Geek Gets Gardening

It took a long time before I had any interest in growing any food on my land. I live on the Monterey side of the mountain, so agriculture is all around, but I was focused north to Silicon Valley. I loved the forest, but felt no need to add to nature.

Then around 2009, during the lowest part of the recession, in the context of victory gardens and subsistence farming, someone asked “how much of your own food do you grow?” and I thought “Well none, but I have the room and lots of sun, so I suppose I could”.

The year before that a friend had started keeping honey bees and had more honey than he knew what to do with. I bought a few gallons of it tried my hand at brewing some mead, so I guess I was already beginning to think along some homesteading sorts of lines.

That’s when I heard about “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. The book talks about the travesty of mega monoculture American chemical fertilizer pesticide farming and the prevalence of low nutrient corn in our food supply. And corn-fed beef? Cattle evolved to eat grass, not corn. Later he describes a farmer in Virginia named Joel Salatin who does things in a completely different way, with “salad bar beef” and “chicken tractors”. And it turns out that Salatin has written many books about his methods.

Instead of turning out a herd of cattle onto a fixed piece of land and letting them nibble it to dust, Joel uses moveable fences to let them into very small sections every day. The grass is lush because it hasn’t been grazed for months. The cows go crazy for this salad bar of fresh grass. The next day, the cows get a new area of fresh grass, and a few days later he brings in the chickens in large moveable flat pens. Chickens love to scratch the ground and they prefer to eat bugs over more typical grain based feeds. They particularly love the plump 4 day old fly larvae in the cow pies right before they hatch, and will happily spread out the large clumps searching for those delicacies. The scratching and spreading helps to accelerate the process of bringing nutrients into the soil.

This synergy struck my systems engineering mind as truly wonderful. I wasn’t ready for chickens and cows, but I definitely wanted to know more. I bought Joel’s “You Can Farm” to get an overview of family farming, and then his book on pastured poultry, plus “Happy Cows and Hog Heaven”, and “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal”. I got “Grass Fed Cattle” by Julius Ruechel, who raises cattle in Canada, to see things from a different author’s point of view, though I think these two are pretty much on the same page, even if working on different scales.

My ambitions were pretty much limited to vegetable gardens, so it was time to see about soils and compost and the like. “Life in the Soil” by James Nardi starts tiny with microbes and fungus and works all the way up to ground squirrels. There’s a lot more going on down there than we imagine. “Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind” by Gene Logsdon explains how farmers in America today are paying good money to throw away gold and spending more to buy junk food for their soils. Never insult the soil by calling it dirt.

The first season I grew enough to get hooked – snow peas, carrots, broccoli, onions, pumpkins, watermelons and some corn. Fences keep the deer out, but the birds seem to love the early sprouts and can wipe out new plantings of just about everything, so some kind of netting is in order. This year I added potatoes, zucchini, romaine, and string beans. Peppers (bell and jalapeno) are still elusive. And this winter I’m building a PVC hoop style green house to see what I can grow in a place that rarely freezes.

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