Travis Johnson

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since Feb 03, 2016
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9th generational farmer, our farm having officially started in 1746, but dates back to the Mayflower. We had the first sheep shearing shed in new England, and always had sheep to 1988. For 20 years we went without sheep until I took over the farm in 1992, reintroduced sheep in 2008, and in 2015 retired at age 42 and started full-time farming. We are still struggling at farming, and probably always will, but the goal is the same...another generation.
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Recent posts by Travis Johnson

I looked into something similar, but in the end I have had to table it as energy conservation ended up being more profitable then trying to build such a system that may/may not work.

I am not saying it will not work, in my case it was just a return on investment issue that I could not overcome with any definitive research. The cool factor is amazing, something not gotten by boring ole energy conservation, but maybe someday I can start the project.

I agree with you though, sometimes it is just best to start a project and build the darn thing and not gush on about it.
10 hours ago
You will be fine. We used to plant 400 acres of potatoes, putting them in the ground the first of May and harvesting the second week of October. We have also harvested corn as late as November.
10 hours ago
Cunninhams Law I think gets more accurate with the bigger the forum, but then again that plays into the Law of Big Numbers too! I belong to a site that will not be named, but typically has 5000 logged on at once; it also has the most insane answers to questions I have ever read.

Permies is pretty big, but people tend to offer sound advice.

This is not limited to the internet though. Ask a question about starting a project and for every positive response, 15 will be regarding why it can never be done. There is benefit to that process, taking each point, mulling it over, then working to see if it has merit, but the biggest thing is to start. There is a sort of momentum that builds from that; just starting, so often that is the best thing to do. Sure in the middle of the project there is disappointment when people see how much work has been put into the job already and they are only halfway done, but if they can keep moving beyond that inevitable doldrums, they will soon see the end and push to the end. That is where you save all your energy...finish strong!

So that is my project strategy, whether it is building a short swale, or land clearing forest into field:

Just start, even if it is a small, slow start
KNOW there will be a lull in the middle with no enthusiasm and be prepared to push through it
Finish strong

Typically the best answer is one that is in between the two extremes given in the replies.
Kind of #4, but I have broken bottles and then mixed it into concrete and then poured my concrete counter tops with it.

Not really a use per se, but polishing glass in built is easy with a cement mixer. You can polish it in various mediums like sand, gravel, softer beads, really whatever you are after for a final look. I use my cement mixer for just about everything else but mixing up concrete.
11 hours ago
Then I am not sure.

I have installed lots of septic systems, but here in Maine all use a series of pipes that distribute the black water over a big bed of drainage rock. How big the area is depends upon the size of the house, and what the ground has for surrounding soil. This is determined by a percolation fast the soil drains water.

If you have a broken pipe you have to dig up the area where the area is always wet and just fix the pipe. The pipes are not down very far because by design the black water leaches into the ground. That is why a person never wants to drive a piece of equipment bigger than a farm tractor over them as the weight could break the pipes close to the surface.

If you have a broken pipe, swales and berms will do nothing for pollution control because ALL the black water is being deposited in one spot and leaching into the soil. The system is designed to disperse it over a broad area.

For instance, my leach field is the smallest allowed at 20 x 20 feet, but it can be this "small" because I have gravel underneath naturally. In other words the soil rapidly and safely drains the black water. Now if I had clay, then my leach field would be 60 x 40 feet. Now keep in mind this is indeed just black water. This is a system of pipes that come from the back of the septic tank. The septic tank is like a filter and accumulates human manure scum. Every 5 years the tank has to be cleaned out by having someone come out and pump it clean. It costs me $150 to do this, BUT doing so prevents the sludge from going into my leach field and plugging it up. If that happens, the entire leach field has to be dug up. That is a $7000 bill here in Maine.
19 hours ago
Just do a simple test; on a warm sunny day grab a rock and turn it over. More than likely the top part of the rock is warm and dry, but underneath there is coolness and condensation from warm versus cold in the rock. That condensation is helping to not just warm your soil, but also lower the watering requirements too. Sure, a person needs enough soil between the rocks for the sown seed to take root, but rocks have a lot of benefit in the soil.

A lot of people remove all the rocks in their garden and wonder why they have to water more and use more fertilizer.

Here in New England we are known for our rock walls and rock picking, but when I see that going on in fields, I wonder why instead of building equipment that picks rocks from our fields mechanically, why we don't employ rock crushers that just make the rock smaller so that it benefits the fields instead?
I do not seem to understand...

MichaelJ Bailey wrote:So we have a septic field that never seems to get semi dry, even in the hottest driest summer.

It depends on what you mean by "to get semi-dry", because with a functioning septic system nothing should ever be wet. Now if you mean green, yes as there is ample liquid coming out of the system by its design, and the heat of composting will keep the ground from freezing in the winter, but the ground should always be firm. That is because the drainage rock used in the system allows for the water to perculate downward and dray off.

If it is indeed wet, you have one or two issues:

1. The amount of sweage has increased beyond what the septic leach field was designed for. That may mean the house was designed for a family of four, and 13 people live there, or second house was added to the system. This is probably not the case.

2. More than likely there is a broken pipe in the system and that needs to be fixed.


There are great permicultural ways to deal with this situation, but a person has to have a septic system of some type. A permiculutural way is a system, and the typical system of pipes and rock is a system as well, but morally and ethically, a person has to have a working system; dumping raw sewage into the ground is just not good. If a particular area is wet, them it is causing human waste contamination in the soil.

Most likely the leak is a broken pipe about a foot deep orso. That means it can be shoveled out by hand, and a new $10 coupler put in. Now if the entire area of the leach field is wet, then you have bigger issues at play and will need an engineer to sort out.
1 day ago
It may be interesting to note that when my family cleared one of our fields in the year 1800, they noted "the field yielded grass over a mans head in one season, whereas in England it barely reached the knee."

Because of the layout of our farm, there is 30 acres that has always been old growth forest, never having been cleared. This was proven by reddish soil cropping up as I logged it. This was iron in the topsoil; had the land been logged, tilled or pastured, that iron would have long rusted out which is what gave it that reddish look.

I have cleared a lot of land; on both my farm, as well as for others as a land clearing contractor, BUT this is the first land I have ever cleared that was old growth, so I will be able to observe yields, nitrogen leaching, etc. What would be really interesting is to land-clear using different methods, like doing it how my forefathers did, with more modern methods, etc and see what the results were. For instance I know in the old days they burned the brush which was poor mans fertilizer at a NPK of 0/1/3, but since they were using hand tools, I bet a LOT of brush was burned too making for plenty of biochar/fertilizer.

This is that 30 acres soon to be into productive farmland. The field in the background was cleared in the year 1800.

2 days ago

Chris Kott wrote:I think cases of observed nitrogen drawdown might be extreme cases. Travis, indulge me for a moment. Have you tested the nitrogen levels, or are your conclusions based on plant growth? If there was anything else that could be going on in these situations that was related to the application of wood chips but not a nitrogen draw-down issue, can you speculate as to what it might be?

I have done extensive soil testing, and plant observation both, and the results are pretty conclusive. Soil reports, observed inverted yellowing in the plant leaves, and of course yield...what interests me the most.

One observation I have noted on here is that people on Permies often cite failed Hugels, yet mine have always been succesful? Why have some failed, and mine have not? I think others might be failing because they are not using decayed wood...or at least wood that is not decayed enough. The wood I have always used is not just deadfall, but fallen onto the ground, broken down, and nearly crumbling wood; it is about as close to soil as a person can get. So a simple real world test is to make two hugels; one out of dead, but "fresher" wood, and one out of dead crumbling wood, and see which produces the better yeild of the crops above. This sounds simple, but that is really what true farming is all about...more food between the lips for less work performed.

2 days ago

Bryant RedHawk wrote:Wood, when it comes in contact with soil, activates mechanisms in certain bacteria which then consume nitrogen as food so they can decompose the wood.
If this wood is sitting on top of the soil (fallen tree, dropped tree branch and so on) then these mighty bacteria will become active, but only to a depth of around 5mm.
This means that the answer to the nitrogen "robbing" wood is only involved in a minute area under and around the piece of wood.

Nitrogen is robbed from the soil due to composting woody debris. This generally follows along a 7 year rotation, where the first 7 years, the soil in trying to break down this wood and robs the soil of that ellusive nitrogen, but after 7 years, that nitrogen is given back into the soil.

Nitrogen in a real forest is nitrogen-nuetral because the soil was once 100% wood material. The top most layer is recent fallen leaves, twigs, sticks, etc and has hardly broken down, yet the deeper a person goes it can be readily seen that the wood is already broken down. Because of this constant rotation of new layer of wood to break down, and wood already broken down and giving back to the soil, nitrogen in the soil is both taking and giving. The reason ferns and other nitrogen loving plants thrive is because their roots are down in the already broken down woody debris. Considering it takes 600 years to make just 1 inch of topsoil, 7 years is but a day eqivilent in a forest lifecyle. Their roots are feeding off the nitrogen that is being RELEASED back into the soil, not last years fallen leaves.

Now when I clear a forest and put it into a field, is disrupts everything. Suddenly there is no more layers of soil. I am mixing freshly fallen debris into the soil. Because of the size of wood and the freshness therof, I experience a lot of nitrogen robbing. This shows up in my crops by stunting their growth. To overcome that I have to apply twice as much manure in freshly converted lands, but that over-application gets me beyond the nitrogen that is being robbed. Thankfully after about 7 years the nitrogen reverts back into the soil and for 7 years or so, I get to reduce my manure reirements to get the same yield.

If a person uses wood chips to spread out on their garden they are going to get the same thing. If it is tilled in deep, then the nitrogen robbing will be more accute, but if it is spread on the top of the soil, only the soil it comes in contact with will be robbed of nitrogen. In that case the benefit of wood chips is not fully realized; in that case the wood chips are being used to protect the soil from erosiion, to keep the soil moist, and to help thermally protect the soil from heat and cold. Those are all lofty results. So I am not saying they should not do it, they should, especially if their organic matter is way down.

Myself, I think putting in more wood chips, tilling it in, then adding more manure to compensate for the nitrogen loss is a much better plan. The wood chips will areate the soil, get more organic matter into your soil, and provide all the other benefits too, and what garden does not benefit from more manure?

3 days ago