In April of 2012, we wrote a blog post about the Norfolk four course, an 18th century innovation in crop rotation. The principles behind this system have informed many of Seven Trees’ current growing practices, only scaled down to fit our space and time.
We recently received a notice that someone had linked back to this blog post, so naturally we were curious. A few clicks led us to a blog written by someone in training at a working historical farm in…..Norfolk! at the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. From their website:
In 1776 the combined parishes of Mitford and Launditch bought Chapel Farm at Gressenhall to build a ‘house of industry’ for the poor.
In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act led to the transformation of the house of industry into a workhouse. The aim was to keep costs low by making life for the paupers so unpleasant that people would do everything they could to avoid having to live there.
A new system of classification separated men, women and children. Work included breaking stones, pumping water, carting gravel and oakum picking for men and domestic chores in the kitchens, laundry and female wards for women. The only benefits were the health care and education.
The workhouse closed in 1948. After a short period of time as a home for the elderly, Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse opened as a museum in 1976.
The animals on Gressenhall Farm are all East Anglian breeds that would have been common in our farmyards 100 years ago:
• Red Poll cattle
• Norfolk Horn sheep
• Suffolk sheep
• Southdown sheep
• British White cows
• Suffolk Punch horses
• Marsh Daisy chickens
• Norfolk Black turkeys
• Large Black pigs
There is a lot to explore on the website alone, so if historical farm geekery is your thing, dig in and click around!
I don’t think the humans of Seven Trees have too many ancestors from that area, but we added it to the list of potential stops when we make our big ancestral tour in the next few years.
We were recently gifted a spiffy almost-new White Mountain ice cream maker, but hadn’t had time to try it out. Then one morning we noticed a pint of whipping cream we bought from our favorite dairy had turned to something surprisingly like creme fraiche. Not wanting to waste this yummy ingredient, we decided to break out the ice cream maker and crank out a summertime treat.
This recipe from the LA Times looked simple and delicious, and we had all the ingredients but rock salt and crushed ice. We made the custard and sugared the berries the night before, so everything would be well-chilled the next day. Then we mixed them together, dumped it in the canister, packed the bucket with ice and salt……and cranked…..….and cranked. Salt and ice work magic with each other in ways best explained by this informative blog post from theKitchn. After about 30 minutes, the custard was starting to freeze into a soft-serve consistency. Time to repack the proto-ice cream into other containers so it could go into the freezer and harden into its final delicious stage. We waited a few hours for our dessert sample. It was still a little soft, but amazingly good.
While reading up on ice cream and hand-cranked ice cream makers, we learned that George Washington spent the then-considerable sum of $200 on ice cream fixings during the summer of 1790. Thomas Jefferson had a favorite ice cream recipe, preserved in the Library of Congress. Maybe we’ll try that one next time, if we can puzzle out his handwriting 🙂
Some of our food crops are starting to slow down, others are just getting up to speed, and our fall planting is underway. We trialed a kind of radish called French Breakfast that are very crisp and mild. Most of the early planting is long eaten, or bolted in the heat, so it’s time to plant more as the weather cools. The last one from out of the garden gave us a bit of a laugh. Our ancient Roman forbearers might have noticed the resemblance to a fascinus, an amulet used as a remedy for the evil eye. Blackadder fans might recognize the similarity to a certain turnip served for dinner by Baldrick, right before Edmund’s big drinking party.
At Seven Trees Farm we’re always searching for information on farming methods of the past. Thanks to the modern technology of the present, there is plenty available, with a little digging. Living-history, reenactment type shows are a great way to see period tools, methods, construction, etc in full color. Due to time & budget constraints, they aren’t always as ‘deep’ as one would like, but beggars can’t be choosers.
BBC television seems to be right on top of historical aspects of the grow-your-own movement, starting back in 2005 with Tales from the Green Valley. This series recreates aspects of rural life on a British farm circa 1620, through the course of a calendar year. While 400 years might seem too far back to make a connection, the way this show illustrates the cyclical seasonal nature of farm life is impressive. At Seven Trees Farm, we perform many of the same tasks, at the same times, for the same reasons. Planting, harvesting, livestock breeding and slaughter, food preservation….all planned to make the most of weather and time and available labor.
Very low-tech compared to the next series of farm life shows, but great foundational information for low-input farming. I do have to note that most farmsteads would have had more ‘personnel’ on board – maids, farm hands, family members. I’m sure there were budgetary constraints keeping that aspect of accuracy down, but if you didn’t know more about daily life of a farm household in that era, it could be misleading.
Victorian Farm kicks off a few hundred years later, and really highlights how the industrial age changed farming. There were many many time and labor saving devices, mass produced in factories. Life was still relatively unadorned compared to modern times, but more food, clothing and tools were available ready-made than ever before. This convenience was a double-edged sword. Many people who were previously employed haying, dairying, making clothes, blacksmithing, and so on, were put out of work. Some ended up migrating to cities to take on factory work for wages. This meant they could buy ready-made things themselves, but they and their families were disconnected from the land and rural traditions. Food production was beginning to be the province of machinery and industrialization.
Watching this series while processing our own harvest has been inspirational in terms of ‘discovering’ old-fashioned equipment that would be helpful additions to our arsenal. A corn-sheller to get kernels from dried cobs, a root shredder to grind beets, mangels and rutabagas, and possibly a fodder chopper which makes it easier to chop stalks of straw into shorter lengths. All of these used to be common farmstead equipment, but are now expensive ebay relics, or expensive reproductions at modern homestead shops.
There are two more series in the BBC’s exploration of historical farm life, Edwardian Farmand Wartime Farm, that we have yet to watch.
Another great source of ground-level historical farming information are the collections of scanned texts available online. Depending on the topic of interest, it’s possible to read primary source material dating back hundreds of years.
Open Library aims to provide “one web page for every book” and houses a huge collection of electronically-accessible titles under a wide range of subject headings. Electronic books are available in a range of formats, online and downloadable. Naturally we are exploring poultry management titles from the turn of the last century. Practices that were once common for small to mid-sized commercial flocks, such as colony housing and rotational grazing, were the methods of choice not too long ago.
Titles like Eggs and Egg Farms have abundant advice on breeding laying hens, growing and mixing feed for different times of the year, building poultry infrastructure, etc. Instead of spending a fortune on newly-written books and magazines, first go for a ramble through what worked in the relatively pre-industrial times of 100 years ago.
Kellscraft Studio has a selection of public domain books that are optimized for reading on a web page format. We found a few on farming and other homestead-friendly topics, plus a lot of other just plain good reading books.
The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries that cooperate to digitize and make accessible the biodiversity literature held in their collections. The site has it’s own navigational style, but more focused content. Browsing by subject and searching by keywords are good ways to find farmish titles.
Hopefully you’ll find something helpful, interesting, and even entertaining at these links and sources. Winter is here, and perfect timing for curling up with a good ebook or video….
Nope. But some very important information for anyone interested in diversified subsistence farming.
Crop rotation has been practiced for millennia, all over the planet. But in Norfolk, England in the 17th century, landowners and farm managers started applying some systemic principles in what crops and animals went where, and when.
In the past, crop rotation in northern Europe was as simple as planting one half the land while leaving the other half fallow, or unplanted. The idea was that this gave the land time to rest and recover some of the nutrients taken out of it by the harvested crop. Until recently, farmers didn’t have the tools to analyze the details of plant and soil biology, but they did have generations of observation and trial & error to work from. This process eventually led to a 3-field rotation system. One section was planted in the autumn with winter wheat or rye. The next spring, the second field was planted with other crops such as peas, lentils, or beans and the third field was left fallow. The three fields were rotated in this manner so that every three years, a field would rest and be unplanted.
Legumes, such as beans, peas or clover, fix nitrogen from the air into nodules on the plants’ roots. Subsequent crops can make use of the nitrogen and show much improvement over the same crops planted on ‘spent’ land. The main draw-back of the 3-crop method though, was that weed seeds built up in the soil and eventually lowered productivity. The way grains and legumes are farmed doesn’t leave spacing for weeding. Cultivation happens before planting and after harvest, and weeds adapted to the growing cycles of these plants.
What has been termed the Agricultural Revolution in England was the culmination of old-school hands on experience, and the evolving science of agriculture. By the 18th century, the four-field rotation (popularized in the Norfolk area of England) was literally revolutionizing food production. And that wasn’t all. This system was the closest thing to closed-loop sustainability humans had seen in this part of the world. More food. Healthier land. Thriving livestock.
One first hand account of the Norfolk four course is found in the published diary of Anthony Beck (1901-1995).
This rotation included two cash crops, two animal feed crops. The turnips were a weed cleaning crop, hay enriched the soil. It ensured the health of the crops: any disease in the wheat did not affect the following turnips, its germs had died before wheat was again drilled. The need for men’s labour was spread over the year: after harvest came stack thatching, then mucking out of cattle yards, carting and spreading the muck on the fields where turnips would grow, possibly also before the wheat. Ploughing lasted over autumn and winter. Some of the wheat was drilled, some in spring, then barley and finally turnips. There was hoeing in early summer, haysel in late summer; if oats were grown instead of part of the wheat shift they were the first corn to ripen before wheat and barley. Often the fat cattle were ready for market before harvest, leaving the stockmen free to help at the busy harvest time.
There were many variations of this system, depending on climate and crops adapted to the area. One constant was livestock. Growing a crop that livestock (usually sheep) could be turned out on to graze saved labor and kept weeds down. But the biggest benefit was in having the field fertilized by these mobile manure factories. No need to pile up compost for later spreading, the sheep ate the turnip (or mangel) tops, and the roots could be stored for winter fodder. In later years, the rotations often included crops that weren’t grazed directly, but harvested for off-field feed, or sold off-farm altogether. The loss of animal manure meant that alternatives in the form of green ‘manure’ crops such as rye, buckwheat and vetch were sown & plowed under. The balance of nutrients wasn’t the same, but cash-cropping over sustainability was becoming more important as Europe was increasingly at war.
As agriculture became more industrialized, farmers relied more and more on artificial fertilizers and mechanical implements. They were faster and gave a lot of bang for the buck, though modern methods didn’t replenish the land or employ people as had been the practice for most of our agricultural past. The so-called Green Revolution also drove us away from sustainable agriculture in pushing government-subsidized genetically-engineered crops, artificial fertilizers, and monocultural farming practices. Yields rose in the short term, but at the cost of dependence on corporate-controlled inputs and mechanized tools over human workers.
Now that we are learning the terrible cost of drenching our land with chemicals and GMO crops, the older ways of growing food are regaining importance. We can learn a lot from areas still farming traditionally. The wiki on crop rotation in sub-Saharan Africa says this:
“…as animal husbandry becomes less of a nomadic practice many herders have begun integrating crop production into their practice. This is known as mixed farming, or the practice of crop cultivation with the incorporation of raising cattle, sheep and/or goats by the same economic entity, is increasingly common. This interaction between the animal, the land and the crops are being done on a small scale all across this region. Crop residues provide animal feed, while the animals provide manure for replenishing crop nutrients and draft power. Both processes are extremely important in this region of the world as it is expensive and logistically unfeasible to transport in synthetic fertilizers and large-scale machinery. As an additional benefit, the cattle, sheep and/or goat provide milk and can act as a cash crop in the times of economic hardship…”
At Seven Trees, we’re definitely working to incorporate this relationship into our food-growing practice. That’s why we call what we do diversified subsistence farming. Gleaning what we can about the sustainable practices of our ancestors opens up a wide horizon for maximizing the potential of our tiny farm. We are working out our own four-course crop rotation, with the goal of keeping our land healthy and productive, feeding our critters as much as we can, feeding ourselves, and growing enough to sell sustainably.
There are a lot of benefits to sorting out a sensible crop rotation – continuous production, lessening of pest/weed loads, reduced cost from outside inputs, staggered labor needs, more widely distributed risks and costs, and something less well-defined called “The Rotation Effect” – a 10-25% yield increase in a crop grown in rotation versus monoculture.
If you’d like to dig in to some of the source material about crop rotation, here are some good places to start:
On Saturday we headed to Berthusen Park in Lynden for the 71st annual International Plowing Match. A pair of Clydesdales taking a break. Some lovely light-colored Belgians. A pair of sorrel Belgians, similarly colored to Kate. A pair of Percherons, pulling a riding plow. We may end up trimming Kate’s tail like these guys’, to help with harnessing and keeping it clear of road mud.
The center of this sun reads “In case you don’t know, this is the sun.” A normal state of affairs in this corner of the continent.
The sun was out most of the weekend, illuminating Mt. Baker and most of the Cascades, Olympics, and Border peaks.
We broke plenty of new ground this weekend, tilling and planting potatoes, greens, kidney & navy beans. Next up is onions , carrots, cabbage & radishes. Another break from the routine is our new kitty-guy, Otto von Bismarck. He followed Newt home one night last week, and is doing well after being neutered and slowly introduced to the household. We think he might have come from the dairy up the road, which ahs a number of resident kitties. The vet said he is about a year old, and was most evidently not fixed yet. He’s a little guy, just a few pounds, but very polite and sweet.
If you haven’t heard about “Farmerettes” or “The Woman’s Land Army of America” [WLAA or WLA] then read on. These female heroes of the great war – WW I, which lasted from 28 July 1914 until 11 November 1918 have been virtually forgotten the better part of 100 years. We’d like to spread the word about them because March is Woman’s History Month, and also because we attended a Women in Agriculture conference recently where we met many an enthusiastic female farmer of the 21st century. It’s important that we recognize the female pioneers who came before us.
The United States Food Administration motto during the great war was “Food Will Win the War!” Food security during wartime was paramount not just for the United States, but also for our ability to aid our European allies at war during the conflict. Back home someone had to continue the farm and food production labors as more and more men were called to war. Women too were called upon to do their part for victory to this end. From 1917 to 1920 more than 20,000 women from all walks of life moved to rural America to take up the labors of men who had entered wartime service. While some areas met these women with scorn, some areas like Elsinore, California were so grateful for their assistance they met arriving Land Army recruits with speeches of welcome and keys to the city. A brass band welcomed the first unit of the California Woman’s Land Army when it arrived in the town of Elsinore on the first of May, 1918. The whole community turned out to greet the fifteen women dressed in their stiff new uniforms. The Chamber of Commerce officials gave speeches of welcome, the Farm Bureau president thanked the “farmerettes” for coming, and the mayor gave them the keys to the city. The Land Army recruits drove the fifty miles from the WLA headquarters offices in downtown Los Angeles to Elsinore in style: the mayor had dispatched a truck to chauffeur them. At the welcoming ceremonies, Mayor Burnham apologized for the lack of an official municipal key ring, and offered instead a rake, hoe, and shovel to the farmerettes, “emblematic of their toil for patriotic defense.” The grateful citizens of Elsinore gave the farmerettes three loud cheers.1
The Woman’s Land Army’s farmerettes drove horse teams and tractors, hauled lumber, plowed, planted and harvested.
Asked if the strenuous labor might prove too hard, and some of the farmerettes might give up after a short stint, the recruits denied that was even possible. “Would we quit?” one farmerette told a reporter, “No, soldiers don’t.”2
Quite astounding for the time period, farmerettes were paid the same wage as male farm laborers, had an 8 hour work day, overtime pay, designated rest periods, decent housing, and other benefits considered radical at the time, especially for women. The WLA was one of the first to break down conventions of the era on how women should dress, what kind of work they were capable of, and that there should be equal pay to the men for equal work.
The WLAA itself was based upon Great Britain’s own movement called “Land Lassies” all women who performed similar wartime service.
The women of the WLA and the Land Lassies were all serving at the epic transition to mechanization as horse power inexorably changed to the gas driven tractor on farm. The far away soldiers witnessed similar changes on the battlefield where the once essential mounted cavalry units were replaced by modern machine guns, artillery and tanks. At home or in foreign lands, it was the dawn of a new era for all. Here at Seven Trees Farm, sometimes we can’t help but feel we stand at another transition point as fuel costs skyrocket and food security as well as safety concern us all more and more. This is why Kate our draft cross mare and single horse farming is such an important part of what we hope to do on our own farm. Eventually maybe we can feel a little like our WLAA sisters must have, farming with their horses a century ago. Don’t be a slackerBe a picker or a packerWLA, Rah, rah, rah!3
This Saturday we attended an all-day conference at the WSU extension in Mount Vernon, WA geared toward women in agriculture. It was one of 16 locations in the state hosting this event, with both local and webcast speakers. It was very eye-opening and inspiring to realize that there were over 500 women taking part in this conference. That’s a lot of people interested and working in agriculture in all its varied forms. From large-scale commercial dairy operators to backyard flock keepers, and much in between.
There were also plenty of opportunities to make connections with other women farmers, and everyone took full advantage.
One important fact we took away from this day is that size doesn’t matter when it comes to farming. Nearly every farm, of every size, depends on off-farm income to make ends meet, whether that be government subsidies for commodity growers, or a day job in town for the people of Seven Trees.
Another interesting fact is that while most Americans think of a farm as a giant swathe of mono-cropped acreage, planted, cultivated & harvested by expensive machinery, in most of the world the average farm is well under 5 acres and depends on hand tools and family labor.
In the past, the US census of agriculture only allowed one person to be reported as the main farm operator. That was usually a man. Now that the form has room for more than one farmer, women are being counted, not as ‘farm wives’, but as the honest-to-goodness farmers they are.
From the Grow Northwest article on the conference, quoting Margaret A. Viebrock, Director of the Washington State University Extension in Douglas County:
“According to the Washington State agriculture census, female principal farm operators increased 44 percent from 5,632 in 2002 to 8,090 in 2007,” she said. “Women manage 881,612 acres of farmland and sell $184,307,000 annually in farm products.”
Ninety-eight percent of women-owned farms, she added, are small farms with total sales less than $250,000. While numbers are increasing, “women farmers continue to be underserved in agriculture education and technical assistance,” she said.
The conference really inspired us to take Seven Trees Farm to the next level. This spring & summer we will be upgrading the hen coop, setting up and seeding high-quality grazing paddocks for the hens, and with Katie’s help, planting (and fertilizing) fodder crops especially for the flock. It takes more work and planning to grow your own feed, but someday we’d like to sell eggs from hens fed on homegrown chow. What we decide not to grow here, we’ll buy from Scratch & Peck Feeds. They source their feed ingredients as locally as possible, which keeps our food fresh and our economy strong.
A longer-term idea we’re exploring is to raise our own replacement hens on-site. The big boys call the practice of controlling every aspect of production, from feed to hen to eggs, vertical integration. We’ve come to rely on Barred Plymouth Rocks as our go-to laying ladies, and they are also an old-fashioned heritage breed that we would like to help preserve. It might also be nice to offer homegrown chicks for sale as well.
In the meantime, we’re starting seeds for spring greens, and anxiously peeking at the chard, spinach & lettuce plants that somehow managed to weather the cold & wind since last fall. It’s that time of year again – spring fever is upon us!