Cow Pie Kid


The Most Valuable of All Arts

Robert PekelLast weekend I had the good fortune to participate in the Midwest Winter Production Conference in Joplin, MO. The conference brings together small family farmers to share their experiences producing year round vegetables by employing high tunnels, hoop houses and row covers. This was really big for me. Yes, it’s true I don’t get out much, but stick with me folks, this is exciting stuff.

High tunnels, like hoop houses and row covers are, unheated, Quonset-like structures that extend the growing season an extra month in spring and again in the fall. This reduces growing downtime to only December and January.  That’s not all; high tunnel farming allows cole crops to be readily available through the down months of December and January. The trick is to have the cole crop up to 75% maturity before heat and light requirements become too low for normal growth. The crops will continue to grow, slowly and only on sunny days, but stay in excellent condition while waiting to be harvested.

 Winter Production Conference

It gets even better; high tunnels reduce the effects of dramatic climate swings we are experiencing today. I’m not done yet, these innovative breed of farmers are bringing life back to a cherished, dying American institution — the family farm. This is accomplished by selling directly to their communities. Goodbye middleman, hello fresh, healthy food for the local community and a living wage for the farmer. Farmers need money too, or they can’t keep farming. No farms, no food. That’s a big deal.

The time spent with an energetic, determined group of farmers was exhilarating. These creative, down to earth pioneers are a shining example of American ingenuity.  Unfortunately, farmers consist of less than two percent of the population, and winter production farmers are only a small fraction of that two percent. Food insecurity is real. Add exploding population growth and climate change into the mix, and that is putting a lot on the backs of the 2%. Fortunately, anyone who wishes can grow some amount of food. The Victory Gardens of the 21st century? We’ll see.

 High Tunnel Presentation

Abraham Lincoln, in his address to the Wisconsin State Agriculture Society in 1859, prophesized, “Population must increase rapidly — more rapidly than in former times — and ere long the most valuable of all arts, will be the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community whose every member possesses this art, can ever be the victim of oppression of any of its forms. Such community will be alike independent of crowned-kings, money-kings, and land-kings.”  Abe nailed it.

For more fun and information go to: Foundation Farm

Poison

Robert PekelThe idea was a good one; in fact extremely good. I was enthusiastic about the project, perhaps a little too much. A bit of caution would have been wise. I knew better, but in my excitement I forgot.

Our property line runs about 300 feet along the driveway and goes on for about another 300 feet. There is a thin strip of pine, redbud and walnut trees with scattered patches of grass in the six to eight foot buffer between the drive and the borderline. Property lines had been recently surveyed due to encroaching subdivisions. To our delight we learned that we owned another eight feet north of the old, existing fence that we had believed was the property line. This is where it happened.

Fenceline

The day was pleasant, 60 degrees, and sunny. The outside air was fresh and invigorating as I unloaded the 100 foot roll of 4-foot-high mesh wire and t-posts from the back of the pick up. Mesh fence is necessary to keep the dogs in. I had decided earlier to wait until winter to reset the fence because the leaves would have fallen and the grass died back. This, I surmised, would make the job easier, which it did, but one important fact slipped my mind.

Our eight feet of bonus land added up to almost an eighth of an acre. Super. It is mostly wild trees, shrubs, and unknown plants that took over since the cows had been replaced by developers with visions of wealth dancing in their heads. Any way I studied it, the job was going to be challenging and physical, but looked like fun. I tore into it with abandon. That was my second mistake.

First, I set two posts marking the borderline. Then I secured a tight string between both stakes to use as a guide to keep the fence straight. This required cutting brush, branches and a few small trees to develop a straight path in which I could set the fence. So far all looked good. I installed a t-post every ten feet, then strung the fence, drew it as tight as I could and wire tied it to the t-posts. At this point things everything looked good.

Fenceline

It was time to rip out the old fence, which I did after cutting, tearing, and ripping out the various familiar and unfamiliar vines that were entangled in the woven wire fence. It was a give and take battle. At moments I could sense victory close at hand, then in an instant the tide would turn. Roots tightly gripped the two bottom strands of wire where the 50-year old fence was buried several inches under ground. With persistence and dogged determination I won out, or so I thought.

When I had completed the first 30 feet I stopped to admire my work. The buffer zone doubled in size, was cleaned out of unsightly growth and ready to establish native plant varieties. I was feeling pretty pleased and decided that was enough for one day. I couldn’t wait to show it off to my wife. The first thing she asked was, did you wear long sleeves, long pants and gloves? The minute she asked I realized my mistake. With the leaves off the trees and brush, the tell tale signs of danger were gone. I had unwittingly wrestled, rolled, and immersed myself in poison ivy. Huge mistake, and I am paying for it. I did set a new personal record for my fifth poison ivy experience in one year.

The Big Day

Robert PekelMy wife and I got started watching birds last winter when we connected with the Backyard Bird Count sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. This turned out to be a lot of fun. Basically, we counted the number and variety of birds we could verify and recorded our results online at BirdCount.org. Information on the Backyard Bird Count is available at this website. Anyway, this was the “big day” for us. There is also a “Big Year” among bird enthusiasts to see, or hear as many species of birds as possible in a one-year period from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. We’re not quite up to that, but we do enjoy watching the variety of birds that appear at our feeder. The bright red cardinals that stand out against the white snow are my favorite. Birds bring our backyard to life in the dead of winter. This encouraged us to add more bird feeders, which led us to build a bird condo on a peach tree that had died last spring. Our bird welcome wagon now totals five seed feeders, two suet feeders, three birdbaths and five birdhouses. Wildlife is not so different from human life. We both require food, shelter and water to sustain life

Bird Condo

Feeder

We also discovered that native plants attract birds by supporting insect life with food and shelter. Insects, being the first link in the food chain, attract birds, frogs, and toads and so on up the chain. It turns out that conventional landscapes often consist of foreign plants, such as Bermuda grass, Bradford Pear trees and Privet hedges. Unlike native plants, foreign plants do not provide the food our local insects can use. Not only do they not support insects, but also foreign plants often require chemicals that are toxic to insects. The end result is a sterile and lifeless outdoor living area.

Native plants solve the problem of spraying toxic chemicals. The natural resistance of native plants eliminates the need for chemicals. This is possible because native plants have adapted to local climate and soil conditions. The insect population, pollinators, birds and humans thrive when an environment is free of toxicity.

Anyway, we learned native plants are the foundation of a healthy, sustainable landscape that supports life. Feeders, houses, and water features compliment the native plants and offer a steady, consistent supply of food and water during the dry times of the year. Our outdoor living area now flows within the “Circle of Life.” The connection with Mother Earth is priceless.

 Water feature

The Pond

Robert PekelI peered into the scary jungle of overgrown plants, spiders, unidentified insects, and snakes. What else, I wondered, lurked in the depths of my pond gone wild? Never-the-less, it was time to venture in, conquer and pacify, but where to start?

The thought about jumping into three to four feet of murky water full of mysterious elements did not look inviting. Eventually, I figured out to hook a hose to the water fall pump and direct the water to the garden. That would kill two birds with one stone. I could pump water loaded with fish poop and other decomposed goodies that would fertilize my garden while lowering the water level in the pond.

I had built the 7,000 gallon pond ten years ago to raise catfish as a protein source. It is 20 to 22 feet around, and 3 to 4 feet deep depending on where you stand. I added plants to help filter and shade the water: cattails, lily pads, and royal blue pickerel. Somehow the lily pads disappeared, the cattails remained in their designated area, but the pickerel took over. It manifested into huge bogs of interwoven roots that housed snakes and who knows what else. It was sort of pretty and I thought the wild element was cool. My wife hated it. Fortunately, we operate according to democratic rule at our house; unfortunately my vote doesn’t count, so the wild element was out.

Royal Blue Pickeral

Anyway, I pumped out a couple feet of water. What remained was about a foot of muck from decayed plants, fish poop, and Lord only knows that had built up over the last ten years. It had the distinct smell of a something good for the garden — it stunk. I found this to be an exciting discovery because one of this year's gardening goals was to generate all soil enhancements from elements on the homestead. Muck is what great civilizations were built on. This black gold was the foundation of agriculture for the Mississippian Culture. The yearly flooding of the Nile made way for the Egyptian empire. My imagination was flying. I was going to knock it out of the park. My wife said, “Just get it out of here.”

Anyway, my problem was how do I get a foot of muck out from the bottom of the pond? It turned out that one bucket at a time, several hours a day for a week was the answer.

I did find some interesting creatures. The biggest bull frog I ever did see, a small snapping turtle buried in the mud, and about 30 bluegill fingerlings that I didn’t know were in there, which I transplanted to another pond. The pond also taught me several lessons. One, a fish pond is a great source of nutrient rich water for the garden. Two, don’t wait ten years to clean it. Draining the pond annually will mean much less work and sore muscles. Three, I like playing in the muck.

The Perfect Day

Robert PekelMy lovely wife and I kicked off the day at the 4-H chicken auction held at the Benton County fairgrounds. This is an annual event and a fun time we look forward to each year. The 4-H youngsters start with 50 chicks that are a day old in April. When the auction is held in August, the pullets are just beginning to lay eggs. Each youngster brings in his or her three best chickens to be judged by a volunteer from the University of Arkansas Poultry Science Department. This year, the judge was Dr. Susan Watkins. First-, second- and third-place winners are selected, and every child is awarded a ribbon: blue, red or white. KURM, the local radio station, broadcasts this casual event.

 The premium bidders go first. Premium bidders represent local business that offer hundreds of dollars for a chicken that they don’t take home. These good people’s interest is supporting and encouraging the young upcoming farmers.

It’s cute to see each child cling expertly to their chicken as they show them off to the crowd while auctioneer “Jimmy” invites bidders with his “bid calling” chant. The youngsters are not only cute, they are all very polite and healthy from farm life. Premium bidding started between $80 and $100. One chicken brought in $320.

at the fair 

Once the premium bidding is over, the chickens are auctioned off to the buyers who want to take them home. The bid price is for one chicken that represents the three the youngsters entered into the contest, so it is good to remember whatever the bid it will be triple. In the past, I have averaged paying $10 a chicken, not so this year. Chickens were bringing over $20. These are great layers with at least two years of solid laying ahead of them. At today’s egg prices they would pay for themselves in two months, but it was still a little rich for my blood.

Fortunately, some of the youngsters had 47 other chickens they wanted to sell, so I ended up going home with six chickens at $10 apiece.

chickens

I set the birds up in the meat chicken pen away from my other laying hens. It was recommended to keep them apart for a few weeks so they don’t get the “sniffles.” That was the first auction I ever heard that recommended, and I had never done it before, but decided to take their advice. Soon the new layers settled in, started scratching, and eating anything green that had grown up in the coop over the summer. I was rewarded with four eggs the first day.

firewood

We capped off the day splitting and stacking firewood with the help of my son, daughter, son-in-law and nephew. We had a lot of fun working together to complete the task. It takes a village. After a few cold beers, we dined on ribs that had been smoking all afternoon and baked beans made with my Aunt Margi’s famous homemade recipe. The perfect day.

Try this recipe. You won’t regret it.

Aunt Margi’s Baked Beans

  • 2 cups beans, navy, lima or northern
  • 1 onion
  • Six slices of bacon
  • 1 can tomato soup
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar

Soak beans overnight in water. Add onion and bacon. Simmer until beans are soft. Add soup and brown sugar. Move to casserole dish and bake in oven for 1 hour at 350 F. I’ve also used a slow cooker instead of oven with delicious results.

Fall Gardening

Robert PekelAugust is hot in Arkansas, almighty hot. It takes only minutes for the salt from sweat to sting my eyes. It’s dry, so dry the grass crunches beneath my feet when I walk out to investigate the garden. The peppers, winter squash and melons are looking good. Tomatoes and cucumbers are hanging in there, sort of, but the rest is history for this year. It’s been a good year for some things, and not so good for others. That’s normal. Gardening, like farming is a gamble. Diversity does help ensure that some crops are successful each year. I have also found it helps to plant vegetables that grow best in my climate, and using the best suited cultivars of those vegetables. For example, If I want to harvest cabbage in Arkansas I need a cultivar that matures in 45 days, before the heat sets in.

The weather is always a factor. According to the weather report, rain is on the way with September just around the corner. In the Ozarks that’s time to prepare the beds for a fall garden. A fall garden is one of the advantages of living in the south. Cooler, fall weather plus rain often produces the best root crops, greens, broccoli and cabbage. A successful plan for fall relies on timing. Knowing the last, average, frost-free date is important. Then, whatever the crop, check the days to maturity on the seed pack, and count back. For example, if planting radishes that mature in 25 days, and the last frost-free day is October 15, count back 25 days to September 20. That will be the day to plant radish seed. Like a summer garden, it’s still a gamble. An early frost disrupts the best laid plans.

Garden bed planted for fall. 

My fall garden requires only a fraction of space that the summer garden takes, so half of the beds rest until spring, but be it fall, winter, spring, or summer never leave the ground exposed to the elements. Protect the soil with cover crops or a mulch. Both will safeguard the living organisms in the earth, build organic matter, and create healthy, nutrient-rich soil. Oats make a good cover crop. Where I live, oats are planted in the first two weeks of September. For mulch I like oat straw piled at least 6 inches deep. Both oat seed and oat straw can be purchased inexpensively at a feed store. They are well worth the time and money.

One new idea I experimented with this year was mixing flowers among the vegetables to attract pollinators and beneficial insects. The flowers add visual appeal all summer, and keep the garden attractive after vegetables have reached their peak. Also, I did not experience an insect problem.

A bounty of melons and squash in a garden bed with flowers mixed in. 

After more than 30 years of gardening experience, horticulture classes, and trying to do all the right things, I have come to the conclusion that crop diversity, the correct cultivars, mulching and cover crops are the best foundation for a successful harvest. These actions I can control, but the weather still remains an uncontrollable factor.

Riding The River

Robert PekelI didn’t want to leave the farm, but I was given an offer I couldn’t refuse. I was asked to help crew a 15-day journey down the Colorado River. This would be a 278-mile gauntlet through the Grand Canyon. There would be no communication with the outside world. Everything we needed to survive had to be packed in. We would be totally on our own. I love that kind of stuff. I was going.

 We put in at Lee’s Ferry, after a short tribute to the late Martin Litton. Martin is credited with preserving Marble Canyon from being dammed, a dam that would have destroyed a large portion of the Grand Canyon. Martin also operated a guide service on the Colorado River that employed dories to transport customers. A dory is a flat bottom, wood boat with upturned ends that provides a unique and exciting river adventure.

 Dory

Our crew consisted of four guides. Andre was our lead guide along with Mokie, Rio and Duffy. They were responsible for the safe passage of 15 customers. Each guide rowed a dory that held four passengers. Three baggage boats (10-foot rubber rafts) carried all our food, equipment and clothing. The baggage rowers were Hayden, Mariah and Ben. Two swampers, Tony and I, completed the crew. Swampers ride on the baggage boats and work where needed. On this particular voyage, a fourth raft was along to carry Peter, who was photographing the tribute to Martin. Blake and JP assisted him.

Baggage Boats

Andre had more than 150 river trips under his belt. His experience navigated us safely through dangerous waters such as Hermit Rapid, Crystal Falls and Horn Creek Rapid. The Colorado has claimed the life of more than one person. Bert Loper perished in 1949; the weathered hulk of his boat still remains. Frank Brown was another victim. Bessie and Glen Hyde, the young “Bride and Groom,” were believed drowned in 1928. Their bodies were never found, only their boat.

Rowing 278 miles is not easy. Setting up a new camp each night, then breaking it down every morning is no small chore. Accomplishing this in 112-degree heat is physically and mentally challenging.

Daily chores were made easier once everyone learned the routine and worked together. Fire lines were established to efficiently move our food and gear from the boats to the campsite. “Let’s go, villagers,” Mariah would say, for many hands made light work.

Ancient Anasazi Granaries

We explored ancient Anasazi granaries, observed petroglyphs, and were educated about the geology of the Grand Canyon. The cathedral walls ranged from pale orange sandstone to shining granite in a rainbow of colors. At Salt Creek Rapids, the canyon walls were lined with salt that early Indians had mined. Jimson weed, barrel cactus, and Century plants added a lime green tinge. Huge lava deposits from long-ago volcanoes created the notorious Lava Falls. Big Horn sheep, and mule deer were occasionally spotted. Collared lizards, chuckwalla, and gecko were everywhere.

Stars lit up the night, for there is no artificial lighting in the Grand Canyon to distract from the evening sky. It was the first time in decades I saw the Milky Way. The Big Dipper moving from east to west was exciting to watch and helped us track the time at night.

The Grand Canyon is an adventurer’s paradise, but it takes the work of many dedicated individuals and the Park Service to keep the Canyon pristine, natural and out of the hands of greedy developers. The Colorado River, as commanding as it is, no longer reaches the Sea of Cortez. Industrial farming and wasteful habits extract so much water from this beautiful river that it completely dries up 90 miles before reaching the sea. This should be a wake-up call. Running out of fresh water is a startling reality that we must face today.

I couldn’t help but view the Grand Canyon as a source of strength. The wilderness experience seemed to regenerate and recharge the mind, body and spirit with energy and strength. This life-giving force appears to be a gift of the canyons, mountains, oceans and forests. The unspoiled places of the Earth provide an inner peace and strength that cannot be matched in the artificial world.

Grand Canyon

Growing food, harvesting rainwater, composting, and restoring native plants cultivate the same life-giving force. Be it a small garden, one rain barrel, or beginning to compost, any of these actions can be a connection to the circle of life. One does not have to search the globe for harmony. Good things are waiting to be discovered right at home. Urban farms illustrate this vividly. Homesteading elevate the back yard into the final frontier.

Missouri Primrose, native flower

In the end, the Eagles said it best, “Find a place to make your stand, and take it easy.”







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