Monday, October 21, 2019

fox and chickens

Sonny Perdue, Secretary of Agriculture and chicken magnate, has allowed the pork slaughter industry to begin taking over pork inspections from the federal inspection services.  This is one more indication that our government and civil society have gone off the rails.  This is not a new idea; it has been talked about for several decades now and pilot programs have been run.  The impetus here with industry is to speed up the slaughter.

Since our pork sales business started in 2000, we have depended upon the quality of the product and the predisposition of some people to support farms like ours and related businesses.  We still do.  But it has become necessary to state certain facts that we never formerly thought we had to, in view of the crippled state of our government.  To wit:

1) Animal welfare is a central concern for us, an ongoing and important effort.  Animal welfare on the farm is central.  Transportation of the animals and slaughter are other important aspects.  We make a constant effort in all these facets of pork production and supply.  Our animals are slaughtered under state inspection, and the inspector has no qualms about stopping slaughter or throwing out substandard product.  Sonny Perdue has no intention of cancelling this inspection and we would not agree if he did.

2) We use processing businesses that pay the kind of wage that employees can live on and that provide safe and clean working conditions.

3) And we expect the kind of return in our business that allows us to be adequately compensated for our work on the farm and in the business.

These three statements could serve as a guideline for a conscientous buyer of pork in making purchases.  None of these are honored by the mainstream meat industry, from farm through retail.


 

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

And again

Six tenths an inch last night.  Put together with the totals for the last eight or nine days, that would be six inches.  And we are not the hardest hit.  Today's broadcast news weather cutie (male this time) expects Houston to hit eighteen inches. 
Amazing how these television millionaires can prattle on about astonishing weather events without ever dropping the word "climate" into the monologue.  Their billionaire corporate overlords don't want climate talked about.  It makes them uncomfortable.  Ostriches.
Here, with the rains of the last week in mid September, we are headed for another fall of mud, the farm full of places the tractors can't go, and increasingly, even the cattle. Third straight year now and as I said yesterday, in hindsight it is pretty clear that the trend since I started ridge til in the early nineties through to today is toward wetter.  That is why the difficulty with small grain seedings and the increasing impossibility of putting the cattle on the crop acres. 
Another healthy dose of rain headed our way on Friday night.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

rain

I woke last night at four o'clock to the sound of rain on the roof.  I cannot sleep while it rains.  This has been going on for some time, since the early nineties, I think.  That is when rain started seriously interfering with my farming plans. I had started a project of ridge til then and pretty immediately became aware that it was not a good fit for my poorly drained and low lying soils.  Ridge til lasted perhaps five years for me.

Looking back at my forty plus years of farming I now see that I was only successful at any kind of small grain in two of them, both years immediately following drought years:  1977, my first year, and then again in 1989.  These two years, and these years only, I was able to be early enough with seeding and was rewarded with a respectable crop.

One way of understanding my farming years would be to call it an ongoing search for a crop rotation that could be built around corn, the only crop generally successful here.  After a few moves at peas and one or two years of fall seeded grains, soybeans were given the boost out of the rotation-they never grew well on this farm-and we began to take a serious look at fall seeded small grains again.

But the most success has come with a major move toward forage and grazing. Forty per cent of our crop acreage in any given year is in hay. Often the need to bring stock off the pastures in late summer benefited the crop rotation. The cattle could take a cover crop mix by grazing, thus resting the pastures. The trouble is that for the last three years, and it looks to continue this year, this practice is not available either.  The cattle have waded around in mud tromping down most of what they should have eaten.  This year we have them on oats that were seeded on prevented planting acres and they have the entire sward covered in mud, shortening the feed supply by perhaps a week.

The rain that woke me up last night was an inch and three tenths.  This followed two and a half inches four days earlier and three quarters of an inch twice in the week before that.  And as usual, we didn't get the worst of it.  I don't know where the cattle should go when we have to pull them off. They will be destructive wherever.  Rain chance tonight 70%.  One more ruined night's sleep.

And the urban people, our customers, think the rain problem is only serious if it ruins the weekend.  Few know how close we are to a serious food issue.

Monday, September 9, 2019

My grandfather's hands

Today we weaned and moved pigs, my grandson and I, and I powerwashed the feeders we would use later.  As I pulled my hand out from the feeder holes I knocked it against the side.  I felt it without really noticing it.  A minute or two later I looked down to see blood streaming down the backs of my fingers from a quarter inch chunk of loose skin on the back of my hand.

Then I remembered my grandfather's hands when he came out to help my Dad years ago.  His hands too were hard in the palm from years and years of callous upon callous.  His fingernails were thick, some were bent and twisted and needed to be trimmed with a sharp pocketknife.  But the skin on the backs of his hands was paper thin and could be knocked open by the slightest blow.  I have gotten to where my grandfather was in the 1950's seventy years ago.

I was rueful, but not terrified at the thought.  There is after all a certain rightness to it.  I come from a line of peasants, people of the land, back through my Dad and then both my grandfathers and as far back as I know;  poor and destitute sometimes, some were orphans, some manic depressive.  There must have been a few liars, though I know nothing of that.  For generations on the male side we have understood the pressing need to somehow make it go, to provide for children, to farm the land and to keep and protect wives.  If that meant damage to hands or other body parts, so be it.  If it meant risk and loss and too much work and no sleep, we would put up with it.

But I am terrified.  Because for generations now, we have been taught to scorn and make fun of men like me, like my father and grandfather.  Feminists have done it, and I suppose they have their good reasons, but so has everyone else.  I mean no disrespect for the female side of my ancestry for they may well have suffered more and worked harder for the family, the community and the land than we males did.  But I understand it as a man.  And I pop awake sometimes at two in the morning, terrified at the prospects for my children and grandchildren and as yet unborn great grandchildren.  And I fear especially for my grandsons and their sons.  For we have chosen instead of respect, love, and a place for young working class men, scorn and rejection and the result all too often is a young white male full of blinding rage emptying a military weapon into a crowd of people.          

Friday, August 30, 2019

hay

It would not likely occur to those born after 1990, but any who share an on farm history that, like mine, goes back to the 1950's know that haymaking faces different challenges today.  Chief among those is the fact that the weather has changed markedly.
We succeeded in making hay in part because the second half of the summer would feature a significant number of mornings with no dew on the grass at all, given the low humidity and the overnight breeze.  Remember too that we were dealing with small square bale balers that were very unforgiving in wet hay.  But where we often could start the day by ten in the morning then, now we must wait as late as three in the afternoon to make a start, even with the big round balers.
Our water cycle is broken.   Our humidity is too high.  We have too much rain and too much runoff because our soil is too hard.  The soil is too hard because of the steady decrease in organic matter.  The hard soil and runoff, along with a surplus of both rain and rainy days means the plants do not put out extensive root systems.  This leads to less carbon sequestered and thus less organic matter. It is a vicious circle.
This is our climate change issue to deal with here on the farms.  And we must start with the realization that the way we farm creates our own weather in a significant sense.  Climate change is largely not what someone else is doing to us.  We are going to need to look in the mirror and start thinking about a different farming system.

Friday, August 16, 2019

freedom

A person is about as free as she is capable.  Aside from the obvious, that citizens preserve their freedom by keeping control of their government, freedom is hedged around by a patch of tough caveats, all alleles of capability:  responsibility, willingness, tolerance, vision, cooperation, practicality, level footedness.

A man cannot make himself available to help others in need if he has not his own house and household in order. 

circle

I have thought for some time that the conventional view of political belief as a straight line from left to right with everyone located somewhere on it is wrong.  This thought tends to come to the top when I am discouraged by the seeming impossibility of a real discussion among acquantances, friends, neighbors and so on.  And the thought is durable and recurring because it jibes with my life lived as a farmer which has taught me that all things on the land operate in a cycle.

Then I visualize the political spectrum as more a circle, with certain points of at least tentative agreement.  For instance, today it became evident to me that right and left share a similar horror of centralized power, perhaps for somewhat different reasons.  The left recoils from the thought of a central authority with power enough to stifle thought and belief and imprison those thinkers authority objects to.  Authoritarianism and surveilance is anathema on the left.

The right, meanwhile, goes into fits of terror and rage over the United Nations, thinking of it as a coming world government.  The individual, for the right, should reign supreme. 

There is here some shared ground, the chance to talk and explore feelings and deeply held beliefs.  It is an opportunity to see the humanity of the other, precious because it is so rare.

Meanwhile the land continues in its cycle of growth, harvest, death, decay and new life.  Desired and undesirable plants blend by decay in propelling the cycle forward.   I cannot think of a better metaphor on which to build a sane political system. 

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Lake bed

Much of our pasture and planned grazing business is located in what can only be called a lake bed.  It is a large low area with little in the way of elevation change where, especially these last years, the soil stays wet to the top between rain events in much of the pasture.  It is the primary obstacle to increasing the production further.

As evidence of the trend we have at the edge of this area, close to the yard and livestock buildings, a twenty five year old hackberry tree that seems to be struggling.  I cannot diagnose the cause, but suspect overly wet conditions since six of the nine cottonwood trees we managed to start in the pasture twenty years ago look to be dying as well.  A cottonwood dying of too much moisture is a signal event. Cottonwoods love wet soil and prefer to grow there.  Evidently too much water is still too much even for cottonwoods. 

Trees tend to be difficult in a grassland.  This appears to be increasingly true with the overly wet conditions.  And it becomes apparent at the same time we see an increasing need for livestock shade because of the humidity. 

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

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

waiting

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

hope

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

cattle

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.

blizzard

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

light

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

soil

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

thaw

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.