Tag Archives: Sustainable agriculture

Living your Values

A lifetime ago, when I was an undergraduate, I thought that I would be leading a very different type of life.  I graduated with a B.S. in Environmental Conservation, with a specialty in Environmental Affairs, and I was really interested in environmental education.  I wanted people to understand about the amazing beauty and balance in our natural world, hoping that such exposure would lead to an appreciation which would encourage conservation.   While in school, I studied abroad at the School for Field Studies in Nairobi (Kenya),  and interned at MASSPIRG in Boston (MA), the Seacoast Science Center in Rye (NH), and the New England Aquarium in Boston (MA). I stuffed envelopes, editing mailings, collected signatures and led tidepool tours, gave interpretive talks on Seacoast history and presented countless sessions on the mighty Homarus americanus (aka the American lobster).  But on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I served them on paper plates at the local seafood emporium in order to help pay for school.

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Your H. americanus “fun fact” is that the average 1 pound lobster is 6-7 years old.

Life is full of these little paradoxes and tradeoffs.  “How is the swordfish tonight?” my customers would ask.  “Oh, it’s endangered.  Perhaps a nice salad?” I would reply with a laugh, as though I were kidding.  My father still thinks that one of the funniest things I have ever said was that I served endangered species on paper plates to pay for my degree in conservation.

While I still love natural history, marine biology and believe in environmental conservation, my passion for horses and for riding has always been stronger.  Upon graduation, I worked briefly in an elementary school but shortly after found myself managing a small horse farm and teaching some lessons.  That led to other management positions and more teaching, and I never really looked back.

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A beautiful spring sunset.

It is easy to disconnect from reality when you hang in the equine world for too long.  Let’s face it—there are some facets of what we do which just smack of First World Privilege.  It is something which from time to time has really bothered me—especially when clients get all worked up because Blaze is in the wrong colored blanket/boot set, or when I hear the amount of money which someone has dropped on a new horse, saddle or trailer.  In the July/August 2017 issue of USDF Connection, Susan Reed of Albuquerque, NM, wrote in her letter to the editor, “…I cannot imagine life without my animals.  However, when I see the amount of money that is spent on horses, equipment, training, and so on, I wonder at the value systems of those who choose that lifestyle….I taught school for 25-plus years and was distressed to see that my horses had better foot care, food and medical care than many of the kids in my classes…Where is the balance between making the world a better place for all creatures and being passionate about an art form, which to me is dressage?  I haven’t found a good answer yet.” (Emphasis is mine).

I felt chills when I read Ms. Reed’s letter.  Her sentiments echo the little voice in my own head, the one which I ignored for many years but which has become louder and louder in recent months.  What have I done to make this world a better place?

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This Eastern phoebe has been nesting on my front porch this year.  She is on her second clutch of eggs.

When I moved to Cold Moon Farm two years ago, one of my goals was to make it a model of implementing sustainable practices in horse farm management.  At the same time, I run on a shoestring budget, so I know that any progress would be gradual.  What could be overwhelming can sometimes be easier to manage in smaller chunks.  In the long term, I hoped that I could learn some “best practices” and then use media to help spread the word to more equestrians.

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This gray tree frog was hanging out on the back pasture fence (no worries— this electrical wire isn’t “hot”!)

Progress has been slower than anticipated.

But slow progress is still progress, and this spring I took part in the New Hampshire Coverts Program, put on annually by UNH Cooperative Extension.  This three day workshop is geared towards land owners, managers and conservationists to train them to promote wildlife habitat conservation and forest stewardship.  I can’t believe how much information was packed into that workshop—I think most of us left feeling both overwhelmed and invigorated.

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Becoming a Coverts Cooperator is exciting to me for several reasons.  First, participating in the program allowed me to return to my “roots”, so to speak, and spend time with other conservation minded individuals.  Secondly, it showed me that becoming an effective land steward doesn’t happen overnight, and that there are many resources available for support and assistance.   Finally, I realized that it really is okay to try to manage this farm to meet my objectives; in other words, creating well placed riding trails, pastures and other horse areas is acceptable if that is what I want to do with my land.  I can emphasize improved habitat opportunities in other places on the property, and by managing the “horse parts” of the farm well, I can reduce the negative impact they might otherwise have on local ecosystems.

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White-throated sparrows are ground nesters, and so any brush hogging in shrub land areas should be done in August or later, so as to not disturb their young.

After attending the workshop, I contacted Strafford County Extension Forester Andy Fast and set up an appointment for him to visit the farm.  We walked all around the property but especially paid attention to the 26 acres which are in current use.  Two of these acres are classified as “farmland” (aka, field) and the rest are woodlot.  There are some basic trails out there but they need a brush hog and additional clearing to make them more usable for the horses.  Andy was excited by the amount of white oak on the lot, reminding me that it is a valuable food source for many species.  He recommended applying for funds through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to create a Forest Management Plan, which would allow for a possible small timber harvest.  Well planned timber harvests can have many benefits, including improving forest health, increasing diversity, improving wildlife habitat, and possibly yielding a little income which could then be used to improve the trails.

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Wild turkey hen and her eight “turklets” in the front pastures.  Eat more ticks, please!

I also participated in two further trainings.  First, I have become a “Speaking for Wildlife” volunteer, another program coordinated through UNH Cooperative Extension.  Groups such as senior centers, youth organizations, conservation commissions, libraries, etc., can sign up to have trained volunteers present a number of scripted slide shows on topics such as NH wild history, bat conservation, vernal pools and more.  Our commitment is to try to give just one presentation per year, which seems pretty reasonable!  I also attended a field workshop on managing shrub land and young forest lands for wildlife and bird species.  We visited two different sites, identifying nearly ten species of birds and actually mist netting two.

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This beautiful male Indigo Bunting now sports an ID band after flying into the mist net. 

For me, all of these actions have been tangible, rejuvenating steps which help to bring my life back into alignment with my core values.  I love horses—that will never change, and I continue to be passionate about riding, coaching and training others.  I will continue to take active steps towards achieving my personal goals with horses and for my business.  But at the same time, it is equally important to me that I am working to make this world a better place, and to not get so all consumed in the accuracy of a ten meter circle that I forget to appreciate all of the beauty and open space around me.

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We installed three homemade bluebird boxes this spring; one housed tree swallows, and a second seems to have Eastern blue birds in it now.

Stay tuned for further updates on future actions which will help me to “live my values”.

The Four Seasons of Cold Moon Farm

This past September marked my first full year here at the farm, and overall Mother Nature was kind to me in my rookie year (thank Gaia!).  Each season brings its unique positives and challenges to horse keeping. I have worked on farms for decades but it is certainly a different experience when you are the one making the decisions and doing most of the work.  Now that I have had a full year under my belt here, it is time to pause and reflect on what I have learned so far.

Winter is here in New England.  A few days ago, the farm was buried under 10” of heavy new snow, and now we have huge plow piles, tunnels to gates and waters and temporarily shorted out electrical fencing.  Last winter was relatively mild, which was much appreciated as my learning curve with the new property was fairly steep.  This winter already seems as though it will be more intense; we have had more snow, more ice and more crazy temperature swings before the end of December than I think we went through all season last year.horsesfed

Winter is certainly a challenging time for horse keeping.  All tasks are made harder due to the cold, the snow, the frozen patches…if you have dealt with it, you know.  If, after doing all the work to take care of your horses, you still have the energy to ride, it is still freezing most days, and I personally dislike having to wear layers and fat gloves and heavy boots.  But here is the thing–in New England, our ecosystems NEED winter.  The snow allows underground aquifers to recharge, deciduous trees, grasses and shrubs rest, and we all have a respite from most of the creepy crawlies that plague our horses the rest of the year.  Days are short, temps are low and the footing is questionable, which means that serious training can really only occur if your horse is stabled at an indoor.  One lesson I have learned from the distance riding community is that a little rest for your horse is almost never a bad thing.  No athlete can maintain peak performance year round.  Here in the snowy north, winter is the best time to allow your equine athlete the opportunity to rest and recharge.  After all, nature is doing it, right?

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Winter can also be a time of astounding beauty.  As much as I curse the mounds of snow after a storm, there is something utterly peaceful about being outside with the clean landscape, tree boughs heavy with accumulation, and horses happily rolling, leaping and playing, whiskers and eyelashes frosted. It doesn’t seem to bother them anywhere near as much as it bothers me!  With most riders spending less time in the saddle, winter is also a perfect time to thoughtfully make plans and set goals for the upcoming season.

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A February sunset (2016).

In spite of my efforts to maintain a positive outlook towards the season, winter nearly always outstays its welcome, as far as I am concerned.  I eagerly look forward to any early signs of spring, especially as the days lengthen and winter’s piles lose their resiliency to the strength of a sun which rises ever higher in the sky.  I love the smell of the damp earth as it emerges from beneath the snow’s protective blanket and the sun begins to awaken all of the sleeping entities lying beneath the topsoil.  Seeds sprout, the grass becomes brighter and tree leaves begin to unfurl with reckless abandon.

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Getting legged up April 2016.

Spring means that we can finally give the paddock a good cleaning, knock the cobwebs down from the corners of the barn, and begin to launder blankets and stow the shovels and scrapers.  We trade snow suits for being covered with the shedding hair of our equine friends.  Spring is the time to put all of the plans which we schemed during winter’s lull into action, the time to start to condition our mounts and prepare them for the upcoming active season.

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Marquesa and Lee enjoying spring grass in May 2016.

Songbirds return.  At Cold Moon Farm, there are multiple micro habitats and a lot of edge, and the color and activity of birds just returned from warmer southern climates brings a feeling of lightness and joy.  The grass begins to stabilize and the horses can begin the slow, gradual process of acclimatizing to grazing.

But spring is not all sunshine and buttercups.  Winter clean up can be onerous, from replacing torn sod to fixing broken fencing to removing downed tree limbs.  Dirt paddocks quickly turn into quagmires as snow melt runs off and April’s showers saturate (hopefully within the next few years we will have a proper, improved drainage in the sacrifice area).  Perhaps most annoyingly, fly season officially gets underway in April with the appearance of hordes of blackflies.  And worst of all, ticks are seemingly everywhere, emerging as early as possible. Yet just as you think you can’t take any more of the mud and the bugs and the need to clean up yet another area of the farm, the season changes again.

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The hazy days of early summer.  June 2016.

Summers in New England are short and intense.  There are really only maybe eight to ten weeks of true, full on summer, and we try to make the most of it.  I think I must be part cat, because I just revel in the sun and want to absorb as much of it as possible.  I love to get up early and feel the cool, fresh air in the morning, and I can’t wait to get out and about for the day.  My favorite thing is to ride first thing in the morning, before the humidity builds up, then sip on an iced coffee and teach for the afternoon.

This past summer was super sunny, which I loved for my own purposes, but in reality, it was not the best thing for the ecosystems of the northeast. Between the light snow season and the lack of rain, New England soon found itself in a drought.  I began to hear stories of wells running dry–I soon learned that these were mostly dug wells, which go down 9-12 feet, as opposed to a drilled well like mine, which is usually 200 feet or more and taps into an aquifer. But it was stressful to know that homes around mine were experiencing problems with their wells, so I worried about what I would do if water ran out at the farm.

The drought also meant that the grass went dormant far earlier than usual.  I had to pull the horses off their grass fields in August and switch to feeding hay, almost a month earlier than I had anticipated.  On the plus side, I barely had to mow the lawn and I got away with not having a brushhog yet for the fields out back.  But as the grass began to crisp and the streams and water crossings out back ran completely dry, it was clear that the unusual weather was taking its toll.  Late summer can be a good time to spread lime on your fields, but that requires a heavy rain to help flush it into the soil.  I got lucky in the timing of an application right before one of our only big storms in August. Just as I thought that the fields and the yards and the trees couldn’t possibly take another sun soaked day, deprived of water, the seasons changed again.

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Lime being spread August 2016.

Fall here is simply stunning.  There are many maples on the property, which flamboyantly flash red and orange as the overnight temps cool and days begin to more obviously shorten.  Beech trees and a few oaks mix in as well, offering a later surge of color.  Lower in height, shrubs like sumac and dogwood are also not to be missed.  The trails out back offer a range of color displays, in every direction.  The drier air feels like a relief and this year, the fall brought with it some blessed rain to help begin to reverse the effects of an overly dry summer.  Late summer flowers bloom amidst the falling leaves, lending a competitive sense to the changing seasons.

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The view from between Anna’s ears.  October 2016.
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These two things don’t seem to belong together (October 2016).

Fall on a horse farm means it is time to prepare for winter.  The first order of business was stocking the hay barn to the gills with as many bales as will fit (here, close to 300).  Later in the season, it was time to put away the fixtures from the grass fields, which are closed for winter, then to trim the shrubs around the barn, put away the jumps and rails, and set up the heaters for the outside water.  And of course, autumn is nicknamed “fall” because of the leaves.  I have been lucky so far to either use the mower to mulch them or to allow strong winds to blow them off into the tree line; I certainly don’t relish the idea of hand raking the entire yard!

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Yes, I mowed over these, or at least the ones that didn’t blow away.   October 2016.

As fall winds down, winter begins again.  And the cycle continues.

Each year, the seasons come, the seasons stay, the seasons change.  Each season brings its positives and its negatives, but without that yin/yang balance, it would not be as easy to appreciate the variety for what it is. New England is a dynamic place, and to successfully maintain a healthy place for ourselves and our horses, managers must consider the unique challenges faced during each change of the weather.

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Marquesa shows off her “frosticles”. Winter Solstice, 2016.

So as I trudge outside yet again in my full Yeti suit, I will try to take the good with the challenging, and when it starts to get to the point where I think “I just can’t stand this (insert problem word here; examples could include mud, ticks, snow, ice, wind, torrential rain) anymore” instead I will try to say, “this too shall pass”.

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“You are so lucky to work outside,” they said.

Happy New Year.

Book Review:  The Green Guide for Horse Owners and Riders

The Green Guide for Horse Owners and Riders  by Heather Cook

c 2009 Storey Publishing (North Adams), 231 pages

ISBN 978-1-60342-147-8

The Green Guide for Horse Owners and Riders is a super easy to read and well organized book which represents the most comprehensive summary of the concepts of “sustainable practice for horse care, stable management, land use and riding” in one place to have crossed my desk.   Depending on your previous level of knowledge on the subject of eco-friendly horse management practices, this book might alternately be too basic in some areas or too detailed in others.  In either case, though, you are likely to find references to supplemental sources which can direct you to more information.

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I have long maintained that the equine industry needs to get on board with more sustainable management strategies.  Too many farms are overstocked, with destroyed paddocks/turnouts, unsightly and unsanitary manure piles and out of date protocols.  This book helps take the reader through the steps necessary to establish a different paradigm, whether starting a farm from scratch or working with facilities and layouts already in place.  Cook does an excellent job of balancing general guidelines with more specific detail.  For example, each chapter concludes with guidance to be considered for various climate regions in the US and Canada.

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Manure compost bins do not have to be overly fancy.  Image from http://www.horsesense-nc.com.

 

Some of the strategies covered in this book include techniques for “harvesting” water from rainspouts for use as wash water or for irrigation (which, interestingly, is illegal in Colorado); several methods of composting manure; selection of sustainable and healthy building materials; reducing the use of fossil fuels, and reclamation of muddy paddocks.  In addition, there is an extensive resource list compiled in an appendix which is clearly divided into sections such as green energy, grant sources, recycling, trail riding resources, helpful government and non-government organizations, etc.

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Management strategies which reduce mud will prevent your paddocks from looking like this one.

This book really is a “must read” for anyone who is interested in being a good steward of their land, or in providing guidance to someone else who is in that role.  The onus is on all of us as concerned and conscientious citizens to do a better job of implementing management practices which consider the local and regional environment.  A healthy farm means healthy horses.

5/5 stars

Blogger’s Note:  Cover image is taken from Sustainablestables.com, another great resources for assistance and tips on better horse and farm management strategies.