Best efforts at growing vegetables we have seen so far.
Natsagdorg, the Co-Op Leader, is not afraid to experiment and try new things, and is clearly learning quickly. He lost all of his livestock in last years’ tzud, so he is highly motivated as well.
This landscape here is also very flat, and the Co-Op irrigates its fields by diverting water from a small stream which meanders through the basin, no more than two feet wide and just over ½ foot deep. Once again, except for the clumps of spiny grass which meander through the landscape, you wouldn’t know that water is flowing freely through these grassy plains.
On the mountains in the distance the keylines are clearly visible as the green band where the grass starts - right where the curve of the slope changes from convex to concave – almost ruler’s edge straight across one of the mountains. The brown stony color above this line indicates that there is not enough nutrient to support much vegetation.
This keyline would be the ideal place to catch and store water for distribution to the passturelands below, but it is also the ideal place for planting tree crops for animal fodder, timber, and food. The water slows down enough off the slope here to deposit nutrient before seeping down into the plain. A well-designed system here could feasibly feed and water itself, and be almost maintenance-free.
The plot is fenced, and the weeds have been left to grow outside of the crop rows. A weed with umbrelliferous flowers flourish at the perimeter, attracting predatory insects and the small birds that prey on them. Fat hen grows vigourously in the irrigation ditches, while daisies and dandelions are also prominent - a stark contrast to what the landscape outside the fencing might look like if left ungrazed.
10 tonnes of manure has been collected by hand from the surrounding grassland and used as fertilizer, the crops clearly loving it.
The potato crop in the fields is the best we’ve seen [including a 750 g monster potato grown last season], and the cucumbers in the long, narrow tunnel greenhouse are looking very healthy with some healthy cukes on some vines. Naars trees, the same ones we identified in Ulanbaataar, have been planted inside the fenceline to establish a windbreak. They will also double for animal fodder and a source of timber. Lots of good things going on here.
One of the biggest challenges growers face here is the very short growing season, and the turnips, beetroot and carrots are not looking good for this stage of the season.
Rick suggests some intercropping strategies [raddishes amongst the carrots to help evenly space them, mixing sand with the fine carrot seeds when sowing to ensure a more even distribution], and also teaches potato strategies again to maximize yield from their seed potato. Kat teaches her first session on seed saving. Class is held, like the last two days, huddled inside a small ger next to the growing fields.
We are treated again to a Mongolian feast, with meat so good that even our resident vegitarian conceeds it was tasty. Mongolian banquets are meat and dairy fests, which of course feature meat broth, noodles with meat, meat on the bone, more meat, and all washed down with milke tea, dried curds, clotted cream, and yoghurt…
Kat has figured out a strategy for vegetarians to survive this kind of celebration:
- Choose your bone carefully - look for pieces with the leas amount of tendon / cartillege / unidentified objects and cling to the first piece of meat offered to you and nurse it through your entire meal. It's not the amount of meat that you eat, it's the length of time that you 'savour' it for. If you pick this bone clean your hosts will only offer you more.
- Hold your breath when sipping the organ stew. Have some bottled water or fruit juice nearby in your canteen to wash the taste out of your mouth. Better yet, have some vodka handy so that you can work up the courage to swallow pieces of organs floating in your broth.
- Beam with delight when offered pickled vegges or [on the very rare occasion] green salad to encourage your host to offer you more.
- Sit next to a friendly carnivore whom you can offload your meat dishes upon when nobody is looking.
- Clap your hands like a madwoman when the yoghurt appears. If you do this well, it will be lovingly prepared with clotted cream and sugar as you swallow back your drool. If you do this exceptionally well, you may even be given a jar of take-away yoghurt of your very own. Your belly will thank you for this. Your ger mates may not.
- Mongolians can finish off a large bowl of meat squeaky-clean in about 15 minutes flat. A feast like this is a great honour, and a cultural experience you will never forget.
We stop in at a root cellar under construction just outside of Natsagdorg’s hasha [family compound] back in the soum center, 2 meters under ground with the capability to store up to 15 tons of produce, managing the temperature inside at around 0C during winter when it can get as cold as -40C outside.
Mongolians have also come up with a unique solution to extend their growing season using cold frames: Horse dung is collected near the cold frame and burnt. The dung will retain this heat for up to 60 days, and provides enough heat for the seedlings to grow in the cold frame until the frost danger passes.
As Bek walks us through their solution, we speculate on ways this design might be improved:
- Locating cold frames inside the greenhouse would create a micro-climate that can be as much as two climate zones further south, extending the head-start to the growing season even more, and providing further frost protection.
- Locating the cold frame and greenhouse directly adjacent to the growing plot would cut down on transportation costs and risks to drive seedlings out to the plot from the soum for planting.
- Using a hot compost instead of burning the horse dung may extend the useful life of this valuable resource because the compost can be used as potting mix to transplant seedlings into the field once it has cooled down. This may also save on valuable fuel that is currently burned to heat up the dung; this same heat can be created by the action of aerobic microbes breaking down a hot compost bed.
Highlight of the day? …Riding horse with Bek to the mountains in the distance after our meal, on Mongolian time… no rush. It is not often that those of us in the developed world get to enjoy the silent sound of being alone in the natural landscape, unfettered by fences or roads or traffic.
Then, a beautiful moment today that lasted for an eternity: Bek galloped up ahead of me and my horse to leave us in solitude, and the only sound was of the wind dancing through the steppe in time with the beat of trotting hooves and the ocasional horsey snort.
My mind empty, my heart full; today I rode the Mongolian Steppe with the ancients…