Taming a tangled wilderness

We’re unusually free with sharing our successes and failures here at Innisfree on the Stillwater, a fact that is intentional and purposeful rather than naive and dramatic. You see, our desire, along with giving people access to quality, sustainably grown food is also to help educate the vast majority of people who don’t understand what it takes to grow their food on exactly what it takes to grow their food.

In addition to some thinking we’re arrogant for having such a goal, one of the classic responses we get, especially to failures, is that we don’t know what we’re doing. The irony, to a point, is that these critics are right, but for entirely the wrong reasons.

As it turns out, we don’t know what we’re doing because the knowledge of what we’re trying to do, in many cases, has been almost entirely lost, sometimes intentionally. Over the past several decades, there has been a radical revolution in agriculture almost unheard of since the invention of agriculture itself, and often not always for the better. This revolution has happened so quickly that the knowledge got lost before it got written down.

The result has been tragic, from loss of crop diversity so severe that entire annual crops are now entirely clones to animals so closely bred for specific genetics that they die from eating food they’re supposed to be able to eat, along with a population now so far removed from the realities of what it actually takes to feed them that this all seems normal to them.

We don’t know what we’re doing because we’re on the frontier trying to create a bulwark against the threats these kinds of changes represent. We understand we’re not going to overturn or replace those realities, but we also know some level of that knowledge must be salvaged or rediscovered or the potential for disaster is real and imminent.

So yes, we admit our ignorance, not as a condemnation of ourselves, but as a bellwether of the risks we all face. We do this because we desperately want to learn before it’s too late and for others to understand the risks we all face.

Perhaps that makes us arrogant, but the fact is that explorers and discoverers have always had to be to succeed at what they’re trying to do. We accept that aspersion and the challenge it represents because the task must be done.

DLH

Grass farming

So, after a long hiatus, I’ve decided to reboot this blog. When doing so, it’s often hard to know where to start, so I decided to start with the question we get asked most often: Why don’t we mow our grass?

2016-06-08 10.52.52

The short answer to that question is that our “messy” “ugly” yard that makes our “farm look abandoned” is what real sustainable stewardship looks like. Because we’re not mowing our yard, we’re not spending money on grass mowing, not producing the byproducts of grass mowing, and are providing habitat for all sorts of native species.

But, honestly, the answer is more complicated than that. Yes, we are doing all of those things, but it turns out we’re also grass farmers. Our primary occupation at Innisfree is raising animals for food, and it turns out most of our animals eat grass. When I see a yard, I see a pasture, even if it’s one right up next to my house.

In a manner of speaking, we do mow our grass. We just do it sustainably with animals instead of mowers and gas. For us, the results are worth the “mess”.

DLH

On animals and worldviews

I suspect that one of the driving forces of the greatest changes in society over the past 100 years versus the past several millenia has been specific movement of people away from caring for food animals.

One cannot help but learn about the brutal realities of the cycle of life to death to life when one cares for food animals. As a result, one cannot help but see the realities of the same cycle in every other part of life. Such realizations cannot help but make someone more pragmatic at the least, if not even a little fatalistic.

That kind of pragmatism then fueled all sorts of ways of thinking that dominated most of human history. And while, yes, that thinking justified all sorts of things we moderns consider savage and inhuman, it also gave birth to the world we have today and, to a great part, continues to sustain it long after most people have forgotten what it all might mean.

Now, being engaged in that kind of undertaking, I find my own thinking inevitably changed by the reality of what I do. In some ways I am softer. In some ways I am harder than I ever imagined I could ever be. My focus is different–dare I say, more focused–and the change in my view of the realities of life and death could not be more profound.

I understand the impracticality of a general return to agriculture, but I cannot help but wonder if we would not benefit from a return to some parts of the worldview it fostered. We need more pragmatism in a world sometimes blinded by the shining and ofttimes false optimism of modernity.  We could do worse than to revisit history, and I’m certain we can benefit from it.

DLH

Hay season

A couple of times a year, I mow lots of grass. Not in the $40-billion-make-my-lawn-look-like-a-golf-course sort of way, but in the make food for animals sort of way.

We mow and bale about 30 acres of grass hay every year to hold our cattle and goats through the winter. There are a lot of things that make hay a chore, like the heat and dodging the weather, but despite my complaints, I actually look forward to it.

While so many people slave away in cubicles or at cash registers, I get to spend days outside in the sun, in near contact with the abundance of nature, using big machines. In the hours I spend mowing, raking, and baling, I find a unique opportunity to contemplate and formulate this path of life I travel.

And sure, things go wrong. Equipment breaks. The weather doesn’t cooperate. I see these things as opportunities to grow stronger. To develop fortitude. To solve problems.

For me, hay season is the peak of my year. That’s not to say that it’s downhill from there, but I look forward to this every year even as I dread it. Hay season encapsulates farming as a whole, and I love it all.

DLH

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

Spring is in the air, which means mud on my knees

I haven’t disappeared: I”ve been farming.

As you might imagine, spring is a busy time of year. This year started with banding steers and selling off our excess calves, interspersed with planting our garden. We got our next load of 75 meat chicken peeps in (they’ll be ready in Septemberish) and we’ll be adding to our laying flock in the next month or so.

We built a mobile pen system for our mowing goats, which makes moving them from place to place much easier than it was last year. I hope to detail that undertaking in a separate post.

Also, the warm spring means haying time is already here, and we’ll probably have our first cutting down in the next few weeks.

What kind of food production activities does spring bring for you? Let me know in the comments.

DLH

Planning spaces: working animals into a sustainable permaculture plan

I’ve learned a lot about utilizing the ground for food production over the past few years, and one of the things I have learned is that there is no space, whether it is a garden, a tilled field, or a pasture, that should ever be left for a single use. Nature multitasks everything, and the best farm plans do the same.

While that is true, I am surprised how many sustainable agriculture pundits leave the animals out of their plans. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few who advocate using animals, but for the most part, most of the people out there talking about sustainable agriculture keep their animals mostly seperate from their agriculture.

What I have come to realize is that the best way to utilize space is to have animals as part of every stage. For instance, we use goats to keep grass areas trimmed and chickens to keep the goat manure broken down. Chickens tend our gardens during the winter months, eating weed seeds and grubs we could never control otherwise. Cows, and eventually goats and chickens, patrol our pastures and keep them healthy through carefully managed grazing.

This year, I plan to experiment with using chickens to tend the aisles of our gardens using tunnels to keep them off the plants. Chickens are death on weeds and insect pests.

All of these ideas, and some yet to come, require some degree of consideration as part of planning our operations. I’ve found that we have to think differently about how we design our growing areas to accommodate animals as well as plants. The more we accommodate, the better things seem to work.

As far as I can tell, there is no foolproof method for such accommodation–that is, I have not identified one yet–but there is a question we should ask whenever we are planning a new space: how will I use animals here?

I think that including animals in an overall sustainable agriculture plan will make the plan that much better for us, our plants, and our animals.

DLH

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

 

Web roundup

Want to know what I’m reading about agriculture, food, and sustainability? Well this periodic post is the place to find out:

  1. Kajabi on the old wise farmer
  2. Treehugger on exploding pig barns
  3. The New York times on the rise of the artisanal food producer
  4. Scientific American on the impracticality of the cheeseburger
  5. Foreign Policy Magazine on commodity induced food price inflation
  6. Popular Science on how feeding antibiotics to pigs is helping to create superbugs
  7. The Guardian on Monsanto being found guilty of poisoning by a French court
  8. Gene Logsdon at The Contrary Farmer on the need for secret crying places
  9. Wake Up World on bus roof gardens
  10. Treehugger on Seattle’s attempt to create the world’s first public food forest

You can also get these kind of links in real time by following me on Facebook or Twitter.

DLH