Short Post Sunday.

I need to get some stuff done today since I'm not hitched to the machine but I did see a couple of sites I thought worth a look.

Today's Farm News
by Pops

Organic Study planned by USDA

Hoop House Webinar May 7th

Farm o'the Day:
Energy Farms


Young Family Farmers

I was going to talk about some ways people 25-45 (call them Young Family Farmers for now) might start a small farm. Unlike the older folks we've been talking about these have quite a bit less capital but lots more energy and time.
But they are also going to need the little place to make some money to get the note paid. The advice always given to little folks is to either put in a high maintenance crop or sell a value-added product and organic fits in here.

Aside from the lag time to get certified I thought I'd look at how the "organic" brand is doing lately.

The trend looks down in the UK and check out the rancor in the comments! But the big brand in the US, Organic Valley acts like things are peachy. Perhaps because they are using the model of the big boys and putting the farmer on contract - not much new there.

" researcher The Hartman Group found that the use of organics began leveling off in 2006, a trend it expects to continue this year, and an Information Resources survey of 1,000 consumers in May found that 52 percent were buying less organics because of cost concerns."
--Reuters, 1/09

This is a bad sign as far as the small farmer goes. One of the few ways to make a go of a small plot is produce a premium crop for a niche market. The "brand" Organic once had the cache of a better quality, premium, boutique product for those in the know and able to afford the price premium. I'm gonna say it was another of us Boomer's vanities.

The up side was it gave lots of little guys a market to sell into which allowed them to make a go of building a small farm, the downside was like any other product you make more in volume so lots of big growers got on board and well, you know.

Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food and other writing claims that big organic uses the identical industrialized system as mainstream producers - not really much of a difference and I think consumers are gettin the idea.

As someone who spent a good portion of my working life in marketing, I can tell you 2 things; every advertiser says:
  1. Make the logo bigger
  2. Make "quality" bold
The second thing is the word "quality" is something the consumer can no longer hear.

Organic as a practice is a good thing in my book, but it might not have quite the payback of some other "benefits" with lower or no cost
But there is a new "brand" and it's Local! It's the 100 mile diet...

It's the Locavore! Check out these links. And these articles...

Today's Farm News
by Pops

Rural agenda (comentary)
Organic and Value Added

Farm o'the Day:
Local Farm
of course :^)


The Experienced Farmer

Since I talked about 45-54s yesterday I'll dig into 54+ folks today.

Obviously the age brackets I'm picking are pretty flexible, a couple 35 with no children could fit into the "Empty Nest" and a healthy 60 year old could too. At any rate it gives me somewhere to hang my ideas .

Retired New Farmers.

When I think about these "Experienced" folks I'm thinking folks very much like the Empty Nesters but with a sizable enough poke to own their place outright and have enough to cover living expenses as well. Probably these people have or will be moving to the country with an eye toward spending some Rocking Chair time.

But with the economy in the shape it is and the warnings that it might take a while to get back to where it was (which I kind of doubt will happen period) they may see or even seek relatives looking to lend a hand for room and board. Of course the owners can get around and take care of the chores they enjoy but they can also be teachers, coaches, bankers and cheerleaders for their kids and grandkids.

Now I don't know how well this might turn out. The retirement strong counties shown here are some in good ag areas but many others in not so good areas. Also if neither the Experienced owner nor the hard luck relative have any real experience growing food or fiber this might not be such a great plan.

Still, this is really the contribution we see ourselves making now and down the road, learning a little we can pass on to our kids so they can give it a shot if they want or need. Not just by having Christmas dinner and the grandkids over to Ipod in the summer but to actively encourage and sponsor them to get involved with the farm.

Just as an aside, our youngest grand daughter is quite the girly girl but received first place in her third grade science fair for an experiment to guess the ability of a soil sample to grow radishes by doing a shake test to find the soil type.

Of course this leaves out a very important person - the older old farmer:

One fourth of U.S. farmers and half of farm landlords are at least 65 years old. Farmers and landlords aged 65 and older own a combined one-third of farm assets.
--- Rural America Fall 2002

Obviously there are "experienced" farmers out there who could be convinced by their offspring to rent out a piece to give the kid a start and perhaps more kids will do that but I'm pretty sure they are probably more than willing for gramps to kick the bucket or they would already have been in there lobbying.

This is perhaps the most disheartening thing in the whole business, old Moms and Pops with a lifetime of knowledge and fruits of labor to pass along and no one who wants to accept the gift.

The one place where the government could really make a difference is to set up a program to match up willing workers intent on sweating their way to equity with older farmers wishing to see the farm continue into another generation whether its their blood or not.

This could take several forms, like crop share lease options, the dairy Share Milker idea taken into beef or farming or many I'm sure I haven't conceived.

Today's Farm News
by Pops

One size fits all’ farm policy unwise

Rural Economy In Deep Downturn

FarmBlog o'the Day:
Obama Foodorama!


"How" Now...

So I've touched a little on the who, what, when, where and why...

But not the how of rebuilding our small farms.

Anyone who decided to read more than a little of my blogification already knew most of the reasons why a diversity of small farms is important for our future but most all of us have a hard time figuring out how to get from here to there.

Jay Leno said about immigration, it's not impossible moving ten(s) of millions of people over a border:
Mexico did it.

Hopefully there is a migration to small towns and small farms well before stoop labor is an attractive career choice.

I've posted some links already about what seems a growing number of people and organizations making a move to farming - from micro to mini to little. Most show smiling laterday hippies growing vegies to eat, sell or trade.

Digging up a flower bed or even an entire lawn is daunting but a far cry from actually moving to a little farm and trying to make it pay at least it's own way, if not immediately paying yours.

There are probably several ways we could classify the "Hows", I'm going with individual action for a start and try to divide by age groups just to figure out some of the ways singles, couples or close family could make a move.

The first of the "How Groups" I'm gonna call Empty Nesters just because I know some about this one.

We're 52, late in '03 we started talking seriously about the RE market in Central California going POP and various other things that worried us to one extent or another, so we bailed out.
Our kids were in the service and so not a limiter of where we could move. I'd always wanted a little farm and Susan had always wanted an old 2-story house, we found both (luckily in the same place) here in SW Missouri. We arrived here labor day '04.

So the main features of this group would probably be:

  1. 45-54 years with a fair amount of capital.
  2. A transferable/telecomuting/web-based/self-employed or otherwise "location neutral" income.
  3. Aptitude and experience in whatever type of ag you see for yourself.
  4. Manual skills and tools - the more the better for this age I think.
  5. And perhaps most of all, an understanding of the fact it will be you who are the stranger in a strange land.
There are probably lots of individuals who could make a change at 50, perhaps not so many couples but still this is a prime age group I think for pioneering a movement. This group is probably well able to make a transition. Capital could allow either a low mortgage, or outright purchase along with necessary repairs /improvements, real world experience would augment the somewhat reduced physical ability of middle age and a few more years also clears some of the stars from the eyes.

These may in fact be some of the folks identified a Exurbanites elsewhere but who make a transition from simply long distance commuters to people more readily identified as farmers. As well, this age group has a large influence on their family. Parents, children, all sorts of relatives become interested or at least curious when one makes a big jump.

A nephew (40's) has already relocated here, our daughter (30's) bought a corner of our farm for after hubby retires from the service and a sister (60's) is looking.

Today's Farm News
by Pops
Here is a cool place to sell your farm made stuff online,
An article about etsy.

Farm o'the Day:
Flat Creek Farm


Whence the new farmer? Pt.I

I think this is a lucky time.

  • A spreading Global Depression following close on the heals of a much touted New Global Economy.
  • People losing jobs right and left, some or many of which won't come back.
  • Recent memories of huge run ups in commodity markets, food and fuel prices.
  • Probably news in the next several months of another farm-bust like the '80's which was also preceded by big commodity price jumps then much lower demand, too much debt, etc.
  • We have a climate problem finally acknowledged by the biggest per capita fossil fuel using nation on the planet.
  • And speaking of politics a new government with at least a short term will to fund just about anyything.
  • Oh, and the re-realization that house prices don't rise 20%/year forever.

Those are all good things in the sense that "One doesn't learn anything from being successful."

On the other hand there are lots of good things going on prompted by Being successful - least in the fiscal sense. This is the Slow Food, Organic, Eat Local, Grass Fed, Farmers Marketed, CSA, No Preservatives, Free Range, Free Trade, etc, etc. movement that simply wouldn't have come about without the disposable money and "Lifestyle" options we have had of late.

Now don't get all bowed up and write me off because I just stepped on your green toes, just ask any of your favorite vendors at the farmers market how much of their income is usually received in food stamps?

The point is each of those alternate ag outlets cost the consumer more either in money or time than going to the supermarket and that is a good thing because any time you try to go up against the efficiency of big ag you are gonna need a higher return.

Combine that with "The increase [in gardening] is 40 percent greater than the figure two years before, marking a spike in food gardening not seen in 30 years,"
Jarden Corp. says sales of its Ball and Kerr canning and preserving products are up more than 30% from 2008.


So where will all these new farmers come from?
Washington --Santa Clara -- Sacramento -- Wall Street :^) --

Because first you gotta know how to grow stuff...

So how big is little?

I've rambled a little about what I think my grand kids farm shouldn't be like but not much about what it should.

First, there is no minimum or maximum size. Kind of funny considering all my blabbing about small farms but small is not so much about the size of the farm but more about the farmers idea of the size of the world and just how much it can give.

I have relatives in California who own a little almond orchard, less than a dozen acres. Now that is pretty small, but if you remember a ways back I mentioned that area of CA produces 80% of all the almonds consumed in the world. My relatives little farm is bordered on all sides and for miles and miles in all directions by other farms ranging from a few acres to hundreds. Not only is that type of farming no different than a huge wheat farm from the standpoint of monoculture but it is even more wasteful because each little farmer has little incentive to improve efficiency, reduce inputs, etc.

Granted, the concentration of almonds in a small region probably leads to some improved efficiency post harvest in processing - but again that is in a world of cheap energy.

Just down the road is a great little farm and fruit stand. I stopped at this little stand for years and watched these folks not only make a good living but also improve their land. There is no comparison between their soil and my relative's orchard. I just noticed 32ac of this place is for sale if you have the dough...

Almonds are harvested by shaking the tree with a large machine, the almonds are left to dry, then swept into windrows by another machine and finally picked up by a third. As you can imagine, the flatter, smoother and more bare the soil, the better, so the soil is sprayed and rolled to prevent anything from growing - (Almond Production Manual, pg. 198) - you can use a cover crop but not many do as I remember.

The ideal of a farm for a small world is epitomized in Management Intensive Grazing. A huge amount of the grain we grow goes to feed our food animals - somewhere around 80 calories of input creates 1 calorie of meat. Cattle for example are evolved to eat grass and we aren't, wouldn't it make sense to feed them grass on a rotational basis? Instead we confine them in pens standing knee-deep in shit and feed them corn and antibiotics.

Our little farm raises dairy bull calves on 30 acres of grass divided up in 3 ac paddocks and further as is needed by the number and age of calves, seasons, etc.

You can see in this pic I just snapped, last years grass is greening in the foreground, on the right side is grass the calves have been on 4 days and at the top the next 1 -1/2ac they'll get when I take down the temp fence with the white post.

I'll talk more about this, but basically, if you have rain, a decent soil to start and are able to get a good stand of mixed grasses and legumes (to fix nitrogen in the soil) there aren't too many inputs. The cattle harvest their own food, disperse their own manure (which returns most of the phosphorus and potassium) and by stocking correctly they eat everything evenly keeping down brush and unwanted species.

This method is pretty well scalable to whatever size the harvested crop is marketable - and it works for dairies too - as well as goats, sheep, pigs, horses, chickens...


So Why Care About Little Farms? Pt.III

So modern ag is energy, soil & monoculture intensive.

I doubt many farmers would disagree but they might also point to improvements made in methods and energy use over the last 40 years, much like the rest of first world society has achieved. And when pointing to their new GPS based tillage and chemical application hard/software, improved genetics, fuel efficiency, etc, they may say just as economists have for years, 'The Market and innovation will save our bacon'.

Interestingly this "belief" is being challenged more and more, even by economists seemingly intent on defending the idea of infinite growth. On page 37 of this copyrighted paper, after 36 pages of pretty well the same critiques of Malthus, the Club of Rome, Hubbert, etc as usual the author says exactly what they said:

"The ability to substitute capital for natural resources is limited by physical laws of nature. It simply is not possible to produce an ever-expanding level of material output from an ever-decreasing quantity of material input. No amount of capital–resource substitution or technological progress can overcome that constraint. The same is true of energy—the amount of work obtained cannot be greater than the amount of the energy expended as an input. Recycling durable nonrenewable resources can increase the life of a given resource stock, but 100% recovery and reuse is not practical, so the process cannot continue indefinitely. Consequently, sustaining the economy ultimately must rely on renewable natural resource inputs."

Economics of Natural Resource Scarcity: The State of the Debate
Jeffrey A. Krautkraemer [PDF]

I didn't think when I started this Blog the crux of my whole argument would come from an economist! I would only add this:

And it must happen in my back yard.


So Why Care About Little Farms? Pt.II

So modern ag is energy intensive, and we are running out of cheap energy.

But it is also "Soil Intensive".

Of course it is you say, where else can food be grown? That was the question before the discovery of the New World.

Plato's lament is rooted in wheat agriculture, which depleted his country's soil and subsequently caused the series of declines that pushed centers of civilization to Rome, Turkey, and western Europe. By the fifth century, though, wheat's strategy of depleting and moving on ran up against the Atlantic Ocean. Fenced-in wheat agriculture is like rice agriculture. It balances its equations with famine. In the millennium between 500 and 1500, Britain suffered a major “corrective” famine about every ten years; there were seventy-five in France during the same period. The incidence, however, dropped sharply when colonization brought an influx of new food to Europe.
-- Richard Manning (a really great article in Harper's)

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) - Wheat Field with Crows (1890)

That same article goes on to point out that around 1960 the supply of virgin prairie was pretty well used up in the US to but we came up with another little trick:

Souped up genetics in grain to utilize fossil fuel based nitrogen fertilizers and irrigation. It worked great, we added about 3 billion (mostly poor people) to the load.

In all of this blather about modern ag I haven't mentioned it's one completely unique feature. Ag has always been energy intensive, once mostly human, then animal and finally mechanical, and it has always, at least to the grain farmer, been soil intensive, use up the fertility of the soil and move on.

But more than anything, modern ag is about specialization, concentration, control and above all profit.

From genetics, the vast majority of corn for example carries the trait of resistance to a particular herbicide - Roundup Ready corn. I'm sure you may have heard what happened to the Irish when the relied entirely on one crop for sustenance.

To climate, around 80% of the almonds grown in the world are from a few counties in California. Which of course brings us back around to the problem of distributing those crops to all corners of the world with ever more expensive energy.

To culture, many large farms use minimal if any crop rotation or fallowing, which increases the need of ever more chemical inputs and soil degradation.

To control, 40% of ag production is under contract. The Agribusiness conglomerate tells the farmer what when and how to raise the crop and the farmer puts up all the capital and labor. Additionally the conglomerate controls the processing, distribution and marketing of many products from farm gate to cash register.

If most of these points seem negative it's because in the long run they are negative. And though many of the problems associated with large modern farms can be replicated on a small farm it's a lot harder to do. And likewise a lot easier to try something new!

We should care about the future of the small farm because it's very existence is not dependent on the energy intensive, soil-mining, profit-driven, mono-cultural, subsidized, homogenized, globalized model.

If there is going to be a place where the seeds of a new, old agriculture can flourish, it will be the small farm.


So Why Care About Little Farms? Pt. I

Small farms produce only a vanishingly small portion of our food and fiber and are home to a similarly small number of citizens.

Small farms typically produce only a fraction of the total household income by farming - the balance provided by non-farm income.

In fact, according to a group of Purdue University agricultural economists in 2002:
An economically viable crop/livestock operation in the Corn Belt would have between 2,000 and 3,000 acres of row crops and between 500 and 600 sows.

Small farms are at a disadvantage complying with new health/pollution/certification regulations and so lag behind larger producers in implementation.

Since they are poorly capitalized (if capitalized at all) they are ill-equipped to take advantage of advances in technology whether mechanical, electronic, genetic, or any other for that matter.

So why care about the future of an outdated production model left behind in the wake of modern technology?

The quick answer is modern technology is predicated on cheap, non-renewable resources, Andy Rooney's grand dad knew that...

I'm not a "Believer" in impending doom, but I agree with Andy that it is out there somewhere. When it comes to food, those starving people you see on TV aren't starving due to our inability to grow enough food but rather of poverty, corruption of their government, or their inability to acquire land to grow their own.

The world today produces more food per inhabitant than ever before. Enough food is available to provide 4.3 pounds for every person everyday: 2.5 pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of meat, milk and eggs and another of fruits and vegetables.

So again if modern farms are so good at growing food, why be concerned about small farms?

The first hint is "modern" equals energy intensive:

It takes 10 calories of fossil fuels to produce one calorie of food energy. (Pimentel)

Ever since we ran out of arable land, food is oil. Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. *2

The entire industrial era has been based on cheap and easily accessible energy, first old growth forests, then surface coal, and for most of the past century, relatively shallow deposits of oil. The world is not running out of fossil energy; by most estimates about half of the earth’s total fossil energy reserves are still in the ground. However, all of the easy sources of fossil energy are gone.*3

Now don't get all worried that having read this far I'm now going to try and convince you we all need to go back to grubbing in the dirt for spuds, that isn't my intention. What I do want to investigate, among other things, are methods using less, much less, energy.

Again this isn't going to turn into a rapturous rant on a particular Guru's idea of Agricultural Nirvana - you can bet there are book store shelves filled with those titles.

At any rate next time I'll talk more about some other difficulties with modern ag.

*2 The Oil We Eat -- Richard Manning -
*3 Ikerd


There's Rural, Then There's Rural

Once you get out into what the USDA Economic Research Service's Rural-Urban Continuum terms "non-metro" areas - especially these:

7 Urban population of 2,500 to 19,999, not adjacent to a metro area
9 Completely rural or less than 2,500 urban population, not adjacent to a metro area

...You are officially in the sticks!

But the USDA also defines rural counties based not only on their primary economic activity (or lack thereof) but by Urban Influence, Commute Distance, You Name It!

What all the stats boil down to is there is a wide variety of of "country", from sparsely populated areas adjacent to federal lands and or recreation areas, to those with either a service or a manufacturing based economy to those defined mostly by their poverty...

There is also a census area called a Micropolis - a small town with an influence over a larger rural area which make more sense than trying to define on a county only basis.

But of course it is those really rural areas based mainly on farming or like my own predominately farming but diverse enough to not fall strictly in one category or another that I'm interested. They comprise a tiny portion of the population of the US and somewhere around 600 counties mostly in the center of the country.


Burbs: Ex's and Beyond...

Exurbanites are probably in the worst situation going forward.
Though they are probably well heeled, they most likely have a fairly high mortgage,
Are by definition commuters to a large town or small city,
Have little in the way of options should their personal economy go south,
Have little or no interest in the agricultural potential of their property,
And if it is possible, have even less in the way of local connections than do suburbanites.

As opposed to suburbs, the exurbs are pretty well a white elephant in a major or permanent downturn. There has been way to much money invested in home/pool/garage/luxury to ever be viable in anything less than a great growing economy.

Which isn't to say they would have no value whatsoever, just not the kind originally intended.

Those are all pretty subjective views but are the impression I get from reading stuff here and there about those newly relocated past the outermost ring of suburbia and my simply looking around my own neighborhood.

But there is another type of "urbanite", it's the ones raised in the country or small town who has become more or less dependent on a city income, city consumption habits and probably debt levels, but continues to relate to the attitudes, associations and community from which they came and still reside.

He could be farming 1,000 acres of rented land or living on his grandparents farm and just putzing around or in a little house just off the square. But he or he and she both currently drive 20/30/40 mile one way to a job in town.

They probably spend most of their money shopping in town but maybe they they also spend a little at what is left of the local businesses. They may go to the same church as their parents, their kids probably go to the same school they did and that's where they go watch the game on Friday night.

I'll call these the transurbanites. I'm truly not sure but they may be an important part of the future of my grandkids farm.