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!