A Part-Timer and Proud of It!

Thanks to Curt Gesch for this piece reminding us that we don’t have to be full-time farmers/ranchers to be considered critical to our communities.

Curt is a retired schoolteacher who is passionate about creation care. He and his wife, Betsey, live on a 153-acre farm, which includes more than 80 acres of “moose pasture.” They live in Quick, British Columbia, where they grow forages while enhancing wildlife habitat. They raise a few Dexter cows, chickens, and many fruits and vegetables. Curt writes on wildlife and agriculture for Christian Courier magazine and produces a farming and gardening newsletter from home twice each month.  He enjoys playing psalms and hymns on the piano and dabbles in jazz improvisations.  

For years I bristled every time I heard people refer to me as a part-time farmer, a hobby farmer, or (rarely) a gentleman farmer.

I assumed that a full-time farmer meant “someone whose sole income was farming.” Or did it mean that a person worked full-time on the farm while others in the family contributed by means of their off-farm employment? Either way, as a school teacher, working or retired, I was a member of the part-time farmer caste: not quite the real thing.

In my area of central British Columbia, with but a few exceptions, the full-time farmers—using either definition—were the fourteen dairy farmers whose income was tied to supply management income.

Most of the beef and forage producers also worked in the forest industry, with long hours and high wages making it possible to do the farming during the summer months when logging was mostly shut down.

Thinking about this some more, I realized that some of the homesteading people were also full-time farmers in that they provided for their own food through gardens, tending sheep, cattle, hogs, turkeys, chickens, ducks, rabbits, etc. They sold produce for needed cash. They often hunted, fished, gathered mushrooms and herbs as well. Sometimes one or another of the homesteading families did odd jobs off farm for a cash infusion, but mostly their families looked like Daniel Boone-type frontier families. . . with pickup trucks and computers.

Part-Timers Are an Important Part of the Farming Community

I’d like to suggest that full-time farmers can benefit a great deal by living amongst many part-timers.  First, part-timers sometimes lease land at very reasonable rates (or through barter) with larger operations that are land-starved. Second, part-timers’ land is sometimes available for emergency grazing in years when drought hits. They provide an alternative to downsizing a larger farmer’s herd.

Most importantly, in my opinion, is this: Those of us called part-timers often have the time and opportunity to try out new pasturing methods, try out new crops or rear rare-breed livestock.

Here are Examples of What I Mean

Helping neighbors improve their grazing management

Years and years ago, I read about something called rotational grazing. When I mentioned this to one of the larger dairy producers, he said, “Yeah, I guess we’ve done that for a long time: we put the cows in rough pasture until the hay is cut, and then graze the hayfields, one by one as they produce a second crop.” (This conversation took place in the what I consider the most important agricultural educational institution: the coffee shop.)

I grabbed a paper napkin and drew out a model of a big chunk of his land which had features that would make establishing a laneway simple and then sketched in where paddocks might go. “Not a bad idea: I can try something like that on my fields above the creek.”

So much for the theory. Then my wife and I bought a farm because we wanted to live out of town, but not in a yuppified “suburb” of five-acre lots, distinguished by three horses, two ATVS, a snowmobile and two pickup trucks.  We ended up with an old house, sixty acres of cleared hayland, and ninety-odd acres of willow swamp, bog, and marsh. We called this part of the farm our Moose Pasture. We rented out the hay land to a dairy-farming neighbour. Before too long, I decided that I had better learn something about cows. After doing some research into minor breeds we were able to locate a Dexter cow and calf for sale nearby and we told the seller we’d pick up the animals when everything was ready for them at home.

But that meant we had to build a barn of some sort. With lots of advice from an experienced neighbour we built shed-roofed 22 X 12 foot building. But we still couldn’t pick up our cows because there was the matter of fencing. With more help we learned how to put up a barbed-wire fence, and fenced off a three-acre plot into four permanent paddocks and a wide lane.

We were pretty sure that cows ate in pastures so we had to decide what type of forage seed to buy. Standard seed blends for the area included clover, orchard grass, timothy, and some alfalfa. We decided to do things a little differently. We coerced our friends to find some trefoil, grazing turnips, canola, and vetch seed from their Alberta relatives. This we combined with some oats for a nurse crop. We seeded things down and waited.

You’ll remember that I was that smart guy who knew the best way to graze cattle. I subdivided the tiny paddocks for Cow and her calf (named Patty), and moved them around as needed during the summer. This rotational grazing business really works, I thought. The lessee provided me with some hay bales for winter feed and I prepared to move proudly into a new year, having proved my point about grazing. Not so hard. Read a book, get some help, try out some new seeds.  Cow and Patty were soon joined by another calf, Liko, and — well, they began to go through the paddocks faster and faster, eventually getting near to “eating roots.”  I did the right things and further sub-divided the pastures and moved them more often but still ran out of grazing towards the end of summer, and I had to — properly, of course, after letting the hayfields grow back to the five-leaf stage — let them graze in temporary paddocks.

The spring after that I learned that having flat, rich pastures don’t help much while pastures are saturated with snow-melt. It occurred to me then that stretching the season wasn’t only a matter of proper rotation, but also of having land with different characteristics. My search for early spring pasture began by stringing electric fence all over: driveways, side yards, lanes—all provided early grazing. This also drove me nuts with the amount of work I had to do.  (You’ll have to come visit and see the solutions I eventually came up with as my age crept up, energy level and strength decreased, and a small bit of wisdom accumulated.)

 

Experimenting With Forages

While this was going on, I was constantly increasing the garden size. Eventually I added another thousand or so square feet and called it The Experimental Farm.  With a lot of nagging, I managed to get tiny quantities of new seedling varieties to try out in my own seed trial plots. The most difficult was getting some forage fenugreek. Finally, the Dr. Surya Achaya of the University of Lethbridge, wrote a note to a seed company that said (in effect), “Just give this guy a handful of seeds, directions for use, and let him try it.”  And so I did.

Now I had some fenugreek to go with the sainfoin, a heritage barley, Ethiopian black wheat, forage turnips, and some industrial hemp that came in the mail from a seed-cleaning acquaintance. (I felt like some sort of underworld character as I opened the letter-sized envelope and found a flattened little plastic bag with some hemp seed in it.)

I tended these plots and learned a few things about planting dates, weed control, and harvest times. But there was a lot more to learn. Old-timers with a European background kept telling me about root crops, sugar beets and fodder beets for cattle.  I heard stories of county fair contests to see which child could grow the largest sugar beet, about hand-cranked root cutters, and thinning, thinning, thinning. (Beet “seeds” are actually fruits with many seeds in each one of the things you plant.)  I eventually discovered that, at the time, the best source of fodder beet seed came from websites that cater to deer hunters creating food plots.

Knowing I might be in need of balanced minerals for fodder beets, I looked around and found out that bulk lime was prohibitively expensive in our area, that some soils were low in potash, and no one really had done much mineral testing on their soils.

But we did have a good supply of wood ash from a large local lumber mill. I supplied another neighbour with some garbage cans and—after his shift was done—he collected some “wet ash” and some “dry ash” for me. I set up some tiny plots for fodder beets with control plots. Meanwhile, I sent samples of the ash for analysis to a reputable soil lab. Then came the planting, thinning, and thinning, and waiting. The results were inconclusive but, well—as one scientist told me about a different matter—“Gesch, you’re quite good at drawing conclusions from not much data.” So I’d say that the beets were OK but the ash made quite a difference. The ash from this lumber mill, by the way, is still not being used on forage crops in our area. Last I heard it was being buried.

Next, I tried rutabagas for winter cattle feed. Trial and error showed that I ought to plant them in mid-June for a September/October “pulling.” I stored them in the root cellar in barrels and chopped them up for the cows with an ice chopper (No root cutters available in North America; but in Germany? Easy to get.)

Coincidentally, a friend suggested Superschmeltz kohl rabi. It is very sweet (melts in your mouth). And stores well. It does not get woody. And it is huge: sometimes the size of a soccer ball. Superb human food, but now I’m wondering, would they ensile well? They could be chopped and mixed with corn in a bunker or clamp?  A small farmer wouldn’t have the equipment but in France corn/sugar beet silage is used for dairy feed.

Sometime in the past, I had heard about tillage radishes, and tried them. I planted them in the garden in August and they did indeed grow twelve-inch roots by winter.  Nowadays, of course, it de rigeur to talk about tillage radish amongst large crop farmers.

Seeding Experiments

Reading David Kline and Gene Logsdon led thinking about a hand-cranked seeder. (I wanted to try a sack and a “horn” seeder but Cow refused to donate the horn.) With that hand-cranked seeder a whole new bunch of experiments were possible. I started with frost-seeding. At first, I tried to get the exact right weather conditions—frozen at night so the soil has a honey-combed surface, melting in the day). I soon learned that “He who watches the wind will fail to sow, and he who observes the clouds will fail to reap.” (Ecclesiastes 11:4).

So I tried disking a piece of a declining hay field in the fall, barely breaking the surface, then seeding, then packing. Red clover is the seed for that, I found. In fact, I think it is the most valuable top-seeded forage seed that exists. . . at least in our climate.  By the next summer, after one hay cutting, I began to see red clover seedlings establishing themselves where I had disked and packed.

The next trial was simple: why go through all the trouble of disking and packing: I just spread red clover in the fall or in the spring onto thin parts of the field. It worked, too. I moved on to the lanes and other bare soils: seedbeds for weeds. If weeds can colonize, why can’t legumes, I asked myself. Now I top-seed all lanes and any bare ground with sweet clover (does very well on gravel) , trefoil and red clover just as the snow is melting. It fills in nicely and later the cows graze it.

Why not plant red clover all year long? The seed is hard and probably will last through a nuclear winter. I began top-seeding red clover on paddocks after the second or third grazing and then made sure that any field with declining clover stands would also be a candidate for a late summer rest for the clover to set seed, eliminating the top-seeding.

As for varieties, I tried Freedom! red clover, common red clover (single cut or double cut—I was never sure which was in the bag), and Frosty berseem clover. I couldn’t detect any difference as long as I seeded them in thin spots and let them go to seed each year.

Forage cocktails? I bought some year-old seed at a discount, added peas, corn, hemp, phacelia, sunflower seed, corn (any old variety) and a whole bunch of out-dated vegetable seeds. I disked the field, seeded with the hand-crank seeder, disked again, harrowed, packed. With very strict control I could achieve five grazings, but—being lazy—after year two, I gave them three grazings and then rested the field until October when the forage brassicas were getting their second wind.

Finally, I thought I should try something with those sacrifice paddocks and winter-feeding areas. After trying various other methods, I settled on this procedure. At soon as they began to green up I let the cows go through the field to eat what they could find. When dry enough I simply top-seeded, disked, harrowed, and packed (if the soil is wet packing is optional) with yellow sweet clover, red clover, orchard grass, oats/barley/wheat and anything else I could find that was free. I did have a handful of an experimental alfalfa developed at the University of Lethbridge (I forgot the name) and threw that in, too. All of the seeds established and choked out most weeds. . . except for Canada thistle. Then I rested the field until August when it was very tall and thick and gave the cows two grazings before winter.

What’s next to try?

I think maybe some forage plantain, small burnet, and chicory. There have to be even more things to try. I’m also noticing that there is feral meadow foxtail that grows along the ditch and is the earliest of all the grasses to mature. Is there a way to use that as a forage to be followed by re-seeding permanent plantings or an (annual) forage cocktail?

Most of these things I can do because I am not a full-time farmer.

I can work at a micro-cosmic level, not having to invest much in materials and machinery.  And I can share my mistakes, my foolish choices, my successes with my friends, neighbours, through conversation and through an e-newsletter that I produce for anyone interested.

Come to think of it, this part-time farmer gets full-time satisfaction from small-scale farm life, and some small wisdom to contribute to full-time farmers as well.

Want More?

Just Farmers, is a monthly newsletter produced as a public service by Curt Gesch (Eskerhazy Publications) from home. It is free as to cost, holistic as to approach, and idiosyncratic. If you are interested in receiving a few sample copies of Just Farmers, drop Kathy a note and she’ll help you get set up.

 

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