I grew up a city girl in Wisconsin on a city lot of 50 by 100 feet.  In the backyard we had 2 rose bushes that pre-dated our residence and came up year after year, blooming with abandon.  One summer I installed a rock garden back under the big trees where I transplanted (with permission) wild flowers from the girl scout camp.  Most of them endured, and some even thrived.  One year my mom planted a solitary zucchini plant and we ate zucchini in EVERYTHING for months.  Those 87 words completely encompass my early life experiences in Earth stewardship.

My entire focus as an adult has been one thing – escape to the country.  After a brief stint at apartment living, and then seven years living in my grandparents’ house, that they sold us, we did it – bought 3 acres outside of town.

Within several years we had a large garden, dairy goats, and three horses. We had a huge yard, a tiny pasture that we guarded fiercely against over grazing, and the rest was dry lot – three horses and about a dozen goats turn an acre of grass into an acre of dust pretty quickly.  Luckily, hay was readily available and cheap – $2.50 per bale delivered for alfalfa.

After moving to Texas and spending several years in a trailer park, I was able to buy 3 acres and an old house via land contract.  Over two acres is wooded and we like the woods, so our garden is postage stamp sized.  We’ve no place for fruit trees and once again our dairy goats and horse are on a dry lot, but this time there is NO pasture, not even a tiny one.  And thanks to two years of drought, hay is a precious and elusive commodity.  When I can find it, it’s $9.00 per bale and usually sticker ridden and/or musty. While other people dream of bigger homes, newer cars, expensive vacations to exotic places, our Rural Quest has been one thing – a bigger piece of land, where we can supply our own food, our own water, and our own pasture and hay.  Although A LOT of land would be lovely, all we need is ‘enough’.

We looked at lots of land – every weekend was devoted to driving through the surrounding countryside, looking for something not too far from where we are now, since we have roots in this little town and don’t want to leave it.  Although we walked over acres and acres of places, we saw nothing we wanted to leave our own place for – even though it’s too small for what we currently have and want to do in the future, it’s a gem of a place – century oaks, towering pines, and a ½ acre spring-fed pond that’s never been murky and is only down about a foot even though our rainfall is down almost three feet in the last two years.

One day I drove past a newly listed place on a whim – from the description in the ad I didn’t even have medium hopes of this fitting our needs.  And yet, when I drove up to the gate, I just knew. I called the realtor before calling my husband!  The next day we walked all over it and signed the initial contract on the hood of the realtor’s truck.  Banks, appraisers, surveyors, title companies, and several months later, we signed the final papers and were handed the key to the gate.

You know how when you buy something new, once it’s really yours you start noticing little flaws you didn’t notice at first?  That hasn’t happened here.  Every time we go out there we love it more.  But love won’t accomplish what we need to do with this place – protect the precious natural resources that we have, while coaxing every inch to be all it can be.  At twelve acres it is certainly enough, as long as we use, and care for it, wisely.

Topography Map

And that’s where the panic sets in.  Neither one of us has ever OWNED a place that could provide for us almost completely.  And how to accomplish our goal of a sustainable, flourishing farm has as many answers as folks with an opinion to offer.  So, we are calling in the ‘experts’, gathering all the information, deciding what makes the most sense to us, and will do what seems the best for our speck of Earth.

Our first expert was Julie, District Conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  Julie met us out at the property one afternoon and walked over it with us.  She spent almost two hours going from one end of the land to the other.  And she does this for FREE, through the courtesy of our tax dollars. Something tangibly useful. How cool is THAT?

Seeing the spring-fed branch that meanders across the place, she gazed at it a moment – running clear when most creeks much larger are dusty channels and even some huge lakes have disappeared in the drought, and quietly commented, “That right there is a Gift.” When I expressed a desire to have a pond dug out in a bend of the branch, she said that altering a named branch in any way is not allowed without a mass of permits, a barrowful of cash, and the invitation of the A.C.E. into your immediate family.  She offered ideas to pump water up out of the branch with the help of a ram pump for the livestock, or we could just let our resident beavers keep building the dam they’ve been working on and we’ll have our pond. Go beavers!

She told us to wait to do water and soil samples till February, since the drought is affecting the results of both types of tests – everything is so darn dry the readings are all skewed. Hopefully we’ll be recovered in the rainfall department some by then.

Soil Map

Her recommendation is to plant one of a variety of hybrid Bermuda grasses in both the pasture and the hayfield this February.  Then, in the fall sow a winter grain, like rye, in the pasture to provide graze through spring, and clover in the hayfield as a green manure.

When I asked about native plants to introduce on the creek banks to hold soil against erosion, she said just don’t cut the trees on the bank and the roots will keep the soil. Unfortunately, a lot of our trees’ roots are becoming exposed and the trees are leaning across the creek trying their best to hang onto that dirt. It seems to me that there are smaller plants that could help the trees…

A totally unexpected piece of information that Julie provided to me regarded the electric poles (small single wooden ones, not the big multi-wired metal monsters) that march through our wetland area and across part of the front of the property.  I need to call the electric company ASAP because they come out in helicopters and drop defoliation chemicals to keep the area under the poles clear. Considering the spring activity in the wetland and the proximity of the creek to the front of the property I see this as B-A-D.  She told me her husband works for the electric company and if I call them and promise to keep the area under the wires mowed, they will come out and flag the boundaries of our place, keeping the helicopters away.

Aerial Map

I like Julie.  She gave me some good ideas and I expanded her knowledge of dairy goats, something she’s been wanting to learn about.  Several weeks after her visit, we received a nice report in the mail from her including a topographic map, a soils map and corresponding soil chart, and two aerial maps – one from two years ago and one from ten years ago.  There are also flyers about the different varieties of Bermuda grass, one on prescribed grazing, one on pest management using planted clover to choke out weeds since I expressed our desire to do as little with poisons as possible, two on pasture and hay land planting (guides for using the different Bermudas), and a flyer on purchase and installation of ram pumps (both hydro powered and solar powered) to move water into water tanks keeping livestock out of the creek.

Now, most all the farms around here that want high yields of fine quality hay will plant, fertilize, and cut Bermuda grass. The small niggling unease I feel about Bermuda grass is that it’s not native and horrendously invasive.

My next call will be to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. biologist.  Like my new friend Julie, the T.P.W.D. biologist will come out free of charge.  They have programs to restore NATIVE grasses as well as forbs for pasture and hay management that include the lending of special ‘no till’ planters to minimize erosion.  I’m thinking that since I’m mostly feeding goats (who are browsers, not grazers) that having a mixture of things, even in the hay, would be a good thing.  I believe that they will also be able to give me a better idea of ‘edge’ type native plants to keep erosion at bay on my creek banks, and hopefully some guidance for what to plant/nurture/harvest in our spring rich wetlands area.

As purty as a field of bright green Bermuda hay is waving in the breeze, I’ll be willing to bet that a meadow of wild grasses and flowers  would not only be purtier, but actually easier to maintain without a lot of human or chemical input.  There’s an appeal to restoring an area to natural health and I’m excited at the prospect of both helping wildlife and sustaining ourselves simultaneously.

Of course I don’t know for a fact it’ll work that way, but we’re fixin’ to find out.

Read Earth Stewardship 102

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