Friday, May 24, 2019

climate change

Climate change is happening.  Farmers who work with higher elevations may be able to deny it.  Those of us on more variable and wetter soils cannot.  I have been aware of it in our farming for twenty years.

The water cycle is impaired.  This is the most obvious.  Excessive rainfall spreads into a huge number of rainy days and it becomes a challenge to walk from house to barn.  Twenty years ago, I "solved" this farm's problems with ground water and excessive wetness by going to grazing on the lowest acres thus firming things up with large and complex perennial root systems.  This idea held for perhaps a decade.  It no longer works.

Today, two days ahead of Memorial Day, I took the herd off the pastures because they were destroying the sod.  I guess we will feed them with the hay crop we couldn't get made last year.  If we can't find hay or alternative grazing, we will have cattle for sale.  This time of year, nearly the first of June, should see the herd unable to keep up with the feed.  Instead we have little grass growth on waterlogged soils because of low temperatures.

The thing is, we know how to begin to solve this.  It is a climate problem because it is a carbon problem.  We have carbon in the wrong place-the atmosphere instead of the soil.  And yes, cars are responsible for this and so is industrial production.  But so is industrial agriculture.  We have spent millenia burning off carbon-organic matter which is 58% carbon-into the air.  The solution has everything to do with learning how to use perennial plants. 

It took us thousands of years to make this mess. We need to be starting in a better direction whether we think we have time or not.  We dare not wait for government!

Sunday, May 19, 2019


Stress levels are zooming here on the farm.  It is not just Trump's fumbling approach to fixing trade deals with China and others that badly need fixing, an approach that loads the sacrifice all on farming and rural America.  It is also the big unadmitted elephant in the room: climate change.

People say that too much rain is preferable to drought.  For at least some of the farms and farmers, that is wrong.  We have had three or four years of not only excessive rain, but an excessive number of rainy days and it leads me to consider my own history here.  In our forty two years now of farming this place we had a significant loss to drought one time-1988.  We have had perhaps twenty years of reduced yields and lost crops to excessive moisture in that time.  Each of these losses is smaller, but cumulatively they add up to much more than the single drought loss.

We are at the 19th of May at this writing.  This is the closing opportunity for planting corn.  We have no corn planted.  Small grains are a waste of time now.  Better to try for a short term one cut annual hay crop and then seed a winter grain for next year.  Soybeans are difficult on our farm.  We are running out of hay due to the lousy hay crops last year.  So the cattle are on the pastures-timely by the calendar, way too early by field conditions.  The grass doesn't grow because it is too cold, the excess rain pools in the hoof prints of the cows, tonight it will freeze while the new calves lie on the wet ground.

Not only have we not planted corn, we have not been able to haul manure out.  The manure is necessary for the corn crop.  Our hog facilities are full to the rafters, so to speak.  If we get enough drying weather to clean them and apply the manure, it will be at the expense of the corn we should be planting.  The manure is beginning to be a health issue. 

And to add insult to injury, the USDA is absolutely clueless about what is going on.  Rather than trying to point farming in a useful direction, to get practices on the land that help sequester carbon and thus somewhat modify the out of control water cycle with its excess precipitation, the agency seems to exist mostly to pass out aid to farmers unnecessarily hurt by the incompetence of government, both at the agency and in the White House and Capitol.

Monday, May 6, 2019


The hardest part of a farming business to learn is the ability to wait.  It is most necessary because the farming is not entirely in the control of the farmer and the farmer must deal with that or go crazy with worry, or possibly do something really stupid that ramifies throughout the crop year and for seasons to come.  Soils, especially those that are heavily clay, can be damaged severely by getting on them too early with tractors.  It is a close timing thing.  What is a good idea tomorrow will damage the land today.
The best that can be said about this is that it encourages humility, something in very short supply in the economy as a whole, not just farming.   

Thursday, April 25, 2019


The woman's voice on the radio as we drove home from Niagara yesterday belonged to a professor at Texas Tech, a climate scientist who works in communicating about climate.  She asserted that we need two things:  One, the scientific knowledge about the climate and the changes that threaten us, and two, some basis for rational hope.

She mentioned regenerative agriculture as one bright spot in view of its ability to, as she put it, sequester carbon.  There is no reason to doubt she is right.  But what nagged at me as I listened, was the thought that some of the climate specialists, those few who would actually talk to farmers, would not carry on a conversation, that is, that they would not ask, listen, and be guided by a serious farmer's thoughts on the matter, guided by his many years of working with and observing a particular piece of land.

It is just this approach that makes farmers so hard to talk to.  And this is important.  We are in desperate need of whatever perspective we can access on climate and we should start by assuming that all answers do not come from the top, or from the lab.  Some answers are available only from people with their hands in the dirt. 

Thursday, April 11, 2019


Snow is crunchy now on top with currently nothing new falling.  The cows are fed in their cramped quarters,the newborn calves are doing OK.  The newly weaned calves have a deep bed of cornstalks on which to spend the night, and the youngstock is standing in mud and snow two feet to thirty inches deep in the livestock lot we determinedly moved out of just a week ago.  There they have water and my promise they will move back out to their hay bales tomorrow morning.  Perhaps tonight we can sleep.


The predicted blizzard has landed with results that are predictable.  While the hogs do pretty well on their straw beds, the cattle, which live in the pasture have had their routines disrupted.  The cows, just starting calving, are crowded together in a half hoop usually used for sows on hastily provided stalk bedding.  They are crowded not by us, but because they are reluctant to go out and face the wind. 

The two calves already born are so far alright, and at last check, no more have arrived.  We hold our breath, hoping for the end of the wind and snow, predicted for sometime Friday morning.  Life, meanwhile, is as difficult for us as for the cows.  This is the second year in a row that blizzards have interrupted the start of calving season.  Last year we had no losses.  We have trouble believing that will be the case again.  Again we talk of holding the bulls away for two or three more weeks, getting calving into May instead.  And again we come up against the knowledge that by doing so we risk putting late calves into the midst of the fly season, seemingly worse every year with heat and humidity in June already.  

The choice to produce the cattle in a more natural way, in synch with the seasons, has consequences.  Especially is this so when Nature herself seems unbalanced and reeling like a drunk on the sidewalk.

But clearer thinking shows that whatever Nature is suffering, the drunk on the sidewalk is none other than us, all of us, with our thoughtless careless use and misuse over generations now of what God has given us.  For a farmer who sees clearly that what we have been doing is wrong, there really is no other choice than to go toward and with Nature.  And to comfort ourselves with the thought that Nature has deeper pockets and deeper and truer aims than any of us.  And that however calving turns out, Nature has a great capacity to regenerate and heal.  It is up to us to do our best to stay out of the way, and to learn to the extent possible, to move and farm in synchrony with Nature   

Wednesday, April 10, 2019


The light this morning at dawn is golden as honey poured from a jar, almost looking substantial enough to touch.  Looking through it to the south west where the blizzard approaches, we watched it change rapidly against the dark blue of the sky as dawn moves into morning.  A beautiful warning bell.

Predicted is somewhere between 15 and 20 inches of snow over the next 36 hours along with high winds and temps just above freezing.  The hogs are pretty well situated to ride it out on their straw beds in the hoops or in farrowing, where the closest to farrowing are.  We have one sow area to clean and rebed yet today.  The market herd of cattle is set up with enough hay for a week or a bit more on a somewhat wind protected hill.  They will be tough it out.  But we have the calving cows-two have dropped calves so far-here on the southeast side of the yard and trees.  We will have to move them back to the nearest paddock giving them access to the lane that runs the length of the south side of the yard.  The winds will blow mostly from the ENE according to the NOA website, so the cows will want to move toward the west end of the lane and thus up into the livestock area.  We will have to provide for them there.  Perhaps we can allow them access to the one half hoop we have cleaned and empty for extra wind protection.

The calves are a concern.  And when the air pressure changes, it tends to bring on birth in close up livestock animals  We will be patrolling all hours for the next day and a half.   

Saturday, April 6, 2019


Here is David Montgomery writing in his "Dirt, the Erosion of Civilizations" in 2007.  He says it well:

"The philosophical basis of the new agriculture lies in treating the soil as a locally adapted biological system rather than a chemical system.  Yet agroecology is not simply a return to old labor intensive ways of farming.  It is just as scientific as the latest genetically modified technologies-but based on biology and ecology rather than chemistry and genetics.  Rooted in the complex interactions between soil, water, plants, animals and microbes, agroecology depends more on understanding local conditions and context than on using standardized products or techniques.  It requires farming guided by locally adapted knowledge-farming with brains rather than by habit or convenience.

Agroecology doesn't mean simply going organic.  Even forgoing pesticides, California's newly industrialized organic factory farms are not necessarily conserving soil.  When demand for organic produce began to skyrocket in the 1990's industrial farms began planting monocultural stands of lettuce that retained the flaws of conventional agriculture-just without the pesticides."

There it is!  The argument for people on the land we have been looking for and from the words of an observant geologist. 

Thursday, March 28, 2019

firming up

The working yard and livestock areas are beginning to firm up.  Soon we will be able to clean the hog barns.  Already the market herd of cattle are being fed the last of the hay on a pasture paddock and the cow herd is getting through the last days before pasture greenup, we hope, by May first.

Meanwhile, the farrowing house is clean and waiting for the next sows and the last born piglets are thriving in their straw and cornstalk beds. 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Ice jam

Ice jam cleared on the drainage ditch and the water covering half the north pasture dropped overnight.  We don't get overly concerned about flooding when the plants are still dormant, but they are beginning to green and the receding of the waters is welcome here.  The thaw has been slow which is probably the best to be hoped for in terms of reducing damage. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019


Spring thaw started yesterday and today it includes rain.  The snow is shrinking, the threat of flooding in the river towns grows.  For a livestock farmer it is an ongoing effort to think ahead, to achieve a position from which, when it is possible to do a necessary thing-cleaning the sow housing for instance-the ducks are in a row to actually do it.
In consequence, three days ago, I dug out and warmed up the tractor hooked to the manure hauling wagon so that it would start.  I jacked up the box, propped the hoist for safety and added oil to the system, remembering as I did that it failed to rise completely at last use last fall.
Then I got the big snowbucket on the skidloader and used it to clear as much of the snow as I could off a small hill adjacent to the sow housing.  I very well knew that we would not be able to haul heavy loads to the crop land for several weeks and we shouldn't wait that long for the barn cleaning.  The hill I cleared is surrounded by well established pasture sod, making it the best bet for holding a manure stockpile in place and keeping runoff from the drainage.
That done, I parked the manure box on the cleared hill so that the raised box would face the south sun at a good angle and began to wait for the sun to work its magic on both the machine and the hilltop.

Today's concern, while we wait to start the sow barn cleaning, has to do with moving some of the hay bales to higher ground to keep them from soaking up too much moisture as our excessive snow pile melts, not usually a concern with an ordinary winter.  And so it goes.  Thinking to stay ahead of the work is called everyday management.

Monday, March 11, 2019

soil health

I have been studying everything I can get my hands on regarding soil health for more than five years now and it keeps getting more and more interesting.  I go tomorrow to SFA's annual soil health conference and am wondering about the speaker.  This year I have heard and seen the idea argued that soil life and plants cooperate together to do what they need to do, moving nutrients around to where they are needed and more of that sort. 
It may be that I am surprised by this only because we as Americans, myself included, have become so accustomed to thinking of ourselves as independent individuals, each responsible for his/her success or failure.  I am faced with the need to admit that microbes can accomplish what seems beyond us humans!

Friday, February 8, 2019

short of people

System failure can be hard to see because it often comes cloaked in human failure. Each one of the farms that failed over the last several generations led us to the system failure, the spectacular failure where agriculture today is simply too short of people to be able to properly foster soil health. It has been too short of people for at least a generation now to properly support the community, including the vital community formed by a living farming culture, a culture carrying the knowledge of how to care for soil in use as well as the people using it.
The failure of the agricultural system, by the increasing failure of the people in it, is merely a part of a larger failure. This too is system wide. Our economy is producing a tide of technological innovation. But no where that I see is it fostering and honoring work that is meaningful. Teachers are not honored. Care workers are very nearly not even paid. Factories, which have always been a human problem, even when they were busy are increasingly abandoned in our country. Retail establishments close, breaking another human connection, to be replaced by delivery drivers, each of them closely watched and monitored by the on board company computer. Cars are “fixed” by mechanics following the direction of the scan tool and simply plugging in new systems. Houses are built by robots in huge plants and then the panels are fastened together on site by relatively unskilled labor. The move is afoot everywhere to diminish people and emphasize machines, sending all wealth to the top of the society.

Monday, February 4, 2019

from Wendell Berry

"We cannot live harmlessly at our own expense; we depend on other creatures and survive by their deaths.  To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation.  The point is, when we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament; when we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. . .in such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want."

We have always known that what we do here on the farm is beyond important, that we are involved with something we cannot entirely understand and that we must do what we do with all the respect and reverence we can muster.  Berry says it better.