A state of mind

For me, the biggest downside of farming is that my health doesn’t always agree with it, mostly in the form of sometimes debilitating allergies. People often ask me why I keep doing it knowing that I will periodically subject myself to such suffering, and my most often answer is that it’s just a temporary state.

For example, for the past few days, I’ve been doing hay. It turns out that whoever coined the term “hay fever” wasn’t kidding, and as is the case nearly every year, right now I feel like I’m coming down with the flu. I know a lot of people would consider such a reaction to the task to be a deal breaker, but what I discovered a long time ago is knowing this will last, at most, a couple of days, gives me the willpower both to inflict it on myself and to endure it while it lasts.

What I’ve discovered as a result is that hay fever is kind of a metaphor for farming and that farming is a kind of metaphor for life. Sure, sometimes the process sucks, but the fact is the work needs done, somebody has to do it, and the results are usually worth even a little suffering to get there.

So it is and so it goes, pardon me while I wipe my nose.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


Food as a fungible commodity

All around the internet, you can find vigorous discussions about how, with the impending risk of international economic meltdown brought about by massive overspending, the smart bet is to invest in things like gold, which is a fungible commodity that will retain its value even if the rest of the economy self-destructs.

While, in some ways, this exhortation to invest in things like gold makes all kinds of sense, typical economic-downturn commodities like it have many disadvantages: they’re expensive, hard to move in quantity, limited in availability, and difficult to produce. These disadvantages mean that, even if one accumulates quite a bit of them, they will be harder to use when the time comes and will eventually run out.

On the other hand, food is also a fungible commodity, and while it often lacks the durability of other commodities, it has the significant advantages of being cheaper, easier to move in quantity, largely available if you want it to be, and surprisingly easy to produce. In fact, before precious metals, gem stones, and oil, food was the currency de jure in most parts of the world for millenia.

What is so amazing about food production is that almost anyone can do it, even on marginal land or land often presupposed not to be agricultural. As I have challenged everyone to do in my “10-10 Challenge” and is discussed in a variety of books like You Can Farm, Small-scale Grain Raising, and The One Straw Revolution, just about anyone can produce quite a bit of food on small plots of land with minimal investments of time and effort. Historically, families in the East have fed themselves and sold surplus off plots as small as a quarter of an acre, which includes raising livestock.

The beauty of small-scale food production is that, if the economy does tank, the food you produce will still have value–perhaps even more value than it did previously. Further, unlike traditional economy beating investments, producing your own food means that you do not have to rely on someone else to produce that food for you, which then means that the other fungible assets you might have accumulated are now available to procure all sorts of other things.

Even if you don’t want to produce your own food, you can still invest in food as a commodity against economic disaster. The company Heirloom Organics sells investment grade seed packs designed for long-term storage and that contain open-pollinated, heirloom crop seeds that will become very valuable if the economy collapses. Companies like Emergency Essentials sell supplies of long-term storage foods like cereal grains and legumes. Even if one does not use these food items himself, they can become a valuable commodity in the case of economic hardship.

Of course, my underlying argument here is that everyone should establish a higher level of self-sufficiency by growing their own food, one of the benefits of such activity being that it can act as insulation against economic hardship. Doing such a thing seems like a double benefit and an easy choice to me.


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?


1st Anniversary

The beginning of the new school year reminds me that I have reached a milestone: one year since I started farming full-time.

It’s been a bumpy year, with big successes and catastrophic failures along the way. I’ve learned more in the past year than I think I have in the rest of my life put together, and for the first time in a very long time, I think I can say I am not the person I was a year ago.

Overall, I think I would give myself a D+ for this year. I had huge ambition and huger plans but very little concept of what I was undertaking. That’s not to say that my ambition and plans for next year are any less grand, but frankly, I was clueless last year at this time, and the past twelve months revealed that lack of understanding for everything it was.

I could go on for a long time about what I have learned, what I have realized, and what I plan to do, but I think the details of those things are best left for different posts. In the mean time, here’s to another year!