Monday, December 20, 2010


Prairie winters can grab you and hold you still, which can be a blessing for those of us who run so hard trying to be competent, or successful. Unlike so much of Nature, which appears to have deteriorated pretty much to the level of tornadoes, with young men dressed in LL Bean gear chasing after them with high priced cameras in high priced vehicles just for the fun of it, prairie winters demand respect. So when I headed out to check the cattle this morning, hoping that the extra hay I put out yesterday would hold them off until tomorrow, I braced against that strong wind, and knew that I was in something that could win, and would, if I insisted upon being too stupid.

Not so many years ago, a man just south of here, who was at the time younger than I am now, became stuck with his pickup in a snow drift. Being no stranger to winter, he figured he could hoof it home. He made it too, through the strengthening wind and dropping temperatures. They found him the next day frozen to death on his own front step. He had gotten there, but at the cost of enough lost body heat that he could not figure out how to get the door open and go inside.

The insane rush that makes up our society and economy infects those of us who try to do things differently too. And it is tempting to think that our lives together as a nation might be much improved if more of us could have the experience with weather, and memories of it, that I had today. I stood there for awhile, looking at the cattle, who were standing around several of the hay rings with their backs to the wind, covered with snow, chewing their cuds and watching me. I knew they could live through weather that would kill me. So I walked back to the main yard, checking the hog feeding hoops along the way and eventually got to this keyboard in front of this computer, writing these thoughts. I think I will work on getting my heart to slow down, stay where it is warm to wait it out, and find a good book to read or get back to the one I am trying to write. After a nap, maybe.


Thursday, December 2, 2010


I spent several days in the company of well established conventional farmers recently and it drove home the truth to me that the country may be ungovernable at this point. These folks knew, in considerable detail, as it turns out, about the troubles surrounding a Minnesota dairy farmer who seems to have sickened several people by selling them raw milk, but they had simply not heard anything about the DeCoster egg empire and its troubles with salmonella. They didn't dispute the facts as I related them to the best of my knowledge, they simply had not heard.

If your source of national news is Fox and your source for farm news is a typical "prices and farmer jokes" serving, you are simply going to be looking at different facts from someone who reads newpapers, some of them foreign, on the internet and gains farm information from several listservs. Some of what is available to each is fantasy, no doubt, but I am thinking now about facts. Fox and the conventional farm press are going to assume that DeCoster's problems are merely a glitch in an otherwise excellent system of large players, and my listservs will take the approach that the eggs problem is symtomatic of a rotten food system. These opinion based "fact screens" will have to do with what gets noticed and what gets repeated. We will hear different facts. The country does not become governable until we deliberately and calmly share facts, which does not seem likely to happen soon.

It could be said, for one thing, that the scale of these events are vastly different. The dairy farmer, if he is found to have caused a sickening of customers, will only have exposed perhaps several dozen people. DeCoster's eggs were available to millions. On the other hand, many more Americans depend upon the likes of DeCoster for their eggs than are served by farms like ours and many others. This has implications in a democracy for food safety rules, inspections and so forth.

Surrounding the entire question is the matter of what kind of country and agriculture we want to build for the future. Is our future an endless series of DeCoster empires, or will there be an increasing number of opportunities for folks to connect more closely with their food, as our customers do?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


If you burn down an old building to get rid of the rats that infest it, the rats will simply move to another building and start to destroy it. Any farmer knows this. And it is not hard to see this happening in our current economic situation. Corn and soybean markets zoom to unheard of highs in the midst of a steady barrage of news of good crops nationwide, good evidence of the increasing influence of people who prefer to let their money do the working(otherwise known as speculators). Land prices in our area have pretty much doubled in the past two or three years, from three thousand to nearly six thousand per acre as refugees from the softening stock market buy land at any price.

The next generation of farmers,which was at severe risk at three thousand/acre already is the first casualty. Also on the chopping block is any new or inovative farming practice. It seems as if the one viable economic alternative right now is to farm just as the government wants so that you can stay closely attached to the subsidy teat, while desperately hoping that the commodity prices stay up.

But my lifetime experience has been that I never came close to succeeding with this farm until I gave up following the standard practice. I don't think more emphasis on corn and beans is an appropriate response to six thousand dollar land. It is simply to retreat further into a cave from which there is no escape. And make no mistake about it, that "cave" is no natural structure, but rather an elaborate trap constructed by the agricultural and financial powers that be.

Over priced land and speculator driven commodity markets are just two more evidences of the failure of our democratic government to protect us from huge economic power. The last election delivered government power more completely into the hands of the Wall Streeters. So we are on our own, whether or not we are ready for that role. While the wealthy sector continues to buy us up, the republicans will try to do what they always do, which is to talk a good game about getting the government off our backs while they do everything in their power to tilt the table toward the largest businesses and banks in the nation. We are in for an accelerated move toward less regulation of the powerful and more regulation of the small. The fact that the Pork Producers group dropped its support of the Food Safety bill being discussed in Congress when the Tester amendment, which would exempt from increased regulation small marketing efforts (500 thousand annually or less) was added is all the evidence we need of things to come.

Friday, November 19, 2010


A dozen pheasants flew up ahead of me as I walked along the west tree line checking the fence last Sunday. They were a little hunter spooky too, I guess, like the deer that had run through the polywire I had set up to keep the cattle off the new hay seeding. Ordinarily pheasants wait until you nearly step on them before taking off, wings a-whistling.

I needed to try to get more power in the wire, now that the cattle knew how good that fenced out grazing was, and I ended up unhooking the bottom wire on the perimeter fence because it was still under a pretty wet load of grass in the lower areas. The power quadrupled. The puppy and I slowly got the cattle to decide to head for home for a drink(the pup thinks he had something to do with it), and I rebuilt the fence. So much for my Sunday off.

Still, though, it is the same pleasure it has always been to have a job I live, instead of just going to. Farming for a lifetime changes a person. I have an increasingly difficult time carrying on a conversation with lifetime friends who have chosen another path. I honestly sometimes don't really know what they are talking about. Something the poet said about the path not chosen. Those times when I feel best about the farm and its people and animals, I see that I have taken a path not often used, and it has made all the difference! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. It means that winter is coming, along with a little well deserved rest.

Monday, October 18, 2010


We are busy at work in addition to our end of the season cropping work with changing and improving our breeding and gestation facilities and handling. We have two main goals; first that we should be able to time the breeding and get enough sows with pig so that our farrowing areas remain full and second, that we are more able to feed our sow herd with perennial plants such as pasture, hay and silage. This means we need to be able to feed our regular haylage bales to the herd regularly in the winter, and that the sow herd needs access to the pasture at all times when the pasture is not too muddy. This part of it requires that we reorganize some of our lot and close to the farm yard fences as well as building perhaps a half mile of pasture lanes this fall and next spring. This is a fair amount of work, but we can see that maximizing the use of perennial feeds is becoming necessary for all classes of livestock for both environmental and economic reasons connected with fuel use. In a hog business, the place to start with that is the sow, who can digest much more forage than can the younger animals.

Last weekend, we took some of Saturday off to help our sister add an observation deck to her cabin on the Minnesota river. What a beautiful day in a beautiful place! Many hands really do make light work. Much of the day, a huge red tail hawk rode the thermals above us as we worked just under the bluff. Fringe benefit!

Friday, October 1, 2010

haying weather

We have finally gotten two days in a row of good hay curing weather, that is, the last two days of September. I am beginning to think we may be able to bale this crop dry without plastic bagging it by Monday next week. Who knew? It shouldn't have been possible this late. And the forecast is still good. We are checking our little field of organic soybeans to see if they can soon be harvested.

The cattle are about half way through their final rotation on the permanent grass and will need to go to the cropping fields to clean up residue and too short to cut hay in about two weeks. Next week we start work on converting one of our hog finishing hoops into a combination sow breeding and replacement gilt facility. It needs concrete flooring and will feature handy to use breeding pens and pasture access for the sow herd. This kind of improvement to make things both easier for us and better for the hogs has been a long time coming. When we started to make a decent living with the hogs due to the growing marketing business about ten years ago, we had to pay for quite a lot of prior debt. Now we relish the thought of getting on with improving things!

I wish I could see a way of improving some of what goes on with our country and its government. We are facing the necessity of voting for people who do not thrill us just to help keep the lunatic fringe from running the show. Corporate money poisons the politics. We cannot do more than put in a stop gap solution nationally at this point, if that, but we must begin to plan in a different direction.

I think it is critical that more and more of us have a basic security outside the national government. As long as we are so dependent upon what they do, the bankers have us all by the short hairs. We need to build families back together, surround them with working (beloved) communities and then build from that base to achieve functioning and relatively honest local and state government. This is important because we cannot sucessfully go to the national government with our hats in hand and beg. But if we come from sound families and good communities that have already started much of the necessary work for the future, we have a base to stand upon. A person who knows what he/she is and is capable of is always a force to be reckoned with. We cannot simultaneously suck on the corporate teat and control the corporation.

Competence is power.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


It seems as if we are headed into another fall season very much like '09. Since midsummer this year, we have had rain in the forecast pretty much every week and a large proportion of the rains turn out to be heavy. Last fall was so wet that we pulled the cattle off the permanent pastures in October to keep them from being destroyed, and unusual problem with permanent pastures and those tough root systems.
We have straw laying in windrows that should have been baled in early August, a first crop of hay on the new seeding that was cut the first week of August and we cannot get to the point where either is dry enough to bale. We have turned each swath three or four times to keep it from rotting and smothering the new grass coming beneath.

It is this kind of thing that brings climate change to mind. This weather is unusual even in our forty years of experience. It is difficult to see what a farm might look like as it modifies itself to cope with this kind of weather. One thing that appears to be true is that, muddy pastures or not, perennial agriculture does better in adverse weather than annual cropping. I am pleased to see that attention is finally being paid to the Land Institute's work on developing perennial grain crops by the more conventional academic institutions.

Most of them, most of the time of course, are burying their head in the sand after the fashion of our own University of Minnesota, which just cancelled the showing of a well researched documentary about the Minnesota river on the grounds that it was too critical of annual cropping and conventional agriculture. Pivot point for the deed was a vice president of public relations who is married to a board member of the Minnesota Agri-Growth council and whose law firm serves as a lobbying mouth piece for conventional agriculture at the legislature.

Ever the same, ever the same.

Friday, September 3, 2010


Another oil well blows up in the Gulf just as we were being lullabied into forgetting the last one, the one bigger than twenty Exxon Valdez's. The oil industry sponsors demonstrations peopled by oil workers fearful of losing their jobs while nothing is heard of any effort to clean up the Minerals Management Service of the federal government that let it all happen. Meanwhile, Blankenship of Massey Coal is still running around loose acting arrogant about the death and destruction he has caused for miners and their families.

Nothing much changes until we change it in our own lives. That is what we are trying to do here at Pastures A Plenty with our constant efforts to get more of our production from perennial rather than annual plants. When you buy our products, you support these efforts, helping us learn to feed our sows and cattle more from grass and clover thus reducing the amount of grain needed, as well as getting more of the energy straight from the sun.

And our meat products are grown, processed and sold in the state of Minnesota, putting a pretty strict limit on shipping distances. We have a long way to go but we are headed in the right direction. Remember that your food dollars really do as much to conserve energy and redirect our economy as your vote. Maybe more.

Monday, August 2, 2010

"Good weather for the lake" means tough work for a livestock farmer. It is easier to keep animals comfortable in the cold of winter than in the heat of summer. This past July was a hot month, but more importantly, it was humid. When you get that combination you hope it is also cloudy and windy. Hogs and cattle have different requirements in regard to heat and humidity. Cattle are a grassland animal and are pretty comfortable in the sun if there is a bit of breeze and plenty of fresh water. They cool themselves by drinking, and will drink about twice the water on a hot day as they ordinarily do. When it is still and hot, cattle can benefit from shade.

Hogs, on the other hand, are a woodland animal by ancestry. They cannot cool by drinking and have no sweat glands. They cannot tolerate the summer sun and must have shade. For hogs the ticket is fresh water to drink, a good breeze, plenty of shade and water with which to make the mud they need to cool their skin.

In times like we experienced last July, we try to get everything done that needs doing in the morning, so we can rest in the afternoon and then work into the evening. Sometimes it doesn't work, and something the animals have caused to happen means we have to work in the humidity and heat of the afternoon sun setting things right for them. It is not easy. Sometimes it is dangerous. But it is part of what we take on when we decide to make our living with livestock. And in August of any hot summer, the days start to get shorter and we can look forward to fall.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Thank you to all our customers and others who responded so passionately on our behalf to the USDA call for comments on the proposed guidelines for small and very small meat plants. By speaking up for us, you spoke up for yourselves as well, and for the kind of life you want to live. We will keep you posted on any movements on this issue. The battle has probably just begun.

When needing to deal with the insanity of government, and the obstinate wrong headedness of bureaucrats that are too often in corporate pockets, it is a joy and pleasure to turn away again toward farming and that endless fascination with nature and growing things. Though nature is often a tough adversary it is also a balm to the troubled soul and a reminder that some things are bigger than politics. The weather has been wet here at Pastures A Plenty, meaning difficulty with getting the hay made and the row crop work done. However the grass is growing into a grazing beasts' paradise and it is a pure pleasure to walk out there and be part of it. One of the results of our change to long grass and slower cattle rotations is that the grassland birds seem to be having a better go at their nesting. Western meadowlarks with their multi noted songs, cattle and cat birds and killdeers are everywhere. The little wet weather slough is full of redwing blackbirds declaring territory. Red tail hawks bank and soar overhead. It would be a kind of sacrilege to walk out there with headphones on!

With the oil volcano gushing in the Gulf and destroying the livelihoods of so many families for decades to come as well as all the natural wonder and beauty of the place, I have been trying to imagine what it would be like for our entire farm to have been covered in six inches of salt, for instance. Or worse, if all the farms in our community had been. It is impossible to imagine the heavy changes we are forcing upon the Gulf and the people there.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


News lately is of controversy around raw milk and then too we have notified many of you of the coming USDA rulemaking for pathogen testing at small meats plants. It is important to us that everyone interested in our business, including certainly any who are customers or who might become customers know that our intention here at Pastures A Plenty is to continue to do everything we can to comply with regulations. We operate under license from and are inspected by the State of Minnesota at considerable cost to us. In addition, of course, our processor operates under the state "equal-to-USDA" licensing and will continue to do so. We are inspected by the Midwest Food Alliance for wholesomeness and humane treatment in our animal production, and meet Niman Ranch's standards along those lines as well. These licenses and certifications are important to us and will be kept up.

If you would like to make a comment to USDA about the proposed new pathogen testing requirements e-mail to: For a copy of the document proposing the extra testing, call the Small Plants help desk at (202)418-8820. The basic argument is that extra testing is unnecessary for small plants, as they do not slaughter and process 24/7 (ours slaughters once a week for a half day), and that it is a special hardship because the cost can be spread over a much lower volume of products than is the case with the mainstream meat industry. You need to respond by June 19th. Thanks!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


The food safety bill making its way through Congress is a conflict for those of us who try to foster more direct contact between farmers and customers and more responsible farming. We know better than most how very slipshod and untrustworthy our current food safety regimens are, and can hardly help favoring a general tightening. But the way in which these things are usually carried out by Congress and the USDA is a major concern. We smaller farmers and processors are generally the target because we are easier to push around and do not generally hire lawyers. So one size fits all regulations and practices, such as irradiation of meats and other foods are apt to bear heavily on smaller businesses, while actually benefitting the conventional industry. Our concern, in the meats area, is that inspectors in major meat plants do not have the power to shut the production down if they see something they don't like. We can assure you that if our inspector in our small plant sees something amiss, she will stop it and we will hear about it.

Has anyone connected with government food regulation ever asked if smaller plants and independent farmers regularly sicken their customers with dirty products? And isn't that the question we should be starting with?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


The Massey coal mine in West Virginia that claimed the lives of 25 plus miners yesterday belches so much methane that even the broken government agency in charge of mine safety thought it should be inspected every five days. It will be interesting to see what gets done about this loss of life by the government and by the people of West Virginia who seem to be pretty much of the opinion that government is the problem. Perhaps it is when it only fines Massey a few hundred thousand for many violations this past year alone. But whose fault is that? Would we have a better government if we invested some effort in demanding it?

This level of methane release by "clean coal" puts grazing cows in the shade, I think.


Monday, March 29, 2010


It is a curious thing. I keep expecting it to change each year as I grow older. But each year, as the snow melts and the frost leaves the earth, the old feeling is back. It is the welling up of a fierce kind of joy. I need less sleep. I must be out walking on the land and waiting for the next thing. It is as if I want to throw myself into the great awakening that surrounds me and push it forward. There are the seeds to buy or to clean and ready for planting. Each year there is something new to plant and hope for. The machines must be readied. The cattle lean longingly on the lot fence and gaze at the first faint blushes of green over the slopes. Piles of manure must be hauled out and spread for the benefit of the plantings. Ahead stretch long days getting the year started which will then blend into the heat and dust of haying as the sun reaches its zenith and seems to hang there for weeks, holding its breath while we race to catch up.

How is it that I was born so lucky?

Sunday, March 14, 2010


I could smell the wet cedar boards as I stepped out on the deck this morning to check the weather. Temp stayed above freezing last night and the entire world smelled like it was warming up. Two geese honked their way across the southern sky and everywhere I look I can see standing water. Nearly half of our pasture acres are covered as well as a goodly number of the cropping acres. The drainage is full and the river towns are worried. Most of the water visible from our house will leave as the water level goes down in the drainage, but the last of it will linger and soak in among the roots of the pasture sward. Staying for a while, it will find cracks and crevices plus earthworm holes and gopher tunnels to help make its way into the subsoil, where it will do the farm some good in the hot months to come as it becomes available to accelerate growth of the perennials that feed our cattle and sows each grazing season. The same water our farming system has kept out of homes in the towns down river will help us and our farm to prosper.

It is not often in life that one can do an unconflicted good. I am not much of a believer in the idea of win-win. But these days, as I stand on our slice of wet prairie sponge watching the water that is taking its time with leaving, I get a chance to feel good about something. That is something to savor.


Saturday, February 27, 2010


It is possible to get a little claustrophobic in a winter like this. The yard on which we do our work has gotten smaller with every snowfall this winter, since we can never push the new snow quite as far back as before. I put on the snowshoes this Saturday afternoon and took a walk to the north through the pig pastures, across last year's hay field to the township road on the north, ostensibly to see whether we had a chance of getting manure out through that approach this early spring, but really for the chance to be out and about.

The snow on the prairie is drifted this winter so that it looks like a white ocean frozen in time. We don't get this very often; I can only remember three winters out of my 62 years where the snow stayed out on the land all winter, and that would be this year, last year and ten years ago. Generally the wind has it immediately stacked up in the groves and tree lines. I sank in a bit walking through the grove, flushing up a group of pheasant which have been staying close to the yard despite the dogs. We have taken to deliberately spilling a little feed regularly to feed them for wild birds have a very tough time with all this snow cover. On the prairie, the snow immediately bore me up and as I looked behind I could sometimes not make out tracks of the snowshoe frames for my own shoes carried me on the hard drifts.

No tracks out there to speak of. The mice and gophers are underneath which would make it tough for the coyotes if it were not for the carcasses of wild things scattered about plus a few pig and calf casulaties. I didn't see one coyote track in my half mile walk, but I will bet there is a well worn trail between the cattail slough and our dead animal compost pile. Coyotes are opportunists. I saw one mink track making it from the growe at an angle toward the drainage ditch, where it probably has a den in the bank. I wondered what it was finding on the yard.

No rabbits either, once I cleared the grove. The air was cold and clear, making the lungs feel young again and very efficient. I walked toward home at an angle so that I came onto the yard on the opposite end from where I began. I walked along a ten year old tree line which we have been trying to expand by starting two more similar lines next to. These winters have been hard on the little trees, bending them over during the spring melt and stripping some of the branches down under the weight. The banks next to the trees offered me a chance to look down about ten or fifteen feet to the tops of the adjacent fence posts which are about five feet tall.

Spring feels a long way off here at Pastures A Plenty on the 27th of February. And when the melt does start, the fear is that the Minnesota will flood. We are kind of hoping for a slow thaw for that reason.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


I saw another bald eagle today. This is unusual, as we have occasionally seen them for a day or two in spring and thought that they are on their way back to the Minnesota River valley for the season, but this is the third of February, a dazzling bright day with the snow reflecting the sun's full power in all directions. Wild things seem to know a tractor is different from a man on foot, for when I got back from feeding cattle and saw the eagle sitting near the top of the cottonwood tree I drove next to, it simply looked down at me watchfully. But when I stopped the machine and got off a few hundred feet further along, it decided I was too close and took off. I watched it fly, those huge wings in a lazy easy motion as it made the thousand feet to the electric transmission line we have on the south side of the farm and perched atop a pole and looked back at me. Somehow, these majestic raptors have made a comeback here in western Minnesota and they are welcome here. And this is a sign of progress, that they are no longer being poisoned by agricultural chemicals.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sunday Chores

Sunday was my day for chores and it was enjoyable, as it often is, with no other work pushing in and demanding attention. There is something pretty nice about having the time to watch the sows and calves eat their rations. Temperatures were a little warmer, so there was no problem with frozen drinkers and I could make the rounds of the hog feeding groups checking for bedding, pig comfort and health. I ran the tarp up on the north end of the hoop where the biggest group is to help the little breeze clear the steam rising from the bedding out before it encourages pneumonia.

A slow walk through the pasture where the close up and breeding heifers are getting their winter hay showed that the warmer weather pushed their appetite down a little, good news for the hay inventory. We are just done with farrowing this group of sows so the barns are full of pigs suckling and sows eating a lot. Nothing that had to be dealt with. Later, in the evening, I found two calves with their heads stuck in the sheep hay feeder that I use for the youngest calves. I helped them out, closed them and the others into the barn so they didn't panic at some sound during the night, and made a mental note that it is time to move them up to the next hay feeder and put the sheep feeders away until the next batch of little ones arrive. I rolled the tarp back down on the feeding hoop and called it a day. Sometimes a Sunday chores is just as good as a Sunday off.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

After this toughest Fall in memory, winter has settled in for real. We have by now torn up all the hay and straw moving equipment we fixed last summer from the previous winter's damage and must start emergency repairs. The main problem is that it rained most of the Fall and then when the temperature dropped in Winter, everything froze solid to the ground. Farming is, as most people know, not easy.

It is not easy either, to cope with some of the machinations that go with our food system. You should know that we have been notified by the company which makes the non-chemical premix we have just started using for our new sausages that they will cease production as they have been notified by another premix company of its intention to patent the process and the bacteria used. While we are hopeful that the US Patent Office will not participate in such foolishness, we are nevertheless on notice to watch the process unfold as we go back to the drawing board for our sausage recipes. We will keep you posted.

But here's an upper: Our bacon got notice in the Metro magazine! "The winner: Pastures A Plenty's thick cut bacon for its precise balance. It's a textbook example of what bacon is supposed to be." Hooray for our side! Thanks for your support. Stay warm.

Jim Van Der Pol, for
Pastures A Plenty