Worldview: Farming: MENF 2011: We’re all really dirt farmers

Whether we all like it or not, we’re all dirt farmers. You don’t think so? Well, consider this the next time you’re sitting on the pot: you’re finishing the process whereby your body turns the food you have eaten into energy, nutrients, and dirt from which more food can be grown, even if we don’t like to think of it that way in the 21st century.

Dirt is the medium of exchange for life on earth. It is an amazing material, composed of hundreds and sometimes thousands of constituents all necessary for life to exist. Nearly every living thing produces dirt in some form and nearly nothing can survive without dirt to help it grow or help the things it needs to eat grow.

This idea is important because it is so foreign to modern people, especially in the west and especially in the 21st century. In this era of artificially pristine food gleaming in supermarket displays, an era dominated by the absurd reduction of food growing to chemical applications to a growth medium, we forget that all food–indeed, all life–begins and ends with the dirt.

And healthy dirt is the best kind. If dirt is the medium of exchange for life, then humans are the custodians of the exchange, and we do a really bad job. How so? For instance, as much as half the trash buried in landfills every year, 125 million tons by some estimates, is organic waste that could be composted into dirt instead of being put into a landfill. Even worse, most landfill practices prevent this waste from turning into dirt, meaning that there is waste in landfills from as long as 50 years ago that still has not decayed.

While we’re busy burying our organic waste instead of composting it, farmers are busy dumping a whopping 60 million tons of chemical fertilizer on their crops every year, most of which comes from oil or is produced using fossil fuels for energy. Farmers do this because the dirt they try to grow in is only fit for growing weeds without help.

Help that could come in the form of hundreds of millions of tons of biologically active, incredibly fertile compost if we would stop throwing it away and start putting it back where it belongs: into the dirt.

So, consider this: stop throwing your organic waste away. I’m talking about all of it: food scraps-even bones and fat, paper, cardboard, or anything like it. If it came from a plant or animal, it’s probably organic. Then, compost that stuff. If you don’t want to or can’t compost it, find someone who will and can.

It can be done. We can even compost our own waste along with the rest, ensuring that it all goes where it is supposed to go: back into the dirt where it belongs, just like it was supposed to all along.


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Farming: MENF 2011: Show me the money

Sometimes its easy to get lost in encouraging people to grow their own food and forget that this stuff still costs money. As idealistic as we may all want to be, at some point we have to pay the bills. It turns out paying the bills may not be as hard as you might think.

There are as many ways to make raising your own food pay for itself as there are people trying to do it, but I’ve noticed that most of the cash efforts seem to center around two kinds of things: greens and chickens.

First, the greens. Greens, sprouts, and salads have become the most common acknowledgement most people pay to trying to eat healthy. If you’ve noticed the lettuce display at your local grocer, you will have noticed people seem to be eating a lot of the stuff, and they seem to be willing to pay quite a bit for what they get. As an aspiring food grower, you can tap into that market, especially in the off-season.

The simplest way to grow such greens is to set up a simple greenhouse, hoop house, cold frame, or low hoop over a row of greens. One speaker I heard recently grows sprouts and microgreens on an Ikea bookcase fitted with cheap florescent lights from Lowes. While it is important to do your research and make sure you’re doing it right, growing greens can be simple and produce a good crop year around.

Of course, marketing such a product can be its own challenge, but that’s where due diligence comes in. Let’s face it, family and friends and word of mouth is the best way to sell your product. Local year around farmers markets and greenhouses are often looking for new sources of the products they sell, or you could sell them there yourself. Try getting your product into a local restaurant by giving them a sample of what you produce.

Second, we have chickens, and really poultry of just about any kind. Poultry flocks give food growers multiple benefits, but the one we’ll concentrate on here is the income from eggs and meat. Depending on your market, pastured chicken eggs can go for as much as $6 a dozen, and a flock of 12 birds can produce as much as 4 dozen eggs a week, though it’s sometimes a less. In addition, laying hens can pay for themselves twice, once in the eggs they produce and once again in the meat they produce later. Keeping a few roosters on hand can guarantee meat chickens as often as every 16 weeks depending on the variety you raise.

Granted, poultry has a higher start-up cost, and you may incur ongoing costs as a result of needing to buy feed, but I think in the long-run chickens are one of the simplest and most profitable undertakings any food grower can invest in.

There are many other ways you can make money from your food growing operation, limited only by your creativity and willingness to put out the effort. The key to these undertakings is to keep them as simple as possible and to remember that small steps are better than no steps at all. Don’t get impatient if things don’t happen right away and keep focused on the result instead of the work.


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Worldview: Farming: MENF 2011: Small steps are better than no steps at all

The task of becoming sustainable, local-reliant, and ready can be a daunting one. If you’re just beginning, it can seem impossible.

Yet, it turns out that far too many people want to do it all instead of doing what they can do when they can do it. It turns out that small steps are better than no steps at all when it comes to these sorts of things.

For instance, are you growing your own food? No? Well, that doesn’t mean you suddenly have to start growing tomorrow the 730,000 or so calories the average adult American should consume ever year. Instead, start with a window box planted with some herbs and lettuce. If that’s not enough for you, look into a desktop aquaponics setup. When you’re ready, plant a single 4 foot by 8 foot raised bed. Then move on from there.

As it turns out, it’s usually the small steps that produce the biggest changes in each of us and how we live our lives that then prepare us for the big stuff. We can learn to tend a potted food plant, change our buying habits at the grocery, recycle more, or stock up a few extra batteries long before we’re ready to learn to tend an acre garden plot, abandon the grocery, commit to a zero waste lifestyle, or stockpile a year’s supply of readiness goods.

But those small steps add up. Over time, and if you’re consistent, you’ll naturally gravitate toward the larger and larger commitments. That is what happened to me and to many people I know who are on the same path, and it cannot help but happen to you too.

So, your challenge now is to seek out your first small step and do it. Then seek out another one and do it. And keep doing that until you get where you wanted to go.


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Worldview: Farming: MENF 2011: It takes a village

While it is possible to do, there are very few people who manage to establish complete self-sufficiency, and it is my belief that such an effort is counter-productive and, in many ways, wrong. Perhaps a better term for the effort I advocate is “local-sufficiency” because I believe that it really does take a village to make things work the way they should.

In our efforts to establish things like sustainability, resource sovereignty, and long-term readiness, we have to realize we cannot do everything. Part of what we must do is build communities of people all working toward those common goals; communities that build on individual strengths and buttress individual weaknesses.

Unfortunately, Americans are a stubbornly independent lot, and we tend to think the pinnacle of success is “going it alone.” It is my experience that such thoughts are often a recipe for failure at the best and for disaster at the worst.

Instead of trying to make ourselves independent from everyone, we should be working to pick who we are dependent on and to develop relationships that can sustain us regardless of circumstances. In order to do so, however, such an idea requires us to rethink how we approach almost everything we do.

We have to identify the things we are good at, the things we do well enough to help others, and the things we won’t or can’t do ourselves. We have to identify that there are things we do right now that don’t work and find ways to do them better.

Once we do, we will realize how much of the way we approach life right now is inefficient, wasteful, and just plain wrong. It is at that point that we can look around us at our relationships and communities and start building the kinds of networks necessary for sustainable, sovereign, ready lives.

And once we do so, we will discover that we will have freed ourselves from so many of the problems that have dominated the last half of the 20th and first part of the 21st centuries. Such liberation should be something we all strive for.


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Worldview: Farming: MENF 2011: More on not having to go it alone

I think it is a human trait to view new undertakings, especially ones that are large or difficult, as occurring in some kind of isolation. Yet the truth is that very few people are really going it alone at anything we try to do.

The growing desire so many people have to establish sustainable, ready lives is a perfect example. I know when I took over Innisfree Farm, I felt like I was doing it all by myself, especially given the attitudes of the farmers I interact with most often. I believed that I had to figure this out myself and that I wasn’t going to get any help.

As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. While there is a dearth of sustainable agriculture and readiness mindset in my specific locality, thousands upon thousands of people around the US and around the world are doing some version of what I am doing. All I have to do is seek them out and ask for advice.

And that’s all you have to do too.

Whether you’re trying to plant a window box or a thousand acres, put together a 72-hour readiness kit or establish an off-grid thousand-acre farm, there are people out there trying to do the same thing you are doing. They want to talk to you, to share their experiences and advice. Not a small number of them even want to help you succeed.

None of this is to say such undertakings are going to be suddenly easy. It has been my experience on the farm that the most worthwhile undertakings are hard because they are worthwhile. Yet, knowing that there are people you can turn to to commiserate, ask questions of, and even ask for help makes the going easier even if the work is hard.

If I may suggest, the fact that you are even reading this blog post is the first example you can cite of there being others out there willing to offer advice and help. The whole reason I established this weblog is so that I can share my experience with others with the hope that it will help others struggling through the same things I am. I am always willing to hear from you, to listen to your stories, to offer advice when I am able, and to help build networks of people trying to do what we’re doing.

Over the next while–I can’t really say how long it might take–I hope to add to this site large quantities of information on organizations, publications, and resources I know and have used to make my effort easier. Along the way, I also hope to build a network of people who are doing the same thing and who are willing to offer the same commiseration, advice, and help I would like to offer.

And you should do the same. Maybe you don’t want to maintain a weblog, but you can still seek out your neighbor who also gardens or your local sustainable agriculture group. You can go to farmer’s markets and actually talk to the farmers or seek out conventions and fairs on the subject. By doing so, you’re helping build the network and make things a little better for all of us.


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Worldview: Farming: Mother Earth News Fair 2011: Learning we’re not going it alone

My wife and I attended the Mother Earth News Fair at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in southwestern Pennsylvania this past weekend. For us, it was an amazing experience to be surrounded by thousands of people who care about agriculture, sustainability, and readiness as much as we do.

The fair, I think, had something for everyone. I attended sessions as diverse as one on building an electric motorcycle to one on urban gardening to one on using permiculture on a farm. There were sessions on everything from alternative energy to alternative medicine to alternative building.

What I took away from the fair more than anything, though was the realization that we’re not alone in what we’re trying to do and that there are an amazing amount of resources out there, sometimes for free, for anyone interested in trying.

The fair also jump-started my thinking process, and the result will be, I hope, a series of blog posts over the next couple of weeks on things I came to realize or wonder about during my trip.

Finally, I recommend this event to anyone who cares about the future. I will post information about next year’s fair as it becomes available, and in the mean time, I hope to pass my inspiration from the last one on to you.


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