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Why Bother With T-posts? How Costa Rica Adjusted My Attitude

By   /  April 27, 2020  /  3 Comments

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As an Agricultural Sciences student at Oregon State University, my brain is nearly always marinating in sustainable agroecosystem concepts. I fall asleep with thoughts meandering between pollinator concerns, cover-cropping, soil microbes, grazing, and how in the world I fit into the overall picture. I bore my family to death with intricate details of grass growth and legume nitrogen fixation that I find irresistibly compelling. I walk through our hay fields with my eyes on the ground instead of the horizon.

Lime trees make for good shade and great afternoon snacks. On the way to Tamarindo, Costa Rica. Hailey Rice 2020.

This winter, though, I was given the opportunity to take a break and spend a week in paradise. Despite how much I truly enjoy my studies, I willingly threw all those thoughts and responsibilities out the window as I packed my suitcase. I boarded the flight to Liberia, Costa Rica with every intention of soaking up the sun in my bikini for seven days without even a stray thought given to the lectures, peer-reviewed research papers, and final projects that awaited me. I told myself I wouldn’t spend even a minute pondering ecological concepts or animal feed requirements.

Luckily for me, life is full of surprises. My first glance out the rental car window changed my entire perception of the trip. It turns out that the Northwest province of Guanacaste where we found ourselves is the Central American version of cow country.

Countless herds dotted the tropical landscape otherwise teeming with sugarcane fields, fruit stands, and palm trees. I learned that although Costa Rica is known for lush rainforests, it is experiencing a painful drought reminiscent of what producers at home have experienced in recent years. Water conservation and ecological sustainability have become a daily concern for many. This is a subject I still want to learn more about, and a return trip is high on my bucket list. In the meantime, one aspect of Costa Rican agriculture still has me spellbound: the living fence.

Living fence along Highway 1 between Bagaces and Lake Arenal in Costa Rica. Hailey Rice 2020

Another living fence along the same stretch of highway. Hailey Rice 2020.

As we traveled the countryside, much of the highway was lined with miles of fence supported by living trees instead of harvested wood or metal fence posts. In a region with ample growing days and an optimum climate, these trees provide shade, habitat for a biodiverse population, as well as that “horse high, pig tight, and bull strong” security we look for. In researching these fences a little further, I discovered that they are prevalent in South America and are used for the obvious purpose of providing a means of keeping livestock contained while also bearing valuable resources like firewood, wildlife feed, and fruit for human and animal consumption. They also provide shade in many areas that have been deforested to make way for agricultural pursuits. The trees are oftentimes planted, maintained, and managed by farmers that rely on their presence in their everyday business. I imagine their integration would seem commonplace to the average Latin American farmer, but to me the living fence seems almost magical. In its simplicity it is at once practical and sustainable.

So, why bother with T-Posts or polywire?

Well…because that’s what our system is set up for. Those tools give us a tremendous amount of power and flexibility.

Okay, yes, but what if there was a way to incorporate a living fence into a permanent section of your operation? Would the benefits outweigh the funny looks your neighbors will dole out when they figure out what that perfectly spaced row of seedlings is really for?

Maybe, maybe not.

I’m not saying you need to run out and rip up your fencing. Far from it actually – I’m simply wondering: are you willing to look at something out of the ordinary and identify its potential value in your system?

If not, maybe you need a vacation too.

This week Chad Fisher talks about Honey Locust as forage for his herd. Would they be a good candidate for creating living fences? Just a thought from Kathy

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About the author

Despite growing up in the grass seed capital of the world, Hailey’s childhood connection to agriculture ran no deeper than a girl’s voracious appetite for Little House on the Prairie books and an inherent love of animals. She thought she might like to grow up to be an accountant until she spent her 19th summer on a hay crew with a farm boy. That’s when everything changed. She fell in love with long days spent under a sunny, summer sky doing good, honest work. In the years since, she’s learned to drive a tractor, bucked her fair share of hay bales, and worked on a grass-fed cattle ranch with its own direct-marketing program. Today, she is a student in the Agricultural Sciences program at Oregon State University studying forage production, plant physiology, pasture-based agroecosystems, and soil health. She still loves grass and sunshine almost as much as the farm boy and their yellow lab, Hesston. Hailey is interested in economically and ecologically sustainable agricultural practices so that farming families everywhere can stay on their land, do what they love, and make a profit. Her Little-House-on-the-Prairie heart hopes for a future where folks understand and appreciate the precious connection between farmers, their animals, and the land.

3 Comments

  1. Steve Freeman says:

    What an interesting idea! Never thought of planting trees in a line for future fence posts.

    In building fences on a new farm we had quite a bit of cedar trees growing next to glade ground, ground with rock within a couple of inches of the top and hard to drive posts. We used the cedar trees throughout to attach our electrified high tensile wire. From 30 years of using trees we know to add board or composite lumber cut about 6″ square and then a good quality insulator and deck screws attached through the insulators holes and the boards and into the tree. This helps to ward off the tree enveloping the insulator in 10-20 years and makes it possible to unscrew the insulator and avoid metal in your tree if you ever harvest it for lumber.

  2. Curt Gesch says:

    People around here (central B.C.) used aspen trees, spruce, or pine for years when the land was being settled. Bits of wire and staples or nails are still found in some of the living or dead trees (most of them). I have a lot of respect for the hard work these folks did; one told me he later hand-pounded about 6,000 “real” fence posts, and do not criticism them for using the trees at first.

    Trees move with wind and grow, and that means fencing doesn’t stay tight.

    Is that smooth, high-tensile wire in the photos?

    • Harold Schrock says:

      Having family farming in Costa Rica and other Central American countries I’m pretty familiar with the fences. These living fenceposts, are almost always used to support barbed wire. They are put in often enough, that the fence not staying perfectly tight is not a big deal. There is one primary species that is used, I’m not sure exactly what it is, it’s referred to in Costa Rica as the fencepost tree. Fences are built by driving cuttings from existing trees as posts, most of which will sprout and grow into more trees.

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