Saturday, August 21, 2010

Farm Bulletin: A Peaceable Kingdom

In the middle of the frenzy that is the summer harvest, this week contributor Anthony Boutard stops to remind us about the other creatures that call Ayers Creek Farm home, and to ponder his and Carol's role as caretakers of the land.

The waxing gibbous moon rises in the late afternoon and reaches its apogee during first half of the night. As the moon develops its belly, it provides more light for the coyotes as they move about the farm. They often chatter, a kind of "I'm here, where are you?" mixture of barks and yips. They also have their choral moment which starts out with calls and responses, followed by a rising crescendo of barks, verging on a howl. It ends abruptly. They call mostly at night. Interestingly, their conversations are never overtly aggressive; we never hear snarling or fighting among them.

Coyotes are furtive animals, though in the spring when food is short they are less reticent to show themselves. Often a coyote will shadow the tractor as we mow the berry rows, pouncing on the fleeing voles (left). At the southern end of the berries is a small canyon with a dense thicket of native roses along its eastern flank. In early April we spotted four very small coyote pups along the edge of the roses, which we mistook for rabbits at first sight. By May, they were bigger and given to playing outside of the briars, and the count rose to eight pups.  That is on the high side for a litter. During this time, the mother hunted all through the day.

Through the summer months, the coyote diet is almost entirely fruit. They eat a lot of cherries early in the summer, followed by prunes, blackberries and then grapes. This summer fructivory performs a valuable service for us by cleaning up the fallen fruit. The energetic demands are lower in the summer, so the coyotes' "Dick Gregory" diet makes sense. In addition, the dry summer soils make it hard to excavate rodent nests. Come the autumn rains, they will shift back to rodent hunting. Regardless of the season, birds are an insignificant part of a coyote's diet.    

As organic farmers, we judge the health of our land by the health of the predator populations. In addition to the eight coyote pups, our barn owls raised five owlets (right) and fields are thick with tree frogs. When we see good numbers of weasels, spiders, snakes, dragon flies and lacewings, we are comforted knowing there is a shadow productivity, a separate harvest, that works in concert with our efforts to grow nutritious food.

In the legal world of organic agriculture, it takes three years to earn certification. At the ecological level, it generally takes a farm many more years to recover from the chemical assault of modern agriculture. Recolonizing the land with a diverse guild of predators is a slow process, and we still see holes in the structure after 12 years of managing this patch above Ayers Creek. For example, we have only seen one western fence lizard here, and we should have a good mix of these reptiles. We suspect the absence of a corridor for recolonization leaves us bereft these animals. Someday we will wake up and see some lizards, and know the farm is a little bit more complete.

You can find the Boutards most Sundays from 10 am until 2 pm at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market. For a complete schedule of Willamette Valley farmers' markets, along with maps and links, click here.

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