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

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

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

People like us

I’ve noticed a lot of these kinds of articles recently: articles about people giving up on what most people consider the modern way of life and the American dream to embrace or return to agriculture. Most of them head down the sustainable route, finding small farms where they can embrace the ideas of multiculture and permaculture in the most effective way, though quite a few seek out specialties and niches as well.

What these articles show me is that there is a quiet revolution going on right now, one that has the potential to shake the sand upon which our society built the of the house of cards we have called modern life since the 1950s. Slowly, quietly, but with great resolve, people are walking away from everything they now know and are returning to something our ancestors have know for thousands of years: in the end, life is about caring for ourselves and those around us, about making sure they have something to eat, something to wear, and a roof over their heads, and that the best way to accomplish those tasks is to do them directly, yourself.

It’s important for all of us involved in this quiet revolution to realize we’re not alone either in its undertaking or in the reasons we undertook it. It is important for people pondering this path to realize they are not alone in walking it. We are in this together, and the more we help each other, the better off we all will be.

So, if you’re one of the people just starting down this road, or you’re someone who is years down it, stop for a moment and look around. You’re not alone, and we’re all in this together.

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

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: It takes a village

While it is possible to do, there are very few people who manage to establish complete self-sufficiency, and it is my belief that such an effort is counter-productive and, in many ways, wrong. Perhaps a better term for the effort I advocate is “local-sufficiency” because I believe that it really does take a village to make things work the way they should.

In our efforts to establish things like sustainability, resource sovereignty, and long-term readiness, we have to realize we cannot do everything. Part of what we must do is build communities of people all working toward those common goals; communities that build on individual strengths and buttress individual weaknesses.

Unfortunately, Americans are a stubbornly independent lot, and we tend to think the pinnacle of success is “going it alone.” It is my experience that such thoughts are often a recipe for failure at the best and for disaster at the worst.

Instead of trying to make ourselves independent from everyone, we should be working to pick who we are dependent on and to develop relationships that can sustain us regardless of circumstances. In order to do so, however, such an idea requires us to rethink how we approach almost everything we do.

We have to identify the things we are good at, the things we do well enough to help others, and the things we won’t or can’t do ourselves. We have to identify that there are things we do right now that don’t work and find ways to do them better.

Once we do, we will realize how much of the way we approach life right now is inefficient, wasteful, and just plain wrong. It is at that point that we can look around us at our relationships and communities and start building the kinds of networks necessary for sustainable, sovereign, ready lives.

And once we do so, we will discover that we will have freed ourselves from so many of the problems that have dominated the last half of the 20th and first part of the 21st centuries. Such liberation should be something we all strive for.

DLH

Mother Earth News Fair 2011: Learning we’re not going it alone

My wife and I attended the Mother Earth News Fair at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in southwestern Pennsylvania this past weekend. For us, it was an amazing experience to be surrounded by thousands of people who care about agriculture, sustainability, and readiness as much as we do.

The fair, I think, had something for everyone. I attended sessions as diverse as one on building an electric motorcycle to one on urban gardening to one on using permiculture on a farm. There were sessions on everything from alternative energy to alternative medicine to alternative building.

What I took away from the fair more than anything, though was the realization that we’re not alone in what we’re trying to do and that there are an amazing amount of resources out there, sometimes for free, for anyone interested in trying.

The fair also jump-started my thinking process, and the result will be, I hope, a series of blog posts over the next couple of weeks on things I came to realize or wonder about during my trip.

Finally, I recommend this event to anyone who cares about the future. I will post information about next year’s fair as it becomes available, and in the mean time, I hope to pass my inspiration from the last one on to you.

DLH

10/10 Challenge 2011

Last year, I challenged readers to plant a 10 foot by 10 foot plot of wheat by October 10th as a proof that it can be done. I am challenging everyone to do the same thing this year.

But wait, there’s more:

This challenge isn’t just about proving you can grow your own food, although that is an important part. It’s also about being ready.

To that end, I challenge you to do any or all of the following:

  • Plant a 10 food by 10 foot plot of fall planted cereal grain by October 10th. Such grains include winter wheat, rye, and some kinds of barley and oats. Good sources for this kind of seed include Bountiful Gardens and The Sustainable Seed Company
  • Install and plant a cold frame with fall plantings of lettuce or root vegetables.
  • Purchase a small patio greenhouse and populate it with potted vegetables.
  • If you have an existing garden, consider planting and covering rows of lettuce or root vegetables.

You can do this, but you have to do it. Your first step toward feeding yourself can start with this.

DLH