Gardening & Agriculture Archive


A Small Thing But Maybe Not

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

All summer I raved and ranted at the squirrels that were eating the corn in my crib. I was particularly concerned because the drought seemed to be making sure this year’s crop was going to be a bust. I did not look forward to buying corn at drought-inflated prices just to keep squirrels fat eating my reserve supply. Eventually, we practically encased the whole crib in chicken wire. To no avail. Once a squirrel makes up its mind to get into something it will find a way even into a lead vault.

What is most infuriating about squirrels eating corn is how wasteful they are. They do not eat the whole kernel. They do not even eat half of it. They drill into the middle of the white heart of the kernel and with their incisor-like teeth extract a snippet hardly bigger than a flake of dandruff. Sitting on top of the ears of corn, they toss that kernel away like a drunk does an empty beer can, and snatch another off the cob. The wounded kernel then slips and slides down through the piled up ears of stored corn. Sometimes the wanton, fluffy-tailed rats jerk kernels from the cob and then drop them, eating nothing out of them at all. By summer’s end, the top layer of corn in the crib was only half-shelled cobs and the bottom layer mostly half eaten or whole kernels.

I realized on close examination that the half eaten kernels were really not even a third eaten and that there was still plenty of nutritive value left. I fed them to the chickens— at least I didn’t have to shell them off the cobs as I or the hens, usually do. The chickens ate the wounded kernels as well as they ate the whole ones and kept on laying eggs. Talk about a win-win situation. The squirrels got their fill and so did the hens.

There is, of course, another worry involved. Just why do the squirrels eat only the germ at the heart of the kernel and show little interest in the endosperm, bran, or the yellow hull of the kernel? If they are interested only in the germ, which makes up hardly a fourth of the kernel, of what nutritional value is the rest? Are the squirrels telling us something?

Read on over at Gene's blog The Contrary Farmer.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

Fires In the Fields

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

If you want to see the landscape of hell painted prettily on a farmland horizon, watch a field of corn on fire. It is hellish enough, in my view, to see corn fields stretching away in every direction from sea to shining sea with no houses, barns, trees, fences, grazing animals or any other sign of human habitation in sight. But when a curtain of fire is rushing across this land of the free and home of the brave, the effect is quite as terrifying as watching a big slice of the Great Plains suddenly disappear before the onslaught of a dust storm.

Nothing in my experience prepared me for the field of corn on fire that I came upon in my travels. It was just awesome. I pulled off the road and deliberated on whether there was anything I could do. I had fought plenty of grass and wheat stubble fires and knew the best weapon of defense was a wet gunny sack, or rather a whole bunch of people  thrashing out the flames with wet gunny sacks, but this fire was at least 15 feet high and way too hot to get close enough for hand fighting. Fire trucks were arriving from all over however, and farmers with big tractors and disks were rumbling in ahead of the blaze to rip up wide swaths of soil in the standing corn to stop its advance. Fortunately, this was Ohio, where the fields were relatively small and where the wind was not blowing hard enough to whip up a forest-sized blaze. The fire was contained in an hour or so.

In this year of drought, together with fields of hundreds, even thousands, of almost unbroken acres of tinder dry cornstalks, the situation is especially dangerous. The National Weather Service has issued its Red Flag Warning meaning “extreme fire danger” for various parts of the cornbelt, particularly west of the Mississippi. Some eleven major corn fires were recorded in Iowa in 2011, and the Weather Service is worrying that the situation is much graver this year.

Read on over at Gene's blog The Contrary Farmer.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

Weeds That Like A Sip of Roundup Now and Then

Friday, September 14th, 2012

First the glorious days of advanced farming brought us corn stalks that eat tractor tires. Now there’s a weed that likes to drink weed killers, especially Roundup. Recently Palmer amaranth “completely overran” most of the soybean test plots at Bayer CropScience’s test plots in Illinois, in the words of DTN/Progressive Farmer editor, Pam Smith, despite having an arsenal of herbicides thrown at it. She describes some of the plots as “forests of pigweed.” I shouldn’t joke about this because it really is a serious problem, but I just can’t help it. At least 20 years ago, in New Farm magazine, a Rodale publication I was working for at the time, we reported weeds becoming immune to herbicides and the herbicide industry hee-hawed us for being organic nitwits. So pardon me while I hee-haw right back.

Read on, and find out what's so funny about superweeds…

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

The Weather May Not Be the Problem

Friday, September 7th, 2012

There are so many stark contrasts in the world today. These are times out of which great epics of literature ought to be written but aren’t. Society is too engrossed in drivel like whether badminton players in the Olympics were cheating or not. This summer, the driest in 50 years in parts of the Midwest, the Army Corps of Engineers is dredging deeper channels for the barges on the Mississippi River, which is at an all time low level. Just last year, rainfall in the eastern corn belt was at an all-time high and the Corps was desperately trying to control flooding on the Mississippi.

Weather-related contrasts are occurring here in my own Ohio backyard where it barely rained at all from May to August. Close to our farm stand two cornfields just across a narrow road from each other. One has nearly normal corn and the other (in one of the photos) has drought-stricken corn. I know personally both farmers who planted these two fields and both are very competent. The soil in both fields is the same. Fertilizer applied was about the same. Rainfall was the same. This contrast appears all over the county, all over the state, all over the Corn Belt. What is going on here?

Farmers and farm reporters and this blog have talked the question half to death. Our own local chapter of contrary farmers lists these possibilities for the difference in the two fields: time of planting, depth of planting, corn variety, seed bed preparation, plant population, and prayer. Since the two farmers involved both attend church regularly, I think we can rule out that last factor. Seed bed preparation was about the same, too.

I’ve yet to hear anyone claiming to have the definitive answer to the contrast, but here’s what we think happened…

Find out Gene's hypothesis for the rotten growing season at his blog, The Contrary Farmer.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

Tire-Eating Cornstalks

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

I fantasize about genetically-engineering deer that would love the taste of raccoons or that would eat car tires so society would do something about surging wildlife populations. But now a true occurrence is taking place in Foolish Farming Today that not even a genius like Mark Twain could reduce to a more absurd conclusion. Agribusiness has succeeded in developing corn varieties that eat tractor tires. Do not laugh. This is not a joke. Corn stalks are so tough nowadays that tractor tires running over them repeatedly during field operations are wearing out faster than anyone anticipated and costing farmers big money.

The problem stems (I use that verb with malice aforethought) from a culmination of factors that result when greed is the only way left to make a profit in farming. Corn breeders have increased the strength of corn stalks over the years to the point where they have become nearly as tough and splintery as wood. Hybrid stalk strength was the salvation of corn in the early years when old open-pollinated varieties blew over every time the wind shifted. But the cure is bringing on more problems. Abrasion from these tough, strong stalks after harvest wears away the tires of tractors and combines that grind over them repeatedly. Some farmers want to blame GMO corn but of course the seed companies all piously say it is not their super-duper new varieties causing the problem, but someone else’s.

The reason it is hard to fault genetic modification alone is that farmers are planting corn much denser than they used to, upwards of 35,000 plants per acre which was once unheard of (and makes drought worse). That means a heap of plant residue on the soil surface after harvest, whether it’s GMO or non-GMO hybrids. These modern hybrid stalks, like wood chips, are slower to rot away into organic matter. The buildup becomes sort of like sandpaper for the tires to travel on. Where corn is planted continuously on the same ground year after year, the problem is worse of course, but even every other year in a corn/soybean rotation, the residue builds up faster than it can rot away. Also with all that ground cover, the soil is slower to warm up in the spring and the residue is harder to incorporate into the soil for a good seed bed. All sorts of new and expensive machines are coming on the market to chop up the stalks or crush them and integrate the residue better and deeper into the soil.

Read the rest over at The Contrary Farmer.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

Feeding The Buzzards

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Walking over the brow of a hill in my pasture, I came upon the most ghastly, heart-stopping sight I’ve ever seen on the farm, or anywhere else for that matter. Perched on six fence posts in a row were six turkey vultures, alias Cathartis aura, or what we call buzzards. What made the scene so awesome was that when the big birds saw me, they raised their wings above their heads, as if preparing to launch into the air, but then just remained motionless. Each set of those wings spans some six feet from tip to tip, making the birds look bigger than eagles, bigger than condors, bigger to my startled eyes than Boeing 707s. Think of the mythical Thunderbird of American Indian folklore. Now think of six of them in a row at eye level, transfixing you with beady stares from stony eyes set in flaming red heads, surrounded by black feathers of doom. Adding to the ghoulish scene were more buzzards on the ground, tearing into the innards of a dead sheep, dragging its intestines out over the grass, quarreling with each other, all of them intent on gobbling down more sheep innards than the others. I was remembering how my father warned me as a child to stay way from buzzards. “To protect its young, a buzzard will puke on you,” he said. “Smells worse than skunk spray.”  As I backed off, thinking of getting a camera, the raised wings flapped, the feet pushed off, and the icons of doomsday took to the air and silently drifted away.

Buzzards are birds of contrast. Soaring in the air, their earthy clumsy ugliness is transformed into majestic grace. They know how to ride the thermal air currents and glide effortlessly for hours high in the sky. Watching them with binoculars is more exciting than watching skydivers or meteor showers.

There is something more mystifying about buzzards to me than the sight of them. They are almost as ubiquitous as robins, with a range from the southern tip of South America to far up in Canada. Even though they are awesome to behold, humans for the most part give them scant attention. Buzzards are beneficial on the farm, cleaning up dead animals almost before the carcasses can rot and stink up the pasture fields. (On my farm, they get to eat a lot of dead raccoons.) Although quite vulnerable to human depredation, especially when they linger along the highways, cleaning up roadkill, risking becoming roadkill themselves, they are actually growing in number in most areas.

Read on over at Gene's blog The Contrary Farmer.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

Curious Observations About The Drought

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

To keep from becoming too depressed over the drought, I try to find lessons to learn from it, like trying not to be envious when rain falls on nearby farms but not ours. Two occurrences in my pastures suggest a teeny bit of optimism, but they run contrary to the way I usually think about pasture farming. That is to say, both occurrences involve plants whose names up to now have been hard for me to say out loud without prefixing them with cuss words.

I do not much like tall fescue and I don’t think my sheep do either. The day I took the advice of experts and planted the stuff is the day I quit taking advice of experts. Because of a combination of very wet weather in April and other complications, I could not mow the fescue as I usually do until it was so tall and rank that my old rotary mower couldn’t handle it. It went to seed, the worst possible scenario in my estimation. But when there was nothing else to graze but old fescue stems in July, the sheep seemed to do okay. It appeared that they were eating the ripe fescue seed heads. Not quite believing my eyes, I called a friend in West Virginia who knows lots of weird things and who grazes livestock too. He responded with alacrity. “Oh yes, sheep will eat fescue seed like it was grain.” The upshot was that I could put off feeding expensive supplemental hay a little longer.

The books say that mowing fescue is not necessary to encourage a lush second growth for winter grazing (when fescue is more palatable). It will grow back from the roots just fine without mowing.The reason we mow, say some experts, is to make the pastures look nicer. Nor is my fear that fescue will take over a pasture and crowd out better forage necessarily true either, at least not here in northern Ohio where fescue is not native. My front pasture and a brother-in-law’s pasture, both once heavy with fescue, have now gone mostly to bluegrass and white clover with grazing and occasional mowing. It appears that when the fescue (or any other grass) saps the available nitrogen from the soil, clover will gain ascendency to put nitrogen back into the soil.

I can’t completely account for another happy occurrence directly related to the drought. I disked the strips where I grew open-pollinated corn last year and planted red clover in May. Then the dry weather set in and not one of the clover seeds sprouted. But on these bare strips there suddenly appeared in July, in the driest of the dry time, a lush green growth that looked like new wheat in spring. Unfortunately, I couldn’t graze it because it was right next to this year’s corn strips. There were two grasses involved. Quack grass and what we have always called barnyard millet. But the latter may be meadow foxtail. When I get out the books and try to identify plants, I am almost always confused because the descriptions and the pictures never look quite like the actual plants I am examining. These two grasses always come up in our pastures in late summer, but never such a nice stand as this. I just don’t get it.

If the corn doesn’t make ears this year, as seems likely in my case, I can turn the sheep in to eat the corn foliage and the grasses and still not have to feed expensive hay. The drought has ruined lots of corn this year. But the stalks and leaves still make good feed if the nitrogen content is not too high. More traditional livestock-grain farmers can take advantage of this emergency situation. They can chop and feed their crippled corn as silage. Or if they have fences around their fields, they can turn livestock in to do the harvesting themselves and maybe save as much money as the corn would have made in a good year, by not having to harvest, haul, dry, and store the stuff. At least the livestock would survive until the rains return. Rain will come again, won’t it?

Originally published on The Contrary Farmer, where you can comment.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

The Return of the Enclosed Garden

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

The interesting and entertaining reactions to my recent post about destructive wildlife in the garden encouraged me to ponder the situation more closely. Pondering things closely always leads me to weird ideas. I am thinking about the possible return of the walled gardens of Victorian times. How do you know they didn’t become popular in the first place to keep out wild animals including humans? And tame animals too for that matter because, in those days, livestock were allowed to wander about as freely as we allow deer to do today.

As long as most people are not involved in food production or avid gardening, I think it will be a long time before we are going to get the kind of social solidarity needed to enact measures to control runaway wildlife populations. It is easy enough to convince the gentle folk among us to get rid of mice and rats in the house but oh my, not those precious deer and raccoons in the garden. If there were deer that developed a taste for car tires, you can bet that society would rise up in wrath and settle that problem in a hurry.

A watchdog is good protection against raccoons and deer, but not dependable enough. Electric fencing works but is not totally dependable either. In the extremely dry weather we have been experiencing, we learned that raccoons can brush against electric fence and not be grounded enough to get shocked. It seems to me that garden farmers are just going to have to bite the bullet and spend the money on really foolproof enclosures or quit raising food.

I have settled for something a whole lot cheaper than garden walls but also a whole lot uglier…

Read on over at Gene's main blog to find out what his solution to the critter problem involves.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

Gambling With Our Food

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

The drought that is affecting much of the Midwest is scary enough but what makes me even more nervous is the way speculators in the grain futures market are sending grain prices gyrating all over the place as they bet on what will happen next. Betting on the future supply of food is risky business. There’s too much chance for mischievous manipulation. It is risky enough to gamble with banknotes of one kind or another but they aren’t edible no matter how much good steak gravy you sop on them. Food, however, is everyone’s essential necessity and I wonder greatly about the wisdom of gambling with it especially when many of the gamblers can barely tell a stalk of corn from a hoe handle.

Like most everyone else, I’ve had orthodox economics drummed into my head. I know how economists argue that the speculators, by pooling the information upon which they place their bets, arrive at what is called “price discovery” that helps establish some kind of market  equilibrium overall, and helps farmers and processors and society in general adjust to the situation. The gamblers also benefit all of us, I’ve been taught, by “risk shifting” or hedging which provides producers and others with a way to shift the risk involved in ownership of a commodity to others (called, in plain language, “covering your ass”). This kind of speculation seems to work (I wonder) when markets are fairly normal and stable. When times are not normal (are they ever?) the stated beneficial effects of price discovery and hedging are mostly wishful thinking. It reminds me of the bishop who quotes the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” in the face of an advancing army and assumes that by doing so he has reduced the number of people about to be slaughtered. Merely saying that an economic theory (like price discovery) helps the market adjust to changes does not mean that it actually works out in a beneficial way in the real world. The grain futures market is just as easily corrupted by human greed as its first cousin, the derivatives market, and we all know about that.

Right now the highs in corn prices are over $8 a bushel, wheat over $9, soybeans over $17 and all three expected to keep on climbing. These are unprecedented, historic highs, as speculators react (and likely overreact) to coming shortages. The day traders sit at their computers and try to guess when to sell when the price is rising and when to buy when the price if falling. That is as far as their commitment goes. Computers can buy and sell with split second speed and often are programmed to buy and sell on their own when a certain price level is reached. All this means irresponsible volatility it seems to me.

Keep reading over at Gene's blog

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

The Wild Empire Strikes Back

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

I can’t figure out why society is so enamored of movies about invaders from outer space when we have a real life invasion going on from earth’s inner space. Squadrons of deer, raccoons, opossums, skunks, chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels, moles, wild turkeys, crows, robins, wolves, black bears, feral hogs, to mention a few, have unleashed an attack upon homes, gardens and farms unprecedented since the 1800s. It is worse than a century ago because we don’t have nearly as many hunters now as we did then. In the 1940s when I was growing up, there was not a deer in our county. Now they roam at will across the farm fields, towns and highways, laying waste to everything that grows and causing far more deaths on the roads than bombs do in Afghanistan.

If you garden at all, you will get a laugh or at least a sly smile from the cover of the New Yorker for July 2 of this year. It shows a cartoon by Edward Koren, of a man mowing a little plot of lawn surrounded by woodlands and an army of wild animals staring out at him from the underbrush. In your mind, replace the lawnmower guy with a gardener tending vegetables, fruits and flowers. Now you have a picture that would be worth a thousand or million words. That this cartoon should appear on a decidedly urban magazine cover rather than in a farm or garden publication is especially significant because it indicates that urban America is getting the message: the wild kingdom is out to get us.

Read more at Gene's blog, and find out about the war criminal in his hen house!

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions