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.


[UPDATE: Edited for content]

On animals and worldviews

I suspect that one of the driving forces of the greatest changes in society over the past 100 years versus the past several millenia has been specific movement of people away from caring for food animals.

One cannot help but learn about the brutal realities of the cycle of life to death to life when one cares for food animals. As a result, one cannot help but see the realities of the same cycle in every other part of life. Such realizations cannot help but make someone more pragmatic at the least, if not even a little fatalistic.

That kind of pragmatism then fueled all sorts of ways of thinking that dominated most of human history. And while, yes, that thinking justified all sorts of things we moderns consider savage and inhuman, it also gave birth to the world we have today and, to a great part, continues to sustain it long after most people have forgotten what it all might mean.

Now, being engaged in that kind of undertaking, I find my own thinking inevitably changed by the reality of what I do. In some ways I am softer. In some ways I am harder than I ever imagined I could ever be. My focus is different–dare I say, more focused–and the change in my view of the realities of life and death could not be more profound.

I understand the impracticality of a general return to agriculture, but I cannot help but wonder if we would not benefit from a return to some parts of the worldview it fostered. We need more pragmatism in a world sometimes blinded by the shining and ofttimes false optimism of modernity.  We could do worse than to revisit history, and I’m certain we can benefit from it.


Taking the plunge!

While my wife and I have been living and working on Innisfree for the last three and a half years, it has always been something of a part-time job until now. Late last year, we paid off the last of our outstanding debt and as a result, we have decided to have both of us working on the farm as our primary occupation.

While this may sound idyllic, the fact is that it is a leap of faith and a huge risk. Even in the best of circumstances, farming is not a high paying occupation, and the cost of living modern life is higher than most people realize. Nevertheless, it is a risk we are willing and able to take.

Here’s to hoping and to the future!


Standing in the ramparts of a distant frontier wall

“I think of us as the Ramparts People. In all ages we have camped on the edges of the earth, the buffer between our more conventional and timid brethren and those nether regions where, as the medieval maps instructed, “there be dragons and wild beestes.” It is our destiny to draw the dragon’s fire while the mainstream culture hides behind its disintegrating deficit and damns us for shattering its complacency. So be it.” –Gene Logsdon, “The Ramparts People

Go read it.


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.


A question of contrariness

Quite a few people have asked me over the past few years why it is that I decided to start farming. While there are a lot of reasons why I’ve decided to do this, I’ve discovered that many of them boil down to a simple idea:

I’m farming because you’re not.

Now, I know that answer suggests that if you were farming, I wouldn’t be, and maybe in a way that is true. But, I’m pretty confident that you’re not going to quit your job and buy some agriculture land or find a relative with a farm, and because you won’t do that, someone else has to.

The way I see things, far too many people expect someone else to provide for them. In the second decade of the 21st century, far too many people think that going to work to make money to buy things is equivalent to providing for themselves. Never mind the fact that almost everything everyone does anymore requires massive inputs of oil to happen at all.

From my point of view, the 21st century system of people working to make money to buy food produced by some of the most energy inefficient methods ever invented is the ultimate pyramid scheme just waiting to collapse. All it will take is price spikes, even deeper economic disturbances, or supply disruptions, and suddenly we have millions of middle class Americans starving because they have no way to produce their own food.

Hence the reason I’m farming: because you’re not.

Some people might think that my response means that I’m part of the problem, enabling people the way the rest of the modern system does, but I can assure you that’s not true. My philosophy differs from all but a handful of modern agriculture producers in that my goal is to feed myself and my family first, those I know second, and everyone else with whatever is left over after the first two things happen.

A lot of people recoil from my philosophy, including most farmers, and that reaction shows how far our attitudes about food have drifted from what worked for thousands of years of human history before the 20th century. Before the 1910s, when the idea of moving Americans off farms and into manufacturing and the suburbs began, almost everyone produced some amount of their own food, whether it was in a garden, as part of a local co-op, or as a farmer. As a result, even in the worst times, most people were well-fed, even if they couldn’t afford the other things that made life comfortable.

Now, virtually no one produces food. Less than 1 percent of Americans are actual farmers, and the number of people producing food through gardens or other means may be as low as 10 percent. That means as little as 31 million people feed 310 million people. What happens if they can’t?

And that’s why I’m farming: because you’re not.

Soon, I will be posting my 2011 10-10 challenge, and it’s as much a challenge as it is a test: plant a 10 foot by 10 foot plot of winter wheat this year to prove to yourself it can be done and to prove you’re not going to be one of the people starving if something goes wrong. Most of the people reading this post won’t do it, and I think that proves my point.

I’m farming because you’re not.


The cost of food

I recently came across an article on Gizmag.com about AeroFarms urban vertical aeroponic systems. I found the article to be an interesting and exciting description of yet another way for humans to grow food in environments where food production has been traditionally difficult or impossible.

What caught my attention more than the article, though, were the comments. The first comment was by someone blasting the technology because the commenter assumed the technology would not help make food production cheaper and more accessible to non-food producers.

Frankly, as someone who has recently entered the food production business, one of the conclusions I reached at the very beginning is that the idea that food production should be cheaper and more accessible to non-food producers is part of the reason why food continues to get more expensive, more inaccessible, and more scarce.

Not even 50 years ago, most people were involved either directly or indirectly in food production. In the United States, a majority of the population still lived in places considered rural and either worked on farms or at businesses that supported farms. Then came along the modernist idea that said we had too many farmers who did not produce enough cheap food, and the government and scientists engaged in an aggressive campaign to transform agriculture into what their modernized thinking believed it should be.

The result was that the number of people who list their occupation as “farmer” has dropped to less than 2 percent of the population. Meanwhile, most agricultural production in the United States has degenerated to just five major food sources: corn, soybeans, beef, chicken, and milk (yes, there is also pork, but it is not nearly as big as the top five). Further, most of the “food” sold in most grocery stores no longer comes from a farm but from a factory where the constituent components are processed, rendered, and reconstituted into things that look and smell like food but are more like a chemistry experiment gone awry.

And this method of food production has come with a hefty price tag that the world is only just starting to pay. Massive use of chemical fertilizers and killing agents have poisoned the ground, water, and air. There are places that are simply dead because of farm runoff. New, potent super weeds and bugs have come into existence as a result of forced selective breeding from the use of chemicals and medicines in food production. In some places, the obsessive focus on scientific food production (the NPK model) has resulted in farms that have “farmed out” due to the unavailability of the thousands of trace nutrients and soil components plants actually need to be healthy. Compact feeding operations create environmental damage on par with major chemical spills.

All of these problems factor back into the “cheap and accessible” model. Because people still demand inexpensive food they did not grow, modern agriculture must respond with more chemicals, more damaging cultivation methods, more concentrated food production systems, all of which compound the problems even more.

Unless everyone considers another way. AeroFarms, and the thousands of companies like it, are attempting to do something that the modern farming mythology cannot do: return mankind to a society centered around feeding itself–the theme of all of human history–without demanding that modern people give up their urbanized lives to return to rustic farm settings.

Of course, at first such technologies will be expensive and hard to come by, but over time, the best technologies will take hold, become more prevalent, and become less expensive. Further, the locally or self-produced model circumvents the “cheap and accessible” model and adds the benefit of increased local and individual independence from the vagaries of the worldwide economy and commodity markets.

So, if people really want cheap and accessible food, the best way to ensure that goal is for them to grow it themselves or to support those growing it specifically for them. Everyone can have enough food if enough people are growing it, but all of us have to start supporting that idea first.