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.