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

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

Employing America by feed it

Monty Python ruined things for all of us. How so? Because if you mention a career in growing food, this is what most Americans think:

And most of the time, that’s where the conversation ends, even if one has more to say on the subject.

Yet, as the Greenhorns blog pointed out recently,  one way to put Americans back to work is to encourage them to go into food production careers.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. I know because I’m an American who decided to pursue a food production career. What I found is that I can be done, but our government could make it easier for more people to do it.

I’m not talking about throwing borrowed money at the problem. No, I’m talking about getting rid of the mountain of rules and regulations that strangle small farms. Sure, those rules and regs might be appropriate to control industrial ag producers. Most small farms have nothing to do with the problems big ag producers create.

Instead, what small farms need is rules and regs that help us hire. That help us invest. That help us succeed without penalizing us for success.

I imagine that, with a simple set of rule changes that differentiate small-scale and sustainable food production from industrial agriculture, America’s small farms could easily put 1 to 2 percent of the people currently employed back to work in careers with nearly infinite potential for future employment. I’d bet that quite a few of those 1 to 2 percent would go on to establish their own small farms and hire people of their own.

If only our government would listen. And care. And act. If only the voters thought this was important.

So, we keep trying. Maybe, eventually, we can change the view to something more positive.

DLH

Punching calves

I think it’s funny that one of the terms for handling cattle is “punching”. It seems like a kind of inside joke among cattle people about the arduous nature of the task of physically handling cattle during those times when they have to be moved, sorted, tagged, or banded.

I punched a bunch of calves this weekend with the help of my wonderful and dedicated family, and during the hours I spent handling those animals, the reality of food production once again hit home. It’s hard, hard work, and no amount of money ever really pays for what needs to be done.

In fact, I realized that food production is kind of like a never-ending boxing match with nature. Every encounter ends with the producer at the least exhausted and, far too often, bruised and bloody. I sometimes suspect that, even if we happen to win a particular round, we really lose a little each time until we’ve finally lost enough that it does us in.

The nature of the food production task is one that is lost on most people anymore. To them, food is something harvested by big machines and purchased at a grocery. Far too few people realize how precarious our food production ecosystem really is and how desperately they rely on the producers to keep doing what they do no matter what so they don’t starve. They have no idea that all that stands between them and real hunger is a few rhetorical pugilists who don’t know when to throw in the towel.

The fact is, we won’t. For whatever reason, the will to fight is in us. We see nature as a sometimes ally, sometimes enemy, a truly worthy opponent for the investment of our time and our effort. We’ll keep punching calves and the like because we won’t have it any other way, even if no one else understands what we do.

DLH

 

MENF 2011: We’re all really dirt farmers

Whether we all like it or not, we’re all dirt farmers. You don’t think so? Well, consider this the next time you’re sitting on the pot: you’re finishing the process whereby your body turns the food you have eaten into energy, nutrients, and dirt from which more food can be grown, even if we don’t like to think of it that way in the 21st century.

Dirt is the medium of exchange for life on earth. It is an amazing material, composed of hundreds and sometimes thousands of constituents all necessary for life to exist. Nearly every living thing produces dirt in some form and nearly nothing can survive without dirt to help it grow or help the things it needs to eat grow.

This idea is important because it is so foreign to modern people, especially in the west and especially in the 21st century. In this era of artificially pristine food gleaming in supermarket displays, an era dominated by the absurd reduction of food growing to chemical applications to a growth medium, we forget that all food–indeed, all life–begins and ends with the dirt.

And healthy dirt is the best kind. If dirt is the medium of exchange for life, then humans are the custodians of the exchange, and we do a really bad job. How so? For instance, as much as half the trash buried in landfills every year, 125 million tons by some estimates, is organic waste that could be composted into dirt instead of being put into a landfill. Even worse, most landfill practices prevent this waste from turning into dirt, meaning that there is waste in landfills from as long as 50 years ago that still has not decayed.

While we’re busy burying our organic waste instead of composting it, farmers are busy dumping a whopping 60 million tons of chemical fertilizer on their crops every year, most of which comes from oil or is produced using fossil fuels for energy. Farmers do this because the dirt they try to grow in is only fit for growing weeds without help.

Help that could come in the form of hundreds of millions of tons of biologically active, incredibly fertile compost if we would stop throwing it away and start putting it back where it belongs: into the dirt.

So, consider this: stop throwing your organic waste away. I’m talking about all of it: food scraps-even bones and fat, paper, cardboard, or anything like it. If it came from a plant or animal, it’s probably organic. Then, compost that stuff. If you don’t want to or can’t compost it, find someone who will and can.

It can be done. We can even compost our own waste along with the rest, ensuring that it all goes where it is supposed to go: back into the dirt where it belongs, just like it was supposed to all along.

DLH

Get out of the market

There’s been a lot of talk over the past several years about the incredible volatility in the commodity food market, especially with staple crops like corn , rice, and wheat. Prognosticators, researchers, and talking-heads go on and on about what to do to control a market that, like most commodities, proves to be beyond control.

I have an idea that would help eliminate such volatility in its entirety: get out of the market altogether.

“But,” you might say, “where will all our food come from? We can’t possibly grow enough to feed ourselves without the market, right?”

Well, yes, we can, and it can happen once we start growing food ourselves and buying what we can’t or won’t grow ourselves from people we know.

The problem with the modern commodity food market is not that there is not enough food, it’s that there are not enough people involved in raising it. The commodity food market exists because such a small number of people produce food that it has to be grown using industrial techniques that involve turning food into a raw material for manufacturing.

Contrary to what you may have learned in your history and sociology classes, the history of the world is not the history of people almost starving to death every year until the last half of the 20th century. In fact, people fed themselves quite well for the most part, usually on plots many people would think of as large gardens rather than farms. If they had not been able to do so, how do you think the world could have reached 6 billion people? They had to come from someone, somewhere, and where they came from they were well fed.

We can return to the same idea now, if we choose. It is possible for more people to return to tending gardens, growing small plots of staple foods, caring for small herds of food animals, and all without giving up the parts of modern life most of us enjoy. And, for those who want to go even further, the possibilities are endless.

But we all have to take a first step, and for most people that means passing up the grocery store in favor of the farmer’s market or the stores many local producers have set up to make their produce available to the wider public. If we all take that step, such markets and the producers who populate them will increase in numbers, prices will go down, and food markets will stabilize at the local level. It’s really rather simple, but you have to do it first.

DLH

End note: links to local food resources:

Local Harvest – Eat Wild – Seed Savers

Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association

Columbus, Ohio North Market – Dayton, Ohio Second Street Market – Troy, Ohio Downtown Farmer’s Market – Piqua, Ohio Farmer’s Market – Covington, Ohio Farmer’s Market

Innisfree FarmCanyon Run Garlic

Because it’s a farm

I heard today that our tenant farmer–he plants our 100 or so acres of tillage–thinks my wife and I are ripping off my mother-in-law because, well, there are goats eating grass in the front yard and chickens eating grass in the back. That’s not how things are supposed to be, you know, because now the farm looks like… a farm.

This kind of nonsense has been an ongoing part of my acclimatization into the world of someone trying to farm sustainably in a world filled with industrial workers whose job happens to be the planting and harvest of organic manufacturing components. Most of my fellow farmers have lost sight of the age old understanding borne of thousands of years of human agriculture, which wisdom states that the farmer feeds himself and his own first, the people around him next, and then sells whatever might be left to buy the things he cannot grow or make himself.

To our tenant farmer, the secret to farming is to borrow tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to plant and harvest thousands of acres of crops that humans can no longer directly consume, to sell those crops for prices determined by speculators who never have his best interest in mind, and to dump his commodity into an industrial supply system whose product he has to pay for even though it could not exist without his tireless effort. And, if there’s a bad year, he could easily fold and have very little or nothing to show for it.

To me, the secret to farming is what I have already noted. First, plant and raise food–food people can eat straight from the plant or animal without the intermediary of industrial processing. Second, raise that food to feed me and mine first. Third, make sure the people around me are fed. Fourth, sell whatever is left to buy what I cannot grow or make myself. The thing is, even in the worst years, it is possible to eke out an existence following that method– if it weren’t, most of us would not be here today.

So, yeah, our farm looks like a farm, and that’s on purpose. We can eat what we’re doing here. How many farmers can say that?

DLH

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.

DLH

Ice farming

It’s 7 December and it’s 0 Fahrenheit with the wind-chill here in west-central Ohio, unseasonably arctic for this time of year.

Unfortunately, farming responsibilities don’t stop just because it gets bloody cold, so the question becomes how to carry out one’s daily duties without getting hurt. I’m not an expert on this yet, but I can tell you what I do:

  • First, keep in mind that everything will be frozen. Gates, even doors, will freeze shut had have to be coaxed open. It’s really important at this point to check and see whether animal waterers have frozen over. Usually at this point, I’ve discovered the best solution is to just rotate out water throughout the day. It won’t go on forever, and it will keep your animals healthy.
  • Second, keep in mind that this kind of weather will freeze you. Keep covered in layers even if it makes the work harder. I typically wear long underwear under my jeans, a t-shirt and sweat shirt, a coat, gloves, and a knit hat. One thing to note is that you will probably sweat under all those clothes.
  • Third, the dry air and sweating under your clothes will dehydrate you as quickly as the summer heat will. Drink plenty of water and drink it often.
  • Speaking of similarities to summer, take regular breaks in a warm place. If you have to stay outside, find a place to set up a heater so that you can get warm.
  • If you start feeling bad, numb, or uncomfortable in some other way, get inside. Those are all your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. Listen to it.

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