Another Day on the Farm:
Warmed up a bit overnight. The snow plows have been busy today cleaning up the country roads. Had to plow out my own driveways and trails twice yesterday. Drifted back in almost as fast as they were cleaned out.
12th Excerpt from “Farmageddon”:
(My latest unfinished book)
Farmers make up barely two percent of North America’s population and, in my opinion, this two percent is the only segment of society which has a realistic hope of attaining any degree of self-sufficiency, because we are the only ones having the means to feed ourselves. That may be a hard reality for the other ninety eight percent to accept, but nevertheless it is obviously true. That being the case, it follows that unless farmers maintain their ability to feed themselves, nobody else will be fed either.
In a worst-case scenario there could be a huge world-wide population die off. Since the ninety eight-percenters have no hope of feeding themselves, the burden of prodding the politicians into action, before it’s too late, therefore rests primarily on the shoulders of this major segment of the population. Meanwhile we two-percenters would be wise to start looking after our own best interests.
Without the cooperation and support of the majority of the population, remedial action in our democratic society is impossible. Farmers alone do not have the clout to force the politicians to pull their heads out of the sand and start taking corrective measures. If and when our leaders create an environment that will enable farmers to convert to a system of sustainable farming, capable of feeding the other ninety eight percent, we will do whatever is required.
The bad news is that there doesn’t appear to be enough time to make a dent in solving the problems to adequately prepare for the coming crisis. To switch from a petroleum based system of farming to a sustainable “natural” system will take years, largely because much of our arable soil has been seriously damaged by “chemical farming”.
In my opinion, the first step toward repairing the damage, mostly done in the last half of the twentieth century, is to change from mono-cultural cropping to diversified farming. A very significant part of the world’s cropland will have to undergo several cycles of crop rotations to rebuild the lost organic material. A complete crop rotation cycle can be anywhere from three to six or more years in length.
On our farm, it took five or six complete cycles to make a noticeable improvement of the soil. Based on a four-year cycle, that works out to twenty or more years, but different farms will require varying amounts of time. It’s only every four years that one gets to see the improvement in the soil brought about by the practice of crop rotation. The changes are glacially slow but noticeable. Over a period of time the change becomes overwhelming. The point I’m trying to make is that the damage done in the last half century cannot be repaired overnight.
Diversifying a farm involves much more than setting up crop rotations, but it is far beyond the scope of this book to spell it all out in detail. However, I will give an example of the sort of things I’m referring to.
To change from grain farming to diversified farming would entail buying livestock, building fences and other livestock structures, purchasing haying and sod breaking machinery, just to mention a few of the major things. It will also likely mean a long period of reduced income while waiting for the first payday from the sale of cattle. During that time the farmer’s family would have to adjust to living on the income from a much reduced grain crop — reduced both in acreage and yield. It will be tough going when income drops while expenses rise. Only the most determined are likely to make it on their own.
Modern intensive agriculture is unsustainable. Technologically-enhanced agriculture has exacerbated soil erosion, polluted and overdrawn groundwater and surface water, and even, due to increased usage of pesticides, caused serious public health and environmental problems. Soil erosion, overstrained cropland and water resource overdraft in turn lead to ever greater use of fossil fuels and hydrocarbon products.
It has been estimated that it takes five hundred years to replace one inch of topsoil. In a natural environment topsoil is built up by decaying plant matter and weathering rock and is protected from erosion by growing plants. In some cultivated soils, erosion alone is reducing productivity by up to sixty five percent each year. Former prairie lands, which constitute the bread basket of North America, have lost as much as half of their topsoil after being farmed for only a hundred years. This soil is eroding thirty times faster than the natural formation rate.
Food crops are much hungrier than the natural grasses that once covered the Great Plains. As a result, the remaining topsoil is increasingly depleted of nutrients. Soil erosion and mineral depletion removes about twenty billion dollars worth of plant nutrients from U.S. agricultural soils every year. Much of the soil in the Great Plains can be likened to a sponge into which we must pour ever increasing amounts of hydrocarbon-based fertilizers in order to produce crops.
Every year in North America, more than two million acres of cropland are lost to erosion, salinization and waterlogged soil. On top of this, urbanization, road building, and industry claim another million acres annually from farmland. Approximately three-quarters of the land area in the United States is devoted to agriculture and commercial forestry. The expanding human population is putting increasing pressure on land availability.
The demand that modern monoculture places on water resources is staggering. For example, a corn crop that produces 118 bushels per acre requires more than 500,000 gallons of water per acre during the growing season. Unless something is done to lower these consumption rates, modern agriculture will soon propel the United States into a water crisis.
Nearly fifty percent of U.S. corn land is grown continuously as a monoculture. This results in an increase in corn pests, which in turn requires the use of more pesticides. Pesticide use on corn crops had increased a thousand-fold before the introduction of pesticide resistant corn. Even since then, corn losses to pests have risen four-fold.
Modern intensive agriculture is unsustainable. It is damaging the land, depleting water supplies and polluting the environment. And all of this requires more and more fossil fuel to pump irrigation water, to replace nutrients, to provide pest protection, to repair the damage to the environment and simply to hold crop production at a constant level.
Presently only two nations on the planet are major exporters of grain: the United States and Canada. By 2025, it is expected that the U.S. will cease to be a food exporter due to domestic demands. The impact on the U.S. economy could be devastating, as food exports earn $40 billion for the U.S. annually. More importantly, millions of people around the world could starve to death without U.S. food exports.
If we fail to develop a sustainable form of agriculture, in a worst-case scenario, we could be faced with a world-wide population die-off from which civilization might never recover. In such a die-off there could actually be a lose of the critical mass of people necessary for sustainability.
We need to ask ourselves if we can allow this to happen and what can we do to prevent it. We need to decide whether our present lifestyle means so much to us that we would risk subjecting ourselves and our children to such a tragedy, simply for a few more years of conspicuous consumption.
To be continued next time…
12th Excerpt from “Defying the Odds”:
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)
But, my turn finally came! A few days before graduating from high school I went to the recruiting centre in Portland and volunteered for immediate induction. I had received my draft card in April of 1945, just prior to my eighteenth birthday. Although there was a good chance that my number would not be drawn for weeks, or possibly months, from the way the war was going at that time, I was afraid it would be over before I was called and I would miss my chance at glory. I took the preliminary recruiting physical that very day and was ordered to report to the recruiting centre in Vancouver, Washington on the 16th day of August, 1945. On August 15th the Japs surrendered.
Later on I would joke that the Japs had discovered that I was coming, so they gave up. But, at the time, I could only see it as a cruel twist of fate. There was dancing in the streets that evening. The few service men that happened to be home on leave were treated as heroes. It was a wild and happy time for most, but it was one of the worst nights of my life. I had been waiting for months for my chance. I had fantasised about how it would feel to be 'going off to war'—thinking about my last night with Shirley, saying goodbye to my family and feeling very important.
Now, on the very last day, it all changed. The war was over. Nobody cared that I would be leaving early the next morning and I didn't even dare tell anyone. But the worst thing of all…I didn't get to see Shirley. I had been looking forward so much to this evening because it would be our last time together until I came home on my first furlough. She apparently had been caught up in the celebrations, and I never did see her that night. I went home early and went straight to bed so that I wouldn't have to explain to the folks.
The next morning, after tearful goodbyes to mom and my brothers and sisters, dad took me to the recruiting office in Vancouver. I was carrying his old WW1 shaving kit, which he had given me a couple of days before, and I remember feeling guilty because I was ashamed of it. It was old fashioned—not like the ones the other guys would have. But I couldn't let dad know, so I took the kit with me.
He dropped me off at the curb in front of the recruiting office, saying he had to get to work. But, of course the real reason he rushed off was because he saw the other guys waiting there and wanted to avoid embarrassing me by breaking into tears.
An army corporal soon showed up and led his charges inside, where he gave a brief rundown on what we would be doing for the remainder of the day. Not long after, a chartered Greyhound bus arrived. We boarded the bus and left for Fort Lewis, Washington, the same military centre where dad had trained in 1918.
I suppose the bus ride would have seemed pretty boring to most, but to us new recruits it was high adventure. We had left home and were feeling the first freedom from parental supervision. We were on our way to exciting times. We felt like men…temporarily at least.
After arriving at Ft. Lewis that afternoon, having had our first free meal at a bus stop along the way (which somehow surprised me because it had not sunk in until then that the Army would henceforth be paying for everything). I noticed that the corporal spent a good deal of his time counting us. He counted us again as we got off the bus and later when he turned us over to another enlisted man. The new guy ushered us into a large room, where he told us to wait, and said we could smoke if we liked. This was the beginning of a whole new way of life.
That night, after being counted a few more times, we were assigned to a barracks; told about mess hall hours; and instructed to be at our cots at 6:am for further instructions.
By that time I had become acquainted with a couple guys in our group and we spent the evening wandering around the grounds…but not too far from the barracks because everything looked the same and we weren't taking any chances on getting lost. We did manage to stumble on to the PX though, where we got the surprise of our lives. The PX had more candy, gum, beer, soft drinks and the like than we had seen for years—the stories we had been hearing from our older service friends were true after all!
The next morning we were sworn in en masse. From that moment on things took a turn for the worse. We had suddenly turned into brainless hard-of-hearing morons with a very limited understanding of the English language, and only then when spoken very loudly. We were issued our first uniforms—the worst looking uniforms imaginable. There was nothing uniform about them. The pants and jackets didn't match. Some shirts were winter weight and others were summer weight. All of the clothing, except for the underwear (which was a pukey khaki colour too) was used—much of it mended—and it smelled of mothballs or some other pungent chemicals We were the sorriest looking bunch of soldiers imaginable—although I suspect that all the recruits prior to us had looked just as crummy. I would have been ashamed to have been seen by my family and friends at that time. It was humiliating.
After spending a few days at Ft. Lewis, several hundred of us were assembled in a large staging area beside the railway, early in the morning. We formed into groups of about forty or fifty…enough to just fill a railway passenger car. The groups were not randomly selected however, we were called by name and then assigned to a group. Then we boarded the train, which had been standing there, with the steam engine puffing quietly, when we first arrived.
Upon boarding we were allowed to choose our own seats but were told not to leave our assigned car for any reason. Shortly after that the train pulled out—we had no idea where we were going.
As I recall, it took three days to get to our destination…Camp Roberts California. Although the train travelled very slowly, and stopped frequently for no apparent reason, we didn't mind. It was party time aboard the train. Crap games and poker went on all day long. Three times a day we were escorted through the other cars to the dining car, which always involved a lot of heckling and prodigious usage of filthy language. We were a bunch of kids enjoying our recent freedom from parental supervision and we just didn't know exactly how to act.
On the third day, after transferring to Greyhound busses somewhere in California, we arrived at Camp Roberts around noon. The busses all drove through the main gates in a long line and parked in a rather isolated area beside a huge asphalt field. Someone apparently knew we were coming. From the moment the busses stopped we started doing things the army way.
The instant the busses stopped, the drivers opened the doors and a sun-tanned, drill hardened NCO bounded into each bus and demanded, "ATTEN'HUT!" These guys looked tough, acted tough, and spoke…no, bellowed…tough. Their uniforms were absolutely perfect. Their haircuts were absolutely perfect. There bearing was absolutely military. There was no doubt who was in charge. Nearly every sentence they uttered began with the words, "You WILL".
We then re-formed into bus-sized groups and marched to our assigned company areas, where we were very officially turned over to the cadre personnel who would be our instructors, surrogate parents, and wardens for the next seventeen weeks.
I was assigned to Company A of the 82nd Infantry Training Battalion, where, according to the army, I and my fellow trainees would become soldiers and men. One of the first things we were told was: "There are three ways of doing things; the right way, the wrong way, and the army way. Life will be much easier for those who quickly learn to do everything the army way".
The army has been making soldiers of civilians for a very long time. It has evolved an effective system. It starts with the assumption that every new recruit is nothing more than raw material to be moulded, brainwashed, badgered, scared, tormented, trained, and tested until he becomes an obedient reactionary robot dedicated to following orders without hesitation, performing heroic deeds of courage and honour, defending the flag and democracy, and the like.
However, the system is imperfect because the trainees were not recruited soon enough. They had already developed a few undesirable characteristics. Some of them had learned to think for themselves. Some were uncooperative. Some hated the army. Some were stupid, clumsy, shy, disinterested, or misfits. The net result was that, in the majority of cases, the system didn't quite succeeded in producing the desired product. It tended to produce individuals of increased self-confidence, better fit for combat, trained to kill, and also with a certain amount of loyalty, pride, dedication and patriotism, but, in most cases, it failed to convert civilians to soldiers. It merely succeeded in training boys to act like soldiers.
Although the war was officially over, it took time for changes to set in. Basic military training, for instance, was conducted as though there was still a war on. We went through the same training that hundreds of thousands of soldiers had experienced prior to us. It was seventeen weeks of marching, shooting, obstacle courses, and all the rest, except for the fact that we knew it was all for nothing.
I was in good physical condition going into the army. Many were not. About half, or more, were smokers. A few were in their thirties and a few were fat. Those minorities had a much tougher time in training than most. For the average kid, fresh out of high school, most of the training was strenuous but not too difficult. During our seventeen weeks of training, it was estimated that we walked about a thousand miles, much of the time with field packs on our backs and over rough terrain, sandy river bottoms, steep hills, in semi-desert conditions.
At the end of basic training I had my first leave. It was at Christmas time, the perfect time to be going home. Although I was excited about seeing my family and Shirley again, I hated the thought of them seeing me in my embarrassing uniform. I had spent very little of my army pay, primarily because of the lack of opportunity, so I had about a hundred dollars saved up. The Post Exchange sold a variety of military apparel, which I had been admiring, but it was relatively expensive. But, as the time to go home drew nearer, I finally decided that it would be better to go home broke than in disgrace.
A day or two before leaving Camp Roberts, I went to the PX and bought a new 'Eisenhower jacket' and a decent looking shirt and an infantry cap. Most of the rest of my money went for cartons of candy bars for my sisters and brothers and some little gifts for mom and Shirley. I was nearly broke but my pride had been salvaged.
While home on leave, Shirley and I were together at every opportunity. We even went to church together one Sunday. After the church services, I noticed another army uniform in the group of people that were talking outside. It turned out to be a high school classmate that had also just completed his basic training, but at a different army base. As we shook hands, he commented that my uniform sure looked a lot better than the ones they had been issued. I told him what I had done and he wished that he had done the same thing.
In January I reported to Ford Ord, California for further basic training. Within two days of arriving there, we were all issued brand new uniforms. This time we were carefully measured and issued properly fitting clothing, including brand new Eisenhower jackets. Everything was brand new, from the four sets of underwear and six pairs of sox to the overcoat and field jacket. Nobody had previously worn any of it—even the duffel bag and mess kit were shiny new. Everything matched and fit perfectly…we could finally take some pride in our appearance.
After four more weeks of advanced infantry training, we were at last ready for our first postings. At the end of January we boarded another troop train bound for our port of embarkation near Seattle. The usual routing of repeated stops for no obvious reason eventually got us back to familiar turf. As the train moved slowly through Vancouver, Washington, two or three of the guys passed within blocks of their homes. One kid actually pointed out his house, as he strained to see if any of his family happened to be outside. Ironically, that kid never made it back home—he died in a freak accident while in Korea.
We spent about a week at the port of embarkation. At the first opportunity, I phoned home to talk to Shirley. She was a senior in high school at the time and I had not taken into account that she would be attending class at the time I placed the call. Finally, when there was no response from her home phone, I realised she was probably in school. So I phoned the high school principal and told him I would very much like to talk to her. Without hesitation he said, "I'll go get her right away Floyd", and within a minute or two I heard her excited voice.
The principal left the office so we could talk privately. After talking for a few minutes, Shirley said she was coming to Seattle to see me, if there was any possible way. But, it was not to be. Cooler heads prevailed. I presume her parents, quite rightly, pointed out the folly of the plan. Three days later we were on our way to Korea to join with the occupational forces.
To be continued next time…
12th Excerpt from “But…What About Tomorrow?”:
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)
A Personal Rant…
Every once in a while I have to get a personal rant out of my system. This is one of those times.
The notion that anyone can farm is certainly wrong and it is equally certain that there are many who are farming that should not be. A true farmer, and the only kind of person that should be allowed to farm, is one that places the long-term viability of his farm above short term profits. A true farmer will not mine his soil for the sake of profit. Such farmers remind me of England's Neville Chamberlain's famous statement, "Peace in our time"…"Profit in our time."
Obviously a farmer must make a profit if he is to remain in business. No business in a capitalist society will exist for long if it is not profitable. On the other hand, no business in any kind of economy can survive if it squanders or destroys its resources. The soil is, either directly or indirectly, the primary asset of every farm. The very word farm evokes visions of expansive fields, although there are many farm enterprises that have relatively small land bases … chicken and hog farms, for example. But even those enterprises are totally dependent on the soil of other farms for the feed their animals must have, as well as for a place to dispose of their waste byproducts.
In my opinion, the worst crime a farmer can commit, with regard to soil husbandry, is to abuse his soil for the sake of profit. Doing so out of ignorance might be forgiven, but to knowingly do so is unforgivable. However ignorance takes many forms. The purely uninformed type of ignorance is common enough but , as I see it, informed ignorance is much more prevalent. By the term informed ignorance, my own term, I am referring to the practice of blindly following the foolish advice of so-called experts. Far too many of those experts have been advocating the very practices that have contributed to many of the problems that farmers are now confronting … problems which threaten to become worse in the future.
On second thought, an even worse crime, that a farmer can commit against nature, is the sale of his top soil. The practice of skimming off the top soil from a field and selling it for profit to landscapers, for use on suburban lawns and gardens, is unforgivable. Any farmer that would do that is not worthy of the name "farmer", he is an unconscionable plunderer who should not be permitted to farm.
One of the perks of being a farmer is the big impressive machinery we get to drive. I am convinced that if it wasn't for the self importance derived from the monster tractors and huge combines, as we proudly drive them back and forth past the presumably envious eyes of our neighbors and passer's by, a lot of the satisfaction of farming would disappear. Believe it or not, this fixation on machinery and absurd loyalty to a particular brand of machinery has reached the point where some farmers actually fly the company flag of their favorite machinery manufacturer. Of course the same sort of swaggering, pretentious, self-important boasting can be seen elsewhere—farmers don't have a monopoly on ego.
The pathetic thing about this addiction to impressive machinery and fawning loyalty to a particular machinery company, is that it plays into the hands of the machinery dealers. Any machinery sales-person, who is worth his salt, can recognize one of this ilk the moment he walks into his office. Advertising brochures and magazines cater to and blatantly promote this big-shot image that we farmers are so susceptible to. The words used to describe the advantages of the newest model tractor or combine may appear to promote such things as greater efficiency, but the subtle hidden messages, that hook the vulnerable, have to do with bigness, impressiveness and appearance. It works because we farmers are human too.
Now that I've got that little rant out of my system, I'd like to make a more cogent point. I'm afraid that our tunnel-vision focus on ever bigger machinery is enslaving us to the machinery companies. The companies are right … big machinery does get the job done quicker and comfortable machinery does make the job more pleasant. But, once we succumb to this philosophy, it can have some far-reaching consequences such as; huge investments in machinery; perpetual debts; having to trade-up to get a good deal; finding buyers for the used machines; and the need to buy a whole new line of machinery to fit a bigger tractor.
Focusing on bigness tends to mesmerize us. We begin to think in terms of bigger being better, but this is not always true. Take the case of seeding equipment for example. The present trend is toward huge combination tillage and seeding machines that get the entire job of seeding done in one pass. The behemoth chain of machinery, maybe twenty feet wide and sixty or seventy feet long, typically consists of a huge tractor pulling a cultivator equipped with both seeding and fertilizing attachments which is towing a wagon with tanks full of seed and fertilizer, and finally a soil packer or harrows trailing along behind. The entire ensemble might cost a half-million or more.
The obvious advantage of such an outfit is efficiency ... one pass and you're done. Assuming a speed of seven miles per hour and width of twenty feet, such a machine can seed approximately fourteen acres per hour or one hundred forty acres in a ten hour day … with a couple pit stops to fill up the seed and fertilizer hoppers. The time spent in seeding probably works out to about five minutes per acre. (All of the above are ball-park figures only … I have no personal experience with such monstrosities.)
Now, by contrast, the seeding system which we have used very successfully on our farm for the past forty years, consists of a medium sized tractor pulling a broadcast type fertilizer spreader. This small outfit seeds twenty feet per round at a speed of ten miles per hour, or approximately twenty acres per hour. Since we only seed grain one year out of four, and only then as a companion crop with a mixture of forage seed, the grain and grass seed are mixed together as they are loaded into the spreader. The spreader holds enough seed to seed fifty acres before having to reload. After broadcasting the seed, the field is then harrowed and rolled, in two separate operations. The total time per acre seeded is approximately one quarter of a man-hour (three minutes per acre to seed plus one and a half minutes per acre to harrow and ten minutes per acre to roll). The entire investment in seeding machinery, including the tractor, is approximately a hundred and fifteen thousand dollars. Our yields are comparable to those using the five hundred thousand dollar outfit. For example, oat yields in excess of one hundred bushels per acre … bearing in mind that we use no chemical fertilizers or herbicides.
A side benefit of using a broadcast seeder is that we never have to clean the seed. It goes straight into the seeder as it comes from the combine … a few bits of straw, leaves and other foreign matter are not a problem with a broadcast seeder.
But this kind of farming is not impressive. It does not appeal to the hot-shot grain farmers who compete amongst themselves for the glory of being the envy of their peers and the most prized customers of the machinery dealers. "What fools we mortals be."
To be continued next time…
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Have a warm day…