Sunday, October 21, 2007

April and Mike LaLande run a growing small business near Issaquah Washington distributing garden supplies, fertilizer, and other chemicals to nurseries and garden centers across the country.

And so spray for weed management, heavy chemical pest control, and fertilizers are abundant at home on their 7 1/2 acres, barn, two horses and home sweet home on top of a hill, right?

Not a chance. The LaLandes have created a nature sanctuary for their horses and a lot of wildlife. And they manage to do it all with very few or no pesticides and chemicals at all.

“When you work full time, have horses and you love being outdoors like we do, you have to find a way to balance everything out.

“When we first got started with the horses here, we knew about integrated pest management practices which help eliminate disease carrying pests such as certain flies and mosquitoes and harmful soil and pasture pests. We are a chemical free farm, so we use methods such as 1) attracting natural predators by providing food, water and shelter. Some of the ones we work on attracting are swallows and other birds, bats, frogs and snakes. 2) buying and releasing predators such as fly predators (nocturnal wasps that eat fly larvae) 3) using biological traps, lures etc. The second thing we do is to continually build up our soil by adding our own compost and other organic amendments. This frees up a lot of time and money dealing with manure piles, having to use chemical fertilizers to get the grass to grow, by not having to manage horse care with insecticides. Since our property is basically a large aquifer recharge area this is good for the environment too. “
And the payoff is not just in chore efficiency -- a crucial element to juggling work and home. While there is quote a distance between them and their next human neighbors, their home is full of native plants and animals -- by design rather than accident.

“We are fortunate to have a lot – Bear, Cougar, Bobcat, Coyote, Elk, Deer, some great birds….but I have to say my favorite are the Robins. My little story is that when we moved to this property 8 years ago it was REALLY quiet. We had the elk (up to 50 at a time) visit and some occasional large birds like pileated woodpeckers.”

April looked around their new home and wondered what they had gotten into-- “It took me a while to realize there were no robins, chickadees or other small birds hanging out which is why to me it was so quiet. I remember thinking, wow this is a mini “Silent Spring” that first year and realized that the former owners used a lot of pesticides and herbicides because they didn’t want any bugs or weeds around--all the birds were apparently hanging out elsewhere. Ironically, there WERE a lot of pests like carpenter ants, crane fly larvae, etc., but none of their natural predators. So we used some natural controls like nematodes, over seeded the pastures, good old fashioned fly swatters and patiently waited. Now we have tons of birds, and every spring when we see the robins feasting on grubs and earthworms and singing their little songs, it makes me really happy.”

So how many chemicals do they use in keeping their horses? “The only chemicals we use on our horses are de-wormers, which are dissipated by the composting process. We don’t use any for horsekeeping practices. Anyone can keep their animals and property this green with a little effort.”

The land where LaLandes’ home and barn sits is at the top of a hill that slopes down into a second growth forest with 100 yards of pasture in between. Where they live is wet more than most places in Seattle. The big trees call in the rain and it lingers on moss, tall timbers, salal, and oregon grape. And blackberries, of course. Their land had been logged back at the turn of the 20th Century, and old growth stumps going back 600-800 year old trees sprinkle the second growth forest that sits at the bottom of their hill.

And looks can be deceiving. A lot of restoration and native plant buffers has gone into the ground that create natural sponges for rains and habitat for animals.

Wow, we’ve done a lot, but it’s a little hard to notice since it all mostly looks like ‘native’ land. A few off the top of my head are:

First, we started making a buffer zone 20-40 feet wide between the wild area and pastures/house by removing 300-500 alder saplings and replanting a large variety of native shrubs, trees and grasses and trimming or eradicating invasive weeds and blackberries.

Then we moved 5 or 6 old growth stumps that were in the pasture and not really being utilized to the buffer area with a big trackhoe – they are pretty heavily used now by wildlife.

One of the best things we did was working with King County DNR to design a forestry plan. Implemented a Forest Stewardship Plan for our property with the help of Kristi McClellan, a forester from King County DNR. From that we horse-logged eight logging trucks full of mature alder that were at the end of their life cycle and which had outgrown the conifers and were stunting them and making a really dark forest without much diversity. That was two years ago and the changes in the forest have been great. Many of the hemlock and Douglas fir trees have shot way up, the canopy is now multistoried with lots of great species of plants below. We’ve planted some trees – about 100, but mostly all the new undergrowth has come in on its own just by letting a little sunlight in.

In the process we created wildlife corridors for the large game in and around all of our human and horse areas.”

Are there quiet places that aren't cultivated to encourage wetlands, swampy areas?

So instead of clearcuts and grass fields LaLandes have cultivated a different yard -- “We devote about 1⁄2 of our property (7 1⁄2 acres) to native forest and vegetation. We do not have any wetlands on our property so we focus on wildlife enhancement areas.

Have your manure and weed management practices changed since you started keeping horses?

A little.

How? We have always composted our manure but have upgraded our composting system to be faster and to produce a better ‘finished product’. We have never used herbicides on this property; however we now occasionally use natural weed control recipes that we make up for the gravel areas. There are a few really invasive weeds (like Japanese Knotweed) creeping our way, so this may become a little more time consuming and challenging.

Do you have a favorite story about water on your land? No. There is no surface water, just rain, rain, rain!

How has your thinking about manure management, animal care evolved over the past ten years? A lot. We took some classes from the Conservation District and Horses For Clean Water when we first bought our property. These classes, lectures and farm tours have been an invaluable resource and have really changed my thinking about how to keep horses healthy in the Western Pacific Northwest. The concepts we’ve implemented for ‘sacrifice areas’, ‘manure management’ and ‘pasture management’ have really changed our horses and our land’s health for the better, I never realized how many benefits there are to doing these types of practices…anything from keeping your neighbors happy, to keeping the fish happy. I’d really encourage anyone with horses or livestock to take advantage of this wealth of free help and advice. Our area has changed so much lately, it’s nice to have some ways to positively impact and maybe counteract some of the negative impacts that all this growth brings.

Horses and rain equals one constant in King County. Mud. But Lalande has figure out a path of least resistance, and is philosophical about mud. Plus -- guess what? They don’t have it.

“Mud is the enemy for horse owners. Beside degrading the environment and making poor use and value of property, it is an incubator for many common bacterial and pathogenic problems that horse owners and vets spend many hours and dollars trying to fix. We don’t have it – which I think is amazing considering the rainfall we have. We manage to not have it by the bmp’s of keeping horses off saturated pasture, making the paddocks ‘mudless’, keeping enough forage available for the quantity of wildlife that’s in our area. It took a bit of expense to be mudless, but it has saved many hours of labor not having to deal with it. “

Is it a hassle to manage? Has mud and manure management gotten easier over time?

It is easy to manage. King Conservation District has many cost sharing programs and can help develop farm plans to help set up practices so management is pretty much painless.

What is next in April and Mike's thinking about their land? The question runs deep-- and to an unexpected place.

I think about protecting groundwater-- we are worried about it, and don’t think enough people ask how their livestock and farm practices harm it or protect it. Many farms have wells, or are close to areas where aquifer protection is critical to public health and clean water supplies – as hard as it is to clean up the sound…it will be much harder to clean up aquifers. I think that with some good education and incentives this potential liability could be turned into an asset – it would be great if farms could be ‘drinking water stewards’ by practicing good land management. Puget Sound clean up gets lots of attention. But we need to be concerned about what we’re let drain into the ground and deep into aquifers as well as what is going down the stream to the Snoqualmie and into the Sound.”

Follow up: Horses names.

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