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.

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.

The wisdom of organic farming pioneers

This weekend’s TN Organic Growers Association conference provided a wonderful opportunity to meet one of Tennessee’s organic pioneers. Alfred Farris and his wife Carney moved to their 487 acre farm in Orlinda, TN 39 years ago expecting a hard life following their values. At 82, Alfred attributes their health and well-being to a decision to live harmoniously with the planet.

On Friday, Alfred told us that his mission in life is to be a steward of the soil, caring for and protecting this chance at life we have. He anchors his farm practices to his faith citing the Genesis creation story.

“It’s right there in the Bible,” Alfred says with an assured conviction. “The Hebrew translations for Adam, or ‘Adamah,’ is ‘soil,’ and Eve is ‘life.’”

Alfred and Carney have placed their entire certified organic farm in a trust hoping to ensure the property will be an organic farm forever. Learn more about Windy Acres Farm.

Growing organic hops for craft brewers in Tennessee

I spent part of the morning in the woods cutting three 20 feet cedar posts for our first bed of organic hops. The “bines” will grow that tall every year starting around the second or third year.

Realizing we will be harvesting by hand, I came up with a design I’m testing on this 40 feet bed of 15 plants that lowers the mature hops rather than climbing ladders. I’ll share the design once I can see it will actually work.

After speaking with a few local craft brewers, I’m slowly narrowing my choices of organic varieties. I’m not sure what to expect this year, but I’m hoping for at least 5-10 pounds. If everything looks good after the first year, the hop yard should have roughly 250 plants in 2014.

In 1860, Tennessee reported producing 1,541 pounds of hops. – Agriculture of the United States by Joseph C. G. Kennedy

That’s a lot of beer, for sure, so the idea of hosting a volunteer hop harvest down the road sounds real appealing, and from what I’ve read that’s the way it used to be.

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.