Monday, May 26, 2008

The First Wheat Crop (2008)

Needing a agricultural tax exemption and wanting the fields to be cleared, we agreed to allow H.B., a 20-something young man with farm equipment and some experience to plant a crop of winter wheat on our property. Since the land had not been farmed conventionally in four years, it would be possible for us to apply for organic certification if we were willing to follow the strict requirements of the National Organic Standards Board. (It must be chemical free for 36 months.) Although H.B. had no experience with organic farming, he was willing to learn. I promised to find and purchase the seed, pay for soil testing and amendments, locate a market for the crop, and to do the research and complete the certification process. So we were off on our adventure.

The first issue was finding seed. Wheat seed in general was scarce in Texas. And it was already late in the season when we began to look. I located organic seed in Missouri, but the cost plus shipping would have made it unfeasible. The National Organic Standards offer the option of using untreated seed when organic seed is not available, so we decided to go that route. H.B. assured me he could get that from a local seed/feed store and I gave him the green light. I should have gone with him.

We purchased the seed and by mid-December it was in the ground. Shortly after the planting I met with our consultant to begin developing a longer-range strategic plan for the place and to do our initial soil testing. We were walking through the field and he picked up a loose seed lying on the surface of the soil. It was colored dark red. He told me he thought we had planted treated seed. He said that treated seed was dyed like this to keep it from being used for food. I told him I’d been assured the seed was untreated and thought I had written documentation. He said that as long as I had it in writing, I’d probably do fine with the certifiers.

I found an organic feed mill near Austin that was interested in purchasing the crop if we were able to get it certified. I found a certifier and began to complete the many forms required. One of the first requirements was to verify that we’d planted acceptable seed. I checked my paperwork from the seed store. It said nothing about the seed’s being untreated. I called and asked. They hemmed and hawed. They couldn’t be sure about that. I asked for the name of the supplier.

I phoned the supplier and learned that the seed was indeed treated (Captan 400 and Lorsban 30). The clock on organic production was immediately set back 36 months. Very disappointing. (Note to self: on really important matters, deal breakers, do not depend on people with no more experience than yourself to handle them.) H.B. was disappointed as well.

So we had a conventional crop the first time around. We fertilized it and watched it grow over the winter. Each month when I returned it was more beautiful.

In January, the sprouting seeds were just appearing above the surface of the red dirt.

In February, the wheat was clearly taking over the fields.

By March the place was covered in a lush, blue-green grass and heads of grain were forming, a stark contrast to the forbs and grasses that had owned the fields the summer before.

By April the green was blended with gold.

And by May, the fields were gold and ready for harvest.

On May 9 Melinda and I drove up to the farm to see the harvest come in. Alan, Kat, and Madison joined us. In June of 1981, when Alan was almost three, we photographed him in a wheat field across the road from Melinda’s aunt’s home in Portia, Arkansas. That photo has hung in our hallway since then.

Here was the opportunity to photograph Madison, now almost three, in a wheat field, wearing her dad’s overalls. And it was Papa and Mimi’s wheat field. So they came along for the photo shoot.

Haven’t gotten the full report yet on the yield. H.B. guessed it would be around 15 bushels/acre. We’re now working on that longer-range plan, transitioning toward organic certification by June of 2011.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The First Year with the Farm

Last April, when our grandmother, Lillie Creech, died, my sister and I received her farmland and we began the process of caring for it long distance. First steps were mostly legal ones – probating the will, closing accounts, finding insurance, and registering the farm. And the goals were short-term. We needed an agricultural tax exemption on the land, so something had to be growing by January 2008.

The property around the house was terribly overgrown. Lil had not been in any condition to take care of it for some time. When we grandchildren were there, she didn’t want us working, but visiting with her. And she was just a little conservative with her money and would not pay anyone to do it. So a neighbor pitched in as much as possible. But the spring of 2007 had been unusually rainy one, and everything had grown like a jungle.

Around and behind the house, between the driveway and the fields, and along the barbed wire fence on the road giant ragweed towered over everything. Paperleaf mulberry, an invasive species not native to the area, grew in thick stands behind the house. A huge limb on the big live oak by the house was nearly touching the roof. Small mesquite trees were emerging all over the property. The pear tree on the side of the house was surrounded by cacti and small bushes. All this was begging for attention.

My grandmother was buried on Monday morning, April 23, 2007. That evening another intense storm moved through the area and blew down a large chinaberry tree onto the house, breaking the corner of the roof. The house itself was filled with all my grandmother’s things and would have to be cleared out. The job in front of us was formidable. And we lived four hours away.

I found someone to remove the chinaberry tree and a carpenter to repair the roof. In June, a dozen cousins joined my sister and me in our annual reunion and worked hard to clear things out of the house, garage, and storage shed. It would have taken us a year to do it alone.

From July on, I made monthly pilgrimages to the place to attempt to bring some order out of the chaos and wildness of the place. I purchased a pickup, rented a walk-behind brush hog, bought a chain saw, rented a wood chipper, and made a score of trips to the Wilson County Dump. The big 42” Murray riding mower made two trips to the John Deere dealer for repair.

The property around the house began to take shape, but the fields remained an issue. They were covered in thick forbs, native plants, and Bermuda grass. They needed to be cleared and planted.

H.B., a 24-year-old farmer across the road asked about leasing the land to grow winter wheat. We negotiated an arrangement and soon the fields were clear, sown, and awaiting the first crop. The wheat story will be a separate post.

The first year was filled with hard and rewarding work. I anticipated each trip to the farm, worked harder physically than I had in ages, and left reluctantly to return to the traffic and noise of the city. Each time I went I saw a bit more progress on the place. Neighbors have become acquaintances and then friends. The possibilities of the place are clearer than they were. And after a year I want to see the place a productive farm more than ever.

The biggest problems now have nothing to do with overgrown property, but with my own ignorance about what I’m doing and what I’m getting into. The learning curve has been steep, but energizing. But that’s another post as well.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

My Life as a Farmer

I’m not really a farmer. Not yet. But I do have a farm. It is not just any farm, but it is the land my grandfather owned. He was not a farmer, either, but he probably knew far more about farming than I do. When I knew him, Irvin David Creech was a rural mail carrier who drove a blue Chevy pick up on back roads in Wilson County, delivering Sears catalogues and stacks of envelopes to people out of the post office in Falls City, Texas. When they built a new post office there a few years ago, they renamed the street “Irvin” in his honor.

But he had a tractor. It was an old Farmall grey and red, parked under the overhang of a barn that was on the property when he bought it in 1953. I suppose I saw him drive the tractor a time or two, but I honestly do not remember that. I do have a photograph of him on it, wearing a straw hat that now hangs on a hook in my home. I have better memories of climbing all over the parked tractor with my cousins, pretending to drive it, pressing in the clutch and shifting the gears. Mostly it just sat there. My grandmother, Lillie, sold it sometime after he died in 1971. She said the man who bought it hooked up a new battery and poured some gas in the tank and it started right up.

The farm I have is his farm. He purchased a hundred acres because he wanted a farm. My grandmother leased out that land after he was gone and it produced peanuts, hay, wheat, milo, and watermelons and helped her stash away a savings account to see her through life so that she could remain on the farm and not have to spend her last days in a nursing home.

In 1954 Irvin purchased a couple of hundred turkeys to raise for market. They developed some kind of disease and Lillie often told of how he left her to care for them, giving them daily doses of medication in the August heat, while he attended the birth of my sister in Houston.

I walked every inch of that hundred acres over the years of my childhood and adolescence. I hiked the red dirt road that leads to Floresville in one direction and Stockdale in the other. My cousins and I made that road our playground in the summers when our parents would leave us with Grandma Lil for a week or two at a time. I walked through the fields bearing my .22 and plinking at cactus fruit or tin cans, but really stalking rabbits that I never managed to shoot. I often spent a summer evening lying in the front yard, listening to the San Antonio Top 40 radio station and staring at the stars that did not shine over Houston. Melinda and I spent the first week of our marriage there, visiting San Antonio and New Braunfels, on all the honeymoon we could afford at the time.

My dad often talked about owning land, but he never really did for long. He purchased ten acres completely covered in pine trees outside of Conroe, Texas once. We drove up there several times to see it, but it was too much of a thicket to walk about. He eventually sold it. Now it is part of the Woodlands, I suspect, and worth more per square foot than he paid per acre.

Once when I was driving him back to Houston after his brother Earl’s funeral in Austin he told me that there were only two things he ever really wanted. One was a son. The other was a ranch. He admitted that having a daughter turned out to be far better than having a ranch, but he still would like to have had one. Often, when we made the trip to Floresville together to visit my grandparents, he would comment on the way home, as we topped a rise in the terrain outside of Schulenburg that provided a grand view of rolling Texas land, “I wish I owned all the land I can see from here.” But he never got his ranch.

Had he outlived my grandmother, the farm in Floresville would have been his. I’m not sure what he would have done with it. But she managed to outlive all six of her step-children and chose to leave the land to my sister and me, not because of any special worthiness on our part, but because we were Joe’s children. That’s another family story entirely. Meanwhile, she sold off five acres with the old house and built her a new one under an enormous live oak on the northeast end of the property. Later she gave about twelve acres covered in mesquite thicket to a friend who cared for her during the last years of her life.

What was left of the original hundred-acre farm passed last spring to my sister and me. She has no aspirations for it, so Melinda and I are working to purchase her interest in it, keeping the property intact, and learning something about caring for it and farming it. We expect to live our second life there after I retire from the work of the congregation.

We are working fervently to cure our ignorance and naiveté about the prospect of farming. The vision has become clearer as we have read and talked and worked. Right now it looks like a small market garden, producing organically grown fruit and vegetables and an orchard of a few peach and pecan trees. The remaining seventy-five acres could be native grasses leased out to provide range for a few head of cattle or leased to grow grain. Chicken are optional.

Meanwhile the task is to fill our empty heads and to clean up land and property that has been neglected for the past several years. The fields are currently overgrown with forbs I cannot identify. I have photographed them and turned to field guides and the Internet but have not successfully discovered their true names. Coastal Bermuda grass grows still at their feet, a remnant of a time when Lillie leased the land to a hay grower. Soon I’ll know enough to take the steps required to restore the land to pasture.

I was there alone last Thursday evening. I went outside and was surprised with how cool the night was following a hot and humid September day. I lay on the hood of my grandmother’s 2000 Ford Taurus and looked up at the same sky I’d gazed into as a child. The air smelled the same, the same aromas rising from the red Floresville dirt. Now this is mine to know and to care for. And I want to do it well.