And… There Off!

It’s The Mushroom Spring here at EEC Forest Stewardship! We’re out in our local public lands searching for treasure across the landscape (where appropriate). Keying in on human impact will make or break the future of wild mushroom foraging, please know before you go. As an enthusiastic mushroomer, I am thrilled to spot the first golden crown poking up through the duff, but this year, a dear friend who is also a fungal fan, spotted the chantrelle beauty below the trees well before me. The first rains of early Fall signal a rebirth in temperate northwest forests. Beneath the evergreen canopy, secret armies are on the march. Trees shed a lot of biomass, which builds a highway of needles and twigs; lattice network of nutrient exchange, much like the stock market of Wall Street, these orchestrated supply and demand chains pulse living symphonies through rooted nervous systems. Young trees “lay on the horn” and their nearby mothers extend nitrogen, carried on a living web of fungal fiber. These operations remain buried within the thick woody wilds, until cool damp conditions trigger a fruiting fantasia.

Ganoderma lingzhi

Though mushrooms are active at all times of year, equinox times are exceptional times for these mysterious magicians of decomposition. Here in North America, we’ve buried our ancient connection to this most potent Kingdom. Humans around the world have relied on fungi since the birth of evolution. We learned to leaven bread with wild yeasts, heal infection with mold, and harvest endless food and medicine in mushroom form. These jewels of the land are such abundant teachers, messengers of organically complex chemistry we are still trying to cypher. Mushrooms are ecological indicators in a landscape, sharing information above and below the earth’s surface. They share a close relationship with living matter, especially woody debris, yet are capable of breaking down more than rotting logs. Some species, like Pleurotus ostreatus, neutralize petroleum, and others like it can be instrumental in toxic cleanup across the planet. Here in Washington State, we’ve passed laws allowing mycological composting for human bodies. Imagine all the advantages fungi can offer if we look a little closer.

P. schweinitzii “Dyer’s Polypore”

Forming relationship with mushrooms takes time, and a lot of in the field learning. I’ve talked extensively in this blog about safety and mushrooming, and still advocate experts teaching anyone serious about going mushroom harvesting. This is not a foraging journey to strike out on alone. Even after a decade of mushrooming in one bio-region, I still consider myself a beginner, and enjoy a great shared experience with close friends already versed in naturalist education. Sometimes I’m happy to take a total beginner into the woods for a few encounters, and chantrelles are one of the best to start your foraging adventure with, still, please take your first turn in the woods seeking these golden tickets with an experienced forager. The endless verity of fungi families can invite false identification, leading to upset stomachs or much much worse. Mushrooms can kill, so stick to berry patches you already know if you have any worries- mushrooming is not for everyone!

Gyromitra infula “Hooded False Morel”

At opening mushroom harvesting day, 2021 (just another foraging day in Western Washington) I came across a great example of “look alike” species. It might not look similar to everyone, but an excited first time chantrelle picker could swipe up this mushroom without realizing the difference. Later, back at home sorting, you might catch it, but if you were to eat this fungal friend, its reaction to your stomach would be vile, and potentially hospital visit inducing. Would you instantly die from ingesting it? No, but long term damage of certain organs could occur. This is an important lesson in mushroom foraging for all to hear- go with a knowledgeable mushroomer and don’t experiment.

Here’s a side by side of chantrelle and hooded false morel to compare. What are the obvious similarities? How are the two mushrooms different? If you were picking quickly, would you notice the difference? I reached for the hooded false morel before realizing it was not a chantrelle. Then I saw the stipe (stock) color, noted the glistening skin of the cap, saw the thin, fragile structure of the mushroom, and took a step back. I knew this “imposter” was related to a morel (Morchella), and most likely a false species. I did not know it was “hooded” or specifically Gyromitra infula. Though some members of the morel family are delicious, this variety is not, and could cause serious poisoning. It’s great to see a less common species from Pezizales, and noted its location in damp mud along a wetland. Right across the trail, less than ten feet away, chantrelles were also flushing out. The yellow, meaty mushrooms belonging to Cantharellus fruit best in soft, thick Douglas fir needle dominant forest debris. They are usually neighbors to salal, and Oregon grape; sometimes sword fern too. Substrate will tell you a lot about mushrooms, so keep an eye out when you locate a strange new fungal friend.

Chantrelles are just the beginning of harvestable wonder in the woods this Fall. More inches of rain are falling as I write this closing paragraph, and I know tomorrow will be another great foraging day to come. Other species to be on the look out for are russulas, boletes, puffballs, and chicken of the woods. That’s a start to the Fall lineup in Cascadia as we enter into one of the most wonderful seasons of the year- a welcome return of rain; brings a full foraging basket and gratitude for wild abundance this way. Safe harvesting to all, and good learning through observation as you listen to the mycological song humming through these temperate rainforests.

Water Wonder

Washington State drought maps reflect another record breaking summer of heat. Our numerous beautiful rivers are vulnerable, shallow bathtubs, not suitable for salmon spawning. Temperate rain forests are visibly stressed; under-story plants wither, their roots parched through twelve inches deep in crackling needle duff. Dust kicks up as livestock roam barren pastures that look more like moon scapes. Even here at EEC Forest Stewardship, sheep have been hay rationed to prevent weight loss going into slaughter season. Our pond is pea green soup with only a few feet of moisture left to keep fish and cattails alive. The creek is now truly creeping along, keeping a few deeper pools viable for trout fry. This salmon waterway has also remained cool thanks to an intact forest canopy of shade through summer’s scalding intensity. Crayfish, mottled sculpins, fish, and our endangered freshwater muscles all crowd together in an attempt to survive.

Wildfires have been increasing, and again, without rain, this trend will continue to climb. At EEC, we’ve continued to work on drought resilience, from water catchment and retention to selecting drought tolerant species for long term viability. Oak savanna is looking like the best option for future forests here in Western Washington. Our weather might eventually look more like that of California, so western hemlock, Sitka spruce, and even red cedar will not be planted. Douglas fir is also drought tolerant, along with shore pine, and even western white pine might make a return, we’re planting it at EEC in small numbers. Young trees will have to receive irrigation to survive their first few summers; our pillow tank had played a vital role in establishing an orchard. After the fruit trees can stand alone, the tank can be moved to another location to water young forest plantings, or remain where it is, and offer gravity fed drip irrigation to whatever need water the most.

Though much of Western Washington’s climate change struggle revolves around heat, like most of the world, we’re also continuing to receive long periods of precipitation. EEC is located in the foothills of The Cascades, which create a massive Orographic lift right over our habitat. Along with the rains, we are starting to see more snow too. The Jet Stream does a lot to dictate temperatures and moisture influx to our region. Right now, as I write this post, we are getting rain, measurable precipitation for the first time since June. It is the end of September, and about two inches is expected to fall over the next few days. It will not make up for the drought, but it will throw a lifeline to the ecology of Western Washington. In these unprecedented times, we must adapt or face critical failure.

For EEC, this failure would look like a catastrophic loss of plantings, causing a severe financial deficit, but also an ecological interruption in reforestation for the greater ecosystem. Already, plantings put in across several acres of our stream buffer have taken a real hit from the dry heat of two summers in a row. Though most still survive, they face an uphill battle against mounting climate shift odds. When rains do come, the water is fast and furious, running over the parched ground without much time to sink in. Without slow, deep moisture events, our aquifers cannot recharge. Without plentiful ground water, species like hemlock and cedar, who rely on wetlands to thrive, will continue to recede. A row of ponderosa pine planted eight years ago, are finally taking off; well adjusted to the weather extremes. They are certainly more adapted to snow, which will come with more frequency as our dramatic weather continues.

Last winter, 2020-21, we had some big snow storms. This was a great recharge to our aquifers, and a slow drip moisture bank for the plants. Unfortunately, the snow also creates other challenges, including structural failures if a roof is not pitched enough, or hazard conditions for travel and local access. Having lived in New England, where snow is a normal occurrence, I’ve got some awareness of precautions and solutions, like chains for the truck to get out of our driveway without a plow. I’ve also overwintered on the east side at elevation, enough to know when it’s time to shovel off a barn roof or clear walkways and entrances to keep building accesses open. Usually, the snow melts within a few days, but a couple of winters ago we had a snow that stayed on the ground for over a month, and that was a real setback in pasture management. Valley farmers saw their tractors struggling in the marshy soil well into May, and a lot of fields missed Spring planting.

On the last day of September, 2021, we received another weather front with more rain. Grass is up three inches in the back pasture, and I’ve begun moving hoses from sprinkler setups to cistern catchments in anticipation of good roof runoff in the heavy rains. In EEC’s design plan, we redirect all water from hard surfaces, like roofs and driveway, into our pond. It spent the summer dropping, and bottomed out at about 4 feet, just enough depth to keep our fish alive, but inviting an algae bloom. In the past two weeks of rain, the water level has risen about six inches, and we’re expecting another half foot in these next few days. It’s the first time we’ve had so much direct catchment, and fingers crossed we’ll have a full pond this year by the end of winter. It will be a huge milestone in water management at EEC Forest Stewardship.

Recognizing Change

The only thing constant is change. Yet as humans with such advanced cognitive attentions, we often struggle to see change and adapt to it, or are we just adapting constantly, regardless of perceived change? That’s the philosophical question, but how does it relate to the picture above- a human created trail for access into an established camp site along Evergreen Creek in The Central Cascades? Someone had hiked in to prepare the area for use in future, showing no obvious sign of actually camping in the space, but hacking several trails to the site, and from it, into the woods beyond. I took a picture of this part of the trail, because I’ve been here in early Spring. During that time, this whole area is inundated with water, and you can see to the right in this picture, there is a more warn trail strewn with rocks, which turns into a stream during heavy rains. The man made trail on the left stays above this stream until a necessary crossing, in which a log has been laid across the flow of water, which will create a block, thus complicating the flow of the stream and causing more erosion and a wider crossing in future. It’s also going to turn into a mud pit this fall, when perhaps hunters will come use the site as a base camp.

In looking at this man made change, there is a familiar narrative of misguided augmentation on the landscape, causing detriment to the space, and in direct opposition to the intended benefit for the person. It’s classic human error due to complete lack of observation, connection, or understanding of the land; beyond creating a direct line to the destination. The trail will grow over in time, but the erosion of the area will worsen, and the access in will become more difficult to traverse. We’ve all been short sighted, but instead of acknowledging mistakes and learning from them, people now, more often than not, blame the other and deflect responsibility. It’s no wonder people have stopped critical thinking to sort fact from fiction, learning from history, or learning at all. Before this narrative explodes into human regression, let’s return to the land. Grounding is about slowing down, feeling, being open to deeper perception, though life is not always ready to accommodate.

This writing is about making hard choices in response to important change, and how hard it can be to accept or even see the big picture, which informs our decisions. To be clear, individual perception is always limited, but when there are multiple eyes on the situation, while becoming more complex, allows for greater understanding. When you add the rich tapestry of language to share different perspectives, you have a much more successful outlook. Community is imperative for us as a species to survive, yet we are also incapable, as individuals, to fully comprehend global thinking. We’re in a rough growing period right now as the human race, trying to see broader, more diverse perspectives, including under represented voices, and still holding clear personal vision. This kind of demanded flex in our thinking is not new, but the acceptance of it when there are so many other perceptions- many of which we’ve never encountered before, can be overwhelming.

Turning now to personal experience, I was recently planning a high hunt in late September. It’s called the high hunt because only lands at elevation are open to the hunt, so you have to get up high into the mountains for a chance to harvest a deer. It would be my first time attempting this feat, which involves hiking into the back country and potentially hauling the animal out under difficult circumstances- similar to the ones at the man made trail on Evergreen Creek. Hunting in the back-country should not be done alone, so my first plan was to invite my partner and a couple of friends out to join me. The two friends are on a learning journey with hunting big game, and also enjoy camping. The only dates they had available were the final weekend of the high hunt season, so we made plans and saved dates. Well, the friends ended up in schedule conflicts, and my partner got a new job- which is great- but his new schedule shaved off a day of the hunt, and I later found that the dates of the hunt did not include Sunday, which gave us just Saturday to hunt. Add to that hunting in an unfamiliar place, hard to access, on a weekend when everyone would be out- not just hunters.

a pair of black tail deer yearlings at EEC Forest Stewardship in September 2021

In trying to rework the plan, I tried setting things up solo, so I could leave earlier, have a day to scout the area, and take on the challenge of being there by myself to at least have the experience. This was only adding more problems to the mix, and when a tenant called to tell me he needed to drive a truck in and out of the sheep pasture (while the sheep were in it), I began to think this trip into the back-country was not viable at this time. Too many plans were changing, and I realized putting myself at risk, on top of all the other compromise, would not be safe. It’s hard to acknowledge change- especially when it means giving up personal passion, for me, hunting. But it’s not a total loss at all. That’s the important forward thinking that can help us adapt with grace. Regular hunting season in the low lands, which I always plan for, and have a rhythm with, will happen. I’ll be home to help my new tenant, and have a good weekend of time to work on the land while the weather holds. The high hunt can wait another year, and I can commit to the occasion by planning further ahead, scouting locations better, and knowing what the true limitations are. Knowledge is power!

There were so many blocks preventing me from seeing the most simple solution because I was caught up in the narrative of failure. That’s a big hindrance to people accepting reality these days, from what I’ve personally experienced, and publicly observed. The situation of hunting, at all costs, could have cost me dearly. To not go alone would have curtailed the hunt to less than a day. We could still go up Saturday and scout the land, we might do that as a day trip and still get a feel for next year. There is always a bright side to any change, that’s important when it’s constant. At this time in seasonal change, slowing down mimics the greater environmental change. As my garden goes to sleep, dropping hard grown seed and composting back into the soil, I too put certain work to bed in preparation for Winter. Just think of all the chaos when plants can’t adapt to seasonal changes in time. I don’t want to get nipped in the bud by a sudden frost if I can help it. The wisdom to recognize change takes practice, and in our short sighted struggle to be right, we often overlook obvious warning signs. In back-country experience, this is often called “the human factor“. It is on us to recognize change and adapt to prevent a cascade of trouble.

Meat or Flowers?

EEC Forest Stewardship sells Katahdin sheep for meat. We have a very small operation producing only a few animals for slaughter each year. For those of you wondering how one purchases meat from a small producer like me here in Washington state- you have to buy the animal on the hoof. This means live, and once you own the live animal, we can then strike a deal in which I help you slaughter and butcher the animal. Why can you not just buy the meat after all that? Well, laws prevent anyone from selling meat not first passed through USDA inspection- there are endless reason why this is good legislation, and even with the FDA oversight, poorly handled commercial meat can still slip through- but that’s a topic for another time. Today we are tackling the challenge of small producers getting their meat to the public. It’s about live animals passing from person to person to avoid slaughter house regulations and costly commercial kitchens. If we had a large operation with hundred or even tens of animals to process, we’d be participating in industrial agriculture, and that’s not the mission of EEC. Though we do not have USDA inspection or a certified butchering space, we have you the consumer directly in touch with the animal they will eat, the farmer who grew it, and the clean, sanitary place the butchering will happen. So where do the flowers come in?

When we talk about cost, most people would prefer a bargain. When you look for flowers at Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market, you’re going to pay about $25 for a fresh bouquet. When you look at fresh organic lamb chops at the seller in the butcher stall, you’ll see prices around $14/lb. No one bulks at these prices in the market, but when I post a lamb online for sale, at $400 (roughly $14/lb), people think it’s too high. They are willing to pay for the flowers at $25 a pop, but clean meat, from a local small scale farmer is just too much. This blows my mind a bit, until I go online and see “lambs for $75”. I promise you, those lambs are just a few weeks old, in need of bottle feeding, or no more than 20lbs. of live animal. I can also tell you they were most likely born in an industrial agricultural setting, with lots of chemical additives, in poor conditions. But hey, what a deal- and what a mess to deal with!

Our animals are at least 5 months old and weaned when sold, they are born and raised in a small herd on great pasture, with no chemical additives. A live hanging weight of our lambs is at least between 60-80lbs., and you’ll get a nicely wrapped set of cuts that come out to around 25lbs of good lamb. For more information on the breakdown of lamb weight and percentages, The Collie Farm ha written a great article. When you take into account all the variables of EEC lambs, our on the hoof cost is a great deal because we then offer slaughter and butchering services FREE with your purchase of the animal. That’s when the fun starts for you the consumer, because you can customize your cuts. If you want a leg of lamb with bone in, full rib rack, or large shoulder roast, we can accommodate. If you want tiny little steaks and grounds that can be done too. You’re getting a heck of a lot of bang for your buck when you take into consideration all the add-ons in that $400 lamb.

What I think people are missing in the cost of food is how much goes into producing it. This is a huge mission at EEC Forest Stewardship- connecting people to their food, how much goes into growing it, and how great it tastes when you put the time and energy into that production. We are also able to give a higher standard quality of life for these animals, because they are in a small, intimate herd with good rotating pasture feasting, quiet barn home, and good LGD friends to keep them safe. They get head scratchies (if they want them), open pasture with no chemical sprays, natural herd connection, and never a moment on a cement floor. It’s really the best life any domestic food animal can have, and at EEC, a lot of care goes into our animal husbandry practices to ensure a good quality animal at a fair price for you the consumer, and me the farmer.

So next time you reach into your wallet to happily pay that $25 for flowers, think of the lamb you could be buying (about 1 1/2 lb. of meat) and see the big picture. The worth of that meat is at least as much value as the flowers, though I would argue that wildflowers are free, and pasture raised lamb, custom butchered for you by the same person who raised the animal, is priceless. If you live in Western Washington and have interest in purchasing a lamb from Liz at EEC Forest Stewardship, please contact this farmer directly- escocrain@gmail.com. You can even split the animal with a friend, or get a group together and split the cuts as you wish. A quarter animal can go a long way in a family freezer through the winter. Note that supplies is limited, and we slaughter in October, so expect your meat then. We can deliver, but prefer- and strongly encourage you to come to the farm to see the operation and meet the farmer on site where the animals are born and raised. We can even offer an opportunity to learn about animal processing so you get some hands on experience butchering your own food.

Rock Garden Reflections

The rock gardens here at EEC Forest Stewardship are in another year of established production and looking good- though grass seed continues to fight for a place along side strawberry, nodding onion, time, horseradish, and succulents. These beds are in the zone one area right against the house. They receive regular watering and host some wonderful herbs and pollination species, as well as medicine. When they were first established, these beds were thin and patchy, but now, we’re having to thin them to keep competition down so all the plants desired thrive. Overall, I would say these beds are a success. But there are some downsides to rockery design, and grass is the most challenging. You might notice cardboard boxes in some of these photos. I’ve been so frustrated with the grass invasion that I’m putting down a thick mulch, and planning the next evolution of this space. When the beds were first established, gravel paths were put down all around the area. Over time, the fertility form the beds and watering has invited many invaders to join. For a few years I kept up a successful layer of strawberry around the base of each bed, but the grasses have won in the end.
Even with the tight fit of all the herbs and planned species I’ve worked to fill in patchy space, the grass still finds a way up through the other plants, poking out just long enough to get a seed head developed for another assault. Happy to say the established plants are also growing enthusiastically, and we’ve split many new starts out of the lavender, time, and mints. Still, the weeding of grasses continued to be high maintenance, which is no good for a lazy gardener like me.

This spring, I wrote about taking up the sod around these beds in an attempt to get ahead of the fertility spill. It was an ok plan, and produced a lot of good topsoil for a nearby berm, but the grass still persisted, and now I’m laying cardboard which I plan to seed over with wildflowers this fall. Once I took up the grass sod, a few places where the gravel was still present underneath, other “weeds” like lambs quarters (Chenopodium album) and Catsear (Hypochaeris radicata) are showing up, and I’m much happier to host these edible species, which are much easier to manage in the garden.

Along with the rock garden, we have a few containers in the space with more controlled growing space for evergreen mint and some self seeding pansies with strawberries. There is also a real exotic we’re experimenting with an olive tree which was gifted to us. We do need to establish a second one for pollination, but it has put out fruit before on its own. This shrub of a tree is slow in growing, and I think we should transplant it to a better place soon, though it has thrived in the rocky clay soil we initially sunk it into. The black containers also shelter the olive during the colder winter months, when reflected warmth from the sun banks into the dark material and reflects into the soil around it. When we have week long freezing temperatures in winter, the olive does suffer- not sure it will make it in the long run.

Earlier this summer we worked to take out a lot of sod which has developed around the edges of these great fertility banks. I stacked the sod along another bed across the driveway in need of more good soil for future plantings. It was a lot of work, and after moving several wheelbarrow loads, I tried a second approach and did a major cardboard mulch cover. I plan to move the top layer of debris next spring. Grass is a daunting competitor, but does turn into great fertility after breaking down- it’s roots aerate the soil, the thatch is a perfect carbon additive, and remember- the problem is the solution. I’m just not always clear on what that solution is. Sounds like a life long learning journey. Boxes stacked up in the front garden are not aesthetically pleasing, but we’ve never stood on good looks as our end all be all here at EEC. However, the rock garden area is out main centerpiece of small gardening demonstration systems, so it would be nice to get it looking more approachable to our clients who want to take a closer look.

In reflecting on the rock gardens, there are some already well established challenges in these systems which continue to prove true-

  1. grass will get in, making weeding hard, and if left unchecked, will eventually take over
  2. rocks harbor slugs, so its hard to direct seed anything into a rock garden, but they also give great shelter to predator bugs, which help defend the plantings- once established
  3. any established beds in a garden are high maintenance- weeding, watering, replanting, you have to input a lot to get a great looking product

The rock gardens here at EEC Forest Stewardship are a planned temporary arrangement outside our 73′ trailer. We’re thinking of them as long term fertility banks where we can build soil and keep useful herbs and other plants near the main living space. When the trailer outlives it’s time here, we’ll have to take it down, and disassemble the rock garden to do so. At that time, we’ll use a large earth mover to transport our good soil to new beds in another location on the landscape. The rocks will move too- though we may opt to use them in a new rockery formation. Rocks are not good at keeping grass out- and since grass is usually around, we’d rather make more effective barriers for our gardens in future. However, an herb spiral built of rocks will continue to be a feature at EEC- demonstrating micro-climates, easy construction, and a useful place to put rocks you pull out of other places on the landscape. Gratitude to the stones and all they do for us.

Topsoil Tragedy

One of the most important concepts of restoration agriculture involves the cultivation of deep, rich, healthy topsoil. Soil that matters most in the terrestrial aspects of farming. The chemical makeup of soil determines what kind of habitat a landscape hosts, cultivation potential, and general ecologic health of a region. Topsoil takes thousands of years to form on its own, yet washes off the surface of exposed landscape in moments in a torrential rain. Here in The Pacific Northwest, we cut the trees and watched feet of beautiful soil rush down the hillsides, clogging waterways and filling The Salish Sea with the most precious layer of The Earth’s crust for habitation, which then destroyed fisheries along inland coastal ecosystems. We are still cutting trees and watching the topsoil wash away, yet we’re also manually removing the fertility of our land for development.

In our human quest to industrialize production, we’ve taken it into our monkey minds that we can control and enhance environment for the convenience of profit. We can’t eat money, but we can consume a lot of everything else with it. Excuse me if there is a tone of agitation within this writing, but the current method of operation humanity continues to embrace regarding land degradation astounds. I’m sure most people have watched a farm field or forest stand leveled by machinery to build a housing development or commercial strip mall. Here in the Duvall area, this has been a mounting trend since the early 90s. What I’ve noticed in witnessing this massive growth is the trucking of valuable topsoil from the construction sites, and the replacement of said soil with industrially composted micro-plastic ridden imposters hidden beneath sprawling lawn.

This was the original look of the lot before landscaping began- already, the topsoil had been scraped off and put in a huge pile further up the hillside for easy “shipping”. It’s usual for a new site to start by removing all the rich topsoil. The developers know the value of this soil, and plan to sell it off as development of the site progresses. Sometimes they haul it off as it’s being excavated to save space on the building site. It is never kept on site to be reused. That would be a loss in profit for many more than just the contractor. The amount of trucking involved alone costs a small fortune, soil is a heavy material to haul, and after the original topsoil is trucked out.

One of the greatest earners in topsoil removal is the soil compost company. King County is very active in composting agricultural, restaurant, and organic commercial waste. This is a good thing in many ways, but it’s also causing extreme detriment to soil and water quality across the county, and considering this practice is happening around the world, the impact is global. Compost has a high rate of micro-plastics in it as a side affect of using municipal waste inputs. There is so much compost created by human consumption, obligatory contracts have been drawn up to ensure the material has a place to go, compelling the use of compost in county projects.

The missing topsoil has not been found, but its priceless value makes it a coveted commodity. I’ve still not been able to track where the top soil goes, but there are traders in fresh topsoil ready to supply. It’s also important to know that the word “topsoil” has no legal definition, so anything can be sold as topsoil. Once you haul off the native topsoil of a space, whatever you replace it with will be subpar. The chemistry, bacteria, and content of in situ soil has evolved in its environment and with the local biome. Imagine the chemistry of soil, how it changes over thousands of years. Then it’s skinned right off the face of the earth and hauled away. After that, compaction from machines and the erection of completely alien compounds in the form of cement foundation lock the ground into dead space. Where daylight still connects with ground, highly manicured landscapes are formed with imported compost and cultivar plantings or lawn. Most artificial landscapes need heavy inputs to survive, including regular irrigation, nutrient replacement, and defense against predation from enthusiastic browsers like deer and pest insects. Before the invasion of development, most landscapes are easily able to maintain themselves, having evolved in place for many generations.

It’s not unusual for soil to be disrupted, in fact, soil is often improved by disturbance, usually from animal hooves aerating it with large herd movement across open terrain. Humans take that disruption to a new level, from lines dug to lay plumbing and electrical, to whole acres scraped clean to pour foundations or parking lots. If the topsoil was simply moved out of the way and then spread back out on the open places, there would be far less detriment to the soil. However, it would not afford a reason to put mass produced compost down, therefor causing a backlog in man made material that needs a place to go. Once the new soil is put down, there is a huge loss in biodiversity, soil microbes, and and influx of micro-plastics. It’s a lose lose for the soil and environment. Man’s complex engineering for self-serving consumption is damaging the living system that thrives without our manipulation. It’s also sad that we think the compost is a good thing, and if it weren’t for all the plastic byproducts that find there way into mass produced systems, it would.

At EEC, we create a lot of great compost- without plastics, but it’s a small scale system. We’re also not exporting our topsoil and requiring a replacement dressing. The soil is our whole mission here- reviving the fertility through microbial and bacterial encouragement- no chemical additives- beyond what comes out the end of our hard working grazers. That relationship between animals and the plants has been in place as a natural compost builder for as long at the two have been in existence- millions of years. Any food waste or carbon material like wood from construction scrap is absent of plastic, but in a huge system like Cedar Grove, our local municipal compost producer, the plastics are rampant. Many larger composting efforts- especially on industrial farms, produces high counts of micro plastics. Most of the contamination is not done of purpose, but the lasting legacy of plastics in the soil and water will be felt for generations to come.

Fruit Bounty

Frost Peach tree (cultivar)

The fruit is holding well through a summer of little water but great sun and warmth. Our zone 1 frost peach has received regular watering and watchful tending. This tree is trellised against the south side of a kitchen. As we continue to shape and train the branches, you’ll soon be able to pick a fresh peach through the open window. The tree also offers summer shade to keep the building cooler during summer heatwaves (nature’s air conditioning). Growing peach trees in Western Washington can be a great challenge. One of the most common afflictions to stone fruit- and especially peaches- is leaf curl fungus (Taphrina deformans). I’ve found that keeping the tree warm and dry during the spring dampness of our region is the solution. South facing building walls are a great heat reflector.

Another pair of fruit trees in our zone 3 area receive no water, but do rest at the edge of a slope transition where water gathers in a swale. These trees are being woven together into an arch on the front of a hedge being cultivated on contour across the landscape. These trees have also weathered more exposure (no shelter from a building or warm catchment), and sheep have grazed them back a few times before they finally got above browsing mouths. One of the two cultivars lost its grafted variant. I’ve not seen much fruit production, but there are some nice large peaches there none the less. They had amazing flavor, but also harbored earwigs in the pits- which did nothing to the fruit or great taste, but made for unwanted chase in the kitchen.

It’s a great year for the pear trees too. Our Bartlett Pear tree has the most fruit I’ve ever seen on it’s branches. It does not receive regular water, but does reside near a rain catchment system that has passive flow into the fruit trees when it rains. The fruit is not mature yet, so I am hedging my bets more will fall before they are ripe unless I start watering. This is the “game” with fruit trees- lots of flowers, lots of little fruits start to grow, then weather/deer and sheep brows/drought drop/hail storm will lead to the appearance of great harvest followed by vast attraction into a good pick with one or two pies to show for it (which can be enough). The other great challenge to my pears is birds. They know when the fruit is going to ripen and literally show up and wait nearby, counting the days, and pecking into the ripe flesh just as it starts to soften.

Apples are one of those dream fruits we all want in our perfect orchard layout. The indigenous folks that live in this bio-region cultivated a native Pacific Crab-apple in all their established villages. Today, a cultivar from far off Kazakhstan, a distant cousin of Malus fusca, has become a top cash crop for The State of Washington. Though you are far more likely to see extensive commercial orchards on The East Side of The Cascades, Malus domestica thrives across most temperate climates, including Western Washington.

At EEC, we have a well established grove of apple trees which have continuously provided fruit through late summer into early fall each year. A grey water system feeds the above photographed trees, which are still showing signs of drought- having a lot of fruit, but little flesh on each ovary. We’ve chosen not to irrigate these trees beyond the grey water, which is limited, being fed by a single kitchen sink. We will have plenty of apples, but this year, they may be small and dry from these older trees.

In another part of the land, a zone 3 orchard of very young trees- Mom’s orchard- is surviving with limited deep watering irrigation once a week. This is part of the establishment period, where the trees will need water to survive in drought years like this until their root balls mature. Eventually, they will cultivate enough canopy shade to require little water to survive. Once this orchard begins production, it will have a lifetime of about 15-20 years before climaxing production and then transitioning into native habitat with a planting of evergreen trees. In a typical industrial fruit orchard, there are many chemical additives to irrigation for growth assistance, and topical sprays of endless varieties to combat fungus and insect damage. We have no chemicals on the land and do not need them- it’s more important at EEC Forest Stewardship for the ecology as a whole to be integrated. This means we work with many different kinds of fruiting plants to prevent a massive crop failure. If one type of apple tree gets sick, it will not spread easily to other kinds of fruit trees. Insects have so much choice, they don’t tend to attack any one tree enough to offset its production. Climate is out biggest threat, as heat will stress the trees into dropping fruit before it’s ripe.

Our most productive fruit comes from berry bushes. The two mature blueberry shrubs on the land are sometimes accosted by sheep- but this year we managed to protect them and still have berries on the bush. The most prolific and abundant berries are those of Rubus armeniacus. This species is an invasive of Western Washington, and a bane to many cultivators. However, its has come to play a significant role in covering up bare landscape where temperate rainforest has been removed, and produces a juicy, yummy fruit. We’re harvesting over five gallons worth (it only takes about an hour to harvest that much) to make wine this year (2021). Blackberry can also be used to make jams and jelly, pies, smoothies, and freezes easily, like most fruit, to be enjoyed later in the dark winter months, when fruit is a welcomed sweet treat.

Fruit trees are such a dream come true here on the land, and having acquired an acreage which already had well established trees on the landscape helped a lot in getting a good harvest from the start. Out of the trees I’ve planted since, only a few are actually producing now. It can take about five years before you enjoy the fruits of your labors, so if you are planning fruit trees, plant them NOW. I’ve staggered my plantings a bit, first making sure I had the water systems in place to manage larger plantings. If you don’t irrigate your fruit, you’ll have much less production. Here in The Pacific Northwest, there are also so many native fruits on the landscape- though they are not apples and oranges- to be sure. Still, it’s good to look at what has already evolved in the area, and roses do well, so apples are good; there are native cherries, so plant those, and berries are a must- but there are so many native ones, I’ve not focused on them as cultivars. Our stone fruit is hit or miss. The native oso berry is a small fruit that is like a plumb, but tastes like cucumber. Plumbs can do well here, but the three I’ve planted have struggled, and two lost their grafted producer and are now root stock suckers- not fruit producers. That’s ok, because I can always graft something else on, and flowers for pollination still happen in the mean time.

If you are planning fruit trees into your land, take the time to look at what verities are already doing well in your climate. Try to seek out older heritage verities which are designed to work in diverse climate shifts. Also take to heart the time and energy you’ll need to keep fruit trees productive. You have to do major thinning each winter, and for EEC, it takes weeks to prune all our trees for maximum productivity. We also accept blight and bugs without putting up much fight. Some people do monthly sprays and costly amendments to boost their harvests. That’s not the holistic way, and ends up being a struggle you’ll loose in the long run. Fruit trees just don’t have a long life, and neither will you if you are constantly babying them into production. Quality of life should always outweigh quantity of production- especially if you are a homesteader or croft tender. In this neck of the woods- you always have blackberry to fall back on as a solid fruit crop, no matter what your cultivars do.

Outdoor Ethics

Since the start of COVID-19, unprecedented numbers of people have been going outside into nature as an alternative to crowded cities. Here in Western Washington, there has been a 30% increase in outdoor recreation in the past decade. Impacts of this rise in use can be felt across all aspects of local ecology- from hiking trails to ATV parks, the environment has taken a beating from people trying to get outside, and often having no clue how to do so in a mindful and light footed way. One area of the population trying to implement studies to show the detrimental impacts of human access into wilderness is The Tulalip Tribe. Their study- The “Recreation Boom” on Public Lands in Western Washington: Impacts to Wildlife and Implications for Treaty Tribes is an eye opener for anyone curious about the effect human recreation has on the nature we love and enjoy. It’s a classic case of misuse and abuse which stems from ignorance. People seem to think wilderness is theirs for the taking- no surprise, and even the outdoor enthusiasts who label themselves environmentally friendly, are often doing the most harm in their pursuits.

To be clear- we should all be getting outside and putting eyes on the environment, immersing ourselves in it, and forming deep connection. But the way in which people often try to embrace nature, without an understanding of personal impact, does the most harm. It seems to be a sort of damned if we do, damned if we don’t situation. Restricting access to nature cuts people off from forming connection with it, thus removing conservation mindfulness all together. If we are not out there being a part of the natural world, it makes it easier to forget it, inviting industry to come and extract from it instead. Getting outside for nature connection is also a privilege many people cannot afford due to a lack of finances, transportation, gear, or how to. It is this last one, the how to, which is causing the greatest conflict with retaining a healthy balance between nature and man.

My partner and I have been doing a lot of overnight camping this summer and keep running into two major issues on the trail- used toilet paper on the open ground (often near a wild water source) and trash in established fire pits. These are two very large issues because they cause the eventual shut down of public access to wilderness space, pollute water sources and soil, and demonstrate a severe lack of understanding or care of wild spaces. It was especially frustrating at our established camp site in a recent overnight, where a vault toilet was installed for latrine use, that even with proper signage and flagging to show where the toilet was, there was still rampant pop a squat anywhere evidence- people didn’t understand that there was a toilet nearby- they just saw a sign that said “toilet” and walked over to do their business on the open ground. Never mind “leave no trace”- there is a complete loss of outdoor ethics as more an more inexperienced people venture out into nature. It was very apparent at every campsite we stayed at.

Along with discarded refuse, the erosion of the trails themselves was prevalent. This overuse struggle is happening all over the world. Here’s one article about east coast trails and the traffic on them. The time-laps video of a day on the trail was most revealing. In our eagerness to find nature, we’re loosing it, and the lack of leave no trace ethics in combination with a mindset that believes nature is something to exploit, rather than respect will ultimately destroy out wilderness and make it impossible to enjoy. This telling toll through recreation accesses reflects a much more systemic problem at play in our world- overpopulation. Rather than sit here griping about the world’s crowding out, I’d like to reflect again on the way people treat the natural world. When we go out into wilderness, there are very important ethics in out treatment of the environment, which dictates if that environment will remain wild and thriving for us to return to again and again. We have to understand how much devistation our visitation renders, and often, acknowledge that our impact might not be the best thing for a place, no matter how beautiful and wild it might be to enjoy.

Drought Mushrooms

Forest Floor with Bountiful Boletes

The Boletus family is a great group to know here in Western Washington. They are prolific throughout all seasons and some are easy to identify and harvest- though I will not teach that here- face to face mushroom learning in the field is always best. Please contact me, escocrain@gmail.com, for opportunities to join adventures in mushroom I.D. time. The fall is always bets, but this summer, during incredible drought, we took time to wander up into higher elevations (above 4,000 ft.) to find some fungal friends. These pictures of Boletes are hard to identify, but I thoughts they were bitter boletes of some kind, and left them. There were a number of slime molds out- not unexpected for this time of year with the heat. But even some oyster like verities were peeking out loners from under the duff. With such little water available, these great mushrooms were still finding the moisture where they could, and making the best of it.

The Central Cascades are full of moisture, even when the clouds refuse to burst. Mysts cloak these towering crags with all the humidity a mushroom needs to flourish, though when it does start raining again later this fall, The Mushroom Spring will arrive. These pictures are of solitary, or small groups of late summer stragglers in the fungal kingdom. By October, the mountains will be awash in bloom with all kinds of fungal families- including many that people love to eat. Right now in August, it’s best to document species, but let them be. The slime molds, like Dog Vomit, are bright and colorful, but send a message of disgust in more ways than one. Note that breathing in the spores has been known to trigger asthma in some people. Yet it’s one of the most brightly colored creatures biding its slime on the trail during our ascent.

An often underappreciated year round species of fungus among us is Red Belted Conk. This Polypore thrives on dead wood, and can be found bracketed along decaying trunks and downed logs. On a warm August day, you can see drips of clear liquid forming on white flesh of these awesome mushrooms. This is called Fungal Guttation, and it’s an amazing source of water for many insects and small mammals. A person could lick the moisture too- though it won’t give you much re-hydration- better to leave it for other forest friends. Our hike took us through a well established forest- one might even call it older growth, as at the elevation we were ascending to, size is stunted. We still saw a lot of large, majestic giants towering in a canopy cathedral above. There were still signs of logging, but many mature trees stood tall.

Glacier Peak in the far off distance

By the time we reached our highest point on the trail, glaciers were in view, and the snow melt from last winter was still blanketing sheltered shady spots around us. This slow melt was also hydrating the surrounding flora and fauna, keeping the landscape lush and alive. We camped at an established site along a picturesque ridge and kept an eye out for more mushrooms in the woods. Surprisingly, there were none around a nearby body of water or along the snow melt. Still, morning mists lingered the next day before another scorcher enveloped us on our decent. We found a few more boletes popping out of the dry duff and wondered at the awkward angles the caps protruded from the needles. Again, it’s late summer, and the general atmosphere is not conducive to great mushroom production.

Mushrooms can tell us a lot about climate conditions and ecological health in the environment. Though most fungi prefer damp, cool conditions, many will throw caution to the wind in a chance to repopulate through spore spreading in any wet window. Because The Cascades captures so much moisture off The Pacific Ocean, even summer drought season can produce enough humidity to cultivate the right climate for all kinds of amazing mushrooms. Take a moment to look around, even in dry places, especially at elevation. If you find fungus, document the species as best you can and note the landscape and any recent precipitation. As our world continues to dry out and heat up, we’ll see the mushrooms adapting rapidly, which is why its such a successful kingdom in the natural world.

Subsidy or Subsistence?

When people ask me about EEC Forest Stewardship as a farm, they have a certain understanding of what farming means, and usually end up calling my endeavors to produce food “subsistence” farming. This term is arrived at because I state that the farm is not a money making endeavor- as in- not for profit. Farms are not usually designated as non-profit, and I explain that EEC is not an industrial production center. The definition subsistence is arrived at through what I believe is a serious misconception fueled by ignorance. Today I’d like to clear up a few things about agriculture to shift our understanding of farming and the realities of food production in this country.

It seems today that the general public believes farming is ether big business or subsistence, as though there are no other avenues or opportunities in agriculture beyond money- this trend can be traced across all aspects of our economy, profits determine productivity. Where food is concerned, this is certainly an alarming trend, because eating is a requirement for survival, and putting a price on food has always been a dangerous liaison. At EEC, our animal systems break even, and sometimes provide a little surplus in financial gain. We raise many more animals that we need to survive here, so we’re well past the “subsistence” category, by definition. But when I say the farm is not my main source of income, and more specifically, that I do not engage in industrial agriculture, it is assumed the farming is sub-whatever. How far from the truth this is.

Restoration agriculture is priceless. I’ve written a few articles about how much the livestock systems add to the fertility of the land, as well as the larder, but that’s not how agriculture is taught- if it’s taught at all. Most people see only profit status, like in their own work place, and if you say you are not producing said profits, you’re subpar- subsistence. Based on money alone as the measurement, we should then include all the subsidies that industrial farms receive for their viability. Most farms at least have a tax # which provides discounts on purchases related to agriculture. This can be anything from seed for planting, to oil for the tractor, to hay for the animals. EEC does not have a tax #, though we have filed F4 tax papers as a legitimate agricultural business, we do not take advantage of any subsidies and remain independent of government “handouts”. This is more than most for profit farms can claim.

It is a sad fact that most farming would not survive without subsidies, and I am all in favor for them while we operate in a broken Neo-liberal capitalist system which serves only one cause- making money. When your goal is producing food, you will always come out in the red, as food is not valued as it should be, considered it’s a required input for survival. Instead, the majority of crop production in this country, and many others, are labeled “soft” commodities, and traded as such. Food is group in with oil and gold- a sad state of affairs in our modern industrial complex. So when you think of a small family farm with a picturesque big red barn, you’re romanticizing the industry, which whitewashes agriculture to hide the truth of food production from the consumer. If people had to pay the actual cost of food, most could not afford it- many still can’t even now, with the subsidies.

At EEC, we produce enough eggs and lamb to sell in a small word of mouth, slow food community. This allows us to work within the unpredictability of production without hard line requirements and penalization if we can’t meet a certain number each year. This is a major sticking point in industrial agricultural- you have to meet the production numbers so there are not shortages. Consequently, most large producers overproduce and end up with a gluttony of product they then dump- literally pour out on the ground, burn, compost, or destroy in some other way, to keep prices stable. When the production fails- which can happen quite often in nature through natural disasters, disease, or climate change- farmers still get insurance payouts or more subsidies to get them through a bad year. In 2020, industrial farmers received nearly 40% of their income from government subsides. That’s a cash cow I’d like to be raising- who wouldn’t?

This land produces a reasonable amount of eggs and lamb, but also produces a few fruit trees, veggies from the kitchen garden, fertility to enhance production in the soil without chemical inputs, and hosts a small number of tenants who pay a predictable monthly rental income. When all this gets added up, EEC is certainly providing enough income to support the cost of production, taxes, and paying the bills, so are we really just subsisting? My personal expenses are not covered by these productions, so I run a consulting firm on the side to help other people setting up their land production and smart restoration systems. I use my land as a sort of demonstration space to show potential clients what these systems look like and how successful they are. Is that subsistence farming? No, but when you tell someone you don’t make money off your production, that’s what they seem to think. Yet people also forget that industrial agriculture is only profitable with government subsidies.

I think most agriculture would still be subsistence if we didn’t subsidize it. Though to be clear- my sheep reproduce well, and I sell about 6-8 animals a year. USDA considers anything less than 500 small. On a national scale, that is a tiny fraction of global production, but to a small hill farmer like me, it’s enough to pay the cost of hay and salt, as well as fencing, LGD food cost, and a little extra for when I buy new stock to improve my herd genetics. None of this is subsidized, though I could apply for some, especially in my tax filing with the F4. But I don’t like to play those money games, and think we should be paying what things are actually worth- especially food. What I ask for in payment for a lamb is about $14/lb., but you only pay about $11 at COSTCO (non-organic), but it’s $14/lb. for organic, so I’m asking what market price is. Yet I’m not getting a subsidy on top of that. Why not take a subsidy- because I am not subsistence farming!

Please take time to look into food legislation- here are some helpful sites I recommend beyond this blog:

Who Funds Agriculture? (OpenSecrets.org)<– wow! follow the $$$

Food Politics– Marion Nestle

How industrial farms abuse the subsidies (explicit)

Mother Earth News

Farm Programs

Treehugger