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The unintended benefits of having a diverse, biologically oriented farm

As usual, I spent the morning watching and attempting to photograph the bugs of the buckwheat. I saw a new wasp in great numers and managed to get a good picture:
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Fortunately wasps are pretty easy to google, especially ones with distinctive marking. Google led me to a local catalog of wasps which yielded a scientific name to plug back into google. Wikipedia revealed that the female wasps of the species burrow in search of Japanese Beetle grubs. Finally! A predator of japanese beetles attracted to my farm! And more importantly, its native!

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Sorry for the unexpected break!

I try to post everyday…as long as I have something useful to share. If not, I don’t mind saving the bandwidth and time of both my readers and myself.

The truth is I’ve seemingly coasted into a maintenance phase on the farm front. After installing the garden, the only thing left to do is have patience as both the value and cover crops become established and the manure continues to compost within the beds. However, this coasting has yielded a bit of a creative rut on my part. Well, I’ve still been researching and drawing crazy ideas which I promise I will post soon. So writers block may be a more accurate descriptor.

I also took a bit of a hiatus from technology. I went to the farm this week with only books, and my phone for its camera, audio books and lifeline as I’m solo. I don’t believe any evils are found in the electromagnetism of devices, but avoiding them helps me hit the psychological reset button.

Topics coming in the next week (or soon if something of higher priority springs up): Getting stung by my bees for the first time, the amazing buckwheat plant, my crazy fence design and many more.

 

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Xylem Filter: Simple low tech water filter using a pine branch

A study published from the University of Singapore has found a way to use a vinyl tube, hose clamp and peel pine branch to effectively filter out bacteria and viruses from drinking water. Also of note is that the study is published to be read freely by all. Most of my readers know by now my hatred of scientific journals that publish studies funded by taxpayer money, but require payment to view the results.

Trees transport water in the xylem (aka sapwood) from the roots to the rest of the tree. By tightening a vinyl tube using a hose clamp around a section of branch with the bark removed, a watertight seal is made while the porous sapwood filter the water. After all, plants have had millions of years to learn how to remove bubbles in order to transport the water using pressure differentials through the entirely of the organism. The reason softwoods are recommended is that the pores in the xylem are smaller. Surprisingly, this simple filter even captured 20 nm gold particles from the water indicating that viruses are expected to be trapped by the filter. So it should not be a surprise that the filter is effective to 200 nm, the size required to remove bacteria and protozoa.

This is amazing stuff, especially considering the impacts of treating water and distributing it through municipalities. Chlorine treatment is expensive and the piping to distribute chlorinated water corrodes making it both expensive to build as well as maintain. Boiling, distilling and subjecting water to reverse osmosis has a large fuel cost. Membrain systems are prone to clogging, are expensive and require a pump/fuel to force the water through the filter.

Xylem filtration might be a key development in small scale water filtration!

 

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Barn bringing together form and function

One of my idols in the sustainable farming world is Joel Salatin. His position is one of entirely utilitarian structures and always argues against spending time or resources on aesthetics. I think his point is valid, but I also disagree to some degree.

Aesthetics serve many purposes. It garners respect from individuals who may not have much knowledge or connection to agriculture. Creating a beautiful agricultural property can not only enrich the lives of the farm operator, but also its neighbors and visitors. Leaving no consideration to aesthetics can be extrapolated, in my mind at least, to placing no importance in various forms of art. In my opinion, that is a dangerous path of logic to wander down.

As a result, when I see images like this Norwegian barn, the marrying of form and function has an incredible impact. I’ve done a reserve google search in an effort to find and properly credit the original source but I have been unable to do so. Does anyone know the source?

Edit: Thank you so much to Thomas in the comment section for tracking down the source. This image belongs to ODDLEIV APNESETH. If google translate is accurate, the barn was built in 1885 with the next seven years spent on the bridge and it is still used for goat production today!

My personal view on aesthetics regarding functional aspects of the farm is as follows. I find beauty in natural disorder. Thus I find monoculture orchards set in rows to be boring compared to those containing bushes that harbor pest eating spiders, flowers that attract pollinators, tap rooted companions that recycle nutrients from deep in the soil, and herbs that trap/deter pests or attract predatory helpers. Current shifts in industrial agriculture seem to be incredulously acknowledging this view. As pollination of monoculture fields is growing more unpredictable, farms are starting to leave “wild patches” in cultivated fields as native pollinators will not travel further than 300 feet from their nest to forage.

In conclusion, our society seems to place importance in order and complete control over nature which I believe is a relic of manifest destiny here in America. This view neglects to consider the biological and economical functions that omit biodiversity from orderly, controlled displays of flora which, in my opinion, is a fundamental flaw of the role aesthetics play in modern plant cultivation.

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Potential Conspiracy theory: The controversial existence and/or extinction of the eastern cougar

Preface

No part of this conspiracy is proven. Theory is intended to be taken at its literal definition and this post is something I wrote for fun in a purely speculative manner. This debate is fascinating to someone with an interest in wildlife biology so curiosity lead to investigation. I have no other outlet in which to publish this piece, so I hope you don’t mind my stepping away from the normal content of this blog for this one, albeit long, post.

Overview of the Eastern Cougar controversy

Recently an announcement detailed the extinction of a subspecies that may have never existed in the first place. There is major contention between Puma-related biologists as to whether the now extinct eastern cougar is (/was?) any different than the western cougar. In fact, the dispute continues on in saying the cougars found on the eastern side of the continent are surviving eastern cougars. Or are they western cougars who are wandering eastward into the forests that have recovered from utter destruction by settlers encroaching westward under manifest destiny? Or are they large cats escaped from captivity? Habitat now exists with the recovered forests and the prey base found in the problematic white tail deer population all over the eastern seaboard can certainly support predators. The debate rages and is actually quite fun to follow.

Dismissal and denial of cougars by state wildlife agencies.

While I was researching this topic for my own curiosity, I started to uncover a trend. People all over the Eastern US have reported cougar sightings practically non stop thorough human settlement in the region. Up until recently, they were mostly sighted by truck drivers or hunters and other outdoorsmen only to be written off by wildlife officials as comparable to Bigfoot sightings. However the advent of technology that put cameras in the pocket of most every citizen changed everything.

Sightings were now being reported by everyday people; from stay-at-home parents to the same hunters as before. However, now the former is armed with a quick acting camera phones with the latter now using motion activated trail cameras to nonintrusively document wildlife. Yet state agencies are denying hard evidence that the cats are in their jurisdictions. Furthermore, some agencies admit to having cougars, but deny having a “breeding population” thus negating the need for a management plan. The last few decades have yielded accumulating confirmed evidence.

Based on this source from 2001 before mass adoption of the previously mentioned cell phone technology (pdf warning, pages 15-18):

  • Illinois, 2000- train killed mature male cougar, intact claws (indicates wild and not escaped from captivity), stomach contents 100% deer
  • Kentucky, 1997 – roadkill female kitten, intact claws, driver reported kitten was following and adult cougar with another kitten
  • West Virginia 1976 in a span of two days – mature male shot by farmer after killing sheep then pregnant female trapped. All paperwork destroyed by the WV DNR
  • Ontario – 1999 scat confirmed to be cougar
  • New Brunswick 1990 – scat containing self-groomed hairs confirmed as cougar
  • Vermont 1994 – scat collected from a sighting of 3 cats together confirmed to be cougar
  • Massachusetts 1997 – scat confirmed cougar
  • Maryland – home video of cougar (though I have yet to find it online)
  • North Carolina – Video (though I have yet to find it online) and tracks confirmed cougar
  • Maine 1994 – tracks identified as cougar by 2 game wardens
  • Virginia 1990 – videos (though I have yet to find it online) and casted tracks confirmed cougar. 1997 mother and kitten reported with a kill of 25 goats. Kills not confirmed to be cougar.

 

Also this photo captured by trail cam and dated 2014 was posted by a resident of southern Virginia to a hunting forum:

A reverse google search shows the picture was only ever shared on that hunting forum, thus is seemingly not the typical case of a photo circulated from a western state with a fictitious narrative.

In 2011, Connecticut residents repeatedly sighted a cougar that the state’s wildlife agency confidently stated was an escaped captive.cougar was killed by a car and thought to be the same one that residents reported. DNA testing revealed the animal was wild had travelled from South Dakota. In the first source, the state wildlife agency state that no native cats exist in the state of Connecticut. Wild animals do not honor state boundaries and cougars are clearly moving back into their original territory. So why does the state wildlife agency not even list cougars as existing in their new, revised wildlife plan? (pdf, page 1-5 to 1-7)

Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has a similar take on cougars. In the cougar FAQ section of their website, they acknowledge their presence but claim there is not a breeding population in the state. Rather, they state that cougars sightings are from animals escaped from captivity or from the Dakotas, listed as the nearest location of a breeding population. Other, independent wildlife groups reporting undoubtable evidence in both the upper and lower peninsulas compiled in this source (google books). This DNR report states that 26 confirmed sightings in the UP since 2008 but still denies that a breeding population exists. As such, no management plan is seen as necessary (archive source to avoid paywall).

The Department of Game and Inland fisheries of my own state of Virginia states only “Unconfirmed sightings” have occurred in 29 counties. This is despite a Freedom of Information Act inquiry revealing that 5 of its own employees witnessed cougars in 1995. The man who lost 25 goats to a suspected cougar kill was awarded $4,5oo compensation approved by both the Virginia State Senate and House, only to be vetoed by the governor. Today, the cougar is not included in any tier of the VDGIF wildlife action plan.

When I was young, coyotes were reported in the extreme western parts of the state but all of the wildlife agencies adamantly denied their movement into populous areas. Then boom! One gets killed by a commuter on Interstate 66 in a DC suburb of Virginia. It was mounted and put on display at a park I worked at as a teenager. They had thought the coyotes came from the great plains, but genetic testing showed that they came from New York. Even the experts can be wrong, but something more may be amiss.

The Conspiracy Theory

The actions of state wildlife agencies do raise some circumstantial questions. Why did WVDNR destroy its reports on the two lions confirmed in 1976? Why are most of the eastern state wildlife agencies refusing to entertain the notion that the animals may be breeding in light of increasing sightings and confirmations? Why did the governor of Virginia veto the compensation for the man who lost 25 goats? Why are agencies flat out refusing to work cougars into their management plans and consistently writing off sightings as domestic cats, bears, and golden or labrador retrievers? Articles like this one paint a strong case against the cougar in Virginia, but also omit the information obtained in the FOIA request.

It certainly is not an issue of competence. These state agencies are comprised of avid outdoorsmen with years of specialized training and education. Speculation puts the answer in resource allocation. Budgets of state agencies are stretched thin enough as it is. If they were to acknowledge the existence of breeding populations of cougars, they would have to dedicate resources to creating management plans. After all, wildlife is property of the state until a permit is issued that transfers the animal to a private citizen. Thus, the state would be liable to compensate farmers for wildlife losses upon recognition that they manage a population of wild, breeding predators. Had the Virginia Governor approved the compensation for the farmer, it would have acknowledged that wildlife were causing damage to the agricultural economy setting the precedent that increased management of wild predators is required.

Conclusion

Is the point of this to cause fear? Absolutely not! Over a period of 121 years, only 20 people have been killed by mountain lions. Only 3 people have been killed so far this millenia. Yet non-fatal attacks are up from 48 in the century ending in 1990, adding another 40 over the following 24 years. Heavily populated California sees the greatest proportion of encounters. With the unchecked whitetail deer population in the east coupled with the territorial cougars range of at least 25 miles, human-cougar interactions should be minimal. However, management plans by state wildlife agencies should be ready (or at least on the horizon) to ensure population numbers remain in check before a fatal encounter occurs in the east. Maybe management plans are not necessary and if cats are present, they may be peacefully living amongst us like the coyotes of past. On the other hand, it may take a fatal encounter in the east to officially put this animal on the map.

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Quick update: asparagus!

I need another day to finish the next post on mulching, so here is a quick update from the farm.

Asparagus sucks…why do I have to enjoy eating it so much? Requiring 8″ deep by 12″ diameter holes, and raised garden beds atop 50 year old fill dirt, I pushed my physical limits planting this crop. I filled 7 5-gallon buckets with rocks pulled out of the planting holes and in hindsight, this is what took the most time and physical effort.

It took so long to get all the beds planted that the first batch has already sprouted and ferned out. Another thanks to Nourse Farms for the great quality plants. Although their 25 crown minimum and my desire for two varieties almost killed me when having to plant them all!

I’ll expand on the planting process in a future post, but this is all I feel like typing on my phone.

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Last note: grrr I can’t wait to have chickens to take a bite out this population!!!

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Very Impressed with Nourse Farms

Just to be clear, I am not affiliated with nor have any incentive to promote this business other than to get people to support them as they are such a fantastic operation. Spending money here vs a bargain operation is voting with your money.

I have patronized 4 mail order nurseries so far. None have even come close to the quality of Nourse Farms!

Specifically:

  1. Plant vigor: The plants they sent have a huge number of healthy buds. I ordered a tree from another nursery that came pruned in a manner that left no living buds. I don’t know how it will survive.
  2. Secure Packaging: The plants come immaculately packaged. Each plant has an individually wrapped root system, then all similar plants are wrapped together around a bamboo support. For example, all of my blueberries came bundled together with each individual plant having its own soil wrapped root system. Same for strawberries, gooseberries, currants, asparagus and rhubarb.
  3. Varietal tagging: Each plant was individually tagged with its variety. One nursery sent me plants with loose tags that did not stay attached so it took enormous effort to determine which one was which variety. Another nursery sent me plants in tiny pots with slip in tags. They then packed the plants sideways so most of the tags fell out of the pots.
  4. Extra Support: They attached each bundle of plants to a section of bamboo that protects them all from being broken either in shipment or unpacking. The nursery from which I ordered my trees and a few brambles wrapped everything in together. Even with meticulous unpacking, some of the valuable buds were knocked off and tender young stems snapped.
  5. Economical Shipping: While not packed in a manner that compromised safety, the plants were arranged in a very economical manner in regard to both space and money. In fact the nursery somehow packed 200+ plants weighing 30 pounds in a box smaller than a Rubbermaid tub.
  6. Location: Located in New England grants more confidence that the plants are adapted to local winter conditions compared to those from southern nurseries.

 

Since some of my raspberries succumbed to an errant pass of a lawn mower, I’m excited to replace them with the great stock from Nourse Farms.

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Tree Germination Experiment: Results And Observations

This week exactly 85 seedlings (9 persimmon, 7 apple and 69 honey locust) were repotted with the final figures from the experiment being recorded. 12 additional honey locusts seedlings were culled due to rotted roots and thus not recorded as successful seedlings. The Persimmons experiment is still ongoing as those seeds are germinating at a much slower rate.

Recap

Before the tables are presented, a recap of the experiment is in order. For Honey Locusts and Persimmons, 3 soil compositions were used: soil and compost, soil and compost and perlite, soil and compost and perlite and perlite mulch. In each cell two seedlings were planted. Twice as many cells were filled with the soil and compost mixture opposed to the other two soils. For more detail, see the previous posts in this series at the bottom. The apple seeds were obtained from commercial gala apples and the results were recorded for fun.

Data

Honey Locust Experiment              
Soil composition # of Cells Seeds planted
 per cell
Individual
Seedlings
Cells with
no Germination
Cells with
double Germination
Percentage of
Successful seeds
Percentage of
Successful cells
Dirt Only 36 2 30 16 10 41.66666667 55.55555556
Dirt & Perlite 18 2 17 5 4 47.22222222 72.22222222
Dirt & Perlite & Perlite Mulch 18 2 17 5 4 47.22222222 72.22222222
Persimmon Experiment              
Soil composition # of Cells Seeds planted
 per cell
Individual
Seedlings
Cells with
no Germination
Cells with
double Germination
Percentage of
Successful seeds
Percentage of
Successful cells
Dirt Only 36 2 3 33 0 4.166666667 8.333333333
Dirt & Perlite 18 2 2 16 0 5.555555556 11.11111111
Dirt & Perlite & Perlite Mulch 18 2 4 14 0 11.11111111 22.22222222
Apple Experiment              
Soil composition # of Cells Seeds planted
 per cell
Individual
Seedlings
Cells with
no Germination
Cells with
double Germination
Percentage of
Successful seeds
Percentage of
Successful cells
Dirt & Perlite 8 2 7 3 3 43.75 62.5

 

Results

Apples being included just for fun proved to be the most vigorous germinators in terms of growth rate. No soil mixtures were used so no data is available.

Persimmons show a slight preference for perlite mixed into the subsoil and a significant preference for mulching with pure perlite.

Honey Locusts show a preference for both soil mixtures containing perlite over the soil and compost only mixtures. However significant subjective observations became very apparent and are noted in the next section.

Future Considerations

Some manner of objective measurement of both stem and root dimensions is needed for the honey locusts. Seedlings in the soil/compost only group showed the greatest growth both above and below the soil. Seedlings in either soil mixture containing perlite yielded roots that had rotted completely. Pictured below is an example: Perlite mulched soil on left, soil and compost only on the right.

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Differences in growth characteristics negate this need with persimmons. Where honey locusts develop many soft lateral roots early, persimmons only develop deep woody taproots that are not prone to rotting. Pictured below is a persimmon seedling for comparison purposes.

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Conclusion

By measure of germination success, honey locust seeds show preference for perlite soils. When considering successful root and stem development, soil/compost only is the best mixture.

Not enough persimmons germinated to provide conclusive results but from the successful germinations, persimmons appear to prefer perlite in the soil and as mulch.

 

 

Pictured below is all 85 repotted seedlings back in the growing tent. Containers consist of 16 oz. drink cups from walmart, topless milk pints, fast food cups saved by friends/family and various household products containers. At some point a fan will be placed on the seedlings to encourage stem strength for structural considerations.

IMG_20150501_173723

 

Previous posts in this series:

Collecting Honey Locust seeds

Planting Persimmon seeds

Scarifying Honey Locust seeds

Planting Honey Locust seeds

Update on progress

Another update on progress

Tree Germination experiment: Non-supersaturated pictures

Tree Germination Experiment Update: THE PERSIMMONS ARE ALIVE

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