Adding Inputs (soil)

How many of us are tuned into soil? Oh, another lecture on soil? Any farmers in the audience are shaking their heads and clicking back over to comedic news stories or, more likely, USDA paperwork. But for those of you willing to take a moment, this article tries to spell out soil fertility additive basics and how they translate into holistic management at EEC Forest Stewardship. Anyone tending soil can learn from this experience, and I hope to continue updating as the stewardship continues.

Our focus will orbit around organic inputs (fertilizers) to the soil, which raise fertility (production) in the topsoil for long term ecological (crop) viability. The three big conventional inputs are Potassium (P), Nitrogen (N), and Phosphorus (K). They are very important to condition high production style growing, where you take much from the land and remove the physical matter out of the soil for consumption. The harvest takes away water and nutrients needed for further soil productivity. This is why NKP is pushed so hard on large farming operations- get the nutrients back into the soil fast for more production. But there’s so much more to the soil than these three inputs.

Pure chemical fertilizers support the plant growth, but not the larger soil ecology, or surrounding environment for long term abundance. It’s a quick fix to condition a field with lime to balance out Ph, or spray liquefied aged manure across the tilled soil to rebuild nitrogen, but these mass coverings often leech out of the bare soil when it rains, spilling off into our water systems where they cause large algae blooms which kill life in waterways; ultimately causing toxicity in us. To retain fertility in soil, you need a lot of other inputs to cultivate long term productivity.

When I walk bottom land fields that have seen nothing but till and plant methods of mass cropping, I see a severe lack of organic matter and micro-organisms in the soil. Tilling the soil to “mix in” fertilizers and churn up soil to prevent compaction has real unintended consequences, which industrial agriculture is still grappling with. Turning soil over interrupts the delicate network of living organisms in the soil. When that live culture dies, the soil dies too. Without that important network, any inputs added will have minimal effect, because the living biome within the soil is what collects, stores, and transmits fertilizer to the plant. Tilling also causes severe evaporation, because all the dampness in the soil is brought to the surface, where it is exposed to UV (which also sterilizes soil), and evaporation takes what life was left in the soil. The list of why tilling is bad goes on and on, but we’ll keep focused on inputs. More on tillage here.

Fertilizers work for short term profit, but the soil its self continues to die, and more and more fertilizer must be added in to keep up with the degradation of the land. Eventually, no commercial add ins work, and a field will then usually be abandoned to cattle as marginal pasture. Or worse, sold for development, lost to any future agricultural production to feed us. It should also be understood that the majority of farmland in The US grows commodity crops- soy, wheat, and corn. This sustains the additive rich box food (googling this blew my mind!) you see so much of in stores now, as well as feed for livestock, and most often, industrial products like ethanol.

Modern farming has come a long way in understanding the care of farm land, but we’re still throwing things at the soil without understanding its place in cultivating stable environment for production. Mono-crop agriculture still forces soil’s maximum output. There is no fast way to replace good fertile topsoil once it’s dead. The organic material and microbiome cannot thrive in constantly tilled soil. Even with cover crops, the soil is dying across the world, turning to desert in more extreme cases. Instead of trying to address large commodity farming practices, I’d like to focus on small agricultural operations where diversity and restoration are possible.

Here at EEC Forest Stewardship, we take fertility seriously, and fold it into a greater health vocabulary for our environment, going beyond mere production as the standard. Non-chemical is a number one priority, and our land does not receive any commercial fertilizer inputs. Instead, the land follows as closely to nature’s already implemented process as possible. Animal systems are a big part of our restoration plan. At EEC, we recognize that what we feed our animals it what’s going into our soil. So we use only organic whole grains and no-spray or organic hays (all within state). The overall health of my stock reflects the health of the land.

Even with abundance, there is still a gap in sustenance, which is filled by inputs like grain and kitchen scraps. We occasionally receive free organic bread from a gleaner friend. What is a gleaner? Without going too far off track, gleaners were once in fields after harvest gathering any dropped kernels of corn or damaged stalks of wheat left by the farmer. Today, there are still gleaners in fields, but in more urban and suburban developments, grocery stores replace farms, and yet there is still much to glean in good food. Two local organic bakeries in Seattle give their day old bred to the gleaning organizations, which then disperse free surplus into the greater community.

My friend takes the not fit for people bread leftovers for my animals- what a deal! I in tern also take her compost from the gleaning, which is all organic food fit to break down into soil with other amendments like manure, straw, and cardboard. These inputs are what I would consider the best kinds of fertilizer. Handling larger amounts of food waste is not easy, and I don’t suggest this system to backyard suburban homesteaders. However, if you have acreage, and animal systems already in place, large scale composting should already be a part of your routine. In suburban homesteads, your own kitchen waste should be enough, combined with garden/grass clippings, leaves, and cardboard.

More organic options to build up garden and land fertility include coffee grounds for added acidity- I put mine on roses and blueberry bushes. Feather and bone are great too, though blood can be challenging to collect and distribute evenly into the soil. I’ll put the coagulated blood from slaughtering into the compost bin. Feathers I collect when I pluck at slaughter are usually add to the compost bucket, though sometimes I mix with leaves and spread right onto the surface of pasture or gardens in late fall. Chickens also help by molting their feathers, usually in the fall, and drop them all over the landscape as they forage. There are also a lot of feathers mixed in with coop bedding, which is piled to form new planting beds in our zone one areas of the land.

Utilizing animals to spread nutrients across the landscape is a great way to thoroughly inoculate soil with needed inputs like calcium and phosphorus. Look at what this amazing grain packs for the bird, much of which ends up coming out the other end onto the land. I’d say there is a perfect amount of most inputs soil needs for continued production. By investing in this full spectrum feed, though it’s a “huge” expense, when I add up the total cost of all the other inputs, time, and energy to condition the soil, the savings are obvious. Yet farmers I work with continue to claim the organic full spectrum feed is too costly, and they would rather buy the cheaper conventional grain.

These same farmers then have to go buy costly inputs for their soil and run tractors with costly attachments to till these expensive conditioners in, also disrupting the delicate ecology of soil microbes. What a nightmare. EEC Forest Stewardship does not own a tractor, has no tilled pasture, and yet, we manage a healthy stock of animals on ever improving forage and grazing on small acreage adding only a quality organic feed and local hay/straw. The proof is also in the pudding, and our soil tests reinforce the productivity, showing that our only low count nutrients in the soil is magnesium. However, too much causes compaction, and introduces rampant weed growth. However, the natural Ph of our soil demands occasional lime inputs, so by selecting dolomite lime, our soil receives the additional magnesium. Again, the soil profile was determined through a lab test of soil samples taken from different locations throughout the EEC Forest Stewardship property.

In taking the time to trace the inputs going into your soil, you can determine fertility short falls and know exactly what additions might be needed to cultivate better pasture, gardens, and forests. At EEC, we hope that the forests can eventually support themselves, with plenty of canopy protection and good nutrients shared through a complex ecosystem. In the areas of heavier cultivation, we must continue to manually input additives to keep the chemical balance of the soil productive. By keeping these higher input systems small, input demand remains easy to manga by hand, without tractors, heavy bags of expensive fertilizer, and the danger of runoff into our water systems. These practices keep our soil alive and productive, while remaining affordable and organic. This is the advantage of holistic management.

Sustainable Timber?

Looking at the greater forestscape around EEC Forest Stewardship helps put our little patch of reforestation and agricultural restoration in context. I often talk about looking at the big picture, and it’s important for land stewards to take this time, as they are usually involved with micromanagement of specific ecosystems. Understanding the management of larger habitats can inform restoration plans. A large forest of 100,000 acres lies just a few miles east of EEC. It’s a timber farm, and has been for over a hundred years. Most of the land in and around Western Washington was logged for commercial use as soon as European settlers could get their axes in.

If you look at most of Europe, the forests are gone. The British Isles is an extreme but very real example of this, having once been covered in thick oak groves, the entire landscape is now barren of any oak, and often dominated by heather and scrub brush. The habitat is minimal, hosting little diversity and very few of the original species which once thrived there. Human development and predation of habitat is inevitable, but our understanding of that impact is well documented today, and we know better. But still, timber is considered a renewable resource, and logging companies are very good at reminding us of our consumer love of paper products. It’s the green choice in environmental consciousness.

What’s wrong with this perception? Well, as I look around at the clear-cuts, I see strong evidence of past logging in the stumps which lay scattered about the landscape. Many of the old growth stumps are gone, having been ripped out by logging equipment to clear the landscape for easier replanting. But many remain, their huge bulky bones testify to the giants which once thrived here. No logging company has ever produced a tree that big from a planting. The second cuts witnessed in the stump diaries were 2-3 foot diameter trees, as apposed to the 5-7 foot monsters of old. The second cut was 50-70 years after the initial slaughter. Now a new trend is forming, and the timber industry has pivoted to survive. Since there is no more old growth, wood materials have shrunk in size in production lines too, making use of wood pulp and fractured chips to laminate whatever shape is needed. This makes any sized tree a viable product, and we’ve gone from valuing board feet to taking whatever available wood we can to pump out cheaper imitations.

Now forests are managed for pulp material, meaning age is irrelevant to profit. Third cuttings of 70 year old stands, what’s left of the old management style for size, are quickly disappearing. From far away in Seattle, or even Bellevue, the site of a bare mountain on the edge of The Cascades can be disturbing, but once a green sheet of young growth replaces a clear cut, people think things are “renewed”, and the forestry industry is planting new trees, more than there were originally, but those statistics are misleading. More trees does not mean more land with forests. The same 100,000 acres are replanted, but more trees can be planted, because young trees are small. Old growth forests have huge single trees climaxing in a system of many younger under-story trees which will one day replace the older ones. In a timber driven industry, many young trees fill the space and produce enough in a short time. There is no reason to let a forest mature, and impossible to wait for.

Any older trees in a logging operation are left because they are on too steep a slope to harvest safely, or are spared because of stream buffer regulations- and not all streams are recognized and protected. The ease of harvesting a swath across the mountainside would be greatly hindered by wetland and stream designation. When you walk through any clear cut, you will find running water under the scattered branches and stumps. These are often considered seasonal flows, and not recognized as sensitive areas. This is one way commercial timber operations maintain commercially viable harvests. It is good to see branches no spread about on the exposed soil. Until the early 1990s, slash piles were burned, removing what little organic matter was left and reducing it to ash. The slash is now left as a mulch on the ground, and can easily be planted into with young seedlings.

Commercial timber operations are mono-crops- with Douglas fir being the most profitable mass produced wood products. The green forest re-plantings are sterile environments, providing little habitat diversity for wildlife. Native plants diapear from the environment, and fern stands dominate what little under-story manages to take hold.

The stand shown above has been thinned, but the trees are still straggly, and the branches put knots in the trunk. But for pulp or chipped products, these blemishes are unimportant. Logging is about quantity, not quality; but what about all the jobs? Often, the argument of employment and way of life are used to justify ecological destruction and commercialization. Mill shut down because ecologists put detrimental restrictions on harvesting. This is far from the truth. Older mills were designed to process large old trees. There are none left now, so those mills became outdated and too expensive to run. Because the demand for raw materials has risen, and there is a huge market in Asia, it’s cheaper to ship the logs abroad to mills in other countries. Labor costs are cheaper over seas too. And the loggers? What about them? They have families to feed too right? Well yes, but the timber industry is not hiring loggers, unless they can drive the large equipment now used.

People like to romanticize the “good old days” of life as a lumber jack. Scenes of men slinging axes and saws together in a good days work make many feel nostalgic, connected to wilderness, and the taming of the wild as progress. But logging today is a mere shadow of these “golden times” of past. Only a few jobs are filled in a commercial timber operation today. Not many loggers actually cut trees by hand, and very few use axes with any skill. You’re more likely to see good axe handling at a highland games gathering. And the scale of harvesting has grown to an unimaginable capacity. Trees are stripped from the land by the thousands, in hours. The video below shows the efficiency of modern deforestation, and it’s only getting faster.

Note the size of the trees now being harvested- size is not important, and younger trees take less time to grow out. Renewable merely means continued abuse of stressed finite resources. When you remove the majority of biomass produced on the landscape, you take away the fertility and strip the land of its viability. The timber industry’s solution? Loop loop! Please read this explanation from our county on how to deal with poor forest soils and our overflowing sewage problem in King County. What’s the bad news? Well, sewage treatment does not take out heavy metals or prescription drugs still in the waste being poured out in the forests. To give perspective- Puget Sound muscles tested positive for meth-amphetamines draining into the ocean from waste water runoff and treated sewage output systems. You can imagine what is seeping into the soils of our forests. By the time we discover the impact of this careless cycle, the soil will be fully contaminated with no easy restoration answer. The foothill forests where the loop system is being processed drain into our aquifers, streams, and become woven into our ecology.

Next door to the 100,000 acre timber management is some state wilderness. Luckily, no logging goes on there- too steep and remote, for now. Sate forests are logged, and wilderness lands are under threat. Current political climates are inclined to open up our public lands to resource extraction. The commercial consumer markets demand the rollback of conservation protections, for the sake of progress. What we’re ultimately moving towards with this mindset, is the progressive slow death of our environment, and therefore, ourselves. Perhaps by looking at the limitations of the natural world, we can acknowledge our impact and plan within nature’s constraints, instead of our short term profit margins and convenience.

CREP Update

In September, King Conservation District representatives came to begin the stream restoration project for EEC Forest Stewardship and Leafhopper Farm. A few years ago I applied for this program and began fencing off the creek from our livestock- we never mob grazed in the creek, but to qualify for CREP, we had to put up hard boundaries to protect replanted trees and shrubs as part of the restoration for the stream and riparian buffer. To prep the space before planting, KDC used some herbicides on the landscape to get ahead of any blackberry and knot-weed, which is very difficult to fully eradicate without chemical use. This was a very controversial part of the agreement, as USDA will not fund restoration without first removing the invasive- using chemical warfare.

The chemicals were sprayed, which was a surprise to me, as I was originally told they would be injected to control application, but the contractors prefer spraying to save time and ensure full coverage of the invasive plants. Glyphosates were not employed, but other synthetic organic compounds were- and the organic word usage here refers to organic chemistry, not USDA Organic labeled food. This treatment involved the plant taking in the chemicals through it’s vegetation in the fall. During this time, a plant is storing up energy in it’s roots, and the herbicide goes right to those roots to work its destructive power. As you see in the pictures above, the blackberry is dying back, but so it the grass, and any other vegetation hit by the spray.

For EEC Forest Stewardship, chemical treatments of the land is extremely controversial, and the decision to use “organic” compounds was made only with the understanding that this is a requirement on a federal level to receive restorations status and long term success of establishing native plantings. In my own experiences with invasive, specifically knot-weed in Central Park, NYC- you’re not getting rid of it without a long fight and painful loss. At the park, there was an army of labor available, and lots of time. We used thick black plastic covering on the roots of plants for years to stave off growth. This technique was effective for a short time, but some roots would always survive, and the tenacity of invasive evolution won out each time.

With established canopy, invasive struggle to get a foothold. Once the trees and shrubs mature, no blackberry can return. Knot weed will still be a struggle, but the shade will deter it, and the stream will be better protected from runoff, erosion, and hot summer sun, which heats up the stream waters, killing many of the sensitive species which cannot survive in drastically changing temperatures. Cool shade is imperative for riparian landscapes. Without protection from the sun, waterways dry up, or at least heat up to an unbearable degree. This is a problem for rivers and streams all over the world where development has cut down the forests and cemented in the flow to control flooding.

common “river control” in cities like L.A., CA

City planning has come a long way, and collaborative restoration projects have begun addressing the need for habitat and green ways in urban areas. It is just as important to steward the upstream, less developed waterways too. For all water is connected, and the smallest stream will one day, find its way to the ocean. The dead water in the picture above is empty of life, with no habitat for any chance of thriving ecosystem. There is still a chance for change. At EEC, we’re supporting our neighbors down stream, and boosting the health of water before it reaches The Snoqualmie River. By restoring from the source, chances of restoration and success down stream strengthens.

In another part of Los Angeles, a river has found restorative support, and the community is thriving around this green space. Now, if the sources of these bigger rivers are compromised, there’s little gain in rescuing the polluted waters down stream. When I think of the effort my short term restorations will gain in larger participation further down river where the congestion of development and oppression of urban decay continues, I have hope for larger change, like the photo comparative above.

It’s hard to look at the landscape of wilted yellow die-back, caused by chemical components, which will be in the soil for years to come, and cause damage to many plants that should be on the landscape. It’s a short term struggle for a long term vision of restored forest and healthy ecology. There will be at least one more treatment of herbicides to make sure all the problem plants are gone. Then, the replanting will begin. I’ll see this change in my lifetime, but the full restoration of Weiss Creek might take many generations to complete. The greater salvation of our larger rivers, like The Snoqualmie, might be impossible, but through smaller steps of care, perhaps we can be the change we want to see, and further improve where we can.

mushroom logs of remediation and some native plantings in the CREP zone

So, next steps will happen in the spring. I’ve already ordered some under-story plantings from our Conservation plant sale, and an additional grant from KDC will add additional plantings, which means great diversity, in our under-story forest. Our enrollment in CREP means we do also get paid for our stewardship of the restoration area. USDA gives us a stipend each year of a few hundred dollars, for maintaining the stream buffer. We’re certainly not in it for the money, but the income and farm categorization through USDA and FSA is good for the farm, and our long term plan to put the whole property into agricultural conservation. We’ll also show the work as a centerpiece of restoration for other land owners to see and be inspired by.

Many farmers are hesitant to sign up for restoration projects, because it means giving up part of their income space to conservation. I cannot graze or produce commercial harvests from the stream buffer area. But, I can grow things in the buffer zone, including mushroom logs, berry bushes, and medicinal species for personal use. I’ve proposed that USDA look at mushroom production as a possible acceptable commercial income for farmers who do sign up for CREP. There has to be a good deal for the farmer to want to participate in conservation. Leafhopper Farm hopes to demonstrate a viable crop option with little to no negative impact on the riparian zone.

For EEC Forest Stewardship, the payoff from CREP participation is an intact forest and stream for the future. Generations down the road can look back at these early actions that helped to protect habitat and restore forest for the betterment of all living things. This is a priceless investment for any land steward to offer future generations. Note that working with government agencies is not always easy, but with the help of your local conservation district, the paperwork and timelines become manageable. Make sure to clarify your needs as a land owner, and fully understand the commitment you’ll be making. CREP contracts last for a decade or more, and can mean lifetime obligations to maintain restoration sites on the landscape. This is another way your conservation district can support you, by planning a clear set of care instructions, further management and upkeep needs, and funding to carry out the project.

As another dawn spreads out across the landscape, I’m writing these final words feeling like there’s good change happening all around. Winter birds are arriving, and the haunting trill of a swainson’s thrush echos through dark woods; it’s whisper calls us into unknown spaces, coaxing our imagination to stretch beyond comfort. Hope alights, pale blue on the horizon, slowly shifting into warm daylight once again. As the cycles of nature affirm, change is ever present, and our current actions determine the direction of fortune’s wheel. For land stewardship, restoration is as compelling as the thrush’s song.

Forest Livestock

We’re raising a new clutch of young birds here at the farm- and these little chicks will soon be joining their elder hens to work the land, as they have been for the past seven years. We’ve had an uptick in fertility within the soil, especially when we’ve used concentrated droppings in coop bedding for the gardens- note- the poop does not go directly onto eating crops, but gets folded into compost rows in the garden that will be planted the following year.

Chickens are the gateway animal to any livestock adventure, and have even branched out in recent years, to become “pets” in backyards across America. Not many roosters will be found in suburban flocks. In fact, I’ve known of farmers who have been forced to cull their roosters as the area became populated and incorporated. Urban sprawl is real, and it’s killing farms across this country. Bakckyard chickens is a great way to help bring poultry, and fresh food back to families now living in suburban sprawl.

Fresh eggs are great, and chickens are a lot of fun to observe, and interact with. They can have very distinct personality, and become more like pets to some stewards, but they are a working animal, with it’s own mission to eat, poop, lay eggs, and brood them into new chicks. If you are not willing to cooperate with this endeavor, you’ll find you have a flock of very unhappy birds who will be unhealthy.

Most commercial farms, where the vast majority of store bought eggs come from, even the “organic free range” birds, have thousands of animals crowded on dead land with no direct connection to the environment around them. They play no role accept producer, and they have a short life. For chickens who are lucky enough to be raised on land, with a direct working relationship with the ecology around them, helping to improve and diversify the place they live. This flock is not ever larger than 50 birds, and thrives within a few acres of woodlands and pasture with a night roost, grain supplement, and daily fresh water. The land gets fertility, gleaning of pest bugs and weeds, and people enjoy the eggs in our local food market.

Chickens play a role in forest restoration by taking the place of native birds like the forest grouse and other ground birds who once inhabited these woods in large numbers. Because people came and cut down the old growth, then populated the land with large tracks of pasture, removing the shelter and cover for wildlife. The animals were also hunted to near extinction, and to this day, native ranges and numbers of most wildlife continues to drop throughout the world.

At EEC Forest Stewardship, we’re replicating the native wildlife with working livestock to reboot the ecology and reestablish forests with optimal canopy cover, undergrowth, and forest floor habitat. Goats and sheep have stepped in on behalf of elk and deer. Ungulates play an important role in evolving the undergrowth of forests, and even thin stands by predating on young trees to keep forests more open for diversity of species.

The balance of animal and plant success is crucial. If there are too many animals, your under-story will disappear completely, leaving the forest bare. Many of the established groves at EEC are missing good under=story cover, caused by keeping too many animals, like cows and horses, on the same ground continuously, and probably not feeding the animals enough, so they began eating the trees, and a few died. Luckily, that practice stopped. Then the land sat unkempt for a decade, and nature filled the gaps- with blackberry. This highly invasive bramble prevented any other species of shrub or ground cover the chance to establish, so the under-story has a mono-crop hedge, which does offer a lot of cover and vegetation, but only one kind, and that’s not stability for the ecology of the space and limits what can survive there.

Now, recreating the natural browsing rhythms of elk and deer is impossible, so, with a limited human understanding, I’ve spent the past few years working on how to tune the animal work to the forest’s needs. This changes often from year to year. Sometimes I just let a patch rest for a while to bulk up on vegitation, but that means letting the blackberry back in, because once I replant with native species, the livestock has to stay of it for a long time- maybe a decade- to let the vulnerable plants establish.

Breeds chosen for this work in our forest were BROWSING specific, meaning they prefer to eat shrubs and other greens growing off the ground, as opposed to grazing animals, which prefer grass and ground dwelling plants. This is crucial in preventing overgrazing. Most sheep graze, so you’ll have to find a breed, like Khatadin, who brows and are hair sheep, meaning you don’t have to sheer them. Our Boer goats have been great at pulling down high growing blackberry, making it easier to remove. Now that all the high standing cane is knocked down, we’re shifting to a new breed of smaller goat, crossing our large meat animals with a dwarf milking breed. These new smaller goats will continue to brows back the brambles, but also be smaller and easier to handle, as well as providing milk and meat.

Goats can destroy a forest, and your orchard, and the garden, and all the fencing ever built, so know what you are signing up for with this animal. We tether ours on light chains, or take them on browsing walks for short periods in the more intact groves near the creek. This is a supervised predation of the landscape, with someone driving the animals on to prevent overeating. Someday, when the whole forest is restored, the goats could be moved through the landscape throughout the year to forage and brows down the under-story until the elk and deep populations return. Without under-story management by wildlife or some other working animal, the forest would become too congested and massive fires would eventually burn hot enough to destroy even the old growth trees, who are resistant to smaller, cool fires, which occur in dry years where the undergrowth is browsed back by healthy herds of elk and deer.

The picture above shows what an intact under-story might look like, with room for even more native species as the stream buffer develops. The osoberry, vine maple, sword fern, and 30 year old Douglas fir are all well on their way, and can survive the occasional browsing of animals moving through the landscape. This area is not a place to tether or fence in stock.

Without the help of livestock, it would take a very long time, many lifetimes, for the native growth to return and thrive on this landscape. Decades of habitat removal and the leeching away of fertility, left the soil marginal and exposed. To bring back abundance, concentrated movement of animals on the landscape returns nutrients, removes mono-crops, and invites space for diverse ecology to evolve. This makes sense where more players= more outcomes.

Constraints on stock is also critical in forming a successful animal/plant coexistence. Our stream buffers dictate runoff control, meaning our nitrogen levels on the surface of the soil (green manure), must be mitigated before arriving at the creek. We didn’t choose pigs as our main stock, because a hillside farm draining into a salmon stream was not the best use of the land, and certainly would produce toxic levels of nitrogen. Take a moment to lean about how industrial pig farms operate, warning- bacon will be harder to buy in a store. After you learn about lagoons, and how often they leech into the soil or burst into a river during floods, understand the true cost of your meat treat (I still buy it at the store occasionally).

Leafhopper Farm has raised pigs, once, and will again-but only 2 at a time, as the impact they inflict upon the land is extremely high, this is why they are raised on cement in factory farms. Our two Berkshire guilts (non-breeding females), grew into monster tillers of the landscape, which was great for plowing out blackberry roots. However, if left on a single space for too long, erosion issues would occur, and the build up of pig experiment became a smelly mess. We did not keep our pigs through the winter- they are not designed for that, as they reach a body weight max at 250lb after about 200 days with an average daily gain of 1.35lbs.*


pig paddock after one week

When your paddocks look like the one above, you must take your animals off it. This ground was a control space, to see what the pigs would do in a week. Keep in mind- these pigs were young, about 2 months old. If they had been mature adults, this would have been the pen in 2-3 days (with two pigs). Knowing the limitations of your land is crucial, and I’ll be writing more on how to scope out ground resilience. The paddock above remained fenced, and a grain experiment was executed. Utilizing stock to till up soil for a new planting is what they are best at. Just remember how hot the soil will be with green manure- especially that of a pig, which is quite high in nitrogen. Our Katahdin sheep on the other hand, poop a cold manure- safe to put right on the soil without any nitrogen burn. They are also active grazers, moving around a lot on their own, and they brows, which not all sheep do naturally. Sheep are merciless towards grasses, so we move the sheep often to prevent overgrazing.

Stress on the land will result in barren hard pack clay with no fertility if animals are left on the same spot for too long. In Western Washington, this can best be seen in horse paddocks. I cannot understand why people think our rain-forests are a good place for horses. The First Nations people who were in touch with this landscape and stewarded it, paddled canoes. They were not a horse culture, unlike their neighbors on the other side of The Cascades- where high desert made horse travel easy, though equine impact is also still a great threat to the sensitive desert ecosystem.

typical equine erosion

Horses are a great example of “livestock” which is not suitable to our temperate rain-forest environment. People have to lay down special footing, fill it with about a half foot of gravel, and still loose all their trees from the compaction. But hey, cars and roads are damaging too- priorities? It’s always going to be an uphill battle in our modern age of consumption. My suggestion? Invest in livestock- because you can’t eat paper or numbers on a screen. The land benefits from active stewardship, folding in natural systems which follow seasonal rhythms. Livestock “plugs in” to the ecology directly, with no other inputs required beyond a little human stewardship. Working with animals is rewarding for you and the land. It will also invite the restoration of native undergrowth, water retention in the soil, and better diversity across the landscape.

Mushroom Aging

Though official mushroom spring is coming to an end, the forest floor is still covered in mushrooms. On a walk with a fellow forest land steward recently, we were identifying a verity of fungi in her woodlands and began a discussion on aging a mushroom. We saw a string of Helvella lacunosa at different states of decomposition in a row. For a moment, my friend thought they were different kinds, because the aging had turned the older mushroom into a completely different color and texture. It left me wondering how many people are often confused by this transformation, and think there are several different kinds of mushroom, when really, it’s just slow decomposition causing chemical change.

I’ve taken a series of photos here all at the same time in the same area of EEC forest. Clitocybe is an excellent type of mushroom to observe in this exercise, as it tends to bloom in the same area at different times, is a common woodland fungi, and has very diverse stages of decomposition. This genus of mushroom is in the family Tricholomataceae of the order Agaricales (gilled mushrooms). These are important steps to identifying the fungi you’re curious about. Even with photos and many good references to compare to, my guess at Clitocybe could still be wrong. My second guess would be Tricholoma, but the gills do run down the stem.

As the mushroom ages, its cap edges begin to turn upward, and the whole mushroom starts to darken. Color is not the best way to identify mushroom age, unless you know the species right off the bat. It’s also a very good idea to confirm you are looking at the same species throughout your observations. Because of the common habitat shared by many mushrooms, you’ll often see a verity of species in one area. Even in the pictures of this study, there are other species in the background. Often, the size of a mushroom continues to expand, but it will also usually be melting at the same time, as seen in the picture below.

The flesh of a mushroom is the best way to judge mushroom age- as they become softer/slimier as they begin to decompose. This is due to the high water content of the fungi. Not all mushrooms melt, but in the order Agaricales, all fleshy gilled mushrooms decompose from solid into liquid. They usually turn darker with age, and in this study, the changes are clear. You’ll not always have the chance to see the same mushroom at different stages as you walk through the woods, but if you have an eye on one at the edge of your walk to the car, or from your seat on the porch, take a few days to track the fungi as it grows. The excitement of watching a mushroom evolve is a great journey in nature’s cycle of life.

One more note on aging- sometimes, a mushroom has been predated upon, or shredded by wildlife moving through on a trail. The picture above shows this damage, which is not directly related to the aging process. The flesh on the fungi above is still relatively firm, though the color is darkening. These mushrooms are not melting, but tattered from a battering. You also see slugs, flies, and larva munching on mushrooms, and hastening their demise. Some mushrooms will bruise when touched, and that marking can aid in aging a mushroom too.

The identification adventure in mycology can become very frustrating, but the more time you spend observing mushrooms, the more familiar they become. It helps to follow through with keying out your species, so take that next step when you leave the field and pick up a field guide or spend some time browsing images on the web. The internet is no sure bet, but you can get ideas there, and broaden your search. By keying out your mushroom, you may not get an exact match, but you’ll have some idea of order or family. This is sometimes as far as you may go- and that’s ok, it’s learning!

These Trees

These trees whisper
billowing j branches
tall masts listing
pantomime forest
recalling giant majesty

Breath stirs these trees
into dancing children
reveling on their parents’ ashes
quaking together,
witnessing another massacre

In these trees, dreaming visions
under embroidered canopy
rich vegetation, cultivated fertility
supportive mycology
(can’t say enough about mushrooms)

These trees, looming crown
deep roots bind reality
reflect long term stability
glimpse old growth eternity

Big Picture

In our quest to be good stewards of place during out lifetime, we must take time to look at the big picture growing on around us. Sometimes the hard work we put in to protect a space can have a much larger impact, especially for those living down stream. EEC Forest Stewardship is at the beginning of Weiss Creek, less than a mile from the start of this salmon bearing stream. There is already a strong invasion of Japanese knot-weed, but our overall water quality is great. By the time this stream reaches The Snoqualmie River, about nine winding miles down between Novelty and Stillwater Hill, there is some sediment in the water, and a growing wetland has formed.

Weiss Creek is important fish habitat, but also feeds a crucial wildlife sanctuary to the south of rout 203, a very active highway between Monroe (Rt. 2) and Fall City (I-90). This buffer of wetland is called Stillwater Natural Area. It plays host to part of the Snoqualmie Trail, a well used walking, biking, and riding path in the river valley. Snovalley Tilth, a local community farmers’ network, has an experimental farming project for young farmers to the north (right in the picture below) of the mouth of Weiss Creek. This area is also where the salmon are spawning.

The actions of people living up stream will determine the long term viability of both the wildlife, and agricultural viability in the valley. Only properties in red along Weiss Creek, pictured below, have long lasting protections for the wetlands and stream habitats on their properties. There are some county, state, and federal protections all land owners are subject to, but the oversight is minimal. This lack of attention allows for great abuse of the landscape, and much of the time, the damage is caused in ignorance. Clearing logs from the creek, allowing horses and cattle into the stream as part of pasture use, and even clearing a hillside above to open up a view, all these actions have detrimental consequences for Weiss Creek, and those living down stream.

You might not think your single action has much effect, but the detriment adds up, especially in fast developing landscapes, like The Snoqualmie Valley. During flood season, seasonal runoff from the surrounding hillsides has become toxic due to spreading housing developments and heavy traffic on small two lane roads running both sides of The Snoqualmie River, up into the nearby ridges. All the above ground crops on picturesque farms across this historical agriculture valley are contaminated when flood waters come. Laws passed a few years ago to prohibit the sale of flood contaminated crops in Snoqualmie Valley. The contamination in the water comes from all the new development. Every individual home owner flushing bleach cleaning products, machine solvents, and a cascade of endless consumer goods which are not biodegradable pollute our watershed, and the problem is growing as fast as the housing projects.

Careless practices regarding the natural world will haunt humanity for generations to come. You may not think your one act will cause great harm, but the little pricks add up. These tires were recently dumped into The Stillwater Naturalist area where Weiss Creek empties into The Snoqualmie River. Someone didn’t want to pay the $5/tire disposal cost to have the tires “recycled”. A lot of people in rural places just bury them or use them as embankment holds. The problem with this is slow, long term leaching of hazardous chemicals into the environment. This is why tier dealers ask you to bring in your old ones to be “recycled”. I use “” because the recycling usually puts the chemical rubber from the tiers right back out into the environment in a shredded form, accelerating chemical pollution.

A few links which explain tire toxicity-

Mother nature has provided us with a lot of bio-technology to help clean up our experimental industrial hazards, but we have to want to utilize them, and become wiser about pollution. Mushrooms can neutralize almost any harmful chemical, it just takes time. Organic chemistry is amazing, and our quest to find coal and oil, could evolve very easily into a quest for closed loop organic composting and biodegradable fuel sources. There is a lot of new technology forming around a greener planet, but our old habits die hard.

Mushroom Spring

It’s that time again here in The Pacific Northwest, the time when it’s wet and cool enough for fungus to abound. The woods are fruiting with a ground treasure like no other, so get out there and start looking around. Many mushrooms are edible, but few are easy to identify, so safety is a number one concern. Don’t pick what you don’t know- a brave mushroomer is a dead one. With that in mind, have a look at some wild friends, edible or not, that I’ve been finding in my local forests.

Chantrelles are the most widely known edible mushroom here in Western Washington, with good reason- there are few look a likes to confuse it with, and the taste is excellent. Chantrelles are golden yellow, and have veins rather than gills. They come out in the fall (mostly) and grow on mossy soil under Douglas fir stands. A great place to go hunting is forest land with 30-60 year old stands. Look on the north facing slopes, where salal and Oregon grape thrive. Keep a sharp eye out in the green mosses, and look carefully, sometimes the golden treasures are partially buried by the thick duff.

When you harvest chantrelles, please cut them at the stem or tear them from their base, keeping the bottom part in the ground with the mycelium to prevent disruption of the shroom cycle. If you pull out the “root” of the chantrelle with the fruit, you take away future blooms and upset the delicate lace of hyphae (little white hairs) in the soil. I’ve seen great flushes disappear in areas where the ground is severely disturbed by bad pickers who rush. If you are a beginner and not sure of how to harvest sustainably, seek guidance from a veteran picker.

Medicinal mushrooms are also a great find in the woods. Our native Reishi is a Ganoderma verity which has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. They are very rare, so when I found this perfect specimen, I left it. It’s often better to leave a mushroom untouched, especially the woody ones growing on logs. The red belted conch is another great example of polypore fungus which should be left alone. These mushrooms can be very medicinal, but it takes special preparation to ensure the medicine comes out, and most people do not know the proper steps. It takes a long time for many of these wood eating species to establish, so let them be.

Sometimes I’ll find a new species I’ve not identified before and get excited. I make sure there are several of them around before I pick one- if it’s the only one, I leave it alone to reproduce. If it’s one of a crowd, I’ll select a medium sized one to study, and take a few pictures. Often, I never follow through at home with my field guides, but sometimes, especially when I am writing these blogs, I’ll pull out the books and get cracking. This is the best way to explore new species, and rather than experimenting with a fork, it is best to use field guides or find an expert- someone who is an established mycologist with a lot of experience. (I am not one)

This specimen is a Lactarius of some kind. I can guess L. rubrilactus, but without closer inspection (spore print) and a lot more study, this mushroom will remain a mystery for now. Sorting into a family is sometimes more than enough to get a basic understanding. Families are diverse, and in the mushroom kingdom, families are often changing and evolving as we learn more about the DNA structure of mushrooms. You’ll often hear me in the woods talking about “nice looking Russulas”. This is a HUGE family with many species, most of which are not edible, but the general family is easy to recognize with a few key characteristics.

nice looking russula
  1. Russula are chalky, and shatter like safety glass when you throw them against a tree trunk.
  2. The russula are generally spicy on the tongue, warning of their inedible nature.

Now, should you go out and put all mushrooms on your tongue to test for spicy flavor? No! And without an expert to show you, don’t taste any mushroom you don’t know. However- if you put a little mushroom on your tongue and then spit it out, you are not going to die. BUT- don’t test mushrooms outside the russula family and don’t test at all if you are unclear on russulas. See why most mushroomers are hesitant to share info and broadly discuss mushrooming? It can be a nightmare of what ifs. So, unless you are out with an expert- someone who had been mushrooming a long time and hopefully has a degree in mycology, don’t get brave and start assuming, you will end up very sick or dead in the long run by experimenting on your own.

Sometimes I run across a real beauty and fall in love. This Cortinarius violaceus is a rare find in any woods across North America. The purple color is so striking on the forest floor, and the texture of that cap is mesmerizing. There were two in this forest, and I picked one only because I really wanted to get the full understanding of its profile. I chose the more mature of the two because it was open and after picking it, I could lay the open cap back down on the ground to keep putting out spores. Next time I see this guy in the woods, I can look and know without having to pick. That’s the great learning journey. Later, on a walk with a qualified mycologist, I was informed that this species is also edible, but I have not had a chance to find more to try. Next year for sure!

Remember that all mushrooms have something to teach you, and there is an endless verity out on the landscape to find and enjoy. I recommend picking to identify, then putting all your samples into the compost, or better yet, back onto the landscape where you found them. If you are hunting for food and medicine, go with an expert and learn safely. I have a great passion for mycology, but I only eat a few species from the wild. These species have been carefully studied, and have been shown to me by professionals first. If I am unsure, I DO NOT EAT. Remember to wash you hands after handling mushrooms too. Having a healthy fear of fungus is not a bad thing, but also appreciate and enjoy the vast diversity of this amazing forest friend and learn what you can.

On a personal note, I found my first lobster mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum) this Fall. It was a great triumph, because lobsters are rare, and short lived. I have been shown older specimens in the past, but they were mushy and worm ridden. What’s so special about lactifluorum? Well, the lobster mushroom is not a mushroom at all, but a different kind of parasitic fungi from the family Ascomycota. The lobster grew over another mushroom, consuming it. In Western Washington, lactifluorum does not “borrow” any toxic species, but might in other regions so learn locally. On this day, the lobster was a loner, hidden well under needles and ferns. The flesh was hard, like an actual lobster shell, with little worm sign. I was elated, and able to carry this treasured find to a dinner that evening with good friends. It’s always a pleasure to share such special forest prizes with others. Gratitude for the forest and all it’s bounty- and thank you fungi!

Bird’s Eye View

Greenbelt of Weiss Creek runs down center frame, flowing E to W (bottom left corner to top center), landscape stretches L to R (S to N)

With the gift of drone technology, EEC Forest Stewardship was able to capture a great bird’s eye view of the forest from above. Our modest collection of young 60 year groves and two large clearings at either end of the property reflect a landscape in slow recovery. The forest looks relatively healthy, considering the continued drought facing much of the west. Our western hemlocks suffer the most from a lack of deep watering, meaning we get heavy downpours instead of slow seep continuous rains that were, up until the past decade, a common occurrence in our temperate rain-forest. In response, the landscape has been altered in a few major places to help slow runoff from these heavy rains.

Human habitat- established infrastructure, high impact, cultivation space

Our most altered part of the landscape is in zone one, or the area inhabited by humans. Five people live full time in this area, with room for up to 8. We seasonally host some travelers who drop by for a month or two in the summers, and occasionally host a WWOOFer or student at a local wilderness school. In this part of the landscape you will see large earth works projects like the pond and swales, most of which deal directly with water flow and retention. We also have two shop spaces and the animal housing, including a chicken coop, two covered stall areas for goats and sheep, and grain room. The large blue square in the upper part of the picture above, is a 20,000 gallon cistern. This pillow tank allows us to flood irrigate our swales to water a young orchard planted in the fall of 2018.

Fields and groves, patches of new forest and fast growing giants

The view from above also offers a great perspective of our rotational grazing work around the property. Katahdin sheep graze field and forest after we move our goats through on tethers. The sheep are important grazers, really working on the grasses we have established in clearings around the landscape. In the picture above, you can clearly see the brown areas of short cropped pasture, versus the greener, lush parts of the pasture which has not yet been grazed down. In the bottom right corner of the right clearing, there is a larger patch of green that is completely fenced in to keep out all the livestock. It has been recently planted with young trees, including an oak grove, and deciduous trees like big leaf maple and hazel. We don’t invite sheep into this enclosure to protect the young trees and native under-story we are also establishing, like blue huckleberry.

orchard left, coops and stalls below (top center)

Forests mark the boundary between an active human habitat and the wilder forests at EEC Forest Stewardship. Further south, past the animal shelters, you enter a world of towering giants, leading down to a hidden stream which hosts spawning salmon in the fall. Here there is a great wetland setback, creating habitat for wildlife and native forest. EEC Forest Stewardship hosts a CREP grant, which allows cost sharing with our local conservation agencies in our efforts to restore the canopy of green. Without habitat, our beloved old growth will never return. Even on small acreage parcels, 5 acre plots, can have a forest stewardship plan and tended native forest restoration. If everyone stewarding land would plant a few trees, we’d have a much better chance for forest in the long run, and still have plenty of room for fields and orchards.

“back 40”, left frame (E) is untouched reforestation from the 70s with intact under-story

Our back field, the southern most part of the landscape, and furthest from the main settlement of human activity, still hosts habitation. A lone wall tent has stood for two years, hosting a rather talented and experienced naturalist who loves living quite off the grid. I appreciate his presence in this far away part of the land, because he keeps an eye on the space and deters predators from predating my sheep and goats. This field will remain partially open, but in the most southern boundary of the land, we’ve established a grove of (grafted) chestnuts. This is a future food forest in action. There are also a few ponderosa pines establishing too. The bare patch across the fence on my neighbor’s land is a sign of great disturbance. It also illustrates a clear departure from restorative stewardship into chaotic sandbox for off road toys. There could be some serious sediment runoff from his land next fall. This runoff would clog our salmon stream with loose dirt, which in tern, can kill salmon eggs and endangered fresh water muscles.

Land stretches L to R (N to S), Weiss Creek greenbelt runs top R to bottom center (SE to W)

With the responsibility of land stewardship, comes a great moral maze full of naturalist idealism and harsh organic truth; every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Our good intentions may not serve the greater ecological recovery in the short term, but further on down the road, every tree planted will be one step closer to rebuilding a greater canopy.

Forest Regeneration

tree nursery (fenced)

A large part of the long term vision at EEC Forest Stewardship, involves regenerative growth. For our old growth forest to reach it’s potential, we have to reinstate a lot of biomass to fulfill the nutrient needs of the ever growing trees. This biomass includes a lot of under-story, and of course, the establishment of new trees. Some of the root stalk and native plants on the land were bought- through local conservation district plant sales, nurseries, and even wild specimens from the edge of logging roads. Often, when new plants are acquired, they go right into the soil upon the land where they are intended to grow long term, but sometimes, plants arrive in too vulnerable a state to be haphazardly thrown into an active landscape. By active, I mean deer browsed and rabbit feasted areas of regeneration. The plant predators of western Washington are fierce.

black-tail deer, notorious plant predator

The regeneration of a forest takes many human generations to create, and new plants and trees should be added throughout stewardship. Keeping young plants protected over a manageable space, a few acres, is relatively doable with some sturdy fencing, but very young trees are a pain to protect individually, especially if they can be contained within a small plot when small, and later replanted in a larger, less protected space as they mature and grow larger. Once a tree is over five feet tall, it can usually fend off deer. Elk would be another matter, but for now, at least in this lifetime, elk are not expected to repopulate this immediate vicinity, but they once did call this hillside home.

willow hides a native crab apple

In some areas of the land, tree islands house and hide small young trees. This method of planting a younger tree near a larger, especially bushy plant that the deer prefer, can be enough protection. However, this method does not work very well in the further reaches of the land where people do not usually go. In those areas, trees must be fenced. Ground covers and smaller shrubs usually do establish more easily on the landscape, so long as they are placed within an established forest cover. Most under-story plants will not establish well in exposed soil, preferring the shade of canopy to thrive and grow.

trees in the garden

Even young trees, like the coveted chestnut, need shade and protection when young. I keep my seedlings in the veggie garden, along with some fruit tree root stock, oaks, and mulberries. I’ve learned not to plant faster growing plants like river birch or twin berry in the garden (even after I convinced myself it was just for one year). I’m still struggling with a few tenacious tenants like Cascadian Hops and Nootka rose. I do root up comfrey every year, and the classic weeds like wild lettuce and herb Robert still find their way in, but sufficient weeding keeps them in check. Some starts take more care when young, and the gardens close to the house offer excellent over-site.

Within the restoration areas of EEC Forest Stewardship, many patches of blackberry can be found. Many are eaten back by forest goats who work 24 hrs a day consuming the vegetation, but blackberry can still take over a clearing in one season, as this thick mat of first year regrowth shows- the roots are still established, and unless we keep cutting it back, the bramble will return. However, if a tree is planted, it’s eventual shade will knock back the blackberry with canopy, and since canopy is the goal, trees are a must. A nursery tree can be transplanted into the blackberry at 3-5 years of established growth. The replanted growth must then be taken out of goat maintenance, meaning all blackberry must be hand cut till the trees establish a canopy, which takes many years.

To fast track forest regeneration, we use already established canopy along the edges of young third growth trees to help younger trees re-establish. In more open areas, entire clearings are replanted, after most of the blackberry has been removed by heavy livestock browsing. If a large number of trees can be established in a protected clearing, including a thick replanting of under-story cover, like vine maple, hazel, and twin-berry helps keep out the unwanted bramble and encourages a good biomass for the future forest. By cultivating young plants, we ensure the longevity of the ecosystem for generations to come.