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.
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.
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?
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.
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.