Despite Gloom, Things Are Looking Up For Garden Farming


There were several times so far this year when I almost wished I lived in a high rise luxury apartment in New York far removed from the paltry world of cutworms and purslane.  First the crows ate up my whole first planting of open-pollinated field corn and when I replanted, too deep for the crows to peck out, several oceans of water fell on the cornfield and hardly a fourth of the kernels came up.

However, the sweet corn in the garden grew just fine. The raccoons and deer thought so too and somehow outwitted the electric fence. The score of the first planting: coons 65 ears; deer 18, squirrels 11, Carol and Gene, 8. And the eight were still immature because if we had waited one more night, they’d have been gone too. Still we had second, third, fourth and fifth plantings coming on and were getting the electric fence more fine-tuned for the job. So?  A storm flattened planting No. 3. Why it bypassed most of planting No. 2 next to No. 3, I do not know. Meanwhile, the biweekly deluges also kept our onions from growing much beyond the size of ping pong balls and peas produced only about half. To top off all other calamities, the wheat crop in this part of the eastern cornbelt became infected with a  fungal disease with the appetizing name of vomitoxin and lots of it can’t be used for human food and probably not animals either.

To raise food means to understand that Americans constantly totter on the brink of starvation and don’t know it. Society worries instead about where LeBron James is going to  play basketball.  We need a LeBron James of garden farming to put peoples’ heads back on straight.

We actually do have garden farming stars all over the place, and that’s why we keep winning the food games, despite raccoons, deer, Japanese beetles, cutworms, tornados, hedge fund investors  and  government “oversight” (good word for it).  We never succumb to starvation or haven’t yet. And when I look out beyond the troubles that beset the world, I see much to be optimistic about as long as I don’t look in the direction of my pathetic field corn.

Food production is moving toward decentralization, and that is good news. With all the toxins and varmints and contrary weather and disintegration of the economy, our best bet, maybe our only bet, is to spread out the risks of food production to the largest number of people possible and that is happening.

I am just amazed at the momentum of change in this direction. I could use any number of news sources to prove the point but I am partial to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) and Innovative Farmers of Ohio (IFO) because I know quite a few members of these two organizations.  I also pay attention to the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society because it is located in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. When you see organic, sustainable, natural , small scale, diversified food production growing vigorously in the very heart of  large scale grain farming, you know for sure we are on a roll.

OEFFA and IFO members this summer have a very impressive program of farm tours and workshops going on. The diversification is amazing.  1.)  A certified organic produce farm where you can see how to use windpower,  rain barrels and heat sinks to decrease carbon use. 2.) A CSA organic produce operation (run by the Dominican Sisters of Peace!).  3.) A family farm poultry processing operation.  4.) A small scale poultry and beef operation featuring a “barnyard garden” (I’ve got to find out what that is). Also there is hands-on information offered here where one can also learn how to permanently protect a farm from non-farm development.  5.) A sixth-generation farm producing food for restaurants and CSA sales as part of a 300 acre corn, soybeans, small grains and hay operation, plus an apiary and a 32 stall horse boarding facility. 6.) Raised bed vegetable production with poultry that uses horse manure delivered to the farm for fertilizer. 7.) A goat dairy. 8.) A farm demonstrating conservation practices like real no-till and cover crops plus information on how to reconstruct old barns. 9.) An ecological center and farm not only demonstrating all aspects of sustainable farming but providing many programs for children. 10.) A bunch of educational programs conducted by the Ohio State University’s Sustainable Agriculture Team, including instructions on drip irrigation and advanced wine grape production.  (I can remember when Ohio State sort of looked down its over-educated nose at what we were calling sustainable farming.)

I am getting too longwinded for one post here, but the farmers in the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society are just as diversified with emphasis more on all kinds of grains and grain processing. Its publication, The Germinator, though little known beyond the membership, is growing into a very useful source of information about sustainable farming in general. I can’t resist one item in the Spring 2010 issue because it involves the scourge of pasture farming. The North Dakota Department of Agriculture has been releasing a little bug with the long name of Ceutorhynchus litura that kills Canada thistle. At least two Dakota farmers have tried it and say it works. Now that’s good news. ( )  Maybe not up there with plugging that oil well, but a whole lot more important that where sports stars want to play their games.
Image Credit: Boring Farmers Market



The solution to a lot of these critter problems would be the 3 S’s. Or as I’m fond of saying, “What the DNR doesn’t know won’t hurt me!”

Maybe folks just need to be hungry. Here in Appalachian Ohio, my neighbors hunt to eat. Yes, they like to take a big rack buck for bragging rights, but those that hunt my land do it to put meat in the freezer. Folks around here eat ‘coon, groundhog, and wild turkey too.

I believe a history lesson is in order. Racoons like many other species we now endure were never native. Here in Wis. raccoons were raised on farms in the roaring 20’s for coats and when the depression hit the farms went bust and turned the critters loose. Now, none of this changes current situation, however looking back we can see that various groups promoted introduction or re-introduction of species for their own ends and means with little forthough or total disregard of the impact.
Ruralistic suburbanites along with weekend home owners are seeking closer contact with nature. They come here to the northwoods for that purpose, but along comes a striped polecat under their porch, or a flat-tail knoshing a tree in their yard and a major panic sets in. These animals have to go!!
However there is a distinction between nuisance animals and economic damage to farmers. The latter effects peoples income and their ability to sustain themselves by generating wealth. This is far more substantial than weekenders being inconvienanced while visiting their summer homes valued at more than my entire farming operation.
As a producer I’ve faced the frustrations of “wildlife” damage for over 30 years. Fought for state and federal programs to allow abatement and damage payments. There is no silver bullet, as producers we are a small minority and even the farming organizations cow-tow to sportsmans groups on wildlife issues. We may find a small comfort in the fact that are forefathers also faced similar problems and survived. Like trapping the challenge lies in the ability to develope a counter strategy. So grimace a bit and then smirk while you promise yourself to outwit these critters next time.

OK, there seems to be too much agreement here, so I’ll play the contrarian role. Raccoons must be good for something, ecologically speaking. Therefore, isn’t it the farmer’s responsibility to take reasonable steps to protect what he is raising, whether it’s corn or chickens, from being eaten by raccoons? The big commercial egg producers say that confinement is for benefit of the chickens because if they were allowed outside of the factory they would be quickly killed by predators. That is how they justify providing each laying hen with less than one square foot of wire to spend their lives on. If we want to produce food in a more natural way, don’t we have to find a way to deal with natural perils (other than the extinction of predators)?

I wonder, as the McMansions continue to invade new territory, how much of the raccoon population problem is due to the proliferation of trash cans, overflowing with fast food remnants and other tasty morsels. Of course, hardly anyone in the sprawling subdivisions has locking lids on their trash cans because they are not compatible with the automated loaders on modern garbage trucks.

Finally, I do see some signs of hope for our society in the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the whole LeBron James media circus and his sycophantic infomercial on ESPN. After being the guy everyone wanted on their team, poor “King James” became persona not grata virtually everywhere, literally overnight.

Thanks for the kind words, Gene.

We have learned about wildlife cycles from sorry observation. Here is a story my wife wrote about a pathetic red fox I had to kill in our barn two summers ago.

PS Hope to make it to the Wooster book fair in November to get some books signed and thank you for saving me from mega-agromania back in the early nineties.

Having to deal with critters from the woods for 34 years, I’ve developed methods, just like most everyone involved in gardening or livestock. We have two outside cats – rabbits and moles/voles were a plague here, but not since we did the cats. I look at them as work animals, just like the chickens, and they are treated with respect.
I trap raccoons – best count was 21 of the beasts 3 years ago. When ‘city’ people ask where I relocate them, I answer ‘raccoon heaven’. Did have a fella trap down by our creek last year and it saved me a lot of hassle. Bird netting works pretty well on the berries but is tedious to put up and down.
I think it’s great that market gardeners are thriving. Few things annoy me more than someone mowing 5+ acres of grass weekly and there is absolutely nothing edible growing there. For God’s sake, plant fruit trees or berry bushes and make the land productive. Mown grass benefits no one. Some of the market gardeners are working with small plots and producing large amounts of quality food. As more people get into this, the diversity of items available will increase, to the benefit of all.
As far as LeBron and most ‘stars’, I doubt if any of them could raise chickens, tend an orchard and garden, or can and freeze food they need to survive. It remains through the common-sense work of farmers and gardeners that these celebrities lead their charmed lives. Atlas is a farmer. Pity them if he ever shrugs!

Without any constraints on populations, they will through cycles of passing carrying capacity and then crashing. The crash can be brought about by multiple mechanisms including famine and disease. When there is a significant predator (constraint) in the mix, the cycles are less severe.

Personally, I would like to see natural predators doing what they do best – cull out the sick ones and help keep the herds healthier. And since they’re always there, predators can alter herd behavior (look at Yellowstone). However – since most of the predators are dead, people have to take their place. And this is where we fail – too many people don’t recognize the responsibilities bequeathed to us by our ancestors and thus don’t do anything to fulfill their duties.

I just have to say something while smiling and nodding at so many appropriate comments. Nathan, just great. Watching a no till demonstration is like watching paint dry. Richard g, no one could have said it better that your comment about wildlife. When I was a boy, I made my spending money trapping fur bearing animals and now that is a sin against society, while the same society bows in agreement that the way to solve human problems is war. I wonder if society will understand that wildlife is wreaking havoc on our food supply. I think you are right. Species will crash from disease. Distemper runs through our raccoon population about every ten years. But they recover in two years and make life miserable for us and the bluebirds for eight. Gene

Your claim rings all to true, with the sportsman as one side of the coin and animal rights activists the other, we as producers seek to eek out an existance on the thin edge between. The disease situation I feel has already been realized with the existance of prions (CWD, Scrapie, Mad Cow, TB, etc) Folks seem to want that warm fuzzy feeling of protecting wildlife they just don’t want it in their back yard. The reality doesn’t sink in until their ox gets gored or the wolf is 20 feet off the back door. I speak literally in the latter.
Agencies are frustrated as well being stuck in the middle and hamstrung with regulation leaving them unable to deal with situations timely or effectively.

While I blame the wildlife management agencies in part, a lot of blame goes into management issues out of their hands. When I was a youngster, Raccoon pelts brought $20-$40 ($75-$150 in today’s money). Now they are barely salable. The local deer hunters are too busy looking for 27 point racks to bother shooting the fat doe that eats my OP field corn. The kids are too busy texting and playing in virtual realities to hunt. I suspect many species will crash on their own in a few years through disease.

Gene and folks,
I’ve seen everything from coyotes eating corn to turkeys tearing greenhouse poly. Over the course of time a few things have worked consistantly, electronetting is effective at stopping most ground based problems, even the deer seem to shy away. Amorex repellant worked on everything including birds, a combination of herbal oils, it will take your breath away and make your eyes burn if you get to close (like horseradish). Downside is the expense of material and time consumed on application. Unfortunatly the monetary loss from “wildlife” and potential disease are deemed the burden of the producer and not the agencies who regulate them. Governmental agencies manage critters and create the problem and refuse to accept liability for their actions. Hope I’m not out of line offering ideas…

I bet that no till demonstration is riveting to watch. Sorry I couldn’t resist.

Long time reader, first time blogger. I hate to say it, but I feel a little better knowing that I am not the only one losing vast amounts of produce to the wildlife. I operate a market garden and CSA and it seems that the more customers I take on, the greater the pest numbers and variety. Coons wiped out a 1/4 acre plot of sweet corn in 2 nights, despite 3 strands of electric fence. They also breeched security in the chicken yard and killed my trusty rooster and some hens. Rabbits and deer have been relentless on beans, cukes and lettuce, despite netting. Woodchucks are steadily consuming 1/8 acre of melons, crows wiped out half of my OP corn, and late blight is apparently on the way from SW Michigan. Though we haven’t had rain to speak of in a month and half, you’d never know it by the crabgrass, lambsquarter, pigweed and purslane jungle that I have been battling non-stop. Whew…thanks for letting me vent.

The use of hot pepper powder on the silks might slow the raccoons and deer. Things are differant here, to combat critters and a 72 day growing season we moved production into 3 high tunnel greenhouses. However 5 lambs snuck through the back fence and came around to discover I’d left the door open for the peacocks to enter and eat potato bugs. Hard to cure absent minded farmers. We will be curing the old barbed wire fence by backing it up with electric. They chewed off lettuce, eggplant, new celery transplants and sampled most of everything.
Bread and the Circus was used as a distraction by the Ceasers guess things havn’t changed much.
O P corn looks the best in years, 7 years of drought has taken it’s toll and rains are welcome here in northern Wisconsin.

Teresa Sue Hoke-House July 21, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Well, the birds must have had a convention down where they migrate to for the winter. The main topic they must have discussed was that one and all were going to steal everyone’s corn seed this year! They ate all my sweet corn seed, but for some reason left the popcorn seed, opting instead to take a good half of my bean seed instead. Every gardening year is an adventure, isn’t it, lol.

Great post! Glad to hear about all the stuff your sustainability org. is doing.

I for one would like to see the state of Oregon take raccoons off the protected list. I’d also like to see them make it a crime to feed them. Or any wildlife (save birds, which is different) for that matter.

The more food I grow and the more yard I turn over to it, the more I respect farmers and the more I think Americans pay too little for their food. If they only knew how hard this is, they’d ‘get it’.

Gene, I was heartened to know that you also suffer gardening setbacks, despite all that you know and your long history in farming and gardening. So it happens to all of us.

I thought we were going to have a fabulous blueberry harvest from our 12 blueberry bushes – they were looking just full of blueberries. But then a Catbird set up house nearby and stole just about all our berries, despite our somewhat slipshod efforts to put an inadequate set of row covers over the berry bushes. Next spring my priority construction project will be to protect the berry bushes!

But of course the LeBron James controversy is just so typical of modern society. Our media employ so very many people to fill all those hours of TV and radio programming, and think about all the many magazines – both hard copy and on-line – that need constant copy. And all the writing has to be bite-sized for immediate understanding and has to capture the attention of the audience in the first paragraph. And most people are so very, very busy with their I-phones, cell-phones, I-pads, Blackberries, etc., etc. trying to stay in touch, to stay “connected.” Who has time to think, or to read a thoughtful piece anymore?

And when we take city kids on camping trips, they are so scared of the snakes and bears out there (and so are there parents). There is no connection to the land. Food comes from the supermarket – where do you think it comes from, Silly?

But that’s what I like about the foodie/new farming movement around where I live in Wisconsin. We have a lot of people starting to reconnect with the land and their food. It’s really refreshing to see this.

Glad to know I wasn’t the only one planting corn more than once this year! I had to plant my corn four times because of the gophers and moles eating my corn seed like popcorn. I think the only reason the last planting took was because they ate themselves to death. However, our tomato plants and beans produced more than we could keep up with this year. My wife thought it was a fair trade since she prefers tomatoes and green beans.

My little town is starting to show signs of local food production and co-op tool use. One example is my father-in-law and myself purchased a small diesel tractor together to split the costs. We have two neighbors that we let borrow our tractor for their own gardens and in turn they lend us tools and help throughout the season. We trade seeds and split up manure and compost from another neighbor that raises turkeys. The gardens get a little larger every year.

Time to get started on our fall gardens here in the south!

Hallelujah and may diversified garden farming keep on growing! There was an article in yesterday’s paper about the new practice at our certified farmers market of accepting food stamps. And some of the CSAs will also take them. When quality food is readily available to all sectors of society it’s a great sign. As to the difficulty with the garden, as Gilda Radner was wont to say, “it’s always something” (that’s when it’s not everything!). If it’s not too much rain it’s too little. Or it’s the equipment breaking down. Or a critter is sick (two in our case, right at the moment). But the cucumbers are coming along, the beans are growing up the trellis and into the next county, the cow is still giving plenty of milk and the blackberries are almost ripe. Not to mention that the wild turkeys are getting nice and fat on the grain leavings the cow slops out of her feed bucket! You’d be miserable in a high rise, Gene. Not to mention bored out of your mind. We need the daily challenge and the sore muscles and the lemonade on the porch at the end of a long hot day. I wish I could trade you some sunshine for your rain; hope the garden situation improves.

Gene, thanks for sharing that you suffer the same garden plagues the rest of us do! This year the raccoons let me harvest my gooseberries–because I put up a 6 foot electric mesh fence! The deer did not eat the peaches…brown rot did. And BOTH rototillers were on the fritz when it was time to break ground for new garden plots. Once they were fixed, it rained. And rained. And rained.

On the plus side, the black currant harvest was phenomenal. This little known berries are high in all the good things..vitamin C, anti-oxidants. And nothing seems to like the berries! Of course, the bushes get wilt…but we are fighting that.

Here’s hoping your additional plantings of corn grow well. I recommend extra hunters for the deer and ‘coons!

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