Pooh Talks: soil health, early winter, and very casually throws in a "BTW"

“Excuse Me Mr. Sprague, it is not dirt we are studying. Dirt is what your mother washes off your pants in the washing machine. It is what she sweeps up in the kitchen if you do not leave your boots in the mudroom. We are studying soils, and they merit your respect.”

—Nobel Peterson PhD, addressing me (down) in my introductory soils course at UNH in 1971.

Recently there was an article in the valley news about a horse farmer in Vermont. One of the things that she touts about is using horses and that a horse has a low impact on the soil, and it fits into her organic paradigm really well. There has been a lot of research on soil health in the last 5 years, a lot is a direct spin off of Warren Buffett’s farmer/son committing a lot of personal assets towards research. The USDA and FSA have gotten involved in additional research and funding as well. As a result, more research has gone into understanding and supporting the understanding of soil structure, chemistry and flora and fauna, and getting much of that information out to practicing farmers.

Some of this goes into the category of “what is old is new again”. There was certainly a large body of research and methodology available to farmers in the first half of the twentieth century. Much came from European understanding and origin, but there were those in America who espoused and promoted it such as JI Rodale and writer Louis Broomfield. However, starting in the late 1940s, much of those practices were abandoned in favor of conventional chemical farming which enabled farmers to magnify yields very easily, and better yet, profitably. It really wasn’t until the “back to the land movement” of the 1970s when organic practices came back into vogue, that soil began to be empirically investigated. The downsides of conventional and chemically based practices were starting to become apparent. Maine’s own Eliot Coleman became the primary spokesperson for the movement for the boomer generation of farmers. But much of the old knowledge had been lost or buried. I remember, as a member of the Vermont Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, going to a meeting and Verne Grubinger introducing us to the concept and benefits of adding hairy vetch for nitrogen production in our winter cover crops. I got all fired up with this new information. I thought Verne had come up with this stuff, and soon all of us were adding hairy vetch to the mix. About five years ago I was reading a 1932 Blue Seal Feed pocket calendar, which the feed companies also supplemented with info like weights, animal gestation periods, feed blends for specific animal production as well as seeding rates for grains and legumes. Guess what? They were recommending 15 lbs of hairy vetch seed mixed with every bushel of winter rye. For nitrogen production. In 1932. Cool….

So people who work the forest and fields for a living are beginning to have a better reverence and appreciation for their soils, and a better understanding of what can support the chemical and biological activity therein. We have worked proactively the past 15-20 years to understand and implement practices that are less invasive and more supportive. We have always been disciples of cover cropping and recently I was lucky enough to be involved with an NRCS 2 year study looking at tillage innovations, practices as well as cover crop seed mixes. I thought I was pretty up to date and doing a good job, but it’s also pretty exciting to have all this new information before us, and it will assuredly impact our future cropping practices on our farm. And equally exciting is the fact that it is not just us old hippy farmers or the homesteader and her horse in Vermont who are embracing this new info. It’s large dairy and commodity farmers as well. So where I am often despondent about what is happening and coming out of our executive and legislative branches in our federal government, I am equally uplifted by what I see happening in American Agriculture as farmers look at their soils as a prized resource and committing anew to treat it that way.

For those of you that haven’t noticed already: Winter came, and it came too damn early. I haven’t taken a digger on the ice going across the yard to the dumpster yet, but there is still plenty of time before Christmas to do so. I navigate the icy footing by walking bow legged for stability, which makes me look like either a small child with a load in his diapers or an old geezer trying not to get his noggin cracked open from a fall. Wait a minute. I am an old geezer. Well, even the millennials around here don’t care very much for the winter thus far. Dry cold is one thing, but a hand tool with snow on it is just an unpleasant experience no matter what. We are struggling to get our strawberries mulched, but there is enough glaciated snow in the berry field so it is hard to tell if you are actually spreading mulch on the plant rows or in between the rows. This is known as “let’s do something even if it’s wrong” farming. We have no time to do it in the spring, and its super hard getting around the field now with a 4 wheel drive tractor…so …it’s now or never…


And we are in the middle of greenhouse repairs. Mike has lifted up and restructured our first two tomato houses with taller ground stakes to make them two feet higher. The gable ends are being reconstructed and winter snow cover hampers him as well. Ray is still packing out root crops for wholesale and working on seed orders. We are all grateful that our new pack and storage barn is up. The miserably cold temps in November would have assuredly frozen our root crops if they were stored in bins in pole barns as we had done in the past. Having the washer indoors with a bit of heat is making it luxurious to wash and pack out compared to what we would have had faced with in the old pack-shed.


As we are closing in on year’s end we are closing up books in preparation for taxes and visiting with the accountant. People always ask ”How did you do?” or “Was it a good year?” Well, we were set up a bit behind the 8 ball with a mediocre strawberry season due to deteriorating weather conditions in the last half of the season so there wasn’t much profitability there. Drought like conditions for most of the summer (remember the drought? Before the monsoons of October and November?) made growing things difficult, but we fared better than some of my friends and colleagues. Best of all, we had one of the best and harmonious work crews that I can remember in 45 years of doing this. I can not tell you how huge that is for all of us. So, no banner year with a new skid steer for us in the door yard. But good enough to make payments, have a nice Christmas and want to fire the whole thing up and get going again for 2019. (BTW, geranium cuttings for 2019 are on the rooting bench) It never ends, it just seamlessly segues into the next growing season…

Our family continues to enjoy good health and many blessings, among which is the community support for our farm and what we do. In as much as we wish you the best holiday season, we personally thank you for your patronage and moral support.