Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dog's Plot Farm

This Dog's Plot is the four acre remnant of an eighteenth century homestead which probably never should have been plowed. There is just not enough soil or water on this glacier-scraped hill-top, although the four to six inches of clay-based top-soil we do have is very rich, and after a heavy rain, the water stays on top, so it is too wet..... until it is too dry.
No doubt the Cayugas came up the hill to pick black berries which still grow here without encouragement, but a mile down hill, close to the lake where the soil is deeper, the drainage better, the winds softer, and Spring arrives a week earlier, they raised their traditional corn, beans, and squash, and also a wide variety of European vegetable crops and orchard fruits introduced to them by the French Jesuits who had a mission at the north end of the lake for at least a hundred years before the British American intrusion.
Due to their ambivilance about the British American conflict, General Sullivan torched the Cayuga village, uprooted their plantings, destroyed their stored grain, and cut down their orchards except that a few fruit trees were overlooked, notablly the pears, which escaped iinto the woods and spread uphill.
With the Indians gone, the land hereabourts was divided up among the Revolutionary War generals, most of whom re- divided their portions and sold plots to homesteaders.
The Indian way had been to burn off an area to let in the light and liberate the soil, which they mounded and cropped for seven years or so, then they moved to a different spot, leaving the exhausted fields to regenerate.
But there were too many white homesteaders on land for that kind of a rotation. And the whites didn't just kill the trees to let in light; they burnt them down to charcoal and potash, selling the potash as fertilizer down the the stream of settlement to homesteads which had done the same thing seven years earlier, where they were now plowing tired soil.
After the burning and selling down river, the typical homesteader spent much of the following year, and years on end, pulling stumps and dragging off rocks and stones, which had been dropped by the glacier and which the deep frosts heave to the surface every winter. If the whiteskins had started a new rotation and moved every seven years, they would always be pulling stumps and moving stones.
They were probably always pulling stumps and moving stones for a while each year anyway.
They still are.

Some of those glacial erratic stones were as large as the horses and oxen used to move them. Rocks and boulders not sledged to the hedge rows, or just too big to move, were used for the house foundations and to line hand dug wells, which, in the case of the two original wells at Dog's Plot here, were six foot wide cisterns chipped into the shale, which occurs around two to six feet down. This is a hard way to go for water, but if there is already someone living owning the spring down the hill, and you are reluctant to kill him or move on, down is the way you go.

The one remaining cistern type well here holds between six and twelve feet of water except in the driest periods. The shale is generally saturated with water up to a few feet of its top layer, even in summer, but releases its moisture to the cisterns very slowly, so the dug-well homesteaders never could have had enough water to provide for more than the family and a a very few cows or hogs. Forget about regular baths and showers. Even the more modern, drilled well here, which is a hundred feet deep, runs dry in about forty five minutes of pumping and takes three hours to recharge.

This is the Northeast, where rainfall is plentiful, except when it is not. If the clay soil of glacier-scraped plots like this one is not too wet to plow in Spring, it is likely to be cement by July.
For a time, there were enough people on the hill that there was a school across the road from here, but the original homesteaders sold out early in the nineteenth century to a family of Morgans from Conneticuit with enough money to buy most of the rest of the hill right down to the lake on one side and the creek on the other.
Some of this was well drained and close to water, but not their hill top home site. To catch rainwater from the roof, the family added a cistern in the basement , which probably provided enough for all the coffee they could drink and for shared baths. The Morgans eventually moved down the hill into town.
In 1826 the whole three hundred acres was put up for sale by the estate of Jeddadiah Morgan, who had found a better living as a Senator. But the land went back to small parcels and hardscrabble attempts at farming. Everything I know about this, I learned on the internet yesterday.
By the nineteen seventies the current resident male was running a repair shop in the barn and dumping waste oil in the barn well. I learned that from a neighbor. As he recalls, around nineteen seventy six the farm house burned down. For a while after that the barn well was resorted to in season by migrant laborers who walked over from working the bean fields south of here, then they gave up on the beans.
A good long fallow period followed.

The state bought up most of the hlll for park land, left the wooded area as was, planted much of the cleared land with red pine, and began stocking the open areas with Asian, ring-necked pheasants. The pheasants flourished there and on other abandoned farmland until coyotes got wind of them, and found their way East form the Rockies. Some of the hill became cattle range, some hay meadow. The roadside areas were divided into four acre residental plots, which were occasionally mowed to keep them salable. Mostly people were not buying.

In the early nineties, a young real estate agent bought Dog's Plot for his mother-in-law and built a twenty foot square art studio for her, partly on posts, partly supported by and cantilevered over the empty basement foundation of the old main house.

Later, Davey's Natural Bone Builders contracted to build a deck onto the studio.
But before the deck got a rail, the mother-in-law left the area and put the place up for sale.
Davey's daughter, who had been employed to work on the deck bought the property and Davey helped her to reactivate the drilled well and install a modern, raised bed septic system.

Davey had always wanted a fish farm. So while Spuds Excavating was at the site, he took the liberty of directing Spud to gouge out a series of three house-sized holes in the shale, just down the slight slope from the barn well. Always something of a finger farmer, he had some of the top soil from the pond sites dumped into one of the empty foundations for a walled garden. Spud heaped pond shale over the remains of the old burnt house which had been bulldozed a few yards to the rear of the foundation, and then spread more top soil over the surface, so the south face of it could be planted.
Now Davey had his own little gorge, a range of small hills, including one long Finger Lake, and a terminal moraine with glacial erratics. Or his daughter did. Anyway, Davey had always been a miniaturist and a finger farmer.
And as a few years passed he moved more and more of his stuff to the site, including a couple of trailers, until finally his daughter moved down the hill to town where she would have more room.

Davey gets points for the excavated pond idea, seeing as it worked, despite the fact that the county soil scientist said he could not expect to make any ponds because there is not enough soil depth and clay to excavate and line a hole for catching and holding ground water. The ponds he got, quarrried ten feet deep into the saturated shale, held water just as did the cistern wells.
Spuds uncapped the barn well and Davey pumped it l dry then brought me out here for a couple of days to climb down and bale out the petroleum muck and fill spackle buckets for him to haul up household trash from the bottom of it all: everything but large kitchen appliances and identifiable, human body parts.
Then he flushed the stinking socket using a hose from the household supply.

The pond water was orange at first, and after some months, slowly turned green.
He gave the ponds a year to fill and clear some and then put a pump in each and began pumping water up to the well so that it spouted into basin below the well, and flowed from there through the miniature gorge, and through cattail marsh, the ponds, and and in brook he could dam in order to irrigate the adjacent ground, where he mounded and acidified the soil to plant blue berries.
After a season of intense algae blooms in the over-rich ponds, he added lake weed and minnows.
Then he added crayfish which mulitiplied like locusts and ate all the pond weed.
Then he added bass which ate all the crayfish.

And unfortunately, though his pumping and little dams could raise the moisture content of the soil, this would have drained the ponds and killed the bass during drought when there was only three or feet of water, and anyway, the three, twelve hundred watt pumps necessary to keep the brook flowing constantly , trippled the electric bill.

After last years drought only the recent generations of the bass survived anyway ..... and the one to three year old bass ate all the minnows which were crowded in the few tubs worth of water with them.
Now it's a bass eat bass world in there. Probably sustainable as long as we do not eat bass too. Where are the subsidies for little farmers like Davey who really need them?
This system also produces bull frogs, green frogs, leopard frogs, and spring peepers. Snakes eat the frogs, and the dogs and the roosters kill, but do not eat the snakes, though snake is some of the best meat out there and it has, at times, been the only meat in my diet. I'd wrap the snake around a stick and turn it over a small fire.
After paying a lot to raise frogs for snakes, Davey spent hundreds of dollars to buy bare-root fruit trees which he planted everywhere within reach of his three joined lengths of hoses, and some well beyond the hoses reach.
During the long dry summer he chose to start the orcharding project, a third of the trees died and the rest barely grew, despite his pumping the well dry twice a day trying to irrigate them.
And then he brought on the chickens.

He had always wanted to keep birds. First it was going to be pheasants here.. The pheasants which exist for short periods on the state land bordering Dog's Plot are raised to tender adolesence in in such close quarters that they have to be fitted with blinders so they don't peck one another. Looking like Elton John, they eat from feeders rather than foraging free. What do they know about living off the land?
These institutional birds are trucked out here and released on the range two weeks before the hunting season, so it is no wonder that they do not survive the coyotes and hunters to live another year and maybe breed.
Davey had managed to bring a few through the winter by scattering sunflower seed on the pond banks. He thought he could do better than the state to educate the birds for outdoor life, and was thinking that he might get some chicks and start his orphanage, but then it occured to him that he didn't really want to raise pheasants for other people to shoot .....the way he was raising frogs for snakes.

So then he started thinking about chickens - chickens of a hardy independenat breed. Chickens that would range free, feed themselves, weed the garden, eat harmful insects, sing the sunrise, cuddle with the grandchildren, then go forth, have chicks, and prosper, while he lays back and sucks eggs.

But did he call for me then? Did he ask advice from me, who has lived intimately with chickens and knows them as well as he knows the back of his brother or the head of his gland? No he did not.

He ordered thirty straignt-run, tuti-fruiti chickens, figuring that the approximately fifteen roosters this ought to bring, would protect and lead the flock out on the range.
He built a fancy chicken house with a cupola. The cupola alone, took him a month to make.
When the chicks came, the chicken house was not ready, so he brooded them in his own house past the stage when they were hopping out of the kiddie pool lined with wood shavings.
The cleanliness of the household, and his general housekeeping standards declined during the chicken occupation and have not improved much, long after the chickens moved out, but at least it acclimated the chckens to the dogs and visa versa , so that the dogs now consider the grown chickens to be their own annoying siblings, to be tolerated and ignored, unless they are found already murdered, in which case they can be eaten on the spot.
The chickens themselves began to eat the styrofoam pannels of their own house as soon as they were put into it, and when they ranged outside, they ate the tomatoes, the pumpkins, and the blue berry bushes.
Or maybe it was the rabbits that ate the blueberry bushes. There are a lot more rabbits on the range now that there is so much free sunflower seed and corn from the chicken-scratch Davey scatters around. Also a pair of Mallards, a pair of pheasants, and a large community of mice.
If rats appear, I'm leaving.

It wasn't until the chickens began eating their house , and the coon or its distant cousin walked in and slaughtered half a dozen of chickens, that Davey came looking for me.
At the time I was l ranging around Ithaca, staying some of the time in Coy Glen, some in Bridge House, and some of the time in Dieterich's barn, reading the family books Davey has stored there. I was living comfortablly and withoiut benefit of Davey or chickens,
But he caught up with me one day at Dietrich;s, and begged. I was not particularly sympathetic I suppose - i like my isolation - but I like and can deal with chickens, so I agreed to help him out.
However- short of the testosterone solution, which no longer interests me - I don't see a way to sustain a poultry operation where you don't eat the roosters.

Actually, it is probably with Davey's orchard business plan that I have been most useful and that he has the best chance of being productive..
Most of these four acres have not been mowed for years, except for the front yard and the loop which Davey has grubbed out and scythed through the back acres.
What comes up there is, like every where around here, mostly foreign invasive species, many of which escaped from suburban gardens, to which they were introduced as ornamentals by plant nurseries: Buckthorn, Asian honeysuckle, silky dogwood..... and so on.

The real standouts, in the hedge rows and the open on this property, are dozens of pear trees, mostly an inch or two thick in the trunk at this point, and up to fifteen feet tall.
Pears, as I have pointed out already, are also not native here. Their ancestors were introduced to the Indians by the Jesuits, along with cheriries, apples, peaches., and vegetable crops. Sullivan's army tried, but did not destroy all the fruit trees....the first white settlers lived off the remnants of them. Descended from those, there are a few volunteer apples in the woods, but many more volunteer pears..... all over this hill. Pears are o.k. with clay, and with soil that can be either saturated or in draught.

Down through the generations on this landscape, the pears have reverted to wild and varrying forms which mostly have thorns and smaller fruit, as well as better and better adaptations to the climate and soil. Most people, including Davey, until I pointed them out, take the pear trees for apples or hawthorns, or are just unaware of them.

Davey, I said, you have dozens of wild pear trees back here, so why diig and feed hundred dollar holes for thirty dollar trees which you might spend two years irrigating without sucess trying to get a root system established, when you could just graft onto the wild trees that are already going strrong. so that you can have mature trees producing really good pears before your old age is completely over? Huh?

He didn't have much to say to that, but he ordered scions of half a dozen pear varieties, and this Spring ( a little too early) he cut a few dozen wild pear trees back to tall stumps, and cleft grafted the cuttings onto them.
It looks like a few of them are taking.

No comments: