Dry, windy, sunny days have replaced our densely foggy mornings and clear afternoons. On Sunday morning, I helped Alex move the cows from one paddock to another. This was my first time assisting on this maneuver. On paper, intensive rotational grazing sounds so elegant, so easy. Just roll up the electric fence wire, pull up the light-weight posts, and move them to outline a new paddock. Then clip on the electric wire, attach it to the battery, move the water trough, herd the cows from one pasture to another, all while dancing in the sunshine. No T-posts, no barbed wire... lovely!
At 9am I was wrestling with the reel that winds up the fence wire. It's heavy, and you hold it with one hand and use the other to bring in the wire. There's nothing to brace against, and if you get going too fast or leave too much slack or get too close to the edge of the spool, the wire starts winding up on the outside of the reel, around the handle. Stop, untangle, start over. This is the type of situation most likely to cause me to panic: trying to master a new and tricky skill while being buffeted by high winds and the glare of winter sun. This ambivalent relationship with wind, sun and ropes casts serious doubt on the dream that we may one day as a family repeat Alex's around-the-world sailing trip.
In the end, the cows moved between fields with no trouble. They saw the fresh pasture and ambled, skipped and ran for their new home. Besides my frustration with the cold wind and the fence wire and dragging heavy water lines around, it really was a pleasant way to spend a morning.
I mention the frustration because I think I am susceptible to the illusion that if you can just get your systems right, then farming will be easy. Physically easy, even. I know there are more organized ways to move fences and water hoses than we currently employ, just as there are more efficient ways to transplant and weed our vegetables. But we will still be moving hoses, tramping across fields, hoeing weeds, tripping on gopher mounds and mustard stalks. It's an important practice to learn and value efficiency. I do know that trashing my body in the field does not make me a hero. But I don't think you can farm by hand without learning to meet the physical challenges with respect and (if we are to avoid total burnout) something approaching joy.
Last weekend’s storm sprinkled, dumped and poured a good two inches of rain on the already-lush fields. The cover crop is calf-high, and this last rain, combined with warming temperatures, should help it shoot up to thigh height over the next six weeks or so.
Pastureland constitutes the majority of our acreage, and there too the grass is thick and bright green. In some places it is knee-high already. There are twenty Angus cows and a few calves here, ready to pounce on the green grass. (can you imagine a cow pouncing? Me neither.) Twenty more cows, replacement heifers for a dairy operation, will arrive this week too. Together they will begin a speedy rotation around the ranch so they can eat the grass down, but not so far that its growth is compromised. We hope to get a second and even a third rotation this season before the dry season really kicks in and the cows must go back to eating hay. So far, we don’t own any livestock besides a few chickens. But this plan represents an important mutual benefit for us and the cattle owners. They need grass and space. We need management for our pasture: not only is keeping the grass down important for fire prevention, but the presence of grazers on the land (moving densely in large packs, just like natural herds) actually improves the pasture, ecologically and functionally. You can see the difference since the first cattle arrived at our place last June. The grass appears more green and lush, partly because of their manure, and partly because there is no thatch (standing dead grass) covering this season’s growth.
Although vegetables are my first agricultural love, this land obviously lends itself to other uses. Grazing is the most obvious. Our long-term plan involves incorporating grazing animals, pastured laying hens, and perennial and tree crops. The challenge will be creating these systems in a way that does not put us on the frantic treadmill of constantly trying to do too much.
This post could also be named "rejoining the world." Our first growing season felt like a great success in most ways. People were fed. We were (and continue to be) fed. No major injuries occurred. A healthy baby was born and accompanied us on harvests and box deliveries. Our produce was well-received.
Once November rolled around, the last scraggly tomato plants were pulled from the field, and the cover crop seeds landed on the soil just before a good rain, I found myself unsurprisingly exhausted. There is not enough time over a California winter, I find, to do nearly enough of any of the following: catch up on sleep, catch up with friends, plan for the coming farm season, knit by the woodstove, bake cookies, refresh the imagination, do nothing. There are upsides to this: the potential of a year-round growing season, the arrival of sweet-smelling warm days in January, early greens and late tomatoes.
So, I have just emerged from a short winter of burying my face in spreadsheets and spending time with an ever-cuter but also more demanding baby. There is still lots of planning to be done (it never ends, really), but soon the focus will be on getting seeds in the greenhouse and plants in the ground.
What to expect from us in the coming weeks: Information on the 2015 CSA program, upcoming work parties and events, more frequent blog posts with stories of late winter and spring, and lots of pictures of green shoots, misty mornings, and possibly (probably) babies in the field.