Wednesday, March 18, 2015


The gently sloping property to the west of our farm has been in the conservation reserve program since the 1980's. It's a big plus for us. We don't need to worry nearly as much as most rural Michiganders about pesticide or nitrate contamination of our well, for instance. It's been a haven for wildlife, and has undoubtedly made our farm a nicer place for hunting. It's also the reason that my bee hives survive the winter much better than those near conventional farms (which often experience 100% mortality).

I was a little concerned, then, when I saw the neighbors clearing and disking their fields last summer. Big changes were clearly afoot. Turns out they were preparing to plant hay, as the conservation reserve program was making expensive demands that had turned it into a losing proposition. That seemed like a good thing for us as well, since we could likely purchase their hay directly out of the field at a discount. The location couldn't be more convenient.

A couple weeks ago, I received a call from the owners. Some family health problems were jeopardizing their plans, and they wondered if I might be interested in leasing 21 acres of their property. I said that I was interested, and would get back to them after discussing it with Rachel.

This set in motion a bunch of number crunching and soul searching that I'd had the luxury of avoiding until now.

We currently produce about 1/3rd of our own hay requirement, and none of our straw or purchased grain feeds (though we have grown small amounts of both). Most of our hay is put up with horses -- something which I'm quite proud of. However, doing everything with horses is not easy. Upon learning about our practices, one astute farmer noted "You can do about 10 acres that way, but no more." He was absolutely correct. Our current hay acreage is about 6-7 acres, and some years (particularly during second cutting in mid July's heat, humidity, and horseflies) I swear that it's nearly enough to kill me. Our horses probably don't like it a whole lot either. Getting it all cured and in the barn before the next rain invariably feels like a race against time.

Though our farm is nowhere near self sustaining, we're far enough down the path that I have an idea of what it would take to be that way. Without the use of fossil fuels, it turns out that meeting your own food requirements is a full time job for an entire family. Attempting to sell some of your production, when your competition invariably makes as much use of fossil fuels as possible, has got to be one of the fastest routes to a new life at the local gospel mission. It's like challenging someone to a race in which you'll wear sneakers while they drive a Maserati. You might enjoy the race, and leave the world a better place than the driver will, but you're gonna lose big.

With all this in mind, it's a given that 21 additional acres of hay, if we were to lease it, would not be managed without fossil fuels. We would probably have to use chemical fertilizer to keep the fields in good shape as well, since our manure spreader is always loaded by hand and our total manure production is not enough to cover that much ground.

If we were to harvest it ourselves, we'd need a bigger tractor to make it practical, along with a haybine, baler, and likely a new rake and additional hay wagons. That's several thousand dollars at a minimum, which we're woefully lacking as we recover from the recently finished barn. We'd ultimately need yet *another* barn to store all this equipment.

So the question then becomes whether we can find someone who would be willing to bale it for cash or on shares -- without costing us more than it would to simply purchase the equivalent hay. We have a neighbor who's expressed interest, but I do worry that this hay won't be a priority in such an arrangement. Hay that isn't prioritized gets rained on.

There are, of course, other criteria to be evaluated beyond the purely financial. No matter how it's harvested, hay from the field next door is invariably an environmental improvement over hay cut in the next county (or, at times, much further than that). Hay which we grow won't be sprayed with nasty insecticides for leaf-hoppers as may be done with purchased hay. Keeping the field next door under our control also ensures that we won't be drinking pesticides in our well water or losing our bees every winter to neonicotinoids (which are used on nearly all corn/soy seed).

Leasing opens up other options as well. While they're unlikely to be utilized while I'm pouring 50 hours a week into my day job and commute, we would potentially have the option to grow a significant portion of the grain (corn, oats, soy, etc) that we now purchase. We could, in theory at least, do some of the hay harvest with the horses as well. Raking or tedding hay, for instance, is nearly as fast with horses as it is with a tractor.

Last but not least are my ever present Chicken Little concerns. I've had these for a while, but thus far they've been delayed by lots of creativity (damn you Ben Bernanke and your quantitative easing!).  They force me to see things not just as they are, but as I expect them to become. First and foremost is the consideration of how long oil will be readily available or affordable. When that becomes a problem, there will be no hay or feed available at any price.

At least I'm in relatively good company. Both the Pentagon and the German Bundeswehr, among many others, have produced studies which point to 2015-2016 as the most likely period for the onset of significant problems with regard to global oil production. We don't need to wait for oil to run out before we have problems, as *any* supply constraints are likely to trigger economic gyrations that could easily derail us -- and make oil supply problems even worse.  If these studies are correct, now might be a *great* time to have a bunch of hay growing next door which we'll still have the ability to harvest, at least while our equipment holds up.

On the flip side, business as usual might well be sustained a bit longer by more creative economic contortions, making my concerns moot for the time being. If we go ahead and lease the property, I could easily spend *more* to lease, plant, and harvest hay than we do currently to purchase hay, while working ourselves to death for the privilege. We would also carry the entire risk of failed harvests, as has happened in two of the last three years on our existing hay fields.

I suppose it all boils down to this. So long as the industrial economy continues to function, it's the only place to make a living, and will remain a force with which we cannot successfully compete. Once it fails, clinging to it in hopes of a revival (a popular choice, I suspect) will be a recipe for certain failure. In the mean time we have to straddle both worlds -- making a living in the present while preparing for an uncertain future.

Thursday, March 5, 2015


I'm always a little offended when I see it.  Horse drawn plows, manure spreaders, grain drills, wagons, cultivators, etc, parked in someone's front yard for display.  

Sure -- the people who commit such crimes probably don't intend to offend. Some might even share my love of old farm equipment, but are having trouble expressing it in a proper manner. It absolutely kills me to see these things rotting and rusting away for no good reason, particularly the implements which started out in perfectly usable condition when they were parked there in the flowerbed.

Why should it bother me? It's like dancing on the grave of a more noble era. An era in which we had yet to go completely insane, and were less hell-bent on destroying our future for today's fleeting convenience.  An era which we'd do well to emulate rather than memorialize.  It's a burning of the bridge that offers the only route to a future.

Propping up a bit of our past like this seems to say, "Gee, isn't it great we don't have to use those things anymore!?", when we'd be much better off if we still did. Don't these folks understand that our "modern" lifestyles and technology are but a brief blip in the timeline of history that also threaten to end it? Apparently not.  We should look twice before discarding our past into history's waste bin.

I have a revenge planned, to be implemented as soon as I become fabulously wealthy from my dairying habit. I'm taking the biggest, baddest six hundred and twenty horsepower John Deere tractor -- the flagship of diesel fueled, chemically enhanced agriculture -- and I'm parking it in a flower bed. Watching it rust will warm my soul each time I gaze upon it.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Finished! Well... sort of.

Though finished is a relative term, our new barn is finished.  Well... at least finished aside from things like paint, gutters, stalls, rigging the hay trolley, glazing the windows, installing the surrounding fencing/gates, putting in a floor and/or concrete thresholds, water lines, electric service (not sure if I'll install that or not), cistern, and a multitude of other projects I'm purposefully ignoring for the sake of sanity. It is now barn-shaped anyway, and I think it's pretty. The pigeons don't seem to like the new siding so much, as they haven't figured out a way inside.

The new garden tool shed has a roof, and some framing is up around the windows-to-be, but the siding is still a bit lacking.  There are some leftovers from the barn, but I think most of it will have to be ordered separately.

February has been a rough month, with temps dropping below zero quite often.  Fortunately for our sheep, the lambs haven't started popping out just yet, but we've been expecting the deluge to start any day now -- for the last month.  Skiing has been quite good this winter, with no coverage problems whatsoever. Henry has really taken to his skis, and has been challenging us to ski races.  For some reason, he always arrives at the designated finish line before Rachel and I do.

With the cold temps and deep snow preventing a lot of other activities, blacksmithing has been a little more appealing. One day I spent out in our open-sided smithing / sugaring / lumber / wood shed watching the howling blizzard while I hammered away at a pot rack, which is now hanging above the cookstove.  
Now that our hogs are no longer slurping up the milk surplus, Rachel has become the cheese queen, with some great results.  Hard cheese making seems to be a real art, with very subtle differences in technique making for dramatic differences in the end product.

I've lately been reading quite a bit of Ben Hewitt's work, both his books and blog.  He and his wife Penny live in Vermont and have set up a neat homestead. They're also homeschooling their two boys in ways that I find quite impressive. Michigan does certainly have some advantages, but I've gotta say I'm envious of the community that they're situated in, where handcrafts and homesteading seem to be much more appreciated than they are in most of the country.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Five Little Piggies

Those of you who watch The Simpsons may remember an episode where Homer took a second job to pay for his daughter Lisa's pony (a birthday present). Having slept right through my alarm twice this week, I'm starting to feel a bit like Homer in that episode. In my case, however, the second job *is* a pony (well... 3 horses, 5 cows, 17 sheep... you get the picture).  Unlike Lisa, I refuse to give it up.

A significant part of my day is devoted to poop. Not my own, mind you (I don't have the time for that anyway), but rather that of our cows, who fill a few wheelbarrows with the stuff every day. To keep myself entertained during this twice-daily Scoopin' O' the Poopin', I've adapted a few songs. I have my own version of James Brown's "SexMachine", and Lennon's "Imagine". My versions just replace the appropriate nouns with situation-appropriate fecally-oriented words.

The barn project -- the same one I expected to be finished last March -- has gone on a tad longer than expected.  The hay lofts are filled with snow rather than hay this winter. We finally let the perennially absent original contractor go and hired another Amish contractor we've had good experiences with before. He was able to get some more siding up before having to go back to another previously scheduled project, and has more coming from his brother's mill. For now, the local pigeons really enjoy the open "perches with a roof" configuration.

I feel a bit like a toddler imitating his parents as I work next to the barn crew, but I'm having fun. My project is a tool shed for all our garden implements. I'd initially envisioned something more the size of a closet until Rachel suggested that bigger would be better. Sensing an opportunity to make use of the timber framing knowledge gathered from my class last spring, I set to work cutting down some of our many dying red pines (Inhofe is right -- climate change has benefits!), which have slowly become the frame of our new shed.

The only sawn lumber thus far is in the roof, and all came from trees cut when we were making room for the new barn.  The foundation is made of partially buried boulders. The roofing is steel siding salvaged from the moved barn as well. Being contrary as I am, I decided to make the rafters the old way, using pegged mortise & tenon joints without a ridge pole.

Henry helped out with the roof as well. It's pretty neat seeing him go from nailing random scraps of lumber together to doing truly useful tasks -- and doing them well to boot!

This last weekend we saw our pigs off to freezerland. Our usual on-farm butcher (a vietnam vet getting up in years) was out of commission, as was a backup butcher, forcing us to bring them in ourselves. In anticipation of this, I parked our pickup in their pen a week in advance.  We loaded their feeder in the back and constructed a ramp for them to reach it. After learning that hogs are terrified of heights exceeding 6 inches or anything which could be construed as slippery (like a gently sloping ramp), I managed to make something they would use.

When their fateful day arrived, we had trouble getting them all in the truck at once. Attempting to keep some of them in the truck while we lured the others in only made matters worse, as they freaked out, shoved us aside (a 300lb hog is very strong!) and bolted back down the ramp. Eventually we managed to get two of the five loaded and made it to the processor with them. After consulting with the butcher, I decided that my best option would be to dispatch the remaining three at home for delivery in a somewhat less animated state.

Though I've always been present at slaughter time, it's the first time I've had to kill our own hogs. It's just a .22 shot to the brain followed immediately by slitting their throat to bleed them out. I don't think I enjoyed it any more than the hogs did, but I do feel better about doing it myself. I've long felt that everyone eating meat should participate in butchering. Hiding the reality of meat production really cheapens the lives of the animals that we rely upon, as does hiding them out of sight in hog barns.

Clover (our border collie) has been quite distraught over fact that her "Piggy TV" was suddenly dropped from the airwaves, and regularly checks their pen to see if they've returned. We grew quite attached to this year's batch, and feel immense gratitude that we were able to know them during their brief lives, despite their demonic squealing and leg biting (or were those love bites?).

Friday, January 16, 2015

Home of the Free (to experiment on)

If you live and eat in the US, you and your family are part of the experiment. No sign-up was necessary, as your free pass is one of the many benefits of life here in the land of the free. In fact, we pay for the privilege of becoming lab-rats, first for the experimental food and then for the extortion-priced healthcare. The results of the experiment are in full view everywhere we go whether we see them in the shoppers at the local grocery, at work, or in the mirror.

People often have trouble connecting the conditions they see with the experiment they've been part of, but the link remains. Strangely enough, lung tumors don't show up on x-rays in the shape of a Marlboro logo.  Thunder thighs and oversized guts don't often have "Coca-Cola" logos on them either.  But, given the right information, most reasonable people can make the link.

Experiment #1:  Plastics

No matter what you eat, if you bought it, chances are it's packaged in plastic. Even if it's in a tin or aluminum can, it's packaged in plastic (modern cans all use plastic lining material). Long thought to be wonderfully "inert", we've since learned that this isn't the case.

From the NY Times article linked below, regarding the mice on the left: "They’re genetically the same, raised in the same lab and given the same food and chance to exercise. Yet the bottom one is svelte, while the other looks like, well, an American.

The only difference is that the top one was exposed at birth to just one part per billion of an endocrine-disrupting chemical."

The most widely known contaminant is BPA (bisphenol-a), which gained widespread recognition as one of the components of polycarbonate water bottles. There's plenty of reason for concern here. BPA is an endocrine disruptor, meaning that your body has receptors which capture it and react to it at extremely low levels, as our body does with hormones we produce ourselves.  In fact, you don't even need to be directly exposed to any BPA at all in order to experience the effects it's been linked to (obesity, autism, diabetes, etc). It has trans-generational effects lasting as long as three generations.

Lucky me, I've got this stuff in my teeth, as does most anyone with composite fillings.  Are mercury amalgam fillings any better? Yet another reason not to eat the concentrated sugars and starches of the modern industrial diet, which are what typically cause cavities.

BPA, as it turns out, is just the tip of the iceberg. One study tested a wide variety of "food safe" plastics, discovering that 95% of them were leaching compounds also thought to be endocrine disruptors, but which are less well known. This includes plastics and can-liners which are now being touted as "BPA free".

It also turns out that phthalates -- chemicals often used to soften plastics used in soda bottles -- are directly linked with insulin resistance and the development of diabetes.  Drink pop from a can and a bottle (one in each hand, of course), and you're likely participating in all 3 of the experiments I've listed here today. What's not to like about going blind and having your digits and limbs amputated, while going bankrupt for the privilege?

Yet another reason to grow your own, or at the very least avoid packaged and processed foods.  Go for the glass jars or bottles when you can.

Experiment #2:  Pesticides

Back in 1962, Rachel Carson published her now famous book, "Silent Spring".  This woke a lot of us lab-rats up to one of the experiments they'd been subjected to, resulting in a ban on DDT in 1972. Unfortunately for us, this pesticide is quite long lived, and still remains the most common contaminant found in the mud of many lakes and streams. It's still used in countries like China (but, hey, what isn't?) where we get a lot of our food here in the US. (hint: avoid anything made with apple juice concentrate that's not explicitly US sourced)

A Washington State University researcher recently discovered that DDT also has trans generational effects, just like BPA.  It makes people fat, though not from direct exposure.  The effects are noted primarily in those whose great-grandparents were exposed to it.  They're apparently even greater than the effects of the above noted BPA.

As I noted earlier, "Roundup" -- which is sprayed on the vast majority of all corn and soy in the US, among other crops, is now being implicated in the dramatic rise in autism. But you don't eat corn and soy, you say?  Au contraire!

I've railed on enough already about my favorite pesticide -- Atrazine. Suffice to say that I've met a lot of breast cancer patients here in the corn belt.

Experiment #3:  High Fructose Corn Syrup

Judging by the carts piled high with suitcases and 2-liter bottles of pop at my local grocery store, it seems to be a hot commodity. Judging by the physique of the people pushing (or, oftentimes, riding on) these carts, that may not be such a good thing. Yes, like most industrially produced food, pop is cheap. Aside from the benzene, BPA, mercury, and phthalates it contains, it has yet another problem. The high-fructose corn syrup used to sweeten pop (and ketchup, cookies, and a whole host of other foods from companies you should avoid) triggers insulin resistance.

Michael Pollan noted in one of is books, if you've ever seen something advertised, chances are you shouldn't be eating it. That's just a start, but I'd say that's excellent advice!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Who's to Blame?

Back in 2007, while selling our former home/sailboat, one of the prospective buyers and I got to talking about farming. His brother was raising organic beef on a ranch somewhere out west, and was apparently having a tough time of it. The other ranchers in the area -- all conventional -- saw his organic methods as an indictment of their own, and treated him accordingly.

Though I haven't met any that seemed at all hostile, I often wonder if some of the surrounding farmers -- anyone who knows a bit about our small farm -- think the same of us. Perhaps others assume that I look down upon conventional farmers because of their methods.

As a former commercial forester, I've been one of the "bad guys" myself. People expressed their contempt for our company in various ways, whether that meant writing letters to the editor, sending us damning email, or slashing tires on our pickups at the local gas station. I was directly involved in everything from dousing the Cascade foothills with herbicides, to clearcutting, to helping with salmon-stream destroying logging roads. I chose forestry as a profession not because I was a proponent of any of these activities, but in part because I thought I might be able to lessen some of their impacts.  I'd suspect that many farmers see themselves in the same position.

Farmers are typically independent business owners rather than employees, but they don't have much more latitude in their decision making than I did as a forester. Both foresters and farmers are working within the confines of a system that's been set up for them, with relatively lax bounds when it comes to practices with negative impacts. Those bounds are set in part by an unconcerned and ignorant public that grows less connected to the natural world by the day. Increasingly, they're also set by the large corporations that seek greater profit margins, using lobbyists and campaign "donations" to further degrade the regulatory environment.  They even write the laws themselves!

In the anything goes environment that dominates agriculture nowadays, those with the least moral fortitude set the standard for profitability. The rest of the farmers who must compete with them must also emulate them or they'll drive themselves out of business. A public that purchases anything based on price alone drives the standards ever lower, punishing the rare farmer who might dare to forego the benefits of Atrazine or Roundup.

Americans, not surprisingly, spend less of their income on food than people in any other country.  We also spend more than anyone else on healthcare.  Coincidence?

People who have educated themselves and make the attempt to improve matters by purchasing organic or directly from responsible farmers still harbor price expectations based upon the prevalent industrial methods. The minority of farmers who cater to this expanding market typically find that the higher prices they can command still don't justify the additional expenses of responsible production methods. Thus the organic farmer with a second job.

Our personal and environmental health aren't just a concern for hairy sandal-wearing hippies, either. Even the pentagon brass is concerned.  Perhaps they just need to consider the formation of a new Rascal Brigade?  Just imagine if we had to mobilize our country as we did for WWII.  Can you see them trying to make their way to the summit of Iwo Jima?   Maybe an upgrade would be in order, for the special forces at least.

So who is to blame for the fact that our food and water are now loaded with harmful and often peristent chemicals?  Who's to blame for the well documented drop in soil health and nutritional quality of the food it produces?  Who's to blame for 50% cancer rates, diabetes rates trending to hit 30% in my son's generation, and 30% obesity rates?

It's the family buying groceries with an ever shrinking budget, and little concern for how their food was produced. It's the grocer who stocks them with concern only for salability and shelf-life. It's the doctor who treat cancers, never speaking out against the cause of his patient's ills. It's the industrial food processors and their executives, hoping to climb the corporate ladder to a bigger McMansion and nicer car. It's the regular people who invest in the food processors, demanding only shareholder return in hopes of a comfortable retirement. It's the bankers who finance such companies while turning a blind eye to their effects. It's a corporately funded media that doesn't dare to inform the public and thus risk their valuable advertising dollars. It's the farmer who dares not read anything beyond the MSDS on the pesticides they use, for fear of learning how his wife got her breast cancer or his son developed autism. Everyone is to blame, and everyone needs to try a little harder, perhaps even taking some risk to make the world a better place.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Jevon's Paradox also works in reverse

Though always plagued by negative publicity after they collapse, Ponzi schemes work out quite well for the early participants. If you can get in (and out!) early enough, you're set.

My grandparents generation was likely the first in all of human history to experience retirement on a large scale. My parent's generation looks to be alright for the moment, though their whole story has not yet been written.

My generation, and those that follow, not only lack this opportunity, but will be paying for the collapsing scheme in terms of a failing planet. Though most have not yet consciously embraced this fact, I think we've all sensed it at some level.  Witness three recent movies to hit the box office -- Interstellar, Snowpiercer, and Mockingjay. Contrast those with the movies we used to explore our future as I was growing up, like 2001, or Star Wars.

Jevon's Paradox, for those unfamiliar with the concept, essentially states that energy use actually *increases* as efficiency improves. Jevon noted this effect with the early steam engines of his day. Increased efficiency lowers the cost of operation, thereby increasing demand.

Living as we do in the techno-utopia of the 21st century USA (cough, cough), we're constantly bombarded by stories of increasing efficiency, whether it's cars, electronics, or streamlined manufacturing. It's enough to make us think that the rise of efficiency is a one-way street, but we'd be wrong.

As Gail Tverberg notes on her excellent blog, a number of sectors in the global economy are suffering from significant *decreases* in efficiency. Of greatest note is the energy sector, where almost all recently utilized reserves have a much lower EROEI than those of the 20th century, whether that's fracked gas and oil, tar sands, ultra-deepwater oil, or mountaintop removal for coal extraction.

As efficiency decreases, prices rise, which can lead to demand collapse. She believes this is what's currently happening in the oil sector. Other critical sectors of the economy are in similar straits, whether that's healthcare, mining, education, or fresh water supply.

When these sectors of the economy -- and the other sectors which rely upon them -- were doing well, investing in public corporations made some sense, at least among the majority who are willing to ignore the clinically psychopathic behavior that characterizes most large public corporations. As Upton Sinclair once noted, "It's difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it."   Just replace the word "salary" with "retirement".

When efficiency in critical economic sectors is on the decline, the whole industrial economy has the brakes applied, calling for extreme (if temporary) measures such as quantitative easing. These band-aids can't really solve the problem, but only delay the inevitable. The denial they help foster ultimately makes the problems worse.

When investment no longer makes sense, retirement moves from the realm of possibility back to its traditional home in the world of fantasy. The sooner people realize that fact, the better prepared they'll be, and the less they'll lose to failing investments.