Archive for the ‘Small farms’ Category

In the company of farmers

It’s colder in St. Paul than in San Diego, as you might imagine.  I wish I had a small space heater in my room, to warm my feet – can’t seem to get them thawed out.  

Other than that, and the minor drawbacks related to travelling alone, I’m having a really good time at the conference.  Being among fellow grass farmers for the first time ever is really gratifying and encouraging.  And the speakers are, in a word, terrific.  We all sat and listened to Jerry Brunetti this afternoon, spellbound, as he moved through nutrional analysis of “primitive plants” (otherwise known as weeds), soil chemistry and mineralization, and the soil-building properties of water.  He spoke with a fluency and passion for his subject I’ve not heard in a very long time.

There are farmers from all over the country and across the globe here, taking this short course on grazing management and livestock genetics prior to the conference beginning on Wednesday.   Some are already in production, others are just planning and preparing, like me.  Old-timers and greenhorns, and a surprising number of women.  I’m glad to see that. 

The fellow to my left at our table is from Wisconsin, waiting to retire so he can start a little grass-fed herd on a piece of land he owns.  He too, wants to have draft horses to help with the work.  The woman behind me, from Missouri, is also making plans to start farming in about six months, and like me, is here to learn and meet others doing the same. 

And the very friendly chap with work-worn hands on my far right manages a 200-cow dairy farm in England; he’s here to learn how to improve diversity in their leys, among other things.  We lunched together today, eating our sandwiches in the noon-time chill and chatting about pasture rotations and the farms he visited in New Zealand. 

I loved every cold minute of it.  It’s nice, very nice, to be in the company of farmers.


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Bobby on the zero turn

I’m not opposed to change.  I think I have by this time figured out that it’s part of life, and not always predictable.  I’ve learned to willingly adapt to change, to shift my priorities and efforts towards whatever new direction lies ahead as a result.  But doing so takes time, me being a plodder and all, and I prefer not to be interrupted by more change before I’ve finished responding to the first wave.

 So the latest news from the farm is actually a blessing, but it left me shaking my head for a couple of days, amazed how things can shift so quickly.

The folks called Friday last week, a month since they’d first dropped the bombshell about wanting to move to Norman, Oklahoma where their daughters and grandchildren live, to ask if it would be ok for them to stay put, instead.  They have changed their minds, and decided they wouldn’t be happy there.  At least for the time being.

We could have told them that, but it wasn’t our place.  They figured it out themselves, at their own pace.

All the reasons why we thought it would be unworkable for them came tumbling out as they talked over each other on the phone:  they can’t find the kind of place they are looking to buy in that area; the dogs, used to roaming the mountain, would have to live in a tiny back yard; they don’t like the kind of people there, there’s not enough open, “country” space, and Bobby would get bored not having anything to do outside; and they like their Kentucky doctors, like living in Kentucky.  Dear old Bobby must have said “I just wouldn’t be happy there” at least 10 times during the fifteen-minute call.

Well hello, McFly.  After driving 13 hours back from their Oklahoma visit, Bobby toted the luggage in the house then hopped onto the Toro mower for a couple of hours to mow the grass, which wasn’t overgrown by any means.  He just couldn’t sit still.

Precipitating this latest change, as it turns out, was the renewed possibility of their buying the little property down the road, since the property line issue that had derailed the purchase has finally been resolved and the current owner still needs to sell it to finance the new house he’s already broken ground for.  Now that the property isn’t listed, he and Bobby are discussing terms between themselves, and if he’ll let it go at the same price (he had to buy back the front yard from the state road department as a result of the survey), Bobby and Alene want to go ahead with their plans to buy the place and fix it up a bit at a time while living in the little farmhouse at Bear and Thistle.

They were worried we’d already made arrangements to have someone move in immediately, and wouldn’t be able to accomodate their request.  But we hadn’t, so it was easy to say yes of course, you’re more than welcome to stay on.  They were relieved to hear that and of course we’re relieved, too.  It’s much better to have them there.

We will go ahead with installing the alarm system and a few motion-activated security lights, and I will gate and fence the driveways and as much of the road edge as possible on our September visit.  We don’t need to make it Fort Knox, but I’ve put too much planning and resources into that initiative to turn it off at this point, and it will make the place more secure even with them there.  So they’ll not see the woodstove installed for their benefit this winter, and perhaps not the next, for having zig-zagged course and forcing me to change our working plans to adapt to the possibility of having to leave the place unoccupied. 

But they are lucky to have had the flexibility to try their idea on and, finding it not fitting, go back to the original arrangement.  And we’re fortunate they changed their minds, though I have no idea how long they’ll want to stay, or if they’ll change their minds again soon, or if their plan to buy the little house down the road will work out.  

I hope it does.

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farmhouse front door

We’ve been very fortunate to have Bobby and Alene stay on and take care of the place after they sold the farm to us in January 2006.  They were comfortable in the little double-wide mobile home they’d put on a foundation down by the road; they liked the area and the climate and hadn’t decided if they would move back to Florida, where Bobby’s grown children live, or Oklahoma, where Alene’s daughters and their families have settled.  Bobby enjoyed working outside, mowing the yard area around the house and cutting the pastures, and keeping an eye out for fallen branches on fences and that sort of thing.

But he’s nearly 73, with arthritis and diabetes and now a newly-rebuilt knee, and the work has become too much.  Last winter when he wanted to cut those two hickory trees down for firewood, that he really didn’t need, I should have told him no.  I thought he knew his own limits and the work of it would make him happy.  But it was too much.

They’d made an offer on a little place just down the road, but the survey turned up a boundary snarl that couldn’t be resolved – the property line ran right through the living room and though the state road department said they’d transferred rights to the little slice long ago, no one could be certain, and the survey remains in dispute.  So that hope was dashed, a pity, since they were looking forward to fixing up the place a little at a time while living at the Farm.  They like their doctors there in Campbellsville and didn’t really want to leave, but time is running out for them to find a smaller place to build their last nest.

So the trip they made to Oklahoma to visit grandkids and great-grandchildren while we were working at the farm resulted in a change of plans for them.  They’ve decided to move in with her daughter there while they look for a place, but will stay on at the farm through September, when we were planning to return to install the wood stove, to give us time to make other arrangements.

We’re very grateful for the three years of caretaking they gave us.  Of course we covered all expenses and paid Bobby extra for the pasture mowing, and did everything we could to keep them comfortable and happy.  Installing the wood stove was to ease their worries about losing power in the winter; the place is all-electric and they had no way to heat or cook during long power outages.  They hadn’t had any yet, but it worried them.  And building the back porch took priority because of Alene’s falls.  Both improvements would have been done eventually anyway, but the point was to meet their immediate needs first. 

I’m a bit relieved to be able to postpone the wood stove installation this Fall.  I’ll focus my time on giving the pastures a final mowing, get the corral panels painted and stacked under cover, and the place ready for winter. 

We’re not sure what the plan will be now.  It was good to have someone living in the house, but we stay there on our frequent visits and renting it out would make that impossible.  Keeping the house and shop secure is the main concern; the yard area will need regular mowing next summer but I can hire that out.  And I can keep up with the pastures as well as Bobby has, we’ll plan our trips around that. 

This may be a good opportunity to see what kind of neighbors we have.  I’ll keep an open mind.

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mel_and_J_in_garden_008GOD SPEED THE PLOUGH
(from an old English cup)

Let the wealthy and great
Roll in splendour and state.
I envy them not, I declare it.
I eat my own lamb,
My own chickens and ham;
I shear my own fleece
and I wear it.
I have lawns; I have bowers.
I have fruits; I have flowers.
The lark is my morning alarmer
So jolly boys now,
Here’s God speed the plough.
Long life and success to the farmer.


No, that’s not a plow behind that horse; it’s a drag harrow.  And no, that’s not me, that’s Mel driving “the ‘J’ mare” as Jason calls her, working the garden on Ridgewind Farm.   But I stumbled across the poem the same day he sent the picture of Mel and J, and for that reason they go together in my mind.

“God speed the plough, ‘a wish for success or prosperity,’ was originally a phrase in a 15th-century song sung by ploughmen on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Day, which is the end of the Christmas holidays, when farm laborers returned to the plough. On this day ploughmen customarily went from door to door dressed in white and drawing a plough, soliciting ‘plough money’ to spend in celebration. “Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins” by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

I found the poem on Hollin Farms website; another good Virginia farm worth taking a look at.

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There are serious problems and concerns with our nation’s the world’s current model of how meat is put on the table – call it Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), or Industrial Food Animal Production (IFAP) as the Pew Commission does – threatened public health, environmental degradation, severely compromised animal welfare, and decimated rural communities.   Just recently, just this week, just today, we’re all getting a dose of reality about the public health angle with the discovery and emergence of the H1N1 triple-hybrid human/bird/pig flu virus.

Tom Philpott raised the ire of quite a few commentors with his report on Grist of a possible link to Smithfield Food’s large hog factory (I refuse to call it a farm) in the area in Mexico near the outbreak.  Naysayers were very skeptical of what they felt was a leap in logic, connecting a swine flu outbreak to a giant concentrated feeding operation, and many commenters accused the blogger of not having scientific references for any of his assertions.  I don’t know what planet they’re living on.  The Humane Society’s Factory Farming Campaign website provides all the solid, scientific background one could ask for (with painstaking references ) in an article by Dr. Michael Greger – it’s a good read, but look further to his online Bird Flu Book for some really in-depth education on the subject of flu, flu pandemics, and the animal connection.  I’m half-way through and I can’t put it down; hell, I never knew any of this, what an eye-opener this book is (and his references are exhaustive).

Short answer is: this is not new, and the culpability of industrial animal production is undeniable.

I’m not surprised.  You won’t be either, once you’ve taken the time to read the science of it.   And it only reaffirms and strengthens my conviction to do my part as a small farmer, raising small numbers of humanely cared for, genetically diverse livestock for local consumption.  I’ll do it first for myself, so that I’ll have healthy, fresh, safe food to eat; and to the extent I’m able, grow a surplus that I will sell directly to an appreciative customer.   Smithfield be damned.

I realize the scale of small farm production can’t meet total demand.  Yet, anyway.  But as Wendell says, we don’t even know what we eat, as a community, so it’s difficult to determine what it would take to feed us.  We have no idea if our region can sustain itself on what can be raised reasonably in small operations that avoid the crowding and contamination that spawns disease. 

I say, start somewhere, and work your way out.  Connect with others at the edges, link arms when it makes sense to do so, maintain your belief in the rightness of what you are doing.  Feed yourself and some of your neighbors.  Don’t exceed the capacity of your land and ecosystem; maintain appropriate scale.  The rest will work itself out.

We’ve hatched quite a mess, with our industrial, machine-like approach to producing and distributing vast quantities of animal flesh, no mistake about it.  Small farms with uncrowded herds of pastured animals are surely a step in the direction of abatement, if not a total solution, to the danger.  I’m steppin’ that way.

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