Saturday, December 26, 2015


It was my pleasure and privilege this morning after Christmas to step out into the unspoiled snow blanket covering the yard.  Only the overexcited dog skittering ahead marred the scene.  My feet soon found the ruts left there by tractor use in the overly warm December and I slowed down into old man gear, afraid of a broken leg or nose or worse.  It wasn't always like this.  I used to tell my wife that I made my living by bouncing up off the ground after falling.  She reminds me that this is beginning not to be an option, which I of course do not want to hear.

It is also true that back when I could bounce I did not properly appreciate all that the natural world constantly laid at my feet.  Then I would have been full of the need to get the snow bucket on the tractor, and push it all into piles, after which the livestock would mostly need bedding,  providing me with a long day's work.  This is all still true, but I have come to the time when I can put things in their proper order.  First awe and wonder and the awakening of the inner child.  Then work. 


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

ready for winter

Four inches of snow on the ground this December 1st and more on the way.  Time to finish buttoning up for winter.  Andy brought twelve big straw bales up and stacked them to close up the ends of the finishing hoops against the northwest wind.  Jacob and I moved the boars out to dirt and rebedded the sows.  We hope for a little mild weather yet so we can clean and rebed before putting the big gates on the west end.  Josh cleaned the outside drinker area near the old pole shed before it froze us out until spring.  Now to enjoy the new snow for what it is.  And it is beautiful indeed where it hangs in the lilac bushes reflecting LeeAnn's early Christmas lights.  There is something wonderful about clean white snow under a full moon in early winter. 


Monday, November 30, 2015


I talked to a conventional farmer recently and he told me of spreading the residue from the Fibrominn electrical generating plant as a soil amendment.  His goal, beside the trace elements and a bit of phosphorus in the product, had to do with getting the cornstalks to rot, thus making the soybean year to follow easier.  This appears to be a matter of concern, though it is never an issue for us.  Our local co-op has started in the liquid 28% N business and this is the reason for it.  Fall application is thought to accelerate the decay of the corn stover.  We bale most of our corn residue for bedding and let the cow herd at the remainder.  Also, of course, we do not use the bt hybrids, or other forms of bioengineering in the corn seed we plant.

Lime from the sugar plant is also coming into favor.  The thinking is that it helps against compaction in the field ends where the end rows are planted over all the tractor end turns.  Again, we don't see an issue, probably because our rotation is nearly fifty percent hay(alfalfa-clover-grass)  This spring I walked the entire farm with a penetrometer and could not find serious compaction anywhere.  We formerly had a problem.  It is the changes that have brought about the improvements in our soil.   

Our farm is alkaline, with severe 'alkali' rims consisting of limey salty soil.  We have trouble with growing beans, or would have if we were interested in doing so.  It seems merely logical that this kind of farm needs fertility provided by acid livestock manures and not salty commercial fertilizer products.  It also needs the kind of farmer that does not think exclusively in terms of tractors. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Today is the first day of several rainy ones if the weather reports are to be believed, and it is welcome indeed.  When we shut the pasture water system down for the season late last week, there was no water in any of the risers except at the leak.  This is unusual as the water table in the pasture is nearly always high, rarely more than three feet down. 

And while the earth is being replenished a certain rooster pheasant is acting pretty cocky about escaping the gun.  He struts back and forth across the path I walk with the dog out to check the cattle each day, ducking behind a clump of grass every time he thinks I am noticing him. 

We have much reason to feel gratitude.  We need also to feel empathy and sorrow for all those thousands who wander on earth, driven out from their homes with no clean water or decent food to eat.  We are certainly wealthy in every way that counts.


Thursday, November 12, 2015


The last cornstalk bales came in yesterday and we are to the point of putting fence around the bale storage area we have in the fields and then letting the cows, calves and young stock out there for a final go at the crop residues and cover crop regrowth (mainly Italian ryegrass, rape/turnip and clover)  They will trail back to the yard for drinks so it is also time to shut down the pasture water system, always nice to get done before winter does it for us.  Last week we finished the new sow partition fence and all groups are on heated drinkers there, or will be when  we find the short in the system.

After the final gleaning is done, perhaps soon after Thanksgiving, we will sort the young stock and put them on the permanent pasture for a slow winter rotation while they feed on the sorghum sudan silage bales, maintaining, we hope, a good growth over the winter.  The cows will be maintained on ordinary hay on the crop fields.  We need more late fall and winter grazing crops to take us all the way to Christmas.  Hay is expensive to grow and bale.  But it is pleasing to see the growing cattle business fit in so well with the hogs and crops, especially since diversity in agriculture is so off trend.   

Monday, November 2, 2015


The long open fall makes it easy to get the farm work done but it is also seductive.  Who would not rather go for long walks under Cottonwood and Ash and Box Elder scuffing his feet through the piles of fallen leaves, listening to the south wind chuckling contentedly in the increasingly bare branches and then out onto the dormant pastures, mature grasses crunching underfoot while the breeze stirs the seedheads?  Geese fly over in the vain search this year for open water and a rooster pheasant explodes into flight from nearly under your feet, rusty scream trailing behind him like a piece of broken machinery.  You could stay here awhile!

Then the thoughts intrude.  There are pigs still on an unheated drinker.  Plus the unfound short in another drinker heater.  The sow shelters have not been closed up for winter.  All the windbreak stalk bales are not in place.  Hog weaning and then breeding is coming shortly.  The bull needs to go to the fall calving herd and the market animals need sorting from the cow herd here so that the cows can be made to scrape the crop fields for provisions.

Work is always there, but all humans, including farmers, need dreamtime.  A balance must be found.   

Sunday, October 25, 2015


I had hoped that one good result of Lyndon Johnson's losing the south for the Democrats for at least a generation, to put it in his own terms, would be that the stranglehold the south held over farm policy would let up.  The disappearance of the "Dixiecrats" and the lessening political influence of the huge rice and cotton farming empires (think plantations) they represented should have allowed enough room for the building of a farm policy that would benefit ordinary rural citizens more by bolstering rural communities and keeping farm ownership as spread across the population as feasible.  It hasn't happened.

Instead, the southernization of our American politics seems to have beaten electoral change to the punch and we now have northern "Democrats" such as my congressman, who see to it that most of the dollars flow to the hugest few farms by means of crop insurance payments and that even the smaller stream that comes directly from the government is restricted only by declared income.  One must have one million dollars in declared income before any restriction is placed upon receipt of government help.  It is difficult for me to imagine, given our Swiss cheese of a tax structure, anyone crafty enough to amass a huge farming empire being stupid enough to declare one million dollars in income to the IRS. 

There have always been alternatives.  A very simple one would have been to support the first few bushels or bales of whatever the dominant crop is and nothing after that.  That simple approach would have gotten the government out of the business of building huge crop empires, it would have kept the wealth somewhat spread out, and it would result in land priced reasonably enough that a young person who is not a member of a farming empire family could think about buying or renting enough land to give farming a try.  That is manifestly not what we did and we ought to ask ourselves and our political representatives why we did not.  That question is the beginning of a political education.

Saturday, October 17, 2015


The Willmar airport reports 28 degrees this morning at six again.  Yesterday the same.  I am hopeful that will be enough to take the danger out of the alfalfa and simplify the job of grazing.  We have them on the hay fields now, taking the last crop directly and have needed to be pretty restrictive to keep them from bloat.  Between that and the regrowth of the rape/turnip in the cover crop experiment, plus soon the cornstalks we hope to keep from having to feed much hay until December 1.  Winter hay is an expensive proposition and success with cattle like the rest of farming, has much to do with what you don't spend. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015


We got a Facebook notice several days ago from a woman we occasionally work with on soil projects.  She was thanking all of us who do whatever we can to keep living plants on our land, and keep the soil covered by means of farming practices we have had the nerve to try.   This was in view of the high winds stirring up the tilled soil and making the air dirty and hard to breathe. 

This is the first time ever that I can recall being thanked for our farming practices as regards the soil.  We do occasionally hear, usually from a customer, their appreciation of our livestock practices.  Thank you Robin, and thanks for noticing.  We are, after all, all in this together.


It is getting late for our first hard freeze of the season and I guess that is a good thing for our late planted corn.  However, it makes late season grazing more difficult.  We graze our hay fields in lieu of a final machine cutting.  Because the sward is something over fifty percent alfalfa and clovers, and because those two plants get quite dangerous for bloat whenever there is a nip frost in the fall, we are reduced to cutting the grazing ahead and letting it lay and cure for most of a day before turning the cattle in.  We don't cut too far ahead of course, for fear of heavy rain on the swath making it unpalatable.  It is a nuisance to get the machinery out there every fourth or fifth  day.  But then so is hay feeding, or dead cattle, if it comes to that. 

Next month we will go back to the complex cover crop to graze the rape/turnip and ryegrass one final time.  The sorghum sudan in that planting will be standing straw by then, as it is an African crop and will not tolerate even a light frost.  We hope to be able to set the fences to take advantage of the corn stalks and thus extend the grazing season well into December.  We will evidently need more acres in a grazing practice to go much later than that.

Meanwhile, of course, we mainly work getting the place ready to winter livestock.  I look forward to the first snow covering and the peaceful restful time it implies.  That feeling will hold for a few hours until we have to get out there and push the stuff around.


Saturday, September 26, 2015


Besides being the most beautiful time of year here in the Upper Midwest, September and October is a time for "drawing in", for harvest in its largest sense, for getting ready for the winter to come.  After a lifetime spent farming, it takes a particular and intense effort for me to realize that most people no longer live with these necessities, realities that have always, with a few years off at University, driven my life.  It is tempting to use this as a starting point for a lengthy argument about how much healthier would be our body politic and common life together if more of us faced this kind of necessity.  I won't do that though, out of respect for the fact that many of us do face tremendous odds in living a good life, odds that would keep many in bed in the morning.  These challenges are significant, even if not seasonal. 

Here at Pastures, we work every day this fall at getting fences up around newly poured concrete in the sow area.  We have moved from a single group of mother sows to three groups in the last several years to accommodate our customers' desires for pork on a regular basis.  This requires more complex housing and feeding arrangements as well as provisions to make breeding easier and we are just now nearing completion on the needed building.  Everything is further complicated by the fact that we wish to maintain the gestating sows on pasture to the extent possible.  In that vein, we will be in a position this winter due to the new layout and a good supply of high quality hay to continue the access to forage for the sow herd through the winter.  In addition, there are gardens to harvest, of course, machinery to ready and use in the fall season, the other buildings to repair and maintain.  We will, it is hoped, get to some improvement in the pasture water points for the cattle next year.

It is critical to our well being that we take notice of the low sun angle, and the beautiful light that creates, of the turning and falling leaves, the briskness in the morning breeze and the shortening days.  We will not pass this way again.


Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Today we use the old drills to attempt to interseed tillage radish with the regrowing sorghum sudan and rape.  It is part of a project to measure the effect of the plant on soil compaction.  But my interest is also in learning to start another crop in the late growth or residue of the current one as an attempt to minimize tillage and open soil. 

The cattle came off the sorghum sudan three days ago.  The hope is that the regrowth is subdued enough to allow new seed to start.  This depends upon the timing of first frost and regular rains.

Friday, September 4, 2015


The bottle had on it a wrap at the top that was made to look something like bottled beer fifty years ago, except that it was made of plastic rather than foil.  The plastic balked the cap from coming unscrewed.  Extremely tough plastic.  You know what I mean.  Parts come this way now and by the time you get the thing unwrapped you are left only hoping that the part is as tough and unbreakable as the wrapper.  It needed to come off at the point of a scissors.  Once the cap was off, the next problem, in the form of a seal with finger loop that was too small to allow the point of my finger.  Back to the silverware drawer!  So two seals protecting cooking oil.  Folks, this is simple paranoia.  We are nuts.

Meanwhile, of course, no one seems interested in examining or thinking about the contents of the bottle.  This was canola oil, so it was made by Monsanto.  There is no such thing as gmo free canola. Monsanto has pushed it out of existence.  So the top of the bottle has been made safe against some nitwit with a hypodermic needle, while the contents are a brew made from a plant containing foreign genetic material to let it tolerate glysophate herbicide.   I notice also that sweet corn being grown for the canneries is gmo: the fields have the same unreal unearthly look as the fields of field corn.  We have given up sweet corn for that reason, or only eat what we can grow ourselves.  The oil is harder to justify, except to say that we are making progress against fifty years of conditioning on our way back to lard and butter as cooking oils.  Olive oil is good, but long distance.  We will get there.  It took us most of a decade to get the margarine propaganda out of our heads.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

cover crop

The cattle are grazing the cover crop now, representing a second harvest for the June 6th planted crop.  First harvest took place on July 27th when we cut and wet baled the crop.  The oats, soybeans and peas terminated with that cutting, but the sorghum-sudan, the rape/turnip hybrid, the ryegrass and the red and crimson clovers came back.  The sorghum-sudan is about knee high at this point.  The crop looks thick and lush even without the annual plants, but as always when we graze crop fields, I am impressed with how quickly the cattle can turn thickness into bare soil showing everywhere.  Permanent pastures don't do that even if the paddock is grazed hard for two consecutive days.

It looks as if the cattle will take about two  weeks to graze the field, so it would be accurate to say the 32 acres of grazing will replace perhaps a thousand dollars worth of hay to feed the fifty plus head.  Additionally, we hope to get a November grazing out of the rape after the sorghum-sudan freezes off.  This is all additional to the seventy five ton of silage bales made in July, which should make excellent winter feed for the market animals. 

Next year, I would like to try a similar seeding that would be allowed to go all the way to freezeup before grazing as a further attempt to shorten the hay feeding season.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Turn of time

This is the time of fairs and shortening days.  The earth tilts away from the sun, the nights get cooler and the seasons begin the slow and then speeding march toward winter.  The farmer wonders if the crops will have enough time, if the feed pile will be sufficient for the livestock, if the buildings can be made ready.  The cooler and longer nights are appreciated and now some of the work can happen in more comfortable temperatures.  We are excited to find out if the cover crop silage bales will make a suitable high energy supplement this winter for the sow herd, thus lessening our work load, and improving their diet.  The cover crop was an experiment, new this year, and it seems likely we will continue with it as we like its effect on weed control and soil improvement. 


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

county fair

It's fair time again, with our county fair running this week, to be followed in about a half month by the start of the state fair.  Fairs are good for rural communities, giving us the opportunity to turn off the internet and get into a physical person to person contact with someone, anyone, who may be doing work similar to ours and whose life features some of the same problems and opportunities as does ours.  We are in increasing danger of losing that and it cannot be replaced by more electronic gadgetry. 

But the livestock shows, and the teams of livestock judges who run them are an increasing problem for those of us who see things a little differently.  They are about the packer, the processor and the meat industry, farmer be damned.  Try to take one of these first place winning "breeding gilts" home, breed it and get it to farrow a decent litter of pigs and come into milk right.  These animals are ultra lean, more grotesque in their shape and outline every year, and the most attention the average livestock judge will pay to maternal characteristics is to tilt his head over a bit and pretend to count nipples.  There is no difference that I can see between the judging standards for the breeding classes and the market animals.  This is to say to the farmer that what he needs in an animal that fits on his (or increasingly "her") operation doesn't matter.  The fact is that the kind of body structure of medium frame and adequate fat cover that makes for a good functional sow is the same needed for good tasting pork.  Ultra lean is a packer's dream and a farmer's nightmare.

Over at the cattle exhibition, some of the same tendencies are obvious.  Beef breeds tend toward the kind of huge dinosaurs that will not finish on grass,  The dairy show is not about animals producing milk on grass.  Yet the use of grass is one of the best economic tools any independent farmer has.  It is best for any serious farmer to view these judging events as a kind of science fiction, and a diversion from reality.  Chuckle at the spectacle, but don't bring the ideas home.


Sunday, August 2, 2015


Well, we are back in proper operation on our main fence charger after lightning took out the fuses in it and also fried a phone in the house.  After checking two auto parts stores and a tool supply for one amp fuses with no luck whatsoever, we finally located the proper part at a fencing company.  They were a bit reluctant to handle it, too, giving me a bit of a runaround on the phone.  Finally, I agreed to purchase four fuses for $18 plus.  Now these little critters are one/fourth inch in diameter by eight tenths of an inch long, consisting of a stainless steel cap on each end joined by a glass tube, inside of which there is a wire nearly too small to see.  This is the fuse.  I wanted four; two to use, and two to tape inside the fence charger box for use next time. That is about four and a half dollars/fuse.  

According to the note taped to the inside of the box, the charger was made and inspected in 2002.  Obsolete, I suppose.  It is interesting to note that our economy can make nearly anything cheap enough to qualify eventually as garbage, but those of us interested in repairing and continuing to use what we already have are increasingly out of luck. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


A crack of thunder, simultaneous with a flash of lightning added up to the closest strike I had ever experienced.  It got me bolt upright in bed at 3 AM, out of an exhausted sleep after raking, baling and wrapping thirty acres of complex cover crop amounting to one fourteen hour day and 115 bales give or take.  A heavy crop.  I couldn't sleep after the strike and paced from window to window, watching the buildings for any tell tale wisp of smoke.  There was none.

Later, when I went out to check the farrowing sows at seven, I found the main fence charger dead and on coming back in for breakfast found the lightning had fried one of our phones as well.  My prejudice is that a dead phone is not much of a problem, but what to do about the dead fence?  I had checked the cattle early on and they were all where we left them.  They had been pretty docile this year, not challenging the fence much.  Their pasture's fence was still charged, that is, as much as it ever is after a rainfall.  I thought I was getting away with it until coming back to the yard from feeding the first group of sows, I was met by fifty or sixty of the 150 feeding pigs we had behind an electric wire in one of the winter cattle lots.  It hadn't taken them long to find the dead fence, after the rain had plugged up their feeder, giving them the idea to go exploring, I suppose.

What to do?  I grabbed the fence charger responsible for the north pastures, where the cattle were, hoping they would continue docile about the fence, and used it to replace the other charger, the dead one that had given the pigs their freedom.  When I pulled it apart, I saw that the little one amp fuse on the top had blown.  Without noticing the two other one amp fuses buried deeper in the carcass, I got LeeAnn to run to town to the auto parts for fuses.  She found no one amp fuses but brought home one 2 amp fuse.  In installing it, I noticed the deeper fuses.  Pulling them out, I found one blown, the other good.  So finally giving up good practice and resorting to farmer style fixit, I put the one good one amp fuse on the top, where the stamping said "shutdown" and put the oversized fuse in one of the bottom positions.  Then I took a sickle rivet and hacksawed the head off, leaving just enough shank to replace the other one amp fuse.  Any guesses as to what it would take to blow that "fuse"?  Reminds me of the old farmer cure of putting a penny behind a screw in fuse that wouldn't hold.  I wonder how many houses were burned down that way?

Anyway, the main charger is back in the barn doing its job and the other one is reinstilled on the north line to control the cattle.  And so we have put in another fourteen hour day, this one not on harvest, but on animal control achieved at the cost of making our buildings less safe.  And I have made a solemn promise to pursue real one amp fuses first thing tomorrow morning.  No more lightning tonight, please.  

Sunday, July 26, 2015


Today the cattle go on the driveway.  For the last three years, we have been grazing the driveway, which is essentially a quarter mile long two acre grass paddock, in regular rotation with the rest of the pasture.  Sundays should work best for this activity, for on Sunday we have few customers driving onto the yard.  However, it has been an eyeopener how very often while grazing we must let ourselves off the driveway, or drop the gate at the end to drive back on.  I thought we lived at home more!  Still, just mowing all that grass is wasteful, making grazing worth the effort. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015


Everyday management is the art of not being surprised.  It is harder than it looks.  For the conventional crops farmer it is what is happening when the machines are all pulled out of storage in the spring, serviced, lubed and lined up ready for the first dry field.  For the diversified crop and livestock farmer, it is what happens every day all year around, for there is always the next thing to be ready for.

Often enough, too often for this old fellow, surprise happens anyway.  Farming is like that.

Today, we have the complex cover crop lying in thick green swaths, wilting.  The combine is busy in the winter rye, another experiment, this one in weed control and a bit disappointing.  The sows needed to be fed this morning, the farrowing house checked and serviced with feed and bedding and all the feeding groups seen.  The cattle will need to be moved to new grass this afternoon, tomorrow they go on the driveway paddock and then over north.  Time to cut the thistles when they move.  The grain auger needed to be put up to store the rye. 

In addition, we got a tire remounted on one hayrack, making it ready with its two mates to haul the wet cover crop bales to the wrapper on Monday after the baler rolls them up.  We hope it's ready to bale then.  We spent time in the shop also this morning straightening and rewelding the hayfork, necessary to carry bales to the hayracks, and then spent what extra time we had getting an old sprayer ready to spray a mixture of trace elements on the hayfield next week to boost it for last cutting.

Tomorrow is Sunday and we hope for a quiet one.  Monday we will need to land running.  Cover crop baling, straw baling and moving, sows to be fed, fence repair to start new sow fence and feeders to plan and hopefully just a bit of family time at the lake.  Now we will see what the weather has to say about our plans!  Heat predicted. Rain?     

annual hay

Yesterday we cut the complex cover crop on thirty acres.  It was seeded on June 6 and had reached a height of about four feet.  It was lush, thick as the hair on the proverbial dog, with several weed species joining the soybeans, spring peas, annual ryegrass, sorghum-sudan grass, oats, crimson and red clovers, and a rape/turnip hybrid.  By the time we finished, the haybine was covered with green juice. 

The idea for the complex seed mix came from work being done by farmers in North Dakota.  They are planting mixes of seed and generally grazing them after something approaching a full season.  They talk of the benefits of that complex system of roots for the soil in terms of controlling erosion and building microbial life in the soil, as well as water holding capacity, and we wanted to see for ourselves.  The idea of cutting the crop only seven weeks after seeding is ours, driven by our need to produce a higher energy hay for maintaining gains on our grass fed cattle in winter, as well as a forage supplement for our sow herd. 

The sorghum-sudan, the rape/turnip, the clovers and the ryegrass will come back after the cutting and provide another harvest or a nice window of grazing in September.  The rape/turnip should give an opportunity for grazing right to, and perhaps beyond Thanksgiving as it takes a very hard freeze to stop growth.  The ryegrass will maintain quality late too, so we will see about that. 

This is all part of our endless searching here at Pastures for a different and perhaps better way of doing crops, pastures and livestock.  It is what makes farming worth doing.  We fail to believe that farming is a "mature" industry, choosing rather to think it is a wide open one.   

Monday, July 13, 2015


Today we are 22 days after the summer solstice.  That means that 22 days ago, the days ceased lengthening and began to shrink with each sunset.  It also means that the psychology changes, at least on the kind of farm that links fairly closely with nature.  A daily universe of opportunity that was expanding is now shrinking and a competent human mind takes that into account.  This is a description of a human life on earth, of course, but is also a metaphor for the living of that life and the doing of that work.

When things go wrong and we say that today is not the day and tomorrow doesn't look good either, we recognize this fact.  Some of the very difficult and nasty things that it takes to operate a farm, or even some of the hard long jobs, jobs that will be satisfying when done, simply work better at some times than others.  A farmer can conserve strength by learning to read and recognize the signs and trying to flow with them instead of always swimming upstream.

Perhaps it is as simple as the recognition that with the onrushing approach of harvest and then winter, we are going to need more sleep and that there are some jobs that will have to be postponed until the sun expands again.  The human body, if it does not have its life totally in a man made environment; if it lives somewhat in Creation, knows this instinctively. 


Monday, June 29, 2015

wild birds

Isn't it time for a rethink?  This week the DNR said that having only found one wild bird dead of the flu, it now planned to redouble its efforts.  So what now, it hopes to find two?  Or three?  When are we going to seriously entertain the thought that it is the confined turkey and chicken flocks that are the vectors of the disease and the wild ducks and other birds the victims?  This is an idea that should have occurred early on.  Logically the epidemic must always contain the source.  The occasional dead wild bird is the result of the virus running wild in the domestic population.  But we are so accustomed to the  usual approach which is to blame the domestic, or backyard flocks for whatever problems the confined birds are having that we have become unable to think clearly.

What might be the result if we did think?  We might begin to ask what the environment and feeding regimen for the confinement flocks has to do with their impaired immune system.  Obviously, the strong immune system of the wild birds is largely responsible for the minimal impacts of the flu there.  No one is vaccinating the wild ducks.  If we asked these questions of our very much abnormal confinement livestock systems, might we get to the point where we could question some of the usual solutions for viruses running wild in the human population?  How much of it has to do with weakened response due to childhood trauma?  Do we know how much more susceptible primitive populations are to all kind of disease due to the constant warfare and terrorism to which they are subjected?  What about poverty and nutrition?  And what about nutrition and depleted soils?  

If we ever start thinking, we have much to consider.  We have been wrong about many things.     

Thursday, June 25, 2015

money vs people

As the recent trade agreement kabuki show in Congress demonstrates, when many people pit themselves against big money, they generally lose.  Why should that happen in a democracy?  Political corruption is the easy immediate answer and it is not wise to discount that.  But what makes the corruption so apt to win?

One way of looking at the last four or five decades in America is in terms of the victory of extreme individualism over community.  Unions have failed miserably.  Churches, especially Protestant ones have splintered with the traditional denominations suffering while the newer more evangelical types pursue their vision of individual salvation while the community and indeed the earth itself deteriorates.  There no longer seems to be any commitment to a strong system of public education available to all.  Our sports playpens built with huge dollops of taxpayer money, bear the names of whatever corporation donated the last few dollars.

We do not draft to fight our wars.  Killing (and dying) is now a profession.  In our small towns, it gets to be harder and harder to run the necessary public services such as fire fighting and ambulance.  We all spend more and more time at our keyboards and less time visiting with neighbors.  Consequently, we do not look out for each other.  A failed Facebook friend can be replaced by another.  But we do not recognize a failed relationship with a physical neighbor as the burden and tragedy it is.  And the difficulty is that without this firm grounding in a community, we are apt to "forget", to have our minds so overloaded by one or another of our own individual circumstances, that we will not make good on our current resolve to turn the fools who are selling us out, out of Congress.  We need that group, that grounding. 

Those of us who are trying to move into a different and better way of farming have found that the community and communitarian impulse formerly so common are something we cannot do without.  Starting with the basic and central fact that we need the people who have decided to make a difference by how they spend their food dollars, we find that in order to supply that demand, we must rely on others, be they processing companies, independent haulers, or like minded farmers who can help fill holes in supply and so forth.  We rely on activists to try to make the way clear for us legislatively, and also people who will hear and understand our arguments about how the health of food is more linked with its production even than with its handling.

We really all are in this together and it looks as if we will need to do without our government for awhile.  But while we get that fixed and functioning again, we dare not give up our efforts to closely link farmers with eaters, consumption with production.  There really is no going back.  We have come too far.  And it is more important than anything happening in DC.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015


News yesterday is that our "representatives" in Congress sold us out on the TPP "trade" agreement.  This treaty, which by our constitution should have been carefully and extensively debated by the representatives of the people is now fast tracked, which means that it will be presented to Congress as a secret deal on which they can either vote yes or no.  Thomas Jefferson, who thought the Congress to be the central organ of our government, must be turning over in his grave. 

Our sovereign government has once again been sold to the likes of Monsanto, which can now sue us if we act to label gmo products for what they are.  I do wonder why the right wing, which gets so exercised over the United Nations, which is a nearly totally ineffective body, will stand still for the sale of our sovereignty to the corporates, which do know how to use it against us.  Witness the international lawsuit over COOL (country of origin labeling) which caused our normally incompetent Congress to immediately produce legislation nullifying the law.  So much for us always winning trade disputes.   

In the absence of a functioning government, it becomes ever more critical that all of us live as we know we ought, and keep faith with one another.  One of our contributions to that here at Pastures is to use non-gmo products in our hog feeds, paying a premium for the corn and soy we must buy, simply because we and our customers want it that way.  Unlike our government, Monsanto does not own us, at any rate.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

hands on

We have a long field road which cuts the cropping acres into two long rectangles, which are then divided into three parts each.  This time of year a farmer can get considerable recreation just walking that road in the morning, looking at the crops and hay at different stages of development and appreciating the beauty.  It is during these walks that I get to be fully aware of how important beauty is, that in farming, it is a standard by which we can help wisdom sort through which technologies to use or not and when to refrain from doing whatever we have the capability to do.  I call it farming on foot and I have spent the last half of my working life trying to teach it to my kids and grandchildren.  I claim to be able to feel my farm through my feet, in the same way I am beginning to sense the rightness of the ingredients and their proportions with my hands when I go to knead the weekly loaves of bread.

I go along with Wendell Berry's character, a blind bachelor farmer a little too fond of the drink who claimed to know his farm very well.  To paraphrase;  "I have measured the whole thing hereabouts," he said, "in man-lengths".

Meanwhile, the next generation, here as everywhere else is "techie"  While I had my spiritual experience walking up the field road scanning the hay in windrows, the corn in rows and the rye looking for all the world like a green Lake Superior being played with under a blue sky by the northwest wind scudding across the grass in waves, one of the younger ones was busy zipping around on a four wheeler geo mapping all the field boundaries, the pasture paddocks and each tile intake.  To do the tile intakes, he needed to stop on it and then tell the satellite to remember it.

The maps will be handy.  They are certainly easily made these days.  I understand the satellite can be made to map soil types and weed infestations, among other things.  This is useful.  But if it becomes exclusive, if it gets to the point where we are not using the tool to help with the farming, but have stepped aside so that the tool can do the farming, then we will no longer mourn the passing of a farming culture.  If the indications all around about what unrestrained technology does to human culture are to be taken seriously, we will no longer even remember there was such a thing as farming culture.  A great chance for humans to survive and thrive on earth will disappear down the memory hole. 

I will content myself with reminding the younger ones here that a technology that can pin point a tile intake can also be used to locate you when your government or another one decides you need to be eliminated. 


Friday, June 12, 2015

crop insurance

Land Stewardship Project, headquartered in Minnesota, has just published a three part expose of the federal crop insurance program. The white papers are titled: “Crop Insurance-the Corporate Connection”, “Crop Insurance Ensures the Big get Bigger” and “How Crop Insurance hurts the Next Generation of Farmers”. The final paper title provides the key to LSP's concern. The introductory article says that concerns over the lack of available land for LSP's highly regarded “Farm Beginnings” graduates drove their interest in investigation and reform. All this is available at in readable format from The papers are short, to the point and well written. They look well researched. They should be read by every farmer, especially those who actually buy the crop insurance, like me.

Though I knew or suspected much of what was in these papers, I admit to being shocked at several points. I did not know that besides the 60 plus percent of farmer premium shouldered by the taxpayer, we citizens are sponsoring a large part of the insurance companies' administrative costs for the program. The amount approaches two billion for 2008 in the example. One particularly disturbing graph shows that administrative costs charged to the government by the companies for the program more than doubled from 2004 to 2008 while the number of policies actually written shrank by nearly two percent. These companies are huge Wall Street players, their names known by most of the public. And additionally we are told that the farms benefiting are identified only by policy number, not by name. The other information required to be published makes it quite possible to identify the largest players in any area though and a quick comparison of the policy payouts with the conventional government payouts on the commodity program shows that most of the support going to agriculture is now in the form of crop insurance to a few very large crop farms.

This secrecy is pretty obviously intentional on the part of big ag's representatives in Washington and it certainly is in keeping with recent trends. Like the Pentagon budget and the various spy agencies, big agriculture means to be free of prying public eyes. This was deliberate; the conventional farm groups have always been furious over the idea that the Environmental Working Group was publishing government subsidy amounts for every receiving farm in the country. It is also just one more sign of how deep our political rot has gone. The spending of public money is properly always the public's business, and any business that requires government assistance to declare a profit needs to consider itself to be in the public domain.

We know this damage. It is not news to us except in its details and particulars. We know it every time we hear of, or stand at a land auction going at an insane price and try not to think of how impossible it would have been for us to start with that kind of land debt. We see it every time we drive to town and see nothing but greybeards and high school kids there and sometimes not even the kids. We know it every time we go down the road we have driven all our lives and can see in our mind's eye all the farm places that once put kids on that bus each morning, but now are no longer there. Some of us remember the farming that took place then, the cooperation of dozens of manure spreaders to haul out each farm's pack manure in the spring, the threshing rings, the neighbor visit to castrate or load pigs, the silo filling rings, the neighborhood dairy bull. And unfortunately, some of us remember the voice of the machine salesman telling us or our fathers that buying that combine meant we no longer had to put up with those balky stuck in the past neighbors. So it was. So it has gone.

Wiser voices than this one have told us for a long time that the goal of government and the academic agriculture economists and other smart men has been to drive the people out of agriculture. It started, as far as I know, with the President's council of economic advisers telling us after WWII that there were too many people in agriculture and some of them needed to be forced out to move to the cities and labor in our industrial machines. This is the nation's real farm program and it has been in full force from that day seventy years ago to this. Crop insurance is the latest tool. It is a handout from the public treasury every bit as much as the conventional commodity payments and every bit as vulnerable to fraud and abuse. Through the ruse of funneling the money through a “private” business such as a huge insurance company, the Congress has attempted to shroud it in secrecy and remove it from the public conversation about agriculture.

But the situation has changed. The argument that the farm population could be reduced with people replaced by machines and that the surplus people were needed in the factories was always a pretty degenerate view of the function of the economy in human life, but at the outset it was at least plausible on the surface. Now we have so few people on the farms that we cannot do our own barn work and stoop labor. And too many people in the cities cannot find any work as the industrial establishment has been being steadily sold out overseas Reducing the farm population makes no sense whatever.

LSP has three ideas for reform. The second one listed is that the program needs to support, not impede a new generation of farmers. This is critical. This goes to the heart of what we think farming is about, and in more general terms to the way in which we view the economy and the people (all of us) impacted by it. Does the economy exist for the people or the people for the economy?
Those of us fortunate enough to have had some life experience with hogs, those excellent mirrors of human behavior, know something about the sow eating her own young. We have struggled with figuring out from time to time, when the vice pops up, what the problem is with the sow. Is she hungry, malnourished? Is she the victim of a bad diet or a bad environment that causes her to act that way? Is it the circumstance in some yet not understood way? Or is she just a bad actor that needs to be shot and disposed of?

This is a parable for our country today. Lack of meaningful and good or indeed any kind of work for far too many people, in some families for generations now with all the attendant and inevitable problems of decay, delinquency and policing. College outrageously overpriced for the young. No opportunity in industry. No affordable housing. No safety net. No attempt to work those dispossessed in the “Great Recession” of 2008 back into the working world. No support for them while they try on their own to climb. No requirement of a decent liveable wage. Virtually no controls on or discipline for Wall Street, our major predator. Our country is that sow devouring her own.

It is beyond question that powerful people and huge overwhelming institutions have pushed us into our current circumstance on the farms. Is that our “bad environment or circumstance not yet understood?” Because it is sure that we that are on the older side of agriculture today have witnessed and participated in some ways in the over mechanization of agriculture, the extreme over pricing of the land base and the emptying out of the countryside and the resulting huge pile of capital assets into very very few hands. We need to tell our organizations and politicians to abolish crop insurance or modify it drastically. If it survives it needs require strict conservation compliance. And it needs to tilt the table toward the young and the start ups, not away from them. This generation carries some solutions to the problems my generation has created. We must let them in.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

wild ducks

I fell into discussion with several  of my cousins, one a retired farmer, one a feed mill employee, all of us from a farm background.  The topic was the difference between the reaction of the wild duck population to the bird flu when compared with the response of infected turkey flocks.  Presumably the flu has killed a few of the wild ducks, though I have seen no proof of that.  Meanwhile it is decimating the turkeys.  Why?  I have heard no indication that the turkey species is more susceptible than the duck species, though it could be.  Failing that kind of difference, we are left with environment as an explanation.  And it is a plausible one.  Think of it.  Immunity, as we know, is built from exposure to the infective agent by a healthy and strong immune response system.  If the exposed organisms are in good health, the flu will kill a few.  Another proportion of them will become carriers.  But if the organism is not healthy to begin with, epidemic results. 

From this we might assume that the turkeys are not healthy and strong.  And we can ask why.  In a domestic animal, the answers come from two areas: feed and housing.  And this is not meant to pick on the turkey growers only.  The hog herds in the area are regularly decimated with PRRS and PEDs. We have had PRRS twice in the last twenty years and it appears to be circling pretty close again.  These are very real questions, and lest anyone think they can or should be used merely as a polemic against the farmers, we should remember that bird flu, and its correlate swine flu (not PRRS) are known to mutate into types that infect the human population.  This is nothing to play with.

We need to be asking serious questions of ourselves.  For farmers:  Is our management everything it should be?  And for all of us:  Must we really have meat as cheap as turkey is?  Cheapness is always achieved by means of shortcuts, in farming as in industry. 


Saturday, June 6, 2015


When bird flu first arrived on the scene ten or fifteen years ago, it was accepted wisdom that the confined flocks were in danger from the farm flocks, or in the somewhat demeaning reference, the "backyard flocks".  This time though the finger of blame is leveled at the wild duck population, the commodity agriculture shriekers have been quieter in view of the obvious truth that very few indeed of the outdoor flocks are turning up infected.

Now the news is reporting several stores that have posted signs saying eggs will be limited to three dozen per customer.  This, the executive in charge of public management explains, is so that commercial users should not be able to sneak in and buy if their own supply dries up.

It is obvious that there will be a small movement similar to the one that follows every e-coli in the burger scare, toward the small and local.  Still seen are eggs for sale signs around the countryside.  If this happens, or when, the supply of good outdoor eggs will soon be vacuumed up.  And the news is that local food and rural enterprise cannot survive just on the benefits from various food scares.  We must have all the time loyalty from customers and any who are anticipating the virtuous feeling that comes from buying directly from the farm, I would suggest a look in the mirror.  Why must you be so coddled and cared for when it comes to food supply?  Get ready!  Egg shortages are only a small example of what could, and probably will happen. Taking responsibility is in order.


Climate scientists say that the load of carbon in our atmosphere has reached levels higher than ever before, so far as we know.  And I think this might be a good place to begin the talk of change in our lives and in our farming and thus getting to some serious planning for the future.  Farmers are critical in this discussion and in the planning.

The difficulty with climate change as it has been talked about is that it is all a vague alarm and it results in a widespread feeling of unease and very little that is concrete.  Climate science is doing what it ought to do in raising the alarms and talking about dropping biodiversity, warming-or cooling-temps, carbon content in the atmosphere and so on.  The problem with it is that people who are dealing with the various causes of it and who can deal in concrete specifics are not on board.  And the feeling is very strong in these quarters that if we get some kind of our usual imposed solutions by experts approach, atrocities will follow.

It is time for those of us who love farming and see how food and agriculture are the same question to begin talking in concrete terms about what an agriculture that heals the climate and the environment would look like.  What concrete changes do we need to make?  What parts of our farming lives do we need to understand better?  How does the nation's diet impact our agriculture?

Agriculture has been mostly destructive of the environment in general through the ages.  It can be said that many of our current deserts are essentially the foot prints of failed farming in the past.  We have much to do and it is essential that those of us actually doing the farming are in on the ground floor.  We are facing a generation, at least, of massive change and it is past time to start our planning and learning.


Tuesday, June 2, 2015


Prince Edward Island was, in the telling of Lucy Maud Montgomery's stories-Ann of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon-a nearly unbelievably lovely place.  It still is, mostly.  Of course, you must ignore the tourist trade and the summer traffic, the summer homes of the weathy and the various "antique" stores.  You also must overlook the potato farming, lately added to Prince Edward Island agriculture.  Most of the island is lovely green slopes dotted with scattered farm places with ocean as a background.  It is difficult to imagine ever getting tired of that scenery, and the good feelings it evokes.  Much of the island's agriculture is still grazing animals and fruit, but like every where else, the grazing seems to suffer from a lack of willingness to take it seriously as an agricultural economy.  It is still too much "dump them out there in spring and round them up on Labor Day"

We did see several excellent grazing farms, both dairies, and right next to each other.  There were in addition more than a few farms fenced for casual rotation such as a week per paddock and four to five paddocks to use.  But many of these operations showed signs of being sidelines for people who made their livings on a time clock somewhere.  And even many of the dairy cows were confined.  The late May grass looked excellent, but there seems to be a tendency to put balers and forage havesters between the cows and the grass. 

The geologist we spoke to the day before said that the island featured a deep glacial till.  The soil there is very red in color and full of iron oxide.  Additionally, the retired dairy farmer I talked to referred to the acid nature of it, saying that alfalfa was difficult to establish and maintain.  We were looking at a winterkilled hay seeding at the time.  The farmer said he used clovers when he milked instead.  Silage for the first two cuttings and then hay.  He also told me that Prince Edward Island had gotten eighteen feet of snow this winter in February and March.  We saw many broken decks and porches and carpenters were busy on many roofs.  It shows in the potato fields. 

The Island showed much erosion in those tilled and mostly sloping fields.  We saw huge gullies coming down the hills and massive puddling at the bottom, worse than anything I have seen in Minnesota.  The saloon keeper where we stopped for fish and chips said the planting was three weeks late as of the last days of May. 

Eighteen inches of snow makes for significant runoff in the spring.  And the spring has been rainy.  But deep as that soil might be, they are headed for trouble with it, just as are we with letting family dairy slip away from us.  The earth was not made for a corn-bean rotation, even when potatoes are added.  Clean tillage and bare fields are unacceptable even when the occasion is the growing of potatoes or other trendy fare such as greens and vegetables.  Other than ruminant animals grazing perennial plants agriculture is problematic and it requires the close attention of a real farmer backed by a vibrant farming culture.  We have few of the former and none of the latter.  And the solutions we need will not come from Universities or other labs.  They won't be generated by electronics geeks or Silicon Valley or machine dealers or guidance systems.  We will have to get those few farmers to multiply.  And then figure out a way to honor and care for them.



The geologist who served as our tour guide showing us the fossils scattered all about in the Bay of Fundy at low tide was surely one of the high points of our trip.   I found myself excited, as I always am, by contact with someone who loves his work.  The geologist particularly loved kids' questions and delighted in taking each one through a verbal tour of the eons of time etched in rock all around us.  He taught us to gauge the age of the plant or animal recorded in stone by reading the layers and how they tilt.  Facing the rock, right was newer, left was older. This is all relative.  The bay and its fossils were formed when the Appalachian Mountains were newer and bigger and more rugged than the Rockies are today and the East coast and Africa were the same land mass. He showed me how a thin white very straight line across a sedimentary boulder got there by quartz filling in a crack made in the rock by pressure from tons of ice above during glacial times. 

Soon, too soon, he reluctantly told us that he had to go up top and help lock up but encouraged us to stay as long as the tide would allow.  Before he left he told us that this bay, a narrow strip of water connected to the Atlantic emphasized the tidal motion to the extent that the water rose against the rock cliffs about thirty five feet, instead of the six foot rise we saw twice a day at our cottage on the straight.  At the top end of the bay, a person can walk on the bay floor and examine the huge rock structures, top heavy every one, with their bottoms worn away by the regular action of the water. 

The geologist told us that the soil on Prince Edward Island was a deep glacial till, tinted red by the iron oxide in it.  The island gives a different impression than the main parts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia-softer somehow and more hospitable to human habitation-perhaps because the tides there are more manageable and less deadly than in the Bay.  It costs $45.50 Canadian to get back across the eight mile bridge to the mainland.  They let you in free, but seem to be interested in keeping you there.  They know the tourist trade!


Friday, May 22, 2015


We went up along the north side of Lake Ontario yesterday on our trip toward Nova Scotia.  The agriculture became smaller and by all indications more part time as we went and by the time we left the lakeshore for a final straight run into Ottawa we were in the jackpine area complete with stumpy trees, burnt over in one place and thin soil.  The farms focused upon grazing, hay and firewood mostly.  We did see a few small pastured dairy herds and more than a few small stock cow herds and sheep flocks.  The train spent ten minutes idling next to a New Holland Agriculture lot, allowing another train to meet.  The machines displayed were of the kind we used twenty years ago:  haybine sickle models, twelve feet in width, small bale balers, small round bale machines and one self propelled haybine, also a twelve footer. 

The soil was in small irregular fields, mostly in grass cover.  Tractors in use were mostly "one step up" models-good old man machines-and very few tillage implements or row crop planters were in evidence.  This is all logical, of course, given the soil and the shortness of the season, but it does prompt the question about why it is that the more expensive land is, the more poorly it is cared for.  In the corn belt, the chase to make the payments supercedes good farming practice, evidently. 

Why does the government connive to make row crops the highest return to any agricultural land?  And what will it take to resurrect a decent farming culture despite this?  Is it possible?


Thursday, May 21, 2015


Traveling across mid Wisconsin this week on our way to Canada via Detroit I got the same feeling as driving through mid Minnesota, or southeastern Minnesota.  The fields are poorly maintained, as they are at home, open to erosion both wind and water.  Family dairy has been pretty much shut down and the pastures and hayfields are gone.  There is nothing prettier than a grazing farm in spring, and we passed several areas that featured several grazing operations based close together and mostly dairy, which provided a welcome relief from a depressing picture.  Generally the Amish areas looked better as they featured more grass and hay. 

The occasional machinery dealer displayed huge thirty and forty foot wide planters, completely inappropriate to the small irregular fields.  These machine lots at least featured the occasional manure spreader or feed mill, something nearly impossible to find close to home.  Progress overcoming logic.  Cargill and Monsanto are enforcing their will, ensuring their profits.
We are considerably in a bad direction and still headed the wrong way.


Sunday, May 17, 2015


All the trade agreements are called free trade.  But most of it has little to do with free trade.  They are about extended patent protection, about enhanced copyright laws and certainly go far to enhance the power of corporations and their bottom line.  This is protectionism and the only reason it doesn't get called by that name is that a kind of "gentlemen's agreement" among the pundit or know-it-all class holds to the effect that only things that benefit the working people, such as job security for instance, get labelled protectionism.

As a practical matter, the trade agreement that the Democrats just fast tracked would work this way, as I understand it.  A bio-tech company could sue a state like Minnesota for restraint of trade, if Minnesota passed a law requiring genetically engineered products to be so labeled.  The argument would be that the state's action reduced the company's profits.  Similarly, if Minnesota wanted to give Minnesota companies preferential treatment in supply of the goods the state needed, for example requiring Minnesota's schools to search first for Minnesota grown foods for the children's lunch, the state would be open to lawsuit by any food company that could prove its bottom line to be injured.

The politicians who favor this will earn our disgust when they pass the thing in a month or two.  They speak for corporate money.  No one speaks for the American people, near as I can tell.



Obama's Transpacific Trade agreement, a copy of which is kept in a locked room in the Capitol basement under armed guard where representatives are allowed in one at a time to see it, unaccompanied by aides, expert counsel or recording devices of any kind was greenlighted by the Senate this week with only show or token opposition from the Democrats to the proposal to "fast track"-pass without amendment-and evidently little or no discussion.  Anyone ever heard of free speech or representative democracy?

This free trade deal, like its predecessors NAFTA, CAFTA and the like essentially gives over the powers and perogatives of the government to the international corporations which gain the right to sue any government-including our state governments-over any action that might interfere with a corporation's profits.  By signing the TPP as with NAFTA and the others, our government essentially abolishes itself. 

I have come to expect nothing more of that collection of cowards known as the Democratic party.  But the Tea party surprises me.  They should have been more useful in their opposition.  Their "Don't Tread on Me" attitude evidently does not extend to corporate control.  It has been possible to label the government corrupt both from the right and the left.  But for the right, it is government itself that is the problem, not the corporate control of the government.       

Thursday, May 14, 2015

fifty years

Agweek is a conservative conventionally oriented news report for conservative conventional Red River Valley farmers.  Surprising then that the program recently featured two academic soil science folks who said essentially that at current levels of waste we have about fifty years of topsoil left in that area.  One said it makes him sick to his stomach to see a treeline being bulldozed out. The situation here on the prairie is not different. 

Fifty years is within the working time frame of a twenty year old who wants to farm.  These young people should quit thinking of what their fathers and grandfathers taught them about the occupation and begin by assuming that all of it was wrong.  We all sleepwalked through the "dust storms" again this spring as usual.  It is well past time for all of us to wake up.  We are going to need that soil in order to eat when the economy spins out of control and we have neither work nor money.  Us grandfathers particularly should start to wonder if our grandchildren will someday soon be cursing us.


Thursday, May 7, 2015


An inch of rain in this very dry and windy spring is welcome indeed.  And there may be more coming this weekend.  The lives of all humanity, labs and technology to the contrary notwithstanding, depend upon a few inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains.  This simple fact should produce widespread humility; the fact that it generates no notice at all, let alone humility, in our amnesiac population is indication how far gone we are.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015


The way in which the entire state government has come to attention over the bird flu is truly amazing.  While in no way seeking to minimize the importance of attention to a livestock disease which can sometimes infect humans, I must say that the way the government, from the Minnesota Governor to our senior US Senator and all their assorted cohort of enablers and hangers-on descended upon Willmar to fall all over themselves promising help to the area's beleagered turkey growers is a picture of what is wrong with our agriculture policy.

We first broke with PRRS in 1998.  It came at the end of the year in which we tried to cope with 8 cent commodity hogs.  It was coincidentally at the beginnings of our effort to include the next generation in our farm.  It cost us our entire winter and spring sales of market hogs, as they were peacefully decomposing in the manure pile.

Next episode happened in the fall of 2013.  This was a breeding failure which cost us about eighty five percent of the animals that should have been born and available for sale in the spring and summer of 2014.  This one came with associated follow on diseases which were able to take advantage of the pigs weakened immune systems; thus we are just now recovering full production.  Now, of course, is news of another epidemic.

These hog diseases caused us, besides personal anxiety and heartbreak over plans gone awry, financial losses in each of those years approaching half of this farm's gross sales. In addition, the second outbreak coincided with major expansions in all our pork markets so that we had to spend the year trying to locate and buy pigs we didn't have in order to keep our market.

Now, what is the impact of the politicians' efforts to hold a major agricultural industry harmless?  Well, since we never received a nickel, or even the slightest government attention, the turkey growers will now stand ahead of us in the line to buy and pay for equipment, to buy land, to expand and modernize the business.  But that is the least of it.  When we suffered the PRSS losses in 1998, we decided we needed a better price for the hogs we did sell and we built a pork sales business to accomplish that.  And we decided that since ordinary animal medical practice was not able to control epidemic disease for us, we needed to learn enough about nutrition and animal health to do that ourselves.  So started our nearly two decade search for enough change and new thinking in feeds and environment so that we could develop a hog herd with a high level of immunity and the strong health to safely operate in the animal disease hot house western Minnesota has become.

We were backed into a corner and came out fighting for change.  We are not done yet. This is precisely the "opportunity" being taken away from the turkey growers.  They will be pleased to continue with the same old routine, knowing the government will backstop them next time too.  This is no way to make agricultural progress.   


Monday, April 27, 2015

PRRS and Bird Flu

Right on the heels of the last post about Avian Influenza came notice from our PRRS group that the local area has passed the "epidemic" threshold for PRRS.  PRRS (porcine respiratory and reproductive syndrome) is deadly to our farming.  We are just fully recovered from our last and second ever episode with the disease.  Last time, the sows failed to breed, the first time they all farrowed dead piglets.  We are hearing now about five or six different strains of the PRRS, several of which have become common enough to have a standard vaccine.  Failing that, a stricken farmer must culture his particular strain and stand the cost of having a vaccine made.

I started with pigs in the seventies, after hog cholera was eradicated.  The disease we have had since seems to consist of fast mutating viruses that by their nature will not be controlled to that extent.  But the practices urged on us by the industry are from that former era, when the diseases could be shut down.

The similarities between the uproar over Avian Influenza and that over PRRS are striking in that way. Both are based on a common assumption about health, that it is the absence of disease.

But the reaction to the bird flu is a strong demonstration of the presence of heavy state power, with the mobile appearance of the Office of Animal Health, and the police like practices of control zones and quarantines imposed complete with yellow tape on out door flocks in any outbreak area.  The PRRS effort by contrast is subdued, completely voluntary, and pretty studious, with seminars and teaching events a regular feature.   The difference is strong evidence of the power of the turkey growers in our state's government.

Another assumption about health, a more upstart thought, is that health is strength.  This attitude assumes that certain losses will occur, but they will lessen over time as immunities are built, and that the building of immunity depends on excellence of environment, of feedstuffs and of management practices, certainly including the careful on farm selection of the right (resistant) breeding stock to go forward.  It looks at epidemics as unusual events, events that need to be coped with by paying attention to the entire animal and its entire environment.   

For this we get little help from either official or academic agriculture.  We know, for instance that magnesium is necessary for development of strong immunity.  We know that manganese is critical for reproductive health.  We know also that Dr. Donald Huber, soil scientist retired, formerly of Purdue University and the Department of Defense has noticed that something in the combination of transgenic corn and soybeans (gmo) and the glysophate (Roundup) used to control weeds in their production interferes with the uptake of magnesium and manganese by plants, in addition to zinc, copper and certain other trace minerals from the soil.  Dr. Huber cannot get his thoughts published in the American Scientific Journals, only in Europe.

At a meeting with University Animal Science and Public Relations people recently on campus, I questioned the University about this, asking why it was not running ongoing feeding and breeding trials comparing gmo grains with conventional in the feeds.  I got a complete and hostile silence in return.  I then told them calling the gmo and conventional feeds "substantially similar" didn't sound much like sound science to me.    


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Bird Flu

There were four tanker trucks, a number of service vehicles and a gaggle of people wandering around in haz-mat suits seven miles east of us on highway 40 yesterday.  Bird flu has come to call in the neighborhood. 

We are told that we can be told to keep our chickens inside.  We wait for that to happen and will report it if it does.  Meanwhile, it seems like a Laurel and Hardy episode, doesn't it?  Bird flu, as is nearly always so, breaks out in confined flocks.  Something outside is blamed.  Usually it has been our "backyard flocks" kept by us to provide decent eggs to eat.  This time it is the wild ducks.  And what is the industry's solution?  Confine the backyard flocks!  Yeah, that'll work.  If the flu savages confined birds, lets confine a few more.  Next I suppose we will hear plans to decimate the wild duck populations!

Just a few contrary thoughts.  Our yard chickens have had closer and more regular contact with the wild ducks on this low farm than any confinement bird.  Yet it has been nearly a year since we lost one other than the occasional hawk victim.  Also, where are the large piles of dead wild ducks?  If there aren't any, why not?  Could it be that something in the way a wild duck lives, (or a "backyard chicken") offers a certain strength against infection?  And if that is true, what does it say for our current "wisdom" in the area of animal agriculture?  Aren't we looking at a strong indication that while we continue to confine dairy cows, 8000 at a time, or sows at 5000 head, and put all chickens and turkeys under roof, we are pursuing a system that doesn't work?  Is old Mother Nature striking back?  A good strong agriculture, one not afraid to hear criticism, would be considering these thoughts. 

That is the problem.  We do not have a good strong agriculture.  We have a fearful and weak one.


Monday, April 20, 2015


Once again the one-half to one inch of rain the weather service predicted for the weekend turned into a dust settler-a bare tenth of an inch if that.  As unpredictable as the weather trends can be, it is wise to begin planning for drier than normal circumstances.  An extra tillage trip bleeds hard to spare spring/snow melt moisture away.  The hay crops will be short, which has to do with carrying capacity.  A more immediate concern is that cool season grass pastures will not carry much more than half as many animals in drought as in wet conditions.  If the dry conditions are widespread enough, corn prices will begin to rise.  This has to do with stocking rate, which for the farm is not quickly or easily adjusted.  However, if done early enough, the impact can be minimized.   

The crop insurance program, as corrupt and wasteful as it is, provides some protection.  But no farmer of the older type is ever satisfied to rely on it as a substitute for good heads up farming


Thursday, April 16, 2015

from Graze

Since certifying organic our crop rotation on the 200 acres we crop has been pretty regular at three annual crop years and three years of hay, including the establishment year. We have divided our acres into six approximately equal fields, 32 acres each and kept three of them in hay, always a mixture of alfalfa and red clover with several grasses, orchard and fescue and brome. After three years in hay, we typically covered the oldest thirty-two acres with a thick coat of hog hoop house manure, either stockpiled or raw and tilled it in along with hay regrowth after the second cutting about midsummer. This field then went to first year corn, followed the next year by a crop of spring oats, and then the following year into corn again. The year after it is back to hay, newly seeded in the spring. Cornstalks are made up into bedding bales for the hog houses, and cattle are turned out after on the stalks, especially in recent years.

Recently we moved away from developing dairy heifers as a major cattle business and began building a beef herd. The demand for grass fed beef bundles has been steadily growing with the pork customers and we began to realize that a major hurdle for us in grass fed beef production was that our perennial hay crop was testing too low in energy for adequate winter feed. Thinking of the potential for a better energy forage feed with cover crops, we began to wonder if we could change the rotation to allow a better window for annual hay crop production. We decided on a full season cover crop/hay seeding between the two corn years.

This first year's cover/annual hay crop will be our first attempt to harvest a higher energy hay. Plans are to cut and bale and wrap it wet and so far we are planning to seed a combination of mammoth red clover, crimson clover, oats, annual or Italian ryegrass, soybean, field pea and sorghum sudan. We will lean toward a hefty seeding of bmr sorghum sudan, dialing back the other rates just a bit, as we have some experience with the sorghum sudan and like it for feed.

Now we have had trouble with Canadian thistle making it to seed in the oats crop and thus spreading over the farm in the oat straw bedding. With this in mind, and as a trial, we seeded winter rye after the oats crop was off last summer. This was foundation seed and we have an agreement with a seed farm to market the rye for cleaning and bagging as certified organic seed. We will also try the rye in a few hog rations to test that use for the future.

Now the rye will come off perhaps three weeks earlier than the oats did. We hope it will be ahead of the thistles. We will bale the straw, move it off and seed a late fall grazing crop, perhaps rape and oats and turnip. There may be a window there for manure spreading, always a handy thing. Then the next year's crop will be second year corn and we are back into the rotation. The ongoing routine, if it works out, will be hay tilled in fall, then into corn the next year, then to complex cover crop the year after, to be harvested around Labor Day and then the rye seeded after. The following year would be rye harvested, then a window for manure spreading and then a seeding of brassicas for late grazing in conjunction with cornstalks for the cows. Then back to corn and then hay. We will need either to shorten the hay time to two years or extend the rotation to seven years. We haven't figured it out yet. It depends on cattle numbers.

We will be watching the timing of this hay crop. Grazing it will be preferable and we will hope to move in that direction in coming years.


from Clara City Herald

To the Editor

The “Yock Mansion” came down last week with a few mighty swings of the huge excavator's arm. It is now a pile of rubble and will soon be a filled hole in the ground somewhere. What it represents is likely to enter the All American memory hole, described by Chicago interviewer Studs Terkel as the “United States of Alzheimer's”.

That house was the most present reminder of an era that once was. Earlier, in my parents' generation before during and after WWII the individual shop keeper needed to cope alone with huge suppliers for price and availability of goods. Gordon Yock and others changed that by developing the idea of a cooperative buying service that would secure not only a better price, but guarantee availability of what was needed for a number of rural stores. This practice persisted during at least the first half of my life in this rural area.

But more. The presence of those buyers' children in the school I attended here in the fifties and sixties shaped me. Some of those families were academically oriented, which was itself encouraging for a shy bookish country kid. And all of them demonstrated the possibility of a life filled not just with unending work, but the real possibility of enjoyment of life and surroundings. That example led me to expect more of my farm than my father did.

That era is replaced with Wal-Mart and Target, Menards and Home Depot, Best Buy and Office Max which serve as a giant vacuum cleaner, taking whatever wealth is available in rural Minnesota and sending it to places like Georgia and Arkansas. And that is why it is so important that the reminders we have around town of that former time not disappear down the memory hole. Our move toward big box retailing is a move toward poverty and away from opportunity in rural Minnesota. We need to fight against Terkel's “Alzheimers” because if we ever decide to try for a local economy again, one that does all of us some good, we are going to need to know some of what worked at a time in the past, so that we can find our way back to that kind of economy.

And what can be said of the “Subway” we get in exchange? I will only say what I know, which is that the bread sold there will not be baked in the local bakery and the meats used will not start on farms like mine.

Jim Van Der Pol

Saturday, April 4, 2015

from Graze

Everyone, this was originally published in the January issue of Graze.  I am putting it here because it looks like the issue is heating up now.
We have here on the western Minnesota prairie what should be a minor political kerfuffle which has the potential to develop into a full blown Cliven Bundy style entitlement rant and political standoff. Our governor Mark Dayton made a statement about the need for filter and border strips along our open drainage ways and finished by reminding listeners that while farmers and rural landowners may own the land, the citizens as a whole and those that come after own the water. Dayton wants the strips to do double duty as wildlife habitat and proposes assign enforcement to the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) or “Damn Near Russia” in farmer talk. Loose talk circulates about Dayton acting like a king or dictator.
A little context is in order. When we started our farming here in 1977, the judicial ditch that cuts through the corner of the farm had just been cleaned and deepened. My first farming task was picking the rocks and pulling out the roots and branches left by the bulldozer. After that was done, we seeded brome grass from the breakover twenty five feet back into the field on both sides. This we planned to mow regularly for hay, and did do that despite the pocket gopher piles, until we turned the fields adjacent into permanent pastures in the early nineties. So they have been since. We placed a single wire at nose height about two feet toward the field from the breakover and subdivided into paddocks. The cattle do a nice job of weed control there reaching under the wire with their business end pointed away from the drainage. We are happy with the results. This was done because it needed to be and without cost share on the seed.
Ditch law in our county, and I think this is state wide, is that the original easement for the ditch construction includes one rod (16.5 ft) on each side for a buffer which is the farmer's responsibility to install and maintain. This is the case for all constructed ditches which route water to the natural system. Our ditch feeds Shakopee creek which flows to the Chippewa river, thence to the Minnesota in Montevideo and so to the Mississippi at the Twin Cites and down to the Gulf of Mexico. Our part of that drainage is thought to contribute very significant amounts of sediment and nutrients to the algal bloom in the gulf. Now there are some filter strips on the system today. They are few, but they can be found. Mostly they are sponsored by the Conservation Reserve and have that required width. But by far, most of the many miles of our ditch system are tilled right to the breakover. The one rod requirement is not enforced because the authority in charge is local and under the sway of large crop farmers. This lack of enforcement is for me a thirty year irritation.
Dayton's talk is not without precedent. Arne Carlson, Republican governor just before the wrestler, wanted to make the Minnesota River swimmable and fishable in 10 years. Sixteen plus years later, no progress has come of that pronouncement, which was mainly an educational effort. The river still runs dark brown. It is not unreasonable to point out that if there were anything left of the idea of agriculture farmers may well have taken the lead from Carlson and applied it to what they knew very well the land needed. Now we face larger strips and enforcement by a hated agency. And, even harder to understand, we will press our losing argument against the people who eat our food and who are potentially our strong allies. It would do wonders for our understanding if every farmer produced something, no matter how little, that he sold directly to customers.
Dayton's language, like Carlson's before him, is temperate and reasonable. One difference would be that Dayton plans to get the legislature to regularize enforcement of mostly already existing laws. But a more important one is that the population hearing Dayton is different from the one Arne Carlson spoke to a few years ago. In Carlson's time, farmers would have mostly been at least a bit embarrassed to be reminded they were farming land that was not theirs to farm. Today, there will almost certainly be at least a few tempted to take the Cliven Bundy approach of “What's mine is mine and what's yours is mine too.” The toxic brew of right wing entitlement and resentment in the country, combined with easy access to guns and no respect in farm country for the enforcing agency does not bode well for domestic peace and tranquility. We will see. Dayton's ag commissioner has not spoken yet.
If the legislation moves ahead, I am sure to be asked by several of my organizations to close ranks on the issue, that it is important that farmers speak with one voice and that that includes me, even if I don't farm quite right. As a practical matter, if the legislation becomes law and the DNR is put in charge of enforcement, the adversarial relationship sure to follow is going to make it difficult for me to reason with any DNR official that the mouth and saliva and front feet of my cattle are beneficial to the land at the breakover in a way that chisel plow points are not. One more opportunity for communication will have been lost.
If we listened to each other more, and especially if we farmers tried to listen to our fellow citizens, we might eventually get to an understanding of what the land and water need, also giving these essential parts of the natural world their full place and agency in the conversation. I tend to take issue with both ends of Dayton's statement. The idea that anyone can “own” water is wrong, but I think he states it this way to point out a difference between that “ownership” and land ownership. Our idea of land ownership is wrong too, including as it does a sort of blanket permission to do anything with the property that we wish, to include destroying it. For a clear view of this attitude at work, buy a river property, sit on your porch, and watch the land float by.
We would not be floundering about in the matter of land and water use so if we had more of a functioning religion. Wendell Berry wrote an excellent exposition on Revelations 4, verse 11 in an essay called “God and Country” published already twenty five years ago. We formerly thought God owned things such as water and land, but we have since enthroned each individual human as top dog with “property rights” as the core of the law and this older understanding has gotten to be a relic. We will see if we really can do without it.

Friday, April 3, 2015


It was a pleasant thing to take a few hours Wednesday to visit with a fellow on his way home to Pennsylvania from South Dakota.  He had been west to look at cattle, breeding stock in particular, and of course our conversation started during a walk through our cattle as well as a quick tour through the hog facilities and a look at the dormant pastures before expanding out to a seemingly endless series of thoughts and curiosities.  It put me in mind of another world, not even a lifetime ago, in which our farm was surrounded by a neighborhood of other diversified farms and we visited one another regularly.  But specialization rules now.  We have all been reduced from farmers to mere spectators at the high school's Friday night ball games.

At lunch my guest told the story of a dairy farmer he knew in Pennsylvania who persisted in being arrested for how he chose to sell his raw milk, this in a state that does permit the selling of raw milk subject to certain inspections and rules, rules which the farmer in question steadfastly refused to honor.  We talked of the tendency of some of the participants in the new and local food idea toward an unthinking libertarianism.  Some, I suggested, are more interested in fighting the government than in producing and selling their products.  We talked then about the necessity of some kind of governing body to impose some sort of structure on our lives together and how necessary that was, especially in a country as large and diverse as ours.  There seems to be a group much more dedicated to tearing the government apart than to decreasing the distance between all of us and the source of our food.  A sign of the times, I guess.  Sometimes it seems as if we  Americans are suicidal. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015


The first outbreak of bird flu in Pope county has been followed by one in Stearns and another in Lac Que Parle.  Like the first, these second two are being blamed on the wild ducks.  Many turkeys have died, trench fulls of them.  Growers and their vet school enablers are busy congratulating themselves on restricting the outbreak in each case to one building only.  But curiously, there have been no reports of large numbers of dead wild ducks lying around.  What does it mean?  Ducks that infect the turkey flocks do not die in huge numbers, evidently.  Is it the environment they live in?  Is their food better?  Immune system more functional?  Does it help that their immediate environs is not "duck only" in the way turkey confinement works?   These are the sorts of questions livestock agriculture would be asking right now if it had not already decided several decades ago that agriculture was a mature science, and that everything about it worth knowing was already known.  Arrogance! 


Saturday, March 28, 2015


The cowherd starts its first ever annual trek from Pastures a Plenty down to Terry's river pastures for the summer grazing season.  We finally figured out that it was cheaper to move the cows to the hay than the hay to the cows.  Winter worked pretty well up here on the prairie, but we really didn't get the use of the herd for foraging crop residue as we hoped.  We need to improve our practices, and we are trying to figure out if a fall calving herd can be as useful in this way.  About half our herd calves in fall.  The other half should begin dropping calves two weeks.  The river is a much better place for that to happen.  So down they go.  We will have a bunch of loud left behind calves around here for a week or so. 


Tuesday, March 24, 2015


It was a privilege and joy to travel last weekend to the Children's Theatre in Minneapolis to view "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in the excellent company of grandson Tanner.  The playwright and players did fine work of getting the story on stage.  The entire story was done with three actors and two musician/actors and one set in one act.  Quite a feat.

And yet all the themes that make this the archetype of the American story by the first actual American author were there:  Huck's developing sense of ethics and morality must unfold in a country full of unattached drifters and con artists, ghosts and uneasy spirits, overblown southern "honor", violence, race hatred and wrong headed religion.  Huck's heartfelt "Alright, I'll go to Hell then!" plays as a beacon of hope in my head all this time later.  My thanks to everyone involved.


Saturday, March 7, 2015


Avian influenza or "bird flu" has just destroyed 14000 turkeys in a building in Pope county just north of us.  This time the standard news story seems to be that the perpetrator of the crime was the wild duck population.  We breathe a sigh of relief that for a change, our small farm flock of laying hens are not the culprit in the massive losses incurred by big poultry.  A few years ago at first outbreak, small flock owners were the villains of the piece, spreading poultry death (and human illness and death) about indiscriminately. 

No one-in the news business at least-seems to have thought to ask why, if bird flu is so deadly to confined turkeys, do we still have wild ducks flying around?  Shouldn't it have been deadly to them too, since they are supposedly the vectors of infection?  Those questions might lead to more questions about agricultural production practices and eventually to some real answers!


Sunday, February 22, 2015

About time

America’s dietary guidelines have long been based on weak science.