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.