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]

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

Broadforking, gardening, and growing your own food, expanded and refined

Earlier this week, I discussed the idea of using a broadfork as a method for tilling the ground instead of using a tiller and and why this method is superior to traditional tilling. Of course, this method still has its own related expenses and may seem like a daunting investment of resources and time to some.

Yet, it doesn’t even have to be that complicated. Most people can get away with no till gardening by simply using a pitchfork, a garden trowel, and a pointed hoe. This method is especially good for small plots and raised beds.

It is possible, and in fact preferable, to plant directly into a yard that has never been tilled. Simply select a plot, loosen the soil by sticking the pitchfork into the ground and tilting to about a 30 degree angle. Then dig holes or rows for the plants or seeds. You can control the grass between the plants with a pair of hand garden sheers.

Now, I will grant that some kinds of plants do better in this kind of planting environment than others. Tall and climbing plants do very well, as do densely sewn cereal grains. You might have to add fertilizer if you do this with corn, but then again native cultures planted in ways similar to this for a long time with great success.

If you’re nervous about this kind of planting, consider starting small. Buy a locally grown tomato plant (or whatever kind of vegetable you might eat) and plant it. Starting small can help build confidence, and before you know it, you could be growing a lot of your own food.

The point is to do it. Try it and find out what you can do.

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

It’s everywhere

There’s a picture circulating around the internet right now showing the pink paste that is “mechanically separated chicken”, which picture seems to disgust people who see it even as they consume products made from it in huge quantities. What’s more, this picture represents the barest tip of the iceberg compared to what is being done to produce most of the food product most people consume on a daily basis.

Yet, somehow, the fact that most of the food in most of the supermarkets in most of the world represents an industrial preparation more akin to plastic than what we like to think of as food, people still eat the stuff, and the companies that produce those products make millions from what they sell. I’ve even heard people try to compare the industrial food production system to what happens in a real kitchen when someone is preparing food from real ingredients. This is how far we have become detached from our food.

Now, I do not believe that it is possible to eat–or medicate–ourselves to some strange form of immortality, but I do believe that it is possible for us to increase our quality of life, however long it might last. I am certain that the advent of food products and processed food has diminished that quality even as it has served to help increase its quantity. I wonder what the point of such a thing might be.

In this modern era, I am certain that it is possible to have the best of both worlds: to have the benefits of access to a higher calorie diet that probably leads to longer life while also greatly increasing the quality of that life by refusing to consume what the modern world passes for food. Sadly, this kind of increase in quality and quantity requires a choice that far too few people are willing to make or, perhaps, even understand can be made.

The choice I am talking about is twofold.

First, one must choose not to eat most of what one finds in a typical grocery story. Really, if one was sincere about this sort of thing, he would stop shopping in grocery stores at all. Instead, one would seek out food at its source, buying directly from the people who grow it in its most basic forms. This kind of choice also means choosing to make one’s own food rather than having someone else make it for you, but I see that all as part of one choice.

Second, one must choose to spend more of his income on food. Americans, as a measure of percentage of income, spend less on food than at any other time in the history of the United States and maybe even the world. Currently, the average household spends less than 7 percent of its income on food, and that number is still declining. As a result, Americans have to make compromises about the kinds of food they buy, opting for cheaper alternatives because that is all they think they can afford. Further, other lifestyle choices like cable, the internet, and the like force most people to make choices for convenience and cost rather than quality when it comes to food. Making this choice will likely mean making hard choices about other things.

Once made, these choices, I believe, will have immediate, tangible, and ongoing benefits. Frankly, it won’t just be because of the food either. The lifestyle choices one will have to make to choose quality food will improve the quality of life just because they will. There is little doubt in my mind that less television coupled with better food will improve the health of most people.

But for that to happen, you have to do it first.

DLH

Our industrial food supply is killing us

Right here in the Miami Valley is dramatic, tragic evidence that our industrial food production system is threatening our lives and livelihoods in direct and dramatic ways.

First comes the toxic poisoning of Grand Lake-St. Marys by an algae bloom fed by farm run-off. The bloom is so bad–and so toxic–that the State of Ohio has issued a “no-contact ” order for the lake over the normally busy 4th of July holiday weekend. Meanwhile, officials report that protecting against farm runoff requires voluntary compliance and that making compliance mandatory is “a political mine field.”

Second comes the attack of head scab and its byproduct  vomitoxin against this year’s wheat crop, which renders the crop almost useless for human consumption. While most agriculture scientists will say that this issue is more one of bad luck and wet weather than bad agriculture, I believe it also reveals another flaw in the practices of industrial monoculture whereby farmers fail to use sustainable crop rotation methods, cultivation methods, and genetically diverse, open pollinated seed, all of which serve to help protect against these very kinds of threats to crops.

These two local events are just two in a far larger number of events in the growing body of evidence that industrial agriculture production as it is currently conceived is well on its way toward failing and killing us in the process. All of the decades of nonsense that industrialized agriculture was the only way to feed the world’s population has served only to obscure the incredible fragility of the system and its true costs.

I understand that fixing the problems that industrial agriculture has produced is going to be a difficult and complex task, but the solution must begin with individuals making conscious decisions to support agricultural production that is not part of the problem. Thousands of sustainable agriculture operations exist all over the United States and around the world, very often right in the middle of regions otherwise dominated by industrial production. If enough people make the choice to support sustainability over industry, then then entire industry will change.

And the changes industrial agriculture need to make are clear: more people need to be involved in the undertaking of producing food; those people need to use methods that take a holistic approach to preserving land, water, and air for generations of food producers; food production needs to be decentralized so that all of the food is not being produced by a few people in fewer and fewer places; diversity needs to be reintroduced into the kinds of crops and the varieties of each crop being grown.

Without these kinds of changes, disasters like the poisoning of Grand Lake-St. Marys and widespread crop disease will only become more widespread and more devastating in their effect. Each of us have the power to help make these changes a reality, but each of us must make our own choices first.

DLH