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].
Editor’s note: You can read more about the Forest Health Extravaganza here.
This fall has often felt like coming home to the mission and vision that I hold for my life. After a year of uncertainty and times of deep emotional struggle, I’ve been visited by feelings of calm, peace, and a series of reminders that serve as signposts on the path. Yesterday I attended the Forest Health Extravaganza, a workshop and networking event for people and organizations operating in the restoration and land management space. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of attendance, and I was delighted to see the parking lot full of cars when I pulled into Harwood Hall in Laytonville.
There is a rising groundswell of interest and participation in management of forests for health that involves prescribed fire, clearing and chipping of excess vegetative stocks, shaded fuel breaks, and other forest health practices. It was exciting to look around the room and see many familiar faces and also many folks I’d never met before, all coming together in the nexus of sustainable practices that support sound ecology and good jobs in the restoration economy.
Big shout out to the many people working within organizations and as private citizens in the interests of the forest. Leadership from native peoples provides guidelines for returning to healthy landscapes, and tribes from around Northern California are fostering awareness that is of utmost importance. Special thanks to the Cahto Tribe, the Eel River Recovery Project, Pat Higgins, the Northern Mendocino Ecosystem Recovery Alliance, Cheyenne Clarke, Will Emerson, Trees Foundation, Kerryanna Reynolds, and all the other participants and organizations present. The day was exciting, hopeful, and left me feeling energized for the winter work ahead!
It feels so good to participate in conversations that strike notes of hope against the depressing backdrop of climate change and the wildfire reality that we all now live in during the dry months. To be surrounded by community members in shared effort towards a better future is amazing, and reminds me of the importance of gathering, checking in, sharing information and collaborating.
I see a need for a comprehensive resource that land managers and organizations can use to assess potential sources of funding, understand which organizations and contractors are operating in the space, and network to share strategy and understand what things are working and to learn from past mistakes. A rubric of agencies, grant opportunities, operators, organizations, contractors, private landowners and interested citizens would help each neighborwoods assess the resources available to make informed decisions about strategic direction for achieving greater forest health.
Partnerships between these many entities can evolve and shift, especially as new nonprofits come online and build capacity, as different funding sources become available, and as more community members get excited and involved. There is a rapid groundswell, a mobilization that is taking shape in the model of the Green New Deal that gives me deep hope for our rural landscapes and economies.
From the farm perspective, we are incredibly excited about the many piles of wood chips we’re harvesting from the fire clearing work that took place this summer via a grant that pushed the chaparral back from the edges of Bell Springs Road to create a better fire break for future wildfire events. We all know that fire is a “when”, not an “if”, and the proactive steps being taken by community members, contractors and nonprofit organizations in concert with grant funding from the resource agencies at the state level gives me great hope for the future.
We’re using a fraction of the wood chips as biomass in the pig pens, where they will mix with straw and soak up the urine and pig shit to keep the pens from getting funky as wet weather approaches. Most of the chips are going into hugelkultur beds where they will slowly decompose and release nutrients over time. The beds are planted with comfrey and will slowly build a strong fungal-dominant soil as the wood chips are digested by mycelium in the decomposition process. Wood chips are also going into pathways and areas where we want more biomass either to absorb moisture or help with moisture retention, and where they will offer fungal growth on the edges of garden beds that can use some additional inoculation of mycelium for interacting with plant roots.
I’m also excited about making biochar from the branches and other material that didn’t go through the chipper during the grant work this summer. Biochar is the stable carbon that remains after pyrolysis, a porous wood char that acts like microorganism condominiums and also has positively charged cation and negatively charged anion sites for loose bonding with soil nutrients. In short, once properly inoculated with a rich, biologically active compost, biochar is like soil superfood and also sequesters carbon in stable form where it will remain in the soil.
As I write this article the day dawns cool and wet and the land soaks in the moisture. The pasture is lush and green and the cover crop in various stages is thriving in the garden beds. It feels good to start to wind down the production season, while also being in good position for winter crops after lots of seed sowing in September and October. There is always work to be done, but the press of immediate projects recedes and the flexibility of winter work beckons from the days ahead. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!