Thursday, September 30, 2010

30 posts in 30 days!

I did it! I set a goal for September of 30 posts in 30 days. I didn't want to state the goal publicly for fear of falling short, but I did it.  It's 11:53pm and I made it! 

Let me turn this post over to Dr. David Bainbridge, genius and coiner of the term balanoculture for people who eat acorns.

1. Go here

2. Click where it says Also available as MS Word Document

3. Read the whole thing

4. Enjoy

Thanks for everyone for your emails and support. I have "met" some amazing people through this blog. It has literally changed my life. 

See you in October.

100 bushels from infertile sand?

A reading from the Book of Smith:

"The late Freeman Thorpe of Hubert, Minnesota, after some years of experimentation and actually measuring the acorns from test trees, was confident that the Minnesota black oak would average 100 bushels of acorns per year on sandy land of low fertility - land that would make not more than 30 bushels of corn. He also thought that he could harvest the nuts as cheaply as he could harvest corn. Perhaps Colonel Thorpe was overenthusiastic. He was a man with a flame in him (editor's note: I like Col. Thorpe already!), and he loved his trees. However, we can cut his production estimate in two and double the cost of harvesting and still have a sound business proposition and astonishing production for chance seedlings trees."

A few notes. Black oak, Quercus velutina, doesn't actually grow in Hubbard, MN.  Black oak is an alternative common name used for northern pin oak, Q. ellipsoidallis, which does indeed grow in Hubbard and does well on sandy soils.

My travels today took me fairly close to Hubbard.  I took a picture (which technical glitches are preventing me from posting tonight but which I'll post tomorrow) of a field of corn next to an oak woodlot.  The corn, the result of 8000 years of breeding, tons of synthetic fertilization and pesticide applications, barrels of fossil fuels and in that part of the world oftentimes center pivot irrigation, probably yields 150-170 bushels/acre.  The farmer would be going broke were it not for per bushel subsidy payments that bridge the gap between his production costs and the price he gets at the elevator (and which perversely encourage him to grow ever more corn further depressing the price).

Meanwhile acorns are raining down in the woods unharvested - and could provide income for the farmer and healthier food for people and livestock.

Plant that same field with oaks that have been selected and bred and you could easily get 150 bushels per acre.  And with about a jillion lakes within casting distance of the farm I think the farmer could figure out more enjoyable, less stressful was of filling his summer days while his oaks grow like mad instead of cultivating corn and beans all day.

Why? Eating Cheap Fossil Fuels

From time to time I wrestle with the "twin why's" of tree crops:  Why did humankind stop eating the fruits of trees (mostly acorns) that fell all around us in favor of labor intensive annual grain crops? And: Why did the world for the most part ignore the brilliant J.  Russell Smith when he eloquently exhorted us to return to Eden, to a permanent agriculture based on woody perennials?

Tonight I have been thinking about the latter, thanks to Michael Pollan.  Smith wrote the first edition of Tree Crops, a Permanent Agriculture in 1929.  It's not too hard to see why his ideas never gained a wide following.  The Depression struck with a vengeance, and for a decade people were focused on more immediate issues than re-making our system of agriculture (even though the rural farm economy had been depressed decades before what we know as the Great Depression, and it resisted every government plan to bolster it).  The Depression was followed immediately (and was only solved as a direct result of) WWII; again, not the time to introduce sweeping changes in our system of food production. 

After the war nobody wanted to talk about going back in time to a lower input for of agriculture; new chemicals and technologies developed as part of the war effort seemed to hold the promise of virtually limitless yields.

Michael Pollan fleshes this idea out beautifully in The Omnivore's Dilemma, telling the fascinating - yet highly disturbing on multiple levels - story of Fritz Haber.  Haber, born a Jew but later a convert to Christianity, was intrumental in the German WWI war effort, developing a series of chemical weapons including Zyklon B which was later put to use by Hitler in concentration camps (although Haber himself was long dead by that time).  But Haber also did something else: He figured out how to how to split nitrogen atoms from one another and join them with hydrogen atoms in order to make the nitrogen available to plants; he figured out how to "fix" nitrogen. 

It's one of the most important inventions in human history.  Previously the amount of nitrogen available to living things on Earth was limited, and therefore so was the amount of crop production - and by extension the number of humans the Earth could support.  Synthetic fertilizers have saved untold millions of people from starvation, and have made possible the birth and support of billions more.

But. Fixed nitrogen isn't free. It comes at the cost of massive amount of fossil fuels from which the hydrogen is sourced.

But. Corn yields exploded in the 1950's.  The result: Corn prices go down and farmers go broke even as they become more productive.  We then subsidize farmers to grow corn, which further depresses prices, so farmers need to grow more corn in order to make the same amount of money, which further depresses prices.  We then feed that excess corn to animals that should never be fed corn, we then process corn and reassemble in "foods" with sweetness and fat levels much higher than any whole foods our bodies evolved to eat so food companies use our evolutionary preferences for sweetness and fast to cram more calories down our throats (and store them around our guts), and, most ludicrously of all, we distill corn to replace the fossil fuels that were required to grow the stuff in the first place.

Says Pollan:

"The great turning point in the modern history of corn, which in turn marks a key turning point in the industrialization of our food (editor: and which, I might interject, relegated the brilliance of Smith to the dust bin of history - but only temporarily), can be dated with some precision to the day in 1947 when the huge munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, switched over to making chemical fertilizer... The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on poison gases developed for the war) is the product of the government's effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes."

It's not hard to see what happened.  What would politicians rather hear and promote?  A school of thought that says our grain-based system of agriculture is suicidal and needs to be replaced by a system based on woody perennials, or the idea of creating jobs! converting war time technologies! to peaceful! purposes with the promise of exponentially increase yields! which in turn means cheap food! 

We now know where that promise has gotten us: Polluted, bankrupt and fat.  Other than that it's worked out pretty well.

Hopefully we'll look back on the 2nd half of the 20th Century and the first decade or two of the 21st and say: Haber's invention bought us some time to feed people who would otherwise have starved. We used that time wisely to developed better, more production and more sustainable methods of growing our feed.  We used that time to rediscover the Eden of tree crops.

So that Smith's brilliance wasn't ignored, just deferred.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mission Accomplished, Prairie Now a Savannah

Well I've done my part!  The very cool Mast Tree Network has challenged us sign a pledge promising to plant an oak tree yet this year.  They have asked for 20 pledgers.  We're up to 5 and gaining momentum.

I just got back from planting 3 bur oak seedlings in a natural area owned by my kids' elementary school and managed by an amazingly dedicated group of volunteers.  Part of the natural area is a gorgeous tallgrass prairie:

Somewhere amidst that sea of grass there are now three tiny bur oaks, which Aldo Leopold called the stormtroopers of the prairie:
OK, that probably doesn't look like a stormtrooper to you, but I'm telling you this little dude is fierce.  Here's the back story on these three trees.  I gathered the acorns last fall from beneath three massive bur oaks on the gorgeous campus of Carleton College (yes, there is terrific fishing in those ponds, but please don't tell anyone).  Many of those acorns were eaten last winter (which explains the clarity of my thinking during that time frame and the quantum steps I made in my career!), most were planted this past spring, and some languished in the fridge well into the summer.  They didn't stay in the fridge for the sole purpose of annoying my wife, Alice, but that was the practical effect.  It's just: how can you throw acorns away?

Then to prove to a friend in the nursery business that I could plant acorns in pots ridiculously late and still grow bigger trees than he had starting from acorns early in the spring, I planted them on July 16.  I have shown you what the English oaks that I also planted on that date did; one of them, in a prototype tree tube, reached 15" after only emerging from the soil on August 1.  The bur oaks were slower to germinate, and didn't grow as much - in part because the acorns weren't the size of golf balls like the English oaks giving them a supercharged dose of early carbs, and in part because they were in a shadier spot than the English oaks.  Still, they did very well; the one in the prototype grow tube reached nearly 10 inches.

Most importantly, at least to me, is that my oaks planted late in the season ended up as big as my nursery manager friend's spring planted oaks.  Braggin' rights!  I was even more impressed with how much root development happened in the short period of time since July 16.

And no, I did not leave those little stormtroopers out there naked and along to fight their way through the prairie grass and the deer, who bed down just feet away from where I planted and who are now regular visitors on our old residential street several blocks away.  They are safe inside plastic tree tubes.  We watched Apollo 13 last weekend, and as I lowered the tree tube over the seedling I couldn't help thinking of it as an oak launcher.  I'm already counting down until spring when I can say:  Houston, we have lift off.

Choice acorns, hand selected from amazing parent trees, and planted within 2 miles of their source as part of a savannah restoration.  That's a rewarding afternoon's work.  Thank you Mast Tree Network for being my impetus!

Reader Brilliance - Rediscovering Diversity

Oak Watch readers (note the optimistic use of the plural!) are billiant.  Reader "Eric The Red" commented recently:

"Listening to NPR today and how so many farmers are losing money because of flooding and rain at the wrong time this year. Wrong time for annuals, that is. Thing is - all of those pictures show that the trees (in the background) are doing just fine! Which means that acorns (as well as chestnuts, walnuts, pecans, etc.) do just fine with the highly variable weather!"

Living in Northfield, MN I have seen the recent southeastern Minnesota flooding first hand.

Eric is absolutely right.  Tree crops are not entirely immune from the vagaries of weather; a late frost right when flowers are blooming could be devastating to the crop, and an extended and severe summer drought could of course wipe out a crop (of course it would do the same for cereal crops as well).  HOWEVER,

1. For native trees, grown in the climatic conditions for which they are best suited, a flower killing frost is extremely rare

2. Tree crops are much more resistant and resilient to extreme weather events - flooding (how many 100 year floods have we had this past decade??), hail, etc. than are annual crops

3. I don't think anyone is realistically talking about completely replacing grains with woody crops.  What we are talking about is diversity

We have essentially made farmers slaves to corn and soybeans, and in turn slaves to extreme weather events that can wipe out their crop over night.

Eric's thoughts dovetail perfectly with a section of The Omnivore's Dilemma that I read (re-read, for like the 20th time) last night.  Michael Pollan visited Greene County, IA farmer George Naylor who, reluctantly and grudgingly, does what Iowa farmers seemingly most do these days: Grows corns and soybeans from fence row to fence row. Pollan writes:

"When George Naylor's grandfather was farming, the typical Iowa farm was home to whole families of different plant and animal species, corn being only the fourth most common. Horses were the first, because every farm needed working animals (there were only 225 tractors in all of America in 1920), followed by cattle, chickens, and then corn.  After corn came hogs, apples, hay, oats, potatoes, and cherries; many Iowa farmers also grew wheat, plums, grapes, and pears. This diversity (emphasis mine) allowed the farm not only to substantially feed itself - and by that I don't mean feed only the farmers, but also the soil and the livestock (again bold text mine; keep in mind for future posts) - but to withstand a collapse in the market for any one of those crops. It also produced a completely different landscape than the Iowa of today."

A different Iowa (and Minnesota and Illinois and Kansas and...) landscape.  A landscape with trees producing food (although acorns were still falling on their heads while farms were going broke). A landscape with permanent pasture holding the soil.

And, I'm guessing - not coincidentally - a landscape with several fewer 100 year floods per decade.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but it really does go both ways: A Tree Crop landscape is probably - strike that, is certainly more resistant to extreme weather events, AND without question makes those same extreme events less common in the first place.

OK, so that didn't work...

(1. Click to enlarge.  2. Notice the highly manicured lawn!)

The first step in going from bags o' acorns and assorted debris to tasty meal is to separate the acorns from the debris.  One brilliant idea I had was to dump the acorns & stuff into a bin of water, thinking (more like hoping/wishing) that the acorns would sink and the debris (twigs, acorns caps, weevil larvae swimming for their lives, etc) would float.  Or vice versa. Or at least separate themselves with the use of various screening devices (my fingers, a rake, plastic fence mesh).

The result: Big pile of wet acorns and debris.  At least it's a little cleaner! It's now spread out and drying in the sun.  Wet grass is especially enjoyable to work with; clings to everything, particularly acorns.  I can see why indigenous people burned the area beneath their favorite oaks in preparation for the harvest season!

Not to worry, other methods have worked better.  In the next installment: Idiot discovers mass + gravity.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

From bag o' debris to dinner?

Thanks to my son and his buddy (thank you for not thinking - or at least not saying out loud - or at least having the courtesy to wait until I'm out of earshot - that your papa is a kook for wanting bags o' acorns!), I now have this:

Four grocery bags full of northern red oak acorns and assorted grass, twigs and, of course, weevil larvae.  So the trick is to get from that to this...

... as quickly and easily as possible.  Because I love acorns and believe they can, quite literally, save the world - but I hate, hate, hate food preparation in any form.  So if I can do it, anyone can!

So that means we have to lose the grass, twigs, acorn caps and at least some of the weevils (protein). Then we need to shell, leach the tannins, dry and grind.  All that is no problem.  It just takes a high threshold for boredom and a little ingenuity.  I have one out of the two.

It's the baking part the scares me.  More to the point it's the baking part that scares my family.

I'm experimenting with 2 methods for sorting acorns from other life forms this afternoon.  Stay tuned for updates...

Supercharged oaks!

(Click on image to enlarge)
I planted 3 English oak (Quercus robur) acorns VERY late - July 16.  The acorns had been in my fridge since last fall.  They germinated about August 1 - or at least that's when the sent their first shoots up out of the soil.  In other words, the growing season was for all intents and purposes over by the time these even saw the sun for the first time.

Considering that they only get about 1/3 of a day of full sun, and that with the exception of a couple of hot spells it's been pretty cool since they were planted, I'd say they all did very well.  From left to right:

> Control grown with no tree tube
> Seedling grown in a 4' tree tube of my own design - it's about 15 inches tall (sorry, it's not on the market... yet!)
> Seedling grown in a conventional 4' tree tube (treeshelter)

If these had had June & July to grow, full sun and a nursery manager who actually remembered to water them once in a while, just think what they could do!  I am fully convinced that we can grow oak trees from an acorn to at least 4' in height the first summer.

Why do I talk about fast growth so much?  Because if oaks are ever going to reclaim their rightful place in our yards and, more importantly, in our agricultural food chain, we need to get past the wholly false notion that oaks are incapable of fast growth.  Oaks are capable of astounding growth.

Some guys supercharge their cars to see how much performance they can get out of them.  I like to supercharge my oaks!  And frankly, we need high performance oaks a hell of a lot more than we need high performance cars.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Children of the (A)corn

I've been reviewing parts of The Omnivore's Dilemma by the brilliant Michael Pollan (who in a just world would have been made Secretary of Agriculture).

I remember watching a horror movie called Children of the Corn when I was younger.  Scared the bejeebers out of me.  Steven King generally does. But that's nowhere near as scary as this:  As a country we have become, literally, People of the Corn.

Corn, you see, is one of a handful of "C-4" plants which are able to recruit more carbon and lose less water with every instance of photosynthesis than standard C-3 plants.  (Yes, that sounds spiffy from a economic use of land / feed a hungry world point of view, but it also comes with its dark side - its Faustian bargain, as Pollan says - as we shall see in upcoming posts.)

While C-3 plants generally recruit carbon 12 isotopes, C-4 plants aren't as picky and recruit a much higher percentage of carbon 13 than do C-3 plants.

The level of C-12 and C-13 isotopes in our bodies can be measured.  Americans have surpassed Mexicans as the true "people of the corn" in that we now have higher levels of C-13 isotopes than Mexicans - a people for whom corn is much more of a staple food than it is here - do.  Pollan quotes Todd Dawson, a Berkely biologist who measures carbon isotopes as saying, "we North Americans look like corn chips with legs."  That explains my sudden urge to dive into a vat of salsa.

Why the difference?  Two things:  What we feed our livestock, and how much processed food we eat.  C-13 isotopes accumulate in the body not just from eating whole corn products, but from the myriad processed foods that rely heavily on corn, of course the corn sweeteners in our soft drinks and just about everything else, and from eating anything that is fed corn.

Says Pollan:  "Mexicans today consume a far more varied carbon diet: the animals they eat still eat grass (until recently, Mexicans regarded feeding corn to livestock as a sacriledge); much of their protein comes from legumes; and they still sweeten their beverages with cane sugar."  A LOT of sugar, but cane sugar.

You are what you eat, literally.  Well not quite literally, as we'll explore later; if corn was truly what it ate it would be a fossil fuel, and therefore so would we.

So it boils down to this:  Would you rather be Corn, a crop described by genius/hero/poet/scholar J. Russell Smith as "the killer of continents;" or Acorns, which sustained humanity for millenia, and which fall from plants which require little effort/energy/fuel/destruction to grow???

Herding Pigs

When searching on acorns and their uses I came across this story:  The Hog Drives of Frio Canyon Texas.  Imagine trying to herd a couple of thousand semi- (and many not-so-semi-) feral pigs!  The difficulties obvious pitfalls are still evident today in the large population of wild pigs in many parts of the south. 

While waiting for enough pigs to comprise a suitably profitable drive the pigs were placed in holding pens - actually pastures with " abundance of oaks that in the fall became laden with acorns. These acorns supplied the main food source necessary to keep the pigs fat and sassy."

Author Linda Kirkpatrick claims that the lucrative hog drives of the late 1800's came to an end when a weevil (a weevil species that is, not a single weevil) wiped out the acorn crop.  I'm a little dubious of the claim; I suspect that the reasons were a little more complex and that a year or two of a small or failed acorn crop were only part of it.  However, the story illustrates how heavily we used to rely upon acorns as a crop, and how in tune we used to be with the timing of the acorn drop and to annual variations in productivity. 

These days acorns come raining down, and our cars crunch and grind them on the streets while we're on the way to the grocery store to pay ever-increasing prices for food that is increasingly corn-derived.

We have become, quite literally, Chicken Little.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Oak Gall du Jour

Thanks to David for the great photo! (click to enlarge)  Just one more species (in this case wasps) that rely on the life-giving power of oaks.  Now we humans just need to re-learn that and we'll be as intelligent as wasps.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Another use for oak

Cripes, more than 4.5" of rain since last night and it's still coming down in sheets.

Luckily, oak comes in handy for the construction of arks. You just have to know what a cubit is.

Giants Among Us

(Click to enlarge - the same tree, looking up)

Well, this behemoth was certainly standing here when the James & Younger gang attempted to knock off the bank here in my fair city. Northern red oak. I saw this monster when I took my son to this park on Tuesday, and had to go back on Wednesday measuring tape in hand.

149 inches circumference measured 4.5 feet from the ground. Not big enough to get on this list, but not bad for the prairie/tundra.
Sadly, I missed the acorn drop this year - although the squirrels and deer sure didn't. But this giant is now stored away in my mental database of seed sources for next year... so life is still good!

Fast Growing Oaks - Red oak street tree

(Click photos to enlarge)

You know how sometimes you look at a tree and, without knowing its history, you can just tell it has been growing really fast?

In part it's what your trained eyes are telling you: The terminal leader and other terminal shoots have shot out away from the crown before lateral growth can catch up.

In part it's just a feeling the tree gives off - almost as though it's just vibrating with growth energy.

As I said in my previous post, my schedule worked out the last few days so that I could take our baby son for a stroller walk over the lunch hour. We followed some streets that I don't usually drive, and went to a park we don't usually go to. I was highly encouraged by the number and variety of oaks that the city of Northfield (MN) has planted on the boulevards: swamp white, northern red, bur, and pin (Q. palustris - and many are doing well despite that fact that in many cases in Minnesota they become chlorotic for want of iron in our higher ph soils).

It was one particular northern red oak I saw that gave off this feeling - and, upon closer inspection of bud scars, the evidence - of incredibly fast growth. Notice I didn't say "unusually fast growth." That's because fast growth for oaks is not at all unusual - it's just the widely held and almost wholly incorrect perception. There are dozens of red oaks planted around town that give off the same feeling.

It's not hard to see what's fueling the fast growth; Good Lord, the thing has leaves the size of serving trays!
And it has a very large quantity of large acorns, at a relatively young age... many of which are now in my fridge, waiting for spring planting.

Life is good.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How To Do Lunch

Definition of a good lunch break:

Gather acorns from a fast growing red oak to plant next spring - check.

Measure, admire and photograph a massive red oak - check.

Stroller walk on a sunny day and a couple of trips down the playground slide with baby son - check.

Need to do that A LOT more often.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Happiness is...

... Acorn weevil grubs crawling across your desk... not because I'm an especially big fan of grubs in general or acorn grubs (and their negative effect on germination %) in particular, but because having acorn grubs crawling across your desk means... You have acorns on your desk! sent to you by good friends who believe in the power of acorns to change the world.

Happiness is also testing the rest of the acorns and finding that the % with weevils is very small, and germination should be excellent.

Drat, I should have taken a photo (a grub shot?) before, er, disposing of them. Sorry, I know you're disappointed. There will be more!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Super Charging Oaks?

My 9 year old son, whose fascination with cars and speed means he will not be allowed to get his driver's license until he is 32 years old, is currently reading a book about vintage drag racing cars. I have paged through the book a few times, and near as I can tell drag racing is primarily about:
1. Doing everything possible to stretch or bend the rules to gain a competitive advantage
2. Accusing everyone else doing the same thing of cheating
3. Splattering the car/oneself on guard rails and cement retaining walls and/or blowing oneself up (or, for those of you who object to dangling participles, blowing up oneself)

Why talk about drag racing on a blog devoted to growing, nurturning and eating the fruits of oaks? One word: Performance.

When leafing (get it?) through the drag racing book it struck me how dedicated - more like obsessed - these early drag racers were (and I presume current drag racers are) with squeezing every last drop of performance out of their cars. The gains in performance in a relatively short period of time were staggering.

"Big Daddy" Don Garlits, over the span of a 30+ year career, was the first man to break both 170mph and 270mph for the quarter mile, and reached 323mph by the end of his career. (He also tried, unsuccessfully except for part of his foot, to blow himself up in 1970, after which he decided that straddling a nitro burning bazillion horsepower engine probably wasn't the best idea and switched to a rear engine design.)

From 170mph to 323mph in a little over 30 years. That's utterly amazing. That shows what happens when passion and ingenuity combine.

What if we oak enthusiasts were just as obsessed with performance? What if we devoted similar energy and resources to improving the growth and health of our oaks? What if oaks were viewed by the general public as "high performance" or "top fuel" trees?

The implications are huge. In our cities people would plant more oaks instead of the short-lived, disease susceptible trees that are viewed (mostly falsely) as being faster growing. Our farmers would plant oaks for forage and food crops, knowing that they wouldn't have to wait decades before getting their first crop.

I'm the farthest thing in the world from a "motor head" or "grease monkey." I know how to check the oil and change a tire, and that's about it. My choice of cars shows I care little about high performance on the streets, much to my son's chagrin.

I am, however, an "acorn head" with a passion for oaks, for seeing them planted in our yards and parks to replace turf grass and less productive trees, for seeing them planted to feed and sustain wildlife, for seeing them planted on our farms instead of cereal grains... for traveling back in time to when we allowed oaks to sustain us and our animals.

Part of this will mean convincing people and drawing attention to the fact that oaks are, and with selective breeding and hybridization can become exponentially moreso, high performance trees.

Summer is drawing to a close in Minnesota, with all the sublety of a slammed door. I'll be talking soon about some of my experiments from this past growing season in increasing oak growth & performance, and highlighting the work of others.

I already have a ton of experiments and projects planned for next spring (my love of and tolerance for winter has decreased in direct relationship to my eagerness for spring to come early so I can get planting). Drag racing has its winter and summer national meets. Let's turn next summer into a race, to see how much performance we can get out of our newly planted oaks - how fast can we get them growing, how early can they begin producing acorns? But unlike drag racers, let's share notes and information, and let's not accuse each other of cheating!

To borrow another racing phrase: Gentlemen and women, start your acorns!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How different things would be...

This iconic image took on a whole new meaning for me last night. I learned that if Thomas Dewey had indeed defeated Harry Truman he planned to make J. Russell Smith his Secretary of Agriculture.

What a different world we'd be living in! Now it's possible that even a man of Smith's brilliance and unbridled energy wouldn't have been able to break the strangle hold of corn and soybeans on our land and wouldn't have been able to implement his vision for a permanent agriculture based on tree crops... but what I wouldn't give to turn back the clock, change the outcome of the election, and give him a chance to try!

If nothing else he would have funded the research and demonstration projects that would have gotten things started. He would have preached the gospel of tree crops, as only he could, to a wide audience. He would have had a seat at the table with the most powerful man in the world.

Sigh. What's that dopey old saying? If "if's" and "but's" were candy and nuts it would be Christmas every day? We can't go back and rewrite history.

But we can be the ones who make his vision come true.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Toby Alone anticipated

My wife Alice does an absolutely incredible job of researching and finding great books for our kids to read or listen to on tape. Our kids, in turn, do an incredible job of actually reading and listening to them. I stand in awe of all of them (as a kid the only things I read were biographies of basketball players and enough of the Cliff Notes to get me through tests), and wonder what I ever did to deserve them. As the movie Von Trapps sang sappily but beautifully, somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good.

My interest was piqued when Alice came home from the library today with a book whose jacket was covered with oak leaves. The book is called Toby Alone, written by Timothee de Fombelle. Here's the jacket cover synopsis:

Toby Lolness may be just one and a half millimeters tall, but he’s the most wanted person in his world — the world of the great oak Tree. Toby’s father has made a groundbreaking discovery: the Tree itself is alive, lowing with vital energy, and there may even be a world beyond it. Greedy developers itch to exploit this forbidden knowledge, risking permanent damage to their natural world. But Toby’s father has refused to reveal his findings, causing the family to be exiled to the lower branches. Only Toby has managed to escape — but for how long? And how can he bear to leave his parents to their terrible fate?

... well as long as it's not allegorical at all :)

How cool would it be for your whole "world" to be an individual oak tree? I can't wait to read it, but around here you have to get in line. Or wait for the Cliff Notes version to come out! Has anyone read it? I'll review it soon.

Pledge Update

Last month I wrote about a very cool site called the Mast Tree Network. Tons of great information.

I also wrote about their Pledge Drive, asking people to commit to planting an oak tree yet this year. If just the people with whom I exchange acorns would sign the pledge we'd up to the 20 the site authors are asking for!

Regular readers of this site can be counted on one hand (and mostly have the last name "Siems") but most plant dozens if not thousands of oaks per year... so let's everyone fill out the pledge!

(If you're keeping score you'll notice that I have committed but not yet planted. I have three bur oaks I started from acorns in pots this summer that I'll be planting at a natural area at my kids' elementary school - protected by tree tubes of course!)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Native Trees For Sale!

The world's smallest tree nursery, run by Mr. Sandy McCartney and yours truly, has the following trees to offer Minnesota tree planters:

Black cherry: 6
Chokecherry: 4
Black walnut: 9
Silver maple: 3
Gray dogwood: 1
Pagoda dogwood: 1
Bitternut hickory: 5

Perfect for buckthorn removal/renovation projects! Grown in 3 and 5 gallon pots. All grown from local sources.

Priced to move! If interested email me at

Blind to the potential bounty

J. Russell Smith, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, p 185 of the Island Press edition of the 1950 printing:

"Oak trees are not hard to graft. A farmer would soon have a valuable field if, in any one of five hundred counties in the eastern half of the United States, he would graft the young oaks and oak shoots on a tract of cut-over hardwood forest. He could do this by getting cions from the best trees in his own county. Now, however, having been to a school where he learned merely to repeat words out of a book, he is too blind to see such useful things near home, so he hunts a job in town. What proportion of the teachers of agriculture in American rural schools know how to graft a tree, or do teach it to their pupils? Why is it that young men and women are the chief export of rural America?"

The sheer breadth of issues the man could deal with in a few sentences is astounding!

Nowadays, of course, we don't even teach agriculture in rural schools. Certainly nothing about grafting trees, and without question nothing about the massive volume of high-value food which falls around us every autumn.

Geez, I was going to wrap up this post quickly when I saw this on the same page:

"If an acorn-meal industry were established and a person (man, woman, or child in early teens) could pick up five hundred pounds of acorns in a day, it seems a foregone conclusion that the Appalachians and Ozark Mountain regions of the United States could enter upon a new era of prosperity. Apparently present prices for cow feed would enable a good acorn crop to double the wages that thousands of American mountaineers now receive."

Remember, these words were first published in 1929, and were written before the stock market crash, and long before anyone had any inkling how deep or long the depression would become. However, I know from recently reading David M. Kennedy's Freedom From Fear that the farm economy had been depressed for decades leading up to the "Great Depression," and had thwarted every effort on the part of politicians to revive it. The problems then were much the same as they are now: Overproduction drives down bushel prices. The logical response by the individual farmer is to produce more but that, of course, only serves to further depress prices.

The difference between then and now is that today we pay farmers to crank out corn below cost, so that calories become cheaper and cheaper, but at a tremendous cost. In terms of soil degradation. In terms of our already tenuous connection with the land, and the shrinking percentage of people who make their living interacting with it, in terms of our health, in terms of the well-being of our rural communities.

Maybe someday it would be the same with acorns. Maybe someday some blogger will be griping about low acorn prices and how in response individual farmers are cranking out more acorns, further depressing acorn prices.

I hope so. Because if that happens the world will in the meantime have changed immeasurably for the better.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Acorns: The next peanut? Who will be our Carver?

Back to the Sacred Text. Have you ever tried to read Tree Crops, a Permanent Agriculture with a highlighter in hand? All you end up doing is highlighting entire pages and turning the entire book orange. Better to highlight only the passages that aren't sheer genius!

I have mentioned before how no matter what "novel" and "revolutionary" "thought" I might have about acorns as a food crop, a fresh reading of Tree Crops always proves that J. Russell Smith had that same thought 80 years ago (and in fact probably subconsciously put the idea in my head during a previous reading of the book), processed that thought to a much higher level of clarity, and expressed it more poetically than I ever could.

I was thinking recently about George Washington Carver, and how he created uses and a market for peanuts that could be grown on land depleted by cotton. I was thinking how the acorn could be "the next peanut," to be grown on land that should never have grown corn, soybeans or wheat. Which of course is the cue for a lengthy quotation from Tree Crops:

"The peanut is one of the most spectacular omens of others yet to come. It was unknown to Grandfather. Father cracked the shell and munched at the circus. Now, Milady often buys ready salted peanuts for card-table refreshment, puts up sandwiches of peanut butter (factory made) for Junior, while ten thousand drugstore counters have peanut candy bars and glass bowls of cracker and peanut sandwiches for us to eat as we run (in circles, mostly).

"Will the acorn be next, blended with some other cereals? The fact that the acorn carries its own butter is an attractive feature. Its amazing keeping qualities are also greatly in its favor. The acorn bread of the California Indians keeps indefinitely. This is a wonderful quality for factory foods that are to be distributed in packages.

"Then there is that six percent of tannin. How easy for the chemical engineer to get it out if he had fifty thousand tons of acorns a year to deal with! Tannin is worth money. We scour the ends of the world for it. It is quite possible that income from tannin perfectly extracted might put a premium price on bitter acorns."

Acorns carry their own butter - what a great way of expressing the fact that they are high in fat. Of course Smith was writing in the days before fat stupidly became a four letter word, and before we all got fat trying to avoid eating fat. When he said acorns carry their own butter he meant it as the compliment it should be.

As for bitter acorns possibly reaping a premium price, hold that thought for an upcoming post...

So who will be the George Washington Carver of the acorn? Please place your nominations & suggestions in the Comments section!

Chicken Little: Moron

Here's a tip: If the perfect food falls on your head, don't run around yelling that the sky is falling.

Eat it.

John Muir's "strength-giving" food

In a 1918 National Geographic article entitled, "The Acorn, A Possibly Neglected Source Of Food," author C. Hart Merriam writes:

"John Muir, during his arduous tramps in the mountains of California, often carried the hard, dry acorn bread of the Indians and deemed it the most compact and strength-giving food he had ever used."

I take slight issue with the headline of Hart's article. Acorns are "possibly" a neglected source of food? Acorns are extremely high in food value, can produce huge volumes of food with zero soil disturbance and minimal inputs of fossil fuels, literally drop to the ground every fall by the bazillions of tons, and have a genetic diversity and elasticity which would easily lend itself to breeding improvements that could increase yields exponentially. And yet we don't eat them, and eat annual grains instead.

I'd say that there's no "possibly" about acorns being neglected as a food source!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

J. Russell Smith: "Unsystematic"

In an obituary for and tribute to J. Russell Smith published in the March 1967 issue of The Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Otis P. Starkey says of Smith:

"His work habits were somewhat unsystematic and, disdainful of red tape and overlogical approaches, he turned out a huge volume of manuscript with the help of family and staff bound to him by mutual loyalty and affection rather than by executive direction."

I aspire to have 1/1,000th the impact he had, mostly by helping him, long after his death, achieve 1/1,000th of the impact he should have had while he was alive. By being a disciple.

I think it's safe to say that the description of "unsystematic," "disdainful of red tape," and "turned out a huge volume of manuscript" applies to me. I can only hope that I engender and am worthy of the same mutual loyalty and affection of the family and friends on whom I rely so heavily for support and help.

I love this, also from Starkey's obit: "His lively spirit was shown when he remarked in 1963 that he did not mind having to die but wished he could return to the New York Public Libary once a week after his death to find out how things were working out."

I think that if Smith is making those weekly visits he is probably disheartened by the small number of adherents to his plan of a Permanent Agriculture, preserving soil by producing food with woody perennials instead of annual grains. But hopefully his spirit is cheered by the dedication of those modern adherents (you and me), and by the fact that the time is right for his ideas to take hold on a large scale.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Unlimited Potential: If This Became Corn...

Note: "Unlimited Potential" posts will focus on the, well, unlimited potential of oaks as a food source for both humans and animals, if only they would receive 1/1,000,000 the breeding and improvement previously reserved only for soil-killing grain crops.
We often hear that the progenitors of corn were grasses that look nothing at all like the corn we know today. Sheesh, you can say that again. Above left: Teosinthe (Zea mays). Above right, just add butter.
The exact origin of corn has been subject to dipute. One theory held that corn was descended from a wild version that subsequently went extinct. Later it was thought that corn is descended from one or more species of teosinthe. More recent research claims that Tripsacom (gamma grass) had a role, and that it has been hybridized with teosinthe.

Corn is one of three cereal crops that account for 1/2 of all calories consumed by humans. Somehow we went from a virtually inedible grass (or grasses) to becoming completely reliant on a mutant (yet, again, tasty with butter) version that arguably* does more damage to our soils and consumes more fossil fuels per lb. produced than any other crop.

* I say arguably because I truly believe this but don't have the time or inclination to actually research it this morning ;-)

Now let's compare and contrast the grassy precursors of corn with this:

Nature's version of an MRE. Yes, I realize that an annual cereal crop like corn allows you to make new genetic crosses every year, and so that gains in yield, palatability, etc. can be gained much more quickly. But give me oak trees to start with and 7,000 years in which to improve them and I'll have them producing acorns the size of basketballs and doing everything but picking, hulling and grinding themselves by the time I'm done. And I wouldn't damage the soil or burn vast quantities of fuel in the process.
It will start with harvesting acorns grown by wild trees, and that will make a huge difference. But down the line we'll be planting oaks specifically to produce acorns. And they will need to bear acorns quickly and consistently. 1/100,000,000 of the effort given to improving corn will be more than enough for oaks to produce in a way that meets our needs.
Visionaries & geniuses like Smith, Cottam and Hess got us started. Modern-day geniuses and heroes like Ken Asmus and Guy Sternberg and others are keeping it going.
These posts will track the efforts of these and other heroes working to tap the unfathomable potential of the genus Quercus as a food source for the future.

Mesa Verde Gambel Oak

A friend came back from a family vacation to Mesa Verde with the perfect gift: A pair of Gambel oak acorns (click to enlarge). What cool friends I have!

Tiny little things. I already have them in pots to germinate (apparently they don't need - or want - a lengthy stratification period). The plan is to grow them indoors, and then plant them outside next spring. I'll keep you posted on how they do.

I have never grown Gambel oak before, although I have grown Burgambel hybrids from Oikos Tree Crops in Kalamazoo, MI. Planted as seedlings in fall, 2008 they seem to be doing extremely well in 3 different Minnesota locations. According to Oikos owner Ken Asmus these trees will begin producing acorns in 3 to 6 years from seedling. The ones I planted are the Ecos seedlings: "Developed by using hand pollination from the sweetest (bland) and most productive selections by Miguel Marquez. Ecos are seedlings grown from five different trees that began producing when only 4 ft. tall."

I see that Ken also has Western Burgambel oaks grown from crosses made by the late Dr. Walter Cottam (not "Eugene" Cottam as his name is given on the Oikos site). Now I know what to ask for for Christmas! (Since for my birthday I have already asked for membership in the International Oak Society.)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Mistaken Identity?

Probably a different J. Russell Smith... unless of course that is a date palm in front of the office, about which this J. Russell Smith says:

"The foliage of the date, being feathery at the top, permits sunlight to come through and fall upon an underorchard of olives, apricots, and figs, and beneath these, beans and other leguminous crops will grow - literally a three-story type of agriculture so rich in yield that only a portion of the date oases need to be worked diligently."

Date palms are the oak trees of the desert!

So much of what Smith wrote in Tree Crops and other works such as "Agriculture in the Garden of Eden" boils down to work: Somehow, somewhere along the line humankind chose to work harder for its food, and in the process do irreparable harm to our planet. Maybe we just got tired of having free time.

I wonder if there's any relation?

Corn, The Killer of Continents

Every now and then I like to go back to the Sacred Text. Every time I do I get depressed and inspired in equal measure. Depressed because it quickly becomes clear to me that any "revolutionary" ideas I might have about mankind's relationship with the land and his means of producing food - thoughts and concepts that in my muddled mind seem like trying to capture smoke in my hands when trying to express them in words - were so clearly and eloquently voiced in 1929 by J. Russell Smith, a man of astounding genius.

In other words this is a man who could read my mind 100 times more clearly than I can, 81 years ahead of time, and 44 years after he died. (Hmmm... Tree Crops was originally published in the year my father was born, and Smith passed away in the year I was born. If his spirit was somehow reincarnated in me it sadly lost about 100 points in I.Q. in the process!)

I get inspired simply to be part of the same civilization and culture that produced J. Russell Smith. I get inspired to play at least a tiny role in making his vision of a permanent agriculture - based on tree crops and not reliant upon annual trench warfare with the soil - come true.

I have a tendency to quote very liberally from Tree Crops, probably in a way that exceeds the bounds of "fair use." But I believe that this man is an American hero, and that his words need to get "out there" via every available channel.

I was thinking about corn (see next post) as compared to acorns as a human food. I randomly flipped to a page in Tree Crops and found this:

"We also have other factors of destruction, new to the white race and very potent. We have tilled crops - corns, cotton and tobacco. Europe did not have these crops. The European grains, wheat, barley, rye, and oats, cover all of the ground and hold the soil with their roots. When a man plows corn, cotton or tobacco, he is loosening the earth and destroying such hold as the plant roots may have won in it. Plowing corn is the most efficient known way for destroying the farm that is not made of level land. Corn, the killer of continents [emphasis mine], is one of the worst enemies of the human future."

1929. Will someone please explain to me why no one listened to this man? Will someone please explain to me why one of the true geniuses America ever produced is virtually unknown today?

Let's change that, shall we?