Friday, February 8, 2019

short of people

System failure can be hard to see because it often comes cloaked in human failure. Each one of the farms that failed over the last several generations led us to the system failure, the spectacular failure where agriculture today is simply too short of people to be able to properly foster soil health. It has been too short of people for at least a generation now to properly support the community, including the vital community formed by a living farming culture, a culture carrying the knowledge of how to care for soil in use as well as the people using it.
The failure of the agricultural system, by the increasing failure of the people in it, is merely a part of a larger failure. This too is system wide. Our economy is producing a tide of technological innovation. But no where that I see is it fostering and honoring work that is meaningful. Teachers are not honored. Care workers are very nearly not even paid. Factories, which have always been a human problem, even when they were busy are increasingly abandoned in our country. Retail establishments close, breaking another human connection, to be replaced by delivery drivers, each of them closely watched and monitored by the on board company computer. Cars are “fixed” by mechanics following the direction of the scan tool and simply plugging in new systems. Houses are built by robots in huge plants and then the panels are fastened together on site by relatively unskilled labor. The move is afoot everywhere to diminish people and emphasize machines, sending all wealth to the top of the society.

Monday, February 4, 2019

from Wendell Berry

"We cannot live harmlessly at our own expense; we depend on other creatures and survive by their deaths.  To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation.  The point is, when we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament; when we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. . .in such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want."

We have always known that what we do here on the farm is beyond important, that we are involved with something we cannot entirely understand and that we must do what we do with all the respect and reverence we can muster.  Berry says it better. 

Sunday, December 16, 2018


It is possible today to open any journal of analysis and opinion and find someone arguing that due to climate change and other pressing matters, it will be necessary to move from agriculture, especially any animal based protein, to factory production of the necessary foodstuffs by means of a substrate of material(perhaps soy or corn, but maybe petroleum if necessary) which can be acted upon by microbes which we will invent for the purpose, producing something to satisfy perhaps the physical appetite, but never the soul. The rationale given is the need to allay climate change, caused mainly in this view by those nasty methane emitting cows. Yesterday’s nasty methane emitting bison in their millions never seem to show up in these discussions. Thus we have proposed for us the complete control of the food for all the people by perhaps one or two corporations holding a fistful of patents, taking the unpredictability of human life and creativity of human thought completely out of it. This is totalitarian in a way that communism or Nazism could only hope to be. Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini would wet their pants over the very idea.
for more of this see Graze, the newspaper by and for farmers who graze their animals.  Go to

Monday, October 1, 2018


There have always been voices, many of them strong voices, speaking up for farming and the people of farm country.  Never have they been taken very seriously.  But now there is great trouble in the country and  more than a few citizens are thinking that we have about reached the end of some things about how we live and govern ourselves.  In the hope that the mood to hear may now be there that wasn't before, I lift up three strong thoughtful recent voices.  All of these people have thought long and hard about the problem and have dedicated their lives to seeking solutions.

From Wendell Berry, “Leaving the Future Behind. . .”: “If a place-a family farm, a country town and its neighboring countryside, a city and its tributary region-does not keep and care for and use enough of its natural and human goods for its own maintenance and its people’s thriving, the result is destruction, permanent damage-even, as I will dare to say it-climate change.”

From Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh in the March 2018 issue of Graze: “The time has come for us to bring consumer dollars through to our stewardship. The transfer of wealth has gone on too long. Producers have been harvesting the health of their cattle, mining soil organic matter from the ground and working themselves too hard.”

And from Quebec dairy farmer Gerard Vermeulen in support of Canada's dairy program:
"This is not nice what I'm going to say, but I think you people need to hear it," he says. "Go in Quebec, drive around the countryside, look at the farms. The tin is painted; the tractors are put away. There are a lot of nice farms in the States, I'm not saying they are all run down, but there's a lot more farms that are run down in the States than Canada."

Saturday, September 29, 2018


My daughter, our youngest, came to visit overnight with her brood of four in tow. It was dark and I startled her coming up to the house on my way from shutting in the chickens for the night.
“How do you do that?” She demanded. “Walk around in the dark without a flashlight?”
I told her that it was long familiarity with the place. I said I didn’t need a light because my body knew every inch of this farm. I finished, rather lamely I suppose, by saying that “It amounts to love, finally.”
Whatever the truth or fancifulness of that, it is so that my fascination with the place increases daily as I age. Among the many things that interest me about my life and everything that surrounds it, my interest in what this place is going to do next is chief. Late in life I have begun to hunger for the names and habits of plants and animals that I now know I have lived surrounded by and had always taken for granted. I want to know what they want, if that is the proper way to think of it, what their lives consist of, why they are here and what pleases them about their immediate surroundings. And especially is this so lately regarding the changes in the weather, or climate if you will and the response of the farm to those changes.
This summer, for the third consecutive year we have had rainfall that can only be described as excessive. This summer has featured an extraordinary surplus of rainy days in addition to the heavy amounts of rain, making field work nearly impossible. It is difficult not to see that some of the rainy days are a blessing in disguise as nearby areas have in the process been hit with five to seven or eight inch rainfalls in the course of a single night. We have essentially been missed by the heaviest of the precipitation. Other related things are different. Humidity readings stay above fifty percent pretty reliably. It does not drop off a day or so after a rainfall. The wind does not blow. Consequently, the house does not cool overnight and in the mornings. These things are unexpected here where we have sayings about the prairie winds (There goes Grandma, bucking the wind again!) Traditionally we have expected occasional humidity readings of seventy percent or higher, but at least as frequently, twenty percent or less. We expect thunderstorms complete with electric light shows in the sky and the occasional tornado, but not every week. It seems as if the elements of our weather are stuck and we are on constant replay.
The pasture project is the only thing we have going here that has been working well in the excessive rain. But the cattle have compacted some of the lower areas and the higher traffic zones. I know this because of the increasing size and hardness of the callous in the center of my right hand, which I use to push in the fiberglass rod posts we use to subdivide the grazing, but also because of the plants I see. We have not had much problem with ragweed, either the common or the giant, which befouls so much organic planting, but we do now. It is ragweed that shows up in the entire paddock nearest the lowest and wettest area of the pasture. It appears to like compaction. We have always had patches of Canadian thistle wherever the cattle have torn up the sward eating a hay bale or where several bulls are tussling. Canada thistle is useful in fixing small areas of compaction with the taproot, but I doubt that ragweed will be. Cattle will eat the buds off thistles, but they avoid ragweed like the plague.
It is this general trend of wetness that has increased our problems with compaction on our heavy clay soils. Some farmers have taken to coping with this by rotating their grazing in and out of a year of crop production, enabling the use of primary tillage, usually a plow or heavy chisel plow. I question the usefulness of that approach on our farm, as any new seeding we do seems overrun with weeds for several years before coming back into production with good forage. Perhaps we have too large a weed seed bank. Presumably some of the neighbors think so.
It all must be viewed in the framework of what we think the trend is going to be for the coming years. If it is going to be continued wet, we have to look at real and major changes here as the land is quite low lying and the soil composition is not at all porous and fast draining. It is quite possible that some of the areas lower in elevation will begin to revert to the sloughs and wetlands they were before we whites came here, and that we will not be able to engineer a solution. After all, water only leaves a place by running to a lower place or by evaporation, on its own or through a plant.
Of course, if this wet trend is to be followed by a dry one, we would be best served by not being too rash in the solutions we devise today. There was drought here in 1988 reducing crop yields by more than two thirds. With that in mind, it seems that a good approach to the ragweed would be to try to control the seed production by early enough mowing, and to till the heaviest infestations followed by a seeding of Reed’s Canary grass. This grass, where we have it currently, allows no ragweed or thistle either in its stand. Once established, which will be after several very weak years, it can be very aggressive, to the point that it will be difficult to get a clover to thrive as companion. White clover seems to have worked the best for us; Alsike survives the wet conditions better, but is low growing and short lived, two or three years at the most. Canary grass will do well on higher and dryer ground too if it gets a few years time to colonize those swards.
We can get low alkaloid versions of the Canary grass which are quite a bit more palatable than the common type, but it still makes better cow feed than for growing livestock. And a real advantage of the older stands of Reed’s Canary is that they form a thick loose sod which will stand up under animal traffic that would otherwise pug the soil. I cannot imagine a compacted soil under a stand of Canary grass.
So we could let a few wetter acres produce cow feed rather than high octane finisher grass. It seems contrary to willingly give up striving for top production. The attitude is pretty deeply ingrained in us farmers. But perhaps affection teaches what school and reading, or even experience cannot always. Perhaps asking the farm what it wants is the question with which I should always have started.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018


Mr Torkelson wanted to call the safety of Metro Transit into question.  The entire thing turned out to be nothing as riders on Metro Transit are safer than they are in most of the rest of their lives and the numbers show it.  The local Fox News affiliate which reported the non-story yesterday did its best to leave Minnesota in suspense as to the safety of the buses and trains.

It is useful to remember that this Mr. Torkelson, together with his seatmate Mr. Hagedorn, both from the New Ulm area, was last seen explaining to a roomful of upset constituents the reason why the state Department of Agriculture should not be offering to the citizens a voluntary program to help them test their water for nitrate levels.  The pair ended by asserting that the women at the mike probably could not really understand how laws are made. And this in defense of a secrecy that farmers who care about their land and their farming would love to see broken.  And so once again, the pressing need to ask real questions about agriculture and how it is done takes a back seat to cheap hot button "get me elected" non issues.  There are farmers who do not worry about nitrate tests of the ground water because they have deliberately chosen to operate in ways that keeps that from happening and they would love for once a chance to be heard.

This is how it is in politics and how right wing politicians are made, that is, by making up stories about scary brown and black people using a system few of their real-rural-constituents ever will, and using a right wing outlet to publicize the stories, and get them elected.  We are so easily lied to!

Friday, September 21, 2018


Two inches in the gauge this morning, total of the last three days and once again we are put in the awful position of being happy at a circumstance that brought others five and six inches of rain, plus extensive damage.  Even with the way we have lucked out so far for the last three years, we have gotten far too much rain and far too many rainy days.  Whatever the causes of the current climate upsets, it is certainly true that the water cycle is broken.

It is satisfying to think that at the present time, our entire farm with the exception of 45 or 50 acres that is in standing ripening corn, has living roots in the soil.  After three springs and summers of coping with lumps and hard crusts to try to make seedbeds, we are happy that we pushed ourselves and the equipment to the limit to get oats sowed back on the land where we had to destroy corn to control weeds that we couldn't cultivate in June, as well as land that we harvested grain from in late August.  We had three days, during which we also needed to make the final crop of hay, to get it accomplished and we made it.

Currently, we have 100 acres in permanent grass/clover pasture, 50 acres in corn, 60 acres in grass/alfalfa hay, 30 acres in complex cover crop for annual hay and fifty acres in oats cover.  I wish these last 50 acres were in perennials, but am happy to have the oats there.  This is important.  This is for the future and not just next year either.  We and all other farmers need to learn some new things.  Our only impact upon the weather is a very indirect one and that is our soil and how we manage it.