Here a chick, there a chick

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Chickens, Compost, Home and Garden, Homesteading, Organic Gardening, Ron Ferrell, Urban Gardening | Posted on 20-08-2009


by Ron Ferrell

As a farm kid, I was always fascinated with birds. Wild birds as well as domesticated birds stirred my curiosities with their beauty and amazing range of feather colors. I had geese, ducks, a variety of chickens, pea foul and pigeons, but my favorites were the peacocks, followed by chickens. Geese, pigeons and ducks were so nasty, but chickens had a terrific pay off — eggs. Peacocks ate lots of bugs and they were just beautiful.


As a middle-aged urban homesteader I’ve eschewed raising chickens but my neighbor Matt’s garden convinced me to reconsider my self-imposed “no chicken” rule. I call birds in a pen “predator bait,” so as a work-around Matt loaned me one of his electric chicken fences, and after much additional prodding from Matt, I decided to get a small flock of chickens for eggs, composting organic matter and soil building. My new flock of 26 Welsummer chickens, a heritage breed, have been on my property for a week now and they are maturing so quickly.

When I first released them into the electrified poultry pen, they obviously had not been out of a brooder house environment as they were not used to grass and all that open space. They just stood in a tight flock for a couple of hours before they started to venture out away from the fence corner. The chicken feed and water helped lure them away. 

I have been dumping various veggie matter over the fence, some of which the chickens eat, but the bugs drawn to the veggie pile seem to attract their attention the most. Yesterday I dumped the spent grains I collect from COOP Ale Works in Oklahoma City into the pen, and slowly the chicks began picking through the grains. This morning however, they were very actively eating the spent grains. Chickens are the ultimate composting machine!

The spent grains are high in protein with small amounts of nucleic acid as well as many trace minerals. In addition to the spent grains, I will be feeding my flock lots of vegetable matter from my kitchen and local restaurant sources. Apart from the effort of getting the spent grains and the vegetable materials to my property, they are free food sources for my chickens.

If you have any interest in keeping a chicken or two, check out chicken tractors. YouTube has several examples of chicken tractors, along with construction techniques, use and feasibility of use for city dwellers.

One of the most wonderful aspects of my chickens is they are so darned cute, playful and endlessly curious. I’ve placed lawn chairs and a cocktail table beside the chicken pen and in the cool of the evening I just sit, meditate and watch my beautiful Welsummers as they grow from chicks into beautiful chickens.

Ode to Mrs. Hogg

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Family, Home and Garden, Ron Ferrell | Posted on 28-05-2009


Growing up in a small western Oklahoma town was a blessing for me in many ways.  Rural living, huge families, big gardens, riding horses was an every day event, and being witness to the rural family farm before corporate mono-cropping with chemicals became the normal way to farm, and the school system. 

My brothers and sisters, along with all the neighbor kids, rode the school bus about 10 miles to and from school daily and the road we traveled we called the ‘ridge road’ because it ran along the south rim of the vast and beautiful South Canadian river.  The big creeks that were the river’s tributaries ran through all the prairie and farm land where I grew up and created an endless playground which I explored on horseback every day of my childhood. 

We always had a few horses in the pasture, so I had my pick of which one I wanted to ride.  Television shows of the 1950’s were this wanna- be cowboy’s recipe for fun…a real western adventure right in my back yard.  Of course, I always wanted to be the Indian, so I fashioned bow and arrows out of tree limbs, and covered my front and back side with Mom’s tea towels, stuffed into my underwear. I was a fair skinned Indian, but what great fun I had exploring the rolling prairie, creeks and south Canadian river on horseback to my young heart’s desire. 

School was a world that I didn’t take so keenly to.  There were books, schedules, rules, social structure which was totally foreign to me, and the teachers that made it all work.  I liked most of my teachers, all these women who were married to local farmers, and probably provided the only stable income their family enjoyed.  The lunch room cooks were also farm women, and let me tell you, the food was made from scratch and wonderful!  Those ladies made hot rolls, cinnamon rolls, deserts and the like for all of us kids.  The food was so good that I worked in the lunch room doing dishes through the noon hour in order to get special favor from the cooks, and all the wonderful food I wanted. 

School was a mere extension of my family at home, and any adult at school or in the public at large had my parent’s permission to discipline us if we were out of line.  And they did.  My uncle put me off the school bus about half way home one day for being a nuisance and made me walk home.  I got an ass whippin’ from my Dad when I finally got home, and then had to walk to my Uncle’s house and apologize to him for being a jerk.  It worked!  I never pulled that again. 

One teacher in particular totally captured my exotic interests.  Mrs. Lorene Hogg.  Mrs. Hogg never had children, so she could afford to spend her frivolous money on such things as an aquarium for our class room and at home she had peacocks, exotic pheasants, fancy chickens, plants I’d never heard of nor seen and in a green house no less, with the open heart to share it all with us 6th graders.  She taught us to propagate angel wing begonias for our Mom’s, how to grow colorful salt crystal gardens, the importance of hand- made cards for holidays and the fun side of public education in addition to book learnin’. 

Her flower garden collection was big and impressive to me, as I’d only known about cotton, feed grains, hay and growing vegetables.  Her pea-foul freely roamed the property and I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.  HOW EXOTIC!  She had cannas, Iris of many colors, elephant ears and I don’t really remember what else, but it seemed like the botanical gardens of a foreign land to me.  She very patiently showed me around her farm answering all kinds of questions.  I would beg my Mom to take me there for a visit because her place was an exciting and foreign place for me to visit and imagine how all that stuff would look at our farm.  But, alas, it was not to be.  We were farmers, not flower gardeners. 

Never taking no for a final answer, I did amass $35.00 from somewhere and bought my very own pea-foul family.  There was the incredibly beautiful peacock, the peahen and 4 babies.  My dad was furious and screamed something about those “noisy bastards”, but soon came to love them as much as I did.  They would follow him around for feed and attention, and at one time he had several grown males beautifying our monochromatic farm. 

Mrs. Hogg and her husband have been gone for 20+ years, and with no children to continue her legacy, their farm has fallen into a sad, quiet decline.  Their home still stands, and to this day it has never been emptied of their possessions.  Peeking through the window it looks as if they went to town on Saturday and just never returned.  A life-time of effort by Mr. and Mrs. Hogg slowly dissolving into oblivion. 

Springtime, 2 years ago while visiting my sister who lives just up the road, the Iris were making their annual effort to grow and bloom.  I asked my sister what was to become of the place, and she said the nieces who’d inherited the place hired a cousin of ours to come ‘round a couple times a year and mow everything flat – denying those Iris the wonder of colorful spring blooms. 

This news was so sad to me that I took about a dozen grocery bags and a shovel to Mrs. Hogg’s now silent homestead and dug samples of Iris from all around her yard.  Were they allowed to bloom, I could have perhaps chosen many colors, but random is as random does.  I took what I thought might provide a big variety. 

Along the driveway at my new homestead, the only place soft enough to dig was the filled in trench that OG&E dug to put my electrical service underground.  Sorry, hard clay soil, but I planted my samples and top dressed them with compost, gave them a drink and hoped for the best.  Now in their second year, Mrs. Hogg’s Iris are again in their glory.  There are about five different colors that have been in bloom for the last two weeks and they have quadrupled in number.  The purples are beautiful, but one bunch of very tall, very yellow Iris surely were Mrs. Hogg’s pride and joy. These flowers make my heart happy and I know Mrs. Hogg would be giddy in the knowing that I still think about her influence on my life whenever I look down my driveway at her wonderful, almost forgotten Iris.  

Terra Preta

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Books, Compost, Ron Ferrell, Science, Soil Management | Posted on 02-03-2009


by Ron Ferrell

Just how clever were those South American Indians? They were one of the first races on the planet to include the number 0 in their mathematical and monetary system, but now their population cannot be found in any resemblance to what the anthropologists say once flourished. It was thought that they overused their food infrastructure, but most likely the few who were left after war and disease brought by the Spanish invaders decimated their numbers were absorbed into other tribes in the area.

After years of archaeological research an unlikely native asset revealed itself. The research revealed a vast area of black soil that the natives had apparently created and used to maintain enormous cultures with fruit and food–an oasis in the jungles. Research indicates the key ingredient that fueled this composting marvel was charcoal. It appears that making charcoal was an intentional industry to help create the black Terra Preta.

Dr. Michael P. Byron states, in his book The Path Through Infinity’s Rainbow:

Terra preta soil is formed by incorporating biochar–locally produced charcoal–into ordinary soil. This activates the soil and enables it to permanently hold far greater quantities of minerals and nutrients than would otherwise be possible. This then sets into motion a complex and still not fully understood chain of events that include microorganism growths throughout the soil, which results in the soil becoming terra preta soil within several years.

This remarkable soil is found in abundance in the black earth were pottery shards and remnants, mixed in with other organic matter to create possibly the richest mass of intentional earth on the planet. Even National Geographic reports that terra preta is not to be found anywhere else on earth. 

In the September 2008 issue of National Geographic, "Where Food Begins," maps and illustrations of terra preta vs. normal soil are depicted from the central region of South America. (Can't find a link for the graphics, but they are on page 9293 of the magazine.)

Another thing about these illustrations that struck me is higher on the same map. The "fertility" chart graphics indicate a strip through the central United States that is rated as ‘highly fertile.’ It appears to me that the highly fertile area includes Oklahoma. A large area of unusually deep top soil is just north of us, in Kansas. This is great news for anyone trying to raise a garden in this part of the country. This may explain why folks living in southeastern Oklahoma are able to raise such prolific crops.

The latest issue of Mother Earth News also has an article of the ‘ancient’ soil building technique. They renamed it ‘char,’ but it apparently works as nutrients bond to charcoal for nutritional longevity.

So throw a dart and live where you will, but the aforementioned map indicates to me, that if you are truly interested in food growing potential, the central United States is the place to be. Tornados for sure, but no pesky hurricanes, desert or higher than average drought predictions.

With all the solid information and resources for making your own wonderful compost, soil enrichment is preferable to soil building any day of the week. I’m blessed with sandy loamy soil, so weed control and soil amendment are my main goals in building my garden spot.

Go here to find a contemporary recipe for Terra Preta. Mix up a batch and invite me over.

Death of a Community

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Community, Family, Farming, Finances, Homesteading, Ron Ferrell | Posted on 16-01-2009


by Ron Ferrell

The topic we all are really uncomfortable talking about is our pending, inevitable demise. As a society, we don’t do a very good job of incorporating the dying process into the living process. Most everything we see and hear feeds our obsessions with staying youthful, (anti-aging, a face as free of wrinkles as a baby’s behind) all of which really translates to, "I DON’T WANT TO DIE!"

Well, die we will. It may be premature and sudden or ugly and prolonged, and there is no graceful way to face the ultimate challenge. Death. The challenge falls to the caregivers and the loved ones left behind to deal with the aftermath of a life gone before us. 

As I stood in a rolling prairie cemetery last Saturday at my mother’s funeral, it dawned on me how utterly amazing it was that the early settlers to this county ever survived their first winter in this bleak, desperate place.  It was grassland that needed to be destroyed in order for these wayward people to grow food for their survival and eventually thrive as a community called Rhea, Oklahoma.

I wanted to say to all of my nieces and nephews and everyone who came to pay tribute and lay to rest a woman they loved, that at the top of this hill stands a marble tombstone honoring another woman who came to this hillside in the late 1800’s desperate to claim something of her own in order for her family to survive. My Great Grandmother Martha Ferrell, along with her 3 sons, and not much else, parked a covered wagon in the middle of the section so that each wheel touched the corner of a 160 acre plot in order for the 4 of them to collectively stake their claim to a section of land…the very land where I was raised. 

These new settlers to Indian Territory lived in, or perhaps more accurately camped at, this spot for over 2 years before having the resources and the will to build a one room, half dugout with logs cut on the banks of the Canadian River a couple miles away, and then dragged to their property with teams of horses. Their water came from the spring fed creek, carried in buckets to their camp site. 

Looking north from the cemetery up a wide spring fed creek stands a small white farm house that my parents built for their new family. Standing beside that house is the house that my Grandfather and Grandmother built for their family before it. 

Silent beacons to every family connected to this same prairie landscape are the hundreds of tombstones telling small bits of family histories, all connected to one another in many ways. Family and community were synonymous terms for those early settlers. Every family’s survival depended on the commuity’s collective success, and second only to shelter, food was the key to staying alive. The ability to grow food and preserve food was probably the biggest challenge facing these early settlers. 

One of my parent’s biggest challenges in raising 8 kids on a red dirt hill was growing enough food to keep us alive for a year at a time. We used the same row-crop equipment to grow food that we used to grow cotton and feed grains. Other than salt, sugar and some other staples, we grew and preserved most everything we ate. 

A successful garden demanded full participation from every family member, and your neighbors. I remember my mother canning vegetable soup with one of our neighbor ladies. We had home grown vegetables for every meal in those days, eggs and meat that we raised on my great grandmother's homestead farm. 

Our Mother, like most Mothers in our community, cooked 3 full meals, everyday. It was just what they had to do to survive, and they did it with skill.

So in this uncertain time, wondering what we'll do if times get tough, we need to pause for a moment and reflect on what those who have gone before did to survive. They sustained each other as a community, and now we are burying that community, one wonderful soul at a time.  

Sustainability is a word invented to describe our worst fear: that we cannot sustain our current trajectory without some major hardships, if at all.  Those early settlers faced the same fear daily. But they did survive, with grit, determination, and lots of hard work. Are we up for the task?

Microbial Life in the Garden

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Compost, Farming, Home and Garden, Homesteading, Organic Gardening, Ron Ferrell, Science, Tips | Posted on 21-11-2008


by Ron Ferrell

I’m always on the search for more information about how to grow food, and lately I’ve been exploring YouTube for related topics. Two processes that I’ve discovered on YouTube involve the introduction of effective microbes into the composting and gardening process. I’ve felt for a while that something was missing in my compost and gardening process, and after some research I think EM (effective microbes) may be the key to a great garden. I would encourage you to do your own research, but since I talk to lots of people about gardening and effective microbes have never surfaced as a topic, this may be new to you as well.

BOKASHI:  Japanese for fermented organic matter. There are a few good videos on YouTube, and if you google this topic, there are many instructive articles. Basically the Japanese figured out how to kill the smell of your compost bucket with the introduction of effective microbes. It’s a simple recipe once you get the correct ingredients, and this greatly enhances your garden, via the compost pile.

I made my first batch of Bokashi last evening. It has to age for 2 weeks before use, but if what I’m reading holds true, then I plan to introduce it into my composting toilet to aid decomposition, reduce smell of any waste byproduct, and add healthy organisms into my garden. 

COMPOST TEA:  This almost speaks for itself, but the YouTube videos also include the effective microbes and Arctic or Alaskan humus to introduce a wide array of microbial life into your garden as a foliar spray and or fertilizer. There are kits you can buy to do the aeration of water and use their brand of effective microbes, but you can easily shop for the components elsewhere. 

The YouTube videos show incredible vegetable gardens, almost too good to be true, but once again, I researched as best I could on Google to find related or corresponding articles.  Very exciting. I want to hear about your discoveries.

In regard to harmful additives, I’m concerned, because I haul in tons of horse manure (stall mix as I call it), about the horse wormer and its effect on earthworms and red wiggler worms. I don’t have an answer, yet, but considering I’ve hauled in many truck loads of stall mix over the past year, it’s not as if I can back up now. So I’ve been studying the information found on Google in regard to this. There are several reports and studies, and I will let you come to your own decision as to its use. I think all is not lost for me, as the reports for its continued use are cautiously optimistic.  

The wormer topic also holds true for sheep, cattle, and most all livestock, so inform yourself and beware of what you’re putting into your compost pile. I started hauling in all this free manure, and didn’t do my research on the front end. I’m hopeful it’s not too late. Since I have plans to introduce microbes into my garden/composting process, I’m hopeful that these effective microbes will also help to rehabilitate any horse wormer induced destruction. I now plan to inoculate every truck load of manure with approximately 5 gallons of EM compost tea, hot compost for at least a year before introducing into the garden, aerate the pile well, expose the pile to as much sunshine as possible and pray for healthy worms.

The Other Solar Panel

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Books, Energy, Locavore, Organic Gardening, Ron Ferrell, Tips | Posted on 06-10-2008


by Ron Ferrell

Now that creating and harvesting sustainable energy is on many people’s minds, it seems to me that we need to rethink what solar energy is, can be, and how simply the average person can create and harvest it. The most obvious method of harvesting solar energy is the solar panel, a photovoltaic panel that converts the sun’s energy to the electricity needed to power our homes and hopefully someday our vehicles.

Most homeowners can’t afford to retrofit their home with solar panels or wind turbines in an effort to go green and generate the power to save money and the environment, so is that the end of the conversation for the vast majority of people on the planet? Perhaps, but our ultimate goal is still to find an affordable way to convert the sun’s energy into energy we can use at home. 

The electricity produced with solar and wind energy is great but expensive, and someone else far away owns it. The grid delivers energy produced by wind, coal, natural gas and fossil fuel, but we’re all on one giant extension cord and to me that spells potential disaster.

If we look at the amount of money the average person spends on fuel for the home plus the amount of money spent on food, it soon adds up to an almost insurmountable deficit for the budgets of many families. Both are expensive, but can we actually do anything to reduce these costs at home? Both the cost of food and fuel are rapidly on the rise and the common denominator for both is fuel…fossil fuel.

So what if we could figure out a way to drastically reduce the amount of money the average homeowner is spending for utility bills and food costs? We have already ruled out solar panels and wind turbines for the average homeowner’s budget. They can replace light bulbs in the home, weatherproof, insulate, and perform typical ‘green’ measures to save energy and money, but they most likely are not able to generate any of their own power without a large investment in solar or wind.

However, there is a cheap, readily available, and totally renewable solar panel that has been around for millions of years. This solar panel won’t change your utility bill, but it will drop your food bill tremendously. That solar panel is the LEAF, an edible solar panel! 

While reading Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman, it dawned on me that leaves are quite simply solar panels converting sunlight into energy. FOOD ENERGY!  Food IS energy, and that is why calories are measured in BTU’s. 

Mr. Coleman refers to seeds as ‘stored energy,’ energy that can be saved, eaten or used for commerce. This energy in the form of seeds and leaves is essential for animal and human life and can be produced quite cheaply, precisely where we live, alleviating some of the burden from high food and gas prices by erasing trips to the grocery store.

So rather than stress out over what we should be doing to lessen the demand on world energy sources and find that we can’t do much without spending great sums of money, I encourage everyone to invest a tiny amount of money in packets of seeds and plant a garden. Plant a vegetable! Grow some food, reduce your food bill and your stress level over not being ‘green’ enough. Grow your own edible solar panels!

Battling Weeds and Drought with Cardboard and Compost

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Compost, Farming, Organic Gardening, Ron Ferrell | Posted on 22-08-2008


by Ron Ferrell
Since this is my first blog effort, it seems obvious that I should start with a most wonderful feature of this late August gardening season……RAIN, and plenty of rain to do a gardener proud.  I know how tough it is to keep a garden wet in the summer, especially in the ‘dry’ heat of July and August, but not this August.  Heck, I’m thinking about building a fire in my stove this evening it is so cool. 

For days and months without such prosperous skies, I’ve got phase two of my sustainable project near Jones, a layered garden. When I set out to build a sustainable structure two summers ago, I knew that I would have a small garden on my place to grow my two favorite summer foods, tomatoes and okra.  I didn’t have the energy at the time to dream that I would now be building a very large, compost based vegetable garden and have lots more than tomatoes and okra and much more captured soil. 

About the time I bought my acreage, I attended a permaculture garden class in which cardboard, compost and mulch were the 3 ingredients the teacher used to make an almost instant strawberry patch. I was amazed at how quickly she was able to build a garden, and it didn’t take long for me to decide that this would be the new gardening technique for my garden since it appeared to eliminate weeds and conserve moisture.  As any beginning gardener knows, the most daunting tasks on the path to fresh veggies are weed control and moisture upkeep. Those darn weeds love nutrients and water too!

When I bought my place in 2006, there was an incredible crop of weeds where the previous owner had built a fence around what was an intended garden.  I suppose the fence was to keep the weeds out, but the weeds had migrated in and they were equally tall inside and outside of the gated fence.  What a mess, and to top it off, there were jumbles of grape-less grape vines, poison ivy, poke and any other undesirable weed you can name all grown in and through that wonderful, two-layer fence.

In the middle of this weed garden there was a barrel with no bottom in the ground. I asked the guy what was the purpose of the barrel.  He proceeded to explain that his dad had a barrel in his tomato patch, and he would fill the barrel with manure and water through it for the tomatoes planted around. What a great idea, organic ‘tea’ supplied via sub irrigation. 

I decided that I would combine these two processes and plant some tomatoes that might produce while I was building my ecohut, as I didn’t have the time or energy to tend a garden. And grow they did! I had eight-foot-tall plants and plenty of tomatoes along with lots and lots of weeds in and out of the fenced in garden area but NOT where the cardboard and straw mulch were. Plus, it was apparent that the area was much, much easier to keep wet. I fertilized my tomatoes in the barrel with a dry, organic recipe I found in Mother Earth News, and that worked well. 

Two years ago at this time, I was still building my ecohut. Now that it’s done, I am in the third year of my tomato efforts and doing quite well.  I now have much more garden planted, but my main efforts are now doing what I call "capturing soil."  Capturing soil involves knocking the weeds down in another intended garden area with a lawn mower or whatever weapon you have, adding organic matter and worm food, covering the area or rows with cardboard, and then applying lots of straw or old hay and finally laying "stall mix" or other organic material on top of that.  I DO NOT ROTO-TILL AT ALL.   This is strictly layering organic matter on top of organic matter.  The size of my garden spots are determined by how much cardboard and organic matter I have on hand. 

Happy Gardening!