This is our farm column from farmer Casey O’Neill. O’Neill is the owner operator of HappyDay Farms north of Laytonville, and a long time advocate for the cannabis community in Mendocino Co; more of his writing can be found here. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to [email protected].
There are times in life when you have an experience that makes you think “fuck ya, this is exactly what I’m trying to accomplish”. That feeling of doing the right thing in the right place at the right time is magical, a culmination of effort and building that brings you to a new plateau in farm and practice. I had just such an experience the other day during a visit from a film crew working on a documentary about cannabis and the homestead ethos that has been a guiding light for the small operators. I had plans to sow cover crop, move the sheep to fresh forage and feed the animals, so the crew came along.
I sowed one of the bottom terraces at my brother’s place and raked the seeds into good soil contact. There are two huge comfrey bushes at the end of the rows that yielded enough plant matter to mulch more than half of the bed. I also pulled from a patch in another terrace to finish out the mulch, and while I worked I spoke with the camera crew about what we do and more importantly, why we do it. It was a cool, misty day and it felt damn good to take the time to focus on creating fertility for the future.
Coming off a long, brutal winter in which our cover crop failed because of bird pressure, late sowing and wild pig damage, we needed more inputs to keep crops healthy and thriving. It’s easy to get caught in a feedback loop where you need more inputs that cost more money, and instead of building soil and health you’re just cycling through things that come from somewhere else.
Farming is all about balancing fertility and costs. You can spend time making fertility or you can spend money buying fertility, but either way there is a cost to the practices. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much we spend on inputs, and also about the carbon footprint that these purchases entail. Closed loop garden systems keep cycling the same nutrients through the system, but a farm that exports crops or other products for sale is selling some of the fertility from the land.
As our farm has gotten bigger, we’ve increased the amount of compost and amendments we purchase each year, but we’ve also increased the amount of on-farm fertility production. Though we still have a long way to go, there are clear steps that we are taking to be more self-sufficient and lower our overall carbon footprint. Comfrey is the key to my long-term strategy for building a healthier farm with fewer inputs.
Plants with deep tap roots that can pull nutrients out of the subsoil are known as bioaccumulators, and comfrey is one of the best (we also use alfalfa for similar reasons). With foliage that grows aggressively and can be harvested as much as 3-4 times each season, comfrey makes an abundance of plant matter for mulch, animal forage and making fermented plant juices to use as liquid fertilizer. High in potassium, which is one of the key nutrients for fruiting and flowering, the benefits of this plant are myriad.
Sheep, chickens, turkeys and rabbits all love to eat the leaves, converting them into high density fertilizer through their manure, which can be composted or left in place to enrich the pasture. Each year I dig hundreds (if not thousands) of comfrey plants out of the garden zone right near our house and replant them in moist places near garden beds and in wetter pasture zones. The low sides of greenhouses where water runs out or off get lots of comfrey, as do swales and low edges of areas where we run animals.
As the day moved along, we went up to the ranch to feed the pigs and chickens and move the sheep onto fresh forage. I closed the sheep into their mobile pen with a bucket of apples so I could move the fencing, and when I let them out they ran to gobble the fresh forage with eager bites. It made me feel good, and the image was gold for the cameras. The quick rotation system we use gives the pasture time to recover, and the addition of manure to the grazed areas yields a fertility increase that is clear and unmistakable.
Sometimes I feel caught in a loop of purchasing things to grow things to sell things, but when I take the time to focus on closing loops on the farm to make more of our own inputs I feel good, like I’m doing the right thing at the right time. This fall and winter we’ll be focusing on making hugelkultur beds with wood chips that were made during clearing for fire prevention this summer. We’ll be planting comfrey into the new beds so that it will grow as a source of mulch and fertility for the production beds. I’m deeply excited about this process, and it feels good to go into the cool season with such clear direction and hope. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!