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].
After a cool, wet fall, December has arrived with proper rains! Looking back on the year, it feels like the old days when I was a kid, with a wet winter followed by early fall rains. The landscape soaks up the moisture as plants glisten with raindrops. The oaks lose their leaves as we creep towards winter. I love December for the short days, the lighter work schedule, the time to rest and reflect.
We kicked off puzzle season last night with a strong effort on a new 1000-piecer, and cribbage and backgammon are on the horizon. The early darkness makes time for games, reading, movies and plenty of cooking. Gone are the quick cheese-and-cracker snacks to get back to work; we’re focused on eating well and rebuilding from the drawdown of a long year.
This is the season of roasting, especially winter squash and brassica. Two big, flat pans in the oven, one of chopped broccoli with garlic and one with cubed butternut, both with a little salt and olive oil. Stovetop stir-frys and roasted meat chunks with turnips, carrots, and other root crops in the deep clay braising dish make for hearty cold weather meals.
I’ve taken to peeling, halving and removing the seeds from the butternuts before cubing them up into bite-size pieces. I love the texture of the pieces that come out of the oven, soft and chewy, moist but not wet. For years we just roasted whole butternuts but I’ve found that I prefer this method so much more and we’re eating them at the rate of a big squash or several small ones each day.
December is the time for cleaning shops and barns, organizing irrigation sheds and beginning the planning for next year. The old work is mostly finished, but the new work has yet to begin, so there is a delightful lull that makes space for some of the fun projects we never seem to quite get to. After years of talking about it, we’ve begun our comfrey-hugel project at my brother’s farm with the installation of seven new beds.
We use hugelkultur to maximize the ability of beds to hold and store water so that they need less irrigation, and also to use up excess biomass and sequester carbon in the soil. For hugel beds that we plan to actively farm we dig a trench that we fill with logs and big branches in the bottom, with smaller cannabis stalks, spent animal bedding and wood chips in the midsection of the trench. Then we add the native soil back into place, blending it with compost and amendments to make a flat-surface garden bed that will hold moisture in the trench and won’t dry out as fast as above-ground hugel mounds.
With these new beds we’re going more for the standard mound approach, laying out comfrey roots across the surface of the space we want to use and then covering them with smashed cannabis stalks, water leaf and smaller sticks left from processing. Over the top of this porous layer we add a few inches of wood chips, a thin layer of compost to kick off some biology and then straw over the top to prevent erosion or runoff.
The grass and green plants underneath the comfrey will decompose in the darkness, as will the lighter elements of the cannabis, creating fertility that the greedy comfrey will turn into abundant growth this coming spring, which we’ll use to mulch the cannabis beds. The goal is to be able to mulch the whole farm without having to bring in costly straw that often comes with unwanted weed seeds.
I’ve got a long list of perennials to plant and compost to spread on fruit trees, roses, bushes and other long-term plants that love a little winter fertility boost. We have 4 male rabbits that need to go to the freezer and then I’ll clean out the rabbit barn and use the excellent fertilizer for all of these tasks. Then it will be breeding time and we’ll start the cycle all over again.
At the ranch we’re slowly cycling the animals off of pasture and into the barn for the winter. The two boars and two sows are penned and the two smaller barrows and 4 piglets have already moved into a dry straw niche in the barn. The sheep are still out, having two more movements in the pasture rotation before it will be time to rest the land for 6 weeks or so and move them into the barn. This evening the chickens will move off of pasture into the barn with a run out front in the barnyard ensconced by electric poultry netting.
The rotations and cycles of the season slow down, with many drawing to a close until spring. There are still 5 rows of peppers and one row of tomatoes to clear in the hoop houses, and the trays of seedlings that will fill those beds are mostly germinated and will be ready to plant once we see a hard freeze that kills off the last of the summer crops. The lower elevations have been cold already, but we’ve had only light frosts and the peppers are still producing nicely, although I think I’m ready for them to be done so we can move on. Once they finish out I can take down and replace the damaged hoop house with the new parts we got after it collapsed in the snow last spring. Slowly but surely the work gets done and the batteries recharge. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!