Welcome to this blog about the Crooked River Farm project. Along the bar above, or summary to the left, you can get a little bit of history of the farm and what we’ve done up until about the 1st of Dec 2008. After that, I’ve resorted primarily to the blog format for updates, which end up in the Topics section on the left.

I hope you experience the full schadenfreude of farm restoration and custom home building!

Trish and Chris

Suffolk Punch Draft Horses in Upper Pasture

Suffolk Punch Draft Horses in Upper Pasture


I finally got the house contractor to move the last of his stuff out of the field right in front of the house last week, and spent the time since then clearing, grading, spreading a dump-truck load of topsoil, and clearing it of rocks as best as I could.

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The soil type right here is called “Braddock cobbly loam”.  The “cobbly” refers to the fact that its almost as much rock as it is loam.  Every time I disced this small area, just more rocks like this above came to the surface.  This is only maybe a fifth of an acre, but I manually picked up five bucketloads of rock like this above before just giving up.

Today I seeded it all with annual rye before the rains tomorrow, Annual rye is a fantastic cover crop for fall seeding.  It germinates in cool soil, and grows even in cool temperatures.  It outcompetes weeds, picks up excess nitrogen, and is a terrific soil builder. It will provide cover for the timothy, red and white clover, and orchard grass I’ll broadcast in the next couple of days.  It’s questionable how much the rye will germinate this late in the year, although I’ve had good success in the past spreading pretty late.  But all the seed should be there for germination in the spring if not now.  And with this last little project, I can pretty well put the farm, and other outside tasks, to bed for the winter and head south.


I noticed some Ailanthus trees dead by the side of the highway, and wrote asking my local paper what was up with them – was the highway department killing them?  They actually wrote an article about it -

http://blogs.roanoke.com/whatsonyourmind/2013/10/07/tree-of-heaven-or-hell/

Of course he mispelled basal bark treatment and neglected to mention triclopyr, the herbicide used (mentioned elsewhere in this blog).  But those problems are easily forgiven, with the note about “nonalfalfae”, a natural occuring fungus that is killing the trees.  And that it has been found at milepost 125 on I81, which is exactly where I saw the dead trees.  Poking around on the interwebs, I found that this was the very first place that this was discovered in VA. I’m sure it was noticed there, as it is close to VA Tech.

Further poking around finds that the fungus is actually called Verticillium nonalfalfae.  In a scientific article published only a couple of weeks ago by VA Tech and University of PA researchers, in the field, 100 canopy Ailanthus trees were inoculated across 12 stands with VnAa140 (verticillium nonalfalfae) from 2006 to 2009. By 2011, natural spread of the fungus had resulted in the mortality of >14,000 additional canopy Ailanthus, 10,000 to 15,000 Ailanthus sprouts, and nearly complete eradication of Ailanthus from several smaller inoculated stands, with the exception of a few scattered vegetative sprouts that persisted in the understory for several years before succumbing.

The article concludes: Our results indicate that V. nonalfalfae is host-adapted and highly efficacious against Ailanthus and is thus a strong candidate for use as a biocontrol agent.  I’ve written to the VA Tech researcher to see if I can get the fungus to innoculate some trees here.

So, like rose-rosette disease killing off the invasive multlflora, we now have potential biocontrol of ailanthus.  Next up, something for autumn olive?


Got some goats, sheep, and llamas onto Crooked River Farm this week. After the cows have grazed the pasture, the goats and sheep will eat a lot of what the cows don’t, increasing yield per acre, decreasing the “weed” load, further benefiting the pasture, and further increasing the yield per acre.  Virtuous cycle – at least that’s the theory.

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The llama’s are there as “guard animals” – they are supposed to protect the flock of sheep and goats.  Again, that’s the theory. I once got a llama and a donkey to protect the sheep flock I had for about 25 years.  The donkey harassed the llama to death (literally) and proceeded to terrorize the sheep until we moved him to another paddock and ultimately, to another owner/farm. So far the llamas seem to be behaving themselves and doing their duty protecting the goats and sheep. Will be watching them all closely.  In theory, theory and practice are one and the same – in practice they are not….


I’ve got 150 acres of grass now that needs to be taken care of properly.  Never had that much grass before, so last winter I read a stack of books about grass, from the history of grass to college textbooks on grass. The one that impressed me the most was a rare book from the 1950’s by a French guy named Andre Voisin, who pioneered a technique of grazing animals in what is now called Management Intensive Grazing, and other names.  Through his techniques, he was able to greatly improve his pastures and raise three times as many animals per acre on his land than his neighbors.  I was absolutely hooked – this is what I needed to do.  Once the house was finished and I moved out to the new farm, at least.

And then out of the blue another farmer, Guille Yearwood, called me and asked if I wanted to lease the farm to expand his grass-fed beef operation.  In the course of discussion, it turned out that he had read all the same books, and he was a follower of Voisin!  We clicked immediately.  While not the long-term plan, I agreed to lease the pastures to him for the first year while we got to know each other better and decide on long-term plans.  We fenced about half the farm this spring, and started grazing the cows about a month ago.

Beeves

Guille owns and operates Ellett Valley Beef Company, which is an already successful grass-fed beef operation.  He raises primarily Devon cattle, which was the first cow imported to the Americas in 1623, and was the favored breed of George Washington.  A “heritage breed” that dates back thousands of years, it fell out of favor for the past several decades, as cows more adaptable to “factory farming” took over.  But with the new interest in more healthy and moral alternatives, the Devon has experienced a huge resurgence due to it’s ability to fully finish solely on grass.  No feedlots, no antibiotics, no inhumane and questionable practices.  Through their entire lives, the cows get to be cows.  And the resulting meat is a far healthier alternative.  It’s a good thing.

 


The brown marmorated stink bug, one of our newest and most insidious and invasive pests, has a symbiotic relationship with the ailanthus tree according to a recent article in the Staunton News Leader.  Dr. Ames Herbert, an extension entomologist from VA Tech, says

“Heavy infestations seem to be associated with fields with wooded borders, especially if there are concentrations of the invasive weed Tree of Heaven,” Herbert said. “Both are native to China and the (stink bug) seems to be strongly attracted to that host, especially when the trees are putting out their seed clusters. It’s like a happy reunion.”

The highest concentrations of the stink bugs have been found where the invasive plant is also found in high numbers, Herbert noted.

The article does not offer the best advice for getting rid of ailanthus, but it makes an additional case to do so.

If you google “ailanthus eradication”, this blog is ranked #1.  That, and “multiflora rose eradication” are the two biggest reasons people find this blog on their own (over 20,000 hits so far).  So over the next few months I will try to increase the information available on this blog about eradicating these invasive exotics.  VA Tech and Penn State have both done some research on using Verticillium wilt as a natural control of ailanthus, with the main disadvantage being that it also kills mimosa trees.  I will try to post more on that soon.


Green Darner

Green Darner Dragonfly

While working in one of the bottomland farm fields today, preparing to burn the last brush pile from the land clearing, I noticed I was surrounded by hundreds of dragonflies flitting around and feeding.  They were green darners – so named either because they look like darning needles, or because their flight path is reportedly back and forth like a knitting needle’s action – take your pick.

What I was witnessing was the annual migration of these creatures.  Surprisingly little is known about their US migration – where they are coming from and where they are going.  A research scientist in India, however, has documented them migrating there over 10,000 miles, over 4 generations, from north to south and back again to rinse and repeat.  What little is known in the US from one short-distance study is that they appear to follow the same migration patterns as songbirds – how long they fly, how long they rest, the general direction they are headed.  The dragonflies during their migration apparently depend primarily on local food sources like mosquitos and aphids.  Importantly,  the annual hawk migration follows right along with the dragonflies – the hawks apparently depend on the dragonflies for the fuel for their migration.

Otherwise, little is known about these creatures migration, which is surprising to me.  As far as I know, the only other insects that migrate like this are a few moths and butterflies (Monarchs being the most charismatic example).  Given that dragonflies are rather charismatic in themselves, and that they are voracious feeders of many insect “pests” to humans, like mosquitos, one would think they would deserve a bit more study to ensure they stay with us. Meanwhile, I’m very glad they decided that CRF was a good stopping place and feeding ground for them going from who knows where to places yet unknown.

 


Mama Bear

We’ve been seeing bears off and on at Crooked River, and signs of it (scat) for the past couple of years.  I’ve offered a 6-pack of beer to the first guy who actually got a picture of one, and Jamie Scott, our crew lead, finally caught this one today.  She had a cub with her, but Jamie couldn’t get a picture with her.

Bears are becoming a much more common sight in Floyd lately.  Even though there are fewer bear hunters than in years past, “harvests” have been up almost 8% per year or the past decade or more here in the VA mountains.  In fact, it’s reported that there are more bears in Virginia now than anytime in the past 400 years.

All the neighbors have reported bear sightings.  As a female bear’s territory ranges anywhere from 1 sq mile (640 acres) to 50 sq miles, we could all being seeing just this one bear.  But since territories can overlap, we may be seeing more than just this one.  One nearby neighbor reports a “problem bear”, one that gets into his garbage, pet food, bird feeders, or any potential food source he leaves out.  Since we currently feed some of our cats outside, and have numerous bird feeders, we’ll likely have to change our practices when we move to Crooked River.

Interesting tidbits about black bears – 90% of the food they eat is vegetative, but most of the protein they get comes from insect larvae such as ants, termites, and yellow jackets.  They don’t really hibernate – they can be easily roused in the wintertime, which is when they also bear their cubs, anywhere from 1-5 of them, but only every other year once the female reaches sexual maturity.  There are now an estimated 1 million black bears in North America – the largest population and largest range of any bear.  Unprovoked black bear attacks are extremely rare, and there reportedly has not been a single one in Virginia.

So we’ll be more than happy to “home” this bear, and will appreciate seeing her when she deems to make herself known, and be very careful not to tempt her from her wild ways with such freebies as Purina cat chow on the porch.


After a very cool and wet spring, we haven’t had any rain for almost 10 days now.  Local gardeners are starting to worry and complain, while grass-farmers like myself are rejoicing.  It’s been about as perfect a hay-growing year here in Floyd as we can imagine.  The early rains brought all the green stuff along just great, and then quit entirely just in time to bring in the crop.  Many, many years we can get exactly the opposite, resulting in a poor or spoiled crop.

Mowed, raked and baled ’till after dark all week, and finally got the last of it up on the 150 acres or so tonite just as we heard thunder in the distance.  Couldn’t ask for anything more.  Great crop this year.  Floyd cows will eat well this winter.

Hay Bales

Hay Bales

The 20 acres or so of bottomland that were just 12′ high in multiflora rose and other undesirable species when I bought the farm 3 years ago are coming along very nicely in the grass, forbs and the clovers I planted, but given their previous state, I decided to once again just mow and lay it down to feed the soil, rather than baling it.  It takes several years to “establish” a grassland, where all the biota are working in harmony to build true fertility and sustainability.  We’ll start harvesting when we actually get to that point.  But I’m not in a hurry – it’s immensely satisfying just to watch the fields get richer and richer without taking anything from them.  If I were any happier, I would have to be two people!


All of the hard work over the past couple of years on the hayfields is starting to really pay off.  Over a hundred tons of lime, overseeding clover, and twice-annual mowing and just laying it down to feed the soil is resulting this year in a very thick and rich clover stand amongst an every-increasing grass stand, and ever-decreasing weed stand on the long-neglected pastures.  I already have all the hay sold on the 150 acres, and what a great crop it should be!  Of course, it hasn’t hurt that we’ve had copious amounts of rain this spring, too.

The red, white, and yellow clover that we have overseeded over the past couple of years, plus the proper management of it has resulted in just thick, thick, thick masses of it everywhere now where it was hardly seen before.  Having too much clover in your field is like having too much money in the bank – the clover provides a free nitrogen supply to the grasses and forbs, and provides more protein than the grass itself.  I couldn’t be more pleased with the progress.

Mixed Clovers

Mixed Clovers

Proper management of grasslands builds true, longlasting, soil fertility faster and better than anything in the world.  The whole success of mid-west croplands has been entirely dependent on the deep, rich topsoil, (now almost entirely depleted) created by centuries of previously being grassland.  Grassland has in the past built empires, and the loss of them have caused empires to fail.  We’ll continue to maintain our grassland, and continue to build the natural soil fertility of it as best we can.  And clover plays a BIG part.

Now let’s hope that the weather cooperates for the harvesting of this years crop.


Absolutely gorgeous spring day on Sat – perfect for a massacre.  Garlic mustard is the latest invasive exotic threatening the woodlands in Floyd (and throughout half the US). I’ve seen pictures where the entire forest floor has been taken over by it.  Right now it’s blooming and easy to see – I pulled up thousands of them yesterday.  The Ailanthus is also starting to leaf out, identifying those that I haven’t killed in the past two years.  The good news is that every single one of them larger than a pinky are now dead.  The bad news is that they are now already falling over everywhere – into pastures and paths which will require serious work to clean up.  And there are still thousands of sprouts smaller than a pinky.  Did the “hack and squirt” on hundreds of them on Sat.  It was a good day.

Below an aggravating sight – garlic mustard, ailanthus, and multiflora rose all in a 2 square ft area.  Sometimes the task seems overwhelming….

Unholy Trinity

Unholy Trinity

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