Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Organic Agriculture -Insecticide Technology and GMO seeds

(Perhaps fortunately) I really don't have any childhood stories to share regarding massive labour savings that freed me up for entire summers because we started using these products.

Frankly, we (and most other farmers) mostly try not to use these products if we can at all avoid it because, unlike most herbicides, most of these products are readily dangerous to the applicator as well as to the environment if they are misapplied. However, I am familiar with quite a number of them, particularly some of the insecticides used on field corn and cannery sweet corn and other crops.

Being located in the warmest fraction of Canada, the part of southern Ontario in which I grew up was filled with canneries, and in my youth nearly every farm alloted some acreage to grow canning crops. One of the pests which renders sweet corn nearly unsaleable to the general public, and completely useless to the canneries is corn borer. Control of corn borer was for many years elusive; crop rotations, tillage and fresh ground all helped, but none of these alone or together were even close to fully effective. At some point, I think in the 1960's or early 1970's but I may be wrong on this ( maybe a certain blog reader and personal friend with a lot of field crop expertise in the eastern Lake Ontario Counties could reveal himself and lend his expertise here), somebody came out with a systemic carbofuran insecticide (trade name I remember is Furadan) that was effective at controlling corn borer. The problem is that it was/is highly toxic to nearly everything else as well, including us; so much so that it's use was banned entirely in Canada some years ago, although it is still available for use on various crops here in the US. Unfortunately, if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, and for twenty years or more this (and other insecticides like it) was the only effective tool to manage corn borer in field and sweet corn.

In the mid-1990's seed companies began releasing GMO stacked trait seed corn, the first varieties of which incorporated bacillus thuringenesis (Bt) into the genetic make up of the corn plant. Bt itself is naturally occuring....it had for years been sprayed on corn by organic growers as a means of controlling corn borer, and it completely eliminated the need for costly and dangerous chemical insecticide applications to control these pests in all types of corn. Bt field corn is widely planted, but due to consumer backlash Bt sweet corn has never really taken off commercially and it mostly continues to be sprayed with various insecticides for pest control. Since it's unlikely that the industry is going to confess that when compared to some of the chemicals it regularly sprays onto these sorts of crops, GMO's that include Bt traits look pretty darn innocuous, I have doubts the technology ever will take off in human edible products, at least until such time as GMO crops show actual, measurable benefits to consumers as well as farmers.

Although I think the entire GMO debacle has so far been a public relations nightmare and that the consumer backlash against it is well deserved, I think that applied correctly, this seed trait technology has a LOT of potential to improve sustainable farming by making high yield chemical free crop agriculture a real possibility on a large scale, which might turn into a serioously good thing for everybody. I am a big believer in history and where I can and it makes sense to do so, I like to incorporate the old ways of doing things into my farm operation. That said, unlike many organic growers I have talked with, I don't believe that every idea since 1950 has been a bad one.....just most of them ! :)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Organic Agriculture, Post 1 - Herbicides

When consumers shop at the grocery store, does organic equal sustainable or is it just a heavily regulated marketing tool ? I think the answer is that it can be some of both, depending heavily on a whole bunch of extraneous factors. There is no possible way I can do justice to this topic in one post, so I'll probably spread my musings across a whole bunch of posts, as I have done with other topics on this blog.

The focus of the first several posts will be on exploring some non-organic technologies, and touching on some of the reasons why people (especially farmers) use them! I want to talk a little bit about herbicides for the remainder of this post.

When I was a child in the 1970's there were next to no chemicals registered for use to control weeds in navy beans, which are a very fussy and sensitive crop. The fields had to be mechanically weeded with a combination of inter-row cultivation and hand hoeing, and they had to be kept nearly weed free all season long as seemingly every weed in the world would either contaminate or stain the navy beans, resulting in a huge dock at the elevator. As such, the job was necessary, but goodness me it was hot, boring, mindless and extremely labour intensive work. It's also interesting to note that while the hoeing was pretty environmentally benign, inter-row cultivation brought it's own set of problems. Soil by it's nature is meant to be covered in either vegetation or residue. Inter-row cultivation removes the first and incorporates the latter, thus leaving the soil very vulnerable to erosion by wind and rain. Anyway, back to the program at hand....

To convey how much I and every other sane human being detested this task, I want you to imagine going out on a 90 degree day to hoe all the weeds out of your garden, however big or small it may be. Then I want you to transpose that pleasant task over to a field of navy beans by imagining that your garden consisted of 250 rows of vegetables and each row is choked with weeds and is 1500 feet long. If you could do 10 of these rows in a 10 hour day you would be besting anything I was ever able to do. So to hoe this field would conservatively take one person an entire month of labour. I also want you to imagine that once you got done hoeing this monstrosity the first time you would almost certainly have to turn around and start again, and I want you to imagine doing this all season long, from early June through mid September. Hoeing navy beans might not have been the worst job on the farm, but it sure ranks right up there in my opinion. Even better, navy beans were never lucrative enough to PAY someone to hoe them, so this task always fell on familial small humans.

So imagine everyone's wonderment (especially mine) when the first set of herbicides was licensed to be applied to navy beans. At nearly $ 30 per acre, the herbicide was expensive, but compared to the labour required to hand hoe the crop, the cost was a relative bargain, and the entire summer's labour could be freed up, minus the few hours on ONE DAY that it took to apply the herbicide.

Apply this thought process and cost vs. labour savings toward every other row crop grown in North America before World War 2 and it is extremely easy to see why the ineptly named "Green Revolution" took off with amazing rapidity upon the advent of 2,4-D herbicide in 1943.

In some respects, I genuinely like the idea of being and becoming a fully organic farm. I could easily satisfy the elimination of herbicides on the cattle side of the business through the use of management intensive grazing. Due to grass management constraints, maintaining reasonable pastures with the total elimination of herbicides on the horse side of the business would be considerably more challenging. It's my thought that it would be even more challenging in row crops.

Many small vegetable growers and even some row crop farms are already there. Unfortunately the number of farms is not very high and the acreage they control is also quite low. There are a lot of reasons behind the low acreage devoted to organics, but I have to believe from a practical standpoint that the biggest roadblock is labour. There are still too many farmers my age and up who remember summer days endlessly filled with hand hoeing, and we just aren't that eager to repeat them. Until something in the labour vs. herbicide cost equation changes (as I am sure it will), my goal on this farm is to minimize, rather than completely eliminate herbicide usage.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Animal Welfare

Lifelong lessons are most often learned by watching and emulating the actions of an individual that one respects. From the time I was a small child, I was shown and taught by everyone that mattered in my little world to act respectfully toward all people and all animals, and especially toward those creatures that couldn't do for themselves and were counting on us to do for them, no matter whether they were pets or livestock.

It is my belief, learned through long observation, that farm animals are fully sentient beings. They can think, they can plan and remember, they can have fun and experience joy and pain, and fear. In short, I believe farm animals have feelings, and I believe it's important to acknowledge this for their well being as well as a measure of my own humanity. We need to treat them well and we need to care for them because I believe that feeling creatures respond to care and understand empathy. I believe we need to continue showing care and empathy right up to the end, taking all measures possible to ensure that their end is as painless and as free of fear as we can possibly make it.

I believe we need to do this for a whole host of reasons, not least because it's the right thing to do but also perhaps because the saying, "We are all one" is closer to the truth than many choose to believe. I believe we underestimate animal's abilities a good deal of the time, and I think we do so because to acknowledge that animals can do, think and act in ways similar to us tends to make many among us very uncomfortable, as it probably should. Unfortunately, it's easier to rationalize and justify treating animals poorly if they are "things" or "objects" that are very distant from us. I personally believe that the gap between what animals can do and what we can do is disarmingly narrow a good deal of the time, and I think most people who spend their lives tending after animals would agree with me in their heart of hearts.

I believe that whenever possible, animals ought to experience what it's like to fully be an animal, and it's my belief, again gained from long observation, that animals are usually happiest and healthiest when this is the case although it is also true that animals are infinitely adaptable to a variety of circumstances. This adaptability means that it's often true that animals seem none the worse for wear so long as their treatment and the conditions in which they are raised are both good. Still, it is no exaggeration to say that I regularly ask myself whether or not I would like to be an animal in circumstance X, and I base my own decision making for my own pets and livestock on the (hopefully) well thought through answers I come up with.

Seemingly in spite of my deep set beliefs about treating animals well, I choose to use animal products as food with a high degree of regularity in my life. Perhaps it's no paradox at all. I learned early on that only life feeds life, and whether that life is a carrot or a cow, something had to die in order that I might eat and live. A much more valid set of concerns for me revolves around ideas about how the animal lived and in what manner the animal died.

For those who argue that a carrot isn't a sentient being with feelings, etc. I give you the wisdom of my old grandfather with his eighth grade education when he answered this query from me when I was small with a very serious and very unanswerable question of his own, " Says who ?" This comment was not given in flippancy and I've thought about his answer for thirty years. Neither is the following observation given in flippancy. Who truly knows whether or not in it's own way a carrot feels and thinks more or less than a cow does. The only point we may be sure of here is that a carrot looks and acts a whole lot less like we do than does a cow, although in order to feed us both are equally dead.

I'll be interested to read other's thoughts and viewpoints on this contentious topic.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

An ode to grass

***Editors Note*** If I had managed to hit the correct button, this post wouldn't have published until tomorrow. Since I hit the incorrect button, I thought what the heck...let 'er rip !

Of the two general terrestrial biomes that are warm enough and wet enough to support unirrigated human agriculture, grasslands have better, more naturally fertile soils than do forest biomes by far. The reason for this mostly has to do with the rate and volume of decay. Believe it or not, due to the fact that most grasses die back to the ground every fall in temperate regions, the weight and volume of material that is available to decay (and build soil) is actually far greater in grasslands than it is any temperate season forest where trees may well live for centuries.

If soil building, which in this instance means maintaining and enhancing soil fertility (hopefully) in a natural manner, is an integral part of sustainable agriculture, it is my belief that we as a society will have to rely heavily on crop rotations that involve many years of grass for each year soil is put to the plow to grow any sort of grain crop. As I have mentioned several times in previous posts, grain crops destroy soil and grass builds it back up. Since humans don't have digestive systems designed to utilize grass in an effective manner, if we are to utilize all the "new" grasslands in America, we will have to use livestock to do so. As such, I think the future for a very different brand of ruminant livestock agriculture...one that is respectful of the animal and it's natural cycle in improving the grass and the soil...is strong.

In industrial agricultural settings today, it's common to talk about grasslands as being inherently less productive than land planted to corn, beans, wheat, etc. I'd say that's more of a commentary on the dullards issuing the proclamations than it actually is on the potential productivity of well managed grasslands, especially if we remove the advantage of large quantities of purchased synthetic nitrogen from the grain crops.

At the end of the day every agricultural enterprise I am a a part of relies heavily...actually almost totally.... on grass as it's foundation. Despite the number of animals I raise, I'm not really a beef farmer and despite the number of horses we board, I'm not really a horse farmer either. What I really am is a grass farmer. I manage the grass that grows here naturally and I turn around and sell some of that grass into the market place for a higher value than that which I paid for it. The enterprises that create this value are currently beef production and horse boarding. Over time, we may very well add to those enterprises, as long as they are sustainable, complementary to our existing enterprises and make financial sense.

This is a very different mindset than that which commonly exists today, but as I mentioned in my last post, I am far from alone in sharing it. I believe the future for this sort of agriculture is very bright. The only fly in the ointment is that it took me the better part of 25 posts to fully introduce the concept ! LOL !

Monday, August 23, 2010

Changes....

When we wanted entertaining and sensational news when I was a child, we tuned our TV antennae away from our local newscasts and tuned in over the border to American news, usually from Buffalo, but we also got all the Rochester channels too. In the 1970's and 80's, the difference in entertainment value between Tom Gibney, News Anchor, CTV evening news at 6:15 on Channel 9 Toronto and Irv Weinstein, News Anchor at Channel 7 WKBW Buffalo was as great as the current difference between endless CSPAN monologues and Fox News Networks. To put this difference in perspective, despite a population five times as large as Buffalo, Toronto evening news, weather and sports remained 15 minutes long until I was in high school. Even the American weather forecast's were glitzier, with Tom Jolls standing outside in all weathers with live radar, neat graphics and his weather word of the day. I liked the forecasts although they almost never actually applied in temperature or precipitation to our situation, a hundred air miles north by northeast of Buffalo. Thanks to CRTC's heavy handed regulations and also thanks to having government run CBC as the only real competition, there was no real reason to do better, so for a very long time nobody did. About the time I graduated from high school, the situation changed. A number of upstarts decided to take on the monopolies at CBC and CTV by offering a hugely better viewing experience.

The same sort of thing is happening in farming today. Farming has become a very solitary occupation in the past fifty years. As such, many of the people drawn toward farming tend not to have a whole lot of marketing or people skills. It's my belief that more often than not, farmers have isolated themselves and too often the only message they hear comes from the folks they associate with in government and in agribusiness. It sometimes seems to me that an entire generation of farmers has lost the ability to think and act independently and I find this very upsetting and sad.

One of the greatest gifts my parents gave to me was teaching me to be unafraid to think independently. A stock line at every coffee shop in farm country is, "There ain't no money in farming." A more accurate assessment (and one which was never allowed to pass unspoken in my family) is that there isn't any money in farming when you do things the way the speaker chose to do, so why not choose a different path and see if that worked out better ? For years, heavy handed government involvement and paternalistic and monopolistic agribusinesses have done their very best to put the brakes on anyone attempting to do better with a system of incentives and punishments.

In spite of this, just like the upstart TV stations in Toronto twenty years ago, there are a lot of people who want to do better, and they aren't taking no for an answer. In the same way that neither the CBC nor the CTV were worried about the upstarts in 1989, until now both government and agribusiness have poo-poohed the alternatives. Believe me when I say that in the last few years, they have stopped poo-poohing and they are sitting up and taking notice. Like everyone else, I see the future through a glass, darkly...which is to say not at all ! But I have a feeling that we are on the cusp of an explosion of choices in how we choose to procure our food and I am very, very excited about it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Don't ask Questions

I've been following along with interest all matters regarding the current egg recall and biting my tongue fervently, trying hard not to post a reaction to some of the things I am reading without thinking things through. In any case, I think my struggle with restraint is about over. :)

It's my belief that you get what you pay for in this world, at least most of the time. As much as we've all been indoctrinated that all food is clean, safe and wholesome in North America, it's also my belief that this truism applies to our current food system and the 'cheap' food it produces. Or maybe the truism is that one ought not ask too many questions about how one's dozen (really cheap) eggs was produced, because if you do you probably aren't going to like the answer.

It would appear from what I read that a summary of the external costs of production in this egg recall would include egregrious and repeated labour violations, huge food safety violations, huge and repeated manure pollution violations, repeated animal welfare and cruelty violations, and the list goes on. If one really wants to have one's eyes opened, and if one has some time, perhaps you ought to do as I did and type any of the aforementioned violations into google and scan what comes up for any commodity of your choice.

Let's address some internal costs that we all "eat". It's hard to know exactly how many tax dollars our federal and state governments pump into agriculture every year because a lot of the subsidies are hidden. However, if there are 300 million Americans, it's easy math to figure that every billion dollars pumped into various and sundry agricultural subsidies cost each and every one of us $ 3.00. That doesn't sound too bad until one realizes that if the nation supports agriculture to the tune of $ 100 billion dollars in hidden and open subsidies of various sorts ( a veritable drop in the bucket in today's budget, no matter whether or not said budget is Democratic or Republican in nature), the average family of four spent $ 1200 in taxes to help the cause. Unfotunately, this egg recall shows all too well what we got for our money.

Maybe we've come to a place where consumers are beginning to realize that the grocery store cost of eggs at $ 0.69 per dozen isn't real, and that maybe paying someone local $ 2.00 or even more per dozen eggs is worth it, if ALL the various costs have been accounted for in the price. I've been tempted for a long while to hang a sign down at my gate that says "Proud Family Farmer...Zero Percent Subsidized", but until recently I didn't think anybody would get it. Maybe it's time to think about getting out the paint brush again.....

Saturday, August 21, 2010

New Farm Progress Update

For those that don't like to read my diatribes, this post is for you. ! Thanks to some incredibly long days the pictures below show where we stand regarding construction at the new farm as of noon today. I know factually that the barn sits in 94o feet from the water tap at the road. I know this because I had three 20 foot pieces of pipe left over when I was done plumbing it (very late yesterday evening). I was very concerned that I wasn't going to make it before it either got too dark to see or I got very, very wet, or both ! Fortunately, the plumbing got done sans moisture although there was no daylight left when I finished up. Now let's hope it doesn't leak when the county turns on the water tap Monday. :)


The barn is 36x48 with a 12 foot overhang. This is sized intentionally small as it will only service the paddocks immediately surrounding it. When this fenced pasture is fully built out there will be two more run in sheds around the barn with each run-in surrounded by small wet weather paddocks. This design is horse friendly and farm friendly but it is also labour friendly, and honestly labour savings was the primary motivator in structuring the layout this way. Because the property is long and relatively narrow, we plan on having three or more of these barns surrounded by paddocks along it's length.

Where I am driving will be a laneway as of Monday. We got our first load of 3/4 driveway stone on Friday and we've got a whole bunch more loads of pit run and stone scheduled for delivery. To the right of the laneway will be a couple of single horse dry lots and several small turnout paddocks for those boarders that choose stall board for their horse. Of course I am biased but I think it will be a pretty and very functional farm when it is fully built out.

Hope everyone is having an enjoyable weekend.



This is looking toward the road from near the rear of the fenced section of the farm.

I realize everything looks like a cluttered up mess right now. Between our stock trailer, tractors and our barn builder's stuff we ought to open our very own used and salvage facility. Please imagine it minus the junk ! There will also be a 10 foot wide covered porch across most of the front of the barn at the same height as the overhang. The plan is to have ceiling fans and benches installed for us and our guests to enjoy on hot summer days.



Thursday, August 19, 2010

Beef Farming in Tennessee

Tennessee has one of the largest populations of beef cattle in the nation, despite the state's relatively small size. While there are a whole bunch of reasons for this, the biggest two are a) a climate that permits good grass growth almost year round, and b) a plentitude of steep, rocky terrain that is little suited to any other kind of agricultural venture.

Most beef farms in Tennessee are small acreage, part time "mama cow" outfits which are almost all "lifestyle" farms to some degree. While the great majority of beef farms are part time operations, most folks count on them to provide some level of extra income. Until a few years ago, many of these small farms split the risk on their farm income by growing a few acres of tobacco as a money crop. In many cases the tobacco crop grossed and netted as many dollars as did the beef cattle.

As I mentioned, after the tobacco buyout program a few years ago caused a precipitous decline in tobacco acreage, Tennessee decided to support and fund an agricultural diversification program, which is mandated to help TN farmers try to replace the income they lost when they stopped growing tobacco. Some sections of this bill make a reasonably good stab at doing this. The beef section of this program is not one of them, in my opinion. It's great if what you want to do is buy a better bull, build a better hay barn, or buy some better cattle handling equipment. However, if what you want to do is figure out how to actually make more money with your beef cows, in most cases this program is going to let you down. At best, some of the covered equipment and feed storage facilities make it possible (and easier) to do some things slightly better, albeit at great cost. Unfortunately, niether the equipment nor the educational component of this program does anything to help farmers address HOW to make more money with one's cows. And sadly, there is A LOT of income being left on the table by TN beef producers.

An "average" Tennessee beef operation might have 30 cows, and if the cows are exceptionally well managed they might produce as many as 30 calves that could be sold each year. Since there are no large scale feedlots in the state and no large packing houses, most calves that are born here don't spend their lives here. Instead, most commonly they are sold at auction to a large feedlot out west when they are a little less than a year old to make room for the next group of calves. Again, if they are exceptionally well managed, they might weigh 600 lbs, and they might, in a good year, fetch $ 1.00 per lb, grossing the farm operator around $ 600 per head (or $18,000 in aggregate) and, hopefully netting him something more than zero dollars.

There are a whole host of excellent ways that the farmer could choose to add value to his beef, but for the sake of agrument and brevity, let's jump straight to selling it to the consumer as natural, healthy grass fed beef (which I'm very familiar with since it makes up the other half of our farm business)instead of selling the cattle at auction when they reach 600 lb. Incidentally, we feed grass not only because it's healthy for the animals and for us, but it also grows here well and it's "free of charge", unlike any grain crop I've ever grown. Interestingly, grass fed beef sells at a considerable premium to grain fed beef in this area of the state. So by choosing this method, I get to do what's best for the animals and I get "paid" several times to do so. Anyway, on to the economics. We sell our beef wholesale to folks for about the same money that they could buy grain fed feedlot beef at Kroger for. This works out to the equivalent of $ 2.25 per lb liveweight. We typically slaughter when the animals reach 1200 lbs, which grosses us roughly $ 2,700 per head.

If we apply my gross number to our hypothetical "average" 30 cow Tennessee beef farm, he would be grossing $ 81,000 per year under this methodology vs $ 18,000 under his current marketing arrangement. To achieve this, this farmer would have accrued absolutely no additional expenses to his farming operation except some additional time and possibly some additional pasture acreage to feed the cattle out on grass, so I feel comfortable saying that much of the difference would be net income.

I don't want or need state or federal money and frankly I wish they would kill this program entirely and put the money saved toward balancing their respective budgets. Since this is unlikely to happen, maybe they ought to look into this "value added" concept a little bit more ? Or maybe they'd rather keep on helping the people who sell farmers things instead of helping the farmers themselves.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

An Overview of US Agriculture, Circa 2010

Although I'm often not much of a fan of the overall food system as it currently stands for a whole host of reasons, some of which I'll get into shortly, there are some things that are remarkable about where we are today. I don't think it is an overstatement to say that most people don't think about their food supply at all, except perhaps to complain about the cost of groceries at the store. I read a statistic recently that stated the average American is five generations removed from the farm. Thus, a startlingly high percentage of the population has no real idea that their food is grown ANYWHERE ! I guess they think it just arrives on store shelves as if by magic.

According to Maslows heirarchy of needs, the majority of people in this nation are focused right at the top of his needs pyramid, with some consumers taking the time to self actualize about what sort of food system they want. Personally, I think these are exciting times in which to be a farmer, as long as the farmer is willing to keep up with and stay in touch with the consumer. Althought the majority of consumers remain disinterested in the food system, which probably ensures at least a short future for many of today's factory style agribusinesses, many consumers are becoming very aware of how things are being produced. I think it's fair to say this large pool of consumers are talking and acting in ways not widely seen since our grandparents day in this nation.

There are some glaringly obvious (and very silly) logistics (or, actually a lack thereof) in our current system of food production. I make no attempt whatsoever to list them all, but here, at least, is an overview.

Most of the grain in this country is grown on the prairie soils of the western midwest, centered on Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and the states surrounding them. In order to realize high yields, grain producers...particularly those that grow corn, but also wheat and milo, use a tremendous amount of fertilizer. This fertilizer used to be generated, at least in part, by animals raised on local farms. Today, this is mostly not the case, because (unbelieveably to me) most animal production has moved away from the midwest. So instead of using locally produced animal manure to sustainably fertilize grain and at least attempt to maintain soil tilth and fertility, today most farmers have no choice but to purchase large quantities of "synthetic" fertilizer (which is produced using huge quantities of fossil fuels) instead.

You heard me correctly when I said that most animal production no longer happens where most of the animal feed is grown. Today, most of the milk in this country is produced in the far west on very large dairies in places like California, Idaho, New Mexico and Texas. To a lesser extent, it is also produced in traditional dairy states like Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, etc. Most of the broiler and egg chickens in the US along with a large number of hogs are housed in the deep south, from North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas right on down to the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the beef in this country is grain fed and finished in huge feedlots in Colorado, Kansas and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandle.

We truck grain away from the midwest and move it to the areas of the country where animals are produced in quantity. Unfortunately, in addition to being unsuitable for large scale grain production, most of these areas are not particularly close to their markets either. So after trucking feed in, we then spend more money to truck manufactured food products away from these areas to the cities where they will actually be consumed. I really don't know what happens to the massive quantities of manure that are generated in these places, and I'm going to guess that I probably don't want to know.

When you think about what a farm ought to look or smell or sound like, for better and for worse, I promise that most of these large scale facilities don't look (or smell, or sound) anything like that at all.

As long as fuel remains cheap and grain production is subsidized heavily by the federal government, a continuance of this system makes at least minimal economic sense for the farmers involved. When such is no longer the case, we will have to do differently than we do today.

My next series of posts will explore what some of these differences may look like as well as taking a closer look at the way agriculture is practiced in places like Tennessee, where I am intimately familiar with what goes on.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Marital (Dis)Harmony

Today, after fifteen years of practice with two women, I think I've mostly figured out how to keep a harmonious marriage. In fact, the metaphor that would most aptly describe my marriage to Melissa most of the time is "like a beautiful piano concerto". Having said that, when one is building a business and a life with one's partner, there are lots of opportunites for "crashing cymbals" .... the metaphor which best describe our disagreements.

Melissa can best be described as a "future" thinker. By this, what I mean is that if given the time and opportunity, she can and will think through every possible combination of events that could befall us, sometimes years ahead of schedule. This is kind of baffling to me, but what is EVEN MORE baffling is that for no apparant reason she will begin to act on a set of random perceived consequences (which to her are almost inevitable) long before (in my opinion) the course of action has been set (or the problem even thought about). My usual response is a baffled, " What in the world are you doing ?" In truth, I already know what she is doing. Her thought process is quick and it has to be quickly followed by action. She is a natural born worrier who has a quintessential Type A, high drive personality. Her brain is like a bunch of hamsters running amok on a never ending treadmill.

Nobody who knows me would ever describe my brain function that way. Not my mother. Not my best friend. Nobody. Although I share Melissa's Type A personality and task focus when it comes to getting work done, my brain's natural pace is that of a fat, lazy hamster who spends an inordinate amount of time on the couch drinking beer and watching TV. I may occasionally act quickly, but I think very s-l-o-w-l-y and my brain takes lots and lots of time outs to refresh itself. Nobody is ever going to accuse my brain of working itself to death.

As you might imagine, combining these two thought processes often leads to significant friction.

I have been thinking through various problems related to building out our new farm for the better part of three months. And until very recently I haven't been doing much about said problems beyond thinking them through, although to be fair even I realize that the time for action (on some of the things I've been thinking about in my brain) is well nigh. This process has been helped along by increasingly frequent tonal changes and ever increasing volumes emanating from my better half. Really I kind of feel sorry for her. It's not that I don't want to act. My brain just isn't ready to be done thinking yet. In the interim, poor Melissa has gone from civil disagreement through red in teh face yelling and about a week ago she crossed over to begging and pleading. I thought she was going to have a stroke.

Mercifully, about the time I thought Melissa was going to stroke out, my fat, lazy brain decided it was done thinking and it was (finally) time to get off the couch and engage in some serious action. As is predictable in our case, this change of pace immediately led to much improved marital relations. In fact, way off in the distance, I thought I faintly heard the sound of a piano earlier this evening.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

And on the seventh day...

He would really, REALLY like to find an hour to steal a nap because he stayed up way too late last night ! LOL !

Unfortunately, that's not going to happen today. We have clients coming later this afternoon and lots of prep work to get done before we welcome two more new horses the middle of this week. But it doesn't change the fact that taking adequate time for oneself is a necessary part of achieving long term sustainability (and avoiding burn-out) in any business. I have no desire whatsoever to replicate the farmers of my grandfather's generation who bragged that they had never missed a milking and had never taken a full day off. I really think those old folks were made of tougher stuff than we are.

Achieving actual time away that involves both Melissa and I is by far the most difficult thing to accomplish. We usually aim for a week's vacation, usually at the beach on the Alabama Gulf Coast, usually some time in June, which is the slowest time of year for us here in the mid South on the farm. Neither one of us is particularly enamored of the beach as a vacation destination, but my in-laws have a beautiful condo down there, and there is lots of leisure time activities that one can pursue if one wishes to do so. My favorite leisure time activity is sitting under an umbrella with a book and a series of cold beverages until the need for sleep overtakes me. Sometimes I make it a whole hour before I start drooling out the corner of my mouth ! LOL ! Since the beach is a six hour drive, it's far enough away to feel different but it's close enough that we could get home quickly in a real emergency.

We also usually manage to achieve a couple of one or two night trips away together every year. We're fortunate to live in a place that offers a lot of diverse attractions within a couple of hours drive, and over the years we've done our best to take advantage of this. As horsey as it is and as pretty as it is, the one place I'm not interested in spending any leisure time in the near future is Lexington, KY. Until a few months ago, I was the TN rep for animal health giant Alltech, Inc. ( as in 2010 Alltech FEI Games). As far as it goes, Alltech was a great company to work for, but their worldwide HQ is in Nicholasville, KY, just outside Lexington. For the past five years, I have averaged nearly four weeks a year in downtown Lexington hotels and I'm kind of burned out on the place.

Most days, one of the good things I try to do is take a short nap after my noon meal. A half hour's rest makes the afternoon go better, IMO ! Melissa and I are both avid readers, and we put in a lot of time, especially on winter evenings, quietly sitting for hours on end with a good book in our favourite chairs. Of course, Melissa also spends considerable time with her horses, but I've dealt with that at some length in our other blog.

What do you do for rest and relaxation ? Since everyone is different, what would a balanced life look like to you ? I am most curious about this !

Hope everyone has a great Sunday afternoon !

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Jack of All Trades

While much has changed about farming since my early childhood, one of the truisms that has remained pretty constant is that a farmer wears a lot of hats in the course of an average day, and there is endless variety to the work. When I compare my day to week after week of entries which read along the lines of, Oct 6, 1893, " Plowed all day today with team. Got 1 and a half acres done" in my great-grandfather's diary, I'm not sure I'd have handled the monotony of farming in pioneer times very well at all. Whatever else it is, farming the way Melissa and I do in 2010 is rarely monotonous.

Most of the time, if I choose to do so, the only thing I have to do in order to be busy is to wake up and look out the front door. The rest of the day will look after itself. I spent part of this morning as a horse handler, helping Melissa and one of our employees get ready for farrier day. When this activity looked to be well in hand, I drove to our Lynnville farm and acted as construction supervisor/architect to our building and earthworks crew down there. While still in my construction supervisor role, I priced out some fencing materials, a trencher rental and some water line. On my return home early this afternoon, Melissa demoted me to stall cleaner and floor sweeper after which I came in the house to take over my secretarial role in doing some follow up with clients and some bookwork for the farm. I also briefly donned my sales hat when I set up some appointments to visit with potential clients next week. At about 4 pm, I switched roles again...this time back to chore boy, and in this role I mostly remain (along with aspiring world famous blogger) at 9:30 pm.

Most days I enjoy solving the problems that each day presents, whatever they may be. A long while ago, one of our Paradigm Farms blog readers summed up a perfect day on the farm by saying that all of the problems that presented themselves would be easily remedied with tools that were close to hand. Amen to that. But even when the problems presented aren't so easily remedied, it doesn't take long to remember that compared to my time as a warrior in Corporate America, I don't have many days that aren't pretty close to perfect any more. I'll take a tractor engine problem on a 90 degree afternoon over being stuck with no solution between a livid client and an irate boss any day of the week. Some folks find salvation in their hobbies. For me, it comes about three seconds after I open my eyes to greet the morning.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Oh...the Smell !

Being a good neighbour is an integral part of running a sustainable farm. When your farm generates odors that overspill your property lines and negatively affect your neighbours on anything like a regular basis, I think it's a fail on the part of the farm. While I recognize the need for "right to farm" laws to protect well run farm businesses from trivial lawsuits, I also think there needs to be some enforceable laws on the books to penalize farmers that routinely violate their neighbour's right to enjoy their property.

The most usual culprit in stinking up the neighbourhood is manure, most especially manure that is being agitated and/or spread out of a pit; this stinks terribly regardless of the species in question, although subjectively, I think liquid hog manure smells the worst. As an aside, I have been on quite a few farms where the eye wateringly strong smell of poorly made and poorly fermented haylage or corn silage rivalled or exceeded that of pit stored manure. Well made, well fermented silage smells just a little bit sweet but it does not smell strongly at all. As another aside, sadly (and disgustingly), there also exist some farms where there is so much endemic sickness that the entire place reeks of unhealthy, unthrifty livestock. Pity the neighbours, farmers or not, that exist downwind of that.

Farms (of any size) don't need to stink. The farm I grew up on didn't stink. The farm I live on now doesn't stink....not even right beside our manure pile while I am loading the spreader. Both the farm on which I grew up and this one were and are heavy with livestock. In my opinion, there is no acceptable excuse for an ongoing stinky, putrid smelling farm. Any system of production that imposes it's pre-ordained smell on the neighbourhood as a cost of doing business is not one we need to be supporting with our food buying dollars.

Putrid odors are too often the smell of mismanagement. They are caused by large quantities of fertilizer (ammonia nitrogen and hydrogen sulfide gas) volatilizing into the air. Many farmers don't treat manure as the valuable, soil building resource that it is, and sadly, today many farmers don't even realize that properly treated manure doesn't need to be odiferous. Referring to my last blog, farmers who share an industrial mindset treat manure as a waste product with little to no inherent value; something to be got rid of as inexpensively as possible. This linear thinking "factory ag" mindset continually bites the entire industry in the rear. The damage this train of thought does to all of us is compounded exponentially when livestock intense operations are located in fragile environments without adequate cropland acreage to safely use up the manure these operations generate.


Even improperly managed, solid manure systems seldom smell as bad as their liquid counterparts. Well managed solid manure doesn't smell at all. Ever. Not even right next to the pile, as I mentioned earlier. The reason for this is that the nitrogen contained in manure is bound up by the carbon contained in the bedding. When there is adequate carboniferous bedding material...I prefer straw, but sawdust and shavings work too, ammonia stays bound up. This dung/straw product can be composted over winter and can be safely land applied at relatively high rates in the spring, summer or fall, reducing or eliminating the need for purchased commercial fertilizer in most instances. In addition to building soil fertility, properly managed and applied solid manure also improves soil microbial activity, soil porosity and soil organic matter.

There are a lot of elements that go into running a sustainable farm. Being a good neighbour is high on my list of things that need to get done right.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Third Commandment of a Sustainable Farm

Think long term.

Of course I understand that farm businesses need to think in the short term as well as long term, but I think it's all too easy to fall into our cultural trap of not thinking about the longer term at all.

When I think about farming our homeplace, or farming my in-laws place or the place we just bought, I'm thinking about things and gearing my management style toward the long term. At a minimum, I'm thinking about using these pieces of land for the remainder of my working lifetime, which I hope is for a good long while yet ! In actual fact, I'm farming on an even longer scale than this, because the hope is that these farms will be passed on to someone who will tend after them at least as well as I did. No matter who gets them (or when), they will be getting well tended farmsteads that are in better shape, are more useable and are more productive than they were when I got them. I think in much the same way when I rent or lease a piece of ground from a neighbour or a family friend.

Conversely, when I rent or lease a piece of ground from a developer (so that he can maintain farm taxes on it until he sells it or builds it out), I am not thinking beyond what that land can do for me this year or at the very most, perhaps this year and next year. Because my mindset is different, some of my agricultural practices on this land wouldn't pass muster at home.

[Before I go on, I want to state very clearly that I am NOT inherently biased or against large scale agriculture. Big farms can be well run....and they can also be run in a sustainable manner. What I AM biased against is the sort of corporate mindset that too often lurks behind the scences in large scale agriculture.]

With it's myopic focus too often based solely on quarterly performance, it's my opinion that corporate agriculture too often treats land, buildings, animals and people as though they are resources to be used up, just like land leased from a developer. When these resources are no longer productive, or no longer productive enough, the "care" they receive stops and they will be sold to the highest bidder for whatever they will bring. In my opinion, this is the antithesis of sustainability in that nothing has any inherent worth or inherent value beyond that which relates to the profit motives or other directives of the corporation. In my opinion, every business needs to think about making a profit. However, when profit is all that it's about, I believe myriad examples will show that businesses lose their humanity and ultimately their reason for being. I've thought for a long time that running a business solely for profit must be a hell of a way to live one's life. I know factually that this sort of business isn't much fun to work for.

In my case, being a farmer is a lifestyle, a way of life and a business all rolled into one. I farm because I enjoy it, and because I make a good living at it. Perhaps because I enjoy it so much, I want to share my enjoyment with my family, my employees, my friends and my critters. I can't imagine a better way to live my life.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Second Commandment Of a Sustainable Farm

Thine farm shalt be profitable. Or if thine won't, mine better be ! :)

In commodity agriculture of every type I ever participated in, I (and everyone else) lived for the "good" years, where high prices and excellent yields magically came together and there was considerable money left over after all the bills were accounted for. For any given commodity, really good years happen somewhere between one year in five (if you are real astute at using futures markets) and one year in ten (if you are average at using and predicting futures markets). If you are running your farm in a very astute way, the rest of the years vary between making a little money and losing a little money.

When good years hit, commodity agriculture can look really, really lucrative, and I promise you never forget when things hit. I still get a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach remembering my first real try at growing navy beans. I had the perfect season....bin buster yields combined with record prices to NET me nearly $ 700 per acre on a $ 300 per acre investment. I felt like I couldn't do anything wrong, which was nice because I gave a good chunk of that money back over the next several years until it hit again. The whole experience of commodity grain growing and marketing is much like rolling dice in Las Vegas and requires about the same level of nerve, with the exception that unlike Las Vegas you had better have a real good handle on what it cost you to grow the commodity you are trying to price PLUS a real good idea about how the futures market operates or you are going to get your head handed to you on a plate.

The difference between large scale commodity agriculture and selling services and products direct to consumers is the difference between the illusion of profitability and real profitability in my opinion. Using my grain farm as an example, year over year I'd expect to generate $ 150 per acre in "gross margin" dollars and be able to put maybe $ 50 per acre in my pocket.
Thus in order to take a very modest family living of $ 50,000 per year I would need to farm 1000 acres of grain at a minimum, (and I would almost certainly have tied up millions of dollars to do so). This example is real and I hope it helps you understand why farms practicing commodity agriculture have to be so large in order to support the people who run them. Scarce financial resources and low profitability may also help explain some of the issues that plague various types of commodity agriculture. There just aren't enough resources available to the farmer to do an adequate job on a lot of fronts. In some cases, our government has decided that the nation needs to help these farmers comply with various mandates, and thus the self perpetuating USDA government program is born. When viewed this way, it kind of gives one pause to thiink about all the costs actually associated with America's "cheap food" policy, doesn't it ?

Since I had the opportunity to start over afresh and since I knew I wanted to make my living farming (and NOT in commodity agriculture), I was drawn toward "out of the box" thinkers who were marketing products and services directly to consumers. In addition to a good set of agricultural and business skills, I had a lot of experience selling things to people and I found I kind of enjoyed the process most of the time.

Over a couple of years, I studied a lot of of direct to consumer ag businesses. I found that these can be quite profitable, although this was/is still very much dependent on the business acumen of the owner(s). Established, well run agricultural businesses of this sort can yield their owners consistent profits of $ 1000 per acre or more. In today's dot com world, this still isn't a get rich quick scheme by any means, but it is a much more viable business model than commodity agriculture in the sense that it can support a farm family comfortably on an acreage and at a scale that a competent farmer should be able to take good care of. Once these sorts of businesses get to a certain size, astute farmers ought to be able to grow from savings and cash flow without the need to borrow capital, except possibly to acquire more land. In my opinion, this is a true measure of profitability and I found myself wanting to give this sort of thing a try. Although nobody is ever going to write a book about how successful the Webb's were, I'm proud to say that in five years we've gone from no land and two off farm jobs to having the farm comfortably support us, which to me is what it's all about.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The First Commandment of A Sustainable Farm

No matter the species or crop raised, a good, practical agriculturalist should try to think in a balanced circle, as nature does, rather than linearly, as our land grant colleges and agribusiness leaders try mightily to make us do. The former always makes more sense than the latter, even if the latter sometimes yields more short term economic benefits than the former does. I daresay that the majority of the problems, financial and otherwise that I ran across in my nearly 20 years as an industry troubleshooter could be traced back to the farmer having at some point bought the line regarding a linear rather than a cyclical mindset.

Instead of trying to visualize a whole farm, let's think about cyclicity and sustainability on the scale of an industrious and thrifty old fashioned farm wife's quarter acre kitchen garden, because the same thought patterns apply to both the garden and the farm.

We'll assume that the farm wife has a ready source of manure from a family milk cow or family hog that lives on the quarter acre next to the garden. She uses the manure generated to improve the fertility in her garden, and we'll assume that she does so with a generous application late in the fall and then another applicaition at or shortly before planting time in the spring. We'll assume also that she knows to rotate peas, potatoes, beans and corn to maximize soil fertility and minimize pest problems. She may also be wise to the secrets of interplanting, which will help achieve further reduction in pest problems. She will also be intimately familiar with how to run a hoe, or she might use straw mulch which will help achieve weed control in a different way. Perhaps, like my mother and grandmother, the farm wife is extra thrifty and she saves back her own seed from all the crops she can, thus ensuring her next season even as this one continues. As long as their is adequate animal manure to enhance fertility and build soil, this is a very sustainable garden in the sense that it can continue feeding a farm family indefinitely while building soil fertility and tilth and while minimizing off farm purchased inputs. Maybe she sells her surplus milk, her surplus pork and her surplus vegetables directly to consumers in town and her garden actually makes her some money. The surplus produce and garden plants that don't ger sold or eaten get fed back to the family cow and/or family hog. Nothing is wasted and everything is interdependent on everything else. I don't have to guess that this model works; I KNOW it does. My family has maintained soil fertility and productivity while prospering on the same piece of land using this methodology for the last 180 years.

Alternately, the gardener can run to her local farmers co-op about three days before planting time and achieve roughly the same results by buying all her seeds, buying considerable herbicide and some bug juice, buying copious quantities of fertilizer, and buying a couple of truckloads of mulch to instantly amend the soil. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing things this way, but nobody is going to argue that this is in any way sustainable on it's own, without heavy doses of purchased inputs. Because this gardener is in a hurry, she has no time to fool with selling the surplus, so she plows it all under about Labour Day and she won't think about the garden again until three days before planting time next spring, when she'll repeat the entire experience. If, at the same time, this gardener's husband decided it'd be smart to finish out 500 head of beef cattle by cramming them into pens on the quarter acre next to the garden while buying truckloads of grain to feed the cows before trucking them all off to the auction to be sold wholesale, I'd have succinctly summed up the factory farm experience and mindset. Actually, I missed something. If I told you that the gardener's husband planned on disposing of all the manure his feedlot generated by injecting it into the quarter acre garden, then I would have REALLY summed up the factory farm mindset. As expected, this sort of situation creates all kinds of problems for the cattle (who were never meant to live in mud, crowded together in this way), the farmer (who has to deal with all the sick cows and the overwhelming amounts of manure), the neighbours (who endure the sounds and smells that go along with this catastrophe) and the environment (which gets trashed).

Perhaps now, those of you without a farm background more clearly understand why I shake my head at this nonsense ?

Monday, August 2, 2010

S is for Soil

Melissa has made reference several times in her blog to my cash cropping background. I also have a long history of raising cattle, and I've been known at other times to raise hogs (and board horses), but at all times I am at least as interested in what came out their rear ends as I am about eating, selling or keeping the animals. While it has always been important to me to raise and care for livestock properly, at heart what I am really interested in doing is growing things that will help me build soil in productive ways.

In Ontario, I farmed excellent, dark brown class 1 stone free, deep loamy agricultural soil. It was naturally fertile and naturally very friable, with lots of organic matter and an unamended soil pH of 7 to 7.3. About the only further amendment I made to it in order to make it as productive as possible was systematic tile drainage and that was more to warm the soil up evenly in the spring than anything else. From a soils perspective, I really didn't know how good I had it until I moved to Tennessee.

I moved down here because I fell in love with my wife, who was from here and who made it very clear that she wasn't built to handle much cold weather. It took a little time, but I fell in love with the place, too. It's pretty, and excepting for a few hot weeks in the summer, it has a pretty salubrious four season climate, in my opinion. But the soil mostly sucks. We bought pretty good soil on our new place, but you have your pick of adjectives (preceeded by cuss words) to describe conditions on my in-laws place where we live right now. Think cherty, stony, infertile, highly acidic. high Sulfur, unproductive, shallow, steep heavy clay. It'd be excellent stuff to make bricks out of; it's hellish bad to work, and it should NEVER be put to the plow. It's best agricultural usage is permanent improved pasture, except in places too steep or stony to be grazed. There, the best use is trees.

Improving this soil to increase it's productivity in a sustainable manner is an ongoing challenge, but the good part is that it has lots and lots of room to improve, and it's easy to see when I manage to get something right. Unlike my gardening friends, on a farm this large I can't afford to buy my way to fertility quickly, so I have to focus on building it slowly but the same principles apply.

Soil organic matter burns up down here at a furious rate, so we spread as much OM as possible in an effort to battle this. Spreading copious quantities of ag lime improved the soil pH in the root zone from a little over 5 to a little over 6. We've still got a good ways to go here and we'll continue spreading lime as money permits. I've pretty much ignored NPK recommendations on our soil tests so far because until the soil pH improves it isn't going to get uptaken very efficiently by plants anyway.

We probably saw our biggest response from spreading small amounts of Mg and Cu. These aren't necessarily deficient here, but they act like it because they are bound by high levels of Sulfur in the soil and adding them has made every plant (including the weeds) perform more vigourously than they did before. It's also exciting to watch the weed profiles change, and it's another good indicator that we're starting to improve fertility. I'm probably the only farmer in Middle Tennessee who gets excited when he sees broom sedge give way to pigweed !

Livestock manure, incorporated in appropriate amounts, is the key to building soil fertility quickly and sustainably. This is most evident on the shallow soils which is where I choose to feed round bales to both cows and horses in the winter. In the spring I harrow in the wasted hay and copious amounts of manure and I sure feel like I accomplished something pretty great in those spots, especially when I can rotate cattle through it.

I would *love* to figure out a way to rotate horses across a pasture in a manner similar to cattle but also in a way that gave them adequate room to move around without the lower animals getting beat up. I've done a lot of reading about it, but I'm not there yet. Anyone doing this at home ?