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]

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

Feeding the world without reducing the problem to the absurd

I’ve been following the growing absurdity of the media fueled meme about food production since the UN declared the world officially hit 7 billion people with a mixture of frustration and amusement. The center-points of this meme are that we will have to grow as much food over the next 100 years as humanity did over the last 10,000 and that the only way we could possibly do so is by intensifying our current industrial farming methods.

Unfortunately for most of the pundits spreading this meme, their argument fails on a simple apples to oranges comparison. The way humanity produced food over the past 10,000 years bears almost no resemblance to the way we’ve been producing food since the 1950s, and it is this radical shift that has produced so much of the problem we have today.

For most of mankind’s history, most humans were involved in food production. There were times and places where the number of people involved reached as high as 90 percent, and as recently as the 1910s in the United States, as much as 50 percent of the population was involved directly in food production. If you add in those whose work supported food production, the number reaches as high as 80 percent.

And the way these people farmed was completely different than the way we farm now. Historical farming was possibly one of the most green and sustainable undertakings humans have ever mastered, using crop rotation cycles involving dozens of crops lasting dozens of years, direct recycling of organic waste, and intentional use of multiculture to improve fertility and reduce waste. There are still parts of the world, especially in Asia, where these production methods are used to this day.

Now, fast forward to 2012. In 2011, as few as 1 percent of the US working population (about 1.6 million of 160 million people) work in direct food production. If you add in those whose work supports food production, the number barely climbs to 2 percent. Further, nearly all American agriculture consists of just eight crops, two of which aren’t even edible (cotton and tobacco) and three of which (corn, soybeans, and wheat) represent as much as 70 percent of acres planted. Meanwhile, most organic waste gets buried in landfills and modern farming requires massive amounts of fossil fuels to make anything grow at all.

Further, most Americans–in fact most Westerners–think it is their right to demand someone else grow their food in exchange for money. Many Americans believe food production is beneath them because they have better things to do with their time. Most people have no idea what it takes to feed them and assume that whatever it does take will continue to go on forever.

No wonder we face a food crisis of epic proportions.

The solution to this problem is not more of the same failed approach since the 1950s that got us here. We already have examples of ways things can be done better. For instance, during the height of the central planning induced famine in the Soviet Union during the late 1970s and early 1980s, as much as 70 percent of the calories consumed in Russia were grown on 4 percent of the available arable land by local farmers on small allotments that usually measured about a tenth of an acre. In urban Detroit, as I write this, small-scale sustainable farmers are creating farms capable of feeding entire neighborhoods without the need for grocery stores. In sub-Saharan Africa, farmers are returning to traditional farming methods that worked for millenia before European intervention and multiplying their yields by factors of hundreds.

In short, these problems have solutions and the solutions are already out there, but they all take the following form: smaller-scale agriculture involving more people using more intensive methods involving more plants and animals that take into account the entire cycle of birth to death to birth again.

In fact, these methods represent a return to something nature has been telling us all along: we’ve departed from the way it works and it’s not going to let us win. The methods that fed humanity for 10,000 years worked with nature. The methods that we’ve used since the 1950s have destroyed it.

So, consider the following: if the United States would engage in an agricultural “Apollo Program” wherein it created an environment where agricultural entrepreneurs seeking to establish sustainable operations could succeed without unnecessary government or corporate interference, agriculture by itself could reduce the unemployment rate, reduce US dependence on fossil fuels, increase biodiversity, reduce pollution, and produce unprecedented food surpluses that would help redress the food imbalance in the world. And if the US does it, everyone else will follow.

Don’t believe me? Visit a local sustainable farm or a local farmer’s market and see what they have going on. Then, go home and dig up part of your yard and grow something yourself. Humans have been doing it for 10,000 years. What makes you think you’re so special?

DLH

Get out of the market

There’s been a lot of talk over the past several years about the incredible volatility in the commodity food market, especially with staple crops like corn , rice, and wheat. Prognosticators, researchers, and talking-heads go on and on about what to do to control a market that, like most commodities, proves to be beyond control.

I have an idea that would help eliminate such volatility in its entirety: get out of the market altogether.

“But,” you might say, “where will all our food come from? We can’t possibly grow enough to feed ourselves without the market, right?”

Well, yes, we can, and it can happen once we start growing food ourselves and buying what we can’t or won’t grow ourselves from people we know.

The problem with the modern commodity food market is not that there is not enough food, it’s that there are not enough people involved in raising it. The commodity food market exists because such a small number of people produce food that it has to be grown using industrial techniques that involve turning food into a raw material for manufacturing.

Contrary to what you may have learned in your history and sociology classes, the history of the world is not the history of people almost starving to death every year until the last half of the 20th century. In fact, people fed themselves quite well for the most part, usually on plots many people would think of as large gardens rather than farms. If they had not been able to do so, how do you think the world could have reached 6 billion people? They had to come from someone, somewhere, and where they came from they were well fed.

We can return to the same idea now, if we choose. It is possible for more people to return to tending gardens, growing small plots of staple foods, caring for small herds of food animals, and all without giving up the parts of modern life most of us enjoy. And, for those who want to go even further, the possibilities are endless.

But we all have to take a first step, and for most people that means passing up the grocery store in favor of the farmer’s market or the stores many local producers have set up to make their produce available to the wider public. If we all take that step, such markets and the producers who populate them will increase in numbers, prices will go down, and food markets will stabilize at the local level. It’s really rather simple, but you have to do it first.

DLH

End note: links to local food resources:

Local Harvest – Eat Wild – Seed Savers

Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association

Columbus, Ohio North Market – Dayton, Ohio Second Street Market – Troy, Ohio Downtown Farmer’s Market – Piqua, Ohio Farmer’s Market – Covington, Ohio Farmer’s Market

Innisfree FarmCanyon Run Garlic

An open letter to farmers big and small, sustainable or not

Dear farmers,

I’ve read a lot about how none of you want cuts to federal farm subsidies or programs. I’m betting no one whose federal budget is on the chopping block right now wants their funding to go, but the extreme nature of the budget crisis means that something is, by definition, going to have to go.

My proposal to all of you is that we be the ones who stand up and say, “We don’t need the money.”

You see, from my point of view as a small farmer just getting started on the sustainable agriculture journey, the reason we have such a hard time making money and getting our message out as farmers is because so much of the money and so much of the message is controlled by the government. Because the government controls the money and the message, we farmers have very little control over how the money gets spent and what gets said.

For those of us who have decided to go it alone, the experience is quite different. I know from first hand experience what kind of money can be made and what kind of message can be put out there by a single farm. People are hungry–literally and figuratively–for what we are doing and they want more. In the next few years, unless something dramatically changes for us, our farm will be paying for itself without the benefit of a single government subsidy or program.

How is this possible? Because I, and those who work on and support my farm, understand that farming is a calling and a lifestyle, not just a job. I am my farm, and because of that, I care very deeply about what happens to it. Therefore, I am willing to put in the kind of blood, sweat, and tears that a mere job could never demand.

Now, is that kind of commitment for everyone? Of course not. Yet, I cannot help but notice that, if your’re not willing to make that kind of commitment, then what are you doing?

For those of us who are willing, the path leads away from the government. We don’t need government sponsored local food programs. We don’t need government price supports for commodity crops. We don’t need government rules telling us what, when, where, and how to plant.

What we need is our own determination and perseverance, and in a few years using those things, we would be free to do the thing we have come to know and love.

So let’s stop this dependence on the government and start our own independence based on the merits of our own effort.

DLH

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