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This Is What Environmental Stewardship Looks Like When You're Farming: Eckenfels Farms

Eckenfels Sue
Sue Eckenfels, taking time out on a Sunday to give us a tour of their farm.

By Lisa Brunette

We purchase most of our meat directly from farms, a practice we began in 2015, when we lived in Chehalis, in Washington state. Back then our beef came from the Olsons, just outside of that small town. Here in Missouri, we had to source meat anew, so we hit the local farmer's market and found two excellent locals: Eckenfels Farms and Farrar Out Farm.

Eckenfels Sign
A colorful sign entices you to explore the rolling hills beyond.

We've been buying meat in bulk quantities from both farms for four years now, so I figured it was about time to visit... at least one of them! The Eckenfels Farm is located in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, and with that tiny burg's proximity to primo hiking spots (my big draw) and its National Historical Park (to feed Anthony's history obsession), we couldn't not go there. Besides, we just really enjoyed chatting with Bob and Sue Eckenfels at the farmer's market. So we scheduled a trip to charming Ste. Genevieve, and the couple graciously agreed to give us a tour of their farm during our stay.

Eckenfels Wagu
Eckenfels' herd is pasture-raised.

Eckenfels Farms is a "Century Farm," meaning it's been in the same family for 100 years or more. In this case, the Eckenfels have been farming their 300 or so acres for 170 years. But Bob will quickly tell you of neighboring farms that have been around for 200 years, an important marker, as Missouri celebrates its state bicentennial this year. In a place like Ste. Genevieve, history is a long game. As Missouri's first European settlement, its roots stretch back to at least 1750, and some of the historic homes you can tour as part of the National Park Service site are one of only a handful of remaining examples of rare French architectural techniques.

Eckenfels Pond
Pasture stretching down toward a pond at Eckenfels Farms.

A few fun facts about Eckenfels Farms:

  • Winner of the beef industry's 2009 Region III Environmental Stewardship Award
  • Herd is free-range, grass-fed, with no antibiotics, hormones, or unnatural growth stimulants
  • Practice rotational grazing on a mix of fescue, over-seeded millet, rye, and clover as warranted, with native warm-season grasses providing food during the hottest summer days when the fescue doesn't do well
  • Raise South Poll cattle, well-adapted to Missouri's heat and humidity
  • Animals have continuous access to well water
Eckenfels Wagu Watering
The herd gathering at one of several wells.

Though it was a steamy day in late August, the temps climbing into the 90s, we enjoyed the chance to get up close and personal with the animals who become our nourishment. The Eckenfels were kind enough to drive us out to see their pasture-fed herd of 50. Their South Poll breed is so docile and easy that we were able to gather around them in close proximity while provoking only curiosity in the cows. 

Eckenfels Wagu Mama
A cow regards me with what I took to be some level of interest. The South Poll breed is known as the "Southern Mama."

Bob runs a superior operation, as evidenced by the recognition the farm has received, but you can also see it in the health and beauty of the herd. Grass-fed diets are better for the animal and for us, too. Grass-fed beef is leaner, with fewer calories, but it contains more nutrients. "If all Americans switched to grass-fed meat, our national epidemic of obesity would begin to diminish," as the Eckenfels explain to their own website visitors. Grass-fed beef also contains more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed.  

Eckenfels Tour
Bob and Sue on the tour, with my husband, Anthony, staying in the shade in the cab.

Cows are meant to eat grass, not grain, and they're healthier on their natural diet, in less need of medical intervention. Attention is also paid to the pasture itself, as Bob employs several techniques to ensure a healthy pasture environment. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Cattlemen's Foundation awarded Eckenfels an award for environmental stewardship, citing the following practices:

Eckenfels plants his crops using no-till, which has proven to increase his returns and minimize erosion. He has utilized rotational grazing by cross fencing his fields using a combination of barbed wire and electric fence to maximize production. He’s also fencing his ponds to exclude livestock. By implementing these conservation practices, Eckenfels Farm provides wildlife habitat and improves pastures. 

Eckenfels Bob Anthony
Bob and Anthony.

Calling Bob a "progressive adopter of new ideas and technologies that benefit and protect soil and water resources," the industry groups sponsoring the award praised him for a number of initiatives, such as installing ponds and stream buffers, creating quail habitats, and volunteering to educate others on conservation principles and practices. And of course this is a family effort; Bob's son Matt is already a key part of the farm, daughter Kayla can often be found staffing the farmer's market booth, and both of their other children have been involved at one time or another. All four live either on the farm or in close proximity. Eldest Matt has even custom-built a grain silo home.

Eckenfels Silo House

Farm life is not without its challenges, as you can imagine. The Eckenfels have struggled with a lower water table from which to draw well water. Consolidation in the slaughterhouse industry has led to disadvantages for small independent farms like this one. And while clearly fixtures in the Ste. Genevieve community, you can't actually purchase Eckenfels meat at any of the town's stores, or even find it in restaurants. This strikes me as a sorely missed opportunity, as someone who's used to Seattle restaurants and specialty grocery stores routinely listing just such an "origin story" for their meat as the Eckenfels give in spades. Bob and Sue drive the hour to St. Louis a couple times a week to sell to customers there instead.

Eckenfels Wagu Walk
Using corridors like this one, Bob rotates the herd to different parts of the pasture, giving it a chance to regenerate between grazings.

It was personally quite satisfying to get my farm fix with this tour, and I thank the Eckenfels for their hospitality and time. While unlike both Bob and Sue, I didn't grow up on a farm, I have often wished I had. Instead, I've had to live vicariously through others as a writer who chronicles this work, whether as editor of the oldest independent fishing publication on the West Coast, author of a book about a century-old dairy farm, or the writing I do as a volunteer for this little old blog. I hope you enjoy my stories.

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65 Bulbs of Garlic on the Wall...

Garlic hanging 21
Garlic nestled in among the basement rafters, with hyssop, dandelion, and other drying herbs.

By Lisa Brunette

"Take one down, pass it around..." OK, so we didn't exactly begin with 99 bulbs of garlic, but 65 is a lot of garlic bulbs to have on hand. Our basement smells like a pizzeria!

We harvested this bumper crop just before the 4th of July: 65 bulbs of 'Silver rose' garlic, a soft-necked variety. Soft-necked varieties store longer and can be braided. They also do better in our Missouri climate than the hard-necked. We put the cloves into the ground on October 31 (ooo, Halloween!). The order had been for 60 cloves to plant, so how we ended up with 65 bulbs at the end is unclear. Maybe there were a few extra in the order? At any rate, we had more than a 100 percent return on our investment on that batch.

This was actually only half our garlic crop, though; the other half did not germinate at all. Not a single clove. I had also ordered and planted a batch of 60 cloves of the 'Early Italian' variety, and that crop was an abject failure.

What was the difference, besides variety?

Garlic bulb 21
'Silver rose' garlic bulb.

I used a slightly different technique on the Silver rose, and that might have done it. I amended the soil with my secret ingredient: a mixture of coffee grounds and pine sawdust with a little added nitrogen in the form of cat urine. 

Yeah, that's right. Cat urine. Are you appalled? Don't be.

You see, for Chaco's litter box, we use pure pine pellets. It's hands-down the best cat litter I've ever used; it doesn't smell bad, and the urine basically gets absorbed by the pellets, which then break down into pine sawdust. We then truck the sawdust outside to a pot, where it can be used when needed to amend the garden soil. It always gets turned into the soil, where the sawdust breaks down completely, the pine and remnant urine nourishing the soil. Sawdust is never evident on the food part of the plant at harvest. 

Urine is rich in nitrogen, and I know of at least one gardener, my friend Claire over at Living Low in the Lou, who uses her own as a soil amendment, with good results. I'm not opposed to her method at all, as urine is sterile in healthy individuals, but I already have a ready supply of Chaco's urine, and I like the idea of making good use of it and diverting it from the waste stream. I also know Anthony and I don't have the time to devote to collecting and dispersing our own pee.

Garlic almost ready to harvest in June 21
Garlic almost ready to harvest.

Anthony adds the coffee grounds to the pot of sawdust outside each day when he dumps out his coffee pot from the day before, instead of running the grounds down the disposal or just tossing them into the trash.

I did not use the sawdust-and-coffee grounds mixture on the 'Early Italian' beds, the failed crop. Both beds also received a good dosing of compost tea.

I honestly can't remember if I designed this experiment on purpose or if I simply ran out of the sawdust mix. But we have an experiment nonetheless. At least of sorts. There could be variations in the soil across the different beds, though they were right next to each other. The different varieties alone could have produced the radically variant results, too. Maybe the 'Silver rose' is more suited to my soil conditions. It's a lovely variety, so named for the mottled red-and-pink hue on the inner clove papers.

Garlic ready to harvest 21
Garlic at harvest time, when the bottom leaves go brown.

But the point here is we have enough garlic for the winter, and then some, and I've successfully used spent kitty litter as a soil amendment, which diverts it from the landfill and provides a cost savings to me since I don't have to purchase fertilizer. It's a perfect permaculture loop, too, since I'm using what's produced on-site, without any outside inputs (well, except for the pine pellets in the first place).

By now you might be asking, "What about the cat poo?" That gets removed daily and placed in a hot compost, where it breaks down over a minimum of six months. No poo ever goes into the garden, at least not while it's still, um, poop.

Garlic scapes 21
Garlic scapes on soft-necked garlic.

One odd thing that happened: The 'Silver rose' garlic grew scapes (above) just prior to harvest, which I was informed soft-necked varieties wouldn't do. If anyone can shed light on this matter, please do so in the comments below. The scapes were delicious, by the way.

Garlic harvested 21
A harvested bunch.

One caveat to my garlic success story is that the sawdust/coffee mix isn't a cure-all. Last month I told you about this year's failed potato crop; well, I'd amended that bed with the mix, too, and it wasn't enough to save it. Claire and I are discussing this amongst ourselves, and let's just say that the grand experiment continues!

What grew well in your garden this summer? Any exciting discoveries to report?

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3 Natives You Can Plant This Fall for Spring Blooms

Iris fulva open
Copper iris, a native to the Midwest that blooms in May.

By Lisa Brunette

There's nothing so hopeful as an early spring flower, defiantly emerging out of the deadened winter landscape and signaling a renewal of life. Here in the St. Louis area, that usually means daffodils. These cheery trumpets sound off in early March to lift our collective spirits.

But as much as Anthony and I like our daffodils around here - and we do, as evidenced by our apparent daffyness for them - we have to admit they don't do much to provide food for pollinators and other insects here in the U.S. Most ornamental bulbs originated in Europe or elsewhere; they did not evolve alongside our native fauna, which tends to find them either outright toxic or regard them with indifference. These bulbs are not a viable food source; they're just pretty little statues, really.

Daffodils 21
They are awfully cheery.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. A few tulip, daffodil, gladiolus, and other blooms in the spring garden can give you beauty and joy. 

But if you want to turn back the tide on habitat loss - one of the major factors cited in pollinator decline - you should put in more native plants. While a lot of people think of native summer wildflowers first and foremost, I want to turn you on to a few spring bloomers you might not know.

Copper Iris - Iris fulva

With long, slender, light green leaves topped by an audacious tuba spray of copper, this early spring bloom should be on everyone's wish list. Native to the Midwest, copper iris is slow-growing at first, like a lot of native plants, but then explodes in its third year to give you stunning flowers.

It's exciting to see the bud begin to open in late May.

Iris fulva bud 21
Copper iris bud.

I put in one plant from a nursery seedling in 2019, and it's already divided. The blooms are astounding!

Iris fulva blooms
Iris fulva in full bloom.

Ozark Witch Hazel - Hamamelis vernalis

The very first bloom of the spring is something of an oddity. Ozark witch hazel blooms as early as late February, with crinkled orange streamers around a yellow center. Besides the funky-looking bloom, the odd factor comes in two other ways: 1) the early bloom time and 2) the fact that what pollinates this late-winter flower is a bit of a mystery. February is bad timing for most pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, as they tend to emerge later in spring. So what pollinates witch hazel? Perhaps hoverflies, which take advantage of warm winter days to forage for pollen.

Witch hazel Feb 21
When witch hazel blooms, it gives off the pleasant scent of cloves.

Ozark witch hazel is also a rare plant: Out of the entire world, it's found in only five U.S. states: Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. I'm happy to say we've added three Ozark witch hazels to our garden, one from a nursery and two seedlings from the Missouri Department of Conservation (costing only $1 each, yo, through Wild Ones). After some initial damage from our Eastern cottontail rabbits, which found them delicious, all three are thriving, and the one from the nursery, which we planted in 2018, has not only bloomed profusely but is tall and robust enough to support squash vines, which clamber up the branches.

Witch hazel Aug 21
Hey there, squash! Why don't you climb up here and join me?

Witch hazel is a great permaculture plant because of its dual role as a support for native animals and insects and its use as a medicinal for humans. You should be familiar with witch hazel as a traditional medicine cabinet item. You can make an astringent from the bark, and it's historically been used to treat hemorrhoids, sore muscles, coughs, and other ailments. Removing the bark kills the tree, however, so sources recommend using only pruned or fallen limbs. Disclaimer: I have not yet tried to make my own witch hazel astringent, but it's on my list. Second disclaimer: I am not a health expert and am not advising you to treat ailments with witch hazel; I'm merely reporting on its historic use.

Violets - Viola sororia

Regular readers of this blog know I've waxed enthusiastic about violets before, with full recommendations on their many culinary uses, their value as a host plant for fritillary butterflies, and my enduring preference for them as a ground cover to replace turf grass. With so many beneficial aspects, and pretty little white- or royal purple-and-yellow blooms to boot, how could you not desire violets in your home landscape?

In some regions, the violets are likely to show up of their own accord, too. Yeah, that's right; this is one flower you might not have to plant yourself! Our ubiquitous violet ground cover is 100 percent volunteer and lasts from spring to fall. I've used the blooms and leaves to make everything from petal-infused ice cubes to violet sugar and violet tea. 

Viola sororia spring 21
Violets are host plants for fritillary butterflies.
Flower cubes 21
Violets (and lilacs), ready to freeze into ice cubes.

I hope these three suggestions for spring-blooming flowers you can plant this fall inspire you to the possibilities in your own garden. Happy fall planting!

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The Cat in the Flock Farm Named 'Monarch Waystation'

Monarch Waystation

We're excited to share that our garden has been designated as a Monarch Waystation by the non-profit Monarch Watch. Here's a description of the program:

Each fall, hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies migrate from the United States and Canada to mountains in central Mexico, where they wait out the winter until conditions favor a return flight in the spring. The monarch migration is truly one of the world's greatest natural wonders, yet it is threatened by habitat loss at overwintering grounds in Mexico and throughout breeding areas in the United States and Canada.

Monarch Waystations are places that provide resources necessary for monarchs to produce successive generations and sustain their migration. Without milkweeds throughout their spring and summer breeding areas in North America, monarchs would not be able to produce the successive generations that culminate in the migration each fall. Similarly, without nectar from flowers, these fall migratory monarch butterflies would be unable to make their long journey to overwintering grounds in Mexico. The need for host plants for larvae and energy sources for adults applies to all monarch and butterfly populations around the world. (From the Monarch Watch website)

Besides the above sign, we also received a certificate of appreciation, but for us the real reward has been witnessing first-hand how the old adage is true: If you build it, they will come. Or rather, if you plant it, they will come. We've planted close to 150 native trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses over the past three years, including a few varieties of milkweed, the monarch's preferred food. The results have been evident in the monarch (and other) pollinator species clearly supported by our garden.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed
Monarch caterpillar on milkweed.

Last summer, a monarch chrysalis even formed an attachment to one of our garden chairs. The chair is set under a pergola and upon wood chips instead of paving. We opted not to add "impervious surfaces," which are hardscape surfaces water can't penetrate. The increase of these types of surfaces in urban areas has contributed to runoff, stormwater, flooding, and other problems. It seems the monarchs treated the chair as if it simply blended into the natural environment, which is how we hoped the garden would be!

Here's the caterpillar going into its chrysalis stage.

Monarch caterpillar

And here's the chrysalis.

Monarch chrysalis
Chrysalis on garden chair.

Our Monarch Waystation designation comes fresh on the heels of achieving Platinum Status in the Bring Conservation Home program. Inveterate gamers (who need to level up and earn all achievements) and collectors (who need to collect aaaall the badges), of course we had to display the two signs on the fence near the entrance to our back garden. 

2 signs

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Poppies and Whimsy on the St. Louis Native Plant Tour

NPT_glimpse
View of a woodland bubbler in the garden of Dan and Mary Terpstra, also featured in Doug Tallamy's book, Nature's Best Hope.

By Lisa Brunette

Anthony and I attended the St. Louis Native Plant Tour for the first time this year. It was a masked, socially-distanced, outdoor (of course) affair in early June, with a wide range of gardens to view. A joint offering by both the St. Louis Audubon Society and Wild Ones St. Louis, this year's tour included nine residential gardens located across the St. Louis metropolitan area, on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. We made it to six of the nine.

NPT_celadine poppy
Celadine poppy growing in the garden of Dan and Mary Terpstra.

I've talked about the Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home program on the blog before - most recently when we scored platinum status for our own garden. Many BCH gardens were included in the tour, with a nice smattering at every level, from silver through gold and up to platinum. One of our favorites on the tour was Dan and Mary Terpstra's woodland oasis. It's easy to see why this .62-acre property has achieved platinum status - and why it attracts so many birds - 150 species and counting.

NPT_platinum
View across the woodland toward the gazebo in Dan and Mary Terpstra's garden.

Here's a video of their pond, which features a bubbling cascade into a naturalized area for native water-loving plants.

 

While the Terpstras obviously take conservation seriously, they haven't neglected the whimsical aspects of gardening.

NPT_mushrooms
Garden art tucked into a rock in Dan and Mary Terpstra's garden.

Speaking of garden whimsy, while the Terpstra's property offers a stunning example of what can be done, my favorite of the tour was actually the garden of Christina Rutz and Mark Hrabovsky, which had whimsy in spades.

NPT_music stand
In the garden of Christina Rutz and Mark Hrabovsky.

This garden clocks in at the BCH gold level and comes with a wonderful personal story, to quote the tour brochure:

Established in 2010, Carolyn's Garden is a living memorial to Christina's mother, an avid gardener. Diagnosed in 1996 with stage 4 breast cancer and given six months to live, she proved doctors wrong, living with the disease until 2011... a testament to being a lifelong gardener.

Many of the plants in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden were transitioned there from her mother's garden over in Illinois.

NPT_pathway
A pathway beckons in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden.
NPT_glass ball
A glass ball emerges from penstemon in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden.

Another highlight was getting to tour the garden belonging to Robert Weaver, editor of The Gateway Gardener, which features this lovely water bubbler.

Now, a note about these bubblers, though: You don't need them. While it's true that birds are attracted to the sound of bubbling water, the problem with bubblers is they need a power source in order to, well, bubble. And that means a) you have to be able to afford to install (or have installed) an electrical bubbler connected to your home's power system and b) you're adding to your home's draw on the electric grid, not the best option, eco-wise, unless it's also solar-powered. Our garden achieved platinum status without a bubbler; as mentioned previously, we have four bird baths, all fashioned out of repurposed items and not costing a dime.

Here's a perfectly nice non-bubbling bird bath, also in the Weaver garden.

NPT_birdbath
In the Weaver garden.
NPT_shade
Shade-loving Virginia sweetspire in the Weaver garden.

One of the best aspects of garden tours like this one is you get to see first-hand fine examples of plants that thrive in challenging areas, such as deep shade (above) or intense sunshine, like these native prickly pears.

NPT_prickly pear
In the garden of Susan and René LaVoise.

While honeybees are not native to North America, it was cool to spot these beehives in the garden of Jim and Judy Stroup, where we started our tour.

NPT_beehives
Beehives at the Stroup garden.

And last but certainly not least was the garden of Dave and Karen Tylka, avid conservationists whose gold-certified property features many a bee hotel in addition to bird bottles, bird and bat houses, and more than 30 woody native plant species and 95 wildflower species.

NPT_beehotels
A stunning array of bee hotels in the garden of Dave and Karen Tylka.
NPT_Indian pink
The common name of this native plant is 'Indian pink,' though it's neither pink nor from India!
NPT_Ninebark
Ninebark growing in the Tylka garden.
NPT_smooth sumac
This smooth sumac grows in part-shade in the Tylka garden.

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