Friday, October 19, 2012

Why I Farm

No comment from me could explain why it's important to me to do what I do half as eloquently as these pictures above. Both were taken earlier this week at our Lynnville farm. Enough said.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Health Insurance and Medical Bills

I had a fairly urgent outpatient surgery done on me a few weeks ago. A quick trip to my GP verified that I needed the procedure and he scheduled a meeting with the surgeon for the next afternoon. A week later I showed up at the hospital shortly before seven in the morning and I was sitting in this chair typing on my blog and eating an early lunch by 11:30. No complications and knock on wood so far it's been a very easy recovery which I am now half way through. My care was very good and all the services rendered were timely and professional.

Melissa, Carter and I have a fairly comprehensive medical policy through Blue Cross. Being self employed, we pay the whole break for us We have pretty high deductibles and the deductible is 3X higher for our "family" than it is for either of us, but I'm not going to complain about that right now. We walked into our health insurance policy with our eyes wide open and there are legions of cheaper if less comprehensive options out there.

What I *AM* going to complain about is the tiered billing system that seems to be normative in American health care. We got our hospital portion of the bill today.  Combine that with my surgeon's bill and the anasthesia bill and my little surgery looks mind bogglingly expensive. And so it would be if I was uninsured and had to pay for it out of my pocket which is why I have health insurance in the first place. But what I would have to pay if I didn't have insurance isn't anything like what my insurance company actually pays and thanks to the explanation of benefits they are required to provide I get to see this. Think 20-25 % of the actual "bill" between my deductible and the insurance company's portion and you'd be in the ballpark.

Can you name another service where the difference between the negotiated price for a large entity and the price for a guy off the street who wants to pay in cash is a 75 to 80 %  reduction in favour of the large entity? If I walked in to a feed store or a fertilizer depot and asked for a 75 % discount  I would get laughed out of the store and our customers would be up in arms if we tried it with them...rightly so. In my opinion whatever the price of my surgery is it ought to be pretty well the same regardless of who pays the bill. I understand that a portion of society won't or can't pay their bill and I understand that collecting the money or writing it off needs to be built into the cost. That's standard business procedure. But charging an individual four times what an insurance company pays is not standard business procedure in any other industry I can think of. If what the insurance company pays is actually reflective of the charge then the public is getting hosed in a very, very large way. Frankly if I knew I could pay what the insurance company pays I would probably change my policy from comprehensive to catastrophic and pay the difference out of my pocket. In this writer's opinion addressing this issue would go a very long way to making health care and health insurance a whole lot more affordable for everyone, insured or not.

Getting off my soapbox now. :)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

His Name is X

[ I wrote this post nearly a year ago, just before our first trip to Russia to meet our son. He's asleep in his room as I write this addendum and we couldn't be prouder or more pleased with how our story has turned out. ]

His name is "X", and we don't know very much about him at all. We don't even know what he currently looks like which is odd given that in a few weeks we're going to Russia to begin the process of making him our son. I can't speak for Melissa but I have the butterflies a hundred times worse than I've ever had them before in my life. And I've got questions running through my mind all day every day. Will he like us when we meet him ? Will he like his life here with us ? What does his life look like now ? Am I fit to be a parent ? What is Russia like ? What's being an orphan like ? Each day that goes by, the questions intensify. Those of you who are or were first time parents get the idea, I'm sure.

Right now, child X remains one of 750,000 unclaimed and abandoned Russian orphans. He's lucky compared to some because he hangs his hat and bib in a relatively well endowed Moscow baby home. In spite of his current circumstances I think it's fair to say that he'd have no chance if he wasn't adopted. Most children aren't adopted because most Russians view orphan kids as broken and unfixable. The system ensures this perception remains accurate because the kids are kicked out of the orphanage system when they are sixteen and statistics say that forty percent will die or be in prison within two years. How sad is that ? How bad must your own circumstances as a parent be that you would voluntarily give up your child to an institution to raise knowing the probable outcome and thinking that they would still do a better job than you will ?

For me, the worst part of this process is that although this is one of the biggest moments of my life I can't share it with anyone because it's not a sure thing yet. There is still some niggling chance that a Russian family could claim this child ahead of us. I know some of you reading this are saying to yourselves, well if not him then you're going to bring home another, so what's the fuss ? I guess that's right to a degree, but if it's possible to love someone you have never met then child X is already loved. And claimed. And wanted, too, very much so, as every child should be. We have thought about him and talked about him every day since we got our referral.

As much as we can make it so, this child's life here ought to be a good one. We've built our farm and our business around the idea of raising a family in a nurturing, safe and supportive environment with his mom and dad both available to him at a moment's notice and with at least one set of grandparents close by. We debated adoption for a long while. In the end, I wonder why we debated the concept for so long when every critter in our large menagerie is adopted. What could be better than sharing the wholesome farming life we've created with a needy, unwanted and unloved child ? At this point, I can't wait to find out.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

I Hate Farm Equipment

I have a publication called Amazing Farm Inventions lying open before me on my kitchen table right now. The theme of this month's magazine is, " Made it Myself; Ideas Born in Farm Shops". Some of the ideas are pretty off the wall and some are pretty impressive. Clearly the folks who did this obviously like working on equipment  in their shops AND they have enough spare time and brain power to think their way through some seriously complex projects. 

I find both of these things extremely impressive because I operate at a much more fundamental level than this when it comes to farm equipment. When I jump on a tractor seat early in the morning what I really, really want it to do is start and run for as long as necessary with no problems or interruptions along the way. Then I want to shut it off, go to the house and forget about it  until I need to use it again. When my baler isn't tying properly or the middle row unit on my corn planter inexplicably seizes up and refuses to drop seed or I manage to put a rock through the feeder house and sieves on my combine I tend to get angry and frustrated rather than creative. The same thing happens when tires go flat, batteries go dead, pto shafts fly apart or any of the other maladies that plague farm equipment occur on a somewhat regular basis. It's not that I can't fix most of the stuff when it breaks. It's that I get no joy whatever out of the process, especially when everything here is serviced on time and put away ready to go.

Gramps used to say that machines didn't break when they were parked in the shed. I agree but I will take that a step farther and say that machines don't break if you don't own them at all, either. If I could figure out a way to cost effectively custom hire every bit of machinery work done on my place I would happily do so. I'm not one of these guys who farms because I have an iron fetish.  Given that a lot of my full time farming neighbours are hiring more and more of their time sensitive machine work done I don't think I'm alone in thinking this way, either.

Don't even get me started on equipment that is so poorly engineered that it's difficult or impossible to service, adjust or fix without dismantling it. If folks like me who buy equipment have to contort ourselves into pretzel-like shapes to change a fuel filter or check the oil it probably isn't going to become one of our favourite tasks. When it comes time to replace it, we will probably be looking at a different brand. Speaking of fuel filters, why is it that none of the tractors I own have an easily accessible fuel shut off valve located on the line somewhere above the filter ? It's easier to soak my arm in diesel fuel every time I change a fuel filter than it is to find and turn the fuel shut off valves on both tractors at this farm. But I digress.

Truthfully, I can't really imagine what it would be like to farm with no equipment whatsoever. Four wheel drive tractors, front end loaders, round balers, bush hogs, manure spreaders, air compressors and innumerable other pieces of equipment make my life tremendously easier than it would be without them, especially when they run right. And when they don't believe me when I say I can turn the air blue with the best of them.

Monday, August 13, 2012


When I was in my fourth year of high school I served as the President of the Student's Council. One day I was sitting at our kitchen table preparing a speech to give to the student body at an assembly the following day. I always stood and read my speeches out loud before I gave them and my audience that night was, as usual my mom and dad.  When I got done I asked what they thought. Mom hemmed and hawed but dad cut right to the chase. He pulled me aside after mom left and said, " Son your speech was good in terms of grammar and syntax, but you're not smart enough yet to be that long winded." Although it took the wind out of my sails a bit at the time he was exactly right back then and twenty odd years later he is still right. When compared to giving speeches the great thing about blogging is that you don't have to be very smart to offer up long winded posts on topics you really have no business writing about. You just have to keep at it. After a long pause to deal with all that life was throwing at me it looks like I'm back, at least for the moment.

As all of you who read our Paradigm Farms blog already know, we lost Melissa's dad to cancer early last week. Melissa did an excellent and unimproveable job of writing a very moving tribute to her dad and I probably ought to let that topic rest. However, before I do I have one story I'd like to share with you here.

For a whole variety of reasons, we decided it would be best to send Melissa and her mother to Moscow on our third and final trip to bring home our new son Carter. During the week they were away her dad and I spent a lot of time together and he became more and more restless as the week wore on. Melissa, her mother and Carter were due on a late evening flight from New York the day they were to arrive home so I was somewhat surprised to find Tom sitting wide awake outside in his chair with every light in the house and garage on at 4:32 am when I left to start morning chores. He waved at me on the way by to let me know everything was okay....well, more or less okay anyway. I got through with my work and came home about four and a half hours before their flight was due. I stepped out of the shower and much to my surprise I found Tom waiting in my driveway ready to go get supper and get on to the airport. Supper took about fifteen minutes and the drive to the airport killed another three quarters of an hour. Tom spent much of the remaining time pacing the large mostly empty waiting area with a half full cup of cold coffee and telling everyone in the room that he was waiting with me for his daughter, wife and new grandson to get off the plane. When the plane finally landed and folks started appearing at the gate he was so worked up that the TSA agent working the control point had to ask him to back up several times. He was instantly smitten with Carter, but in truth he was no more smitten than he was with any of the rest of his grandkids. It just felt that way. I lost my dad more than fifteen years ago and in a lot of ways Tom became something of a surrogate parent to me. I will miss his presence very, very much.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Foreign Possibilities

It really is a strange old world we live in sometimes. While Melissa and I waited to board our Delta flight to New York a few months ago at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow I spotted a tall youngish guy in a check shirt and jeans who wore the permanent tan of someone who spends their life outside in the sun in every kind of weather. He was also wearing a baseball cap that advertised a cattle breeding farm in Nebraska. As I checked him out so too he checked me out. When our mutual appraisal was over he gave me a small smile and a short head nod both of which I returned. I thought that was it until after I sat down; the big farmer was sitting directly across the aisle from me.

With ten hours to kill and another farmer close by you can believe we did some talking as the plane crossed the Atlantic. Turns out this guy grew up in Nebraska but was currently the manager for a big 6000 head/30,000 acre Angus breeding farm in Kaluga, Russia a couple of hours south of Moscow. The Russian/American partnership/farm imported all it's genetics from the US and was in the process of setting up a total farm to plate system including a packinghouse and a small feedyard to finish the animals on corn silage. I quizzed him pretty good on climate, soil conditions and local available agricultural infrastructure and as near as I can tell that area of Russia has a climate and soil conditions similar to those found in southwestern Minnesota. The only odd part was that despite vast native grassland resources and a suitable climate for raising huge herds of beef there is no real native beef industry in Russia. I can attest to the extremely high prices of beef at the grocery stores I visited in Moscow and it blew me away that most of the beef I saw was imported from Australia. Russia is a pretty volatile place economically and otherwise but putting two and two together I think this may well be a heck of an opportunity for those who get in on the ground floor. It certainly managed to get the wheels spinning in my head !

Ours really is a world of possibilities. I've heard all my life about the underutilized but extremely fertile chernozem soils found in a broad belt from the Ukraine across southern Russia and into Siberia. What I heard from my farmer friend confirmed much of what I had heard through second hand sources before. If managed properly this region has the potential to become a huge player on the world stage in terms of agricultural production. Maybe one day between now and then I'll get to go back and actually see it with my own eyes !

Friday, March 23, 2012

First Bloom Dates

If any of my blog followers want to play along with me I am quite interested in knowing when various measures of spring arrive at your house. My dates for Lynnville, TN are in parentheses.

On what date did you notice the first forsythia blooming ? (Feb 2)

How about the first lilac in bloom ? (Mar 3)

How about Daffodils ? (Feb 2)

When did you first mow your grass ? (Mar 1) How long was it at that time ? (cool season 6-12")

How about last frost ?

For the farmers in the audience, when did you start hauling manure (Feb 29)? Seeding small grains or pasture (Mar 2) ? Planting field corn (don't do this any more but noticed corn planters rolling Mar 21)?

If enough of you play along (and feel comfortable sharing your approximate location...southern Vermont, eastern Ontario, Toronto, Ottawa, etc.) this could be fun. Feel free to share any other spring-type information too !

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Organic or Not

According to Wikipedia, "Organic foods are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives."

Fair enough.

I'm going to start this post by saying that I have no bones to pick with organic producers or honestly any producers as long as they operate their farms with integrity. The problems start when producers, marketers and regulators say or allude to doing one thing and then go and do something else entirely. This is equally true in both conventional and organic agriculture. Even more problems accrue when organic producers try to use industrial production methods to ramp up scale. That's like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Type "organic feedlot" into your favourite search engine and see what comes up. I think you'll be surprised.

If you can't use synthetic pesticides to control weeds and insects and you can't use commercial fertilizer to replace the nutrients that are harvested and removed from your soil along with your crops then one has to modify production methods in order to achieve reasonable production and pest control while maintaining soil and animal health. Long (7 year +) crop rotations with small areas under cultivation and with most of the acreage in well managed pasture under a system of rotational grazing will go a long way to making organic production methods work as they ought to do. Lots of forages combined with lots of animal manure applied appropriately will build soil fertility and minimize pests. Animals that live in uncrowded conditions and that are moved to fresh ground every day or two will have minimal problems with pests and diseases.

The gold standard mentioned above feels sometimes like it's almost impossible to achieve. And if you're trying to go organic and you deviate very much from it I promise you'll get bit in the rear sooner or later. Sometimes you'll get bit in the rear anyway, just for fun.

In spite of what you may believe sometimes there isn't much difference between organic and conventional production methods, either. I'll highlight my points with an example.

Sweet corn producers have battled European Corn Borer (ECB) for a long time. Long rotations help control this pest and most producers, both conventional and organic, practice long rotations. Organic producers also sometimes plant a refuge....another crop that's more attractive to corn borer than sweet corn. But if ECB really comes on like it does in some years none of this will be enough to save your crop and other methods will be called for.

Here are some of the things you can do to control ECB infestations.

1. Grow GMO sweet corn that has bacillus thuringenesis (Bt) genes already in it to combat European corn borer ?

2. Grow conventional non GMO sweet corn and spray it with Furadan or other insecticides multiple times to control European Corn Borer ?

3. Grow organic non GMO sweet corn and dust it with Bt powder several times during the growing season.

As near as I can tell, option three is/was in compliance with at least some organic certification programs.

No matter their stripe, farmers face a myriad of unexpected problems and even the best farmer gets caught with his pants down periodically thanks in no small part to to the fickleness of nature and animal life generally. There is more than a little truth to the statement that anyone aspiring to start an organic farm ought to probably spend some time learning to run a conventional farm first so that when the inevitable challenges come there may be a fail safe in place instead of instant financial ruination. I've farmed my entire adult life and it still surprises me how quickly animals can get sick and how vigorously weeds can grow.

In some ways our farm would qualify for organic certification, especially on the cattle side, but in spite of the possible economic benefits I've never bothered to try to achieve it and I doubt I ever will. While I don't love using them, sometimes a few dollars worth of fairly benign pesticide will do a lot less damage and provide better results than will any certified organic procedure. Likewise, sometimes judicious use of vaccines and antibiotics will save a valuable animal and/or prevent a devastating disease outbreak before it has a chance to run amok. While I think there is much to learn from well run organic farms, I don't like some of the constraints that come with organic certification.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Keep 'em Poor Down on the Farm

I have before me a recent issue of a dairy publication that I still take despite trading in my rubber boots for.....rubber boots.....some years ago. This particular publication is old and respected. I particularly enjoy reading the articles that highlight how a small group of individual farms handle various management challenges that come along in any sort of farm business. But my blog today isn't about any of that.

The editorial in this magazine exhorts the dairy industry to address some of the rhetoric put forth by some of the organic buying groups operating in the US. Fair enough, some of it needs to be addressed and frankly some of it very much is rhetoric. But the lengthy part of the editorial that stated "If we all followed this mantra then food prices would rise and more of the world would go hungry and this would be a bad thing" got my goat today

Let me state right here that I won't be signing up to drink Kool-Aid with either the editorial staff at this magazine or with anyone in the organic industry any time soon. I also don't want anybody to go to bed hungry. But the irony of their statement is that a few pages before the editorial in the very same issue of this magazine is a page long article comparing dairy farm numbers from 1992 and last year entitled, " Fewer Dairy Farms Left the Business". In the past twenty years the number of dairy farms in this nation has shrunk by 61 percent. Having participated in said industry for a number of years and in a number of ways I can state with some assurance that the reason for such a precipitous decline is that there isn't much money milking cows.

My first duty as a farmer isn't to feed the world and it isn't to worry about folks going to bed hungry. It's to run my business in such a way that that I provide a good living for my wife and family so I don't have to worry about *them* going to bed hungry. As such, higher farm gate milk prices would be very welcome were I to decide to start milking cows.

To read that continuing to produce cheap food is exactly what needs to happen in a farm driven, farmer read magazine where the potential readership has declined by 60 percent in the past twenty years mainly due to economic conditions tells me all I need to know about the writer. I don't know who's side he's on but it sure ain't mine. In my mind the cheap food cult in agribusiness is as anti-farmer as they come. I wonder if we really would be better off if we ditched industrial agriculture and tried a different route.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


When Noel Perrin said that Vermont had six seasons, not four he could as easily have inserted Ontario in place of Vermont and he'd have been equally correct. The two extra seasons to which he refers in his books are "locking" and "unlocking". You can use the terms freeze up and thaw in place of locking and unlocking if you wish, but I stand with him in saying that these "seasons" really do stand between fall, winter and spring.

Most years Ontario, Vermont and other northern places would be thinking about entering "unlocking" some time in the next couple of weeks, but this winter has been so mild parts of southern Ontario really never did freeze up. In a more normal season the warm March sun begins to melt the snow and frozen ground from the top down. When the snow is mostly gone and the first inch of soil melts it turns into mud that is super slippery...greasy was the term we used for it. Each successive warm day melts more frost and the mud gets deeper and more serious as the days progress until finally the frost lets go underneath and the soupy soil finally begins to drain. How long it takes till the frost lets go depends on the snowpack and how deeply the soil is frozen. In years with a big snowpack that came late with a lot of cold weather first it can take a LONG time for the soil to unthaw and an even longer time for the mud to fully disappear. Back before no-till I remember running into patches of frost in shady areas with the discs or C tine cultivator as late as early May.

Tennessee is mostly a disappointment if you like mud. Except in low, boggy places and areas of high traffic the ground never gets past the beginnings of the greasy stage. A couple inches of gravel will keep a firm bottom in most high traffic areas. Even areas that are routinely under water fail to get muddy, at least the way I remember mud in Ontario where at times in March and April if you weren't on a hard surface you were stuck regardless of what you were driving.

This year we went from damp soil to bone dry in the course of about three days. I ate enough dust while sowing grass seed and harrowing manure earlier today that I think I'm going to wait for a shower to re-commence spring's work. And with that thought I'm going to find a shower and wash the dust off me.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Farm Equipment Show

The best way to attend a big equipment show when you're actually wanting to see things is the way that almost nobody chooses....alone. A couple of Fridays ago Melissa gave me the day off and I set out for my once a decade trip to Louisville to visit the National Farm Machinery Show.

Oh the things I saw ! It was like taking a little boy to a big candy store and telling him that he had the whole day to look around and sample things.

It was a long day; I left the house about 6 am Central time and I arrived at the show about three hours later (but on Eastern actually four hours by the clock) which isn't bad given that Louisville is 230 miles to the northeast of us. In spite of going to the show alone the world of production agriculture is small enough that I didn't stay that way for more than a few minutes at a stretch. Several times an hour I would literally bump into someone I knew and if I had the time I'm quite sure I could have killed several days doing nothing more than visiting. One of my Aggie classmates from Ontario knew I was coming to the show that day and she brought me a couple types of Canadian candy that are unavailable in the US, bless her heart.

The primary reason for attending the show this year was to look at Brillion type seed drills. As farm equipment goes, these things are extremely simple, durable and very easy to maintain. If you know what a cultipacker is, think about mounting a grass box on top of it and you pretty much have a Brillion drill. Because I'm planting into silt loam, I would really like to add a coulter cart and/or a set of rolling harrows on a cart ahead of the drill to scarify the soil a bit first. I don't want a full no-till rig and I sure don't want to tear up my established grass....think minimum till and you'd be getting close. Although I've never seen a rig set up exactly this way I knew that all the manufacturers would have reps on hand and I correctly figured they could advise me on how well this might work as well as what sort of coulter caddy's (there are legions of different kinds) I might want to add ahead of the drill.

It's easy to put a set of blinders on and forget that there is a whole big world out there and I've found this is at least as true in business as it is in one's personal life. In both cases it's important to take the time to reconnect, recharge and perhaps most importantly to constantly re-open your mind to new ideas. Visiting with folks, looking at new equipment and attending seminars with people doing innovative things from all over North America is an excellent way to do this. Now that I'm home here farming full time I might have to figure out how to attend these sorts of events on a more regular basis.

[Boy spell check sure didn't like all the agricultural terms in this post. The whole thing turned into a sea of yellow. I think the best one was that the sole offering it gave me for "cultipacker" was Goldberg.] Tee Hee.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Fresh Turned Earth

I come from the generation of farmers who made the switch from full tillage to no till and I mostly don't regret it. When you have several hundred acres to get over and a limited time in which to get it done, tillage, especially moldboard plowing, is a slow, monotonous inefficient drudge of a job. I've spent my share of time on tractors slurping along in mucky soil trying to get the last field plowed ahead of rain, snow or freeze up with engines maxed out and a weather eye on the sky and mostly what you do is grit your teeth, wince a bit and get it done. I've also spent a bunch of time buried in a dust cloud ahead of a big disc, cultivator and/or drag harrow in the spring and I have to say I don't miss that very much either.

What I do miss is the type of tillage that is as much functional art as anything else. Except for the Amish and a few recluses who never made the change you have to go back at least one generation before me to find folks who really know how to do this right.

Up in Ontario I used to enjoy watching a small dairy near Woodstock that did their plowing with two Farmall M's each pulling an International 2-16 moldboard plow. The family patriarch ran one and his son, then a man in his 50's or 60's ran the other. Their form of crop rotation meant that they never plowed anything but alfalfa stubble and they only had about fifty acres to get over each fall. The whole farm was plowed at exactly the right stage of soil tilth and moisture and each furrow laid over perfectly on the one before along perfectly straight rows. One quick pass with a small cultivator in the spring and they'd be ready to plant corn. I wish I'd thought at the time to take a picture of it.

The picture I never took was exactly the picture my grandfather spent hours trying to pound into my brain. If you take the time to set the plow up right and if you strike out straight AND wait for the right soil conditions plowing can be done easily if not effortlessly and spring tillage can be accomplished quickly and easy too. Too much horsepower makes it easy to overcome brain power as he used to say with a shake of his head.

Two years ago, Melissa and I stopped on a sideroad for a good while to watch an Amishman plowing with two well matched and well conditioned horses. He was fully in tune with his horses, the plow and the soil and he was doing an excellent job of managing all of it which made it pure pleasure for us to watch. It reminded me of someone I know and I wish I could tell him that as I arrive in early middle age I really was listening back then.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Observations About Russia

As many of you who follow our other blog know, Melissa and I spent a week in Moscow back in late January.

Anyway, a little history first. Melissa has spent considerable time in Western Europe but this was my first voyage off the North American continent. I have to say that a ten hour flight that crosses ten time zones is something of a rude awakening to international travel for someone who complains about the change from Central to Eastern time whenever I go anywhere east of Nashville. At any rate, I jotted down a number of observations while I was in country and which I will share for your reading pleasure here. For those who might be reading from Europe, please note everything here is written from someone with a rural North American perspective. Also please be aware that I wrote most of this while I was in Russia on very little sleep, so everything is very fresh but some of it might not make a lot of sense.

1. Some bathrooms are "pay" toilets, except here you pay a lady who sits at a desk outside the bathroom before you enter and you are given three squares of toilet tissue for your trouble. These bathrooms are typically very clean and it's usually worth the time it takes to find one and pay the small change required to enter. It's a real good idea to carry some extra tissue with you just to be safe.

2. When you buy something at stores they do NOT automatically bag it for you. You can get plastic bags, but you have to pay a small surcharge for them. This was kind of a revelation when I schlepped several bottles of water from the store back to our hotel by carrying them in my arms.

3. Most toilets have very high water pressure but they stop flushing when you release the handle and almost certainly use less water and do a more effective job of removing waste than our "low flow" toilets. I was most impressed with the toilets.

4. Fresh fruit, and especially berries are extremely expensive. I assume this is because the cost of importing those goods off season is very high. We are very spoiled everywhere in North America in terms of the year round inexpensive cost and high availability of every kind of produce and fruit.

5. Government offices, hotels, malls and larger stand alone stores almost all have security guards at the door and metal detectors that travellers have to pass through. Oddly, it seems as though you only rarely have to show ID's at these places.

6. In terms of entering the country for tourism, etc, I believe the US and Canada actually have Russia beat for difficulty in doing so.

7. Moscow can be an extremely expensive city for tourists and English is not widely spoken outside the main tourist sites. With a few exceptions, it makes sense to pay for a local translator in order to score better deals on things as well as to understand what the hell is going on around you. Even at $ 100 or more per day the cost of a traslator is worth the money in terms of what you save. Using our trip as a case in point, the rack rate on our room is $ 600 per night and the English bubble hotel restaurant buffet breakfast is $ 65 each which is convenient but EXTREMELY expensive. Two hamburgers from the same English bubble restaurant with soft drinks and coffee cost eighty US dollars as we found out on the night we arrived. A good, knowledgeable local translator can easily cut these costs by 50 to 75 % by showing you where the deals are and by bargaining on your behalf with most of the folks around you that don't speak English.

8. In most Western European countries if you stay on the tourist track, with minimal effort you can usually figure out what basic services are being offered even if you don't speak the language and no one around you speaks English. That is not the case here. We find that the Cyrillic alphabet is nearly impenetrable to our addled and jet lagged Western brains. After four days of trying I can now figure out which bathroom to use and where the exit is and that is the sum total of my knowledge.

By the way, EXIT is BblXOA. Easy, right.

9. Russian business hours are typically 9 or 10 am until 6 pm, making finding a spot to buy an early, cheap breakfast other than McDonalds very challenging. Even McD's doesn't open until 7 am.

10. I have never heard of most of the car models on the road here despite the fact that the manufacturers are the same as those found in the US. Most Russians who drive buy new cars and there isn't much of a used car market here yet.

11. Petrol is sold at very small gas stations....usually four pumpss at max....that might be located just about anywhere but that are most always right along the side of the road. The typical distance from the edge of the road to where the pump is located would be 8 feet or less with no barrier separating the road from the gas pump/station. Petrol cost is roughly the same as that found in the US.

12. Most Muscovites do not have cars and thus services (banks, restaurants, food, pharmacies) tend to be located very close together because the majority of people walk to them. Supermarkets here are tiny. There is no widespread equivalent to Super Wal-Mart/Target/Home Depot/etc and if you are used to having a car and these stores at your instant disposal it is an inconvenience not to have them available.

13. Russians are not big smilers unless they are greeting a personal friend. With exceptions, they tend not to understand that a quick smile from a North American is intended to put a stranger at their ease. Outside tourist circles I have found that it makes people uncomfortable when I smile or greet them on the street as I would do at home . Normally if I am greeting a stranger and I'm not smiling while doing so, that stranger had better be worried.

14. There are no supersize drinks and portion sizes tend to be considerably smaller than those found in the US. I ordered a large Sprite while we were eating supper and it was considerably smaller than a small Sprite found at most restaurants in the US. It also cost ten US dollars and refills are not free. Tap water is safe to drink but does cause difficulties for folks from overseas. Tap water isn't free either.

15. I find it very embarrassing that I can't speak a word of the local language nor can I understand more than a few basic words of script. A Russian who didn't speak or read English would have a much harder time in my neighbourhood than I am having here.

16 Russians speak very softly and it is rare to hear raised voices, sirens or honking horns even in the middle of traffic and pedestrian dense Moscow, a city of fifteen million people.

17. This one is really strange. The whole country....airport, hotel, cars, tourist sites, upscale malls, hell EVERYWHERE.....smelled like boiled cabbage. I like the smell so I didn't find it unpleasant but I'd be lying if I said I didn't think it was very different.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Other Ways to Sell Grass, Part 1

Winter is when I have a bit of extra time to do some reading and I tend to spend quite a bit of my free time reading and thinking. I am especially intrigued by ideas that are a bit outside the conventional box but which seem to make considerable sense even though they may not be widespread in terms of their adoption. I read with interest an article on the front page of Stockman Grassfarmer magazine this month on the New Zealand concept of grazing dairies and sharemilking. It seems as though some of those from the island down under have relocated to the central and southeastern US and they have brought their concepts with them. It is certainly an idea which I think could be made viable in slightly modified form here in the mid-south.

Most of the land in this part of the world isn't really suitable for anything other than grazing and yet most of the dairies built here are modelled after large confinement operations in the midwest where climate and soil conditions are very different. Although there are some excellent dairies based on this model this has never made much sense to me because it negates the biggest cost of production advantage we have; we don't need the infrastructure or housing found further north because of our ability to grow forage more-or-less year round.

We are able to take full advantage of this with our horse boarding operation and with the beef cows. I've wondered for a long time whether or not we should try to exploit our climatic advantages further with the addition of a small, seasonal dairy that mostly relies on grazing with the possible addition of small amounts of grain and protein in early lactation which is when they need it most.

Sharemilking is something I have no experience with at all except that I've talked with some families who have done it or are currently doing it, but the concept sounds at least somewhat interesting from a ROI and ROE perspective. It's hard (and extremely expensive) to start a dairy and make a living while floating the full cost of the land, cows and other infrastructure when one is starting from zero. This concept is one of several that allow a tenant/sharemilker to build equity in his/her cows first and once the herd was paid for he/she could then move forward with buying land if that was what he or she desired. As I understand it the tenant owns the cows and provides most of the labour while the landowner (obviously) owns the land and milking facilities. The milk cheque is split depending on who does what with the idea that all parties will have some inducement to make things better.

Both concepts made for interesting reading and thinking, that's for sure. Whether or not I ever choose to do anything more than think about it, this is the sort of stuff that keeps my mind occupied and (mostly) keeps me out of trouble during the colder months.