Guernsey or Jersey? Both are winners

Guernsey or Jersey? You really have to choose. This exciting debate is one you may not be aware of, but small farmers and homesteaders get passionate about.

Guernsey and Jersey are two English islands of the coast of France. They also are the origins of two of the best milk cows for the family farm. Unlike the Holsteins of German origin, these two breeds don’t produce watery milk that almost looks blue. Instead their milk is almost golden due to the high concentration of beta carotene. Beta carotene is not digested by these cows so it passes into the milk and produces the wonderful golden color. Beta carotene is found in green vegetable matter like grass and gives protection against certain cancers and even aging, they say. You know it’s healthy to eat vegetables high in beta carotene, like carrots, sweet potatoes and spinach. But did you know you can get the same benefits from drinking Guernsey or Jersey milk? Drinking their milk is like having a serving of veggies.

And many folks who think they can’t digest milk, find Guernsey or Jersey milk suits them just fine. That’s because their milk proteins are the A2 protein which has been bred out of the most dairy cows in order to get high production of that watery substance passed off today as milk.

Whether Guernsey or Jersey milk tastes better is not an debate I want to enter. Both sides are just too passionate. Bringing up the topic is almost as bad as bringing up politics at Thanksgiving dinner. Some like Jerseys because they are smaller and produce more milk on less grass. Others like Guernseys because they have a little more A2. The rancor doesn’t last though. Unlike Democrats and Republicans, Jersey and Guernsey lovers have a whole lot in common. They love living on small farms and producing healthy food. No matter which of these English breeds you like the best, you know they are better than the German Holstein breed.

Jersey and Guernsey were also at the forefront of another English-German battle you may have heard of. The two islands were occupied by the Germans in the Second World War soon after they took over France. The English got early warning so the children were evacuated. The adults were left to cope with the German invaders.

The Germans confiscated nearly all the islands’ animals to feed their soldiers in France. About all they left the islanders was potatoes. They even invented potato peel pie which has no flour or sugar or fruit. Only potatoes.

A few animals did remain hidden. In defiance of curfew a few residents roasted a hog one night and consumed it along with some home brewed spirits. When confronted by German soldiers while heading home, they invented the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society since such literary society meetings were permitted by the Germans. Read about it in a book named after the Society or watch the movie based on it.

The Germans were defeated and left Guernsey and Jersey. But the modern Holstein milk cows still remain dominant worldwide. Modern people like the low fat Holstein milk, not realizing that wholesome natural fat is good for you. It’s only the artificial fats that hurt you.

After the war, back in the late 1940s, 50s and early 60s, there were still plenty of Jerseys and Guernseys supplying high quality milk to Americans. Efficient, industrial agriculture has made short shrift of them in the last 50 years. Modern attitudes have taken over. Relations between the sexes and races has changed for the better, but we may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

In decrying the stifling attitudes of the past, we’ve abandoned a way of life which was much more resilient. We need to speak up for many of the attitudes of the 1950s. Everyone used to value working with your hands, being self-reliant, raising your own food. Some of us still do. My family still milks Jerseys on the family farm in Missouri. Three households raise their own eggs and meat on the farm where I grew up. I’m writing this in a small country in Eastern Europe where people still value the wholesome food produced on small farms.

Some in the US are waking up to the realization that some of the old ways were not so bad. We’d all be better off if we threw off the shackles of modernity and kept the old attitudes of the family farm. To be resilient, you have to innovate, but it must be conservative innovation. You must conserve the tried and true from the past. Conserving while innovating is tricky, but it’s the only way. Only the resilient survive.

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Improving soils through biochar: the water bed method

The daffodils are blooming everywhere here in the Delta. Spring is coming, but the winter rains are hanging on, keeping us from doing much in the garden–except making biochar.

Biochar is the most revolutionary change in farming since organic methods. Biochar improves soil health by improving soil structure, increasing organic matter, reducing soil acidity, reducing the need for chemical and fertilizer inputs and increasing drought resistance. Most importantly to farmers, biochar increases productivity and crop yields. If you aren’t familiar with biochar, read this article and you’ll want to try it.

Comparison of traditional rainforest soils with biochar plot. Source: biocharinternational.org.

We especially like it down here in the Delta because our soils are much like those where biochar was first found. Five hundred years ago Spanish explorers, winding their way through the Amazon River Basin of South America, came upon an interesting phenomenon.  Due to high rainfall, most rainforest soils are leached of plant nutrients and organic matter.  However, periodically the explorers would find small patches of black, highly productive soils.  Upon further investigation they found that these patches were created by local Indian tribes using the partial burning of biomass.  They made these soils from biochar (charcoal).

There are fancy ways of making biochar using pyrolysis in closed containers, but we like quick, easy ways that don’t require any equipment except our trusty shovel, rake and pitchfork.

Water stands on our soils nearly all winter. We have to build them up in raised beds if we want to get any early crops in. Since we have plenty o’trees growing on our property, biochar is the perfect method for us.

We have developed a unique method which might also work for you if you have wet soils and trees you need to thin out. We call it the water bed method because it uses our plentiful winter water and beds.

We start by double digging the soil in dry weather (digging in wet weather just leaves huge clods). We dig down about a foot. We pile all the topsoil in one bed leaving a ditch beside the bed. The ditch fills with water in the wet winter.

As we are cutting firewood in the winter, we haul the branches over next to the new ditch. Then, on a nice still, cold day, we light the brush pile on fire. We enjoy the warmth of the bonfire, but don’t let it get too fierce. We don’t want all the wood to burn up, we just want to turn it into charcoal. When one section of the brush pile has burned down to charcoal, we push it into the water filled ditch. The pleasant sizzle of hot charcoal hitting water means the wood has quit burning and we have just contributed a little biochar to our next bed.

When the winter rains lessen in Spring, we cover the now biochar filled ditch with soil from the side of the plot where we burned the branches. Since it was burned, it has no grass or weeds to deal with. Nice clean soil for our next bed is what we are putting on top of the biochar filled ditch. And we are creating a new ditch for our next biochar prodution phase.

It’s a simple easy method for us. And fun. We have an excuse for nice bonfires in the winter when everything is cold and wet. And we know we’re doing something productive with all that wood waste. It will be soil in the Spring. A resilient soil which can be planted early.

If you create biochar, you’ll be creating the most resilient soil system. As shown in the rainforest plots in the Amazon Basin, biochar appears to sequester carbon for hundreds if not thousands of years.  It is resistant to the microbial breakdown that is common with crop residues and other types of soil organic matter.  Crop residues break down in a couple of years and humus oxidizes in less than 25 years.  So, biochar is not subject to the “leakage” that is a concern for carbon sequestered with no till farming and the carbon capture and sequestration of fossil fuel carbon emissions 

You’ll be countering global warming. Biochar has been shown to reduce the soil emissions of nitrous oxide (as a greenhouse gas, it is 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide) and improve the uptake of methane (21 times more potent than carbon dioxide).

Biochar has a unique ability to reduce atmospheric carbon levels. 
Biochar production takes plant based carbon that originated from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and sequesters it in the soil. 

Plus its a great way to spend a clear winter day when you want to be outside and you want to be warm. Start a fire and make biochar!