Country Living Journal 2004

Surviving On The Frontier

{ This Journal Is Dedicated To My Mother, Bernice. }
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AUGUST has been an interesting and challenging month. A series of events have resulted in a cascade that has lead to the need to revise 3 garden protection systems: the deer fence, the raccoon fence, and the blue jay protection for the corn. After about 15 to 20 years of good results, this season we have found the need to update and improve all three systems at once. First we will take a look at the deer fence system.

Updated And Revised Deer Fence System

The deer fence system is based on a 5 to 6 strand electric fence slanted at a 45 degree angle away from the garden. The top of the fence is further away from the garden than the bottom [See Deer Fence System]. This system has worked very well for a number of years with little need for modification. Occasionally a fallen branch or low charge on the fence battery has lead to an intrusion of deer for a night or two with not too much damage. The deer usually stopped coming back when the fence was repaired or in some cases peanut butter was added to aluminum tabs on the fence to attract the deer to smell the peanut butter and get a shock. This summer the deer have been a very serious problem as they seem to have discovered a method of getting through the fence on a more consistent basis and doing a great deal of damage over a period of about a week to the soy beans, dry beans, and string bean crop. The fence was checked for shorts, the battery was fully charged and the peanut butter application did not stop the assault. To deal with this emergency we did a review of the whole deer fence system.

An electric fence system is a system that works on percentages. Unlike a woven wire fence that provides a complete physical barrier to animals, an electric fence sets up a minimum cost physical barrier and adds a strong element of a physiological barrier in the form of an electric shock. The advantage of the electric system over the pure physical barrier is cost. The cost of building a 10 foot high woven wire fence is prohibitive for most large gardens. The electric fence wire is relatively cheap and easy to install. The power for the electric fence charger is easy to supply with either a 110 volt charger or a 12 volt dc battery at the fence.

The basic strategy of an electric fence is that in most cases an animal will get a shock when it attempts to go through the fence. The important point here is "in most cases". An electric fence system actually works by shocking the animal often enough in its attempt to get through that the animal (in this case the deer) usually gives up and stays out of the garden. To work efficiently an electric fence delivers a charge about once a second or so. It would be unrealistic to try to maintain a constant charge especially on a battery operated system as this would require too much energy. So once every second or so the charger sends out a charge of electricity (about 10,000 volts at very low amperage) to give a shock to anything touching the fence at the time of the charge. Normally an animal will approach the fence, and in the process of checking out the fence by sniffing or moving near it or attempting to move through, it will be in contact with the fence when the charge is released by the charger. Normally. There have been reports of incidents where animals have figured out ways of outsmarting the fence. A friend of mine had a goat that appears to have figured out by trial and error that the click on the charger was when the shock came and according to my friend the goat actually would rush the fence between clicks and get out of his fenced in area and head straight for the gardens and have a feast. As it turns out, rushing the fence (even if you don't know anything about the clicks on the charger) does appear to be a pretty good strategy for getting through an electric fence, especially if you pull your exposed ears down as you run through. The reason this is a good strategy is because fur is not only a good insulater for cold but also a pretty good electrical insulator as well. Ears need to held down because they are not well insulated. The normal reaction of an animal that is not familiar with a fence is to explore the fence before entering or walk through slowly and as a result it will come in contact with the fence while the charge is on the fence and usually with an exposed ear, nose or belly. So after this initial response the animal will be even more nervous on the next attempt and eventually the animal will learn to avoid the fence after a few shocks. Occasionally an electric fence will short out when a line is down, when weeds grow up to short the fence (when the fence is not properly maintained), or when a branch will fall on a line and short it out. With a shorted out fence, an animal testing the fence may get a greatly reduced shock or no shock at all. This leads to repeated attempts to test the fence especially if the animal was rewarded with either an escape (if it is a domesticated animal) or with a free lunch in the case of a deer getting into your garden. Experiments have show that with intermittent rewards it is very difficult to stop an animal from occasional repeated attempts. Intermittent rewards is the same reason that some humans find it difficult to stop gambling .... "this time may be the big one" ... "hey, you never know". For this reason it is very important to keep your fence maintained to prevent these occasionally rewards. This is especially true when the garden season gets going and there is a really nice deer buffet for the lucky deer who happen to get in.

As far as we can tell from our study of our deer population, a number of factors have lead to our deer happening on a technique of getting through the fence. First they have had over 20 years of practice with a number of generations of deer. Deer do have a culture and they do learn from each other. The learn mostly by watching each other. For example, if a deer has just gotten a good shock it will get nervous around the fence and avoid approaching it. If the deer is a doe (most common offenders) it will most likely be in a family group. Our deer group consists of an older (very experienced doe) her 2 yearlings from last year and a fawn from this year. If one of the group has recently gotten a shock from the fence and acts nervous when approaching the fence the whole group may turn away. Generally this works to your advantage, as the odds are that at least one of the group has recently gotten a shock. However, we are discovering over time this could also work against you.

During the winter, once snow is on the ground it is very difficult to maintain an electric fence because it will short out in the snow. So most people turn their fence off in the fall. Occasionally there are still cover crops like clover in the garden that the deer will come in to get and even dig through the snow to get them. We used to tolerate this practice in the past but we will no longer allow this to take place after our new findings. From now all we will mow and till under ALL cover crops before turning off the electric fence for the winter. Here's why.

It appears that during the fall the deer happen to realize by an occasional attempt, that the fence is off. Once they get a delicious reward like a banquet of fresh clover, they decide to make this a daily visit. Each day they walk through the fence by walking between the wires. Over a period of 20 years or more of this, they occasionally get shocked by trying the fence too early in the fall or too late in the spring, so they tend to learn to hedge their bets by keeping their ears tucked down when they go through the fence and they move quickly, trying as much as possible to avoid contact with the wires. In general, from our study of their tracks as they go through the fence, it appears they tend to go through a section of the fence where they duck down just a little, pull their ears down and the fence rides along their back on top of the fur. If conditions are dry and the ground is dry then their feet also do not provide a very good ground. So the winter training of moving swiftly though the uncharged fence, combined with occasional shock has lead to a technique that goes something like this. Move swiftly between the wires just below back height (so you don't get a shock on your belly from a wire beneath) keep your ears back and hope for the best. After training all winter on this technique and developing favorite crossing points along the fence, it appears the odds have moved dramatically in favor of the deer. Let's say the charger puts out a charge every second or second and a half. A very skillful and swift rush of the fence cuts down on the chances that you will get a shock. In addition, ears down and the wire riding your back will cut way down on the risk that you will even feel a significant shock if the charge does hit. Now there is appears to be an even more interesting dimension to this. The cost to benefit ratio. Yes, deer and all animals are experts on cost to benefit ratios. They may not calculate them out but they certainly do get the concept. Here's how it could work. You are the deer. You get through the fence without a shock (your lucky day) you spend the entire night eating the best thing you have ever eaten (deer love Soybeans). There is nothing like 150 feet of the top third of soybeans (most delicate and least bending to get at) to give you a sense of deer satisfaction. This would be like you winning a free "all you can eat" meal of your favorite foods. On the way out you may or may not have to pay something. Maybe in this case it is a mild shock because your ears were down and the soil was dry. Hummm, not a bad deal. I think I will try this again. This leads to an interesting thing with animals. They are experts at acclimating. They adjust to almost anything. Deer will come right up to brush piles while you are using a loud chain saw right near by. If they gradually come to feel comfortable doing this over time. It is very likely that they can also adjust from very slight shocks to moderate shocks if the moderate shocks are only occasional. Especially, if they tend to forget the moderate shock over time and remember the delicious buffet. So, you get the idea. Over time the deer develop an acceptable level of cost to benefit for this situation. In our case, this ratio has changed recently in favor of the deer with their newly discovered: ears down zip through the fence technique.

With this new knowledge we have a new strategy to significantly shift the cost benefit ratio back in our favor. First, by plowing in all cover crops BEFORE the fence is turned off for the winter and cutting all terraces as low a possible to leave as little grass as possible for them in the winter (their traditional practice getting through the fence time). Next we have begun putting vertical wires in the fence to make the fence tighter by getting the vertical wires to hold the horizontal wires together and make them less likely to separate if the deer tries to pass through. The vertical wires are placed about 2 paces (2 long steps) apart. Next we plan to put an extra horizontal wire right were it is now most convenient for the deer to squeeze through the horizontal wires. This will make them either have to try to go over or under their preferred position. If they try to go over, they will have to try to make a small jump over the wire (and risk a shock on the belly) or go under the fence and this will put more pressure on the wire on their back and increase the chance of a shock. In addition, the risk of feeling that they will be caught in the fence will increase and they may have to back out in an aborted attempt to get through a tight place and this will dramatically increase the risk of a shock. In any case, we are now prepared to sacrifice more soybeans this season (we have lots of dry soybeans in storage in 50 gallon drums for emergency seasons like this one) to find exactly what it takes in terms of a fence to keep deer out and give them very little incentive to keep coming back to test the fence. In general, the design is to build a 2 tier system. A fence that has what ever horizontal and vertical wires are necessary to lessen the chances of the deer getting through even if the fence is off and an electric shock to add to the effect. This way if for some reason the fence is off, the deer will still have a difficult time with the fence. Here's a view of stage one of the updated and improved fence with vertical wire connectors at every 2 paces.

Defending Against Raccoons In Corn: Revised and Improved Fencing

At the about the same time we developed problems with the deer fence we had an incident with the raccoons that lead us to decide to improve our raccoon fence design. Our 3 strand raccoon fence [See Raccoon Fence Section] has worked well for a number of years but this year we ran into a problem. Just before the corn, cornmeal corn in our case: [See Corn Breeding Program], was getting to the milk stage (ready to eat as a sweet corn), we connected our coon fence. It seems that the deer in their travels through the garden at night may have knocked down a corn stalk on top of the raccoon fence and shorted out the whole raccoon fence for that night. Unfortunately, raccoons walked right into the garden and had a feast that night and apparently paid little in terms of a shock for their adventure. They returned and before they finally learned their lesson we lost over 75 ears of corn. This lead to a decision to add a 4th wire on top of the 3 of the raccoon fence that is high enough above the 3 live wires to keep any corn stalks from shorting out the 3 wires below. This 4 wire is not a live wire (it is actually grounded to serve as an extra ground), so it can hold up any corn stalks knocked down by either the deer, wind, or raccoon in a frenzied feeding and prevent the 3 live wires from shorting out. This should cut down on the raccoon damage. In addition, the 3 strand wire is more reliable than the standard 2 strands of wire (or in some cases, 1 strand of wire) usually recommended for raccoons because the 3 strands are more likely to make raccoon try to climb the fence to get in and they are then less likely than the 2 strand system to jump into the garden when they are shocked. So this new 4 strand system looks like it should provide much better protection for the corn crop from coons.

Defending Against Blue Jays In Corn

As we stated earlier, August was a month when a cascade of situations lead to a revision of all three of our systems for defending the gardens from animals. A cascade of events is like a set of dominos where one domino falls and knocks over another and that knocks over another. In this case the deer by knocking the corn stalk on the raccoon fence may have started off events that unleashed a number of cascades. The deer entered the garden at night a corn stalk was knocked on the fence and apparently the raccoons followed them and walked right in with the corn stalk shorting out the raccoon fence. Once the raccoons did their damage they left. But sometime around 4:30 or 5 am when the sky starts to lighten before sunrise the Blue Jays apparently discovered a very interesting situation. From their view on high they found a scramble of corn stalks and a lot of half eaten fully exposed corn ears, just waiting to be sampled. Now as you know corn comes fully enclosed in ears covered with thick husks. This is no accident. Through thousands of years of corn evolution under selection by people corn has come to have a fully enclosed ear (a rare event since none of its relatives, wheat, oats, rice, etc have this enclosed ear). It turns out that one of the main advantages of a fully enclosed ear is that it offers some protection from birds. But this protection can be over come by smart birds and it appears the first step is finding exposed ears. The raccoons left many ears fully exposed and the blue jays spent all early morning practicing how to eat the corn that was exposed and then learning to get at the corn kernels just under the husk by pecking through the husks. Needless to say they had a great time and were busily feeding when we arrived. Since blue jays are smart, like most animals who have survived for hundreds of thousands of years, they were now fully aware that there was a field of wrapped corn available to them from now on for easy pickings. The cascade had begun. Deer knocks over corn on coon fence, coons open corn, blue jays practice opening ears. The feast is on.

Now we were well aware of the propensity of blue jays and crows to "discover" corn and we had taken measures to prevent it in the past. This is a cultural thing with the jays and the crows, like the deer, the local band of birds need to discover this to take advantage of opening corn ear husks and once they start the other blue jays soon learn the trick. The jays in our area had learned this trick in the past, but they are not always fast to pick up on it each new season and they seem to need to be reminded. So we try to make sure they do not get the opportunity to be reminded. Our policy has been to up the cost to benefit ratio BEFORE the blue jays test the corn. We use bird scare tape [See Johnny's Seed Company For Order Information] to keep the blue jays at bay. The tape is unwound ABOVE the crop on high poles because blue jays and crow feel very uncomfortable going under the bright flashing tape as it spirals in the wind flashing red and silver. Song birds are unaffected by the tape as I have seen robins sitting on the poles. The tape is put out just before the crop is at the stage that birds like to try to eat it. It can be used for fruit trees too, but only works for some birds mostly the crow family of birds (crows and jays). It must be removed after the crop is harvested to avoid the birds getting acclimated to the tape. This is the same acclimation process that the deer when through with the fence off in the winter. Animals can get acclimated to almost anything over time (living in cities etc.) and they do have a culture to pass on this knowledge. So be very careful not to wear out your bird tape defense.

For the past number of years we have been using this bird tape defense with very good results. There is another problem we have had with blue jay and crows. Crows and jays, often dig up corn when it is first sprouting and can pull out all the seeds in a row. They learn that the green shoots that first come up have a nice tasty kernel of corn at the end of each stalk, if you pull it up. They can go right down a hundred foot row in a few hours, missing very few sprouts. So, for a number of years we have put the tape up early in the spring when we first planted corn to protect the sprouts and then took we would take it down and then put it up again when the ears were ready for the jays to be interested in later in the summer. Here's were another cascade comes in. Last year, we had a number of overload events in the spring that delayed us taking down the scare tape after the corn was up past the time the seed would be bothered by the jays. As a result we found ourselves in the season when the jays might be interested in testing the ears and we had to leave the tape up. As stated earlier, animals can get acclimated very rapidly to almost anything, and we found to our dismay that the jays gradually began to test the bird tape by sneaking around the edges of the field at first, slightly away from the tape and nothing terrible happened to them. In fact, they found the corn to be quite tasty and came back for more. Other jays could not help but notice that some jays were busy feeding with no apparent bad effects from the dreaded scare tape. More jays began to feed at the edges. First the brave daring ones, later even the timid ones. It was open season on the corn. By the time we figured out what happened the jays were fully convinced that the curse of the bird scare tape was OVER! Free corn for all! We did everything we could to scare them but true to form they acclimated rapidly. They learned to leave when we were there and come back later to see if we were gone. Getting up every day at 4:30 am was too much for us and we ended up loosing about 40% or more of the corn crop.

To deal with this problem this year we decided not to put up the scare tape in the spring but to give the blue jays a chance to forget about it. Remember the default was for the birds to be instinctively afraid of the tape and they need to learn to acclimate to it. Over time they tend to forget. Besides, birds have a short life and many did not return from the migration. To deal with the problem of digging up the corn sprouts in the spring we decided to use a different method. It had been a number of years since any jays in our flocks had actually eaten any corn seed because the scare tape kept them from trying. It was therefore very likely that there were no surviving birds that remembered the technique of pulling up the corn shoots to get the corn grain. We live in a very rural area where we were the only ones growing corn in the range of our blue jay flock. In addition, we had decided earlier that one of the main contributors to the initial habit of pulling up the corn happened when the jays found some spilled corn seed from our planting. They ate the seed, found it pleasant and looked for more. After rain and a few days any remaining spilled corn seed sprouted. The birds evidently found some sprouted seed and liked that just as well. They are the seeds and left the green sprout. All it took was one creative bird to see more sprouts and give a pull and up comes a kernel of corn. Before long all the jays were busy with the new technique. We decided to stop a rediscovery of this method by making sure ABSOLUTELY no kernels of corn were on the surface of the soil to offer an opportunity to rediscover this technique. We had no problems with jays pulling up corn this year even without using the scare tape.

As a result of not using the tape in the spring, the plan was to reintroduce the tape just before the jay corn season. Unfortunately, the coon incident ripping open the corn, set the ball rolling in the wrong direction early. After we discovered the corn ripped open by the coons and exposed to the jays, we immediately removed all traces of opened or even jay damaged corn and set the scare tape up all over the garden, directly over the crop. We added tents to the garden, set up a scare crow, tried to over whelm the jays in hopes of scaring them back to their instinctive fear of the scare tape. In addition, during our experience with raising free range chickens we noticed chickens had an uncanny ability to identify the shape of a hawk even at a great height and give an alarm call that caused all the chickens to hide in the bushs before the hawk came down. We looked this behavior up in books at the library and found that many birds had an instinctive reaction to the shape of a hawk held over their head. Even chicks without mothers hide from the hawk shape and had no reaction to the shape of a song bird. This lead to our latest plan. We made plastic profile of hawks. After looking up hawks we decided to choose a peregrine falcon shape (peregrines prey especially on birds) because it was very distinctive. We got an outline of this shape from a bird book and enlarged it at cut out the shape from large Tupperware type storage boxes. The result was a shape of a silhouette of about a foot and a half wing span. This shape will be hung between the poles holding up the bird scare tape to add to the effect in an effort to overwhelm the jays.

The reason the hawk (falcon) silhouette has a good chance of success is that flocks not only have a culture but they tend to work as a unit. Just like a few brave jays opened up the way for the other birds to overcome the bird scare tape last year, the timid ones can lead to an erosion of confidence. Jays like any animal have a range of individuals, some jays are more daring than others. The brave ones will try and test the edges of the bird scare tape and if they succeed other may follow. This is were the hawk silhouette comes in. In the wind the silhouettes will occasionally swing around and if a few jays are testing the garden one is very likely to suddenly see the silhouette of the dreaded hawk overhead. You have to remember that the hawk represents a very special threat because the natural path of escape for a bird is up to the sky. Imagine looking up (your escape path) and seeing your dreaded enemy. It would be very much like you going swimming and while you are under water and you were getting ready to come to the surface you looked up and saw a shark over head, between you and the surface! Pure terror!!!! It the same way with the jays, one of the birds testing the corn is very likely to be totally incapable of containing itself and freak out. Nothing works better in sending terror into the hearts of blue jays than another blue jay giving an alarm call in a state of complete panic. The entire crew will head for the hills and have no idea what the problem was. In this case the flock mentality works for us because the least brave birds will repeatedly send terror into the whole flock each time they are surprised by the hawk silhouettes. The other birds will continue to react to the alarm calls but may still have no idea what the problem is if they did not see the hawk silhouettes. In the end, hopefully, at some point the birds will avoid the area all together, as I would expect you would avoid swimming in the area where you found a shark swimming over your head. Its a gut reaction and the birds remember it. So, I guess this shows that a little knowledge of the critters that are waiting to enter you garden can go a long way towards keeping your garden safe and avoiding cascades in the future that could threaten your food supply.

Blue Jays view of hawk silhouette from ground level in corn garden. Posts hold up scare tape and hawk silhouettes high above the garden to make it a very threatening place for jays.

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The Cascade Effect In Systems And How To Deal With It:

The cascade is a very interesting event that occurs in systems. A cascade event can take place in a natural system when a disease strikes a predator and upsets the balance between the predator and its primary prey. A dramatic reduction in the number of predators eating rabbits, for example, could result in a rise in the rabbit population and cause a reduction in the plants that rabbits favor. In extreme cases it could lead to food shortages for the rabbits in the winter that could result in many rabbits having difficulty getting enough nutritious food which could lead to near starvation conditions for the rabbits. An over population of rabbits combined with marginal nutrition could lead to an epidemic of a rabbit disease that could spread rapidly with so many rabbits in close proximity to each other. This could trigger a die off in the rabbits that would result in other secondary predators of rabbits having to turn to other sources for food which could cause a whole new series of events.

Balance In Natural Systems

The key to understanding a cascade is that natural systems are in a dynamic balance with numerous opposing sub systems. The stability of a system comes from feedback loops where one system tends to increase at the expense of another but that increase introduces new costs to the system which tends to slow down the increases. For example, if the predator population in the rabbit example began to decrease then with fewer predators there would be relatively more rabbits available to the fewer remaining predators. In a normal situation, if no disease was present, then this would tend to help the predators eat more rabbits and be able to raise more of their own young and eventually lead to an increase in the number of predators. This could cut down on the relative number of available rabbits make it harder for the more numerous predators to get enough to eat which would lead to fewer predators and the system would tend to rebalance itself. The key to a stable system is a dynamic balance that is based on numerous interrelated feed back loops between sub systems that tend to oppose each other. This balance works well within a certain range and is how the natural systems on this planet have lasted as long as they have.

When the balance breaks down then we have the cascade effect. In a natural plant system, plant populations rise and fall influenced by things like weather, insect pests, plant diseases, animal predation and many subtle factors. There is no balance point that is set but rather there is a series of balances that are constantly changing and readjusting with in certain limits. When humans started agriculture we moved into this system and began to rebalance the natural systems in favor of the plants we preferred. We cleared land to open up a space for our plants. Weeded between the plants to limit competition and even began to do things like water the plants during dry period to rebalance changes in the weather to favor our plants. All of this rebalance involved work. We had to put energy into the system to change the balance in favor the plants we wanted to grow better. We often found it cost effective to discourage animals from entering our cultivated areas and in some cases found it necessary to kill insects that were eating our crops. So agriculture is shift in the natural balance where we can favor certain plants by putting work into readjusting the balance in favor of our favorite plants. Over the past 10,000 year of agriculture it has worked pretty well. The idea is to keep the cost to benefit ratio in our favor with the least cost for the most benefit. This is where the cascade effect comes in.

Weeding As An Example

In a modern homesteading farming situation, let's take the example of weeding. Weeding is definitely a cost effective way to increase yield. If you fail to do any weeding many of our domestic crops will not even produce a harvest if not given some help in keeping down the locally adapted weeds. The best weeds are usually plants that are well adapted to disturbed areas. These weed plants tend to make very rapid growth under rich soil conditions and will take over disturbed areas unless we take action against them. This is where weeding strategies come into play. A strategy is a long term plan that tries to maximize the benefit to us for the cost we must pay. When planning your garden, it is best to be proactive in your weeding strategy. If you wait till weeds are almost taking over your garden then you will have to pay a large cost in effort to pull up the large well established weeds and the weeds will have already had a negative impact on your crops plants. The key to weeding strategy is timing. Weed early on a regular schedule before the weeds become a problem and you will do the minimum work and have the most return. If you delay in your weeding for some reason then the possibility of a cascade event increases dramatically.

How A Cascade Event Can Develop

Let's look more closely how this happens. First, the best conditions for weeding are dry sunny conditions for at least 2 days. When you weed you are cutting off the weed plants (when they are still small) from their contact with the soil and water. Do this early in the morning when the weeds are small and you will find most uprooted plants will be crispy dry with a day of full sun. The second day of sun and dry conditions will do in any remaining weeds. If, on the other hand, you are busy doing something else and you miss your opportunities for a good first weeding then you may find that the weather changes and you run into a period of extended wet weather. Even if it wasn't raining all the time, it might rain each afternoon with a brief thunderstorm. At some point you will be forced to pick the least likely day for rain weed that morning and hope for the best. By now the weeds are considerable larger than they would have been had you been able to weed earlier. Larger weeds have larger reserves of water than smaller weeds, so when you cut the weeds off from the soil they can resist wilting and retain their water longer. Weeds like most living things will go to great lengths to stay alive. A large weed cut off from contact with the soil will try to grow roots back into the soil to get water. Even if you are lucky and it doesn't rain the afternoon of the day you weed, some of these weeds will make it to the evening and actually begin to reroot. If they have a little shade from surrounding crops the following day the weeds may actually begin to recover. If it rains the afternoon of the day you weed, then many of the weeds will have a direct water path to the soil before night fall and many of the weeds will reroot during the night. A week or so after this weeding many weeds may be in good enough shape to resume growth. In some cases, up to 80% of large weeds might be regrowing. In addition, if your initial weeding was cut short by a shower and a few more days of wet conditions then you may still have parts of your garden were not weeded yet in addition, the parts you weeded may be showing considerable regrowth. The cost in weeding has now gone up dramatically. You still need to weed part of your garden for the first weeding and in addition reweeding the parts that are growing back because they rerooted. In most cases, especially in a homesteading situation, you have a number of other jobs that may now be competing with your time to weed. So besides the weather you may have other limits as to when you can weed. This is how a cascade begins. First a small situation (missed opportunity for the first weeding) leads to a setback (wet condtions) that cost you extra work (weeding and the need to reweed because of regrowth) and then total amount of work you need to do to control the weeds increases dramatically (some parts of the garden with large weeds never weeded and other parts that need to be reweeded earlier than normal equals extra work). At this point, it is very important to realize you are in a cascade situation and accept the fact that you may have to take some losses or your costs will get out of control. You need to develop a strategy to deal with a cascade. Remember a cascade is only a symptom of an imbalance of the forces at work in your system and this imbalance can increase to the point that you can not supply the necessary inputs (costs) to keep it at your normal balance point.

Recognizing And Taking Control Of A Cascade In Progress

Once you realize you are in a cascade then you are now in a position to take some cost effective control of the situation. In the example above, you may decide that you can not afford the time to weed all the areas of your garden. You might want use what weeding time you do have to focus on the crops where weeding would have the most effect or give you the best benefit to cost to ratio. You might decide that some crops are too far gone to save and just plow them back in. You might decide that you have more than you need of some crops and plow parts of that crop back in. Plowing a crop back in with weeds that have not reached the seeding stage can add organic content to the soil and allow you to plant a cover crop for the rest of the season (once you are sure that the weeds are not growing back). You may have an early crop like peas that are overrun with weeds and you could decide not to weed the peas but to let them grow until the pea crop is fully harvested and you could then till in the whole crop along with the weeds. It is very important to remember that you can do a lot of trade offs with weeds in the early stages but you can not allow weeds to get to the stage where they will begin dropping seeds. Immature weeds can pose a problem for this year but mature weeds can cause a cascade that can continue for years to come. The old saying is: "One years weeds is 7 years seeds." If you fail to remove or till in weeds before they go to seed then you will have a number of years of bumper crops of weed seeds each season. Many weeds produce seeds with delayed germination to stagger the crop of weeds over a number of years to avoid a complete die off in one bad season. So weeds will come back for many years (depending on the weed variety) and this will be a real cost to you in the following year that could set the stage for another cascade. The key to dealing with a cascade is first to recognize you are on the verge of a cascade and then to setup a realistic strategy to deal with it that takes into account what costs you can afford. It is better to take a loss this year by plowing in a crop that you will not be able to weed rather than allowing it to seed in and set the stage for another cascade next year.

Using Your Knowledge Of Cascades To Your Advantage

The good news is that knowing how cascades develop allows you to not only lessen the likehood of a cascade occurring but it allows you to improve your benefit to cost ratio. Timing is the key to avoiding a cascade in weeding. At the first opportunity when you first see weeds starting plan around the weather to begin your first weeding when you have at least 2 sunny dry days in the forecast. Weed the entire garden. Once you get your first weeding in, you will want to time your next weeding to remove the next crop of weeds before the plants are getting so big that they interfere with your weeding tools (we recommend a LOW wheel cultivator as the best weeding tool for large gardens, high wheel cultivators are NOT recommended because they have a poor mechanical advantage and are difficult to use). You may need more than 2 general weedings in some situations. Be sure to plant your crops so that when the plants are fully grown they will fill in the rows between the plants with leaves. This creation of a canopy of leaves is a very important strategy in weeding because it allows you to create a shade zone under the plants. Your early weedings will keep the zone between the plants free of weeds and once a canopy develops then the shade from the plants will keep the weeds from forming. You will no longer have to weed after this point. Canopy plants like beans, soybeans, will need to be hilled in the first weeding not only to help keep the plants from falling over (especially dry beans) but to cover the weeds in between the plants in the row that are not cut off by the low wheel cultivator as it moves down the rows. This whole canopy strategy is actually like a cascade in reverse. You are using the shade from the plant to save you the work of weeding the canopy crops for the rest of the summer. So once you understand the concept of a cascade you can begin to use it to your advantage. The key is timing, you need to realize you are facing a cascade as soon as it begins and look realistically at what losses you may be willing to accept to avoid major problems in the future or, better yet, use your knowledge of cascades to work in your favor.

Setting Priorities

In the recent situation where we had an invasion of raccoons and blue jays in our corn at the same time that the deer found a way to get past our electric fence. We decided to focus on saving the corn because it was part of an important corn breeding program we were working on and give the deer problem a lower priority because they were eating mostly soybeans. We had a large reserve of soybeans stored in 50 gallon metal food drums that we could use for the winter but we could not easily replace our breeding stock of corn with out loosing a seasons work. In addition, we decided to use the soybean crop (which was already very seriously damaged in the first few days) as a bait to keep the deer coming into the garden to allow us to figure out how the deer were getting through our fence so that we could develop a better deer proof fence in the future. In this case we traded off some soybeans for the ability to develop a better deer proof fence to avoid this type of problem in the future. In the long run this was the best approach for us to maximize the long term benefits for the short term costs. Without a strategy we might have spread ourselves out too thin and not only lost the soybeans, but the season of breeding corn stock and still had the fence problem the following season.

Avoiding Cascades In Other Areas Of Your Life

They are many lessons to learn from cascades. Understanding how they work can lead to you developing a more stable system in all your support systems. It also allows you to see the current general economic conditions in the world today in a new light. It seems many of they systems that we have come to depend on, like the world oil supply, manufacturing jobs, retirement funds, the stock market, the banking systems, the multinational food systems are not building in safeguards against cascades. For example, in the 1970's a very serious leaf blight of corn caused enormous damage to our nations's corn crop. The problem was later traced to a gene used to elimate the need to detassle hybrid corn. It seems the gene that was breed into almost all of our hybrid corn also carried an increased susceptibility to this corn leaf blight. A crash breeding program replaced this gene in hybrid corn and averted a food system cascade and a serious threat to our food supply. The best way to avoid being impacted by system cascades beyond your control is to look for ways to begin to supply your most import needs directly. Growing more of your own food and cutting firewood when you have the opportunity will not only help you but also help to create a more stable world situation and lessen your demands on world systems that may be under stress in the future.

Dealing With Loss In Garden Systems:

An important point in dealing with a cascade is your willingness to accept the fact that you are facing a cascade and that you may need to accept some loss to deal with the situation. In dealing with systems, it is interesting to note that on many occassions accepting a small short term loss can lead to a larger long term gain.

A few years ago we had a very serious problem with rust in our corn crop. It was a very wet year and condition strongly favored rust. Many local sweet corn field were hard hit with the rust and our dry corn (for corn meal) was badly damaged. In fact, by the end of the season we suffered about a 70% loss in yield compared to normal [see: Corn Breeding Program]. From any point of view that was a serious loss. Upon close examination we found a number of corn plants that showed no signs of rust. Out of over 1,000 corn plants, 41 showed no signs of rust. These plants were showing a tolerance of the rust and they produced a normal corn crop under rust conditions. Over a number of years, by a carefully controlled use of those 41 plants we were able to breed more tolerance to rust in the open pollenated corn variety. The short term loss of 70% of the normal year crop during the rust year allowed us, over time, to an develop an increased tolerance to rust in our corn. This past summer was a record year for wetness and presented ideal conditions for corn rust to develop but less than 3% of the corn plants showed significant rust damage this year. If we had not experienced the rust loss a number of years ago and started breeding for rust tolerance we would be facing a very serious loss this year and in future years. So we have found what may at first appear as a "loss" may in the end open up possibilities for the future and in the long term actually lead to a net gain. So, try to avoid getting emotionally involved in your "losses" and focus on what opportunities they may open for the future. If you are more willing to accept a possible short term loss you may be able to recognize and deal with a cascade event before you face serious problems.

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This Journal Is Dedicated To My Mother


I was writing letters to my mother to keep her informed of life in the woods. It was her enthusiastic response to those letters that lead to the idea of sharing a journal with those who might be interested in the day to day life of living and working on the land.

Many times, especially when it was hard to find time during busy seasons, it was knowing that she was waiting for the next journal entry that helped keep this journal going.

Thanks, Mom For Your Support And Encouragement.

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