Why do you have grass?

One of the arguments I hear often about why we have to continue modern industrial farming practices is because there just isn’t enough arable land to grow enough food for everyone. I almost always wonder what the latest person who said such a thing is doing with his or her yard.

Seriously, what are you doing with your yard? How much did you spend seeding it, weeding it, mowing it, and fertilizing it this year? For what? Because it looks pretty?

See, my farm has several dozen acres of grass: grass that cows eat right off the ground or that we mow and bale for hay. For me, grass is a foodstuff for animals and part of a system that promotes good soil health and fertility. Frankly, other than a patch of grass around the houses and other buildings that we mow to keep the critters and building destroying plants at bay, the rest of our grass is food for something or unmowed meadow.

What about you?

I’ll grant that, especially in cities, controlling the places that pest animals tend to congregate is an always pressing problem, but does the answer have to be grass? What about vegetable gardens? What about replacing grass with attractive–and edible–stands of wheat or oats or barley? What about fruit trees or creeping vines like squash, pumpkin, or watermelon?

Heck, you wouldn’t even have to do all that work yourself. I’m betting that, if you advertised your yard as available for planting, someone would be willing to do the work for you for rent or in return for part of the proceeds.

Imagine all the arable ground that would suddenly become available if yards became, essentially, micro farms. This isn’t a new idea either. In many other parts of the world, entire large, extended families feed themselves every year on a fraction of an acre.

Now, I know that people have all kinds of aversions to this kind of idea, most of which I do not understand. But, beyond the perceived images of degraded status and the irrational fear of one’s home looking like a farm, what is the real problem?

To me the idea of growing one’s own food under one’s own control represents the height of independence. If your yard is a garden, do you have to worry about the price of food or the gas needed to get it? If things go badly and you lose your job or the economy goes south, will you go hungry if your yard is full of food?

Of course, for what I am suggesting here to have any real meaning, all sorts of things would have to change. People would have to be willing to do the work. Cities would have to realize that small plot raising of fruits, vegetables, and grains will not diminish the property values in their borders any more than the bursting of unsustainable, speculative housing value bubbles might. Communities would have to believe that a fundamental level of self-sufficiency is  a far better way to ensure their continued existence than begging for grants from state and local governments might appear to be.

And once those changes occur, then even more radical practical ideas can move forward. Ask yourself what’s worse: the occasional cluck or crow of a chicken or the incessant barking of your neighbor’s yippy dog?


1st Anniversary

The beginning of the new school year reminds me that I have reached a milestone: one year since I started farming full-time.

It’s been a bumpy year, with big successes and catastrophic failures along the way. I’ve learned more in the past year than I think I have in the rest of my life put together, and for the first time in a very long time, I think I can say I am not the person I was a year ago.

Overall, I think I would give myself a D+ for this year. I had huge ambition and huger plans but very little concept of what I was undertaking. That’s not to say that my ambition and plans for next year are any less grand, but frankly, I was clueless last year at this time, and the past twelve months revealed that lack of understanding for everything it was.

I could go on for a long time about what I have learned, what I have realized, and what I plan to do, but I think the details of those things are best left for different posts. In the mean time, here’s to another year!


The cost of food

I recently came across an article on Gizmag.com about AeroFarms urban vertical aeroponic systems. I found the article to be an interesting and exciting description of yet another way for humans to grow food in environments where food production has been traditionally difficult or impossible.

What caught my attention more than the article, though, were the comments. The first comment was by someone blasting the technology because the commenter assumed the technology would not help make food production cheaper and more accessible to non-food producers.

Frankly, as someone who has recently entered the food production business, one of the conclusions I reached at the very beginning is that the idea that food production should be cheaper and more accessible to non-food producers is part of the reason why food continues to get more expensive, more inaccessible, and more scarce.

Not even 50 years ago, most people were involved either directly or indirectly in food production. In the United States, a majority of the population still lived in places considered rural and either worked on farms or at businesses that supported farms. Then came along the modernist idea that said we had too many farmers who did not produce enough cheap food, and the government and scientists engaged in an aggressive campaign to transform agriculture into what their modernized thinking believed it should be.

The result was that the number of people who list their occupation as “farmer” has dropped to less than 2 percent of the population. Meanwhile, most agricultural production in the United States has degenerated to just five major food sources: corn, soybeans, beef, chicken, and milk (yes, there is also pork, but it is not nearly as big as the top five). Further, most of the “food” sold in most grocery stores no longer comes from a farm but from a factory where the constituent components are processed, rendered, and reconstituted into things that look and smell like food but are more like a chemistry experiment gone awry.

And this method of food production has come with a hefty price tag that the world is only just starting to pay. Massive use of chemical fertilizers and killing agents have poisoned the ground, water, and air. There are places that are simply dead because of farm runoff. New, potent super weeds and bugs have come into existence as a result of forced selective breeding from the use of chemicals and medicines in food production. In some places, the obsessive focus on scientific food production (the NPK model) has resulted in farms that have “farmed out” due to the unavailability of the thousands of trace nutrients and soil components plants actually need to be healthy. Compact feeding operations create environmental damage on par with major chemical spills.

All of these problems factor back into the “cheap and accessible” model. Because people still demand inexpensive food they did not grow, modern agriculture must respond with more chemicals, more damaging cultivation methods, more concentrated food production systems, all of which compound the problems even more.

Unless everyone considers another way. AeroFarms, and the thousands of companies like it, are attempting to do something that the modern farming mythology cannot do: return mankind to a society centered around feeding itself–the theme of all of human history–without demanding that modern people give up their urbanized lives to return to rustic farm settings.

Of course, at first such technologies will be expensive and hard to come by, but over time, the best technologies will take hold, become more prevalent, and become less expensive. Further, the locally or self-produced model circumvents the “cheap and accessible” model and adds the benefit of increased local and individual independence from the vagaries of the worldwide economy and commodity markets.

So, if people really want cheap and accessible food, the best way to ensure that goal is for them to grow it themselves or to support those growing it specifically for them. Everyone can have enough food if enough people are growing it, but all of us have to start supporting that idea first.


Zombie chickens?

One of the things that veteran chicken farmers warn about is cannibalism. Chickens will attack each other when they are overcrowded, have sick chickens among them, or are just plain bored.

The breed we got on April 15th, Speckled Sussex, has proven so far to be a particularly precocious one, and we discovered yet another element to their rapid maturity: today they decided the coop of their youth was too small and started to attack each other.

What we’re learning from this heritage breed is that everything we know about chickens has been accelerated by weeks. Where traditional breeds can take as long as a couple of months to be ready to go outside,  these little devils are ready to go after just three weeks.

Part of the lesson here is to watch your particular breed when you’re trying a new one and respond to what you see as much as what you know. The result is that we’re accelerating the completion of our chicken yard fence to tomorrow so we can just let them outside during the day to ease whatever overcrowding and boredom might be going on.

Now, I’m wondering if the little buggers will learn to fly…


Cows in the yard!

They were invited, though.

It’s my first attempt at some pasture management in the form of using the cows to mow some grass that we’d otherwise have to burn gas to get rid of. The cows seem to be taking it all in stride, although one of our dogs wants to have a conniption because the cows are where they’re not supposed to be.

Right now, we have them contained with a double strand of electric fence powered by a solar energizer. My eventual goal is to add line fence to the perimeter of the yard area so that we can graze animals throughout it instead of mowing. Such practices can’t help but reduce our costs, our reliance on fossil fuels, and our dependence on machines.

Plus, it’s fun to watch.


2010- A beer odyssey

Here’s one for the “checking something off of life’s list” category: today, at long last, I purchased the supplies necessary to form the beginnings of what I hope to be my long endeavor with brewing beer myself.

Fortunately for me, and for Dayton, the owner of Belmont Party Supply in East Dayton has made starting this endeavor easy by opening Miami Valley BrewTensils, a fully stocked craft brewing store located at 2617 South Smithville Road in Dayton, right next to the party supply store. I spoke with Jeff Fortney today, and he was very knowledgeable and eager to help me get started brewing.

In the mean time, here on Innisfree, my goal is to begin not just brewing my own beer buy growing everything I can to brew it with. If all goes well, by next summer, my “Beer Garden” will be fully established and providing the ingredients necessary to create my own “Innisfree” home brew.

Stay tuned for more information as this project progresses.


Experimental garden

Returning to Innisfree allows me to indulge in something I have wanted to pursue for a long time: experimenting with growing things that most other people don’t grow for the purpose of seeing what happens.

A couple of years ago, I thought of this idea for a “beer garden” wherein I grow all of the components necessary to make my own beer (feel free to borrow and implement yourself). At the time, living on  a postage stamp of land in Dayton, I didn’t have the opportunity, but now that I am in a position to do so.

To that end, I just purchased hops, barley, and wheat seeds that will arrive in a few weeks and get planted as soon as I can get the area I am going to use ready. It should be an interesting and fun experience over the next few months with, if everything goes right, some tasty results at the end.

What I want to pass on to everyone else is not to be afraid to try things like this. Don’t over-analyze what will grow or not grow. If you want to try something, try it. If it works, great, if not, then you know.

Also, if you are looking for organically grown hops rhizomes, I purchased mine from the Thyme Garden Herb Company out of Oregon. I purchased my heritage grain seed from Bountiful Gardens out of Missouri, one of the only heritage seed providers on the internet that sells in the United States.

Stay tuned for updates as this project develops.