Monthly Archives: September 2013

With Thursday’s market done, we started thinking about Sunday’s market. That meant picking squash and potatoes, then sorting and cleaning.

Most of the produce I picked did not pass the test, due to size, blemishes or disease. Chris, one of the managers, insists that nothing go to waste, especially things that they have spent money on, such as their squash and potato plants. So, all of the seconds get set aside for pig food. The farm will be acquiring them in the next few days. This means that one task on the to-do list is to build a pig pen.

The ones that do pass the test get fine sorted again, and washed. The day was spent in the rain at a waist-high wood table that has a mesh top. Bins of potatoes or squash are dumped on, hosed, scrubbed, and put back in the bins. It took hours.

Dinner was left over potatoes and kale, interrupted by chasing the chicks in the house back into their pen.

Sunday morning there were weather reports of 50 mph winds coming in, and the ends of the new green house have yet to be secured. The question was, whether or not to go to market or stay and finish the green house before the wind could undo all of the work already done. Some discussion later, and calling in some extra help, we were able to get to market.

Sunday’s market is in Everett, a few miles away. Since the weather is cold and rainy, not as many vendors showed up. This was good for Skipley, as there was not much other produce available.

Farmer's Market display

Farmer’s Market display

I learned a few tips from Gil, who is constantly rearranging the display. He says movement draws in customers, which from what I observed seems to be true.  Gil would chat with people interested in buying plants, while I would help weigh out produce for others, and the 5 hour market was soon over, with the take being $353, a good market for the farm.

There are still more potatoes to be dug and more squash to be picked. The chickens and ducks need new enclosures, and a seemingly endless list of projects that need to be accomplished. With it been raining for newly 3 days, the winter projects can start as well, such as replacing the utility sink, and organizing seeds.

Skipley Farm is located in Snohomish, WA, about 45 minutes north of Seattle. The owner, Gil, purchased the 7 acre plot in 2008, and has been working to pack the land with as many varieties of everything he can think of. The farm boasts an official count of 126 apple varieties, as well as growing grapes, strawberries, blueberries, jostaberries, hearty kiwi and something called an autumn olive.

I arrived on a Thursday, which is market day for the farm. In addition to getting ready to go to market, the imminent arrival of rainy season is putting pressure to get the winter squashes and potatoes out of the field soon. After a brief introduction to Gil, the owner and his business partner, Chris, and honey crisp apple, Gil took me on a brief tour around the farm.

I have never eaten a grape straight from the vine before, but Gil kept handing me gold and red grapes, rapidly listing what type they are, where they came from, and what they are best used for.

After the tour, we grabbed our canvas picking baskets and headed to the first row of apple trees. The trees are planted in rows that run north to south, I am told to even out sun exposure. Gil shows me what to look for in ripe fruit, and how to pick them. WIth two hands, he says. He points out surface blemishes like apple scab, or the patina around the apple that gives it a good color. Every so often he will hand me an apple to try, something that happens frequently here. I am taught what sound a crisp apple makes when you flick it. (Thwick, not thwunk or tink)

After we filled our bags, we loaded up the truck with potatoes, apples, and grapes, and the display equipment for the farmers market.

Gil also selected some potted blueberry bushes, apples and wintergreen. (Another berry I’ve never eaten but was handed.)

The farmers market was slow, but it gave me a chance to ask Gil about why he keeps so many varieties. “Joy,” was his answer. Gil is a horticulturist and loves to propagate plants and all kinds and strains, and he just seems to love handing people apples for them to try. He will discuss with customers what kind apples go best in pie, what makes a good cider apple, and as a landscaper, who best to grow an apple fence in their yard.

Both Gil and Chris are working with the farm with diversity in mind. And why not after all? There isn’t anything in the rule book that says you can only grow one strain of anything. And they aren’t the only ones concerned with preserving diminishing varieties. On the other side of the country, others are trying to locate and catalogue rare apple varieties. This article from Mother Jones’ March/April issue chronicles a Maine agriculturalist’s campaign to keep diversity going.

It’s already apparent to me that Gil and Chris are here on Skipley Farm because they love plants, and the outside. They have the knowledge and experience to grow food for themselves, their friends, and the public, and are eager to share what they accomplish.

I only have one day left on my “vacation”, before I start work tomorrow as a WWOOF volunteer on Skipley Farm in Snohomish, WA. I am a little nervous about what to expect. I think I am going to have to draw on my hostel experience, and just learn to go with the flow.

I left Spokane at about 1 today, after saying good-bye to my cousin. I took at an easy drive through mid-state Washington. I appreciated the drive, only about 150 miles. I appreciate Washington’s attempts to educate me about its agriculture by labeling their fields with blue road signs, announcing things like “alfalfa” or “grain corn”. Unfortunately, the knee-high yellow fields still remain a mystery to me.

Since I have yet to pass the Cascades, I am still in the rain shadow of that mountain range, and am surprised by how arid the landscape looks. In fact, the region I am in  gets about 8 inches of rainfall a year.

Semi-arid climate east fo the Cascades

Semi-arid climate east fo the Cascades

Goes to show you how little I know about Washington. Well, here are some stats:

Washington is a leading agricultural state, with the lion’s share of nearly $6 billion annual agricultural income coming from crops (rather than livestock). Unlike North Dakota, which seems to be primary corn and soy beans, Washington is top producer in a variety of crops such as raspberries, peas, hops and spearmint (for oil). High on the list are also grapes, asparagus, barley and cranberries. Let the variety keep on coming. 

Tonight, I am spending the night at a Washington State park in the Wenatchee region, on the Columbia River Basin. I am near the Ginko Petrified Forest. I was pretty pumped about this camp site because I have a utility site, which means I can plug in my trailer to recharge its marine battery, as well as my laptop, cell phone and hotspot.  And if all that wasn’t a sweet enough deal, I landed a pull through site, which means no backing up the trailer tonight.

Ain't that a beautiful sight?

Ain’t that a beautiful sight?


This is yet again the 3rd time that I have had to pay for my site through a pay box system. I find an open site, fill out a brief form, and drop my payment into a cash box.  This all seems very trusting to me, and I can’t help but wonder how effective this honor system really is. Or if it doesn’t matter because it’s just not cost-effective to have someone sitting at the ground checking sites in the off-season.

Because I was able to get to camp so early, I had a chance to explore around the camp grounds for once, and had a chance to reflect on how profoundly odd this whole experiment is. All of this circles around the fact that I find it immensely satisfying to read and drink tea in different scenery.

I also like my brief chats with the usually retired folks that share these camp sites with me. Today, I met a gentleman who has been on the road continuously for 2 years with 7 dogs, as well as retired couple who comes to this particular camp site 6 or 7 times a year with different grandchildren. We all seem like some pretty odd ducks, who have no practical reason for doing any of this. I dig it.

Beach near Camp groundsnt.

Ok guys, we’re really down the rabbit hole on this one. I made it to Spokane and it’s cold and rainy, so while I am waiting for my cousin to get done with class, I parked myself at the campus Starbucks and resolved to get some of my questions answered about cows that I asked myself on the drive through Montana and North Dakota.

There’s a lot to know about cows, and quite a bit of math involved.

I quickly found that I had to refocus my inquiry. I had started by asking questions about range cattle, which is contrasted with feedlot cattle. This gets at a frequently held conversation about the virtues of grass fed beef versus grain fed.

Those interested in sustainable farming practice frequently come down on the side of grass fed, because it conserves grain protein that can be used for human consumption. I have read conflicting statistics on the fact, but it seems that it requires 20-25 pounds of grain protien to produce 1 pound of beef protein. People can’t eat grass, so this seems like a win-win, yeah?

On the other side, those that support feedlots, point out that while, yes, grass fed beef is cheaper as far as feed, the expenses associated with keeping such large plots of land that support fewer animals (specifically property tax) are also cost prohibitive. In a feedlot, advocates say, you can streamline the process and produce meat that is more tender, and looks more uniform.

GIven some recent reading about the average American’s habits when buying food, I buy the “uniform look” argument a whole bunch. An ungodly amount of food waste comes into play at the retailer and consumer level based solely around the cosemetic features of food. But that will be a whole other post.

Back to range cattle. Proponets of grass fed say that the key to addressing issues of taste and tenderness all come back to pasture management. Everything I have read about how to manage your herd of beef cattle comes down to how to optimize their weight gain.

Calves are weened at about 5-7 months, with the goal of being about one full month of pasture grazing before cold weather forces the switch to hay. A few sources I read suggested two full summers of pasture grazing to get a cow to its ideal weight before slaughter, and industry standard suggests a preference for 900-1,200 pounds, depending on the breed.

A healthy pasture consists of mixed cover of both legumes and grasses. Legumes like alfalfa fix nitrogen in the ground, as well as provide a strong root system which all contribute to soil health. Grasses help to prevent animals from bloating on an all legume diet, as well as dry out faster when hay is cut. The beekeeper in me would like to point out that alfalfa and orchard grass are excellent food for the bees, provided they are pesticide free.

So how much pasture do you need to sustain your cows? The goal here is to keep the cows fed so they can gain weight but not strip the pasture of its ability to regrow itself. Healthy pasture reduces feed costs, helps mitigate drought, and can even feed the bees.

So, how many cows can you keep on your acrage? Remember when I talked about math earlier? Here it is. Time to figure out your carry capacity, which is the maximum population of a given animal that can survive indefinitely in a given environment. This is where the sustainability folks really shine. You can read about the impact on economics of carrying capacity from the folks at the Sustainable Scale Project here. Carrying capacity is a function of both the resources available on the land and the consumption habits of the species in question. In this case, cows.

The first step is figuring out what your Animal Unit (AU) is, in the case of beef cattle, one dry (non-nursing) heifer, 1. A 2,000-lb mature bull may be considered 2 AU. 1,300 lb wet heifer can be considered 1.4-1.6, depending on how far the calf has been weened. So, you add all of this together to get your total AU of your herd.

So how many animals can a farmer support. Let’s look at the formula:

Number of animals =  (pounds of dry forage/acre) x (number of acres) x % utilization

                              (Animal weight x Percentage intake) x number of days

Dizzy yet? Let’s look at the numerator. Pounds of dry forage/acre is determined by literally measuring how tall the plant cover is. Say, you have 10 inches of growth in the pasture, and you need to stop your cattle from grazing at 4 inches, you have 6 inches of forage over that acre. There are tables to help people figure out how many pounds of forage there are per inch per acre. Multiply that by how many acres you have, and how much of it is actually growing. For example, if a quarter of your pasture is bare, you only have 75% utilization.

From there, you are going to want to figure out your paddock rotation. While some operations employ a continous grazing system, to avoid exhausting the pasture itself.  You’ll need to figure out how large of a paddock you’ll need and how long your cows can stay there, and how long the pasture will need to recover.

There is more math and more tables to help you figure that out. So here I have been reading and typing for about 2 hours, and I haven’t even touched on breeds and breeding, feedlot cattle, the market share, and how to get your cow from eating grass to people eating your cows. Down the rabbit hole, indeed.

I am really glad I pulled off and decided to camp when I did last night. Not only did I need to take my cranky pants off, I was in no state of mind to tackle the winding roads of the Montana Rockies, or the deer and other wildlife that skittered across the road in the early morning, while I was driving the remainder of the way to Glacier.

Safety concerns aside, I am glad I got to see the scenery in the full light of day. I made it to the park entrance at about nine in the morning, and headed up to Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park.

The park had its first snow a few nights before, and so the seasonal trails were closed. Other trails were not accessible with the trailer, so I did most of my exploring on foot around the lake. I bought a cup of coffee from a very frazzled Korean girl, and sat by the lake, making small talk with a large Japanese family as they took many, many photos.

After only an hour or so, I headed west again, with the intention of getting to Spokane in the early evening. Since it was less than 300 miles from Glacier to Spokane, I decided to take my sweet time, and stop very often to stretch my legs and take pictures.

Now, you may be asking yourself, what about the cows? Don’t worry! I haven’t forgotten about the cows. All will be revealed in due time, once I get a more stable internet connection.

So first off, I learned that 600 miles a day is my limit. After that, I change into my cranky pants. It was a harder day of driving today, and not just because of the length. The drive through North Dakota was essentially a straight shot on the interstate. But because I had decided to go to Glacier National Park, I had to leave the interstate behind, and travel on state highways. Most of my day was spent on US Highway 2, which runs along a railroad and features views of cows, depressed towns, and signs that point right, directing you to Canada.

Going forward, I think I try to stick to the Interstate as much as possible. I felt more comfortable on the Interstate because the speed limit was consistent, and rest areas are more reliable. A few times today, I had planned to stop at the next gas station or restaurant, only to find it abandoned.

That being said, I did get to see some great things, such as my first beehives on the trip, and it seems that rural Montana loves dinosaurs.

This was the first of many dinosaur sculptures in Eastern Montana

This was the first of many dinosaur sculptures in Eastern Montana

I kept seeing signs for range cattle, and the cattle themselves throughout the day, which got me thinking about cows again. It struck me as I was driving that you can see from horizon to horizon without seeing anything but cows and the fences that keep them. How often do the owners of these cows see them? I assume they are beef cattle, since they are ranging so much I can’t imagine they get milked every day. How big is their range? I saw a lot of young cows too. How long to beef cattle live? How big the average herd? Does the bulk of the herd stick together or do they split up? How do you get them to regroup? I don’t know shit about cows!

This realization hit me at about 3 PM, well before the Rockies, and only about half way into Montana. I firmly resolved to do as much research as possible once I got to Glacier.

Funny thing about getting to Glacier. Remember how I said you can’t really just plug in an address into your GPS to get you to National Parks? Well, this is because they are giant tracks of lands, with different amenities at different sites, which may or may not be closed, so be sure to check the signs. But with all that, remember how it was no big deal at Teddy Roosevelt? Yeah, that did not work out so well for me today.

I got to the edge of Glacier, perhaps around 7 Saturday evening, and I had been driving at that point for about 10 hours, past my 600 mile limit. The sun was already starting to disappear behind the mountains, so I was getting anxious. (I was not emotionally stable enough to try backing up the trailer in the dark.) So I followed some signs for the park. Turns out, they were the wrong signs. Campground closed. Back track. 55 miles to the next town. Yikes.

That’s when I spotted the camping logo, and quickly turned into a camp ground at where is called the Marias Pass, on the border of Glacier on US-Highway 2. There are only 5 camp sites, but 3 were open, and one had a straightaway I could back into. So I parked (it only took about 7 minutes to do so with trailer, with no middle aged men to help), paid my $10 at the pay box, and quickly divided into the trailer, as the sun was setting and so was the temperature.

Campsite in the Lewis and Clark National Forest.

Campsite in the Lewis and Clark National Forest.

When morning came, I was able to figure out a little bit more about where I was. Turns out, I was camping in a Lewis and Clark National Forest campsite in the Marias Pass that is right on the Continental Divide. What’s that you ask? Well, some google-ing tells me it’s the hydrological divide, which means that water to the west of it drains to Pacific, and water to the east ultimately lands in the Atlantic. It’s a neat geographic factoid, and I suggest checking out the Wikipedia page.

Hopefully, I can make it the next 55 miles to Glacier tomorrow.