Unwanted Companions

Introducing fertility inputs to the soil is usually seen as a good thing- nitrogen, carbon, and potassium are the most common, and many people use compost, manure, or wood chips as inputs with these elements. In our enthusiasm to build fertility at EEC Forest Stewardship, during the early days, we said “yes” to a few offered free inputs which, on reflection, might have been a naive impulse. The long term costs of adding biomass from outside a holistic system can be underestimated- here are some examples we’re struggling with at EEC.

It was late winter, and I wanted to get a start on veggie gardens by the house for the upcoming growing season. It had taken over a month to dig out all the rhododendron on the site. We removed them because they were very toxic to goats, and they did not priduce anything people could eat, so we dug them out. Should have sold them, but it was already enough work to get them out. The we were left with a tattered plastic covered mulch bed with some large holes. A neighbor offered free composted goat manure from her barn. I said yes, knowing how good the manure would be to jump-start the gardens. In general, manures are great inputs for your soil, especially gardens, which are often employed in growing vegetables, which require a lot of inputs to produce consistently year after year.

A dump trailer arrived with the rich brown and black soil, I saw some paddock gravel sprinkled in, but didn’t care so much, as the manure was at a perfect rate of decomposition for the gardens. The trailer backer right onto the garden location and dumped about two tons of ready to garden soil. Instant garden! I was thrilled, and began planning out all the patches and rows for my first ever garden. That was 2014.

A few weeks later another offer from the same barn came for free manure compost. This soil was from a different barn, and seemed more composted, darker in color, showing more carbon base. I asked that it go on the edge of my land outside the fence, for easy access with a truck when we needed some. It worked well as a staging area for biomass (with permission from the neighbor). I would bring my 10 gallon pots to the soil pile, fill up, and return them to the greenhouse for planting. Some of the soil was simpy shoveled into the back of the pickup and driven to a site on the land where a raised bed was going in, or fresh soil was needed to amend fruit trees, etc. That rich manure compost went to many areas of the land, and fostered some great young plants into fruition. But the soil brought something else with it, and we did not find out what until it was too late.

I honestly don’t know if the soil came with it or not, the seeds of this tenacious weed spread quickly thorough any landscape where it is introduces, and can lay dormant for years. I’m talking about common bind weed, or morning glory. It’s a vine with a lot of reach- over 30 feet below ground, with roots that bear tiny hair like rootlets, which can form new plants easily if left in the soil after the larger roots are pulled out. In short, you can’t weed them out like most other plants. They thrive on disturbed soil, and love a good pruning back, which then stimulated the rootlets underground to grow faster. You may think you only have some on the edge of your land, but it reaches under the soil, across the lawn 30 feet, then pops up in your garden, then under the ground another 30 feet to your orchard, throwing up new sprouts along the way. A truly abundant species, in the worst way.

Morning glory has been present at EEC for five years now, and has spread across the entire upper 3rd of our property. It’s not covering everything, not at all, as I pull most of it up, and let the sheep eat the rest, or most of it. However, the plant spreads under ground, and since I initially took soil from the infected pile, and dispersed it around the landscape, it’s come on 5x as strong. Where the sheep can get at it, things are managed, and the spread has stopped. In the kitchen gardens, I have to spend 4x as much on weeding. In other parts of the property, I won’t know it’s there until the white flowers pop out in late summer. Cone flowers form, seed is inevitable, so I have to throw away any flowering plants I pull.

example of bindweed takeover (NOT at EEC)

Over the past few years, I’ve stopped moving soil around from the gardens, and quarantined older potted plants. One is photoed at the start of this post- a young river birch which is now hosting the unwanted weed. I’ve since watched many more bind weed populations springing up around our grater area, so the seeds might have already been in the area, and just spread into my soil once it arrived. I cannot confirm this, but the weed is here now, and ready to take over. It’s more work I don’t need, but a necessity to prevent complete takeover, especially in the food gardens. It’s the current worst offender, next to blackberry, which at least offers a sweet treat in late summer. But weeds are just the beginning- what other unwanted companions can be lurking in other biomass inputs?

Where the composted manure pile lay, we began staging all our biomass; including hauled in logs and brush, which were then placed into different areas of the property in need of woody debris (like bare spots caused by erosion from increasing heavy rains). I did check all the brush and logs for invasive such as beetles, fungus, and weeds. But can you ever really be sure of your source when it comes to biomass? Full logs betray most rot and fungus if you look close and know what to look for- I’ll not get into that today, but here’s a great website to learn more.

The two main fungi which are bad news here in The Pacific Northwest are honey fungus (Armillaria mellea), a parasitic fungus causing an intensive white rot, signifying the death of tree. Considered to be one of the most dangerous parasites known to trees. The other is laminated root rot, Coniferiporia weirii (formerly Phellinus weirii), a fungus (may also be called P. sulphurascens in some reports). Infection spreads from tree to tree, eventually leading to root decay. Trees are infected and killed regardless of individual vigor. It attacks mostly firs, and since our forests are dominated by the Douglas fir, and it’s the tree in timber commercial harvesting, it’s considered a huge threat.

honey mushrooms are edible if cooked- (do not pick without expert confirmation)

How would inputting biomass from outside our land invite these fungi? Well, if you’ve ever said “yes” to free wood chips from a local arborists, you might have invited it with open arms. The risk of wood chips being infected cannot easily be gauged, but think of this- most arborists are cutting down diseased or otherwise compromised trees. If they know the true cause of the rot, they might be able to self quarantine infected wood, by staging it in a contained facility- but there is not anything like that set up in our area (that i know of) for the simple fact that fungus like the laminated root rot can live on in dead wood for decades. If you were to lay that wood down on the ground somewhere, the fungus would travel in the soil to the nearest healthy tree; wood chips would infect in the same way on your land, so watch out!

We’ve covered two major input sources which can have drastic consequences for your land if you invite them in. Keep in mind there is a host of bacteria which can also hitch a ride in biomass, as well as parasites (for animals and plants). Does this mean don’t get inputs? No, but it does mean really think hard about where you source your materials from, and be very weary of free biomass- it’s usually tainted with no legitimate place to go. I’ll share one more example, not a fertility input, but another free biomass I turned down, with better foresight.

the pond in late summer with Katahdin flock

Our pond is dug into glacial till- meaning it will never fully fill, and hold that volume of water without being lined in some way. We’ve priced out thick liners, and that’s expensive- as well as easy to puncture and damage. The best option would be clay, and there is a lot of blue dolomite clay in our region. However, it’s still pricey, and takes machines to haul in and place- adding up to similar costs as the plastic liner. Clay is our preferred option, and in late 2018, I got an offer for three truckloads of free dolomite clay. It was being taken off site in Seattle that day, and had no scheduled place to go, so I could have it for free- in return for taking such a large amount of biomass on short notice. It was so tempting, and would have been enough clay for the pond. But there was also a red flag- the clay was coming from Seattle. I asked where in Seattle, and the reply shocked me- Fauntleroy Ferry Landing in West Seattle.

Why? Well, The Puget Sound is amassed with pollutants; toxic industry litters the coast throughout the sound, and West Seattle was no clean oasis in the sea of filth. On top of that, it’s clay dug out of salt water- to line a fresh water pond? No, it would have killed the pond, and the ground around it, and maybe even my well, if the salts were to soak into the ground and into the water table. What a potential nightmare! Of course I said “no”, and the clay went who know where after that, (scary). This is how our good intentions with regards to inputs can cause great harm. Please, if you take away one thing from this writing- know your inputs, what they are, where they come from, and the questions to ask before saying “yes”. Otherwhise, you might end up with some very unwelcome companions.

Food Wise?

Online farming? Well, holistic systems thrive on big data. Know the who, what, when, where, and why before you design. This talk by Erin Baumgartner illustrates the inefficient design of many “modern” systems of distribution, as well as the cost of focusing on profit, rather than quality and human impact.

Holistic thrives on local, grass roots, and regeneration, to name a few. EEC Forest Stewardship not only stewards forest for long term canopy restoration, but also works the land agriculturally, using livestock and perennial plantings to enhance fertility and diversity on the landscape. We think globally and act locally by selling directly to consumers, and making sure out food is cost effective for us, and our patrons. We do the raising, slaughtering, and butchering on site, eliminating costly industrial processing, expensive packaging, and feed lots. Our animals are relaxed, never experiencing the stress of transport or strange handlers in a frightening slaughterhouse.

We raise only what the land can support, choosing ecology over profit. Raising a smaller flock of sheep keeps the farmer less stressed too. The animals themselves are grateful to have enough space to be animals in, with a safe number in the herd to allow security without cramping, which would lead to more stress. It’s not a model of production at all, not in the industrial sense, but enough to pay for its self, provide safe, healthy food, and regenerate the environment, instead of destroying it.

Even with all our work to keep costs manageable and animals healthy, we still have to go outside the land to find enough inputs for our animals. Winter hay is a must; we don’t have access to flat bottom land acreage, so we buy from the east side of the state. That’s usually the case with most hill farmers. We’re certainly not growing the grain for our laying hens either, but we source from a local fully organically certified producer (Scratch and Peck). I do not grain my sheep, but sometimes, they get organic bread from our gleaner friends.

Your investment in small, local producers- however you can, is something. It goes a long way in creating a secure food system. By consuming local and organic where you can, you’ll be investing in more than good food, you’ll also be paying for better health. Commercially gown crops are often empty of nutrition and taste. What they are full of is chemicals, which will pass on into your body when you consume it, and so many do, and so many more can’t afford anything else. Even worse, and addressed in this film, is the lack of access to healthy, locally produced food.

I’m not sure if the internet is the answer, but I appreciate the big data now being collected. Having briefly run an egg coop through online sales similar to the ones Erin speaks of, I agree the process is more holistic, but also still creates limited access. Any eggs we sold in our neighborhood grocery stores were there because I went in with them in person and made the sale- there was no online interest. Our eggs that were selling bulk online went mostly to restaurants in Seattle. That’s who would pay for our eggs so the farmer’s actually got a decent price, but it was still short of what the eggs cost to produce. Our small coop would never see any subsidies. That big ag money goes to the huge factory farms- one machine supporting another- so don’t buy in.

The Candle At Both Ends

At a glance, it’s obvious that The West Coast is on fire. Drought stalks these lands, and has for decades. The cost of a warmer, dryer trend equates to more burning. Climate change will reshape the world, and society is left behind in the ashes. People are at fault for these occurrences. Large timber stands, managed in mono-culture mass plantings, where crowded groves of densely planted evergreen trees, creates enough biomass to incinerate on a temperature level never reached in old growth forests. Well spaced, mature forests could easily defend against fire. Trees stand well spaced and well insulated with thick bark against low temperature brush burning below an intact canopy. With those canopies chopped down long ago, the cracked earth is parched and vulnerable to flame.

In western America, vast developments of suburban sprawl have crept up into the forest hillsides. EEC Forest Stewardship is an example of this sprawl, though on the west side of The Cascades, there is more moisture and less fire hazard. Still, the long summer months have invited fire danger into our temperate rain-forests, and when things light up in this region, it will be a living hell. Oregon, our neighbor to the south, is seeing west side burning this summer, and record breaking destruction across the state. Further down in coast in California, day has become night, with haunting orange skies of warning.

Dense fog, not unusual in The Bay Area, but certainly unusual in that this fog carries dangerous smoke particles, which harm the lungs and leave ash residue on every surface. The particles are so thick, they block out the sun, plunging daytime temperatures into what some scientists are comparing to a nuclear winter. Here in Western Washington, the daytime temperatures have fallen into the 50s and 60s (from 80s-90s), with the sun blocked out enough to turn our sky a dim orange too. Though it’s not as dramatic as the sky above in California, the air is still thick with smoke, and more than an hour working outside leaves me with a headache- even with a mask on.

In ten years living here, this is the worst smoke we’ve endured. So much gratitude for the fire staying away. We are not in any threat at this time for fire danger or evacuation. Many friends on the other side of the mountains have not been so lucky. Like the fires in 2015, 2020 is turning out to be the worst burn in state history, with whole towns wiped right off the map for good. Again, in the familiar desert step of our eastern lands, sage grouse might now be decimated, and winter kill from loss of habitat will have far reaching consequences for our wildlife populations- let alone the trees and plants which eek out a survival in these often harsh landscapes.

Take care in living away from it all, tucked in your pocket of forest somewhere off the main road- for nature can be a cruel teacher, and in this lightning fast changing world, climate will overtake us. At EEC, we “manage” our forest with the understanding that it could burn, and through we hope fire will only come to our land in a prescribed, well controlled burn, mother nature might have other plans. It is a recognized part of living in the west. For all communities, this is a time to be aware of climate change, especially how it will affect your area. If not fire, floods, if not floods, winds, ice, drought; the growing extreme of these environmental feedback loops will only intensify with time. Find out what’s in store for your region and take all preparatory steps possible to be ready for change. Regardless of what kind of change comes, it will come, and the projections are grim.

created by dji camera

One of the biggest steps taken here at EEC Forest Stewardship, involved preparing for continued drought on our landscape. Investing in a 20,000 gallon pillow tank has given us late summer water security, should out water table ever drop below well depth (so far, it never has). This tank is also for emergency defense. If fire was threatening the property, we could use the water to dampen the land around our house, or other buildings as needed. With the aid of a water pump, we can pressurize the hose from our tank and spray down and surface in need of hydration quenching. May fire never be the reason for this use! We hope to only irrigate fruit trees and pasture space with this tank. But, it’s also a piece of mind in this wildfire nightmare in these modern times.

Without fire there is still smoke. This particulate fog in the air does a different kind of damage- one we may not see, like the charred remains of buildings in the fire, but scaring and internal injury does occur when breathing smoke. Even though we can wear masks and stay inside to protect against smoke, our livestock is outside and exposed to the toxic air. Though this exposure is limited, it will continue to lengthen as the summer turnings expand, and they will. Inside our house (a 73 double wide) there is no central air or heating. We have a wood stove in winter and open windows at night in summer. It works perfectly well when there is clean air, but now, we’re sealed in. Fans are blowing to circulate what’s here, but it’s stuffy, and the smoke is still getting in. We’ve planned to invest in portable air filtration, which we’ll hopefully only have to run a few weeks out of each summer season. I’d like to recognize that this is not the solution to climate change, in fact, a step backwards because of the energy we’ll be using to run it, the materials to make it, and replace the filter again and again. It’s not sustainable, but at this point in time, not much of humanity is.

In the haze, trees keep growing taller, sheep keep nibbling at the grass and bramble, and we keep planting for the future at EEC. There’s talk of rain the forecast later this week, and a shift in the winds from The Pacific, which might lighten the haze for a while. The map above shows how extensive the smoke is off shore, so I’m not sure where the relief will come. Note the spiraling weather system further off the coast- it’s entirely generated by smoke particulates gathering moisture. Climate scientists are still racing to compile data as records shatter, heat indexes swell, and air quality dwindles. Once we set these consequences into action by continuing to burn carbon and expecting all the amenities of modern living- well beyond the necessities, we cooked our own goose. Let us hope generations in the future will understand, if they survive.

We’re Still Here

There’s a certain point in the summer where we at EEC get caught up in all the “growings on” here on the land. It’s been a busy summer of work and play, with little time for computer antics. But an update is overdue, and as the land begins to slow back down with the loss of light, as fall approaches, I’ve taken a moment to sit down and catch up.

The kitchen garden has become a wild plant paradise, with black eyes Susan and pear tree root stalk, chives, American chestnut seedlings, comfrey, and more. Natural reeseeding of kale keeps our salads fresh, but I’ve never been a vegetable gardener, and that’s a fact. Why? Because I love working with animals and trees, that’s my passion. Growing garden vegetables, like broccoli and carrots, takes a lot of work to get right, especially in this soil. We have to constantly amend vegetable gardens with so much nutrients to keep those grocery store favorites in stock, when so many large greenhouse growers in our valley already have the veggies going and sell them locally at an affordable price.

The sheep are so wonderful, large, and sentient. They water themselves (as long as some is available), they feed themselves off the landscape, and are manageable in reasonable numbers. I don’t have to weed sheep, just de-worm them occasionally and trim hooves every few seasons. They eat the weeds, and mow the lawn, and put great fertility back into the soil. Sheep also need to move around, so they keep me on my toes moving electric fences and keeping them safe from predators. It’s fun, constant (like gardening) but I get to work with animals, my passion.

The her spiral, key hole garden, and other rockery beds in the house gardens are thriving, and could use a trim back. I harvested lavender earlier in the summer, and left more for the pollinators, who need it most. There are still not enough flowers on the land, and that’s going to take time, which we have at EEC Forest Stewardship. Smaller rock gardens are easy to manage compared to large (anything over 4×6′) vegetable gardens with limitless space for both food and weeds.

Edge spaces, along the driveway for example, foster an in between place where I’ve begun cultivating long term hedge species like native twin berry and current, as well as some hybrid experiments, like the fenced edible crab apple, which is managing to survive in a low water zone with a little help form his companion plantings. I’ve co-planted the cultivar with native crab apple as a comparison. The borage survives almost anywhere, reseeds throughout the growing season on it’s own, can be eaten, and is the #1 pollinator station chosen by the insects. Some gardeners complain it’s a weed, but what an easy weed to pull, and what it offers far outweighs the weed negatives in my gardens.

Hens are at is too, producing the best eggs I know. We’re selling a few dozen locally, but I’m planning to keep the flock to under 30, and not produce on a larger scale, as the commercial price does not add up to the true cost of producing happy hens who lay nutrient dense eggs. It’s very important to realize just how subsidized commercial farming is now. Those bleached white eggs in the store with the thin shells and watery goo some call an egg dripping out of them, priced at $2.99, are sad examples of food, and are worth less than the money you pay for them. But for so many, and soon, so many more, food at all is better than none- and “affordable” food is best. It’s what low quality nutrition will do to the body long term, which sometimes keeps me up at night.

This summer we flood irrigated with the pillow tank for the first time. I might add that it was no flood, even with a fire hose. We’ll be designing a slow drip irrigation system off the tank now. Without an electric pump, the water does not have enough force to flood anything as it spills out of the hose. That’s ok, we’re learning a lot about the physics of water. The orchard still received a good watering as we moved the hose around. By the way, a 100′ fire hose full of water is quite heavy.

This is a shot of full flow from the hose. It’s just not going to flood the swale fast enough before it all soaks in. Such a great lesson in water system design. When, after only a year of planning, we implemented all these large scale plans, it was immediately apparent to me that the systems were too big to manage, and that as an individual, I had to scale things back down to my needs. Luckily this world is full of flex, and since the problem is always the solution, it’s been possible to rebuild off the plans already in place, and re-imagine out systems to work within the constraints as they change. This is the mark of any good land steward, because the land is in constant flux, and human imposed systems must change to work with the land as needed. So many of us big brained humans think we can change the land to suit us. In some ways yes, but our little brains can’t fully comprehend the complex web of nature, and we often “monocrop” a space to fit our limited understanding at the cost of a healthy working whole.

Back in sheep land, we just introduced a new breeding ram to the flock. This wonderful guy came locally from Canfield Farms in Snohomish. Michelle’s been running Katahdin sheep there since 2010. Her records are amazing, and though I will never match them, I’m so excited to have this contact, and she got into sheep through dog trials, so I have now met a local sheep dog trainer too. Can’t wait to introduce her to Valentine.

Speaking of, this dog has come a long way in less than two years. She’s now capable of moving the sheep for me. In the picture above, she is sorting chickens out of the flock to help me get them back to the coop side of the fence for feeding. This pup knows her stuff, and can tell the words “bird” from “sheep” without hesitation. She loves to work, and does it well. There’s still the challenge of keeping her form occasionally jumping up at new people in her excitement to greet them, but she does know how to “calm down”. And labor day weekend, she had a chance to really show her training when a young 4 year old visitor to the farm spent two days playing with her. By the end of that enjoyable time, Valley was happily playing fetch with the child without jumping on her, and knew to stay with the little girl when she wandered around on her own. Now Valentine has a new young friend, and a fan.

It’s not all had work and no play. My wise Mother sent us a blow up kitty pool, which I scoffed at, until it was full of cool water in the shade at the end of a hot day of working outside. We’re grateful for an oasis in the heat of summer. Thanks again Mom!

Though the world may be full of strange times, EEC Forest Stewardship continued to thrive here in Western Washington. It is such a privilege to spend my life in this work, with all the opportunities to be on the land, cultivating good food, great ecology, and some wonderful forest. Lots more to come as I get back to writing about this place and all the amazing things to come. Thanks to all who read this little blog and take interest in the world of small scale land stewardship. Have a great rest of the summer!

Peaks and Valleys

Just a few miles from EEC Forest Stewardship land, there stretches an expanse of forest climbing into the beginning of The Cascade Mountains. Jagged young peaks are reaching upward, maybe one day cresting higher than The Himalayas. There is a complex series of tectonic plates moving in chaotic tension throughout the west coast. It makes geology here rich in layers of minerals and nutrients, which creates the famous fertility in our soil- especially in the valleys, which act as catchments for the eroding sediment of the rock towers above.

Evidence of massive glaciers, from the ice age, carved out much of the young rock- 5-7 million years ago. Alpine lakes like Hancock (pictured above), hold a treasure trove of huge smooth boulders, the left behind labors of frozen water; grinding mountains into sand. Nearby, towards the coast, sentinel giants stand, an example of proper social distancing. Aliened with the coast, these 14,000 foot guardians are conjured by deep geologic unrest. Tectonic plates, subducting beneath larger continental bodies, are consumed by the pressure, melting rock in the unbearable friction. Then, pushed up by magma, these isolated peaks- stratavolcanoes like Baker, Rainier, and St. Helens- stand poised in momentary explosive reaction.

Washington has just celebrated the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mount Saint Helens. It’s a stark reminder of the force generating just under foot in The Cascadian Subduction Zone. This abundant geology hosts some of the richest ecology on earth, from towering forests, to staggering marine life, a place so rich with flora and fauna, it’s peoples grew to be some of the most culturally rich tribes in North America. The soil here is still coveted by agriculturalists, and our valleys are thick with farms.

EEC Forest Stewardship is located on the south slope of land clear cut a few times, then left to reseed naturally on the sleep ground, and kept as open pasture in larger flat areas, most likely graded out by tractors or bulldozers in the 1980s. The clear cutting on our ridges left slopes exposed to the rains, and precious topsoil eroded rapidly away down the hills. Today’s topsoil layer is less than 4 inches in some places, dusted over the incredible compacted clay and rock that was compacted down by over a mile of ice millions of years ago. Modern digging equipment cannot break through this layer easily, and neither can the trees. Most of our tall giants you see growing today sit like pancakes on the surface of the soil. It’s a stark reminder of how precarious nature’s structures can be.

The geological makeup of our forest bed was recently, (in geological time a few thousand years) the gravel pileup left from a glacier, which then banked the edge of a post ice-age lake. My retired dairy farm neighbor just north of us has the lake bed, and kept a herd of cattle on it quite easily with all that rich soil. It would be great to see that place humming with cultivation once more- working in tandem with the amazing wetlands which still survive as a remnant of the lake that once was. The area is full of springs, which feed Wiess Creek, the salmon stream running through EEC.

These small creeks and streams have been slowly carving out new valleys in The Cascades. Our little plot sits on the toe of the foothills- an area along which the last great ice sheets melted away, leaving boulder strewn riverbeds and the classic rocky hillsides which make up much of our ridge line today. It’s hard to remember we’re on young land, which continues to build up along The Pacific Plate, which is active, and usually quite violent when it shifts. What does this mean for EEC Forest Stewardship? Not much, on the geologic scale, but over 200′ of potential movement to the west, if a big one hits. We might be on a more westward facing slope in the event of a massive quake. But it could happen any time, including 100 years from now. Let’s just say, I don’t loose sleep over it- yet.

Looking at the bigger picture, geological time, is good for anyone tending land. You get a better understanding of your soil makeup, and the constraints nature has put on your ecology. Our shallow topsoil limits tree maturity, and we now know our current conditions, mainly due to post timber harvest soil erosion, will not allow old growth trees a chance to return. It’s a hard blow to our romanticized vision of an old growth forest one day thriving on this hillside- and it might one day, thousands of years from now. But in this lifetime, all we can do is cultivate canopy redistribution and cover the soil with fertility to help reestablish the topsoil base. It’s simple and regenerative, the basic tenet at EEC.

If a nearby strata-volcano goes off, we might also get a great layer of ash, which will also jump-start the topsoil growth. This is how the macro-ecology of The Pacific Northwest works, and has been for thousands of years. Though my tending is just a blip in the life of this land, my understanding of it will take a whole lifetime and then some, so I’m well fed and tended by this lesson literally and figuratively- so to speak. Trying to have a massive impact is fruitless, where as the plate tectonics and climate sway the scales. That makes is easier to relinquish control, embracing the elements of nature which weave this fine tapestry of life. Each strand is so vital to the whole, and worth the effort to pick over as you discover the patterns within the terrain.

Micro Transhumance

Every Spring, once the last frosts are gone, the sheep move into back pastures. The trip takes less than ten minutes, from the barn to the back field is only about 1,500 feet. However, with limited pasture year round, this micro-management of grazing space, on already marginal sloped terrain, with a rehabilitating temperate rain forest all around, poses some unique ranging systems.

Limitations are as malleable as the seasons, with lush grass in warmer wet months, drying out into yellow crusts of little nutritional value in a drought year, to muddy swamps during wet months. Each biorhythm of the earth signals change; ever adapting, ever reinventing- the dance we are all in, together. For the sheep, an introduced species on the landscape, management is crucial.

Naturally, elk and deer would fill this ecological niche within an intact ecosystem. Due to human development, these natural balances have been disrupted. At EEC Forest Stewardship, the long term plan is to allow old growth trees to return. But in the mean time, for this first generation of restoration, livestock have come to mimic the active herds of elk and deer which once roamed this forested place. Open pastures are slowly being grown in, but the canopy will not close out here for hundreds of years. Humans have also established in this habitat, impacting the landscape with their needs and wants, not always for the improvement of the environment as a whole.

Livestock can decimate landscapes- and the history of human activity is evident all around. In the aerial photo above, you can see parcel 29221, EEC property, and surrounding neighbors. The long green scar to the right is an electric power line. Ironically, the electric lines create a buffer of green on either side, as most people don’t like living near, or within site of big high-lines. Imagine that! In the photo, you can make out a road, which is also a highway for wildlife. If we could assess it, I would love to walk my sheep there, but private property hindrances abound. This is why large migrations of animals across the landscape is now impossible. But at EEC, we’re still using the principal of movement.

If proper rotation on and off grasslands are followed, you can keep a good number of animals on areas of marginal land. Pressuring stock on pasture till they eat all the plants is a delicate dance, in which too much tango on one pasture could destroy sensitive species. This neglect compacts soil, setting back our restoration intentions by decades. Climate also determines what a pasture can take- if it’s too dry, the plants will not come back quickly, meaning more rest time, and less available grazing. But if you follow the environmental ques, you’ll know when to keep stock off the land, and when to move them on.

Right now the land is in a bonanza of new growth, and the sheep are barely keeping up with it. In moments like this, I wish I had triple the flock size. But I’m really glad I don’t- or this landscape would eventually become decimated. Spring growth is peak abundance on the land. All that winter energy has stored up into an eager new sprout and leaf, ready to face the sun in all her radiance. Sheep love this fresh, new growth, and the young lambs take in that new growth to power their own expansion into fine animals for eating. It’s the magic of grass into meat which has always inspired me in this work. What a great trade in energy, with fertility as a byproduct, when operated in manageable amounts for the location.

Many people have pointed out to me that I could run more animals on my land. Yes, many things are possible, but are they ultimately for the best? This is the question all consumer agencies should keep asking themselves as the implement smart design to temper industry back to the finite resources of reality. More animals means more inputs, like winter hay- and summer hay if there is drought. The poo piles up in winter, when the sheep spend a lot of time inside to avoid wet, cold weather. Our current barn setup is not conducive to manure pileup, and shoveling by hand limits the amount of mucking one can do in a day. Now we’re talking about a tractor input to keep up, and we’ve just jumped into a whole new category of consumption, which is a far cry from the holistic, small scale vision of EEC.

Quality over quantity is very wise advice. Quality of life is my motto- from farmer to chicken, clover to sparrow, we’re all woven in together. These lives ebb and flow together in marvelous harmony. It’s how to know if your stewardship is intuitive with place. The ground shows its wear- and knowing when to move on, taking up the flock and browsing along into a new field, it is this flow I relish as a herder. Watching the sheep take in a new landscape also tells me a lot about the quality if the pasture. If they move quickly around the space, they are unimpressed by the offerings, which means I need to reseed the ground, add diversity, mulch in some new species of under-story, or maybe look at water flow, and redirect some moisture to the space.

In small paddock systems of only a few acres, the movements are regular and often. The rewards will show up in the first year of this style of management. In time, we’re brought our numbers up too, but slowly, as the land recovers, and maintains the abundance. In 2014 we had a flock of eight sheep. Now, in 2020, we’re raising 24 animals right now, with plans of overwintering 13. In the coming months, I’m starting to work on a deal with a nearby neighbor to lease some of her acreage for more pasture space. It would be a great expansion of my business, but also a step beyond the space I currently steward, which means a lot more time away from EEC.

Another part of adapting is the chance to partner up with like-minded herders. A few years ago I had the chance to see a real transhumance occur in Provence, France. Hundreds of sheep were paraded through a small town in celebration of the return to spring pastures in the mountains. Many flocks came together for this move, and the herders helped one another to drive all the stock at once. This makes the move safer, as all the town stops to watch, and over the years, a celebration became part of the journey. Now the event garners international attention, as it is one of the last surviving transhumances in Western Europe. This migration has survived because the herders banded together with one voice, and supported each other in keeping their right of ways to mountain pasture alive.

In working with neighboring herders, I may not be opening up literal migration routs for the sheep, but I am weaving the landscape together for a shared cause. It unites land owners in rotational grazing systems that betters more land at once, providing more fertility and long term viability to more agricultural land in the area. Since King County in Western Washington is also one of the fastest growing, it is important to establish restoration farmland where we can to provide long term stability to the fragile ecology, also ensuring its return to the area.

These small management styles, which keep in tune with the overall improvement of the landscape for wild and domestic pursuits, moves human productivity back to stewardship, rather than dominion over all things. This is the vision EEC Forest Stewardship strives for, and we’ll continue to feature small scale agricultural restoration methods that have worked with great success. It’s taken a while to dial in capacity, as well as selecting the best animals to fill each role as it evolves on the land, but the results, so far, look very good. We’ll continue the great experiment in holistic land stewardship, and look forward to sharing more of what works and what does not- here at EEC.

Scapes and Strawberries

In late May, it’s time to check garlic for scapes- the young flower heads and stems of hard neck verities. I take time to remove them for two reasons; putting the plant’s energy into the root head for larger cloves, and as a delicious late spring treat in culinary delights. Garlic is a wonderful, easy garden food, and worth planting every year- though rotation is important. In talking with other garlic gardeners, I heard it said that garlic is sterile- that to try planting seed would yield little success, and bulb clones were the best way to propagate. Well, nature rarely makes herself sterile, so I wondered how hard it would really be to cultivate garlic from seed. This article is making me think a lot about cultivating my own seed grown garlic strains- but the road is a long one, which is why there is limited variety in markets, and why garlic festivals, where holistic new strains are often found, is crucial to long term viability of garlic in our gardens.

In the mean time, I keep happily eating scapes and looking forward to garlic harvesting in July. I’m also keeping an eye out for mature flowers on some of the plants which miss “de-scaping”. I’ve had one or two make it each year, and I make sure to plant the seed heads- as I do with all Alliums that seed in the garden. But the results are slim, and I’m not keeping track through the years as I could, but that’s also nature. She’s always teaching lessons if you take the time to watch- a long time. The garlic will keep whispering her successes in new stems, which are appearing in solo spots here and there around the two main gardens. It’s a passive experiment, and will take many more years of tending, but that’s part of the reward in growing things.

The other great late spring treat popping out in the garden is strawberries! Our patch here at EEC has been slowly establishing over the past eight years, and we’re excited to snack on down in this fabulous larder of fruit. The first thing you might notice from the picture above is the size of these rubies- much smaller than your average grocery store variety, but don’t be fooled by her compact couture, these tiny treats pack big flavor with every bite. I usually harvest about a quart full every few days to liven up pancakes, or more likely, scoop by the hand full into my mouth. My tenants always snack on them when they walk by the garden, which is encouraged, as there is so much fruit. It’s an easy way to engage others in the pleasures of tending.

The strawberry plant is amazing, and prolific, so make sure the ones you establish are good producers of sweet fruit. Some verities are for decoration only, and have beautiful fruit with no flavor. Mine came from a backyard raised bed in Georgetown- a south suburb of Seattle being gentrified by progress. The house was condemned, so the tenants offered up all their landscaping to friends. I came to help clear and load for someone else- and ended up with some great local strains of plants, including the strawberries. When you can acquire plants bred in your area, the genetics match the soil and climate, providing a better acclimation and survival rate.

These strawberries certainly reflect health and happiness- but it’s also good to note that this plant is a tenacious runner. If you plant strawberries near other plants, get ready for a constant battle. I placed mine around the base of my herb spiral and key hole gardens. At the time, the rock bases were built on gravel drive, so the strawberries were the only thing established at ground level. They also thrive in rocky, marginal soil, so it was a great fit- till the grass moved in and the berries began their campaign for space. When I pull the grass, I often end up pulling up a lot of strawberries too- it’s a real loss when the flowers are blooming- I end up pulling my crop! I’ve learned to gently pull the tall seed heads of the grass, and wait to do a full uprooting after the berry season ends.

Fragaria × ananassa is a runner- meaning it throws out tendrils, which stretch out about 4-6 inches off the main plant and re-root further away. They are reaching constantly, so you have to prune them back all the time to keep them out of other beds. I weed often, so it’s not that much a challenge to keep them at bay, but I did give them one bed, which was already struggling- and they thrive there now, which is great! I’d still recommend planting strawberries in their own space, as a ground cover. They are hardy, and can take more compacted ground. Sun is a must through, so shady undercover won’t host well.

I’m going to plant garlic cloves into the strawberry bed this summer, and I’m excited to see how the two work together. Here’s a great article on garlic companion planting which inspired me. Another wonderful piece of information I picked up recently is why the first June full moon is called the “Strawberry Moon.” I guessed it was a way to mark seasonal harvest schedules, and yes, that’s true. Most “folk” lore is based in very real ancestral knowledge, though not always informed, so make sure you research broadly, especially regarding “remedies”. Both garlic and strawberries are seen as important medicines across the cultural landscape, and they are easy neighbors in your garden, so establish them if you can.

Coop Build

We’re finally launching the build of a new chicken coop for our hens. They have thrived as a major player in our agricultural restoration plan at EEC Forest Stewardship. Chickens are a great way to start any livestock plan, bringing eggs, meat, fertility (poop), and bug control (gleaning). Because of the sloped terrain on our hill farm, we cannot easily move a large coop around the property. This is an important challenge to recognize if your are planning a rotational system for your animals. A stationary coop system can still utilize rotational planning, but the ground directly around the coop will be high impact on the land, and required extra movement and resting to prevent erosion and degradation.

Utilizing existing structures on site has been a crucial part of jump-starting the livestock operations at our stewardship forest farm. These buildings received minor reinforcement for safety a few years ago, but have remained otherwise untouched. Now, after years of lively goats, sheep, and chickens, these ragged sheds are starting to lean precariously, and rather than propping up the ancient foundations once more, we’re tearing down the old construction to make way for a rebuild. In the photo above, the current coop space is right center where the white door stands open. The new coop is going up far left on the corner of the lean-to, where you can make out an “X” shape of two supporting beams.

Our original plan was to tear down the coop area and rebuild it in 4 days. That was a lot of pressure, and would involve creating another temporary chick house out of another part of the structure for the birds. Since we would have to retrofit something for a temporary coop, we decided to utilize the lean-to building as our next coop space, allowing the transfer of chickens into a new home through the summer (at least). The lean-to structure is large enough to accommodate all our animals while the old stall/coop structure can be completely torn down all at once, instead of in parts while animals still lived there too. It’s a huge upgrade for this shabby lean-to, and worth the effort using scrap material already on site.

This coop is basic, but for chickens, basic is just fine. As building begins, I have to keep reminding myself that this is a small shed to house birds- not a long term living space for me. Cobbled together construction works well, and with all the scrap lumber, metal roofing, and spare hardware on hand, we’ve built this coop without any additional expense beyond labor and time. This ability to create functional space without added cost is crucial to the survival of a small operation like EEC. We’ve looked at larger barn building plans, even a combination barn/home building, which ended up budgeting out of the ball park, so to speak. Though self-builds often turn into nightmares, and I’m personally not well versed in construction, I do know how to create space, and can operate a hammer with gusto- especially when it’s in the form of a nail gun.

An important point about our build was reinforcing the main structure. This lean-to is at quite a lean, and even though reinforcement happened a few years ago, the structure is still in need of additional support, and we had to move carefully in taking down some of the structural beams to build new, solid walls. The result is fantastic! The new walls are solid, and building this closed square structure on the corner of the greater building has anchored it firmly on the hillside. However, if you take a leveler to it, you’ll not find a square edge. This works for a chicken coop, and we’re thankful for that, because we cannot afford to hire a carpenter at this time. Luckily, we’re not building a house for ourselves (yet).

Small construction like this does offer a lot of building lessons. I learned how to put in a floor. Again, it’s not level, and sure to fall apart in about 10 years, but that’s more than enough time to get the other structure rebuilt. The birds move in at the end of the week (May 2020). Then we’ll start the real rebuild on the other structure. It’s an ambitious summer project, but with this coop almost completed, the challenge of construction becomes almost graspable. Try try again is our motto, and with each small success- construction of four solid walls, meshing in the ventilation, and hanging the door, we can see the slow evolution of this shed, into a well loved coop for our hens.

Some new items for the betterment of our layers includes a fine new roll out nesting box. This handy design allows the eggs to roll down into a safe catchment box for easy collecting. The protective shelf houses the eggs out of reach of any pecking beaks or careless feet hopping in and out of the nest box. There are also red privacy curtains, offering a dark and quiet space to lay without interruption. It might take the ladies a few days to grasp this new design, but it will now be possible to prevent egg cracking, and allow for easy sanitizing of the nests. The box is lined with removable mats, which fit nicely in the dishwasher. After the ladies settle in, I’ll give a more detailed report about the pros and cons of this nesting box type. Fingers crossed!

Off the back of the coop, there will be an attached, covered outdoor run, which will allow the birds access to outside, even when they must remain in the coop. The old coop used to have an enclosed outside space, but the old structure began to sag, and predators began pulling apart the mesh to get into the coop. After three repairs, we closed up the hatch to the outside run to protect our hens. The new coop will offer a better, reinforced run, as well as metal walls to prevent chewing into the coop. Rats are the worst offenders, though our barn cats have done well on the job, and we’ve not seen rats in a few years. Still, the new coop will surly be put to the test.

Finding the courage to step into the unknown is a huge part of living well. Construction is not one of my talents, but in taking on this coop rebuild, I find myself more than capable of completing the basics, which is more than enough understanding to produce animal housing. The new coop is stable, clean, well ventilated, and sure to keep our hens safe and comfortable. This structure is a vast improvement over the current old coop, but only the first attempts at coop building. The experience has given me the chance to rough out my own skills, and encouraged my confidence in understanding basic structural design. I’ve approached the build as a land steward- looking at overall function, need, and utilizing the resources already available on the land. What a wonderful reward to see this coop built, and structures improved upon.

Megafauna First at EEC

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Well, we knew they were around, but it’s the first time in 8 years (2013-2020) they’ve shown themselves on camera (date and time stamps are wrong). This beautiful specimen of Puma concolor has tracked through the EEC Forest Stewardship wildlife corridor by the creek. The cat came in the early light of dawn. It’s most likely checking out the sheep, who will be moved back up to the main pastures close to the house this week in response to the recent visit. Cougar are not rare in these parts, considering they are an apex predator of The Pacific Northwest. Why not a bobcat? Well, the tail is almost 3 feet long. That’s a big tail, for a BIG cat.

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In this beautiful image, we can see the legs have no spotting, as a bobcat would. The cougar is also wearing a radio collar, which is very exciting. This cat has been captures, sedated, and handled by people before. Wonder what the study will show? The puma in these pictures looks young, only a few years at most, and because of that, it’s wandering through human development looking for a territory. Adult cougars know better than to come into human scented places, but young cats are clueless, and often get killed for their curiosity, so to speak.

At EEC, we do not hope to harvest cougars, but we do not want to encourage them either. We’ll move our stock back to the front pastures to be safe. Electric fencing would not stop a cougar from jumping in to help its self to a ripe young lamb. A few years ago in 2015, a couple of high profile wildlife tracking friends took a look at a goat kill site on the farm- they said it was most likely adolescent cougar. I was skeptical, only because I had no trail cam footage of any such animal. Ha! I knew it was only a matter of time till we did see one, and here it is- 2020! What a year!

Bear Aware

On a long walk within a stone’s throw of EEC Forest Stewardship, I came upon this wonderful sign. Tracks are such exciting ecological intrigue. These were large, and other sign along the walk hinted at it’s presence along the trail long before these clear signatures. If you’re looking at the picture above and wondering what the heck I’m talking about, you’re not alone. Here, try the pics below-

front foot
hind foot

Most of us will only ever see a bear from the safety of our living rooms, watching an epic video of one catching a salmon in its great jaw. Some might catch one at a trashcan, but very few of us will have the chance to see one in the wild. Bears are such amazing creatures, and so close to humans in diet, size, and mammalian practice. Often personified as lovable characters like the teddy bear, and Smokey, the bear has become a shadow in living memory, almost mythic. However, these thriving animals are alive and surviving in what’s left of our global woodlands, though threat of habitat destruction still threatens most wildlife around the world.

Here at EEC Forest Stewardship, the cultivation and restoration of native habitat is crucial to any plan for long term sustainability- abundance of the resources all life needs to survive. Several mega-fauna species inhabit our bio-region, which speaks to the overall health of the ecology. But the numbers are not stable, and one, the wolf, has already been driven out by man’s struggle to control the environment to his advantage, at the cost of a fragile natural balance already woven in place and evolved over millions of years. Nature has an auto-correct button for species like this, and 99% of all life on earth till now, has gone extinct. Why not live lightly while we can?

Meanwhile, the bears capitalize on our gluttonous ways, raiding human refuse piles for untapped treasures in caloric gain. At EEC, we make sure our food scraps are properly composted and buried to reduce scent temptations. But sometimes, we set up a trail cam with a few bones to see who is cruising the neighborhood. This Spring (2020), a large female black bear and her two yearlings have shown up. We’re thrilled to see these majestic giants looming out of the darkness- and recognize that we’ll continue precautions around our orchards and livestock.

This beautiful image was captured a few summers ago, along with some great tracks in the mud nearby. I’m wondering if this is the same adult bear. We thought it was a male, because of size, but the female in the night photos above is impressively large, like the day picture above. In the eight years I’ve lived on this land, there have been no bears near the house or barns. We’ve made sure to upkeep a low profile, especially when it comes to manure smells and grain. The land also hosts a dog, who’s sentinel bark is a sharp reminder that approaching the farm house is unwise. In our area, there have been bear problems- trashcan raids, livestock predation, and human encounters. One man fired his gun into the air to scare a bear out of his goat’s paddock. The bear stood its ground, and the man went back into the house and locked his door till the animal moved on.

The post you can see this momma bear leaning against in the still shot above is about 2 1/2′ high. This means the bear is about 3′ at the shoulder. This sow (female bear) seems to have short legs- but that’s only due to her bulky body being so round and full- a great sign this she-bear is getting plenty to eat. Her broad head is also a sign of maturity. If she didn’t have cubs with her, I would think she was a boar (male bear). So far, the family has kept out of sight, coming out at night to forage along the stream- which we encourage. But as the fruit season sets in late summer, the aroma of fresh fruit will become great temptation. At EEC, we harvest apples as they come into season, making sure to pick up any fallen fruit from the ground to prevent more smell buildup.

By continuing our bear aware actions and keeping the farm low profile, we’re teaming up to support the bear, and other wildlife, from becoming a “nuisance” animal. It is encouraging to see the bear population sustaining its self on the edge of human development. Luckily, this sow and her cubs have kept their distance. In return, we get to steward the land and offer a corridor of habitat along our creek for all wildlife, with the intention of continuing to plant more forest of native habitat to cultivate future generations of all walks of life.