonight and every night, hungry deer are trickling out into farm fields all across America. Collectively this nightly buffet costs farmers billions of dollars every year. For some individual farmers, it can be a serious threat to their livelihood.

In one New Jersey study, researchers used exclosures, comparative yield measurements and other techniques to measure deer damage on 1,410 acres of agricultural crops spread across 111 different farms. They calculated that the season’s average economic loss directly attributable to deer was $1,253.48 per acre. Similarly, after surveying 583 acres in vegetable production, they calculated deer-related losses at $2,443 per acre.

Another New Jersey study found that 25 percent of responding farmers had abandoned a parcel of tillable ground because of excessive deer damage, and that 36 percent had for the same reason ceased growing their preferred crop.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog very long knows that deer damage severely impacts the economic viability of our farm.

I’ve often laid the blame for this mess on our cultural abandonment of hunting game in favor of eating the meat of factory-raised farm animals. But in fact it’s more complicated than that. By the middle of the 20th Century there were few deer in America. Then an aggressive campaign to restock deer populations (for the benefit of hunters, primarily) occurred. Virginia was “stocked” with deer from 11 states and nature took it from there. This ecological imbalance is a man-made problem that began with creating a population of deer for hunters to shoot, then allowing the population to explode beyond the capacity of hunters to control it. Exacerbating the problem has been the rise of what Mr. Cambronne calls “the industrial deer complex,” a multi-billion dollar web of businesses serving deer hunters, who are effectively organized politically to lobby for and obtain laws and regulations designed not to protect the common good, but rather to increase hunters’ chances of seeing a deer to shoot when they go hunting. Interestingly, they are strange bedfellows with those who feed deer in their backyards and who oppose killing deer for any reason. On the subject of deer, being sensible isn’t very popular.

There’s a lot more I’d like to say about this book and the problem it addresses, but I reckon that’s enough for today.

When I came in from evening chores last night, at dusk, there were 3 deer standing in one of our gardens eating our buckwheat cover crop, less than 50 yards from our backdoor. It’s the same story all over this farm, every single day.

An Old Dog Learns a New Trick

I learned a new homesteading skill yesterday, one I hope I don’t have to use often.

Earlier this year, when our sweet corn was being eaten by raccoons, I set a Hav-a-Hart live trap in the garden in the hopes of catching one. I never did, but fortunately we were able to harvest most of the corn before the coons ate it all.

I left the trap set, even though I didn’t expect to catch the corn thief at this point.

Yesterday morning when I went out to pick the okra, I noticed (luckily before receiving an unwelcome surprise) that the trap was sprung. Pacing around inside it was a skunk.

Several years ago this happened to me when I was trying to catch a groundhog. Not knowing what else to do, I shot the skunk (from a safe distance). The poor critter sprayed when it was shot, so I ended up both skunking up the area and killing an innocent skunk. I didn’t want to do that again, especially in an active garden.

That’s where YouTube comes in. I searched it and sure enough there were several videos demonstrating how to remove a skunk from a live trap. Once again I’m thankful for the people who make the effort and take the time to share things like this on YouTube.

Once I’d seen it done on a couple of videos I was ready to give it a try. Should any reader of this post ever need to remove a skunk from a live trap, here’s how you do it.

Skunks aren’t the smartest animal in the woods, they’re nocturnal, they only spray when threatened and they won’t spray at something they can’t see. So first take a sheet, a blanket or something similar (I used a large beach towel) and hold it up so that it covers you (especially your feet) as you SLOWLY approach the trap from the door side.

Cherie took the pictures, but her job was to warn me if the skunk turned toward me and lifted its tail.

Cherie took the pictures, but her job was to warn me if the skunk turned toward me and lifted its tail.

Then slowly and gently drape the sheet/blanket/towel over the cage, being careful to cover it entirely. You don’t want the skunk to be able to peek out and see something to shoot at.

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Then walk around to the back of the cage, lean over it, pull back the covering and slowly and gently open the door to the trap. I used a long screwdriver to prop the door open so the skunk wouldn’t spring the trap again as it was leaving the cage. This all sounds much easier than it is in real life. Being inches away from a skunk for all that time is a bit disconcerting.

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Finally, once the door is open, slowly back away, lifting off the covering as you do.

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Heading home, after a stressful day away.

Heading home, after a stressful day away.

So I can add to my arsenal of homesteading skills–knows how to release a skunk from a live trap without getting sprayed.

But I’d rather not have to risk it again. I removed the traps from the garden.

Four Sides Farm Blog

It’s always a joy to discover a new farm blog.

Erich lives in Tennessee and is a long-time follower of Practicing Resurrection. I only recently discovered his excellent blog.

Check it out HERE.