There's Only So Much West.

The Lincoln Highway Seen
by Kass and Eric Mencher

We in the "New World" have a handicap in that our entire history has been one of exploiting natural resources. "Go west young man..." is embroidered on our society's genes in orange thread.

The reason one could (and was expected to) "lift themselves up by the bootstraps" was the existence of vast tracts of virgin territory containing timber and mineral ores and ancient fertile soils and of course coal and oil and gas - all there for the taking, just a short ride off toward the sunset.

Of course we're currently burning through those gifts like the lottery winnings they are, but we've convinced ourselves it is us that is special, when it reality it was only blind luck that put us in the right place at the right time and the right color and (usually) the right sex. In other words, we were 'Born on third base and thought we'd hit a triple' – to mix metaphors.

As we subdivided and privatized and populated and mined the commons, "growth" was inevitable and so a "growth economy" made sense. The role of government was small since there was a huge surplus to go around and that always makes governing easier. Until, that is, the early period of industrialization when the production of "capital" wealth outran the ability (and will) of government to protect the populace from the rapidly concentrating power wielded by monopolists.

Teddy Roosevelt and the "Trust Busters" interrupted the march of the industrialists for a time but by the "Roaring Twenties" the wealthy overclass once again had money to burn - and gamble. They inflated another speculative bubble in commodities and the stock market that even the little guy eventually tried to ride. Of course when the little guy gets on board you better know it's time to get off - think real estate in 2005.

During the depression, income taxes on the rich were raised and the ensuing fifty years saw the most uniformly prosperous time in US history. Everyone prospered, the owners made money and the workers shared in the success. Unfortunately the political tides of the last 40 years have shifted and the citizenry duped into believing if you let wealth concentrate, eventually some will "trickle down" - contrary to past experience. As a result, wealth is concentrated more than at any time since the great crash of '29, the "rights" of corporations are judged to be protected by the Constitution and more and more, control of the very essentials of survival; food, shelter, heat and even water are being privatized, purchased and controlled by corporations simply because that's all that's the only place left for them to spend their vast cash reserves.

Our whole system is based on the government loaning money into the economy at interest. That interest has to come from somewhere and the somewhere is "growth". The problem of course is there can be no growth without the availability of cheap raw materials, the gold-nuggets-as-big-as-your-fist-just-waiting-to-be-picked-up and of course most other minerals, the big stands of timber, tall-grass prairies, endless fisheries, easy fossil fuels... are all gone or going fast.

So here we are at the end of another speculative bubble blown because too much money was in the hands of too few people with no adult around to keep them from betting it instead of investing.  Except this time IS different: all the "A better life for our grandkids" is gone - leveraged/strip mined/clear-cut/sub-soiled/off-shored/free-traded/trash-compacted and land filled.

There is no "west" left... it's all private property now...

by Kass and Eric Mencher


A Movement

If you missed my wit and wisdom I apologize for my absence - and recommend you get out more! I've been hanging out at again, a sad thing to admit, I admit. Anyway I was thinking about the Deepwater Horizon mess and...

I can't help but consider the irony of the Horizon rig blow out occurring within days of the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day - which itself was inspired in no small part by the Santa Barbara spill of '69.

In fact, the entire "environmental movement" received a kick in the pants because of the widespread news coverage the Union Oil rig blowout received. Tricky Dick fooled everyone (especially the Corporatacracy) and signed the Environmental Protection Act and later created the Environmental Protection Agency in the wake of the public outcry prompted by that "spill".

The Santa Barbara leak didn't cause the tree-hugger movement to materialize from scratch, Silent Spring, written a few years earlier might have been the spark and Dirty Hippies everywhere were certainly ready for a Movement of some kind but those images of oily birds (I can still remember) on the TV every night did the trick.

Pew research recently found 25% of Americans are very interested in the story of the Horizon, more than any other current event. It's 6 weeks after the explosion now and we haven't even seen many dead bird pictures yet - that is a very long time to keep Americans' attention.

I wouldn't be surprised if the various threads of climate change, "green marketing", Peak Oil and outrage over The Leak combine with a kind of national existential angst (if there can be such a thing) to form some new "Movement".

The whole "slow food" - "locavore" thing is good as far as it goes but doesn't go very far. TT "resilience" and "energy descent plans" are the right kind of medicine if the sugar coating were removed - the economic situation, especially if unemployment stays flat or if there is a second leg down, would be the thing that could take the simley face off the Transition Town sign.

I don't see it being the Partiers, angry demands for Nothing! don't seem to me to have very long legs to begin with and anger at too much government doesn't really offer much of a solution to the problems outlined by GW/PO/the economy or The Leak either. In fact, they seem to me on the opposite side - Warming/Smoreming, Drill Baby, deregulate just like Ronnie - - and now that I think about it, I haven't heard the Partiers solution to The Leak.

I'm thinking todays' graduates might be ready for some kind of movement, tens of thousands in debt with no job prospects and employment flat-lining in a two-year old recession. And remember the last 2 recessions were asymmetric jobs wise, the recovery took much longer than the drop and this one still isn't trending up much.

Then you've got the Boomers, they were 20 about the time of the Santa Barbara blowout. They were the first wave of the granola-eaters, then they put on leisure suits, then changed to power ties. They have always set the tone and remade the world in their own image. They are about 60 now and control all the money like old folks always do, I wonder if they have another change left in them or if they are just tired and scared for their nestegg?

That leaves the 25-54 demographic and I really don't have a clue about what they might do or think about all this distraction. I'd venture they are probably most directly hit by the credit/housing bust but maybe less affected by unemployment? They do have kids though and it could be The Leak hits a nerve with them more so than other groups.

I don't usually make bold predictions but I'm going to predict a movement coalescing around The Leak. I think it will have elements of conservationism certainly but my crystal ball doesn't show clearly whether it is the Teddy Roosevelt brand of protecting resources so they can be better exploited or more of the Earth First brand so I'll guess radical environmental.

Likewise I can't be sure if it will be socialist or fascist or anarchist but I'm leaning anarchist because government has become a corporatocracy and most know it already. If they don't know it now, they will by the time the corporations exercise their constitutional right to free speech in the coming elections - the ultimate right of a natural person endowed on corporations, newly granted by the Bush SCOTUS .

So, by that line of dubious reasoning we arrive at an enviro-anarchist movement populated by aging hippies, unemployed and homeless moms and dads, unemployable grads with iron clad contractual agreements to pay back student loans to the government and various and sundry economic refugees.




Because you can't be a momma without babies, here are some of the babies at the grandkids' farm today.

Gram had a big day too, we went to Wally's, then ate Taco Bell, then came home and built fence.

Happy day to all you Moms out there!



After babbling on about "living on the edge without money" I haven't been able to write much lately because I've stumbled on more design work than I've had in 6 years!  It's all good tho! (mind yer speakers)

Anyway I want to talk a little about the garden.

Hickchic, one of my faithful readers (I always wanted to say that) and family are starting their little farm from scratch, what a pleasure that must be! We bought an old farm, the house is almost 100 years old and I'd bet the kitchen garden has essentially been in the same spot all those years - it's been there for at least 40 years anyway.

Our soil is a silty loam, 24-30" of topsoil over a limestone chert/silt-clay fragipan. On top it's only slightly acid but as you dig deeper it gets more acid. The former owners were Amish and I was surprised the garden was so devoid of organic matter when we arrived. This type soil is very tight and poorly drained without organic matter and the less it drains the more acid it gets and the less it drains. I'm no chemist but somehow the tiny grains of silt don't clump together as well when pH is low and this makes for very small air spaces, when the particles clump together it makes passage of air and water easier. Anyway, without much of anything organic, the soil took forever to dry and compacted like cement when it did.

Our first garden here beat us, plain and simple. We came from the Central Valley of California, where sandy soil and sparse rain means there really isn't much of a weed problem except where you water. Not so, here. In fact the first two years we were effectively run out of the garden by spiny amaranth which is really hard to eradicate unless you get it extremely young.

So one of my main criteria for locating the farm - over 35" of rain, was my first hurdle.

Since I'm not much of a cultivator and I don't like to use more chemicals than I need to, I decided to build some raised beds. I simply used the scraper blade on the little tractor to scrape 6-8in of topsoil from between the beds-to-be up onto the new beds. Here are a list of raised bed benefits:

  1. Drainage raises pH
  2. quicker warming in the spring
  3. less compaction
  4. easier to mulch a wide area than a narrow one
Raised beds do quite a few things, first in the way of pH, by scraping the path topsoil onto the bed topsoil they gave me a deeper layer of sweet soil (less acidic) instantly and because they promote drainage, the soil stays sweeter.

We've added lots of carbon as mulch - wood chips, straw, spoiled hay and also lots of well rotted manure and stirred it thoroughly each spring to get oxygen to the breakdown bugs. I'm very happy with the improved tilth and will probably not till most beds after this year - tilling is good for incorporating organics but every time you add carbon (the woody part of plants) and stir, the soil the bacteria that breaks down the plant material uses nitrogen to get started and will take it from the soil if you don't add enough. In fact, tilling can actually burn up more organic matter than you are adding by giving the aerobic bacteria a shot of oxygen, causing them to break down all your hard won compost really fast - just like in your compost pile.


Report to the Grandkids, MMX

Since this is the grandkids farm, it only seems appropriate to give a periodic report on the state of the farm, so here goes part I.

We still own the farm, no liens or encumbrances - Ye Haw!

Soil fertility balance sheet:

  1. (-) We sold a small amount of alfalfa hay last year and about 2 dozen calves
  2. (-) Traded about 25 bales of grass hay for putting up the other 25
  3. (+) We didn't hay all fields - mowed some and let it drop as usual. 
  4. (+) We continue purchasing/bartering for feed concentrate imports
  5. (+) We brought in a good wagon load of straw (with help buckin' from your pregnant Auntie/Mom!). 
  6. (+) Most of our firewood last year was from off farm.
I need to get a couple soil samples to take to the Extension but I'm going to say that we probably are still down some fertility on balance due to putting up hay on shares.

Still my biggest concern long term is water, both quality and availability. We are downhill from two dairies. One uses a lagoon to capture and spread from a freestall barn, the other is more traditional with lots of runoff. I don't mind receiving some of the "tea" that runs off but worry about the groundwater quality as well as level as dairies really use the water.

Good news is there isn't any new (or old) industrial development nearby or uphill, no big CAFO ag barns/lots and no new urban refugee barns either!

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on water.

Capital Improvements [cash costs in brackets]
  1. Greenhouse Project: increased solar gain, new poly roof covering, new (recycled) south glass, hydronic heated benches, propagation cabinet [mostly recycled, $100 plumbing, $75 poly, misc hardware]
  2. New hen house. [a few 2x4s]
  3.  New back steps [recycled lumber, new composition railing]
  4. Still working on Gram's kitchen...
Equipment, facilities:
  1. 9 new calf hutches [2x4s]
  2. New 8x12 calf shed [2x4s]
Cash income/expenses:
Last year was pretty tough cash-wise: Pops got sick, graphics work was virtually non-existent, calf market was in the toilet. But, work has been picking up since the first of the year, calves are bringing better, Uncle Sam is happy for a while, we're working the hospital bill and meds/supplies aren't nearly as bad as we thought.

I was kind of slow this time last year and Gram did lots of the gardening. This year I've been doing more graphics work so she is doing most of the gardening. We had thought this would be the year went much more into market farming as a necessity but we pulled back at the last minute as graphics jobs started coming back. We did wholesale some starts to the feed store, and depending on his success selling them we may put up a small hoophouse this fall.

We ate lots of homemade beef and pork and potatoes and onions and beans last year! We went shopping a couple times at Sam's and used the pantry a lot. We've worked on our few utility bills; the phone is a bare bones plan, the Great Thunder Bottom Internet Antenna is at the lowest level of service available, we have plug strip switches on the Evil Standby Red Eye phantom loads if we can remember to use them and of course we have had curly lamps everywhere since whenever.
We haven't had cable or satellite TV for years but I recently splurged and signed up for Netflix - $8.95/mo - good time are here again! I finally watched Crude Awakening!

All in all, the last couple of years were a good experience. Our income mix is is much improved. Although graphics still comes exclusively from CA, 2 new clients are more diversified than I've had in a long time - health care and small business advertising. We have even more experience with sick calves, one day we hope to be able to keep most alive.

We remembered too that pantries (and Rule #4) are there for a reason.