January 2013 Archives

Everything that is Good and Right with the World

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One of the songs sung at the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society meetings by a group of young girls

Tonight everything that is good and right with the world can be found in Aberdeen South Dakota. Just so you know, I'm sure it's not the only place. But this minute I'm sitting with hundreds of farmers and farm families. Not just any old farmers, but that creative, passionate and talented group that makes up the self-proclaimed 'sustainable' farmers at the Saturday night banquet of the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society meetings. Looks like it will be a record year with over 500 people attending.

I'm sitting among old men who still carry hankies and young guys wiping tears from their faces as a 20-something year old man sings the song he wrote for the farmer dad he lost at age 13. A lament for the father he wishes could take him around the field to plow a couple more times and teach him more about how to run the tractor- the hum of which is like a hymn. And, ultimately, how his faith comforts him in his bereavement. And then you should see the smile and joy that come when our kids, from toddlers to teens, put on a show for us singing and marching and then ending with the call out:

"Sustainability for the Future!
Sustainability for the Future!
We are the Future!"

These talented and unselfconscious kids stand up there with a confident based on scooping up chickens in their arms, milking cows, driving tractors, and in general being a needed and helpful part of running a family farm.

This is the Home Grown music event and these farmers have basically just pulled together a show in a couple days. Poetry, fiddles, harmonica, singers of all ages, a bass and a couple electric guitars. I said to my daughter "what do you think these families do for fun?" "They play music and sing together." So not only do these folks farm their own counter-industrial way, but they are raising their kids differently and in some ways better than I am able. Music- it is just woven, woven, woven into these children. We should all be thankful that these kids are being raised to farm independently and entertain themselves, their families and their communities independently. Here they are singing:


I'll Fly Away, sung by Home Grown Music at the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society

What I love about these farmers is that they thrive on being creative, innovative, poetic and spiritual. I was at the Grain Breeding Roundtable break out session for the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society's Farm Breeding Club on Saturday morning. Farmer extraordinaire David Podoll placed in our hands a bag of oats that he had been growing out for a dozen plus years. The remarkable part of that bag of oats is that it is a collection of 1200 oat varieties that had been selected by farmers (and more recently agronomists/scientists) over the past 7,000+ years. It's called a landrace and it is a rich, diverse set of genetics. In a time when the gene pool is getting more and more narrow, having a keeper of this range of diversity is invaluable. It is exactly the level of diversity needed to adapt to a changing climate- wetter, dryer, hotter, more erratic.

Let me tell you something about that Grain Breeding Round table, which was attended by farmers, PhD Agronomists, and more. We talked about the usual grain breeding stuff- like what is needed for grains in organic systems, things like a fast growing canopy that can shade out and out compete weeds; more straw/taller plants; and a good root system to withstand drought. But then the tones got hushed. David passed around the 1200 variety mix of oats- which we held in our hands- then we talked about how it feels to run your hand through your harvested crop. What it feels like to have the grains run between your fingers- and how all farmer do that. That there is a spirit in some plants/seed- like a certain variety of flint corn--there is something else there. David says it is the choosing of beauty--not just the needed traits but the beauty that draws us to certain plants and their seeds. There are farmers and plant breeders that, in our long evolution of crops, have put their life force into their plants. And so we have an obligation to make sure it is not lost--that spirit, passion, and (I'll say) the loving attention. An attention that comes from doing one thing and doing it season after season- farming.

Then our conversation turned to not just the loss of genetic diversity, but that greatest tragedy of the last 20-30 years- the loss of knowledge and skills in cropping systems. There is a dependence that grows, after just a few years, on the packaged farm input that expert advisors provide and GPS guided tractors plant .

Do you have a sense of how precarious our 14,000 year evolution of farming has been and on whose shoulders it rests? We have such a fervent belief in progress, science and technology that we forget all the subtle skills and knowing that have successfully brought humans to the year 2013. I believe that there is a balance- that the scientific understanding of the world has brought us tremendous good and prosperity. But not at the expense of losing 100's of generations of built knowledge, skills, and connection with the natural world that got us to this point. Now, I don't think that everyone should be farmers- it is a calling like other callings. Some people who farm were simply never meant to farm- there were people who were thrilled to leave the land and become accountants. But there are also people for whom the connection and work of farming is in their blood- they can feel it in their bones (in a good sense). Those are the folks who attend the NPSAS winter conference.

There was a speaker at the conference that I was surprised to find that I really loved and
enjoyed--Amanda Brumfield, Mrs. North Dakota. Mrs. North Dakota spoke of her experience representing rural women at a national pageant. She is a domestic violence nurse educator who works with children. One story that she told is especially important to repeat. The loss of young adults from our rural communities is something that many people would like to reverse. One day she was talking to a group of 8th graders and asked them to anonymously write down whether or not they would want to back to their small rural town. 18 of the kids said 'no.' Amanda asked the crowd to guess the reasons that the kids gave for not moving back. The crowd shouted out "jobs" "entertainment".... But those weren't the answers--15 of the 18 kids said "gossip" was the reason they wouldn't move back.

Gossip.

The kids she surveyed had seen and heard the adults in their community tear each other apart. Because of that, they wanted to live safe away from prying eyes and harsh tongues- someplace where their foibles, weakness, shortcomings, and mistakes would be anonymous. That is an important message for those of us in small communities. We should demonstrate to our kids, over the supper table and in our conversations, a generosity of spirit towards those around us and a gentleness of words toward our neighbors.

Back to the Home Grown music entertainment and the farmer poet. I'm hoping the folks
at NPSAS can post his poems on their website. Each poem ended with a twist and with the poet a sparkle in his eye and a grin on his face- poems on bulls, -30 degree weather, the intelligent and strong women in his life who understand compassion, beauty and creativity. To which I say "back at'cha farmer poet." And ending with the abundance that comes from a jersey cow milked for a family and neighbors- and how you reach that balance between what you need and what you get.

I could go on for pages on what I learned, enjoyed and felt. But I will end with a simple "Thank you" to the staff, board, and members of the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society. See you next January in Aberdeen South Dakota.

A Counter Cyclical Investment

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New fence posts on the farm

I've said this before, but it bears repeating. Our neighbors think we are idiots. Not all of them.

The price of corn is so high that it can tempt a good man, a farmer, to not only plow up humble farmsteads (see entry below) but to turn over graves and bury the tombstones in pits. In the face of this gold rush, we took 100+ perfectly good, fertile, flat land out of corn production and are put it into pastures. Yeah, I'll tell you that it's not just the neighbors who think we are idiots, but Mike and I sometimes look deep into each other's eyes and say "what the hell are we doing this for?" We could just rent this land out for an exorbitant price and get rich the easy way. No... we have to do this the poor and hard way.

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Watering station piped in. Boys chasing backhoe to next station.

Here's where we're going. We are looking to be grass farmers. This is the rainfed, tallgrass prairie after all and so we know that for most of the past 10,000 years this place has done really well as grassland. The plan, as much as it is, is to raise entirely grassfed beef using what is called intensive rotational grazing and probably mob grazing.

I just paused to ask Mike if we'll be doing mob grazing and he said "yes- depending on the weather" (meaning enough rain to green up the paddocks). Without knowing what I was writing about he said "yeah- that will mean more work, but we can get more cattle on per acre." I started laughing at the "more work" comments. And he said- but we can have the kids do that.

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Playing on corner posts.

More work. Less money. For what? For an abstract security for us and for our community. What kind of security? Well, if monopolized seed and input companies decide to jack up the price of seed, fertilizer, pesticides then farmers gotta pay. Can't say the same thing about our 28 species pasture mix. What we're hoping (praying) for is that some of those 28 warm and cool season plant species will thrive in the variety of weather events we've seen on this farm. In just the five growing seasons I have lived here we've seen nearly ½ of our farm under flood water and been land locked because our roads were underwater to the extreme drought we're under now where the soil profile is dry as a bone 15 feet down (by the way 'bone dry' is a figure of speech). The land is under remarkable dryness that is startling even to the old timers.

I ask again--what kind of security are we looking for? What kind of advantage? What kind of return on the investment of our time and our money?

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Speaking of money- very unMinnesotan of me- the 3.5+ miles of fence and pipe we installed on the farm this fall cost just over $34,000. Now if you add the minimum we could have received for cash rent for that land ($15,000) that comes to a $49,000 cost with $0 return on investment. Investment... Ha! We've divested in all those ephemeral virtual digital spreadsheets that you can see on your computer screen- you know- those things like college funds for our kids, retirement accounts for us, and bank balances in the black. Our plan for our kids' education (off farm) is selling a few of those cows in the pasture each semester to pay tuition.

You need us for security too. Why? Because any good portfolio is diversified. Just ask any Wall Street investment guy and he'll tell you "Diversity is Good." It's their credo. You need stock, bonds, large cap, small cap, international etc... You don't put all your eggs in one basket. Likewise, there is a need for diversity in farming and farmers too. In case things don't go as planned in Algerian oil fields or we find out the Bakken Oil Play costs us 1 barrel of oil to extract 1 barrel of shale oil, you'll be glad there are oases of farmers and food production across the landscape that have a range of skills and practices to jump start the agricultural system. Diversity is good- especially in something as critical as producing food.

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Frankly, I think a huge part of the local foods movement is our instinctual knowledge that having food production (real food- not Hot Pockets and Mountain Dew) that is recognizable and understandable and close by is absolutely connected to our well being and maybe even our survival. The global food supply brings untold pleasures (read coffee and cinnamon to name two), but a local food supply bring daily sustenance. I digress.

We are making this counter cyclical investment for another reason -- we want to be the change that we seek in the world. We've put our family on the front line of sustaining happy, healthy, family farms and the rural communities that they are bound up with. Now there are plenty of good folks down this path in front of us- Audrey, Laverne, Richard, Mary Jo and many more. But it sure feels like the front line from my kitchen table.

I'll quote one of my living folk heroes, John Michael Greer, in his recent column

...any meaningful response to the crisis of our time has to begin on the individual level, with changes in our own lives. To say that it should begin there doesn't mean that it should end there; what it does mean is that without the foundation of personal change, neither activism nor community building nor anything else is going to do much. We've already seen what happens when climate activists go around insisting that other people ought to decrease their carbon footprint, while refusing to do so themselves, and the results have not exactly been good [kjd notes: the result is that people don't take climate change seriously and even stop thinking that it is really happening]. Equally, if none of the members of a community are willing to make the changes necessary to decrease their own dependence on a failing industrial system, just what good is the community as a whole supposed to do?

So we are rolling the dice that we need to have a diversified, labor intensive farming system in place so that over time whatever trajectories we are on-- you name it--the end of petroleum era, the consequences of leaving the gold currency standard, a flu pandemic, climate change, the zombie apocalypse (I've trained my children to "repeat after me 'the zombie apocalypse is a metaphor for what happens to humans in the collapse of civilization'") or a dust bowl.

Be the change you hope to see in the world. What do we - what do I--want to see in the world?


  • Meadowlarks on my farm

  • Green fields for months on end

  • Vital, thriving rural communities

  • Wholesome food that feeds our bodies without making us fat and feeds our souls in its production

  • Animals that thrive in healthy, real environments until they become our food (note: our baby calves dance, jump, run and play through the green grass. And I don't ever recall calves frolicking in dense, dirt feedlots)

  • Soils that are protected and regenerated and held in place for generation of farmers to come

  • Trees, orchards, windbreaks

  • Clean energy

  • The sense of pride of meal on your table that comes from your land, your labor and G-d's goodness.

  • Raising children who know the value of hard work and actual 'fruits' of their labors

  • Needing to pay attention to the natural world every day and throughout the day for the well-being of the animals in your care and for the crops you are tending.

Along with these earnest hopes for my world, I hope that I am gaining the street cred to promote this path. Voluntary simplicity. Voluntary labor. Investment.

Just tonight Mike and I noodled over the numbers to get our John Deere 4440 fixed--a cool $7,000 in repairs. If we fix it we could still get the money back if we needed to, cuz' we could sell if for more than the cost of the repairs. Let me say, there's a lot of that kinda reckoning going on around our farm.

Political activism, community building, and a great many other proposed responses to the crisis of our time are entirely valid and workable approaches if those who pursue them start by making the changes in their own lives they expect other people to make in turn. Lacking that foundation, they go nowhere. It's not even worth arguing any more about what happens when people try to get other people to do the things they won't do themselves; we've had decades of that, it hasn't helped, and it's high time that the obvious lessons get drawn from that fact. (John Michael Greer again)

Oh, and did I mention that we saw the first Meadow Lark on our farm since we moved back? Priceless.

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2013 listed from newest to oldest.

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