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.

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