Fortify Your Farm

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Installing simple infrastructure and breeding hardy animals can make crises less strenuous.
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A derecho leveled Polyface Farm’s portable field shelters, leaving 1,500 chickens without shade.
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Gravity-fed water features can keep your animals hydrated after a natural disaster.

While sitting in our dining room on a sweltering July evening about five years ago, Teresa and I were chatting and reading when suddenly a gust of wind shook the house. Within a minute, debris pummeled the house, and the roar of wind sounded like something out of a sci-fi movie.

Before we could run around and check on things, our back door slammed; in came a terrified apprentice. She had run down from her cottage on the hill, afraid that gyrating trees would crush her living quarters. Moments later, an intern rushed in, seeking solace and shelter.

What we didn’t know until later was that we were in the dead center of a weather phenomenon known as a “derecho” — straight-line winds up to 100 mph. It had started in Indiana, built up power across West Virginia, and descended on our area in a direct hit. Roofs came off buildings, trees crushed houses and cars, semitrailers blew off the interstate. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

Our substantial log-and-brick home was built in 1800 and has stood the test of time. Plus, our dining room and kitchen are below grade by about 3 feet. Within minutes of the wind hitting, the power went off. We lit a kerosene lantern, and as the storm raged over the next 90 minutes, we feasted on ice cream — without knowing how long the power would be out, why not polish off the most delicious and vulnerable item in the freezer?

By midnight, the storm was over, and we decided to wait until morning to survey the damage. The next day, we saw that its extent was substantial, and the temperature that day was 100 degrees Fahrenheit — one of the hottest days of the summer. The power was out all over the region.

Providing water to livestock was our first priority. We had herds of cattle on two leased properties, in addition to a herd here at our home farm. We opened a fence so one herd could access a river. We rushed our generator over to the other herd to run the water pump so they could drink.

At home, with 6 miles of water line networking from a series of permaculture-style high-elevation ponds, gravity kept the water flowing as if nothing had ever happened. All of us had an epiphany that day as we realized the forgiveness, or resiliency, of gravity-based water systems. In bygone eras, all water systems were gravity-based, but cheap and fairly dependable energy made us lazy —and presumptuous.

Developing gravity-based water systems on a farmstead may be one of the single most critical investments you can make to prepare for natural disasters. Water is the foundation of life. Your livestock won’t care if everything in your freezer thaws — they’ll need water right away. Water resources independent of electricity or petroleum are better than money in the bank.

On our farm, we’re blessed with enough elevation that we can water all of our pastures from high ponds we began excavating decades ago. If you don’t have enough elevation, another option is a “turkey nest pond,” an excavated cistern — just dig a big hole — on top of a hill. You can fill it from lower water sources with a pump, but it will give you enough capacity at a high enough level to provide gravity-based water for at least several days.

If you’re in extremely flat country, you can hoist a cistern up into a tree to gain gravity pressure. Several 250-gallon totes can provide some great security. (Obviously, you’ll want to hoist them up into the tree before filling them!) Water pressure is 0.036 psi per inch of height, so 25 feet will offer 10.8 psi of pressure. That may not sound like a lot, but it sure beats carrying buckets.

Certainly windmills and solar-powered pumps can reduce dependency on the grid, but nothing is as dependable as gravity. I always joke that when gravity quits, I’m out of here. U.S. houses are built with water pumps and pressure tanks located in the basement. Imagine if instead each house had a 1,000-gallon tank mounted right under its roof. A couple of minutes per day of riding a bicycle to power a water pump could fill it, and then the attic tank could simply feed the plumbing throughout the day. Real-time, on-demand pressure and energy are always much more difficult than periodic bursts coupled with storage.

One of the reasons I like ponds is because I can always see how much water I have. Wells can get contaminated or go dry with nary a warning. I can go to a pond or cistern every day and measure what I have. It’s like looking into a full food pantry. I don’t have to run to the grocery store prior to imminent bad weather because our larder is full of canned goods, our freezers are full, and our greenhouse keeps things growing throughout winter.

Of course, the morning after the derecho, we had more to worry about than water. We had 1,500 chickens walking around in a daze. Some 20 portable field shelters were gone. I don’t mean scattered around; I mean gone. Disappeared. The blazing sun would put the chickens into stress quickly without shade. We ran the cows to a paddock with tree shading and used their 1,000-square-foot shademobile for the chickens.

Drawn to the cool shade, the chickens quickly mobbed into a flock that we surrounded with electrified poultry netting. As we worked through our triage plan, next on our list was a pair of upturned “eggmobiles” (portable laying hen houses that follow the cattle herd). These 12-by-20-foot structures, hooked together, were on one of the leased farms, and they had flipped over uphill. None of the other dozen eggmobiles had turned over, fortunately.

The former intern subcontractor in charge of that farm was in shock — it was his first year farming and being responsible for chickens, turkeys, and cattle. Some 800 laying hens were wandering around amid the overturned eggmobiles. We grabbed a generator and a bunch of shop tools, some boards, and some chains, and our entire staff arrived with expertise and tools. Within two hours, everything was set upright, and the hens happily went to the nest boxes to do their thing.

Each of the five properties where we keep livestock needed different repairs, but by the end of the first day, everything was comfortable. A large portion of that efficiency was due to having resilient infrastructure and a community that could collaborate quickly. Perhaps the best way to prepare for trouble is to create a close-knit and dependable community. Regardless of what happens, going through hardship is always easier with support.

Over the next week, while I ran 30 tanks full of gasoline through the chainsaw to cut trees off fences and get everything re-secured, the rest of our staff built 20 new chicken shelters. We returned the shademobile to the cows and put the surviving chickens back in shelters.

Compare that to a factory farm with 50,000 chickens and a destroyed house. Those chickens would never have a chance. They would die. This is not just the resilience that scale can build; it’s a testament to the flexibility of portable, lightweight, low-capital infrastructure. Even a devastating loss isn’t a huge economic hit.

Most of our electricity came back on within 12 hours, though one of our leased farms didn’t receive power for a week. While I hope to never go through such a storm again, it did affirm the adaptability of our systems.

“Redundancy” is the operative word for crisis preparedness. My wife’s grandfather always used to say, “You can never have too much hay in the barn.” Similarly, your pantry can never be too full and your firewood pile can always use another load. Stocking up is part of redundancy. I wear a belt and suspenders — a belt to hold my cellphone and multi-tool; suspenders to hold up my pants. The hundreds of quarts of summer produce Teresa cans and freezes aren’t part of a paranoia response; they’re just what we do to build redundancy into our provisions.

Livestock can be resilient too, rather than fragile. A couple of years ago, we still had one group of pigs out in the forest glens when a 20-inch blizzard enveloped us. We couldn’t get to the pigs for two days, even with the tractor. When we did, the pigs erupted from the leafy nest they had built, steam rolling off their warm bodies, all healthy and comfortable. Because we select genetics with hardiness at the top of the criteria list, we don’t fear every anomaly that comes along.

Simple and resilient infrastructure, hardy animals, technical skill, and community support all work together to make crises less strenuous. Farming disasters big and small can always happen, but we can certainly lessen their effect by spending time preparing. Now go dig that pond.