Saturday, May 11, 2013


Our regular semester just came to an end, and I'm having the usual decompression interlude. I don't plan to do very much at all today. Aimee, for her part, is still in bed. I expect she plans to stay there, although I know she has grading.

This semester has been particularly wearying, the result of a schedule which gave me 8am classes Monday through Friday. Early classes for me means earlier prep, since I like to do an hour or so of prep before every class. So 8am classes meant 7am prep, which meant 6.30am commute times, which meant chores had to be begun at 5.30 or 6am depending on how many tasks needed to be done as the spring progressed, and so if I wanted to drink coffee and read the paper I had to be up by 4.30am.

I'm not ordinarily one to complain about getting up early, but the main problem with 8am classes is 8am students. Students are not at their best at that time in the morning. One particularly somnolent young man could not stay awake at all. The rest could be roused, but only by more strenuous efforts at engagement than would normally be the case, and that kind of effort is hard to maintain.

I long ago learned the value of being at least somewhat entertaining in class, of trying to use humor and even provocation to try to get students to think. I even flatter myself into thinking I'm good at it, and in fact my classroom evaluations generally show that the very great majority of my students appreciate these efforts.

But the inevitable result is that a) you wear yourself out more teaching, and b) you don't concentrate as much on the more mundane process of working through complex scientific material using analysis, breaking it down into small chunks and explaining each chunk methodically, as you should.

Education suffers as a result.

But on the other hand, the classrooms have to be efficiently used (or tuition must be raised to pay for extra buildings in which to teach at easier times), and that means someone must teach at 8am. I am at least constitutionally able to do this, just one of many helpful consequences of my years in the military. Other faculty, experience has proven, may like most students also not be at their best at 8am. As a result I do tend to get a disproportionate amount of 8am starts.

Next time I'm told I must deliver five consecutive 8am classes, I'm going to bring an espresso machine to class.

On the college's dime.

On the home front, we are now able to get on with various projects, including the usual smaller and regular ones of raising chicks, lambs and piglets with the Big Project of building a home extension.

Lambs are in fine fettle. Here they are playing King of the Hill the other day, after all the sheep were let out to graze green grass for the first time:

The brush hog mower made a great King of the Hill platform...

but so did the chopping block...

A more close-up shot, a second later

The sad, destructive, and climate-unfriendly de-forestry operation continues apace, and has reached our southern fence-line, prompting some worry and concern from our other neighbors, whose own line is an extension of ours, but lacks the sheep fence that more clearly marks our boundary. Did the loggers know where the lines were? Had they been properly briefed? 

These worries were not of course necessarily rational, but a obvious and natural consequence of new neighbors with big ideas and destructive technology and land-use practices. 

I'm a social scientist and natural observer of people. I could have told and indeed tried to tell our new neighbors that our old neighbors would be concerned and upset. If it were me trying to set up a farm like this, I probably would have planned to stay further away from the fence line. 

I guess the requirements of neighborly relations were trumped by the farming requirements. 

Here's the feller-buncher from our fence-line.You can see how close it is.

Here's the old forest floor after the trees have been removed. The neighbor's line is ten feet to the right.

All in all, this was probably not the best decision in the world, considering the long-term knock-on effects of upsetting neighbors are usually worse than those of taking things at a slower pace in setting up a farm.

Rationally, then, the farm had better work out, or the destruction and neighborly discombobulation will have been for nothing. 

I have to say, I still find success unlikely, for economic and ecological reasons. Economically, the only way that beef production can be cost-effective anywhere in Maine is either a) to become a large industrial operator, b) to be a part-time operator and not expect liveable returns, or c) to be an organic operator. The strategy applied here is c), but we've since learned that our organic certification organization, MOFGA, is debating whether forest conversion can be certified, because of the climate emissions involved. 

As a local climate expert and MOFGA member, I'm hoping to be asked to comment. I've begun to pull the figures to determine just what the emissions are likely to be from the forest conversion versus using a regular Maine grassland farm already established. 

It will be on the order of several tons of carbon more per acre, all for the initial set-up.

The other unlikely notion our new neighbors are working with is that this forest soil can become a working agricultural soil without heavy industrial equipment, chemicals or fertilizers being used to pull out stumps and roots and re-seed. Experience suggests that this is not actually, or at least not easily, the case. 

We've been unable to make grass grow consistently where we've cut down trees like this, not without removing stumps and roots, tilling, seeding, and fertilizing. Stumps prevent the use of tillage equipment, usually required for grass fields. Without tillage every few years, the soil structure just doesn't build as well, if at all, while the grass cover ecology remains fragile, and prone to weed encroachment and overgrazing. 

Our small areas where we've removed trees and sown grass among stumps have all reverted to moss and thistle except in the wettest parts of the year when we get a little grass. It's just hard to build a good soil without tillage.

Here's the soil after the equipment has passed. This looks like a good seed-bed but is in fact compacted and likely to be nitrogen-depleted.

Here's a shot in the other direction, showing the previous forest cover showing a healthy and productive mixed-species Maine woodlot.

The question is, which is the best use? It seems at least plausible that some Maine forest land conversion will be desirable as we shift to a more climate-adaptive agriculture. But the difficulties might be greater than supposed. My own approach to the failure of our initial forest conversion effort was to slow down and reconsider.

We began our own farm with the theory that we'd like to eventually clear most of our own woodlot for arable and grazing, while buying more land for a woodlot. This is still our plan, but the slow progress in building a grassland soil and grassland ecology in our own small cut-over areas convinced me that I'd need to wait until I could afford to get a back-hoe and dig up the roots, spread compost, and till.

Instead, we have put effort into our garden soil, which effort has paid off in spades, no pun intended. We've added probably ten-twelve tons of compost to that area over the years and now have a real agricultural soil of serious value. I take great delight in this soil, which is like a deep black-brown sponge. You can feel the superior soil structure with your fingers.

The root of the problem isn't, then, with the new neighbors. It's with the economic incentives that make it seem desirable to clear forest land rather than buy pasture land when trying to set up an organic farm. We'll need a carbon charge to rectify this, or we'll have way too much forest clearance in Maine in future years. Those trees soak up an enormous amount of carbon. The growing New England second-growth forest soaks up over a tenth of the total US carbon emissions per year. At this point, in the year 2013, that's more than ten times as much carbon as the entire current (and benighted) Canadian tar sands operation. We can't afford to reverse this process.

The problem is also with the organic requirements that have this loophole whereby forest clearance is not taken into account in the certification process.

It's within my power as a local and regional academic to work on both problems and I will.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Welcome to our Farm Blog.
The purpose of this blog is for Aimee and I to communicate with friends and family, with those of our students, and other folks in general who are interested in homesteading and farming activities.

The earliest posts, at the very end of the blog, tell the story of the Great Farm, our purchase of a fragment of that farm, the renovation of the homestead and its populating with people and animals. Go all the way to the last post in the archive and read backwards from there to get it in chronological order.

After getting tired of spam comments (up to a dozen or more per day), I required commentators to be Google "registered users". You can write me at if you have a serious comment or question and are not a registered user.

Spammers -- don't bother writing -- there's no way I will post your spam to my blog. Just go away.