Worldview: Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater: Some thoughts on the future of agriculture

Yesterday on Facebook, I posted a link to an article on Grist about urban farming. The point of the article was that urban farming is not a panacea for our food production ills, and I made the argument that there is no one solution to those ills.

Something I did not touch on in those thoughts is something that too few people trying to reform agriculture in the 21st century talk about: how the consumer needs to change habits as part of a broader effort to improve the food we grow while reducing its impact.

Far too many reform efforts focus on the supply side–that is, on the farmer–while ignoring the consumer. People tend to ignore things like rampant food waste–as much as 60 percent of all food produced ends up in landfills–or over-consumption–the reason so many people are fat. They tend to ignore the massive impact out-of-season eating has on the environment and the economic impact massive box groceries have on local communities.

What I find interesting is that the concept of urban gardens addresses these sorts of problems too. It’s a psychological trick, but people tend to waste less food if they’ve produced it themselves, food harvested from gardens is of higher quality and nutrition, and gardening of any kind is fantastic exercise. Urban gardens can help reduce the transportation network required to keep box stores stocked with out-of-season foods and by definition keep food buying dollars local.

It is an old adage that how we spend is more powerful than how we vote. We affect the future of agriculture with our spending more than any other thing. As consumers, investing in urban gardens speaks volumes promises a brighter future.

DLH

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Worldview: Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater: Well intended but sometimes wrong

Whenever the weather gets the way it is right now (very cold and snowy), various posts, emails, and even news stories begin to circulate. You know the ones. Those that show something like a snow encrusted dog or other animal sleeping in the snow and exhorting people with the refrain, “If you wouldn’t sleep outside in this weather, your pet shouldn’t either.”

I will grant that, for most urban dwelling pets and people, who don’t regularly stray far from the climate controlled confines of their homes or jobs in any kind of weather, this is sound advice. The fact is that most pets and people are in no way prepared for this kind of weather.

The problem starts when this idea becomes a universal generalization applied by people to all circumstances, many of which they neither know nor understand.

For those of us who care for and live with outside animals every day of our lives, that generalization is wearisome at best. The fact is that we spend nine or ten months of the year preparing our animals, be they cattle or dogs, for exactly this kind of weather by allowing them to develop the very kinds of natural defenses that allow them to live in this kind of weather.

How can I say that? Because I know that most animals, being near relatives of their wild cousins, retain most of the traits that allow wild animals to survive and thrive in this kind of weather without harm. As a result, we make sure they have year around access to sufficient food and water, exposure to the weather when it is good, and plenty of exercise.

How does that help? Because most animals, unlike most people, expend most of their energy doing two things: getting ready to make babies and getting ready for winter. Giving them access to the right food, weather, and exercise lets them put on the right kind of fat and grow the right kinds of coats so that, even when it is sub-zero outside, they are fine.

How could they possibly be fine? Well, the same way you are fine if you are well fed and properly bundled up against the same cold. Outside animals develop multi-layered fur, sometimes as much as four or five layers thick, coated with various oils and structured in such a way that, even in the bitter cold and snow, they are as warm as you are in your coat and mittens.

In fact, for a variety of animals including cattle and working dogs, a crust of snow functions as an additional layer of protection against the cold. That crust forms an insulating barrier against a far more deadly enemy: the wind. If you see furry mammal covered in snow that is not otherwise in distress, the chances are that it is fine. I can say that because, being warm-blooded, an animal in distress in that situation will be covered in melt ice, not snow or frost or surface ice. This usually happens because the animal is sick or has gotten extremely wet. In that case, yes, the animal is in danger and needs aid quickly.

But for the majority of animals that have been properly cared for the rest of the year, being outside in this weather is not as much of a threat as people want to think it is, especially if they have a place to get out of the wind and, if they need to, out of direct exposure to precipitation. Otherwise, I can assure you they are fine.

No, really. They’re fine.

DLH

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Worldview: Consequences for a region

The City of Dayton‘s recent decision not to extend the lease for Synergy Incubators has much larger consequences than just for the city. Synergy Incubators is a regional asset, opening opportunities for food entrepreneurs to create and sustain small-scale enterprises in seven counties bordering Montgomery County by providing them a place to prepare and package food for local markets. The decision by the city has the potential to affect as many as a million people in the Dayton Metropolitan Area, and the potential economic impact affects all of southwestern Ohio.

These observations are not hyperbolic. The Dayton area is one starved for jobs, opportunities, and hope. Synergy Incubators is one of the recent innovations offering these things to the region. By refusing to extend its lease, the City of Dayton has decided that it wants to kill these things for everyone in the entire region in favor of protectionism, parochialism and petty politics that really only benefit a few politicians and downtown Dayton businesses.

If we the people of the Dayton region cannot trust the government of the City of Dayton to show leadership on our behalf, then it is time for us to show that leadership ourselves by taking whatever power the city might have left out of Dayton’s hands.

You can do so first by signing this petition calling for Dayton to extend Synergy Incubator’s lease. Failing their action to do so, you can help by helping Synergy Incubators find a new home. In any case, you can consider helping them by contributing to their cause.

The Dayton region will live or die on the actions of all its citizens. One city government should not be able to dictate to all of us what opportunities we have. Let’s make the region a better place, without Dayton’s government if we have to.

DLH

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Worldview: Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater: The test of time

I recently discovered that the building housing my coffee roastery is falling down. It’s an old brick garage, quite possibly converted from a carriage house at some point, that had the misfortune of taking a direct hit from a barn roof that blew off a decade ago. We’ve nursed it along to this point, making repairs along the way, but now the needed repairs are far more serious.

My first instinct was to seek out a professional to see how much it would cost to repair it, but then something odd happened.

I looked at the building.

If you could see it–I haven’t taken pictures, so you’ll have to take my word for this–you’d realize like I did that the people who put up that building in the first place weren’t professionals in the way we think of them today–that is, as specialists. The bricks aren’t always quite straight. The mortar work isn’t perfect.

In fact, most of our farm wasn’t built by professionals. It was built by the people who lived here. Ofttimes, they learned as they went, sometimes under the tutelage of someone who already knew, but just as often they just figured it out on their own. The did what they did out of necessity and need.

And the work they did has been good enough to last more than a century. We have a corn crib that could date back to the 1820s, built from hand-hewn beams. Our house was built in the 1840s, likely by the people who lived here from bricks fired right down the road . Our barn was built in the 1860s by the same people. And that garage probably dates to the 1880s.

What I saw when I looked at that garage was the labor of people who cared about this farm the way that I do. It’s not perfect. The years have taken their toll. But it was work they did that stood the test of time.

And it is work I can do too.

So, instead of hiring a professional or knocking it down to put up some ugly, sterile modern building, I’m going to teach myself masonry. I’m going to learn how to rebuild a garage they built 140 years ago. And maybe, somewhere along the line, I’ll have the chance to share what I know with others who want to know.

And that idea, I think, is what this farm is all about. I’m thankful I looked a that not quite straight wall with its not quite perfect mortar. It taught me something, and it’s a lesson I plan to learn.

DLH

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Worldview: Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater: Non-industrial farming as a vow of poverty

I had an interesting conversation with someone the other day that included the idea that the other person would be interested in farming as a career except for the vow of poverty. At the time, I laughed, and I still am, but the idea has had me thinking since then.

In a lot of ways, non-industrial farming is never going to be a cash laden business. In fact, as far as I can tell, it never has been. One of the popular mantras among the industrial tycoons and capitalists of the 1880s and after was that America was a poor nation because so many people farmed, and if one limited one’s view to cash on-hand, they were right.

But, they were really so wrong.

Sure, non-industrial farming is not a cash laden undertaking, but that does not mean the business nor the people doing it are poor. Instead, such farming is very much a lifestyle choice that runs against the grain of the industrial-capitalist mindset that dominated much of the last 100 years.

Further, there was plenty of money in farming before consumerism came along. Just take a drive through the cities of old small town America and you will see the money farming provided in the form of stately houses and downtown businesses built by retired farmers after they handed their farms off to their kids and moved to town.

No, what makes non-industrial farming seem like a vow of poverty is the reality that one cannot have two-thirds of ones budget go out in the form of consumption if one wants to make it.

So, instead of being a vow of poverty, non-industrial farming is a vow not to be a wanton consumer. Most of the people I know in this business, myself included, who are not working second and third jobs to fund consumption go without most of the things most people think of as modern life. We don’t have mortgages. We pay with cash. We don’t have cable or TVs. Not a small number of people go without cell phones and internet service.

Instead of having those things, we invest in our farms. We grow our own food. Some of produce our own lumber. A few even make their own fuel. We fix up old stuff and use it instead of buying new. We buy functional clothes instead of fashionable ones. We shop at Goodwill.

And in doing so, we have adopted a life that is just different from what most people know. Sure we think it’s better, but that’s because it suits us.

Maybe instead of a vow of poverty, then, it’s a vow of contentment. I’ll take that any day.

DLH

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Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater: Employing America by feed it

Monty Python ruined things for all of us. How so? Because if you mention a career in growing food, this is what most Americans think:

And most of the time, that’s where the conversation ends, even if one has more to say on the subject.

Yet, as the Greenhorns blog pointed out recently,  one way to put Americans back to work is to encourage them to go into food production careers.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. I know because I’m an American who decided to pursue a food production career. What I found is that I can be done, but our government could make it easier for more people to do it.

I’m not talking about throwing borrowed money at the problem. No, I’m talking about getting rid of the mountain of rules and regulations that strangle small farms. Sure, those rules and regs might be appropriate to control industrial ag producers. Most small farms have nothing to do with the problems big ag producers create.

Instead, what small farms need is rules and regs that help us hire. That help us invest. That help us succeed without penalizing us for success.

I imagine that, with a simple set of rule changes that differentiate small-scale and sustainable food production from industrial agriculture, America’s small farms could easily put 1 to 2 percent of the people currently employed back to work in careers with nearly infinite potential for future employment. I’d bet that quite a few of those 1 to 2 percent would go on to establish their own small farms and hire people of their own.

If only our government would listen. And care. And act. If only the voters thought this was important.

So, we keep trying. Maybe, eventually, we can change the view to something more positive.

DLH

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Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater: Punching calves

I think it’s funny that one of the terms for handling cattle is “punching”. It seems like a kind of inside joke among cattle people about the arduous nature of the task of physically handling cattle during those times when they have to be moved, sorted, tagged, or banded.

I punched a bunch of calves this weekend with the help of my wonderful and dedicated family, and during the hours I spent handling those animals, the reality of food production once again hit home. It’s hard, hard work, and no amount of money ever really pays for what needs to be done.

In fact, I realized that food production is kind of like a never-ending boxing match with nature. Every encounter ends with the producer at the least exhausted and, far too often, bruised and bloody. I sometimes suspect that, even if we happen to win a particular round, we really lose a little each time until we’ve finally lost enough that it does us in.

The nature of the food production task is one that is lost on most people anymore. To them, food is something harvested by big machines and purchased at a grocery. Far too few people realize how precarious our food production ecosystem really is and how desperately they rely on the producers to keep doing what they do no matter what so they don’t starve. They have no idea that all that stands between them and real hunger is a few rhetorical pugilists who don’t know when to throw in the towel.

The fact is, we won’t. For whatever reason, the will to fight is in us. We see nature as a sometimes ally, sometimes enemy, a truly worthy opponent for the investment of our time and our effort. We’ll keep punching calves and the like because we won’t have it any other way, even if no one else understands what we do.

DLH

 

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Worldview: Farming: Some thoughts on Punxsutawney Phil

So yesterday was Groundhog Day, complete with its requisite trotting out of the rodent and an internet full of mocking said rodent and the people who flock to him once per year.

Now, I will grant you that the whole show surrounding Groundhog Day is ridiculous and proves nothing except that people like to have a good time, yet I can’t help but notice that the day also points toward something we’ve forgotten over the past century in our rush to scientize everything: animals, particularly rodents, are a great way to predict the weather wherever you are.

This fact points to a larger failing on the part of our modern selves. We’re so busy analyzing, categorizing, and objectifying nature that we’re no longer a part of it. Nature is something out there, just beyond our sterile, lifeless environs we’ve created to flee it and all its weather-predicting rodent glory.

There was a time when people, farmers and hunter-gatherers alike, knew exactly what weather was coming because the animals, and to a certain extent the plants, told them so. They knew that when the groundhogs started coming out of their dens only to return to them without seeking mates or food that more winter was coming, at least where they lived. They knew that when the spring birds arrived early they could expect a mild late winter. They knew this because they paid attention to what nature told them.

Now, we pay attention to what the meteorologist tells us, and he’s wrong as often as Punxsutawney Phil in my opinion. The fact is I can tell as much about what the weather’s going to do in a week from how my cows eat hay or what my chickens are up to than I can from a sterile forecast of temperature and precipitation.

And together, I can tell a lot more. My argument here is not to abandon science in favor of nature. What does that idea even mean. If science is real science, it’s an observation of nature anyway, and the best observations happen in the environment instead of removed from it. Together, the meteorologist and the groundhog can tell us more than either one can alone.

So, maybe we should give the groundhog a chance. Take a look outside and see what’s happening. It might tell you a lot.

DLH

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Worldview: Farming: Good rules for rounding up wayward animals

If you grow livestock, it is almost inevitable that eventually some of them will get out of the place you keep them. This problem could result from a poorly latched gate or from an animal’s desire to see if the grass is really greener on the other side of that fence. Either way, at that point, you’re now in the wayward animal chasing business, so here’s some advise for getting them back where they belong.

  • Always wear your boots: It is amazing the places animals will get themselves into when they’re out, and if you’re not wearing boots while you’re getting them back where they belong, you’re probably going to wish you had. As I mentioned in my “The farm uniform” post, a good pair of steel-toed boots are indispensable for farm work and doubly so when chasing animals.
  • Always carry the right stick for the right job: There’s a reason herdsmen have carried sticks for thousands of years: they work. The most basic stick is a simple walking stick (I use mine often), but you can use a shepherds crook for smaller livestock or a poultry catcher for birds.
  • Most animals will run the opposite direction you approach them from: This is an almost absolute rule. Granted, you have to approach the animal from some direction, but as much as possible, do so from opposite the direction you’re trying to get them to go. Most animals will also run for home when startled, so use that fact to your advantage.
  • Fence lines are a good way to stop forward progress: Fences stop animals from running in a particular direction and can act as a “second person” when trying to round up an animal. Use your fences to your advantage.
  • The more people you have the better: Granted, this is not always possible, but get as many people, equipped with boots and sticks, as possible to help round your animals up, especially if they are bigger animals like cattle. Consider calling neighbors if you need to.
  • Stay a leg’s length away unless you want to get kicked: Unless you want to get kicked, stay away from the kicking bits, especially with larger animals.
  • A caught animal will bite, kick, and flail to get away: If you have to catch smaller animals, be assured that it will fight back when caught.

Also, while animals getting out is almost inevitable, here are a few things you can do to make your roundup easier.

  • Interact with your animals when they are calm: As you interact with your animals more, they will get used to your presence and will not be as flighty when you need to work with them when they are stressed. This interaction is especially important for large livestock that cannot be caught and manhandled.
  • Consider a perimeter fence: One of the best ways to keep escaped animals contained is to limit how far they can run. Having a perimeter fence will help with that task.
  • Also, walk your fences regularly: Animals will find the weak points in a fence and get through them. Walk your fences regularly to make sure they are in good repair.
  • While you’re at it, use stronger fence: A lot of people use line fence because it’s cheap(er) than other kinds of fencing, but it’s not always the best option. If you have places where animals work the fence or keep getting through, consider other kinds of fence like cattle panel.
  • Have enough gates: Escaped animals are rarely cooperative, so trying to herd them toward the one gate in your fence can be a difficult task. Consider having gates at each corner of a fence and in the middle for especially long runs.

Granted, these ideas won’t keep your animals from getting out, but they will help you get them back in once they are out. Good luck and happy herding.

DLH

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