Stories from the Farm

People often ask us about life with the animals, the planting and harvesting of the produce, and what's happening on the farm. So we decided to start a blog to share some of our thoughts along with some of the memorable adventures on Bray Grove Farm. Update: the blog has gone somewhat dormant because we've been writing our newsletter instead. Sign up for our newsletter to read recent stories about Bray Grove Farm.

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Farewell Dear Gene
Gene Logsdon, a good man, fine farmer, and respected agrarian, passed away May 31, 2016 at his home in Ohio. He's inspired many, including us, with his vast knowledge of agriculture, abiding commitment to small scale farming, and plainspoken writing infused with a contrarian wit.

“Sustainable farms are to today's headlong rush toward global destruction what the monasteries were to the Dark Ages: places to preserve human skills and crafts until some semblance of common sense and common purpose returns to the public mind.” Gene Logsdon

"I don't know of a better argument in favor of farming with horses than trying to start an old tractor in the winter time." Gene Logsdon

April 25, 2016 Field Notes:

To say the world has gone green would be an understatement. We seemed to have leapt from late winter straight into summer without any in between, with daytime highs having already reached the low 80s on more than one occasion, and plant life has responded in kind. 

We've been working in the field non-stop and have an acre of vegetables already planted, with the first green shoots of many varieties already emerging. Now with warm weather and near-ideal precipitation, things are growing in earnest. This includes the many weeds as well as the ubiquitous quack grass that attempts to overrun most Midwestern farms.

It's a little discouraging at times fighting the relentless weeds that are the bane of the organic farm. In turn, it seems a little strange and oddly disconcerting how all our neighbors' fields are pristine and weed free. It seems that when you soak the earth in Round Up® (well, usually Atrazine at this point in the season) it makes for a blank slate devoid of most natural life. But this has become the way of large-scale- industrial farming, which seems closer to the mindset of a manufacturer of a commodity than a steward of the land. What makes things more convenient for behemoth farm equipment might not always be what's best for people, animals, and the planet long term.

I will say that I think I've noticed, although I'm not positive, that when one of those mega-John Deere machines rolls down our street, (and we see as many farm implements as cars these days) Loretta, ever so imperceptibly, picks up the pace a step and pulls a bit stronger. And I'm not making this up. It's as if somehow through the long line of horses, donkeys, and mules that preceded, stories have been passed down from generation to generation about a time not so long ago when the fossil fuel-powered machines usurped the powerful drafts on farms and tens of thousands of healthy working animals were led off to the tractor dealership to be "traded in," resulting in an equine genocide unparalleled in human history. And that to this day, the draft equines in fields far and wide the world over know what caused the demise of most of their great grandparents' generation and they'll never forget this transgression. Nor should they.

As my trusted team of Belgian mules stepped up, leaving nary a trace in their wake despite their mighty hooves, we made yet another round on the freshly tilled field with the steel harrow, uprooting the persistent grass shoots and newly sprouted weeds poking through the rich soil. I laughed at myself for even questioning the way we choose to farm. "So you want the better way to also be the easy way?" 

April 6, 2016 Field Notes

The last few days have certainly offered up the full palette of Midwestern spring weather. Saturday's snow showers were followed up by Sunday's warmth and sunshine, albeit with extreme winds. Then the temperature plunged again and Monday morning's windchill was in the 20s.

Fortunately, the weather has cooperated in regards to farm chores and we've been able to get a lot of field work done, including some much-needed plowing. Right now, we have four 1/4 acre plats ready to plant so we're right on schedule. Although Friday's forecast of 20s with snow means planting will hold up for a few days, there's still plenty of time.

The neighboring farms as well as others across the entire Corn Belt are also beginning their work to plant the ubiquitous soybean and corn rotation destined for ethanol and feedlot. They're saying 93.6 million acres will be planted in (mostly) GMO corn this year in the United States and almost none of of it to grow real food for people. I for one prefer growing fresh vegetables to fuel additives. And every time one of those monster John Deere machines rumbles down our road I think Loretta casts a sidelong sneer to mock the iron interloper on our shared silence. The truth is, I feel a little sorry for the operators of those big hulks, locked away in their sealed cockpit, sheltered from the noise and smell emitted by the relentless diesel motor.

You see, Loretta, Emmylou, and I spent yesterday morning plowing a section scheduled to be planted with the heritage field corn that will one day later this year become ground corn grits. While there was still a slight chill in the air, the bright morning sun felt warm and, as the plow share cut through the overgrowth of grass, the still-damp earth rolled gently off the moldboard and I could smell the richness of the soil. All I could hear was the turning of the steel wheels of the sulky plow, the occasional exhalation from one of the mules, and even the flapping of wing as a flock of grackles flew low overhead. The drivers of those big machines miss all that eloquently simple beauty. Whoever said fossil-fuel powered machines are progress was certainly pointed in the wrong direction.

March 18, 2016 Field Notes:

After a long winter's rest, the pastures are now green. While this may sound a little like the normal "spring is here" rejoinder, to an equine, green pastures bring about an unheralded joy. After months of eating hay (160 bales total at last count) it's finally the season for fresh greens.

This Monday, when temperatures reached a relatively balmy 69 degrees and the sun shined down on the rich bluegrass field, Cowboy sprinted around the perimeter of our northwest pasture in a series of countless circles as Loretta and Emmylou chewed grass stubble and watched him racing by. While he may be up there in years, that old horse had me convinced he'd be a fine contender for the Triple Crown, if only a jockey could hold on!

Just as the pastures have begun to turn green, so has much of our tillable land. Although what is emerging now is newly sprouted weeds. Growing organic as we do, one of the more labor-intensive parts of farming is the constant effort to make sure what we want grows, and what we don't, doesn't. It's been said that a weed is simply a plant for which no one has yet found a proper use. I'd be inclined for the weeds to stay in check until I'm wise enough to learn just what that proper use is. But nature has no patience for slow learners like me. And so the weeds spring forth.

Despite the last bout of rain which made things a bit too muddy to work, the mules and I have made a good start on preparing the fields to plant. We've disc harrowed much of the leftover surface residue that protected the soil from winter's erosion. Next on the agenda is plowing time, which will turn the decaying residue in to the warming earth to provide nutrients for this summer's vegetable crop. Very soon the first seeds will be planted and then it will only be a matter of weeks before the first harvest of spring produce. 

I like this season because the changes are so tangible. In many ways, the tillable land is a blank slate, waiting for the first mark to be etched. Now it's up to two farmers, a pair of Belgian mules, along with a touch of grace, to make for a successful harvest that will feed others who can share in the bounty the earth provides. 

August 11, 2015 Field Notes:
This week's predicted spell of hot weather reminds me we are in the Dog Days of summer here in the Midwest, which according to the Old Farmer's Almanac, end today despite another few week's of this type of weather still to come. Incidentally, this phrase, which evokes images of the season's sultry heat and humidity, got its name from the fact this time period 
coincides with the heliacal rising of Sirius (aka "The Dog Star") in Canis Major. 

While this celestial body is the brightest star in the sky, it really doesn't add to summer's heat like people in ancient times believed. But the image of a tired dog laying on a farm porch does seem a fitting image for a hot summer's day. So the name is nothing if not evocative, even in its modern interpretation.

It is hard to believe we're already approaching the middle of August. The grasses have entered their dormant phase and we're supplementing the equine's pasture grazing with some free choice hay. Smart creatures they are, they much prefer the fresh to the dried kind. I think they understand the season for fresh greens has a limit, so they try to get their fill before the killing frost appears.

The trees usually begin to show their first hints of yellow and orange right around this time each year and our big American Linden tree is right on track with a smattering of golden leaves appearing amidst the thick green foliage. This subtle change is the first harbinger that summer is beginning to wane. But the peak of Autumn is still a ways off yet and there's no rush to get there. Like the saying goes, the seasons know exactly when to change.

Vegetable Roots:  Early Fortune Cucumber

An heirloom variety of cucumber introduced by the Jerome B. Rice Seed Company of Cambridge, New York around 1910. The variety originated with George Starr of Royal Oak, Michigan, who discovered a single plant growing in a crop of Davis Perfect cucumbers (now extinct). The fruits have a distinctive sun ray pattern on the end. Rice, who was a Civil War veteran, grew his seed company into the second largest and profitable seed company of its era. This heirloom cucumber is perfect for fresh eating or pickling.

August 4, 2015 Field Notes:
One of the nice things about this time of year is that summer is really at its peak. While the days are beginning to grow shorter, it's not yet noticeable. 
The early signs of autumn are still a few weeks away and the crops in the field are at the top of their performance.

Our days in the field are accompanied by the gentle buzzing of bees pollenating the vegetables and the intermittent call of a pair of killdeer that have taken up residence in our pasture. Their companionship makes farming on a hot day something to be enjoyed.

An equilibrium has been struck and while I don't want to jinx it, there seem to be less mosquitoes out, as nature has let forth a variety of predators to keep this insect in check. I was in a field piling some hay, being annoyed by a constant barrage of biting bugs, when all of a sudden an armada of low flying dragonflies and higher flying barn swallows appeared in unison to dine on the annoying bugs. Combined with our nightly visit from a large number of tree frogs plus a brown bat we've named Chubby, the insects are being kept in check. Nature does have a way of maintaining a balance to things.

Sometime in the last day or two, the tassels appeared on the corn, which now stands head high. While the Spring-planted vegetables you've been receiving in your CSA box are nearing their end, later plantings are about ready to begin 
producing, with the last round of seeding scheduled to begin next weekend. Farming really does bring you closer to the rhythm of the seasons and the subtle changes that accompany this endless flow of life.  And so the cycle continues of which we are just a small part.

July 28, 2015 Field Notes:
This morning was sunny, hot and humid, with only a faint breeze blowing out of the southeast. But this gentle air was enough to set the corn rustling its chorus-like tone of leaf rubbing against leaf. So I set down my grub hoe for a while and just listened.

Of all the crops we're growing, corn is one of the most fascinating. A few weeks ago it was just a series of small shoots only a few inches tall marking out the hand sown rows that gently veer and bend, lacking the precision of our neighbor's GPS-plotted corn rows, but making up for this by showing that human hands, and not a computer-powered, diesel-fueled machine, planted the seeds.

As of his morning, the corn stand is about five feet tall. In a few short weeks, the plants will have grown taller still, the cobs will be full and ready for harvest. Then, after this growing season has drawn to a close, the barren dried stalks will be disced into the ground on some cool Autumn morning by a pair of Belgian draft mules, one human, and a primitive agricultural device, with the only sound being the crunch of wheels on the moist soil. Which makes today's Midsummer corn choir all that much more memorable as a reminder of how impermanent things are. 

The beauty of this is, with nature, nothing goes to waste and everything, whether we realize it or not, has a purpose on this earth. As humans who reside in a too often disposable culture, we lose sight of this fact. But if we open our eyes and listen with our ears, examples surround us and we can be grateful for this subtle lesson in life.
 The corn, that today stands full and tall, will one day soon return to the soil from which it sprung, seemingly gone forever. But as long as we or future generations farm this land, it will return again next season as something else transformed. It will be part of the nutrients and the soil that will nourish another season of plant life that today are only seeds as yet unplanted.

July 14, 2015 Field Notes:
Tenacity. That's what occurred to me as I was harvesting the beans for this week's CSA shares. These little plants have been through a lot. Those that weren't submerged in a flooded field have spent what seemed like an eternity in waterlogged soil during their formative weeks. Because the soil was an impassible murky bog for so many weeks, the weeds infiltrated the bean rows because, unlike other plants, nothing deters a weed and there was nothing there to stop them. 

After the flooding, most of the beans quickly died or turned yellow and withered. The plan was to get more seed in the ground in other fields to make up for these lost rows and then Loretta, Emmylou, and I would go back over the dead rows and turn them in with the disc. But for some reason, this row of beans held on despite the odds. So after the other field was planted, I held off discing this row in and waited, partly curious and partly hopeful.

This morning, as I was filling a harvest basket full of beans under a cerulean blue sky dotted with puffy white cumulus clouds, I realized patience with a smattering of faith pays off. While the other rows are now dried and gone, this one row had some marvelous green beans hanging from the small but resilient plants. Nature has a way of succeeding even against seemingly impossible odds.

Raccoon Condo

For those of you who have expressed a concern over the well-being of our neighbor and resident Procyon lotor named Ralph, he seems to be well and may I say somewhat relieved that warm weather is finally here. After collectively deciding that neither our animal barn nor our hay barn was the best home for a raccoon, the ever resourceful Ralph has found what we all feel makes a great permanent abode for one tired old raccoon. 

We have this half-dead buckeye in front of our farm house that has this great big knot hole about three feet off the ground. As Ralph is either not fond of heights or simply not keen on climbing, he has taken to this hollow tree. So each day, as Loretta, Emmylou, and I are headed off to the field to work, we pass this old buckeye and we see, sound asleep in his bed, old Ralph, dreaming raccoon dreams.

July 7, 2015 Field Notes:
Despite last night's passing storm, the relentless rain finally ended and we've had a dry spell that's helped rid the field of the standing water. This has given us the chance to make a thorough assessment of the crops in the ground and figure out the next steps. 

In the plus column, we've been able to begin a long campaign to battle back the weeds that have overtaken so much during last month's rains. We were also able to plant another fifteen rows of snap peas, green beans, cabbage, kale, and a really cool heirloom collard from North Carolina. It will take about seven weeks before we begin to see the results, but this will help offset all that was lost last month. 

In the minus column, a lot was lost. What didn't drown straight away turned yellow and wilted from being exposed to too much water in the days following. Simply put, we lost most of what was in the ground.

The one exception has been the cucurbits. The squash, cucumbers, and melons took a bit of a hiatus in their growth and are now about three weeks behind schedule. But this morning's field check showed a positive sign. Both the summer squash and Amish melons have begun to flower! That's a good sign that they are ready to restart their growing and pick up where they left off a month ago.

They've Fledged! Happy Independence Day!

The two baby robins we assisted by building them a makeshift shelter, survived and have left the nest. Over the course of a week we watched the little ones turn from naked, closed-eye hatchlings with pin feathers into wide-eyed baby birds. The last sighting was of one of the young birds tucked into some nearby overgrown grass, waiting for the afternoon feeding from Mom. By now, they've learned to fly and have joined the other Turdus Migratorius that call our farm home.

Go forth and eat bugs little birds! We have plenty.

June 30, 2015 Field Notes:
The theme continues to be rain. Our fields are well past the saturation point and the low parts still are full of water. Even the soil in parts without standing water is waterlogged. We've lost about 75% of what's in the ground. As a result, we've made the decision to disc in about half our planted acreage to see if we can replant some of what was lost. 

The good news is, Sunday was actually dry and gave us a chance to gain a little ground. We began the battle to knock back the weeds that have gained a foothold and we even got some new seed in the ground. Normally, we'd be planting successive crops throughout the season but this is the first new seeding in a month. I had held back about 1/4 acre that, fortunately, remained relatively dry. That gave us some ground to work with that didn't require full prepping. So fourteen rows of lettuces, collards, cabbage, Japanese greens, plus some beets and carrots, were planted. We should begin to see this round ready for harvest in mid-August if weather is favorable. Better late than never.

As for what was lost, it's too late in the season to replant some of the vegetables. They simply take too long to mature. Also, a lot still depends on the weather. If we have a dry spell over the next few days and the ground firms up, Loretta and Emmylou should be able to join me in the field over the Fourth of July weekend and we can begin the process of turning in the old drowned vegetation to prepare for the new. At which point, the organic matter needs about three weeks to break down in the soil and we can begin to replant. So if weather is favorable, there's still a chance we can make up some lost ground in the second half of the season with a good Autumn harvest. 

Baby Robins

After the previous night's 4 inches of rain and high winds, Sunday morning we found a nest on the ground that had fallen and disintegrated. One of the baby robins was dead but two were still breathing, albeit soaked and on the muddy ground with bugs. So I built an ad hoc nest using a cardboard box and some hay, nailed it to a dead tree near where they fell, gently placed the babies in this new nest, and stayed away. This morning while doing barn chores we watched as their mother was making runs to the little cardboard box and feeding the two siblings. They aren't out of the woods yet, the new nest is a bit bedraggled from the latest round of rain, but their eyes are now open and they have downy feathers started. So keep your fingers crossed!


June 23, 2015 Field Notes:
It's been a rough month. Rain, rain, rain. We haven't just beaten the record for June rainfall. We've decimated it. Normally, June sees about 4.2" of rainfall for the entire month with the previous record being 8.3" set in 1903. Here at Bray Grove Farm, we're already hovering around 16" total rainfall and there's still a week left in the month.

Needless to say, we've taken a hit. Many of our neighbors have lost entire fields to the water or, as a result of last night's tornado, lost their homes. So it could be worse. So far, about 75% of what we have in the ground has been killed by the flooding. There's just too much water in the soil. There are still vegetables to harvest, but we're keeping a close eye on the forecast and will have a better sense of how our remaining crops fair in the days ahead. 

Likewise, with fields that have resembled the Mississippi River delta more than an Illinois farmfield, it's been tough getting work done. I haven't had Loretta and Emmylou out working with me. As a result, much of what we're doing is by hand. Our goal is to replant what we can, but weather conditions are keeping that step on hold for the time being.

Historical Relatives - Loretta and Emmylou

Mules are amazing creatures. Half horse, half donkey, and they inherit the best traits of both. Our girls, Loretta and Emmylou, are a cross between an American Mammoth Jack and a Belgian draft horse.

The first mule breeder in the country was none other than our first President, George Washington. In the 18th century, American donkeys were a bit on the scrawny side. So in 1785, as a gift to George Washington, the King of Spain Charles III sent a breeding donkey named Royal Gift, described as "a fine Creature, just fifty Eight Inches high, & the largest that I believe ever came into this Country." Link The following year, Marquis de Lafayette, a French noble who served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, sent George Washington another donkey named Knight of Malta, described as "about Fourteen Hands high, most beautifully formed, for an Ass, and extremely light, active and sprightly; comparatively speaking resembling a fine Courser." along with two "very fine" female donkeys from Malta "to establish a valuable breed of these animals in this Country." Link 

It was through George Washington's breeding program of these imported donkeys that the American Mammoth Jack donkey was born. So it is entirely possible some distant relative (on the donkey side of the family) of Loretta and Emmylou was a resident of Mount Vernon. We were wondering why they were so enthused about last President's day.


June 16, 2015 Field Notes:

Rain. That's the word this week. While much of the Chicago area has seen more than their share, it seems Grundy County has been particularly blessed. We're somewhere around 8" of total rain in the last week and the forecast calls for more precipitation. 

Needless to say, things are wet. Our field is saturated and we have a large section that is a small lake right now. Fortunately the plan for the season was to leave this section fallow, so none of the vegetables are currently threatened. Sadly, many of our neighbors have vast tracts of land fully submerged. Quite a contrast from the ongoing drouth out west. 

All this rain combined with the heat has kicked the vegetable crops into high gear. Some things are actually now a little head of schedule due to the weather. Although a little dry weather with a bit of sunshine would be a nice change.