It is damp here at White Pine Farm, as the rain of late has been somewhat episodic. A quick check of the records reveals we are only an inch or two above normal level of rainfall to date this year. However, after a few dry spells in May and June, the mid-summer thunderstorms have been rolling in on almost a daily basis with flashes of light and sound, and driving rain. All this moisture is a boon to farmers, but it can be too much of a good thing. A few weeks back I was in a local store and a soybean farmer was showing photos on his phone of his washed-out fields. His neat, well-tended rows of plants were gullied and half-gone, and his rich black soil had washed away into adjacent waterways. Not only is this an expensive and heart-breaking loss for the farmer, it is a loss of our precious soil resource and a threat to our clean streams and lakes. Perhaps there are farming methods that can reduce this loss with row crops (heavy mulch, no till planting?), but I claim no expertise in this. Indeed, I greatly admire the tenacity and ingenuity of farmers that grow these labor-intensive crops under the constant threat of extreme weather. However, I am not that kind of farmer.
We grow many things here at White Pine Farm, but at the heart of it all I am a meadow farmer. This perennial “crop” consists of a diverse mix of native and introduced grasses and forbs that carpet our farm with green for much of the year. Robust bunch grasses form dense clumps of roots that reach many feet down into the soil profile, and rhizomatous grasses send dense networks of roots out horizontally, expanding their range and stabilizing soil in the process. Perennial meadow flowers fill in the mix with daisies, asters, lupines, lilies, buttercups and others adding bright colors to our summer greens. The net result is a densely and deeply rooted soil profile that is highly resistant to erosion from even the most dramatic rain storm. This dense, porous mass of soil and living roots generally soaks up most any thing a storm will send. However, at some point this giant sponge becomes saturated and rainfall will start to flow across the meadow. Fortunately, the below ground complexity of roots is matched by a dense, structurally complex stand of vegetation above ground that dramatically slows and reduces the erosive energy of runoff. Conveniently, the more it rains the taller and thicker the meadow cover grows, further slowing surface water flow. This excess surface flow, and the much greater sub-surface flow, eventually leaves our meadows as clean, clear water and joins the downslope springs, streams and lakes in our landscape.
So, we can thank our healthy meadows and other plant communities (wetlands, forests, and more) for the clean water in our glass, but the meadow community offers much more. Whether it be the Amazon rainforest or a western New York meadow, greater structural complexity and biodiversity means more habitat. Ground nesting song birds, snakes, frogs, myriad small mammals and countless insect species find cover, food and water in mature meadow habitats. This is of particular importance now as both scientists and lay people are seeing a precipitous drop in insect numbers across the world. The origins of this disturbing phenomena are complex, but loss of habitat surely plays a role. Are our meadows at White Pine Farm helping slow this loss? I do not know. I do know that on most any mid-summer night I step out into the meadow I am greeted by thousands of fireflies rising up from the tall grass, dancing and flashing amongst the summer flowers. Apparently at least one family of insects (family Lampyridae) thinks our meadows are just great!
There is another species here on White Pine Farm that benefits tremendously from our healthy, meadow habitat. Our hardy flock of Navajo-Churro sheep. Summer meadow is the perfect food for sheep, and they spend the green season grazing, browsing, and growing muscle, fat, bone and wool in preparation for the all-to-soon return of winter. I practice what I like to call a responsive, rotational grazing system. By this I mean I periodically move the flock around to different parts of the pasture through the year (the rotational part), but not on some pre-determined schedule or plan of any sort. I simple assess the condition of different areas on the land and move the flock accordingly (the responsive part). Ideally, I do not move the flock onto a section of meadow until the grasses and forbs have grown thick and tall, flowered, and even gone to seed. When the sheep move onto a section of this mature meadow (their bellies dragging in the grass) they consume with great enthusiasm, running from place to place trying to find the best feed. Of course, it is all around them, but they seem to be having fun. Some individuals (Flora in particular) relish the grass seed heads and will wander about the meadow nipping them off. These seeds provide excellent energy and nutrition to our Flora, but many of the seeds pass through the ruminant digestive system unscathed, ready to grow back in the nutrient rich medium of sheep droppings. In time (days or weeks) the flock will have grazed the meadow down to a still green, uneven, clumpy surface, covered with nutrient rich droppings. However, the dense root mass is completely undisturbed. Time to move the flock on to taller pastures, and for the grazed areas to regrow. The number one factor that determines the rate of this regrowth is rain. Consequently, though some may curse my name to read this, when the dark clouds gather, the thunder rolls across the ridgelines, and the rain starts to fall in sheets, this shepherd says “bring it on”!
So come see our rich green meadows, and the happy sheep that thrive in them. However, this year you may want to bring a raincoat! You can contact all of us at email@example.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just two miles up from the village of Brooktondale.