Archive for the ‘the daily grind’ Category

why? part two

Where do we want to see differences in our lives?  Another way to ask this is to consider:  what are the aspects of the received culture that we find the least tolerable, or the most threatening?  Nutritionally vacuous and toxic food may be at the top of some lists; endless, mindless, soulless media streaming for others.  The replacement of infancy and childhood with cradle-to-maturity (sic) incarceration and indoctrination, prefabricated, dictated, every encounter preordained, every experience pre-digested, every impression predetermined; the replacement of adulthood with impermanency,  virtual reality and wage slavery.  Are these inflictions going to be thrown off, are we going to replace them with a rich sensual experience of the world, unfiltered, direct; with choices open for our making, with action and reaction, real encounter in a world of which we are an organic part, that responds to us organically; with the right, becoming imperative, to decide what is worth living and dying for and then to do our level best to live – and perhaps die – for it?

Because if we are, it’s not going to be by making little breaks with the techno-digital-military-industrial-brainwashing behemoth.  We won’t fulfill our parental obligations by putting our kids in charter schools and making sure they go to church on Sundays; we won’t wrest our souls from the slough of self-indulgence, nor our bodies from a chemically-depressed adulthood and a pharmaceutically-dependent old age, by putting organic blueberries on our industrial-imitation greek yogurt in the mornings and doing yoga over the lunch hour.  Bosh, tish and piffle.

A fig for your organic blueberries.  Are we human beings?  Have we immortal souls?  Do we belong to the same race as Dante, St. Francis and the meanest serf who ever drove Boss and Crumbocke out to graze on the village commons?  Our universe is the same one which for them teemed, surged, fulminated with power, mystery and fruitfulness, even if by a unanimity of unawareness and indifference civilization has for centuries been drawing a thick shroud over that mystical body and calling it a corpse.  It hasn’t gone anywhere; when we lift our eyes from our screens, open the doors and windows of our ugly, flimsy dwellings, whenever we step outside, it surges in at our ears, noses, eyes in a welcome as boisterous, and perhaps as sloppy and even (initially) frightening, as that of a large, exuberant  dog.  We don’t need permission to go looking for it; we don’t even need, in many cases, to go anywhere at all.  Any dirt, sunlight, water are pregnant with incipient life, life that accepts our absence with complete indifference, but which, the moment we show a disposition to play, makes room for us in the scuffle and tosses us the ball. Let’s step outside and get in the game.


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Options.  We’re a culture that worships options, that considers an increase of options as a de facto good, and any stricture upon our options as (probably) a violation of an inalienable right.  The world should be so ordered that everyone has the possibility of choosing any future for him-or her- (or some combination or negation of the two)-self.  All food possibilities should be available to all people.  Every education option open to every child.  One’s marriage (or any other kind of) partner should be disposable, ditto babies, old people and people condemned by the ‘justice’ system.  By contrast our own lifestyle, which every morning finds us going out to milk cows which must be milked, no exception, seems to eliminate every option except perhaps who milks which cow.

People sometimes ask us, only partly joking, why we bother to work so hard.  Leaving aside the first answer that springs to our minds — ‘we like what we do’ — and the second and third and fourth, having to do with the fascinations of being part of a place and a community of living things and the endless possibilities for creativity, there are reasons of another sort, reasons that might be called anti-reasons:  for every positive reason we love farming, there seems to be a negative in the culture to which our farming is the antidote.

True story:  Parents with two children under ten told us recently that they’d given all the children’s toys to Goodwill.  Reason?  The toys were never getting played with because both children preferred just to ‘play’ on their tablets.  Note:  the discussion began with the observation that the children never played outside.  Ever.  Were the parents happy about this situation, did they consider it a good thing for their children?  On the contrary, they were distressed at circumstances they knew, at least on some level, to be unhealthy, but they didn’t know what to do about it.

We don’t even know where to start with this.  Who bought Googlechrome for a couple of kids barely into grade school, anyway?  And what’s to get the kids away from the tablets and take them outside — the sandbox and swing set (if there are any)?  Where do Mom and Dad take their relaxation?  Are these real problems, or just bad judgement calls?

And where are we going with this train of thought?

Just here:  The tidal surge of modern civilization has been setting in a particular direction for (humanly speaking) a long time now.  Whether you put a name to it or not, you have only to keep your eyes half-open to note some characteristics:  We’re moving further into the mechanized, computerized and man-made.  Our food systems are inclining, some small resistance notwithstanding, toward the processed, the synthetic, the artificial, and the chemically-enhanced (Coca-cola now markets a bottled ‘super-milk’; the stuff mammals make apparently needed improvement).  ‘Work’ means tapping computer keys and either eliminating actual physical exertion altogether or passing it on to the inferior classes (anyone who makes less per hour than we do).  Beauty means new from Walmart.  In every aspect of our lives what is natural and free and utterly simple (like breast milk) has been replaced with what is artificial, expensive and multiplex (like baby formula, and then specialized baby formula, and then hypoallergenic specialized baby formula, and then colic medicine and eighty-seven different immunizations).  Hence our friends with no idea what to do about their avatar-bound tablet-enslaved children.  Like it or not, along these lines lies the trajectory being mapped out for the collective ‘we’ by our powerful technocracies.

We are beginning to wonder if it’s not kind of late in the day to express one’s objections by buying organic.  Any small act of defiance is meaningful, but will it serve?  Do we want freedom?  — want beauty, simplicity, community?  Do we think it’s to be had in small coin, or picked up along with some chips and a soda at the gas station?  What seems to be needed is some radical deviation.  Let’s consider whether life isn’t short enough, and beauty worthy enough, to demand our complete commitment.  This will take different forms for different people.

Let’s think about what we really think is worthy, what is good, or true, or beautiful.  Think beyond what we already know to things we think may be unattainable.  Let’s concentrate on these; study these.  At the same time, make time in your day or week to do something that is 1) free, 2) unselfish, and 3) that makes you uncomfortable.  Make friends with a neighbor.  Volunteer at the Children’s Hospital.  Join the old crocks making homebrew at the senior center.  Go to church.  Then, go to work and talk about these things and see who pays attention.  Refuse to be normal; it gets easier with practice.

It isn’t going to be enough just to criticize the culture as we watch it crash and burn.  (TBC)





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Poultry serve multiple purposes on our farm, moving over pastures and gardens in (at the moment) four different flocks of from ten to thirty layers and a couple of roosters.  Some of the birds clean up after the grazing animals, but about half of them are pastured in garden areas where we want to apply some high-nitrogen fertilizer, clean up insect pests, scrap out weed seedlings, or flatten a grown-in-place mulch.  In the fall, though, when laying slows down, we cull non-layers so we don’t carry so many birds through the winter.  This isn’t done on the basis of age, at least not solely — some twenty of our birds are in their fifth year and still productive — but according to a physical examination that considers the space between their pelvic bones, the space between the pelvic bones and the keel bone, the color of their feet and legs, and the condition of their vent.

Two fingers or more space between the pelvic bones, four between pelvis and keel, bleached legs (not yellow), and a moist, open vent are what we are looking for, and three out of four of these will usually win that hen a reprieve from the hatchet.  Last week we went over all the birds; seventeen didn’t make the cut.  A very busy morning for three of us, and (for one) an afternoon with a couple of canners.  Only two birds had eggs in them, which we would consider a good score; the older birds we kept seem to be laying at about sixty percent, not bad for November.  We’ve had a lower rate of lay, but much better luck with longevity in our layers since we switched from commercial laying mash to fermented whole grains with no GM or soy; and our mix of whole grains, supplemented three or four times a week with milk or meat scraps, is much cheaper per pound than commercial feed.

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stockpiling pasture

setting up fenceEarly November has us calculating and recalculating our winter pasture reserves, or ‘stockpiled’ pasture, that is, the half or so of our grasslands that have been set aside starting in late July/early August to grow and mature grass for winter grazing.  In a perfect world, if we do it right, we only have to feed hay if we get a hard ice crust over snow; all the rest of the winter our animals are in the pasture grazing.  Grass that has been stored like this is demonstrably better feed than ‘made’ hay, and we’ve got a lot less work in it, too.  Plus, animals that spend the winter in the field drop their manure and urine in the field, too, and if you’ve never cleaned out a lounging shed with a winter’s deep bedding in it you probably can’t appreciate what a big job it is without heavy equipment.


But in this our less-than-perfect world, we can plan and think and plan and think some more, and still we won’t know until it happens if we’ve set aside enough grass for the winter.  One reason is the weather, both right now, and in January, February and March.  Right now (and for the past two months) the question mostly had to do with getting enough rain to start the grass growing after the hot season (it came, but it was late) and how long the really cold weather hods off and lets the grass go on growing, albeit slowly.  Later in the winter, if it’s very cold or very wet or very icy, the cow’s may need more grass than we have set aside.  And finally, if we don’t cull enough animals now — sell them or butcher them — instead of coming through the winter with a certain number of well-fed animals and little money spent on hay, we may have a few too many scrawny animals and a big hay bill.

So — two steers are boarding with our friend Dale, who raises Navajo Churros and has some extra room, and two steers were butchered.  One lactating cow and her calf were downgraded to the dry cows’ pasture, where, since she is no longer in the milking string, the cow’s nutritional needs will be less, and will be satisfied with our less-nutritious forage.  Two heifers are staying for replacement stock, but two others will be culled if the vet says they haven’t settled to breeding.  The current year’s calves all stay — the steers and bulls are next year’s steaks, and heifer calves constitute our hope that with time we’ll develop a strain of dairy cows particularly suited to our farm — what is called a ‘landrace’.

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shawn and babyIs the sustainable farm movement missing a major piece of its puzzle?

Organics conferences seem to consist of a very small percentage of people who make (or at least in the last couple of years have made) a reliable (if sometimes marginal) living at it, a larger percentage of people who at the end of the year are hovering between being in the black and in the red, and an even larger percentage of people only just starting or thinking of starting.  All the people in the second and third categories wish they were in the first, and most of these latter are here as speakers or organizers.

Is there perhaps a missing piece of the puzzle – a class of people for whom serious farming, for food and for a lifestyle, is the goal, but who have no expectation, perhaps no desire, even, that farming should generate sufficient cash completely to replace whatever else they do?  People who perhaps already like what they do for cash, but still want to be in the country and raise food/live, too?  Or people who have something they would like to do – art creation or performance, ministry, craft work or skilled labor – from which they do not expect to be able to derive an adequate cash income, and who in addition would like to live in the country and raise their food? – People who, if they could farm for food, beauty, health and pleasure, might be able to make the smaller income they could derive from their avocation be an adequate one?

One thought that comes to our minds is that the sustainable agriculture community of the future may — perhaps should — come to include in large proportion a class of farmer that once made up most of the human race, and today is hardly on our organic maps.  We mean the family farmer, the man, woman or couple who stewards a few acres very well, grows his own and his family’s food with some over for extended family, community and charity, and also plies a trade or avocation.  Not just one or the other, farming or avocation, will make up his entire occupation and living, but both or either, simultaneously or cyclically.

It is pretty well accepted among small-scale farmers that direct market, farm-to-consumer sales, allowing as they do that the famer should receive retail prices for his goods, is a necessary condition for most small farmers to pull down a cash income even remotely comparable to what is generally considered a living wage.  But a glance at the map of the U.S. in particular, or the world in general, will inform inquiry that, indeed, much of the habitable portion of the planet is too far from a civic center of any appreciable size for direct-market (farm to consumer) sales to make up an entire income anyway.  What then?  Is that land to remain in the hands of ‘conventional’ (and destructive) agriculture?  or is it to return entirely to grazing lands, for large herds which will have to be shipped long distances to market?  If land far distant from concentrated populations of people with money to spend on responsibly, sustainably grown food, is to be regenerated and restored to deep fertility, this land will have to be farmed intimately by careful stewards — and that, at least for the foreseeable future, means without the farmer deriving a full living from cash crop sales.

Who then is to farm these lands?

Our visits to sustainable agriculture fairs, workshops and conferences suggest to us that there is an army of interested, informed and avid farmers of many ages eager to take up the challenge.  It is an issue we think is going to need great deal more attention over the next few years.

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The new chicken tractor is as easy to move as a wheelbarrow, making it a good choice for use by our oldest grandchildren.  It holds five birds comfortably (27 square feet of space) and creates good impact on the pasture we are presently renewing.  In the winter it will be a great tractor for use in the garden, where we put chickens over the dormant raised beds to clean up weeds.  In the fall, they will be followed by a sowing of winter-hardy greens, or else a green manure of rye; when the weather turns really cold, bare soil will be covered by a good mulch of hay or shredded leaves.

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Chestnuts are so lovely that collecting them is like hunting for Easter eggs, a fun trip to make in the evening after supper dishes are done.  So far we have gathered about ten pounds, a good harvest.  Some we eat right away — a chestnut is a nice package of proteins and carbs, mildly sweet — but they will be sweeter, and their texture more silky, after a couple of months aging in the back of the refrigerator.  We suppose this is why they are traditionally a winter food.

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