Listen to old farmers

Sometime when you have a free Saturday, find an old farmer to talk to.  Last Saturday afternoon we had the pleasure of learning from an 88 year old tomato and watermelon producer and a 76 year old cattleman.

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The cattleman’s granddaughter invited us to her paw-paw’s bunkhouse.  We sat in rockers on the porch and listened to story after story describing how a farm survives and thrives in rural Winn Parish, Louisiana.

Winn Parish is heavily forested.  Early settlers viewed the trees as an impediment to growing food.  They cleared all the land they could to create fields for their crops and livestock. The entire population was subsistence small farm families for generations.

In the early 1900’s railroad lines came to Winn Parish and turned the timber into a resource.  Paw-paw’s grandfather and many other saw mill operators made a good living cutting timber for the rapidly growing American cities.  By 1910 Winn Parish had more than doubled in population.  Several new towns were established around sawmills.

When the initial old growth forest was harvested, far-sighted timber companies realized that the climate of Winn Parish enabled sustainable production of timber.  The wood taken off is mainly composed of carbon, hyrdogen and oxygen which are provided by rain water and carbon dioxide in the air.  With minimal additions of trace minerals, trees can be continuously grown and harvested on most Winn Parish land.

However, the trees favored by the timber companies were fast-growing pine trees. Pines like acid soils and drop very acidic needles which make soils acid.  This is great for the growth of other pine tress, but poisonous for most crops.  Blueberries and rhododendron like acid soil, but most garden crops and grass for cattle wither and die in acid soils.

Paw-paw is adamantly against conversion of good crop and grazing land to pine plantations.  But many land owners had grown weary of the hard work of farming.  They saw timber as a much easier way to make a living.  So many planted pines, moved to the city and waited for their pine to mature.

Recently, some are converting the pine plantations back into agricultural land.  The 88 year old tomato and watermelon farmer is one of them.  He cut the timber off his land and turned the depleted, hard, acid soils into fluffy beds of excellent soil quality.  His main tools are cover crops and careful tillage which avoids compaction by always keeping tractor tires away from the growing beds.

We’ll have to talk about him more later.  Right now it’s too beautiful at Meadowcreek to stay inside any longer.

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A more in-depth essay on how pines create an environment which other pines like, but is like a desert to other plants and many animals: https://meadowcreekvalley.wordpress.com/2015/08/03/white-pine-privilege-soil-fungi-and-korean-grocers/

Winn Parish farmers love their chickens

With us waiting apprehensively, a powerfully built farmer opened the door to his chicken house. We’ve been in such houses before and were overwhelmed by the stench. Sixteen thousand chicks packed in one building seems a recipe for smell.

chickensIn this case we were wrong.  This farmer in Winn Parish, Louisiana, takes extremely good care of his chickens.  He spends hours and hours every day in his chicken houses making sure all his flock are happy and healthy.

Like most sustainable agriculture advocates, we have been very critical of the vertically integrated chicken and hog production systems. We’re among the many who know that free ranging chickens produce healthier and more tasty eggs and meat.  We have helped many free range and pastured poultry producers get in business and find markets.  We’ll continue to do that in Arkansas and overseas.

But our visits to Winn Parish have shown us hard-working farmer who are part of that system but still striving to produce  healthy food.  For those who don’t have access to low cost free range chickens, the chickens from factory farms provide an inexpensive source of protein.

We also saw soils which had been vastly improved by addition of manure from chicken houses.  Many farmers in Winn Parish don’t need to buy commercial fertilizer because there are chicken houses nearby producing all the nutrients their pastures and fields need. Farmers use rice hulls as bedding for their chickens. After the chickens go to market, the houses are cleaned of the rice hulls and manure.  This product, chicken litter, is not a waste but a resource–providing and excellent source of nutrients and organic matter.  Far better than commercial fertilizer, whether conventional or organic.

We will never urge people to consume food from factory farms if they can access affordable free range meat. We will continue to work to create systems which provide affordable food produced in resilient systems.

However, our experience in Winn Parish tells us that sustainable agriculture advocates cannot be so dogmatic that they don’t recognize the benefits of systems we hope to one day replace.

The perfect can be the enemy of the good.