Ongoing Opportunities

Ongoing Opportunities.




Fruits and Veggies and Birds of Labor

So early July has arrived and just as I thought – it is too freaking hot in Mississippi to farm in July, Fireant Farm has exploded.

A CSA Share for this week


Beans climbing corn


Beans, Beans

Honeybee from one of our two hives on a squash flower

The magical fruit


Spaghetti Squash


Corn producing smal ears this season.

The newly added duck suite

The Heritage Breed Teenagers. So far we have one, possibly two roosters.

My favorite duck, Blue, and her babies. Ben found them under a bush near the swingset.

New Starts in the Greenhouse

Expected Heat Index 104

Our one "for sure" rooster, Mr. Cock -as named by Max

Sunrise over tomatoes

No more squares. My "Keyhole Starburst" as Mike named it.

Basil Loves Heat

Ripening Figs

Real Life Farming vs Armchair Farming

As I have said I read about natural farming for two years before I began my endeavor. Armchair farming is fabulous. Real life farming is sometimes fabulous, but mostly humbling, hot, and hard. The thirteen year cicadas pulse a maddening alarm as background noise while I hunt squash bugs. Wolf spiders are all in my cabbage eating harmful bugs, which is good, until one rockets out toward your face as you pick up a cabbage. Parts of nature are just downright gross, like slugs and hornworms, or some unidentified slimy thing I grabbed while digging for potatoes.

You may read this and say, “Ha! Thought so!” But, not so quickly. I write this

5:30 am still cool

from a very satisfied position of having done something hard but good. I am tired, but like the tight feeling in my leg muscles that results from real work rather than an artificial gym. It is brutally hot already in June here, but my air conditioning has never been so valued. There is a severe drought in South Mississippi, but here it is only “very dry.” I have never been so in tune with water and weather. In a sense I feel more connected to life than I ever have. I am in awe of the power of nature to make or break us.

To cool off last week we drove up to Dismal Canyons in Northeast Alabama. In order to get to the canyon we drove through several miles of tornado wreckage. There are no words for the scrambled, uprooted, mangled, community we drove through. Mattresses, toys, a wheelchair, bulldozed into mountains of rubble. A Wrangler Jean Factory looked like it had been bombed. People living in tents next to the foundations of their homes just waited.

It was fresh in the canyon, lush, green, the swimming hole was cold. I only packed two sheets to sleep under thinking we would sweat the entire night. We froze! My boys loved the “Dismalites” (glow worms) that sprinkled the canyon walls at night, and the names of the canyon stops fired their imaginations: “Witches Cavern,” “Fat Man’s Misery,” “Puddle Duck Jump.” It was such a contrast to the heat we left at home. It was such a peaceful natural gift just miles from a natural disaster.

Cistern that holds water from the lake pump and drips it out onto rows

Thankfully we have a pond at the end of our property that we pipe water up from and into the big garden. I still have to stand with the hose over the other half and the chicken garden. I am worried about the chlorine from the city water stunting the beneficial organisms in the dirt. The weeds have moved in, although they are manageable with raised beds and I am thankful for all the cardboard we hauled and put down under everything. Every time I think I am growing weary of the work, something amazes me. Like a vegetable that shot forth from the dirt from a seed in the compost pile. I thought it was a zucchini, then a watermelon, finally I see that this force is a pumpkin!  Digging potatoes is like a treasure hunt. Pulling out the garlic that I put in months ago makes me laugh out loud with the audacity of what has happened beneath the dirt.

I’m looking around for things in our house I can send to the tornado relief. I wrote a check. It feels vastly insignificant. I harvest my first squash this week. That is something I can count on – tentatively!

Why Food?

People ask me, in the vast arena of Sustainability, why I have focussed on food as my small approach to affecting change. I choose food because it is really the only thing I can do. When I think for too many minutes about the overwhelming problems of the world, I want to crawl up under my covers and cocoon myself away. I am a person with a leaky filter. My body doesn’t seem to regulate or compartmentalize on its own. When I see a child starving in Africa it hurts as much as a child I know. When I hear about abuse or injustice I get stomach cramps. When I watched An Inconvenient Truth I didn’t sleep for a week. I am not content to simply suffer internally for these issues. I have to do something. St. Augustine said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

I have run in a hundred directions in my plight to “see that things do not remain the way they are.” These crusades take a lot of energy, but they have always rewarded me more than their intended recipients. I have at least held the illusion of creating positive change. However, since the birth of my own three children I have begun to feel like I am running uphill with a Volkswagon on my back. When my boys ran over to tell me that the middle-school girls were fighting over our baby (Cecelia was six months old) at the housing project afterschool program I took them to for two years, I decided it was time for a change.

While I may have had to admit I couldn’t stretch myself to my former limits, I am compelled to swim. With my own children I became interested in what they eat, and how it impacts their health and behavior. So I turn off the news, stop reading the paper, skip the Yahoo news reports and dig in the dirt.I  thought I was taking a hiatus from movements by retreating to my house and my yard, but food is tied to social justice in so many ways, from food deserts in the Delta, to epidemic diabetes, to which products food stamps cover, to the cost of healthy food. They are tied to the environment by the chemicals we use to grow them, the oil we use to transport them around the world, the energy we use to store them. Food is tied to politics by subsidies, regulations, and dollars. It is so basic and so all consuming.

My grandfather, Wayne Ramp, passed away two weeks ago. He was ninety and had a soul mate in his wife, three accomplished kids, and students he touched decades ago attend his memorial service. His was a good passing. In his memorial service, I was reminded how he took on the underdogs at the university. He traveled to struggling countries around the world and helped them establish vocational education programs. He was also a farmer. Once I helped him bury a baby cow that was still-born. He dug the great hole and said a prayer for my six-year-old benefit. Wayne was tough and tender. He was angry and courageous. Wayne loved the land. This week when I plant and shovel manure, I think of him.

The Biggest Pests in My Garden

As an armchair farmer I romanticized about involving my kids in the process. So many of the homestead magazines I read advocate homeschooling, describing the healthy, well-rounded kids that grow up on the land and among family. I can almost taste that life when I read about it. Unfortunately, I am a believer in the power of public education for the overall good of society and I really can’t stand to garden with my children.

We bought the chickens for our boys Max and Ben. We thought it would be a great way for them to learn the responsibility of caring for something of their own and a humane way to teach them where their food comes from. I researched the most gentle breed for kids, Buff Orpingtons. These yellow giants let you hold them in your lap and rub their necks. However, neither of my boys were convinced and spent that spring either running after or running from the imaginary threat. If they collect eggs, they drop them, or can’t resist throwing one at a tree. They can’t reach the feeders or carry the waterers. When I told them we were getting a new batch of baby chicks! they barely reacted.

On the other hand, Cecelia seems to have benefited wildly from the chickens. They were raised in her room while I was pregnant. They kept escaping from the brooder and no amount of scrubbing could clean her carpet. She has the nicest floor in the house, bamboo. “Chicken” was also her third word.

We are getting new chicks in this week. They will be raised in an unfinished room with the dog. We have found that any bird we raise with Joy, our dog, survives. Any bird we bring in as an adult is dinner. Four days before Cecelia was born I drove eighty miles to pick up five Guinea Hens. I had read about the amazing tick and bug foraging abilities of these birds. Hormones make you do strange things and I met a kindred spirit who was as crazy about birds as me.

Sadly, the Guinea experiment failed. Guineas are fast. Mike chased them with two long poles all over the yard for three days to coral them into the coop at night, then he said, “They are on their own.” One by one Joy and the neighboring dog caught them for sport. Joy would look so ashamed, but their speed seemed to kick her into hunt mode unlike the chickens and ducks who can walk all around her. Mike kept burying the unfortunate fowl and the dogs kept digging them up and dragging their corpses all over the yard. Finally, he just stuck them in the garbage and hoped the sanitation workers didn’t report us as questionable citizens.

Guineas travel in one group completely synchronized, almost like one animal. It was so sad when only one lone Guinea remained calling his forlorn, “Buckwheat!” that I just wanted him to die and be put our of his misery. A few days later he complied.

Two summers ago I built my kids their very own garden. We even made “pot people” to sit on the fence and scare birds. It was just their size. They picked out their own seeds and helped me dig the holes. The first day they watered. The second day they complained. The third day I watered. My enthusiasm for growing seems only to have rubbed off on my youngest who insists on following me around with a water sprayer, tearing out young seedlings as she goes. She is very determined about her tasks. If I have boots on, she insists on wearing her boots. I am afraid that before the squash bugs or the aphids get ahold of the plants this year, my little human may do the trick!

Growing Naturally in the Buggy South

I’ve had a lot of questions and skeptical smirking over how I propose to grow “naturally” in Mississippi. The general thought is that it can’t be done. I will happily concede that it cannot be done in large-scale, mono-culture agriculture. However, I have seen it done well in several small-scale farms around the state. I am following their example. After a humiliating quote in our local paper that I DID NOT SAY, “There’s bugs here that are different,” I feel I have to explain myself!

Some of the practices I am employing will work, others won’t. None of my vegetables will be free of holes or uniform in color or shape. But I can promise they are free of things that may harm you or your kids. That doesn’t include worms. The first time I raised broccoli naturally I nearly did a backflip when it was ready to pull out of the garden and throw into the pot for boiling. As I pulled my coveted veggie out of the pot and served it on my kids’ plates I noticed three huge yellow worms. I screamed and threw the whole thing, pot and all, in the garbage. I have since learned you have to soak things in salt water for a few hours so that hidden neighbors rise to the surface before serving. How foreign bugs and food have become to our way of eating!

Some of the “organic” techniques that cut down on bugs and diseases actually use chemicals. These are harmful to bugs and not humans. There are organically approved pesticides including BT, Neem, Copper, Pyrethrum, and Oils. I am comfortable with Neem and natural BT, the others are questionable in their affects on other beneficial organisms. I am more interested in the preventative controls. These include rotating crops from year to year, interplanting various kinds of crops, planting trap and cover crops, and increasing beneficial organisms in and around my soil.

I worked hard on my soil before ever planting the first seed. It has been enriched with rock phosphate, lime, greensand, and tons of manure. The theory is that if the soil is nutritious, plants will be hardy and able to ward off pests and diseases more easily. I put down cardboard under almost all my growing spaces to keep out weeds that weaken and compete with my plants. I am planting sunflowers around the garden to attract squash bugs and a native wild-flower plot to attract beneficial bugs that prey on bad ones. I’ll be checking my plants daily for signs of bugs to hand pick. Ben, my middle child, loves to find aphids and squash bugs. I had to convince him that we could not keep them for pets. I put out containers of beer for slugs around the greens, and build toad houses in the garden to encourage big bug eaters. I have tried row covers in the past to let plants get a head start, but find them a pain in the rear. I want to somehow attach row covers to the poles for easy movability in the future.

This system isn’t perfect. But it is a work in progress. I prefer it to this: