Friday, September 16, 2011

Big Sky Country / Bodhi Farms

I’ve made it to the west coast! In the meantime I’ve hung out in beautiful southwest Montana, blitzed Yellowstone Park, and learned about permaculture in New Mexico. Here we go!

My original plan was to find a way through Texas and up to Santa Fe, but the only option seemed to be taking a 17-hour overnight bus with three transfers. Since I’m constitutionally opposed to supporting Greyhound at this point, I decided it was a better use of my time and money to take yet another detour up to Montana to visit the lovely and talented Lea Howe, who is currently a pioneering Food Corps volunteer in the town of Boulder.

Boulder doesn’t look like much so here is the more attractive landscape that surrounds it. Look at that enormous sky!

Food Corps began in Montana and is now a national program. The idea is to bring healthy, locally sourced food into school cafeterias and teach nutrition to students. While I was visiting her, Lea maintained a community garden, met with a high school film class about making a PSA on healthy eating, and sold produce and homemade granola bars (and other snacks) at a farmers’ market.

Here is the community garden. That’s Lea and her supervisor, Rochelle.

I worked there too, mostly wrangling Rochelle’s son Kael. Here I am trying to use him as a weed-puller.

Here is a sneaky iPhone photo of Lea presenting the PSA idea to a bunch of really enthusiastic, engaged high school students.

We also went on a lot of scenic drives, and I somehow managed to wind up working on a friend of Lea’s small homestead.

Here is another grand Montana landscape, on the way to the Lewis and Clark Caverns state park.

Here is the picturesque homestead of Lea’s friends Amy and Andy.

Here I am, sort of milking a cow while drinking a beer. Hard work on the homestead.

I had craftily booked my flight to New Mexico out of Jackson Hole, which necessitated a road trip through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. We didn’t have a lot of time, so what follows is what you can see in Yellowstone in a day. Which is a lot.

We went through the north entrance, otherwise known as the Roosevelt Arch. The inscription reads, “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.”

Here are some of the terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. Looks cool, smells terrible.

Here is Lea completely just cold disrespecting the law.

We saw a bison! Just one.

Old Faithful – one of about 12 trillion geysers and hot springs in the park. I had no idea Yellowstone was so thermal.

I flew from Jackson Hole to Albuquerque and took the commuter rail from there to Santa Fe, where I met my New Mexico host, Brian. His farm, Bodhi Farms, is in Las Vegas – a much smaller, poorer, less glamorous town than its Nevada counterpart. The town’s claim to fame is that they filmed a bunch of scenes from No Country For Old Men there, using it as a stand-in for Texas and Mexico.

Here is a hotel where they filmed a scene from No Country For Old Men. I’m pretty sure someone dies here. Just like in every scene in that entire movie.

Brian and his wife, Roxane, practice permaculture, a method of farming that focuses on the natural interaction between different plants and animals and their environment. The idea is to create a kind of agricultural ecosystem utilizing crops that naturally thrive in the climate.

Here is a view of most of the land Brian and Roxane are currently cultivating. This is about two acres – beyond the hill is another 10 acres not currently in production.

Bodhi Farms’ permaculture design consists of several gardens, hoop houses, terraced vegetable beds, fruit and nut trees, and egg-laying chickens. They use the same model for their laying hens as the farm in Texas used for meat birds. The chickens live in what Brian calls “chicken tractors,” which can be easily moved every day.

Here is a chicken tractor. Bodhi Farms has over 100 chickens in about 12 tractors. Each tractor is a little different, representing stages in the design and perfection process.

Inside, seven or eight chickens peck through the weeds and lay eggs.

As they’re moved around the property, the chickens take care of weeds and pests while fertilizing the soil. A lot of permaculture has to do with creating fertile soil and keeping it that way, using resources from the farm itself. Trees, crops, and chickens are all being strategically rotated or planted throughout the property to make it as productive as possible. It seems to be working really, really well.

Here is a view of some of the gardens, the first terraces Brian built (on the right), and a few chicken tractors.

Given that this is the high desert, a lot of effort is also put into slowing and controlling water. In the days of the cowboy, mule teams were used to dig out swales that would direct water into specific areas. This created patches of land with a much higher concentration of lush grass. The cowboys would know where to find these patches and run cattle from swale to swale.

Brian and Roxane have adopted a similar method for getting the most out of the water on their property. First, they have two gigantic cisterns that collect rainwater from the roof of the house. The cisterns are situated on a hill above the rest of the farm, so all that is needed is a hose to gravity-feed the gardens. Besides these cisterns, they are building terraces on their hills.

Here are the terraces they built last year, which are already producing more tomatoes than they know what to do with.

Here is the beginning of a terrace that Brian and I built on my first day.

Brian pruned the trees in the photo above, using the brush and branches to form a barrier. Straw bales were also added, and then we piled well-aged compost behind the wall we’d made. The combination will act as a dam, saturating the soil that will build up as the brush, compost, and straw all break down. This adds tons of organic material to the terrace, making it incredibly fertile.

Another day, Brian and I piled up compost to create a berm around a tree where, after a rainy night, Brian had noticed a significant amount of runoff.

Water was pouring down this hill and dispersing, carving a little gully to the right of the tree.

We piled up compost to redirect the water, then tested our little dam using a five-gallon bucket. As you can see, it went somewhere much more useful – to the base of the tree.

The last project I worked on was the early stages of a biochar company Brian is starting with a local lumber mill. Brian is a pretty savvy businessman, having been an executive at a software company before starting his farm and owning his own company before that. The idea behind biochar is to take waste wood from the lumberyard and burn it using a process called pyrolysis, which is the method of combustion used in charcoal production. The resulting char is mixed with compost and then added to the soil, making it much more absorbent and nutrient-rich.

We built a basic biochar retort. The design consists of a 25 or 30-gallon drum filled with feedstock and slotted into a 55-gallon drum. We used a blowtorch to cut the top off of the smaller barrel.

Then we drilled a series of holes around the bottom of both barrels, to allow air to flow and get a good blaze going.

Once all the holes were cut, we filled the small barrel with feedstock – waste wood from the lumber mill.

The small barrel is placed in the large barrel upside-down, then surrounded with more feedstock, which we light to get the process started.

Another blowtorch got the fire going.

Once the fire was started, we let it sit for about three hours.

The idea is that the fire surrounding the smaller barrel creates super-heated gases that break down the feedstock into charcoal without burning oxygen. Unfortunately we didn’t allow enough oxygen into the larger barrel to get a clean enough burn, so the first attempt didn’t produce much usable char. Brian was still working on the design when I left.

Honestly, I learned too much at Bodhi Farms to include here; it was one of the more informative farms I’ve been to, which is saying something considering I’d already learned a ton at four other farms before going there. As usual, I’ll close with a few photos that didn’t fit:

Brian also taught me some lumberjacking. Here he’s demonstrating a conventional cut.

The hens are very productive. Here’s a day’s worth of eggs.

Since Brian and Roxane sell their eggs to restaurants, they wash them in an organic solution first. Brian invented a cheap automatic washer to get it done quickly.

It’s basically an egg Jacuzzi with disinfectant.

Pumpkins! Perfect for making pie.

Unfortunately I won’t be working on the alpaca farm in Arizona after all, but I got to visit some in New Mexico. They’re like fuzzy aliens.

Of course, no blog post would be complete without the farm dog photos. On the left is Bodhi, the farm’s namesake. Behind him is Devo, and behind Devo is Sophie. To the right are Sasha, a chow mix, and Freya. Not pictured: Balder. Brian and Roxane have four Tibetan mastiffs and walk all six dogs at once!  

I’m going on a little road trip up the coast of California next, and then working at either an orchard or a goat dairy – maybe both. Until then, thanks for reading!