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

And so much more…

I’ve discovered over the past five years that people have huge preconceptions about what being a farmer means. I know, coming in, I had all sorts of them, and I know I am surrounded by fellow farmers who have deeply held ideas about their profession. One of my first posts on this site dealt with one of them, and dredged up the almost predictable responses (I’m not linking to it simply because I want to talk about something else).

One of the preconceptions I had coming in was the nature of what farm work meant in the first place. Many people, including my onetime self, have the idea that farming is as simple as growing and harvesting a crop or raising and selling an animal. I’m here to tell you firsthand that, whatever kind of farming one does, that could not be further from the truth.

Even at its most monoculture, farming is a polyculture because it cannot be anything else. Farming demands knowledge of everything from agriculture to zoology and demands the farmer be everything from an accountant to a zoo keeper.

It’s not an accident, then, that history notes the rise of farming intertwined with the rise of what we think of as civilization. Domesticating, planting, raising, harvesting, and slaughtering plants and animals for food in more effective and efficient ways is the necessary mother that gave rise to everything we take for granted today, either by inventing the things we have or by enabling the things we have to be invented.

And so, in the end, I can think of few other undertakings as intensive and broad as that of the farmer. Granted, the hurdles are tall and the valleys are deep, but if anyone wants to fully challenge himself in the pursuit of life, the vocation of farmer is a place to do it.

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

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

The test of time

I recently discovered that the building housing my coffee roastery is falling down. It’s an old brick garage, quite possibly converted from a carriage house at some point, that had the misfortune of taking a direct hit from a barn roof that blew off a decade ago. We’ve nursed it along to this point, making repairs along the way, but now the needed repairs are far more serious.

My first instinct was to seek out a professional to see how much it would cost to repair it, but then something odd happened.

I looked at the building.

If you could see it–I haven’t taken pictures, so you’ll have to take my word for this–you’d realize like I did that the people who put up that building in the first place weren’t professionals in the way we think of them today–that is, as specialists. The bricks aren’t always quite straight. The mortar work isn’t perfect.

In fact, most of our farm wasn’t built by professionals. It was built by the people who lived here. Ofttimes, they learned as they went, sometimes under the tutelage of someone who already knew, but just as often they just figured it out on their own. The did what they did out of necessity and need.

And the work they did has been good enough to last more than a century. We have a corn crib that could date back to the 1820s, built from hand-hewn beams. Our house was built in the 1840s, likely by the people who lived here from bricks fired right down the road . Our barn was built in the 1860s by the same people. And that garage probably dates to the 1880s.

What I saw when I looked at that garage was the labor of people who cared about this farm the way that I do. It’s not perfect. The years have taken their toll. But it was work they did that stood the test of time.

And it is work I can do too.

So, instead of hiring a professional or knocking it down to put up some ugly, sterile modern building, I’m going to teach myself masonry. I’m going to learn how to rebuild a garage they built 140 years ago. And maybe, somewhere along the line, I’ll have the chance to share what I know with others who want to know.

And that idea, I think, is what this farm is all about. I’m thankful I looked a that not quite straight wall with its not quite perfect mortar. It taught me something, and it’s a lesson I plan to learn.

DLH

What’s in a name?

Our farm experience is undergoing a lot of transitions right now. One of them is discovering that the name we’ve been using–in fact the name my in-laws have been using for decades–has been the registered trade name of another farm in Ohio since 2010. Needless to say, this created something of a moment of existential crisis for us, especially given all the other transitions we’re undergoing at the same time.

So, we’re kind of in limbo right now. We think we’ve found a new name–one that gives credit to the old while also not breaking the law–but we’re not going to tell anyone what it is until we’re sure. Then, it will be time to change a bunch of things in order to make it all legit.

But what’s in a name?

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

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

MENF 2011: Show me the money

Sometimes its easy to get lost in encouraging people to grow their own food and forget that this stuff still costs money. As idealistic as we may all want to be, at some point we have to pay the bills. It turns out paying the bills may not be as hard as you might think.

There are as many ways to make raising your own food pay for itself as there are people trying to do it, but I’ve noticed that most of the cash efforts seem to center around two kinds of things: greens and chickens.

First, the greens. Greens, sprouts, and salads have become the most common acknowledgement most people pay to trying to eat healthy. If you’ve noticed the lettuce display at your local grocer, you will have noticed people seem to be eating a lot of the stuff, and they seem to be willing to pay quite a bit for what they get. As an aspiring food grower, you can tap into that market, especially in the off-season.

The simplest way to grow such greens is to set up a simple greenhouse, hoop house, cold frame, or low hoop over a row of greens. One speaker I heard recently grows sprouts and microgreens on an Ikea bookcase fitted with cheap florescent lights from Lowes. While it is important to do your research and make sure you’re doing it right, growing greens can be simple and produce a good crop year around.

Of course, marketing such a product can be its own challenge, but that’s where due diligence comes in. Let’s face it, family and friends and word of mouth is the best way to sell your product. Local year around farmers markets and greenhouses are often looking for new sources of the products they sell, or you could sell them there yourself. Try getting your product into a local restaurant by giving them a sample of what you produce.

Second, we have chickens, and really poultry of just about any kind. Poultry flocks give food growers multiple benefits, but the one we’ll concentrate on here is the income from eggs and meat. Depending on your market, pastured chicken eggs can go for as much as $6 a dozen, and a flock of 12 birds can produce as much as 4 dozen eggs a week, though it’s sometimes a less. In addition, laying hens can pay for themselves twice, once in the eggs they produce and once again in the meat they produce later. Keeping a few roosters on hand can guarantee meat chickens as often as every 16 weeks depending on the variety you raise.

Granted, poultry has a higher start-up cost, and you may incur ongoing costs as a result of needing to buy feed, but I think in the long-run chickens are one of the simplest and most profitable undertakings any food grower can invest in.

There are many other ways you can make money from your food growing operation, limited only by your creativity and willingness to put out the effort. The key to these undertakings is to keep them as simple as possible and to remember that small steps are better than no steps at all. Don’t get impatient if things don’t happen right away and keep focused on the result instead of the work.

DLH

MENF 2011: Small steps are better than no steps at all

The task of becoming sustainable, local-reliant, and ready can be a daunting one. If you’re just beginning, it can seem impossible.

Yet, it turns out that far too many people want to do it all instead of doing what they can do when they can do it. It turns out that small steps are better than no steps at all when it comes to these sorts of things.

For instance, are you growing your own food? No? Well, that doesn’t mean you suddenly have to start growing tomorrow the 730,000 or so calories the average adult American should consume ever year. Instead, start with a window box planted with some herbs and lettuce. If that’s not enough for you, look into a desktop aquaponics setup. When you’re ready, plant a single 4 foot by 8 foot raised bed. Then move on from there.

As it turns out, it’s usually the small steps that produce the biggest changes in each of us and how we live our lives that then prepare us for the big stuff. We can learn to tend a potted food plant, change our buying habits at the grocery, recycle more, or stock up a few extra batteries long before we’re ready to learn to tend an acre garden plot, abandon the grocery, commit to a zero waste lifestyle, or stockpile a year’s supply of readiness goods.

But those small steps add up. Over time, and if you’re consistent, you’ll naturally gravitate toward the larger and larger commitments. That is what happened to me and to many people I know who are on the same path, and it cannot help but happen to you too.

So, your challenge now is to seek out your first small step and do it. Then seek out another one and do it. And keep doing that until you get where you wanted to go.

DLH