Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
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!
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.
- 30,000 years ago hunter-gatherer behavior fed 6 million people
- 3,000 years ago primitive agriculture fed 60 million people
- 300 years ago intensive agriculture fed 600 million people
- Today Industrial Agriculture attempts to feed 6 billion people
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.
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.
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.
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.
That is the life I did not lead.
The honey that got made into mead,
The stories I could not spiel,
The feelings, I would not let myself feel.
People come to Mint Creek Farm expecting a homestead. Usually they are a bit surprised to find none. Where do I live? Some are a bit deflated to hear I live in the very nearby village of Stelle. I guess I just haven’t done well with the stereotypes.
Several years before buying our first farm we had purchased an existing home in Stelle. We were happy living in Stelle and Gwen was busy home schooling our two young children, Jonathan and Raya. My manufacturing business was local, and I just had a five-mile commute to its location. Often I would ride my mountain bike to work. I was practicing memorizing poems. Poems have a way of bringing me down, out of my head, into my gut. Rilke offered us:
Its possible I am pushing through solid rock
In flint like layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: Everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.
I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief-
So this massive darkness makes me small
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
Then your great transforming will happen to me,
And my great grief cry will happen to you.
As I was riding my bike to work, I kept seeing the farmers working the fields with their big tractors and implements. The yearly cycle of: field cultivate, seed, harrow, spray, spray, aerial spray, combine, chisel plow, knife in anhydrous, etc., this wore on me. Something did not seem right, it was all to0 industrial.
I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, we had a large garden and as a I teen, I attempted to garden organically. Now my own family was living in a sea of corn and soybeans, like a boat in the ocean. Here I was dreaming of a lake in the middle of the ocean, a farm of a different sort. One in which people and animals would have a place, and real food would be grown. Hazardous chemicals would not be needed and fertility would not have to come from fossil fuels or natural gas. People would be a part of the land and connected to it in a meaningful way. I kept dreaming of walking thru ditches my feet sinking in the wet black earth, fecundity surrounding me.
While my soul was there, my body was housed in the shadow of the old me. Great change was needed and an internal war ensued, as I was conflicted. On the body side, I was a toolmaker and manufacturer; on the soul side, I was a shepherd/grass farmer. To change, the old must die off; but sometimes the old has a mind of its own and does not want to give up without a fight.
Souls have a way of winning out however. Bodies have a way of dying off, albeit too slowly and painfully. To be reborn anew, that is our quest.
Our first farm we purchased had a farmstead home that was over one hundred years old. As much as we wanted to live on the farm, the house was too small and needed quite a bit of work. We rented it to friends for a few years but it was not practical to do the extensive repair needed to it. Our friends bought a house in Stelle, and we used the old house for storage, until our insurance company demanded it go.
Meanwhile we had been working on home designs with our good friend Walter Cox, who did construction and remodeling in Marin, Ca. He was a former Stelle resident and UC Berkeley graduate, where he studied under Christopher Alexander. He introduced us to some of the many of Christopher’s work, (“ A Timeless Way of Building”(1979), “A Pattern Language” (1977) and “The Nature of Order” (2003-2004), of which we are blessed with a pre-publication manuscript copy. I would highly recommend a review of his work to anyone in the process of designing and building.
By this time however our finances had turned south and the money to build our dream home was outsourced, by way of our large customers taking their business to Asia. So we engaged Walter to design a more conservative farmhouse renovation of the existing house. Upon doing this the numbers suggested it would just be cheaper to tear the old house down and start over. Round three was a farmhouse design located on the site of the existing house. It was well conceived, but it just was not us, and we kind of liked living in Stelle near our friends. It was less isolating for our children, as Stelle (population 100) was isolated enough.
On the farming front our sheep flock continued to grow. We had purchased some of the earliest East Friesian dairy sheep imported into the US and had a goal of starting a sheep dairy. The hours of work keeping up with the growing flock, managing the businesses, let alone raising a family, left time for little else, and the prospect of building the desired dream home drifted.
As the children grew up and went off to college our focus shifted to financing their education. Then Gwen decided to reestablish herself as a Montessori teacher and found herself a position at Meca-Seton, a teacher training school in Clarendon Hills. She had worked at a number of Montessori schools teaching in the area before our children came along and loved working with the little ones.
Back on the home front, we have been successful attracting interns for our farm, and now house them in our Stelle home. The farm continues to grow and alas, the work with it.
Many people, who go back to the land, start by building a home. Often they do this without getting to know the land. Sometimes without getting to know each other. Neither is easy and can take years. Some farms do not survive dream home building, nor do some marriages. We have been blessed in that by hook or by crook we have so far survived, by not building the dream home, and by giving each other the freedom, to pursue our individual careers.
If you wish to come visit Mint Creek’s home, “the meadow”, please join me for a personal tour this coming September 22nd at 2:30 in the afternoon, followed by a south of the border dinner by Top Chef contender Chuy Valencia at 5:30, then on to the campfire for as long as you care to stay. There are limited accommodations at the wonderful Greenhouse Bed and Breakfast and unlimited camping available in the meadow.
TRIUMPH OF THE COMMONS
The Earth is in existential crises. This could be considered a “Tragedy of the Commons”. As a living being and our mother, the earth’s destiny is challenged. The children it has given birth too have a dismal future unless a massive effort is undertaken to rebalance the system. Where will this come from?
I believe the answer is from us. We have caused this imbalance and must correct it. It’s the old, if you made the mess then you clean it up. Time is not on our side, but I believe God is on our side, and it is that conviction that bespeaks my optimism. This is not a republican versus democrat or Christian versus Moslem agenda, but rather a God as the universal beneficent being, versus the prince of darkness dragging us down into his hole. We shall prevail to the degree that we have developed our capacity to love, and that will be the way of healing, for this earth, and for ourselves.
So what is love? Where does it come from and where does it go? Why do we feel so strongly about love? We do because it is our origin and our destiny, always drawing us back, back to our source.
The attributes of love are care, respect, responsibility, and connectedness. We have been cast out of the garden and it’s our task to develop the consciousness to get it back. I have often thought that the native tallgrass prairie in the Midwest must have been like a Garden of Eden. Having a similar number of animal units, as we currently have now, these animals all fed and watered themselves. Considering most of my time, energy, and money, goes into feeding and watering my livestock, this would be a significant change in lifestyle. While we cannot easily go back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, our agricultural practices can be refined to mimic them. Intensive mob grazing on a perennial poly-culture of pasture plants attempts to do this. This is the model by which Mint Creek Farm subscribes.
The path of heart, which leads back to our source, is a path of conscious connectedness. We have biological roots in our natural world and we need to embrace them. We the people can turn our “Tragedy” into a ‘Triumph of the Commons”.
A prayer to: Secretary Vilsack, President Obama, and God the Father..
Sorry for the disturbance. I am down here wondering what the heck is going on up there.
Hey we are all in this together aren’t we? What we do to others, inevitably comes back to us. Thus is natural law. What goes around comes around. So I might ask, are you awake up there?
The crops down here are failing, the climate dry roasting us, and there is no let up in sight. I know we have been bad. We have been pumping the oil (the blood of the great mother which took millennia to form) right out of her and burning it up in our weird contraptions in less than a hundred years. This has been increasing the CO2 in the atmosphere and causing the reflective infrared heat to remain locked in our atmosphere, thereby warming the earth excessively. The oceans have shielded us temporarily but now they are warming also.
I know our agricultural practices have been wanting. We have turned our soil on end thereby causing great erosion. We have lost over half our top soil. Our plowing practices have oxidized the soil carbon and loosed it as well, into the atmosphere, adding to the CO2. The eroded soil has washed into the gulf and oceans causing hypoxia. This has caused dead zones the size of Chris Christie’s New Jersey, or Joe Biden’s Delaware, depending on whether we are in a drought year. (Joe Biden’s Delaware gets the award for this year as there has not been much water to erode the soil.) In high rainfall years the dead zone gets as big as Chris Christie’s New Jersey, bless his soul. The chemicals being sprayed on the crops seem absurd, as there will be none to harvest. Why are we still spraying? The beneficial organisms do die as well. So, more comeuppance for us all, and we still wonder why?
God is love, and the earth needs to be loved. Dear God, its time to show your love of the earth and right a few things around here. I know your lieutenants can be struck on the road to Damascus, just like Saul. They do not have to turn into Ron Paul. Please urge them be in awe, of your love, to understand your ways, and to honor the blessed spirit of this earth. That just might require a few changes to our farm policies.
Some specific suggestions: 1. Encourage diversity. 2. Beat your plowshares into pruning hooks, (its time to stop plowing and let the soil horizons and micro organisms do their work as nature (you) intended. 3. Discover rainwater harvesting, slowing the flow of water and capturing it in our soil, thus aiding in the sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere. (just like it was in the tallgrass prairie) 4. Convert back to perennials 5. Throw Monsanto et al. out of the temple.
Our small farmers who desire to do right in your eyes need some help too. They do not have all the big money and big equipment of Mr. Mega Farmer. They seek to work with you rather than against you, to be a participant part rather than a dominant part of the blessed whole. Nurturing the earth energies to resplendent health is their goal. So why not come around a little more with some help to those who care? Re-election? Who would vote against God? Oh…..
I have been studying up on the latest climate change research. After seeing a recent TED talk by David Roberts and by NASA climate scientist James Hansen one gets the impression we have been burying our heads in the sand. Its easy to understand how the powers that be are not wanting to change. Many vested interests will see their worlds collapse, they fight this tooth and nail. Change we must and quick if we care to keep living on this planet.
Climate science can be quite complex when trying to be exact, however we need not be exact here. Some simple facts remain. Here is my attempt at stating the case for climate change simply and bluntly.
Our planet is heated by the sun’s radiant energy emitted as white light. This travels through our atmosphere largely undisturbed heating all objects it contacts.
Those objects absorb the light to varying degrees and reflect it back as infrared heat.
Would it not be for our atmosphere that infrared heat would escape and we would freeze. The amount that the heat does escape is limited by the thickness of greenhouse gases (mainly CO2).
The average temperature of our planet is therefore in direct correlation with the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There is a time delay however due to the extreme mass of the oceans. They act as a heat sink taking between 50 and 100 years to heat up.
The CO2 has been rapidly increasing due to our increasing consumption of fossil fuels over the last 50 years. The average earth’s temperature can be fairly accurately predicted by the level of CO2 in the atmosphere so we are going to get quite warm here.
There are two ways to deal with this problem. Mitigation is the attempt to reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere, adaptation is the attempt to deal with the effects when mitigation is not possible.
The one two punch of mitigation by shear size and scope are forests and grasslands. Properly managed they can reabsorb the excess CO2 over time.
Arable land used for agriculture can be managed differently thereby sequestering CO2 rather than being a sizable emitter which currently is the case.
We need to find a way to become virtually carbon free in the US in the next ten years. Time to get off our butts.
Since Mint Creek Farm is engaged in the act of growing food on agricultural land we have been working on a sustainable model that would feed us while sequestering carbon back into the soil as organic matter. Our main gig is to return arable cropland back to perennial pasture with a polyculture of plants. We intensively graze a variety of critters on pasture, moving them frequently, while giving the land a long rest period. Currently we are still on our “first cutting” in hay makers lingo. This means that there is still ground that we have not grazed this growing year even once. We are in the midst of abundance rather than shortage.
Currently the midwest is in a pretty bad drought. We are staring down at significant loss in our corn crop. Some will experience complete loss. Assuming the farmer had crop insurance (read government subsidy) they will do it again next year.
Diversity is a great risk mitigation tool. The only diversity monocultures see are the plethora of chemicals used to attempt to salvage a crop. Its time we look long and hard at increasing diversity in our agriculture as our weather becomes increasingly variable.
When I was sixteen I read “The Limits to Growth” and “The Population Bomb”. Both works took data about our planet and resources and projected them out. As could be expected they were wrong about many things but yet correct on many counts as well. That was forty years ago. Forty years from now will be 2052. What will our world be like?
Last week, I was invited to a round table discussion with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel,US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and about a dozen influential people in the Chicago local food movement. The topic was on improving access to healthy food in Chicago communities. This discussion was located at Inspiration Kitchens, Garfield Park’s gourmet restaurant and cooking school. It was truly wonderful to see the efforts being put in place to solve the food desert problem in the struggling neighborhoods of Chicago.
While quite impressed with the urban farming efforts of my friends and associates eloquently summarized during the roundtable, I found my rural farming concerns a little off topic and graced my associates with silence.
I will, however, unload this message upon you all if you care to listen. What I have to talk about are rural farming issues but they have much broader implications for all of us.
Sometimes it takes a new term or phrase to capture the mood of the moment. For those of us who have been following modern industrial agriculture practices and their effects on the land in an environment of climate change, please accept physicist Joseph Romm’s contribution: “Dust-Bowlification“.
Then couple this perspective with the recent article, Riot of Soil Erosion Brings Shame found in, believe it or not, the online journal of industrial ag’s Successful Farming Magazine.
If you dare to read those two articles back to back you will be saying “shiiiiiit” better than Senator Clay Davis did for the TV drama series “The Wire”.
Man’s anthropogenic effects have “Let the devil out of the hole”. How are we to get him back down in the hole? We need to be preparing an oasis for the desert coming to a farm near you!
Our system of industrial agriculture has worshiped mass production of monocultures by fighting nature on all fronts. It has utilized machines, chemicals, petroleum, and biotechnology to fight the “war on nature”. Much like the “war on terror” it will never be won, and never be over. Unless of course, it leads to mankind’s demise. After all, we are a part of nature aren’t we?
The effects of this war have led to the destruction of our topsoil, decimation of our songbird population and extinction of many species of flora and fauna. Our rural social environment is a shadow of its former self. The mass exodus of people from the farm to the cities has been as successful as globalization itself. Our economic focus on specialization and exchange has divided and conquered our soul. In this great feat of self destruction we have been winning the “war with ourselves”. Is it not time for a new paradigm?
Over the last twenty years Mint Creek Farm, along with a host of other grass farmers like us, has been evolving a model of sustainable agriculture that could replace the industrial agriculture model all around us. It uses no herbicides and pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Fertility is inherent in the system. Tillage is not required. Our emphasis is on a perennial poly-culture of pasture plants coupled with multi-species grazing of animals. These traverse the pasture in dense groups with frequent moves and long rest periods (for the pasture). Soil erosion is eliminated. Fuel consumption is greatly reduced. Feed consumption and manure spreading is done by the very same grazing critters automatically as they graze. Soil carbon, soil moisture, and soil aeration are all improved year by year by this grazing action complete with manure spreading. A dense sod is formed which invites a host of soil based organisms. Slowly the five foot thick top soil we started with a hundred plus years ago will return.
Enough carbon would be sequestered if this model was broadly implemented to reverse global warming. With this system intelligently managed, the future world of nine billion people can be fed. Their health would greatly improve, as the quality of the food they would be eating would be nutrient dense. Lastly, there would be plenty of jobs, jobs, jobs and more jobs. The beauty of growing healthy food is that purpose is self evident, meaning is inherent, and work is never ending. Life again becomes worth living as the war on nature and self transforms into a journey of self discovery, as our soul is appropriately mirrored by the beauty and respite of the natural world around us.
Please plan on joining us for a farm tour and dinner this growing season and imagine mankind living in a prosperous world at peace.
MOPSY THE MIRACLE GOAT
To fully understand kids, you need to start with their parents. True for Mopsy the miracle goat. Mopsy’s mom, Charlotte is a bit of a celebrity. She is a fainting goat, also called a mytonic goat. Fainting goats, when startled, run and then collaspse as if dead. (Google fainting goats) When Charlotte gets excited, she moves as though she has front wheel drive with the rear wheels locked up. She has been on WGN-TV (in the studio with a turkey) and has been a favorite of the children at the Montessori school where my wife Gwen teaches, staying there for a school semester.
At the school’s winter ball some of the teachers came up to me and said “ Boy Charlotte just keeps getting larger and larger!” So I thought I better go check her out cause she might be pregnant! The next Saturday I went up to the school and opened the door to the goat shed. There were two little goat kids just born with Charlotte, the proud mom! That was two years ago. Flopsy and Mopsy were born last spring to Charlotte and they got some special treatment. Flopsy seemed to get most of the milk, being larger and more aggressive, so we supplemented Mopsy with a bottle. She never did grow to full size and now is just 25#’s. (certainly not a viable size for a meat goat). So she became a pet and a good friend. One could always count on the Mops running up to you with a cheerful grin looking for a handout.
Mopsy had been doing reasonably well over the year until a month ago, when Mopsy leapt from the hay feeder and got her leg caught on it. She was hanging there by her leg when discovered by our crew. Although she had only been there for a short time, it was long enough to seriously injure her leg, but even worse, to sustain a puncture wound through her chest cavity, allowing air to escape out her side, when attempting to breath. We immediately called our local vet, but he was not available, as he was vacationing in Oklahoma. So Julie Larsen, who works with us, took Mopsy to her vet, near where she lives, closer to Chicago. The Vet did not give Mopsy much chance, telling us we could take her to the University of Illinois at Urbana for surgery. However, he thought she would not survive the trip there. I spent some time on the phone describing Mopsy’s condition to the vet at the University. She thought her condition was highly doubtful to recover from, and not worth the thousand dollars or more to treat her.
So Mopsy came home. One of the sad things about raising sheep and goats is that fatal accidents occur from time to time. A PhD friend of mine that raises sheep says, “They aren’t tied to the physical plane very well.” Which in philosophical speak means ‘They die easily’. I did not expect much but I was not going to euthanize the Mops until it was evident that she was headed downhill fast. She seemed to be hanging in there, so I waited for a noticeable change. She was not running a temperature yet, but I know that would come, as a gaping hole in the chest cavity of a goat is sure to get infected. I put her on a course of antibiotics, and kept her on close watch, in the back room of our house. She started running a fever the next day, but only by a degree. I decided that this was over my head, and took her to my regular local vet, who now had returned, for further evaluation. He thought her condition iffy, but did not rule out recovery completely. The chest cavity wound worried him, but a horse he treated with a fence wound, had recovered from something similar.
Mopsy received much TLC the next week and gradually improved. Now I have trouble catching her, even although she is running on three legs. Her drivers side back leg is still healing from tissue damage. It seems when our time is up nothing works to keep us ticking, but if our day has not yet come, we should not give up hope! How do we know when our day has come? We do not know, so Mopsy as a testament to the efficacy of miracles in our lives, still runs among the goats of Mint Creek Farm! (She no longer greets me like she used to, being very tired of all the smother mother care she has been getting.)