Thursday, October 31, 2013


On October 7th, I told the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance committee that we had begun to listen to our farm, an assertion they heard with some surprise.  The occasion was MCPA’s presentation of its “Nitrogen in Minnesota Surface Waters” report which showed among other things that 73 percent of the nitrogen coming into the state’s rivers is coming from cropland.  My statement was a plea, really, the expression of a hope that Minnesota’s farmers would begin farming again.
            When the last of the commodity hog market melted away in the fall of 1998 and we essentially lost the income support for this farm, we did several things.  We resolved never to produce hogs for the conventional markets again.  We slammed the brakes down hard on outside input purchases.  And we took whatever outside work we could for a few years to survive.  As the initial shock wore off, we began to look around and notice what happened easily on the farm, what grew well and didn’t need much help, and what required large investments of inputs and was not dependable in production.  We very nearly ceased with corn production for a few years, planting more small grains instead.  Because we saw how much the farm wanted to grow grass in some of our lower and wetter areas we started establishing permanent pastures mostly by building fence and getting some animals out there to graze.  The process continued until today; we have about thirty percent of our 320 acres in permanent grass, harvested by planned grazing of cattle and sows. 
            Soon then, we could see that the runoff and ponding so typical of the farm in a heavy rainfall wasn’t happening anymore in the pasture.  Unless the rainfall was six inches or more within twenty four hours, the water just didn’t move much.  We wondered about our cropping acres and spent hours walking around in chore boots at the end of thunderstorms and in the spring to see what the water was doing.  Seeing still too many ponds, which are caused by water running off the land too fast and overloading the tile outlet to the river, we thought about change.  We needed hay, since the dairy heifer replacement service we had started to use the pasture grass needed to run over winters as well.  We planted an alfalfa grass mix on a few of our acres, and that planting grew to the point where today it uses three years of our six year rotation to produce enough hay to feed the cattle in winter, plus provide a forage supplement for the sow herd.  Today, our core crop rotation is three years of hay, followed by corn, then grain, then corn again.  This is varied some, since every field cannot be treated in the same way, and because we must continue to experiment.  We are now doing much thinking about and experimenting with grazeable cover crops, especially after the small grain is harvested.  Cattle are expected to maintain themselves in late fall for a month or more each year on grazed crop residues.  What they leave is baled and brought to the yard for bedding the hogs. 
            Our crop land treated this way is beginning to show the same effect as pasture did earlier.  Rainfall does not pond unless the amount of rain is very large.  But the soil also does not dry out so quickly in late summer.  Our corn often does not show drought stress in a hot dry August as others around us do. When we do till, which is not as often, the tools pull easier.  Our yields are up.  Our corn yields the past four or five years hover around 130 to 160 bushels per acre, compared to 100-110 bushels in the nineties.  But we are now certified organic, and have been since 2004.  These higher yields, in contrast to those in the nineties, are supported by no crop chemicals, or fertilizers, or gmo seed.  Crops get rain, sun, soil and manure from the hog operation.
            In conventional agriculture, geopositioning steers the tractors.  Monsanto solves the production problems with gmo seed and crop chemicals.  Livestock operations are huge, centralized and separate from the “farms”.
            There are problems.  Too much manure is a problem for the livestock centers, too little for the crops farms.  Too much work in the livestock factories, too little on the crops farms.  There is too much technology and not enough human care everywhere.  The community deteriorates and the livestock labor problem is “solved” by bringing in migrant labor which because of destitution or perhaps illegal entry is cheap and very easily controlled. 
            But now we have gone as far as we can with specialization and simplification.  It is impoverishing us and the land.  We must think again, and think carefully.  We will not keep the nitrogen out of the river until we get more people on the land.  These must be people with their minds engaged and their hearts open.  Livestock, land and people must be brought back together.  There are no shortcuts.    

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


                        We had walked up the road from the Norwegian farmer’s neat, well cared for farmstead, past his stacks of sawlogs and then the piles of firewood he had cut last winter, which would soon be cut to stove length and palleted for delivery to his customers in the winter.  He pointed out to me that the firewood was from a brushy tree which needed to be cut in winter to be of decent quality and that it would simply rot and become punky if worked in the summer.  We continued up the slope until we came out at the area near the top where the logs had come from.  After looking around at the numerous brushy trees still standing that would go for firewood in the winter, I noticed several small brooks running into the tall stand of trees below us.  My host said he wanted to show me something and motioned for me to follow him as he plunged into the stand of tall trees just down slope and followed the brook for about two hundred yards until he stopped and looked around. 
“See anything?”  he asked me. 
I looked, but saw only the big trees I had noticed in the first place.
“Look over here.  See the outlines where the walls stood?  This is where he lived, I think.  Probably had a considerable tribe of kids.  See that deeper place in the corner?  Probably kept his potatoes there.  And that flatter spot over there?  He could have milked a cow there under a lean-to, when he was lucky enough to have a cow.  Over there, where the trees are some younger and smaller?  Garden probably.  Next to the water.  Hundred fifty years ago, I would guess.  Maybe a bit more.” 
My Norwegian friend was hitting his stride now:
“He probably worked on the larger farms when he could.  They would hire temporary, just like some of us hire the Polish now.  When times were tough, they didn’t hire.  People starved.  I figure, after one of those famines, when he got work again for a while, he made up his mind he would book passage with whatever kids he had left and his wife and head out for America.  Couldn’t be worse than here.”
            He sat on his log for a long time, just looking at the ruins of the hut and lost in his thoughts.  Then he said:
“Think of it.  It was a lot of him that started the farming in your country.   Extra people from Europe.  They was used to scratching out a living from the forest-starving when they had nothing to eat.  Hangin’ on by their fingernails.  No land to call their own.  No hope.” 
            I just shook my head.  No wonder they thought America was paradise!  No wonder, too, that we Americans are all so hard to get along with politically.  It’s in the breeding.  And I was struck once again by the change in both attitude and circumstance in Europe.  It is easy today to find people in the U.S. who are “hanging on by their fingernails”.  They are on every street corner and under every freeway underpass.  They live under cardboard and sleep on rags.  Their numbers grow daily.  Technology and the unrestrained market drove their grandparents from the land several generations ago and unrestrained technology and globalization has driven them from the jobs they took when they left the farms.  They are extra.  I don’t see this in Western Europe.  Perhaps I don’t look in the right place.  Certainly it wouldn’t be the first thing a host would want to show a guest about his country.  But still, I doubt it. 
            One reason for doubting it is the farms themselves.  This was the second Norwegian farm I have seen in the course of several trips to Europe.  We were to see three more this time, a dairy, a deer/hog farm, and a farrow to finish operation just across the road from our host’s farm.  In 2007 we had stayed for some time on a German hog/grain farm-which we were to see again this time-and had visited another hog farm there, plus a dairy.  On our way home this year, we would stay for two nights on a farm in Iceland and visit one other.  And what I find in common everywhere is the lack of a feeling among these farmers that their government is out to drive them off their farms.  Virtually all these farms are livestock farms and I have talked at some length with the farmers.  I don’t hear the anxiety that is always there in American farming circles about something like a national livestock identification system.  To Europe those rules are just another nuisance to live with.  Here in the U. S. farmers are certain the government and industry will use those rules to drive them out of the business.  This is a specific example of what I would call a general attitude.  European farmers appear happier with their work and their lives.  Their farms show it.  The buildings are expensive and built to last.  When it is needed they are repaired.  The farmers take vacations.  They have a family life.  They mostly feel that they are stable and secure.      
            If you assume, as I do, that their governments are probably as foolish and frequently wrong headed as ours is, this is a puzzle.  Because very often Europeans are able to get their governments to support and enable a decent working life for them.  Perhaps it is the corruption in our government.  Though I take it as a given that all governments are corrupt, ours is spectacularly so with the way it is constantly awash in money both criminal and otherwise wanting to get its way. 
            But to American eyes, some things seem very badly out of whack.  The Norwegian dairy we visited, for example, was picture perfect beautiful.  Situated on a gentle hill, the downslopes were covered in well managed and maintained pastures in among the trees, plus a small field of oats that had just been harvested.  Inside the barn things were clean and well maintained.  As was so common, the main and newer barn had just been added to the farm’s original barn, a structure perhaps three hundred years old and which looked like it could well stand another three centuries.  The older part was used for feed and bedding storage, for feed mixing and processing and as an entry and clothes changing area for the farmers, both of whom worked on the farm.  Like every other European farm I have seen, technology was in plentiful supply; I have seen no European operation as primitive as my own.  Before midafternoon lunch in the farm house, the farmers showed us their new machine shed with built in grain dryer, their Claas combine,  two new John Deere tractors and the implements they pulled and pointed out the upstairs apartment at one end fitted out as living quarters for the Polish hired hand.  We were startled to find out later over strong coffee and a huge variety of sweets in the farm house that all this was supported by milking just sixteen cows.  I had assumed the few cows I saw in the barn were simply being held back from pasture for the day.   It was evidently the whole herd. 
            We saw this kind of thing on the hog farm across from our host’s farm as well.  Two barns connected together housed seventy five sows and their progeny all the way to market.  The hogs were modern to the point of being ultra lean.  Technology was plentiful.  All heat, geothermal cooling, ventilation air, ration mixing and feeding was under computer control.  This small hog operation, plus a small bee keeping business run by the older couple who had hosted us the evening before supported two families.  And again, on our way home I saw my first robotic milker on a dairy farm in Iceland, milking a herd of 65 cows which supported two families.  This was the largest dairy in Iceland.  This over the top amount of government involvement and sponsorship was evident in all areas that are difficult for agriculture, such as Norway and Iceland.  In Germany, where the climate is friendlier, the farm sizes and operation seemed more realistic to me. 
            Europe has its reasons, no doubt.  It has experienced starvation and unending war on its own soil.  Now they have had peace on the continent since WWII.  It is not surprising that they want to be sure of their sources.  Europe’s solutions cannot be ours.  But at the same time, their satisfaction with their farms, the prospects for a decent life, the relative assurance of tenure on the land and a rural future for at least some of the next generations cannot be a bad thing.  Our way will be different, because we are.  But stability and a decent livelihood for its citizens ought to be the goal for any government.  We need to start expecting it of ours again.          

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Autumn coming

The rain yesterday, last night and today took most of the leaves off the trees.  About two inches here, it is making crops farmers edgy with the wait, but we all need to realize that this may be the rain we are not going to get next June and be glad for it.  Here, we have a certain amount of crop harvest to do, but more importantly, we must finish a job started last summer to move the drinkers out of the gestating sow hoops thus improving winter inside conditions for them.  The window is closing on outdoor concrete work. 

Blackbirds flock up.  Geese have been overhead for three weeks.  Not so many pheasants this year, but the deer are starting to move.  Cattle are rounding the north pasture for one last time before going back to the cropping fields for their annual gleaning chore.  And the gestating sows are out in pasture every day, finding whatever they can.  In perhaps six weeks everything will be on stored feeds and the expenses start to run.  Work or no work, we should enjoy fall!  It is the pause that refreshes. 



It is more than 37 years since LeeAnn and I started the hog business on this yard by bringing in three bred gilts in 1977.  Since, through thick and thin, we have not been without hogs here.  Sometimes it was very tough, but in the beginning and for the next twenty years or more, it was at least simple.  Quality boars could be bought next door.  Feed came from the elevator and not only was the corn and soy conventional, oats and barley was available from the elevator's bins if we desired.  Grain prices were pretty stable.

Now boars, usually in the form of semen, must be imported from across the country.  Dread diseases such as PRSS are a constant worry, and there seems to be an endless supply of them due to the way our livestock move globally.  The feed mills do not even carry oats and barley anymore, we must seek it out ourselves.  And worse, they do not sort gmo corn and soybeans from the conventional crops, so that if we want feed clean of these attributes, we must seek it out ourselves and pay a premium for it.

Hogs are harder to breed, due to the fact that the industry has run way over to the ultralean breeding (thank you, livestock show judges) and it is difficult to source non lean breeding stock.  Also impacting fertility, according to some very trustworthy researchers with nerve enough to go up against Monsanto, are the gmo feedstuffs, which cause digestive upset and changes in the uterus and testes.

As we try to work through this maze of difficulties, it is a real comfort to have customers that cheer us on.  Thank you.