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Well, Trish and I came back for two weeks to deal with stuff back here, but back here wasn’t very welcoming.  About 4 feet of snow for the winter so far, the 3rd snowiest winter in 50 years for us, who have hardly seen any snow in the past decade.

I was hoping to sell about 80 round bales of hay, but can’t even get to them to speak of. The big thing was to “frost seed” a few hundred pounds of clover seed over the 150 acres or so of pasture.  Doesn’t look like that is going to be possible.



There likely won’t be any new posts to this site until February, as Trish and I are at our house in Nevis, West Indies until then.  As one of the worst things you can do for pasture/hay land is to leave it long for the winter, I did manage to mow every square inch of land that I could mow – about 150 acres – before we left.  Sometime soon, probably in February, we’ll be setting miles of fencing so that most of this land can be rotated into pasture to add the much-needed manure to the fields. This spring, we’ll be planting trees on around 30 acres of steep pasture that probably should have never been pasture in the first place.  But I’ll be managing that in shorts and sandals from the edge of the Caribbean Sea.  Fifteen degrees below zero with the windchill at Crooked River Farm this morning.  Just a tad too chilly for me. Yet the entire crew from Sticks and Stones was on site this morning, diligently working along outside in the cold.  I’ve got to wonder how productive they can be in this cold, but I sure admire their dedication.

Working in snow


We finally got the conservation easement recorded last week.  So from here on out, the farm can never be divided and developed beyond one division and one more house “in perpetuity”.  I found out what that means in this process.  In perpetuity in this context means as long as the Commonwealth of Virginia exists.  So if we lose the next war, and we all end up speaking Chinese or something, I guess the deal’s off and it can be turned into a subdivision.

But until then the high knobs are protected from development, as we wrote in the easement that nobody could ever build above a certain elevation.  The 200 year-old woods are protected from logging anything but dead, diseased and dying trees.  The mile and a half of river is “in perpetuity” protected from livestock grazing (and pooping) anywhere near it’s edge and polluting it.

This farm is a part of an important collection of other adjacent properties under conservation easement that collectively comprise over 1,000 acres and miles of the Little River.

We dug the trenches this week for the geothermal heating and cooling system.  The idea is that you bury hundreds of feet of pipe several feet underground, and pump water through it.  When it comes out the far end, it will be at the temperature of the ground, which around here is something like 55 degrees year ’round.  That water has a lot of heat in it.  Extract the heat from it, pump it back out, and the ground will heat it back up.  Rinse and repeat all winter long.  Basically, it’s a solar water heater – it just doesn’t rely on the sun that particular day, but the average sun all year long that warms up the earth.  Somewhere around 70% of our heat will come from the sun through this system.

A closed-loop geothermal system like this does require a good bit of land, though.  We had to dig 5 trenches 6 ft deep by about 150 ft long.

Geothermal Trenching

Wouldn’t you know we would have to put the trenches in this small field next to the house.  The Healing Harvest folks and myself spent hundreds of hours clearing this field, which wasn’t a field at all when we bought the farm, but a tangle of pines, roses, ailanthus, and dying locust.  We had BIG burn piles going pretty much all summer and fall here last year.  The topsoil is a good 12 inches deep, and we did everything we could to preserve it.  When we finished clearing it, I planted yellow blossom sweet clover on it and had a really nice stand going when it was decided to dig it all up.  So we decided to first scrape all the precious and beautiful topsoil away into a windrow first, and then dig the trenches.

Next week, we’ll lay the pipe into the bottom of the 6′ trenches, cover them with 2′ of subsoil, lay another run of pipe, and then fill in the ditches with the rest of the subsoil, compact it all down, then cover everything again with the topsoil.  I’ll then disc it and plant it again, this time probably with a mixture of annual rye, three types of clovers, and timothy, as this field is likely to become horse pasture.

It’s been a great hay-growing year.  We’ve had more rain this spring than any in the past 5 years or so.  And then we had one blessed week break about a month ago where a lot of folks were able to get up their hay.  We missed that window, but were able to get ours up in small stages in between the rains.

Making Hay

Making Hay

In the end we got about 150 round bales.  Not too bad, but too bad everyone got a lot of hay this year, and the price for hay is severely depressed.

Whenever I get depressed about all the work to do to clear the land at CRF, I call the Sutherlands to come out with the BullHog for a few days.  It instantly cheers me up.  It’s just so amazing what they can do in such a short time.

Had them come out last week to do a few things.  First up was to clear the old home site of Noah Moore (see the History section).  I plan to rebuild a log cabin on that site very soon and needed it cleared out of the multiflora rose and other brush.  The result was just amazing to me.

Old Home Site Before

Old Home Site Before

Old Home Site After

Old Home Site After

We also had about 2 dozen big (12″-24″ diameter) white pines in pastures that we needed to get rid of.  Some fellers were clearing a lot just up the road who had humongous equipment, including a tub grinder that would turn everything wood into landscape mulch.  They said they could get rid of the pines for about $2,500 – not really a bad deal at about $100 per tree.  The Sutherlands had a better idea, though, which was to cut each of them down, drag them all off to one spot, use the BullHog to grind down the tops and side branches, and save the logs for the sawmill.  Total cost – less than $1,000.  And on top of it, they ground down the stumps in the pasture to dirt level.  What a blessing.  Initially they didn’t think they could do it efficiently, but we timed it and it proved to be very efficient – only about 2 minutes per stump!  Can’t beat that at all with a stump grinder which can take up to a half hour for each.

24" White Pine Stump Before

24" White Pine Stump Before

Stump 2 minutes later

Stump 2 minutes later

John and his son JR also cleared some other hillsides of rose and bullpine where we plan to plant trees next spring, and rose and buckthorn patches in the woods along the driveway on this job.  It just lifts my spirit so much every time they come out that I have to do it in stages to keep from being overwhelmed.  They’ll be back in the fall to clear some  woods of rose after I’ve killed this all the Ailanthus growing all through it, and probably clear a fenceline and more of the steep pasture for tree planting as well…..something to look forward to….

We purchased about 500 pounds of red and white clover seed, and 100 pounds of Sweet Yellow clover to sow on the pastures to supply the nitrogen in the soil.  The red clover adds nitrogen and nutritional forage to the hay, but tends to disappear within a couple of years.  The white clover, being low growing, adds little to the hay, except the nitrogen that it adds to the soil, but is far more persistent.  The Sweet Yellow clover grows very tall, and nothing beats it for fixing nitrogen in the soil, but animals don’t find it palatable in hay.  So we are planting that only in pasture, and land that we are in the process of reclaiming and will later till under.  We were delayed by weather but finally got to it all last week.

Planting Clover

Planting Clover

Our fine biological woodsmen sourced this no-till seed drill, and that’s Healing Harvest adjunct, Kate, driving the tractor.

Unfortunately, several things interfered with the success of this project.

First, the owner of the seed drill had modified it so that instead of delivering the seed just behind the discs and just before the chains that cover the seed, it just dropped them on the ground well ahead of both.  Basically no different than just spreading it on the ground.  This would not be too bad with clover, which requires little if no cover, except that the tractor and drill is a very slow-moving way of broadcasting seed.

Next, we discovered that the drill wouldn’t work with my John Deere tractor, as it required rear hydraulics, which I do not have (yet).  So that necessitated getting the Healing Harvest Ford tractor, and relying on their time to spread the seed.

Next, as often happens in farming, the weather and other work interfered with the timely planting.  The clover needs to germinate well before the grass starts growing, or the grass will shade it out.  Just as we got half-way through, the grass started its spring growth spurt.  The grass grew six inches just in the week of work.  The discs on the drill mostly just ran over top of the grass, and the chains did likewise.  The seed fell down, and will probably germinate with all the rain we’ve had in the past week, but we’ll have to see if any of it survives.

We stopped with only about 70 acres overseeded, and another 70 or so to go.  I bought a broadcast seeder for the ATV that will be far more efficient in spreading clover seed.  I’ll plant this week the sweet yellow clover onto the bare fields being reclaimed and the leftover seed will be spread in late winter/early spring next year.

I’m kicking myself – I knew better.  Next year I’ll be better prepared and get that clover over-seeded much earlier.

We’ve spent countless hours over the past few months working out all the details of the conservation easement.  We’ll be restricting forever anyone building above a certain elevation to protect the scenic knobs that can be seen for miles around, restricting cutting of the big old trees to the environmental practices we’ve already established, rolling in the 3 acre parcel with the homeplace that we later bought, and limiting further division of the property to one division in perpetuity.

That is, if Floyd County lets us.  These kinds of easements, while not extensive in Floyd, have been routine.  Until now.  After viewing our easment and a couple others in what had previously been a routine review, the Planning Commission had the County attorney notify the Virginia Outdoors Foundation that henceforth they will be reviewing all proposed easements to ensure that they adhere to their comprehensive plan.

Seems they now view our County  comprehensive plan as only allowing for easements to preserve agricultural land, and they didn’t view our easement as doing so!  Sounds to me like they’ve  just decided they don’t like conservation easements any more.  I’ve seen doctors, lawyers, and the like who depend on a *population* for their business to be against easements, but the first time I’ve seen a public body.  Studies have shown that a farm uses far less than it pays in taxes in public services, and a subdivision much more.  And Floyd is the fastest growing county in SW VA because of it’s unique beauty and “sense of place”.  We’re “defecating in our own nest” if we allow unbridled subdivision to continue.

All is not lost – it appears the Planning Commission will reconsider our easement at their next meeting, and I feel confident that the commission will understand that our easement is very much agriculturally oriented.  But I fear that they are too narrowly interpreting the comprehensive plan and will impede other, less agriculturally-oriented easements.  And to be fair, serving on the Planning Commission is a totally thankless job, and the issues *are* complex.  Seeing the problems, good at thankless jobs, and a sucker for “potential” I might just ask if there is an open position on the Commission.

Hah!  As if they would want somebody like me stirring up trouble…

Last fall, we put down 260 tons of lime on the farm to get the pH up from about 5.5 closer to 7.  This is the first step towards growing grass – soil nutrients just aren’t available to the plants below 6 or so.  Luckily, lime is a good organic solution, with no negative environmental negatives to it’s application to the land other than the energy costs of its extraction and application (which are still significant).

The next key aspect to growing good grass is keeping a good balance of N-P-K, that is nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.  They are each limiting – if one is low, it keeps the availability of the others low as well.  Measuring Nitrogen is a fleeting and imprecise thing – the standard soil tests don’t even measure it anymore, but it’s easy to assume that it’s very low at CRF.  Generally speaking, Floyd soils are rich in potassium, low in phosphorous, and my soil samples tested last fall confirmed that.  But since the nitrogen and phosphorous were low, the potassium is not much available to the plants.

Nitrogen can be supplied simply by planting inoculated clover.  Our fine biological woodsmen from Healing Harvest have volunteered to help with this, and have located a seed drill.  We’ve got about 130 acres to plant, so it won’t be a trivial task.

Getting the phosphorous up is much trickier.  There are only a few organic sources of phosphorous – generally bone meal, greensand and rock phosphate.  These cost about $4 per pound of available phosphorous, let’s see I need 100 lbs per acre, times 130 acres, equals……YIKES!  You can do this on your garden, but certainly not on hay fields!

Another organic option is manure.  I would need about 250 tons of manure.  Unfortunately, due to the high cost of fertilizer these days, other farmers around here are spreading any available manure they have on their own fields.

So that leaves chemical fertilizers.  Much as I hate to do it, I’ll be spreading some chemical phosphate on the fields shortly.  Phosphate is critical to the establishment of new plantings, and fear that my new clover crop just won’t take without it.  Clover, besides creating nitrogen, also makes the phosphates that are in the soil more available to the grasses.  So I’m hoping this is a one-time application, and moving forward I can just use pure organic management practices to maintain soil fertility.

On our current farm, Snipe Hill Farm, we applied phosphate *once* several years ago and it made a huge difference in the quality of the pasture, which it has maintained ever since.  Our friend and neighbor (and soil scientist) Jeff Walker convinced me to do this “to get a good stand established”.  So far seems to have worked.

Trish and I got back to the farm a week or two ago after spending most of the winter in Nevis.  We got back a bit early weatherwise, but I was hoping to get some fields cleared and planted for spring.  Unfortunately, it’s been too cold and wet to work the ground much of the time we’ve been back!

Our fine biological woodmen worked when they could this winter, doing timberstand improvement in parts of the woods – thinning bull-pine thickets, and mostly finishing the clearing work all around the house.  We had three burn piles near the house going most of the summer and fall which produced a huge amount of ash that I’ve now spread over the field, as well as all the sawdust from the milling operations.  There’s still a large amount of woody debris spread across the field that I’m now doing my best to thin using a “root rake” or “landscape rake” so that we can plant it in legumes to build the soil.  After all, this “field” was nothing but pure junk when we bought the property – well overgrown with multiflora, ailanthus, rotting locust, and bullpine.  It’s been quite a chore to convert this back to pasture.

Root Rake

Root Rake

It’s supposed to rain for the next few days, so that work will have to be put on hold for now.  We get such  short windows in the spring to work the land – I will not be able to get it all cleared in time to plant spring grass and clover on all of what I wanted, and I shoulda known better.  But it’s ok – will do what I can for now, and there are other legumes and grasses that can be planted in the summer and fall. One field at a time.

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