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!