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

Swinging for the fences

The one part of our farming adventure at Innisfree on the Stillwater that has dogged us since the beginning is the fact that we have continued to lease our 100 acres of tillage ground, mostly for the sake of the cash rent. Of course, that lease meant a compromise in the form the use of herbicides and pesticides on that ground every year, but the money was hard to turn down.

Taking back over that ground has always been a part of our plan, and with the upcoming end of the current lease, it has been a regular topic of conversation for us.

This year, as the result of the advent of glyphosate-resistant weeds, the ante got upped with the application of 2,4-D to the entire 100 acres, which fact proved to be a bridge too far for my wife and me. As a result, we’ve decided not to renew the lease and to start working that ground ourselves.

This is a significant step for us, mostly in that it involves a loss of about a third of the farm’s cash income over at least the next couple of years as we transition to new endeavors. Irrespective of the cost, we plan to follow through on this because it is the right thing to do.

Sure, maybe we’re radical and idealistic, but we actually want to leave our little part of planet earth better than we found it for future generations. And so, we will take that ground back over and farm it the way we believe is right.

For us, that means planting about 40 acres of it in grass hay and about another 30 acres of it in fast-growing hardwood trees we plan to sustainably lumber for a variety of farm uses, especially for fence posts for our animal operations. The remainder will function as both a prairie area and for small food plots.

This transition is going to be risky and stressful, but neither of us have any doubt it is the right thing to do. We firmly believe Innisfree represents the future of agriculture, and that fact alone makes what we have decided worth it.

Here’s to hoping and to swinging for the fences.

DLH

[UPDATE: Edited for content]

Big Thugriculture

Robyn O’Brien, a tireless crusader against big agriculture and genetically modified food, recently posted about her ordeals in trying to share all of the evidence with people about what big ag and the manufactured food complex is doing to us. Her story is a sad testament to the experiences of many people on the front lines of the sustainable food movement.

But the question remains: If the GMO crowd is as right as they believe they are, then why do they have to resort to these kinds of tactics against their opponents? Shouldn’t their righteousness speak for itself?

They’re doing it because they’re not right, and many of them know it. They’re scared, and out of fear, they’re lashing out. They’re scared they’re going to lose their gravy train and they’re going to be revealed as the frauds they are.

You know the last time this happened, right? Back when brave people revealed Big Tobacco was tampering with its products in ways that were killing people. Don’t say you weren’t warned. If you’re ignoring this kind of thing, you’re just willfully ignorant.

Educate yourself.

DLH

Fanaticism

There’s something about the sustainable food movement in all its various incarnations that brings out the fanatic in people, both pro and con. I admit that I am just as bad as anyone.

Yet, there is an underlying problem with that fanaticism that undermines the whole attempt to improve the way we feed ourselves, and it finds its voice in purity tests voiced by some that demand things that are unrealistic or downright impossible.

Among the worst of these tests are calls for laws that threaten the livelihoods of the very kinds of people trying to make change happen. For example, there are those who want to pass laws that would require sustainable farmers and vegetable producers to get licensed before they could produce.

I understand the motives that drive such calls because I experience them first hand. I also know they only serve to threaten the very undertaking we’re all supposed to be working together to achieve by making it harder to do what we are doing.

Perhaps, instead of calling for laws, boycotts, and bans, if we see a problem, we should be working extra hard to solve it and let the chips fall where they may. All that effort spent trashing others could be used in a far more productive way, and in the end, that properly applied effort might just produce something better than what we already have.

DLH

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

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

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

Some thoughts on bureaucrats, school lunches, and the lies we tell ourselves

Bureaucrats tend to obfuscate the truth with words, and far too often, people fall for the resulting lie. Take school lunches as an example. As recently evidenced by the whole debacle over the NeverSeconds weblog, bureaucrats will continue to insist that they are doing something even when it is clear they are not.

In this case, they insist that they are feeding the children forced into their care for part of the day healthy, balanced meals that provide the best nutritional value for children of that age. At the same time, they blame rampant obesity, at least partly the result of malnutrition, on the parents despite the fact that the schools control the kids for as much as 10 hours a day.

Yet, if one looks at the bureaucrats, one has to wonder how they are remotely qualified to make such assessments. Two things immediately come to mind: they are rarely specimens of healthy lifestyles themselves, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bureaucrat eating the food they force on the children unless themselves forced to do so.

And so we all agree to the lie. The bureaucrats believe their own lie that they’re feeding the children well. The parents believe the lie that the bureaucrats are doing the right thing. The kids get fatter. The food gets worse.

There’s a way to put this all to the test: challenge your bureaucrats with something simple: eat lunch everyday in the school cafeteria. If the food’s that good, it shouldn’t be a problem, should it?

Then, watch the ways they squirm out of doing it. That should be proof enough, shouldn’t it?

And if it’s proof, then we have a problem: we’re malnourishing our kids on the orders of our government.

It seems to me we should be doing something about that.

DLH

An update on the NeverSeconds weblog debacle

In a predictably rapid capitulation, the Argyll and Bute Council reversed their decision to censor Martha Payne of the NeverSeconds weblog. In addition, her fundraising effort raised £19,000 in about 24 hours in support of the charity Mary’s Meals.

This is an incredible example of what can happen when people care and act, but we can’t content ourselves with just this. We have to keep caring and keep acting.

If you live in the US and want to help improve the lives and health of public school students, consider supporting  and organization like Farm to School. Let’s keep up the momentum. We can win.

DLH