Old maps find their way home

Elder Jones went places – Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, California, Massachusetts, Utah, Ohio, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kentucky. He’s an awesome concrete artist and a little bit of an admitted hoarder. He eventually found his way to Readyville, TN where he left a few things from his life travels, including this wonderful box of maps.

I love maps, and I especially love this very personal collection and how practical and necessary a resource it was to someone finding their way in the world. Elder eventually found his way in love and married.

When Nora Robinson bought his place on the Stones River across from the Readyville Mill, she thought enough to keep the maps and a few other things Elder had to leave behind for a new life. She brought the maps over yesterday and warned me that what we were about to do with them was as permanent as concrete.

The bee sanctuary project at Half Hill Farm

The idea of starting a bee sanctuary at Half Hill Farm is taking on a life of its own.

As we weeded the garden before the rain, I caught this alfalfa leafcutter bee (pictured above) weaving in an out of the tomatoes. This and a couple other solitary bees were pollinating the buds of the Giant Beef Steaks and had taken up residence in the bamboo supports. We’ve seen more solitary bees than honey bees this year.

Hosting solitary bees is an obvious first step to bee keeping. They aren’t social (so no swarm), rarely sting, don’t make honey, and are great pollinators. Due to colony collapse disorder of hives, some experts are suggesting people start hosting solitary bees.

Discover the diversity of native bees:

1. Macropis nuda.
2. Agapostemon texanus.  US sweat bee
3. Peponapis pruinosa. Squash & gourd bees
4. Bombus impatiens. The Impatient Bumble Bee
5. Osmia lignaria.  The Blue Orchard Bee
6.  Hylaeus sp.
7.  Habropoda laboriosa. The Southeastern Blueberry Bee
8. Xylocopa varipuncta. The Valley Carpenter Bee
9. Bombus morrisoni.  Morisson’s bumble bee
10.  Perdita minima.
11. Xylocopa virginica. Eastern Carpenter Bee
12. Bombus vosnessenskii.
13. Bombus affinis.
14. Megachile sp. Leafcutter bees
15. Andrena cornelli. Miner bees
16. Anthophora  centriformis. Digger bees, or anthophorids
17.  Nomada sp. The Wandering Cuckoo Bee
18. Augochorella pomoniella. Sweat bees

The idea of creating a bee sanctuary at the farm was inspired by May Berenbaum, Department Chair of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in this NPR story on bee deaths reaching a crisis point. Her suggestion: “Plant more flowers!”

Judging from the number of bumbling mason bees we have, I’d also suggest building more barns. We have to have about 15 of them turning the barn wood to swiss cheese, but they happen to be our #1 pollinator for our cucumbers. As we continue to plan a small sanctuary for both hives and solitary bees, we’re going to test placing a few of these simple mason bee condos to see if it creates a more hospitable alternative.

If you would like to collaborate on the bee sanctuary project, let us know. In the meantime, check out some of these more elaborate solitary bee temples we hope to graduate to very soon!

Wildbienenhotel 110911_0397ErbersbergerForst_.jpg Insect hotel Wildbienenhaus

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Figure out how many gallons of rain fell on your barn

If you’ve ever wondered how many gallons of rain water fell on your roof or your property, here is some rain math I whipped up this morning to figure it out after a weekend of heavy rain:

( ______ square feet  X  144 square inches )  X   _____ inches of rain / 231 cubic inches per gallon  =  _______ gallons of rain!

Knowing how much rain you could collect from a barn or shed roof is important information to know, especially for a farm with irrigation needs. Just like the abundance of free solar energy, rain water is one of those amazing natural resources that literally hits us in the face while we barely even think about it.

Knowing what natural resources are freely available to you is the first step toward harnessing and managing those resources into more sustainable living. This rain math tells me what size cisterns and pumps I would need. It also shows me how much municipal water we can save and understanding our impact on the Stones River watershed.

Using mycorrhizal fungi in organic farming

One of the most important organic cultural practices I use on the farm is inoculating crops with mycorrhizal fungi. The photo above shows an application on one of 100 organic hop rhizomes we just planted. The symbiotic relationship between this fungus and plant roots is essential for healthy soil and plants. It’s also the secret that all of the current world record pumpkin growers don’t want you to know.

There are a couple types of mycorrhizal fungi. Endomycorrhiza work with certain plants by attaching to the root intracellularly while ectomycorrhiza work extracelluarly. Here is a good resource to find out which mycorrhiza you need for various plants and trees.

How it works: The fungi is naturally occurring in healthy soil all over the world. The largest living organism on the planet is a 2,400 year old 2,200 acre mycelial mat discovered in August 2000 in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest. Mycorrhizae are the very life of our planet’s soil creating a network of microbial life that naturally mitigates disease, nutrition and water concerns in the cultivation of crops. Mycorrhizae reduce the use of tilling, irrigation and chemical inputs in aggriculture. It also helps sequester carbon and is a key environmental relationship in our survival on the planet. Many organic farmers who use mycorrhizal fungi never have to water their crops even during drought. You can see several of these side-by-side comparisons pictured here online that illustrate exactly why.

Conventional farming methods using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and tilling are slowly destroying this natural relationship in favor of predictable short-term outcomes from dependence on expensive inputs that often hide destructive and unsustainable results.

Perfect design: Mycorrhizae are basically a mushroom (mycelium) that feeds off the plant’s sugars through its root system. What the fungus does in return for plants is truely amazing: it takes nutrients and water from the soil and feeds the plant by becoming a huge network of extended roots. The fungi is also what breaks down rocks and minerals for plants. It also makes plants more drought resistant as their access to soil moisture is more than ten times that of non-inoculated plants. One application to roots during transplanting or seeding lasts the entire life of the plant, and the results are indisputable.

There is a lot of simple research showing plants do much better using mycorrhizae than using conventional fertilizers. Here is a 6th grader’s science fair project using Fungi Perfecti’s MycoGrow (what we use at Half hill Farm) to show you how simple this is to understand.

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Fire pit reflections on labors of love

We’re supposed to have some awesome weather this weekend here in Middle Tennessee, so I spent some time today building a fire pit where we burned some brush a couple weeks ago.

We’ve got a couple of farm projects this weekend to get us ready for Spring, but sometimes you have to make time to sit and stare at a fire, drink some good beer, and listen to the coyotes howl.

The Winter hours have really kept us busy on the farm. We cleared an acre of fallow pasture, planted apple trees and blueberry bushes, made tons of compost, got seeds ordered and planted, and created garden beds. Thanks to the Rodale Institute and our certifying agent we are now in the inspection phase for USDA Organic Certification.

Our values are our certification at the end of the day, but recognition for going the extra mile doesn’t hurt. Our reward is knowing this labor of love will ensure the food we grow meets the highest quality standards our community deserves.

How to build a firepit using manufactured stone
Here is a very popular tutorial I did for those who do not have access to real stone or want the look of manufactured blocks. Each photo in the series is captioned with instruction. Like us on Facebook to see future projects.

fire pit 1 fire pit 2 fire pit 3 fire pit 4 fire pit 5 fire pit 6 fire pit 7 fire pit 8 fire pit 9 fire pit 10 fire pit 11 fire pit 13 fire pit 14 fire pit 15 fire pit gazebo stereograph

Using stone walls as erosion control

I had no real plans to go all out and build a stone wall on the upper sides of my terraced garden sections, but here I go.

I love old rock walls, but this is one of those projects I get half way into and wonder why I do this to myself. Luckily we have a lot of stone on the property, and it has the same feel as the old rock wall along the East side of the farm.

I only want to give this project a couple days, so I didn’t trench and inset the bottom stones. You can do that and then build straight up the dirt face and cap it with a large flat field stone to lock it into place. If you begin noticing soil building up behind the cap stone over time, you can then add another layer of stone. You can use concrete. I dry stacked these.

This isn’t designed as a retaining wall. This is a low erosion control wall. You will want to use proper anchors and construction design to retain soil or other heavy material.

200 years of cover croping with clover in Tennessee

A lot of the required organic practices aren’t new ways of doing things at all. Planting clover as a cover crop is a practice that goes back to our state’s founding.

Using a cover crop does a few things in organic farming. It protects soil from erosion, helps build organic matter, mineralizes key elements and catches leeched nutrients needed by subsequent crops, and prevents weeds and pests. It’s the only choice farmers had 200 years ago and wisdom we are abandoning at great cost.

The use of clover as a cover crop in Tennessee impressed at least one observer whose notes in the 1836 edition of the Tennessee Farmer show a fading appreciation for perfected systems of nature.

ON THE CULTURE OF CLOVER:
Few things have contributed to the modern improvement of husbandry, then the introduction of clover, in connexion with the rotation crops. The plant serves to ameliorate and fertilize the soil, and at the same time it affords an abundance of wholesome food for every description of farm stock. Whether cut for winter stores, for soiling in the yard, or fed off by stock but few crops surpass it in the quantity of cattle food which it affords.

Cannon County’s use of clover in particular was cited by Tennessee’s Bureau of Agriculture report of 1874 as the best in the state.

Great attention is paid to the sowing of clover and no farmer deserving the name fails to have a considerable part of his farm given to clover every year. The consequence is there are no abandoned old fields to be seen. Scarcely an acre of land has been turned out. Gullies are scarce though the land is rolling. In no county in the State do the farmers pay more attention to the preservation of the soil.

The two strips pictured here are sewn with certified organic red clover. We’ll follow this with an overwintering of cereal rye then Spring plant our crops. We may try crimson clover next year.

Learn more about the use of red clover as a cover crop in Tennessee from the University of Tennessee Extension Office.

Converting a smokehouse to a private bath in Columbia, TN

Noah, Jacklynn and their son Ace live like pioneers on their beautiful and very old 15 acre farm in Columbia, TN. We’re jealous most of the time.

They’re restoring an old 1800s farm house and cabin on the property while staying in a small Airstream. The cramped quarters have basically turned their entire yard into one giant all-season outdoor living space shared with chickens, dogs and a small pony.

Jacklynn keeps a Tumblr that showcases her eye for the charm of rural living while documenting this beautiful experience. It’s called Log Cabin and a Pony.

Despite it being in the 30s and spitting flurries throughout the day Vince and I came to lend a hand, they’ve gotten pretty use to the weather extremes. But when it comes to private time in the bathroom, they’ve got their priorities.

The outdoor solar shower worked amazingly well even in the Fall. Winter is a different story, so Noah is converting an old smokehouse to a bath (pictured behind Vince above). Jacklynn sounds content with it keeping a less than perfect feel, but Noah’s got other plans.

When he noticed the 100+ year old cedar posts holding the structure up were in remarkable condition, Noah straightened the structure, poured cement footings and let his carpentry skills go from there.

With a new 45 degree pitch roof opening the inside ceiling height, cedar shingled sideing, and soon to come paver floor and an old copper tub, it will fast become a sanctuary … if he thinks to make it lock from the inside.

Purple Martins are nature’s bug zappers

purple martin housePart of our organic farm’s integrated pest management plan calls for the use of hosted beneficial birds as natural predators. Earlier this week I asked a couple of friends and folks at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) for some advice and was reminded about the amazing Purple Martin.

Growing up in the South, I remember Purple Martin houses on several farms. I never really thought there was a functional reason for hosting them, and later was convinced all they ate were mosquitoes.

I was wrong. State Zoologist David Withers sent me this great one pager from the Purple Martin Conservation Association that basically tells me the Purple Martin is one of nature’s best bug zappers. Check out TWRA’s wonderful online resource on common birds and how to host them.

Even if you are not an organic farmer, hosting Purple Martins can dramatically help reduce any flying insect pest on your property while reducing the use of chemical sprays and inviting a little of nature’s perfect aesthetic back to your home life.

We got two 16 family houses, both made in America, at our local Tractor Supply Company (photo: Vince snaps a Purple Martin house together). We’re using cut cedar posts from the property and will open the houses March 31 or as close to the time we begin seeing younger Purple Martins.

Here are a few points we’ve learned through some voracious reading over the past couple of snow days:

  • Purple Martins overwinter in Brazil and return year after year to the same nesting location.
  • They live exclusively in human made housing (East of the Rocky Mountains)
  • Houses must be over 10 feet off the ground, a minimum of 30 feet from a human dwelling (120 feet maximum), about 45 feet from any tree or bush and have nothing touching the pole, including support wires. Nothing around the housing can be taller.
  • Entry holes must be a specific dimension or competing birds become a problem (3 inches wide and 1 3/16 tall).
  • Purple Martins prefer white colored housing.
  • To attract a colony you must open the house when last year’s young return – 3 weeks after the first adults arrive. In Tennessee, adults arrive March 1-15. Adults will also colonize, but you must be persistent to scare off competing birds.
  • Purple Martins diet includes “dragonflies, damselflies, flies, midges, mayflies, stinkbugs, leafhoppers, Japanese beetles, June bugs, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, cicadas, bees, wasps, flying ants, and ballooning spiders.”
  • Once hatched, Purple martins develop in about 30 days.
  • You can handle the chicks to manage the nests – parents do not mind human handling or scent.

Preventing herbicidal drift from utility right of ways

zona organicaI didn’t know what to expect working with local utilities to prevent drift from chemical management of right of ways onto our organic farm.

Each of our local utilities who need access to the front of the farm had never dealt with a request like this, but each one totally understood my goals and appreciated my willingness to help them manage right of ways without chemicals.

The key phrase there is “my willingness to help them.” That’s a commitment to some work on my part. Luckily the right of ways are down hill a good distance from the fields we are certifying as organic, but we’ll have to dedicate some weekend farm hours to clearing brush.

Some practical advice I got from Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Cooperative was to make sure bilingual signs were posted. I can send them 50 letters, but a sign is all the contracted crews managing vegetation will see.

We got this embossed aluminum 12×18 “Do Not Spray” sign online. If you are going through the process of becoming a USDA Certified Organic farm, your certifying agent can help you with draft letters to neighbors and local utilities.