Brady Girt ~ November 10, 2015 ~ “Agroecology for a Symbioticfuture” WILDCOMMONS.COM
WILDNESS: My personal Journey
The bull elk rose quickly 15 feet from where I was in the woods at age 6. He looked at me long enough and then disappeared into the brush. I was in the land of my grandfather’s dreams. Born in 1910 in the woods of Apiary near the headwaters of the Clatskanie River, he wanted to be a farmer and husbandman of the beautiful mild lands in the lower valley. He progressed one parcel and one farm at a time by sweat, the axe, the shingle splitting froe, and the sinewy strength of his small 140 pound frame. It was because of my hero and grandfather that I connected deeply to soil, land, and nature from a young age.
Mid-way through my 7th year, airline pilot aspirations and fallings out had taken my parents, sister, and I far away to the deserts and red canyons of Southwestern Utah. There was old Merlin Sullivan right on time at 6:00 AM. My place was standing space on the tractor’s rear hitch as the tractor hurried along its daily routine. Mid-day found us together in the vast fields knee-deep in an irrigation ditch and then in the field smoothing and equalizing the flow into the furrows.
Again in a land far from the hot deserts of Utah our new place was the small farm of my parents and a field leased from a neighbor with a large rock in the center that means a lot to me now and actually helped guide me into the future. There was also a patch of green in the dry forest resulting from extra rich soils and there was a massive great horned owl that always took a keen interest in me and graced me with his silent surprise flight as I roamed the forest in my knee high home-made moccasins or on horseback.
The cow was moaning and paralyzed as it strained impossibly to give birth to a calf too large for its young age. No one was there but me, now 11 or 12. She found a bull by accident and too soon it seemed. The next day I buried the stillborn calf and learned to hand milk the young heifer as she swatted my face with her tail too many times. Lessons in cow-cutting cowboy style would come a little later and responsibilities training horses with the knowledge learned. That evening I tried to rope a post, but spooked the horse. Then I checked the soaking fence posts I had helped my dad and his horse drag out of the tamarack timber windfall an hour away on the Idaho border in hillsides full of huckleberries. Using a drawknife that was given me by my great-grandfather, before his recent passing, with handles of my own making; I had stripped the bark one post at a time as part of my daily chores. A stack of posts remained as my speed in bark stripping just about matched the time it took to sufficiently soak up the mix of old engine oil, creosote, and penta that my dad said would preserve them over the years. My garden was in collaboration with my grandmother to the chagrin of my parents who were not into the greenery or homegrown vegetables.
I was digging the ground years later pulling rocks the size of footballs out of an excessively widening fencepost hole. The soil was missing after the first 6 inches giving way to gravel and larger and larger rock. Those rocks would set the post as solid as any concrete, but the wide hole due to the large rocks was a disappointment. The horses including my stallion had recently been sold up into Canada and of the other farm creatures all that remained was me and a faithful dog. I had lived alone on the little farm since the later part of my 16th year when my parents gave me a choice to follow them to a tropical paradise or stay back.
As I pounded gravel and rock in from the very bottom to assure a solid post set, I recalled the truck wreck and my summer in prairie-land with Miller Land and Livestock just before my parents moved away. When I turned 16 my grandparents loaned me a Datsun pick-up for the year. These were from my mom’s side as I had not seen my farmer grandfather again until his death when I was 13. The pounding action with the solid iron bar always made my elbows wince and my triceps burn, but they never grew much larger, just stronger and tougher. I always had spindly upper arms with larger forearms that knew how to get practical work done but failed me when lifting weights in school. I wrecked the truck at 5:30 AM on a day when our farm hosted the family reunion. I had gone early to let the farmer know I would not be able to buck bales that day as usual.
With bills to pay and a thirst for new skills I found a job in St. John in the heart of the Palouse working for Gordy Miller on a massive farming operation that ran 13 large combines and a fleet of all wheel drive homemade grain trucks that hauled nearly twice the legal road limit. I lived there for the summer driving the hulking trucks and eating a farm-feast 3 times a day, then I sent all the money to my grandparents in a semi-voluntary payment for the truck. That fall by the time my parents left I had found a front-end-wrecked car that ran good for $300 and fixed it up sufficiently and little by little there-after as I devoured the soulful solitude of living on my own on the farm.
I learned about myself and life in those months as I laid against the massive rock in the field on starry nights and asked the universe for understanding. My integrity had come from connection to the whole and from a grandfather’s example and it anchored me to a strong conscience and ideals that I still hold to today. The rock in the field on the farm, the owl, the soil and my grandfather were all my places and points of discovery. The stars were my fascination and the catalyzing energy that brought clarity. By all accounts, I was becoming settled and knowing who I was in the great broad world.
Here I am, now in “Fertile Valley” lying in the grass looking for the swallows. Not many yet; someday there will be. Our new farm is our new stewardship where the bit of diversity at this time passes to many as a healthy nature. It is a start at best. Nature needs our synergy. Our style of farming catalyzes and builds nature to what it once was or the best of what it could or should be. The diversity of song birds and other creatures will return over time. We have already started to bring trees, inoculants, and wild herbs from the better represented sections of forests around. Planning and soulful effort will lay the groundwork for coming generations to enjoy a farm with productive vitality, of all the basic foods and a patchwork of dynamic native forests meeting hedgerows of fruit trees, berries, and herbs excluding elk and deer from row crop rotation fields inside as long term developing living fences and habitat. The effect will be healthy crops, clean water, efficiently used fertility, and dynamic interaction of all variety of native creatures interacting with the domestic ones of our farm. The songbirds will multiply first in tandem with the farming and accompanying flowers and insects. The forest will take time as complex soil develops and the fungi that can connect acres into a matrix of yet scientifically enigmatic communication. These will just match the growth of trees that will finally look mature at 100 years or more, and depending on the soil for the centuries or millennia they may survive thereafter. The salmon, the free azotic, Rhizobia, and Frankia types of bacteria, the weathering of minerals, and the inputs of agrarian husbandry will need to slow feed the soil of forest and farm to keep the soils growing. What fertility and Carbon enters, dynamic ecology develops into a new balance of increasingly massive life in flux that is there to match the level of incorporated cycling minerals of life. Temperate old growth forests have been measured to contain in excess of 1000 ton per acre of Carbon expressed in visible and transitory life and diversity that any farmer husbandman would be proud to contribute to.
As it turns out, the added Carbon from plant growth and compost stays in a dynamic living system only if balanced with an equal input of all the minerals and nutrients of life in excess of what is leached, burned, volatilized or removed through harvest. Salmon served this function sufficiently in times past to create the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest in the USA and Canada. Bird and other creature migrations have contributed elsewhere. In the upset of the others, human society can help more than ever going forward, with specific agrarian contributions resulting from connected localization and neo-indigenization and a ‘return more than I take’ ethos.
Years before I was similarly lying in the grass watching and talking to the swallows as they talked to and greeted me another day with swoops and twitters. The day had as the others, progressed from college classes all morning, to farm and forest work of my own choosing until evening ending here with the swallows. I again lived alone on a farm. This time it was my grandfather’s now passed onto my father who lived with my mom in a tropical paradise many thousands of miles from there. Soon I would leave for Africa and lose my place in the farm and forests of my grandpa’s dream. Another day I would return, but only for a time.
My grown up life started in Spokane, Washington at between 16 and 17 years of age, as I busied myself upgrading and preparing for the sale of a small farm owned by my parents where I lived alone. After graduation I went to Clatskanie, Oregon to my Grandpa’s farm where I had grown up to age 7. I restored and cleaned up the farm trashed for years by renters while I attended school at Lower Columbia College until traveling to Africa in 1993.
In 1995 I graduated from Washington State University after studying “Alternative and Diversified Agriculture”. I had encouraged my father to return to the family farm the previous year to develop an organic livestock production system. I spent the next two years with my parents on the land of my grandfather’s dream, trialing a number of crops, selling at the farmer’s market, and helping establish the fertility and weed control practices to fit my father’s livestock production.
In 1997 I went to live amongst the semi-nomadic Kyrgyz people of Central Asian Turkistan as a traveling mountain agronomist where I promoted simplified technology, organic agriculture, thoughtful well and toilet hygiene, and distributed more appropriate vegetable seed. The local needs stemmed from previous Soviet policies that had outlawed traditionally sustainable grazing and mountain agriculture practices to force production quotas of beef and lamb. I spent 3 years in Turkistan working not only with the mountain Kyrgyz, but also with the ancient Uzbek agriculturalists of the lowlands, returning to the US in 2000 to work with Urban garden projects in Portland and then spend 5 years in analytical labs in Kelso and Rainier.
Overdoing it with my lab experience, I sort of righted my direction to keep myself moving toward an instinctual drive to know and understand the ecology of food and agriculture systems, their communities of people, and their potential and actual effects on the regional environment.
In 2005, I was able to secure a long term lease on a diverse but run-down sheep farm and forest-land near our home in Clatskanie, Oregon and purchase the flocks. We set goals around building up the soil and ecosystem fertility throughout the farm and forest, nurturing a 20 acre horseshoe of permanent forest zone with a single remaining old growth fir, and developing the hydrology to increase summer productivity and energy potential. We also hoped to see diversity of birds and wildlife return to the farm. Elk and a few dominant species were mainly prominent, ‘re-prod’ fir forests on the farm lacked almost any sign of life due to low fertility and mono-culture dynamics, and scotch broom dominated the upper 10 acres of nutritionally depleted replanted forest land. We also made plans to fill in the tree scape in the Conyers Creek stream corridor with Cedar, Hemlock, and Pacific Yew to leave a maturing forest over time as the Red Alder reached maturity and would begin to die out.
I immediately certified the farm and the next generation of the flocks as organic, transitioned cold turkey from the previous-to-me farm practice of baiting, poisoning and trapping predators, to a natural mimicry in the form of Livestock Guardian Dogs. I saw a drop in sheep losses from the previous 8 or 9 per year to 2 total predator losses over the next 10 years. I also transitioned from the former manager’s practice of routine worming for parasite control to more thoughtful mineral and kelp feeding, rotational grazing, pasture rest periods, and fecal testing and eyelid color profiling for condition management. In feed, we switched from the previous manager’s feather meal protein block feeding, to 100% pasture nutrition for the sheep. We became for a time, according to organic inspectors, the first successful certified organic sheep producer in the Northwest. In one successful 2 season trial we also used free range sheep grazing with sandwich signs to successfully maintain vegetation control on a half mile of county roadside that passed through the farm.
During those 2 to 3 years I was working as a field technician and crew manager for the Columbia River Tree Farm monitoring and helping manage 10,000 acres of fiber tree production. Early on in the job I was edged into managing the pesticide application to which I was conscientiously apposed while also having the clear understanding of related health issues. I proposed alternative pest and weed control strategies that were not seriously considered and eventually voiced a decision that I wanted to continue working if my work was of use, but that I would not from that point on have anything to do with the application of new to nature pesticides including herbicides and would not be willing to go in areas where they were being used or had recently been used. To their credit, they kept me on, although they continued their reliance on pesticides and herbicides, and allowed me to focus in other areas.
Once we got settled into sheep management on our little farm we changed our prime focus to crop production. We began to look at the crops that could help us make the leap to making the farm 100% financially sustainable for our family. Since soils were appropriate and since I have enough Irish in me, we chose to make our prime crop potatoes. Within 3 years we had achieved an annual gross profit of just under $200,000. Along with potatoes we were experimenting in any and all crops that were relevant to the local food, feed, and fiber needs. We successfully raised 2 types of wheat, harvesting 13,000 lbs of certified organic wheat for a local bakery. We also raised Oriental Mustard, Flax, Triticale, Barley, Oats, and Canola successfully. We sold 14” carrots to New Seasons Market in quantities over 400 bunches per week for one season along with beets, turnips, and parsnips. One year we raised 1/2 acre of sweet potatoes to the size of nerf footballs only to lose them to elk just before harvest.
One of the most significant dynamics was the agroecology that developed over time, which is the interaction of farming with the natural ecology and the local community. We employed local people sometimes more than 20 at a time and included them in the decision, management, marketing and delivery of product, as well as the cultivation and husbandry. At one point our farm was so popular that we had most of the local 20 something’s hanging out on farm either working or hoping for a work opportunity. At that time we successfully passed several surprise Oregon OSHA inspections that we had not prepared for or anticipated despite our bucket potty compost system.
In my typical form, objectives and guiding principles weren’t about normal definitions of success or financial security, but rather the adventure and experience of finding pure ways of achieving things that needed doing while benefiting the society and environment. Limitations to business potential came in our quest for deep relevance and long term meaning through research, trial, and action based on ideals that continually diminished profitability. Since the higher you go to success in the current food paradigm the more compromises of locally important principles are required, there came a time when we sort of ran out of forward potential. I understood my active experiment had been a success and going further would drain rather than bolster my desired achievements.
Stewardship Farm was a real and genuine success. We produced literally millions of pounds of pure healthy organic food efficiently, of a wide range of types and in so doing had effected an increasingly strong and healthy on farm and surrounding ecology. We had worked transparently with local people and inspired others while learning together how to live both productively and symbiotically to environment and community. We had built up the fertility and biological diversity of the farm massively, established a very successful business in terms of the current system, and we learned personally and communally through our actions. I did not purchase the farm and I have given up and trailed off the business rather than continue to grow bigger and more industrially relevant and supportive of the old paradigm. I chose knowledge, conscience, and experiential capital over the current valuation of business and monetary success as I discovered the needs of the future regional food system.
The current situation in which we expect successful farming to sink or swim is supported by an infrastructure that prefers overly large industrial agriculture and effects significant environmental and social harm. The same arguably amplifies a growing health pandemic ironic in the face of our high position of development. Smaller symbiotic farming, that works in a discovery of nature, community, and self, is unsupported and systematically losing out and burning its people out from a lack of specific infrastructural support. At the same time social society, which in rural and smaller city environments, is instinctually and integrally destined to follow in the shadow of agrarian and agricultural success or failure, is floundering despite a constant fielding of programs to treat the symptoms of deep set systemic failures.
I find it important and timely to move on from Stewardship Farm so as to put my energy into building systems of local infrastructure that can support more deeply beneficial agriculture and society. One basic first step at the local level is to ‘stiff-arm’ the current industrial support system while building a carefully fit peoples’ collaborative infrastructure for a local food system that prefers and promotes small community embedded action and those who have not only efficiency and old paradigm profitability, but integrity toward people, environment and what matters to local.