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.

DLH

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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.

DLH

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Worldview: Farming: 10/10 Challenge 2011

Last year, I challenged readers to plant a 10 foot by 10 foot plot of wheat by October 10th as a proof that it can be done. I am challenging everyone to do the same thing this year.

But wait, there’s more:

This challenge isn’t just about proving you can grow your own food, although that is an important part. It’s also about being ready.

To that end, I challenge you to do any or all of the following:

  • Plant a 10 food by 10 foot plot of fall planted cereal grain by October 10th. Such grains include winter wheat, rye, and some kinds of barley and oats. Good sources for this kind of seed include Bountiful Gardens and The Sustainable Seed Company
  • Install and plant a cold frame with fall plantings of lettuce or root vegetables.
  • Purchase a small patio greenhouse and populate it with potted vegetables.
  • If you have an existing garden, consider planting and covering rows of lettuce or root vegetables.

You can do this, but you have to do it. Your first step toward feeding yourself can start with this.

DLH

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Readiness: Be ready now: 3 things you can start doing this week to be ready for whatever comes next: Establishing self-sufficiency

Be ready now is a weekly post about things you can do right now to get ready for whatever might come next courtesy of Dennis L Hitzeman’s Readiness Weblog. You can find other posts in this series in the “Be ready now” category.

This week’s theme: Establishing self-sufficiency

  • Immediate: Make a list of all of the things you depend on in order to provide yourself and the people to depend on you with necessities. Such a list will likely include things like your source of income, where your food, clothing, and shelter come from, and similar things. Next, make a list of how you could provide for the same necessities if one or more of the things you currently depend on become unavailable. Finally, make a plan for how to implement each change will take place.
  • Intermediate: Consider replacing things you depend on others to do for you by paying them with things you do yourself. If you are unable to do them yourself, seek out the most local source for the thing you are paying for. Pay special attention to the sources of your most basic necessities.
  • Long-term: The best way to establish self-sufficiency is to surround yourself with people trying to do the same thing. Typically, such people gravitate to small, rural farm communities, and they do so because of the lower population density, the access to arable land, and the general tendency for rural people to be more self-sufficient than city dwellers. Before undertaking such a task, carefully consider what you can add to such a community–that is, what are you going to do to be self-sufficient yourself that would compliment what others are already doing.

 

Do you find this information informative and helpful? Feel free to contact me and let me know. You can also contact meabout ways you can support this effort.

DLH

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Farming: Because it’s a farm

I heard today that our tenant farmer–he plants our 100 or so acres of tillage–thinks my wife and I are ripping off my mother-in-law because, well, there are goats eating grass in the front yard and chickens eating grass in the back. That’s not how things are supposed to be, you know, because now the farm looks like… a farm.

This kind of nonsense has been an ongoing part of my acclimatization into the world of someone trying to farm sustainably in a world filled with industrial workers whose job happens to be the planting and harvest of organic manufacturing components. Most of my fellow farmers have lost sight of the age old understanding borne of thousands of years of human agriculture, which wisdom states that the farmer feeds himself and his own first, the people around him next, and then sells whatever might be left to buy the things he cannot grow or make himself.

To our tenant farmer, the secret to farming is to borrow tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to plant and harvest thousands of acres of crops that humans can no longer directly consume, to sell those crops for prices determined by speculators who never have his best interest in mind, and to dump his commodity into an industrial supply system whose product he has to pay for even though it could not exist without his tireless effort. And, if there’s a bad year, he could easily fold and have very little or nothing to show for it.

To me, the secret to farming is what I have already noted. First, plant and raise food–food people can eat straight from the plant or animal without the intermediary of industrial processing. Second, raise that food to feed me and mine first. Third, make sure the people around me are fed. Fourth, sell whatever is left to buy what I cannot grow or make myself. The thing is, even in the worst years, it is possible to eke out an existence following that method– if it weren’t, most of us would not be here today.

So, yeah, our farm looks like a farm, and that’s on purpose. We can eat what we’re doing here. How many farmers can say that?

DLH

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Farming: Broadforking, gardening, and growing your own food, expanded and refined

Earlier this week, I discussed the idea of using a broadfork as a method for tilling the ground instead of using a tiller and and why this method is superior to traditional tilling. Of course, this method still has its own related expenses and may seem like a daunting investment of resources and time to some.

Yet, it doesn’t even have to be that complicated. Most people can get away with no till gardening by simply using a pitchfork, a garden trowel, and a pointed hoe. This method is especially good for small plots and raised beds.

It is possible, and in fact preferable, to plant directly into a yard that has never been tilled. Simply select a plot, loosen the soil by sticking the pitchfork into the ground and tilting to about a 30 degree angle. Then dig holes or rows for the plants or seeds. You can control the grass between the plants with a pair of hand garden sheers.

Now, I will grant that some kinds of plants do better in this kind of planting environment than others. Tall and climbing plants do very well, as do densely sewn cereal grains. You might have to add fertilizer if you do this with corn, but then again native cultures planted in ways similar to this for a long time with great success.

If you’re nervous about this kind of planting, consider starting small. Buy a locally grown tomato plant (or whatever kind of vegetable you might eat) and plant it. Starting small can help build confidence, and before you know it, you could be growing a lot of your own food.

The point is to do it. Try it and find out what you can do.

DLH

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Farming: What’s your excuse for not growing your own food

I’ve heard most of them already: it’s too hard, too expensive, takes too much time, takes too much space, etc. The worst excuses run along the lines of why should I grow my own food when I can pay someone else to grow it for me. Of course, all of these excuses are worth far less than manure-based garden fertilizer and represent all kinds of things wrong with the way non-food raisers think about food.

My challenge to you is what it has always been: grow your own food! You may not be able to grow very much, but what you can grow will provide benefits that will pay for themselves multiple times over down the road. The only thing standing between you and that payday is you. Get out there and do it!

DLH

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Farming: Your yard could be making you money [UPDATED]

If you haven’t already noticed, world food prices have reached crisis levels in part on one of the tightest cereal grain supplies in modern times. Unfortunately, this trend only stands to continue on the heels of a terrible wheat harvest in China after Russia’s catastrophic drought last year.

What does this have to do with your yard? Simply that you could be growing cereal grains there instead of grass.

Consider that, unless you have grazing animals, grass is a worthless crop that costs you money in the form of mowing, landscaping, and fertilization (although why people fertilize grass they then cut so short it almost dies is beyond me).

On the other hand, a 10 foot by 10 foot plot of wheat can yield enough grain to keep a family of four in bread for a year and with wheat selling at $7.40 a bushel, it is easy to see how someone can turn at least a small profit on a small plot of ground. Depending on the size of the plot, the sowing method used, and the type of seed used, a 20 by 60 plot could yield anywhere from 1.3 to 2 bushels of wheat, and a 10 by 10 plot can yield up to 20 pounds of grain.

Now, I know that, especially if you live in a city, tearing up your yard to plant wheat can be problematic, but it’s not impossible, and wheat isn’t even the only crop you could plant. The point is that you could be making money off your yard, especially right now, and it wouldn’t take much on your part to do it.

DLH

UPDATED: Corrected my bad math and failure to pay attention to detail. See the discussion below. Thanks to Matt for catching my mistake.

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Farming: The global food crisis

The specter of another global food crisis on par or worse than the events that shook parts of the world in 2007 and 2008 has once again reared its ugly head. Drought and fire in Russia have combine with poor harvests and reduced yields elsewhere in the world to dramatically increase demand even as the supply is tightening.

From my point of view, these events are neither unpredicted nor surprising. For decades now, the global food system has been built on fragile, faulty premises that concentrates food production in too few places, utilizing too many resources, and employing too few people. Especially in the industrialized world, enormous populations demand more and more food from less and less land and workers.

Meanwhile, industrial monoculture steadily exhausts the land still dedicated to agriculture, and industrial agricultural byproducts poison the land that grows the food it is supposed to help. Even with modern farming techniques, in many places infertility in the soil and chemical resistant pests are gaining the upper hand. The cost of producing food continues to increase even as the prices fail to keep pace, meaning that circumstances force farmers to sell more land, take more shortcuts, or get out altogether. Compound this problem with the occurrence of natural disasters like the recent drought in Russia, and all of the elements for a crisis of biblical proportions are present.

While this situation seems bleak, and it is for many people, it does not have to be. There is another way, but it is a way that requires people to change their view about where their food comes from.

Less than a century ago, even in the industrialized world, the largest area of employment was agriculture, either directly because people farmed or indirectly because people worked in businesses that supported farmers. Small town America, as an example, was also farm town America because those towns existed to support the farms that surrounded them. Certainly, there were hard times, but such times were usually brief and limited in geography.

Less than a century later, less than 1 percent of the American population farms, and the number of people working in industries supporting farming might total 1 percent. This means that, in the United States alone, 294 million people depend on the efforts of 6 million people for their daily bread. If something untoward happens, like drought or yield decreases, suddenly those 294 million people have nowhere to turn for their food.

That is, unless they turn to themselves.

Throughout history, even in the most specialized and stratified societies, most people directly invested some kind of effort into feeding themselves. At the least, they had gardens, kept small animals, or leased out plots of land for agriculture in return for part of the proceeds. Summer and autumn kitchens were filled with the efforts of preserving food for the winter, and most people relied on the larder rather than the grocery during the long winter months.

Most of us still have relatives that remember those times, and most of them will tell you that, even in the lean times, no one really starved.

What changed from those days was attitude. Governments and individuals decided that farming was beneath them. Instead, they decided that farming should be someone else’s job, and the number of those people willing to farm continued to decline even as the demand for the farm’s produce continued to increase. Now, there are not enough farmers, there is not enough productive land, and natural events threaten to upset this fragile balance.

That is, unless people do something about it.

About a month ago, I challenged readers of my weblog to do something simple: stake off a 10 foot by 10 foot section of their yard or of someone’s yard who was willing to let them, and plant wheat. This little plot, if all goes well, has the potential to produce enough grain to make bread for a year from its produce. Even with diminished yields, it can produce a sizable crop. Yet, hardly anyone responded to my challenge, and that lack of response is the problem.

About a year ago, I began reading that economists expected the average price of food to rise 20 percent in the next year. Now, some watchers believe the price of certain kinds of food could double before the end of 2011. The factors behind these price increases are complex, but they cannot help but strain the budgets of the 294 million people who choose year after year to trust someone else to feed them.

That is, unless people start feeding themselves.

Make no mistake: food production is hard work, but hunger strikes me as being even harder work. Besides, small-scale food production in a back yard or a small, borrowed lot is hardly the undertaking people imagine when they try to compare it to industrial agriculture. Further, small-scale food production has the added benefit of accomplishing all of the things people need to be doing anyway: getting outside, getting exercise, spending time with family and friends, breaking the tyranny of the TV and internet.

All that small-scale food production requires is a will to do it. Perhaps the crisis has not grown enough for enough people to care, but why wait until it has?

DLH

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Farming: Food as a fungible commodity

All around the internet, you can find vigorous discussions about how, with the impending risk of international economic meltdown brought about by massive overspending, the smart bet is to invest in things like gold, which is a fungible commodity that will retain its value even if the rest of the economy self-destructs.

While, in some ways, this exhortation to invest in things like gold makes all kinds of sense, typical economic-downturn commodities like it have many disadvantages: they’re expensive, hard to move in quantity, limited in availability, and difficult to produce. These disadvantages mean that, even if one accumulates quite a bit of them, they will be harder to use when the time comes and will eventually run out.

On the other hand, food is also a fungible commodity, and while it often lacks the durability of other commodities, it has the significant advantages of being cheaper, easier to move in quantity, largely available if you want it to be, and surprisingly easy to produce. In fact, before precious metals, gem stones, and oil, food was the currency de jure in most parts of the world for millenia.

What is so amazing about food production is that almost anyone can do it, even on marginal land or land often presupposed not to be agricultural. As I have challenged everyone to do in my “10-10 Challenge” and is discussed in a variety of books like You Can Farm, Small-scale Grain Raising, and The One Straw Revolution, just about anyone can produce quite a bit of food on small plots of land with minimal investments of time and effort. Historically, families in the East have fed themselves and sold surplus off plots as small as a quarter of an acre, which includes raising livestock.

The beauty of small-scale food production is that, if the economy does tank, the food you produce will still have value–perhaps even more value than it did previously. Further, unlike traditional economy beating investments, producing your own food means that you do not have to rely on someone else to produce that food for you, which then means that the other fungible assets you might have accumulated are now available to procure all sorts of other things.

Even if you don’t want to produce your own food, you can still invest in food as a commodity against economic disaster. The company Heirloom Organics sells investment grade seed packs designed for long-term storage and that contain open-pollinated, heirloom crop seeds that will become very valuable if the economy collapses. Companies like Emergency Essentials sell supplies of long-term storage foods like cereal grains and legumes. Even if one does not use these food items himself, they can become a valuable commodity in the case of economic hardship.

Of course, my underlying argument here is that everyone should establish a higher level of self-sufficiency by growing their own food, one of the benefits of such activity being that it can act as insulation against economic hardship. Doing such a thing seems like a double benefit and an easy choice to me.

DLH

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