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.


Not for the faint of heart

There are days that I understand why people don’t want to be farmers. It’s not a job for the faint of heart. Certainly, I’m making a judgment call here, but the fact is when your livelihood relies on braving the weather, flora and fauna, sometimes downright terrible fellow humans, and your own capacity to screw things up, it takes a certain kind of soul to endure such things.

On the other hand, I can assure you of something else: if you choose this profession and stick with it, you’ll find there aren’t many stronger people than farmers, physically, mentally, or emotionally.


The flow of the seasons

We moderns get very put out by the changes of the seasons, even most farmers. We see the seasons as interruptions of the process we think we should be able to pursue all of the time, and because of that vision, we miss the important processes the seasons introduce.

I’m coming to realize that the reason the seasons put us out so much is because we rarely do certain kinds of work when the season is appropriate. Before we can even begin to correct this kind of problem, we must first identify what the correct season is for each kind of work, and then we must plan our work not just for the days or weeks ahead, but for the whole year, at least in general terms.

This is not just my own idea. Before the incredible rise of industrial agriculture, most farmers understood this premise. They knew how to make their work count for the most in every season because their lives and livelihoods depended on such efficiency.

What we must do now is relearn what they once knew because, in many ways, their way was better. I am not suggesting that we should embrace every part of their way of doing things, but certainly there are aspects of their way that are far better, and there is always the opportunity to improve on what they were doing–what we have now is abandonment, not improvement.

Of course, I’m not really just talking about farming either. Really, that old way should apply to most of life, not just how we create our food. I know that is a grand dream, but I think we should always be trying to make life better, and such a pursuit demands that all viable options remain on the table.


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?


My 10-10-10 challenge

I often hear a lot of people claiming that the world cannot feed itself. They say there are too many people. They say there isn’t enough land to grow all that food. Some, even recognize that there aren’t enough farmers to grow the food we need. They throw up their hands and lament that we somehow need to reduce the population if any of us are going to survive.

I call bullshit on their entire line of reasoning.

There’s plenty of arable land and plenty of people to grow on it. When I say plenty of land, I mean your yard. When I say there are plenty of people to grow food, I mean you.

In other words, I challenge you to grow your own food, starting right now.

It’s really simple, and it doesn’t even require you to plow, till, or anything else. Find a 10 foot by 10 foot section of your yard. Mow it like you normally would at this time of year. Get a stick and poke holes in rows in that 100 square food patch about 5 inches apart with the rows around a foot apart.

Into those holes, plant Maris Widgeon Wheat or Hard Red Winter Wheat. If you live in an area where the winters are warmer, consider planting Hard Red Spring Wheat the same way in the spring. If you live in an apartment, consider asking your landlord or a friend with a yard if you can plant there. Do all of this by 10 October 2010.

Do nothing else.

Do nothing else, at least until next summer, that is. I cannot guarantee your little plot of wheat will grow or thrive, but statistically most of you will grow some amount of wheat in the coming year. Further, you won’t have to mow that patch of grass at all, and the combination of grass and wheat will keep down the weeds, attract beneficial insects, and improve the fertility of that section of yard. It is entirely possible, come next June or July, you will have a harvest of wheat that will fill a five gallon bucket.

From there, you can cut your wheat down with a weed cutter, garden sheers, or even a weed wacker (you’ll probably lose some that way). You can thresh it with a pillow case and a plastic bat and winnow it with a sheet and a box fan. You can dry it for a few minutes in a low temperature oven. You can grind it with a blender. From there, it’s flour and you can do whatever you want with it.

What you could very well have done, by next summer, is have grown enough wheat to make a loaf of bread a week for a year. You will have also prove that you can grow your own food and feed yourself without a lot of extra work. If you can do that, what else can you do?

It all starts by 10-10-10.


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?


Feeding the world

I’ve begun to wonder when the idea of feeding the world first became a moral imperative among farmers. Why is it that farmers have inherited the responsibility to feed everyone who has decided to do something else no matter what the personal cost?

I think I know how this idea came into being. As scientists and governments conceived of the idea that there were “too many farmers” back in the 20s and after, more and more people stopped farming to do other things. Yet, these people still needed food, so they came to rely on the people who continued to farm more and more. Now, the number of people who farm has decreased to less than 1 percent of the population (which also begs the question what the more than 99 percent of everyone else is actually doing), so the rest of the population is desperate for the farmers to keep farming, whether they realize they are or not.

Further, the non-farmers are often terrified of any suggestion that farming might need to be done differently, because changes that fail could spell no food for them. In a lot of ways, farming has become like social security: let’s not change it because changes might affect me, even though I am doing nothing to contribute to the system’s success as it currently exists.

Meanwhile, the system itself is failing. Because so few people farm, very few people know what it actually takes to feed the world. And what it takes is a huge amount of equipment and fuel, both of which are becoming so expensive that fewer and fewer farmers can afford to continue doing it. If things continue the way they are now, eventually farmers won’t be able to feed the world because the world will have made farming to expensive to be done by anyone.

I understand that many, many people will counter what I am saying here with variations of the argument: “how is paying a farmer to raise food for me any different than paying anyone else to do something for me I can’t or won’t do?” To me, the answer is that most other things you pay people to do for you don’t necessarily have to be done and you probably won’t die from them not doing it.

So now, the question for me is why am I doing this? I know the answers, and I have come to realize that I am not doing it to feed the world. I’m doing it because I want to convince the world to feed itself.


Farming goals for 2010

Perhaps my first goal for 2010 is to fully embrace the fact that I am, indeed, a farmer. I think that even I have had a stereotype of what that tag means, and I am discovering that there is truth and fiction to that stereotype. What I have come to realize already is that farming is what you make it and I have to be the one to make it that way.

Beyond adapting to being a farmer, I think this year will be one  a few spent discovering what Keba and I want this farm to be. We will probably get chickens and, maybe, turkeys under way this year, and we will probably change the pasture layout as well. Everything else will probably be keeping what is working continuing to work.

Stay tuned.