I grew up north of Chicago in the suburbs, far from the daily struggles and concerns that are encountered daily on the farm. At home I had been in the fortunate and privileged position of not worrying much about how much it rained or how little it didn’t, or where water was flowing or where it wasn’t.
But these effects are devastatingly consequential on the farm. Waterlogged soil is devoid of too much oxygen, which causes the plant to die. Prolonged exposure to soggy soil can cause nasty infections and rot on the hoofs of most livestock. One of Nelson’s many tenants of is to be constantly observing what is happening around you with all your senses, and this is keenly important in order to keep the land running smoothly. For example after one particular rain heavy evening Nelson had noticed that the soil in one of the orchard had become too overly saturated, so we worked to dig drains that directed the excess water into swales on the lower parts of the soil. A small issue that could have caused much trouble later on was not only preemptively avoided, but that excess water via the swale would now be stored for future use. A liability was turned into an asset.
The drain we dug in the orchard
A few days later we also planted coprosma robusta into that same paddock as well as on a couple of other places on the property. Not only do these trees serve as windbreakers when they mature, but they act as another way of absorbing excess water in the soil.
This is important concerning a much bigger incident and the project I have spent the most time on with Nelson during my time on the farm. Last April, a massive slip occurred on the hillside in the back of the property due to runoff water from a neighbor. For Nelson, who had noticed the influx before the slip and was worried about this issue occurring, this was a good lesson on diligently reading the landscape and taking preventive action. (He spoke to the neighbours about it but they refused to do anything to prevent their water from running onto the farm illegally.)
But since it did occur we have been working to prevent it from ever happening again. This is where poles and holes come in — poplar poles to be exact. Like the coprasma robusta that we planted in the paddock, the trees help to absorb excess water. But more importantly, poplar trees have an extensive and deep root system that dig into the hillside and effectively hold it to help prevent future slips.
The slip as pictured here. You can see two poplar poles planted just off to the left.
Planting the trees themselves is where the challenge comes in. First comes scouting the location to plant the tress — another important instance of being able to read the landscape. Depressions and low spots on the hillside are the areas where water is going to flow and pool, and hence likely to cause erosion, so that’s where the trees should be planted.
Once the spot to plant the trees is scouted its times to plant the trees themselves. A spade is used to initially create the hole, with the excess soil being placed above the hole. (Later the soil is going to be placed back in. So it is easily scooped back into the hole through keeping it above the hole.) Next we used a hand auger to create a hole with the size and depth we wanted. We dug the hole 70 to 80 centimetres deep, which was about halfway between the bottom tip of the auger and the top of the handle.
Nelson digging the hole with auger and ramming the planted poplar pole into place
Once the hole is dug in the pole are placed into the corner of the hole. The poles are then rammed into place from the top. We then spooned back a third of the dirt into the hole and used a tamper to pack it down, rinse and repeat until the hole was filled back up. Finally a protective sleeve went around the poles to prevent the livestock from eating them. And there you have it! But the poles take another 7 years to mature and effectively work to hold the hillside. So while they are an effective preventive long term measure, the best defense in the interim is to continuing to use our eyes and ears to protect the environment from further damage.