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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The land bank

We only know a few of our neighbors, after eighteen years; it's a very conservative community and we're a "non-traditional" couple. Yet the folks we've actually met, we like. Get-togethers are rare; if you aren't going to the local church (ours is in town) you aren't going to be invited to the parties. We have friends over regularly but they are mostly from the urban center, twenty minutes away via gasoline.

One way to get to know people is to join the Neighborhood Watch and attend meetings. We plan to do that but, uhhh, we've not yet discovered when and where those are. But it's a potential starting point. I have heard that our local one was started because many of the young people being raised around here have reached the age where it's cool to raid your buddies' parents' house for stuff. A phase; they'll grow out of it, we hope. Stony Run doesn't seem to be part of that loop at present, thank goodness.

Meanwhile, it's fun to speculate on what might happen around here if neighbors were suddenly forced to rely on those in their immediate surroundings for survival.

It's an exercise we can recommend. Do a walk tour or a bike tour (Cowboy did his on horseback, which he discovered opens up conversations) and see what's out there. Where's the water? The timber? Stone, gravel? Good soil? What kinds of buildings are there? Who's advertising their skills as home businesses? What's growing? What could be grown? How adaptable are the various properties? Here's a three-mile bike loop with a few notes on what's to be seen.

This place, on a street corner with a strategic Neighborhood Watch sign, is the edge of a built-up section. It was forty acres once, but was subdivided into five acre plots, still with one owner, though. The first time Risa saw it, it was all in wheat. For the last 35 years, it's had hay taken off it and one rental house, a double-wide, installed. It's much better land than Stony Run's and would easily support a wide variety of agricultural activities, and would be a good site for a farm stand as well. Except for the hay going away, it has essentially fallowed all this time. This is very typical for the area. The Mighty River flows by in the middle distance, at the foot of the mountains -- about a mile away. Some farmers have irrigation rights from there, but not all do. Much would depend on the availability of wells. Drought has been known to affect these.

Much of the open land one sees while pedaling through here is in pasture, and much of that is for horses. The grass is plentiful and nutritious but dries up in late summer and also becomes relatively non-nutritious in the ubiquitous winter rains; much hay and feed is bought in. The horses tend to be play-pretties. Some get ridden; most don't. None locally are doing any plowing or carting, though one supposes they could be re-trained in a pinch. Most transportation is by massive V-8s.

Exotics are popular; llamas, alpacas and emus abound. People buy them for a lot of money, feed them for a few years, then sell at a loss. Not sure what that's about. One farmer keeps a regular mid-sized flock of sheep with one llama for coyote protection and that does seem to work well.

A number of residents keep beef cattle, from a handful to fifty or so. Word is that there are some free-range pigs and goat-cheese operations around, but none show up in the bike tour. There are no CAFOs, apparently; which is a blessing. The mountain in the distance is all Federal lands -- about half Bureau of Land Management and half National Forest. Logging (by clearcut), though much reduced over the last couple of decades, is the principal economic activity in this rural area.

The light green stripe near the mountain is feed corn -- about 100 acres. This is bottom land, near the river. Corn, like other summer crops, is a bit of a risk, though, as the growing season in this valley is shorter so close to the mountain range. Not shown here are the many tractors and attachments left out in the long winter rains -- here, as elsewhere, Americans are notable for their unwillingness to maintain equipment they will wish they still had, someday. The whole mountain is a park, by the way -- frequented by hordes of hikers from the nearby urban center.


There are a number of nurseries; most of them seem to specialize in shrubs and small trees for landscaping, with some focus on things like blueberries and fruit trees. Orcharding was tried a couple of generations ago, and there was extensive dairying and truck farming as well. None of these pays at present. The vegetables and fruits all come from California and dairying is over-regulated and under-paid. The area is zoned agricultural and everyone is happy with that; but with so few actually farming, the impression one has is that folks are waiting out the strange economy, hoping to get back into farming "someday."

Horses are one of the few true industries; some owners breed, others board and train. There are quite a few stables and paddocks around.

New construction, though rare of late, is mostly of the McMansion style; the ideas seems to be to come up with a play room suitable for installing the largest possible screen for watching 24-hour agitprop and football channels. That said, the homes are better built than in many other areas and would, in a pinch, make good communes. In fact, with the ailing economy, a number of extended families have pulled together at "the old home place" in the manner noted by Sharon Astyk. The only difference is that most of these don't seem to have started gardens yet.

The biggest farmer in the area uses large (for here) acreages and gigantic machinery to turn over an important local cash crop annually: grass seed. The combines actually would be overkill for this size acreage, but they are hired and come into the area once a year, lumbering along the narrow roads. When this recently-sprouted field reaches a certain level of maturity, hundreds of sheep will be run on it over the winter to produce lambs, then the seed and straw will be taken off next summer. Yes, it's a very chemical-intensive rotation; we buy our lamb from an organic-farmer friend.

You may have noticed the high-tension wires in various shots; they are from a hydroelectric project nearby (where Risa does most of her paddling and trout-gathering). In TEOTWAWKI these would undoubtedly fall into disuse; meanwhile, we're pleased to know that locally most of the electricity doesn't come from coal.

Last stop, another of the grass seed fields. The little rise in the distance, by the power towers, is another farm, and this past year they had wheat there. Wheat has its own problems, but it's food, so it's kind of nice to see it making a comeback.

So, what did we learn? a) It's really beautiful around here. b) There's somewhat of a culture gap between Stony Run and its surroundings, but everyone is kindly towards those around them, skilled, and sensible. c) We're not ruining or developing the land as much as one might see elsewhere, and it should retain its tilth for some time to come. This is kind of surprising given the incentive to develop -- four acres, a double-wide house and horse barn are on offer around the corner for over $250,000. d) Potential for sustainable community subsistence is immense -- given the means to assure water supply to all these acreages in the long rainless summers -- but almost completely untapped and likely to remain so.

What this neighborhood really is, is a kind of privately held land bank.

While it's sad (and ultimately dangerous) that the county we live in gets 95% of its food from elsewhere, and there are one billion underfed people in the world, and economics leads this neighborhood into pretty much ignoring the short-term situation, the upside is that future generations may be glad all this soil around here remained intact.

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