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An Ode To Farming

“For those of you who were lucky enough to attend this year’s Band of Farmers talent show, you surely can’t forget Joe’s performance — an official ode to farming.” Carolyn, Joe’s co-farmer and business partner at Three Plaid Farmers continues: “We know all you fellow farmers out there in the audience could relate to our humble Three Plaid experience, and we really couldn’t feel prouder to be a part of a larger farming community that loves their work as much as we do, despite how hard it can be.” As if Joe and Care’s great feats of seed-saving, vegetable farming, and creating beautiful and diverse produce CSA shares at their farm, Three Plaid Farmers, wasn’t enough, they work with us seasonally at Mint Creek Farm, as well.  It’s hard to imagine how we ever managed without them! We can proudly treat you to a fun read, in Joe’s “Ode to Farming,” and encourage you to look into Three Plaid’s bountiful CSA offerings.

An Ode to Farming
By Joe, Owner/Farmer at Three Plaid Farmers

We’re not really performers. I mean, there were times in our lives when we were both performers of one sort or another. I played some guitar in a band during the heady, long-gone days after high school. Care did a little dancing in her youth and later stretched canvasses and coated them with paint and did all kinds of art stuff involving saws and paint thinner and other shit I don’t really understand. But that’s in the past (aside from the karaoke dreams of my farm partner over here), and lately we’ve been all-consumed by farming and activities related to surviving. Which is why I’m reading this to you instead of bumbling around off the top of my head trying to conjure some well-rehearsed story of our crazy lives farming.
Farming isn’t a performance art, we all know this. It’s an act of dedicated dedication—the majority of which happens behind the scenes, which you will only view and understand if you’re one of those types who likes to watch all the special features on the DVD like a crazy person. But, mostly, people aren’t watching. I mean, sure, as a CSA farm we have an audience of members who really care that we know what we’re doing, and they expect we have certain skills that allow us to grow plants. We actually prefer our members to be informed. But the secret truth behind it all is that the plants grow of their own accord. And the weather ultimately destroys them one way or another. We simply plant the seeds, perform some upkeep, and then steal the fruits. Plants want to live and reproduce. The wilder the plant, the better a survivor it is. We like our plants wild.
Sounds beautiful, right? Maybe a little Zen? Maybe you’re picturing an idyllic farm setting: A red barn. A cute henhouse. Animals grazing on lush pasture. An outhouse with a half-moon and star on it. Plants growing large and vibrant in the field. Weather-worn farm tools leaning casually against the slabs of a rustic looking outbuilding. I know that feeling. I like it too.

 

Hen house at Mint Creek, 2013

But let’s get real for a second: The barn has broken windows and doors. Electricity sometimes works; and when it does, a random shock might greet you as you touch some metal in the building. The tools are laying willy-nilly in various places, maybe even buried under some weeds on the edge of the field, which you’ll undoubtedly run over and rediscover when plowing next year. The outhouse is a bucket filled with sawdust that stinks like satan’s ass crack. The plants you planted in the field are surrounded by other plants you don’t want, and some look like they’re about to commit suicide because they hate you personally for your failures as a farmer. The animals have gotten out of their paddock and are destroying something you don’t want destroyed—or they’re simply walking down the road like a bunch of assholes. And then there’s the weather. We farmers like talking about the weather because it affects so much of our lives. Whether you’re tending vegetables or animals, the weather directs your day like the evil dictator it is.

Storm coming for our sunflowers, 2012

So, basically, our lives are chaos. It’s only through sheer determination and getting our asses kicked for most of the year that we even begin to make sense of it all. Plants grow. Animals grow. We do our best to make sure they grow the best they can by subjecting ourselves to all kinds of calamities and working our way toward knee replacement surgery. In the end, all the punishment adds up to us doing something we feel is worthwhile in general— it has a positive impact on our community and is personally rewarding in several ways.

 

It’s an adventure; that’s really the best way to put it. And part of our adventure is extreme poverty. Thank god we grow much of our own food, right? We sort of started this whole thing on a whim after spending many years individually farming at other places. We happened to meet up at one farm, had lots of ideas in common, and well, here we are. And it’s been a crazy two-plus years.
We thought our first year as a farm was tough, having to deal with a pretty severe drought and high temperatures. I’m sure all of you farmers did, too. But last year was something else. Floods inundated our field (as many others experienced as well), sometimes wiping out whole crops in the process. It turns out that farming on land that used to be part of the Grand Kankakee Marsh means that the water table was super high. Hindsight. What a bitch. So we just had to let that water drain. And wait. And worry. And finally we got back into the field, this time planting into raised beds. And then it flooded again. And again. The raised beds offered some protection (they probably saved our year), but the water was deep and persistent. However, it was a good year, with heavy CSA shares, but we probably aged three additional years in the process. 

Flooded field, pre-raised beds, 2013. Seedlings are getting anxious, as are the farmers
Last year ended in a fury as we closed up shop and had to get the hell out of Dodge. Flooding is just too stressful. With the way the weather is these days, it could happen any year, especially at a place that used to be part of a swamp. Needless to say, we are on our third piece of land in three years. And moving: shit, no one likes moving. Try moving a whole farm every year, along with all your personal belongings. Moving farm stuff brings added challenges.
Consider our first year moving fiasco. When moving time came, we loaded personal items and the few pieces of farm stuff we had acquired into a smallish box truck (loaned to us by our friends at Peasants’ Plot) along with about 40 or so trays of seedlings. Turns out, not everything fit, and we had to be creative with the space available. By creative, I mean putting trays on top of shit in a precarious manner. Well, part of our journey took us through the city, where we negotiated tight turns and many potholes. You can guess how this story ends. 

First farm move, moments before seedlings tumble in the back, 2012
At some point during our trip out to the farm, we stopped the truck to check on everything in the back. We opened the door, and lo and behold, on the floor lay several trays that toppled over. It looked like a plant massacre. Baby leeks were everywhere. Tomato seedlings were all mixed up. Other plants lay soilless and limp. Plant labels had popped out of their trays and threw themselves to the cutting room floor like some deranged, ghoul-authored William Burroughs novel. It was awful. I wanted to forfeit. All those weeks of raising those plants, and there they were, on the floor of the truck, on their way to some terrible plant afterlife.
But, thankfully, Care was coolheaded about the whole thing. She pushed those little plants back into their little cells of soil. And once we got to the farm, we watered them well and put them into the newly finished greenhouse so they could recuperate. Most survived, thankfully. In the end, we had a great leek and tomato year. It really couldn’t have turned out better for those crops. 

Leeks, leekin’ it up, despite taking a tumble as seedlings, 2012

The real moral of this particular story, and, really, most of the crazy farm shit that happens, is that cool-headedness usually pays off. And when it comes to things going wrong on the farm, Care is usually the cool-headed one. And when I say cool-headed, I mean she has laughing fits when things go wrong. Which does the complete opposite of make me feel better about said catastrophe. On the other hand, I have not been all that great when it comes to handling the unexpected random difficulties of farming, which, let’s be honest, makes me a complete lunatic for making this my career. But, I know and admit some of my issues, and hopefully that is half the battle. But my inability to handle these difficulties is often quite the show for the neighbors and my fellow farmers. And it’s a sort of creative outlet for me, in that I’ve probably invented at least a half dozen swear words—trademarks pending. If something goes wrong on our farm and you are within shouting distance, you might hear beauts like: son of a cock, cockbitch, and the grandest of them all: mothercock. There’s a lot to swear about on the small veggie farm, believe me.

 

But, really, there’s much more to swear about on the small animal farm. We’ve both been lucky enough to work at Mint Creek Farm for the last year and some months, both to supplement our piddly new farmer incomes and to learn the ropes of a diversified animal operation so we can raise some animals on our own land one day. And learn we have. Animals are much more demanding than vegetables, and you need to be much more on top of your game to make sure they stay healthy and happy. I mean, they need food and water every single day, 365 days a year. There ain’t no break. You can’t just say fuck it. Well, you can, but then you ultimately realize you need to go do it. 

Feeding cows organic hay, polar vortex, 2014

For instance, if it snows six inches, and the wind blows the snow into two-foot drifts that block your way to the cows, you need to go out there and plow for 5 hours so that you can get the water tank in there and give the cows a drink. Otherwise they get pissed, break out of their area and do whatever the hell they want, including destroying things. And when that snow blows back the next day, you need to plow again. Or, in another case, if it’s later in the summer, and the alfalfa is lush, and it has recently rained, you can’t move the sheep like you normally move the sheep on pasture. You need to give them less space and move them more often so they don’t gorge themselves on the legumes and die a horrible death from bloat.

Keeping those sheep happy, healthy, and bloat-free, 2013

 

These were common considerations during the past year, but the animal farm is a constant challenge and it requires extreme creativity, mechanical aptitude, and a willingness to adapt on the fly. Machines that make your life easier, such as trucks and tractors, break all the time. So, you have to figure out how to do those things that you’ve been doing with these machines in other, often more backbreaking ways. Or you have to fix the machine, which is sometimes impossible, like when it becomes engulfed in flames (true story) or becomes completely useless due to some structural failure (which is more common than you might think). Either way, your time is precious, and there are not enough hours in the day.
Other times, crazy shit happens that you’ve never experienced, and you just have to figure it out. And so it goes. We’ve been out chasing animals for hours on end, and we’ve had days on the veggie farm that start before sunup and end well after sundown. All the other farmers here have been there. It comes with the territory. And besides the physical and emotional commitment, all forms of small-scale farming take immense problem solving effort and a steady dedication to observation and planning. It taxes the brain as much as the body. But when all is said and done, we love it. Why otherwise would we do these things to ourselves? It’s really an unconditional love. We do crazy things over and over again. To grow veggies. Or raise animals. And make poverty-level income in many cases.
But, you know what, at the literal end of the day, we sit there and look at the land and the work we accomplished, and take account of the veggies we’ve raised that are feeding the people in our community—our family, our friends—and we can’t help but feel satisfied. These tiny little seeds we planted turned into giant nutritional beasts. No petrochemicals needed. No poisons necessary. We just let those plants grow, in a way. 

Eggplant and pepper plants lookin’ all beautiful, 2013

And at that literal end of the day we can go out to that field and grab whatever veggies we want. And if we’re not too bushed we can conjure those ingredients into a witch’s stew of a meal as the stars begin to come out, and a fading light casts blue and green-hued shadows over the varied topography of the farm field. A hard day’s work often ends with a crash into a pillow, knowing that our labor was self-directed and good.

Some Three Plaid crops (&Greenhouse B&B fruit) that sustained us and our members, 2013

Farming is a gratifying line of work in many ways. And we hope it brings the rest of you joy in one way or another. Thanks for coming out and supporting all the farmers here tonight.


The Economy of Local Food

By Harry Carr
Recently, during the “Farmer Talent Show”, at “The Hideout”, a fellow farmer said to me he was frustrated to be “sacrificing his head at the chopping block of sustainable agriculture.” Similarly, at an organic conference this winter another farmer asked a presenter how to grow a livable wage. Underlying these comments is the ever-present economic frustration among small-scale local food growers. Everybody loves what we are doing including us, but we are struggling financially to continue. 

At the heart of the local food economic problem is the “economy of scale” or in this case the “un-economy of small scale”. We all probably have heard Adam Smith’s rap on division of labor from The Wealth of Nations but it never hurts for a review. 

One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points 

it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head: to make the head requires two

or three distinct operations: to put it on is a particular business, to whiten the

pins is another … and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner,

divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which in some manufactories are all

performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometime perform

two or three of them. (Weath of Nations, Vol. 1)

Smith recognized how the output could be increased through the use of labor division. Previously, in a society where production was dominated by handcrafted goods, one man would perform all the activities required during the production process, while Smith described how the work was divided into a set of simple tasks, which would be performed by specialized workers. The result of labor division in Smith’s example resulted in productivity increasing by 24,000 percent (sic), i.e. that the same number of workers made 240 times as many pins as they had been producing before the introduction of labor division. 

Our industrial food system has huge economy of scale. Local farmers are always bench-marked by the grocery store prices of the industrial food system. Often our prices are double or triple the grocery prices but still not enough for the local farmer to cover his expenses. We do not have the volume to have much of a division of labor and that what makes the work both fun and exhausting. 

Before the industrial food system, most of us were growing food on a small scale often in a subsistence way. Today with fewer than 2% farming in the US, we spend less than ten percent of our income on food; while we spend almost double that on healthcare. This USDA graph shows the percentage of income spent on food around the world. 

One of the many problems with industrializing anything is that it becomes far too easy to micro-manage costs. Always looking for new ways to cut corners, producers enter into a race to the bottom to stay ahead of the competition. Regulators and government overseers are supposed to regulate quality and we all know how well that has worked. A case in point remember the recent “Lean finely textured beef” (pink slime) scandal, where US meat plants, whose sole purpose was to incorporate kerf trimmings from band saws blades, (after soaking in ammonia gas or citric acid). These were then reincorporated back into the ground beef of large meat processors. 

I cannot imagine small local processors who handle orders for small farms like ours using this product. However, small-scale local food producers lack the cost advantages of this and many other similar industrial agriculture processes. 

So the question begs asking: How can we support the retaking of our food economy back from the industrialists? We have heard about voting with your fork but how about on the investment side? 

Crowd funding has surfaced as an appropriate method for individuals to help small farmers finance their farm operations. Our friends Julia and Todd McDonald of Peasants Plot Farm have just started a kickstarter campaign. I know they can use your help! Look into it here.

 

Questions? Email farmer Harry Carr at hcarr@mintcreekfarm.com.


Raising Nutrient Dense Meats On The Illinois Prairie

By Harry Carr

At issue with deciding what foods to eat for our best health is the
concept of nutrient density. One of the banes of modern times is lifeless,
nutrient weak food. Living in a humid climate where soil quality has
gradually deteriorated thru leaching and erosion, valuable minerals that
we need for optimum health, are washed into the ocean. It’s a farmer’s
responsibility to his customers to build the health and nutrient density
of his soil and therefore the food grown on his land. At Mint Creek Farm
we start this process by returning the land to perennial crops thereby
building our organic matter and limiting erosion. Through intensive
rotational mob grazing the animal manures are recycled into the soil
with the plant litter that they trample in the process. Eighty percent of
the plant matter consumed by the animal is returned as waste products
excreted in a very biologically active form. This helps feed the huge
variety of soil microorganisms, which through there own growth and
decay increase the soil organic matter exponentially. The soil organic
matter is the vector, which holds the huge variety of nutrients made
biologically available to the plants. When our grazing animals consume
these plants, the process is repeated in synergistic co-development.
Since this process is mostly self-contained, leaks are minimized and
growth of the whole farm organism is the result. This is how our tall
grass prairies developed topsoil’s five feet thick.

In reviewing our local farm’s biome nutrient leaks, we have
leaks in what we harvest, i.e. animal protein and nutrients they have
accumulated, and leaks thru respiration of the plants. An assumed
minor amount of water and wind erosion that has not been visible must
also be taking place.

On the input side, we have the solar gain thru
photosynthesis and hydration through rain and condensate dew. There
is a natural mineralization that comes from the air in this hydration
process. Not to be underestimated as the soil sulfur requirements in the
Midwest were met from coal-fired power plants until recent scrubber
technology reduced the air pollutants coming from them. With the
exception of our goats (who usually get oats) our ruminants are all
grass fed, any purchased feed fed to our other non-ruminant animals
are inputs into the system as well as well water consumed. Of note are
the feed products that originated from the ocean. The ocean is the place
that all the leachates deposit, so it’s a logical place to capture those trace
minerals and return them. Two key feeds from the ocean we use are sea
kelp and ground fishmeal. All our animals get kelp supplemented to
them ad libitum. We have been doing this for the last 18 years. As our
farm flock grew, the consumption of kelp, http://noamkelp.com/
slfeed.html increased to close to a ton a month. The economic pressure
became too great and we started mixing the kelp with a volcanic sea bed
salt. This helped balance the rumen and provided some additional trace
mineral profiles while reducing the cost by about half. http://
www.redmondnatural.com/about.

As our farm grew we added more types of livestock that required
mixed feed while on pasture. Our pigs, turkeys, ducks, and chickens do
much better if supplemented with a mixed grain while on pasture. In
the winter they rely mostly on the mixed feed. We purchase organically
raised corn, oats, wheat, and barley that we grind and mix with kelp
and fishmeal. In the summer the pigs do an amazing job of rooting
up pasture plants. Lets just be honest and call it destruction. The pigs
destroy the pasture. They do this because it’s natural for them to eat
roots and subterranean insects. Now we could avoid this through
inserting a nose ring into their nose but have chosen not to do this,
using them instead on areas that we intend to replant. Because of this
the pig population needs to be strictly controlled to avoid too much
pasture destruction. Ringing them would prevent them from expressing
their piggy-ness and not be humane in our eyes. Pigs will be Pigs.

Turkeys, chickens and ducks all do well on pasture and if moved
frequently enough do not damage it but increase the fertility greatly.
Nitrogen, phosphorus, and calcium are all greatly increased by poultry.
We desire to sprout our grain, as this yields not only an increase in
quantity but also greatly increases vitamin and enzymes availability.

Nutrient density varies with species, the older the critter, the
more nutrient dense the meat. Accompanying this density of nutrients
is flavor and potential toughness, toxins, and gamey-ness. Sorry, have
to be honest here; all us old fogeys become tough, and toxic. Not to
worry though, just keep regular with lots of fiber! I remember reading
that in France old dairy cows are prized for their flavor and often the
most expensive meat available. The French know how to slow cook to
enhance flavor and reduce toughness. The dry aging of older animals
on the rail is one way to tenderize the meat. Similarly wet aging in a
Cyro-vac sealed package can tenderize as well. All aging is a form of
decomposition however, which leads to loss of freshness and substance.
I remember a James hotel video showing a Himalayan aging room where
a beef rib eye was aged for two years. It had withered away to nothing.
While it can be said that if it can’t go bad, it isn’t any good, we do not
want it to go bad!

The least nutrient dense meat we would offer then would be our
poultry as it’s the youngest. A spring lamb, which are about four to five
months old is going to be far less nutrient dense than a older lamb or
mutton.

Organ meats will have more concentrated nutritional value especially
for reinforcing the nutrient requirements of the similar organ in your
body, as like feeds like.  Read more about eating organ meats here.

Questions? Email farmer Harry Carr at hcarr@mintcreekfarm.com.


A Farmer’s Philosophical Musings on Life, Death, and the New Year

THE HERO’S JOURNEY, LIVING LIFE IN THE FACE OF DEATH

By Harry Carr

We are all on a hero’s journey.  We may not be aware of this but it’s time to wake up to it.  Along the way we often get lost.  We descend into darkness and obscurity.  All seems to be lost and then out of the ashes we emerge with a vision, an inspiration, and a desire.

Along the way we encounter obstacles to our attainment of what we desire, fear of failure being a catch all among them.  In our finite thinking the ultimate failure is death.  Behind everything it lurks.  In our youth we gracefully ignore it, but as we age its ever-present reality becomes a constant backdrop.  Soon unconsciously we are living to die, saving for retirement, as death is the ultimate retirement.  So how should we live life in the face of death?

In studying “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon, I recently came across a deathbed speech by the emperor Julian in which that question is well answered.  Julian was just mortally wounded in battle.  This was a man that spent his spare time studying philosophy and was blessed with a rare eloquence for the age.  His speech is quoted below.

So here we are at this holiday time.  While the demands on our time should be less, they are often more.  Our routines are disrupted and one can often become a Scrooge (how do I know this?).  Let us take time to stop the world, and practice not doing.  Let us use the end of the year, the death of 2013, to conceive of  rebirth in 2014, which is the year to fulfill our dreams!

ROMAN EMPEROR JULIAN’S DEATHBED SPEECH
“Friends and fellow soldiers, the seasonable period of my departure is
now arrived, and I discharge, with the cheerfulness of a ready debtor, the demands
of nature. I have learned from philosophy how much the soul is more excellent than
the body; and that the separation of the nobler substance should be the subject of
joy, rather than of affliction. I have learned from religion that an early death has
often been the reward of piety; and I accept, as a favor of the gods, the mortal stroke
that secures me from the danger of disgracing a character, which has hitherto been
supported by virtue and fortitude. I die without remorse as I have lived without
guilt. I am pleased to reflect on the innocence of my private life; and I can affirm
with confidence that the supreme authority, that emanation of the divine power, has
been preserved in my hands pure and immaculate. Detesting the corrupt and
destructive maxims of despotism, I have considered the happiness of the people as
the end of government. Submitting my actions to the laws of prudence, of justice,
and of moderation, I have trusted the event to the care of Providence. Peace was the
object of my counsels, as long as peace was consistent with the public welfare; but
when the imperious voice of my country summoned me to arms, I exposed my
person to the dangers of war, with the clear foreknowledge (which I had acquired
from the art of divination) that I was destined to fall by the sword. I now offer my
tribute of gratitude to the eternal being, which has not suffered me to perish by the
cruelty of a tyrant, by the secret dagger of conspiracy, or by the slow tortures of
lingering disease. He has given me, in the midst of an honorable career, a splendid
and glorious departure from this world; and I hold it equally absurd, equally base, to
solicit, or to decline, the stroke of fate. Thus, much I have attempted to say; but my
strength fails me, and I feel the approach of death. I shall cautiously refrain from any
word that may tend to influence your suffrages in the election of an emperor. My
choice might be imprudent or injudicious; and if it should not be ratified by the
consent of the army, it might be fatal to the person whom I should recommend. I
shall only, as a good citizen, express my hopes that the Romans may be blessed with
the government of a virtuous sovereign.”


Farmer Redefined

The definition of farmer is often thought as one who works the land in the growing of food. Usually this has no qualitative assessment to it. Typically yield is the valuation metric, more extraction from the land in economic value being the goal and gauge.

Most of us being downstream in our organized civilization, have to deal with difficulties beyond our control. Farmers have the advantage of being a headwaters profession. Having the soil, sun, rain, critters and climate to work with, the rest is left for us to determine. Creativity can run wild but ironically, farming is one of the most conservative of professions. Why? Is it social pressure or the desire to not stand out from our peers, or maybe its government subsidies encouraging us all to do the same thing?

The time has come to expect a little more in the farmer department. Farming by its very nature needs to be a source rather than a sink. The energy return on investment, if negative, does not say much for one’s farming ability. Yet much of our industrial farming has a negative energy return on investment when you figure in the environmental costs of the use of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides.

A new farmer ethos would assess the products of husbandry not just on quantity but also on quality of environmental effects of land use and nutritional value of food produced. By fostering biodiversity, use of native plants and animals, rainwater harvesting, and incorporating composted wastes of plants and animals into the soil, a nutritionally dense healthy food system can be reestablished. Furthermore, farmers are the ones on the ground, they have a responsibility to educate themselves as to the ways of the natural world and become mentors helping reconnect an already to frenetic disassociated culture backs to its roots.


How Can We Be Wild (part one)

You do not have to look to far to see problems in our world. We have problems of trust, problems of security, problems of ecology and the ethics of how we will live on our planet. We have broken the wholes into parts and lost sight of how the parts fit. Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall. We are lost as to how to put him back together again. How did we get here and how do we return to a more balanced stable existence?

In “The historical roots of our ecologic crisis” Lynn White contributes. ”In antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”

I have felt this personally. Ten years ago when we had a landscaping firm landscape our home. They took out a beautiful hawthorn tree. The nature spirits that hung out there were not happy. I was not alone in my family in noticing this. Yet I cannot prove this in a modern scientific way. The spirits got their tree back, though a different species. We might think that there was an etheric pattern for a tree there or explain it some other way, be indifferent to it all etc. but in the end the tree is back!

Around us our man over nature paradigm is crumbling. We need a new paradigm!

The classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water seem to predate history. In each of them lies a cycle of expression on the planet. They are in relationship appropriately in full expression, but as we are currently experiencing in our anthropogenic degradation, an interrupted cycle occurs, producing an out of balance situation.

In the earth cycle (carbon cycle) we have been extracting carbon from the biosphere and pumping it into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates causing a very out of balance climate changing environment.

In the water cycle, we are extracting water from the aquifers and draining water from soils at an accelerated rate, which contribute to desertification, reducing the carbon sequestering potential of plants.

In the fire cycle, fire is a force for alchemical change. Our fire breathing machines running day and night contribute to the disruption of all the various cycles.

In the air cycle (nitrogen cycle)(about 80% of the atmosphere is nitrogen) human activities such as fossil fuel combustion, use of artificial nitrogen fertilizers, and release of nitrogen in wastewater have dramatically altered the global nitrogen cycle. Nitrogen availability affects the rate of key ecosystem processes. Nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Our western civilizations existence has strayed from mankind’s roots as a part in the whole of nature. Science and technology has accelerated the abstraction. Will more science and more technology solve our crises?

In the Gaia hypothesis, organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings to form a self-regulating complex system that contributes to maintaining conditions for life on the planet. We co-evolve with our environment to sustain life. This gives me hope.

Working with nature in a semi wild state is gratifying and balancing. How can we be wild?


Backyard Goating

It’s that time of year again. In exaltation of the sun and warmer weather, the rain and moistened roots, the grass grows, grows to reach the sun. Humans not wanting to be out done, in a frantic frenzy, whip out their lawnmowers, and closely crop their grass. Backyard Lamb and Goating is a long practiced alternative to the lawnmower.

I must admit to having a love hate relationship to the lawnmower. I too have been bred to worship the smell of cut grass, the manicured look, of freshly shaved lawn. As a child I was an early entrant into the lawnmower program. We had three lawnmowers and an acre and a half of grass in the suburbs of New Jersey. It was my penury duty as a child to exculpate the errant grass and spend my Saturday mowing. It all started with the reel push mower, quiet, simple and using human power to propel, but almost impossible to control that much grass. Then came the gas mower, progressing from un-propelled to self-propelled (self meaning it not I), to a riding mower with crank start. Just about the time I matriculated, the mower had evolved to a riding tractor with electric start that performed a virtual all day affair, in several hours at most.

Since my dad was the little league coach and our practice field was a beautiful day camp, a half mile down the road, he took on mowing that ten acre track as well. As with all parents, he meant me also. Being a tea totaller, weekends were meant for mowing rather than for Michelob. One day when I was about ten years old and mowing the day camp with the riding mower with crank start, the grass exit chamber plugged up. I switched off the blade and unconscious to momentum and centrifugal force, reached down with my right hand to unplug it. The blade reached out and cut my right index finger a half inch down from the tip, to the bone. Rushing me to the hospital my dad kept remarking how my mother was going to kill him. This I did not understand as it was the lawnmower’s fault. Such is the mind of children. Luckily my finger survived in tack and the lawnmower was forgiven, as to my Mom’s forgiveness that is a whole different essay.

It was not always this way. The first gas power mowers were commercially produced in the US in 1919. How did we previously tolerate long grass? Enter sheep and goats. I have been grazing them for over twenty years now and I have come to look at grass differently. When grass is long I feel like my animals have a full cupboard of food. The shelves are stocked with plenty to eat. No worry of starvation here. Now, all the hours we humans put into mowing just seems very silly.

Some cities now allow lambs or goats as pets to mow your yard. This requires some preparation and maintenance but is not as dangerous as your lawn mower. The lambs and goats are self propelled, come equipped with a fertilizer attachment, eat grass, not gas, and are love on four hooves. So think about trading in that lawnmower for a new modern day goat or lamb mower!

 


Feeding the Future

Well, we do seem to be finally done with winter and a late wet spring is selflessly sharing some sunshine now and then. It’s been one of those winters’ that cause anxiety for the shepherd. Will there be enough feed, will all the little ones croak of pneumonia? How can we prevent hoof rot with things being so wet? With it being so wet will the critters destroy the pasture before the new growth gets a good start? Anxieties!

So it was  fulfilling to get some folks down for our farm tour and brunch last Sunday April 21. The event sold out, which is encouraging never doing a farm tour brunch before. Everyone arrived at 11am at The Greenhouse Bed and Breakfast. Chef Guia Hoffman did what she does best, treating us to culinary wonders, then we sat around and talked leisurely before proceeding to visit the goats, sheep, pigs, cows, and chickens. We completed the tour about 3pm and our guests hit the road back from whence they came. I am sure we all had our high points but mine was watching the youngsters herd our 400 sheep and their young lambs.  They really cannot believe that the sheep obey them! 

Having just completed reading Charles Mann’s article on “Why we will never run out of oil” and just having completed reading Lester Thurow’s “Full Planet, Empty Plates”, the question of how we will feed ourselves in the next several generations lurk. Becoming personally involved in your food system is not a bad idea. Visiting the farm and seeing first hand one model will stimulate your thinking and help us to continue the dialog. Right off of Wikipedia’s article on Industrial Agriculture gives a very brief synopsis.

I personally do not believe that Industrial Agriculture is the answer, as it is stressing our planetary resources to the max. We simply do not have the water to do what we are doing now for very much longer. Feeding an extra couple billion people in the next 30 years is unlikely. What does give me hope however is a holistic local agriculture based on perennial systems. We could feed ourselves without destroying our planetary resources. The caveat is labor; a system such as this would require considerable human intervention. Meanwhile the labor resources of the planet are suffering in unemployment lines. Currently the number of unemployed 18-24 year- olds worldwide is approaching 300 million. Maybe I am dreaming but it seems to me there is an intelligent way out of the mess we are in.


Migratory Songbirds

So, Tuesday night I am driving up to Uncommon Ground restaurant on Clark St. for a farm dinner sponsored by the Chicago Reader magazine. Our farm was featured as well as Central Waters brewery of Wisconsin. Wondering what to speak about, I think of an old saying I remember reading from my childhood, “Faith is that bird that sings before the dawn”.

The weather lately has been anything but spring like and I have been struggling with end of winter depression and flu etc. etc. I thought that quote and the following poem I wrote about the various birds we see visiting and nesting on our farm appropriate. You can imagine my surprise to find a song bird art exhibit by Tracy Ostmann located in the room our dinner was in. This exhibit is running through this Sunday March 24 if you can check it out. It was a treasure to have her wonderful birds watching over us while eating and sharing. It made my night. So thanks for the great work Tracy and thanks for hosting this Uncommon Ground !

Over the years at Mint Creek Farm we have witnessed an increase in the families of migratory songbirds nesting in our pastures. They are a joy to behold swooping about us as we move our critters to new pastures. Interestingly our sheep seem to eat around the nests as they encounter them, sensitive to their value, uncharacteristic of what one might expect. We have found that by establishing a variety of perennial pasture plants, and grazing using long rest periods, we have encouraged an increase in their population.

Unfortunately around us the common agricultural methodology has caused a great diminishing of their population. Reports vary but population estimates of 80-90% loss in some species are not uncommon. Songbirds migrating to expectant grasslands, but coming up empty in a search for a place to nest is a saddening thought.  According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service the number one threat to migratory songbirds is loss of habitat.

The USDA has a conservation reserve program (CRP) that allows for long term contracts where the landowner is paid to establish perennial grassland and leave it be, not harvesting or working the soil for crops. This program was responsible for a high of 39 million acres but unfortunately has diminished to 25 million acres. Every year more contracts expire and are not renewed due the much better economic return for planting crops. The grassland established as part of the CRP ground is a major habitat source for the migratory songbirds. Additionally some of the benefits of the CRP program over the past two and a half decades cited by USDA include:

  • 450 million tons of soil erosion reduced annually
  • Each year, CRP keeps more than 600 million pounds of nitrogen and more than 100 million pounds of phosphorus from flowing into rivers, streams and lakes in the U.S.
  • 2 million acres of wetlands and buffers restored
  • 2 million acres of stream bank protected along rivers and streams

The politics of money and fiscal budgets will determine just how much land remains in CRP. Currently the CRP programs cost about 2 billion dollars. Most of this goes to land rents. Average land rental rates have increased dramatically with the increased price of grain, so it is unlikely that acreage will remain at the current level. Over the next five years about 11 million acres of CRP contracts will expire. Will the USDA have the funds it needs to continue this program?

One of the greatest environmental travesties of the last 200 years has been the plowing up of the tallgrass prairie. Through restoration agriculture we can right this wrong.  Perennial systems capture 3-7 times the photosynthesis of conventional corn and soybean crops, sequester vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, and build topsoil at a rapid rate. Wildlife populations are enhanced and homes are found by the migratory songbirds. This can all be done while growing food. The choice of plowed ground versus CRP is not realistic. We are not going to be able to afford to take vast tracts of land out of viable food production systems. We can neither afford to lose vast amounts of topsoil and continue the rapid extinction of splendid species caused by conventional cropping systems. That leaves perennial systems as our one hope for feeding a hungry planet without destroying it. Faith is that bird singing before the dawn, may we have faith that the migratory songbirds will be singing with us.

 


Midnight Dancing

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists , who manage The Doomsday Clock , updated it January 14, 2012. We are again five minutes to midnight. Having been born at six minutes to midnight, I guess I feel uncomfortably at home here. The clock’s timeline has ranged from a low of two minutes to midnight in 1953, to a high of seventeen minutes to midnight in 1991.

Lawrence Krauss had an appropriate op-ed piece “Deafness at Doomsday” in the times last week. We all need to read this to nurture our eschatological bend.

Having grown up with air raid drills and hiding under desks large enough to cover the Levi sticker on my jeans, the nuclear threat elicits an “oh yeah”, that again response. Climate change was unheard of in my school days as was weaponized biotechnology; I guess we should consider ourselves fortunate that we have a whole five minutes before self-destruction.

Coping in a world bent on termination titillation is challenging to say the least, but one has to try. So I guess I am struggling to be part of the solution, rather than the problem. Nuclear proliferation and weaponized biotechnology space me out, but climate change I have at least some understanding of. That brings up the subject of corn.

I have a love hate relationship with corn. I grew the most wonderful sweet corn in my youth and do love to eat corn. In our early days together, my wife Gwen and I developed a psychological analysis tool called Veganalysis whereby one’s totem vegetable is discovered and insights garnered. I was a corn.

My chickens and pigs love the $15 per bushel organic corn we feed them. Central Illinois’ corn production projection for 2013 is 195 bushels to the acre. At 56 pounds to the bushel, that’s over 5 tons to the acre, or almost $3000 per acre for organic corn.  But a plant that gives so much so fast takes its toll on the ecosystem around it, its roots are shallow, and it sucks up soil carbon and nitrogen like a sponge, making the soil blocky and hard. Often it’s planting and cultivation leads to excessive soil erosion, so what amounts to a short-term gain, evolves into a long term devastating loss, the kind of loss that ends civilizations.

Organic carbon changes when growing corn silage or alfalfa. http://saret.ifas.ufl.edu/publications/bsbc/chap5.htm

Examples of soil organic matter content with depth. Modified from Brady and Weil, 1999. http://saret.ifas.ufl.edu/publications/bsbc/chap5.htm

On the graph above, observe the area to the left of the soil organic matter (SOM) line. Notice that the amount of SOM in tallgrass prairie soils is substantially greater than soils in agriculture, and much greater at significant depth. The volumetric effect of this depth can often be overlooked when calculating the total carbon held in a soil. Soil organic matter basically equals soil carbon. A soil’s ability to hold nitrogen and water, both necessary for photosynthesis to occur, is in direct relationship to soil organic matter.

It’s not that corn fundamentally is a bad crop to grow, it’s how we grow it. Corn on corn, fencerow to fencerow, year after year is the problem, enabled by a favorable economic situation. Recently some Iowa corn ground has sold for $17,000 per acre. Midwest farmland values have increased an average of 15% per year for the last ten years. While there are a host of reasons for this, corn, and ethanol from it, are paramount, so much so that land value is appraised using a term called “corn suitability index” or CSI. Ironically, the recent drought has caused an increase in grain prices and therefore land prices go up as well.

While it’s awesome that our nation’s breadbasket can be such a source of wealth creation, and there are few who deserve it more than the farmers, this escalation of land value and associated rents does put pressure on how we farm. Since corn is so lucrative, we will likely see less crop rotation and more corn on corn. Not a recipe for soil formation, carbon sequestration, or civilization sustainability, but not the quick doomsday scenario presented by nuclear holocaust either.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a program where the US government pays farmers to put acreage in grass and not farm it. What are the implications for carbon emissions when we pull land out of CRP? It is expected that the new farm bill will reduce CRP by about 20%. The current US drought monitor suggests that our drought is not over. Going into planting season this spring on dry ground is not a pretty thought.

To bring home this point I recommend you watch Ken Burns’ documentary on PBS, “The Dust Bowl.” If ever there was an advertisement for grass farming, it is this piece. I am surprised how little press it has received.

Grass farming, using a poly-culture of perennial pasture plants, offers us a way out of this mess. We can grow lots of forage that animals can eat, in a setting that is beautiful year-round. By constantly moving the animals, which spread their manure around the farm for us, we build soil carbon, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and practically eliminating erosion. By interspersing annual crops and gardens we would have a complete food system, bypassing the feedlots and most of the fossil fuels used in crop production. Adding hedgerows for windbreaks, shade, and wildlife habitat, we would have an increase in feed available in the form of tree crops shedding their fruit. To fully appreciate this, enjoy Rob Kanter’s post, “The Oldest Living Thing on the U of I campus.” Two hundred years ago, the tall grass prairie where we now live was graced with wooded groves of burr oaks. The burr oak root system mirrors its above-ground growth.

The carbon absorption potential of agriculture can play a vital role in helping us get out of the climate change crisis, while also providing enough rewarding jobs to drastically reduce unemployment. Over the last 20 years, Mint Creek Farm has been striving to establish a viable model for this vision.
–Harry