Another Day on the Farm:
Can’t remember ever being so fed up with cold weather. Must be getting old. If we get much more snow I’ll have to raise the gates to the animal pens. Sure looking forward to spring…working the fields, getting the motorcycle back on the road, putting the cattle out to pasture…
With this posting, my books are now half posted online. The fact that there has been no feedback so far indicates there is little, if any, interest in my blog. That being the case, I see no reason to continue. So, unless or until I get some feedback comments, positive or negative, this will be my final posting.
13th Excerpt from “Farmageddon”:
(My latest unfinished book)
What Does "Sustainable" Mean?
“Sustainability” results from conducting economic, social or environmental activities in such a way that current needs are met without compromising the well-being of future generations. A sustainable activity does not plunder the present at the expense of the future.
Cars that run on gasoline are unsustainable on both counts. They use a non-renewable resource, one that will be completely depleted at some point in the future, and they pollute the environment. Thus they negatively impact the present-day as well as tomorrow.
In the case of sustainable agriculture, it must sumultaneously provide a living for those who farm and support the general public’s needs, while maintaining the health of the farm’s ecology and its surrounding environment. A sustainable farm produces crops and animals without damage to the farm’s ecosystem. Sustainable agriculture seeks to pass on to future generations a healthy natural resource rather than one that has been exploited beyond repair.
Some examples of sustainable agricultural practices include minimal use of non-renewable chemicals, rotating crops, and choosing crops that suit the climate. Avoiding genetically modified crops would also fit with the sustainable model, given the uncertainty of their potential negative impact on ecosystems and personal health.
Sustainable agriculture has also been characterized as: “Leaving the world better than you found it, taking no more than you need, trying not to harm life or the environment, and making amends if you do.”
Once a farm has passed the transition period to sustainability, it is likely to be almost as profitable as before. The principal reason for this is an estimated decline in input costs by approximately a third below conventional costs. Yields typically decline in some crops, such as corn and potatoes, but often increase in others, such as hay, soybeans, oats, and barley, especially during dry years when the better water holding capacity of soil translates into a production advantage. Statistical data indicates that average yields of commonly grown crops show only a ten percent yield decline when compared to yields of traditional farming practices.
In other words: Sustainable farming may ultimately be as profitable as conventional farming because the decline in production is partially offset by the decline in expenses.
In 2002, north American farmers produced about two and a half times more food and fibre than they did in 1948, even though the number of farmers had fallen steadily. This can be attributed, in large measure, to increased mechanization.
As farms begin to scale down in size, the need for large capacity machinery will also scale down, but there will always be a desire and need for some mechanization. All farmers appreciate labour saving tools and equipment, just as in all other occupations. The key to survivability is having appropriate technology.
When diversification replaces monoculture there will be a switch from monstrous single-purpose machinery to smaller multi-purpose machinery. There will also likely be a transition to more garden sized machinery. In time, I suspect that the competition among farmers to have the largest most impressive machines will evolve into a competition to see who can get by with the least and most appropriate machinery.
With the ending of the current practice of farmers scaling up to fit in with modern agricultural technology, technology and farm machine manufacturers will begin to scale down in parallel with the farmers. Under present farming conditions, technology and farm machine companies are leading the way. I’m looking forward to the day when that will reverse and the farmers will once again take the lead.
Sustainable agriculture must seek small and specific answers to the challenges it faces. As some wag once said, “When the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, all problems tend to look like nails”. Well, if money was your main problem solving tool in the past, the old practice of throwing money at problems, in the hope that they will disappear, is not likely to be an option any longer.
To be continued - if any interest is indicated…
13th Excerpt from “Defying the Odds”:
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)
It took twenty one days to get to Korea on the troop ship Marine Devil, a converted freighter. There were twenty five hundred of us on board. About a week out we hit a storm. Two men were washed overboard and not recovered. This resulted in an unscheduled stop at Honolulu, to drop off a couple of guys that had been injured in the storm, and also the opportunity to spend a day in paradise, tossing coins into the clear blue water for the native divers. Guards were posted everywhere to make sure nobody jumped ship.
The rest of the trip was uneventful, unless such things as…spending most of the daytime hours waiting in line for a dinning experience in a galley where the deck is so slippery with puke that it must be neutralised with sugar to provide enough traction so you can stand up elbow to elbow at long steel tables with a hundred or more fellow passengers who are suffering from various degrees of seasickness as you hang on to the table with one hand while feeding yourself with the other from a mess kit that is sliding back and forth with each roll of the ship making it uncertain whether or not you are actually eating your own food as you try to curb a powerful tendency to retch and add your own contribution to the ambience…an other amenities of troopship travel count as eventful.
On the twenty first day we anchored about a mile out from the port of Yung Dung Po, in the Yellow Sea off the west coast of Korea. There was nothing but mud between us and shore. Early the next morning a flotilla of marine landing craft came out to the ship, on high tide, and transported us to shore near a railway station.
That afternoon we boarded a narrow gage Korean train and lurched our way to the city of Seoul. Most of the windows were broken in the rickety old passenger cars, allowing the dense coal smoke from the ancient locomotive to waft through, adding yet another coat to the accumulated grime.
From time to time, for the customary unknown reasons, the train would stop for a few minutes and crowds of ragtag Koreans would appear to barter with this latest trainload of naïve American soldiers. They wanted cigarettes mainly, but also tried to exchange their money for ours or sell us their wrist watches. As dumb as we were, most of us had sense enough to avoid dealing with them. However, I’m ashamed to admit, we denigrated them by flipping cigarette butts out the windows to amuse ourselves by watching them scramble to pick them up. They would strip off the paper and smoke the tobacco in their little brass pipes.
Just before dark we finally lurched into a siding, on the outskirts of Seoul, where we transferred into waiting army trucks for the final leg of the trip. Seoul, the capital of Korea, was a city of over two million in 1946—the largest city I had ever seen, as well as the most wretched. At the end of the war, Russia occupied Korea for a short time, after running the Japanese out, and plundered the country, taking most of their industrial machinery with them when they left.
We spent the first few days in a gutted building that had once been a paper mill. There was nothing left but broken pipes and burned off stubs of structural steel sticking out of the concrete, where the machinery had once been. This apparently was typical of all the country's industrialised areas
We set up our army cots anywhere we could find a bit of shelter from the cold February wind that whistled through the building, sleeping in our clothing under two light army blankets. There were no showers, just a couple cold water faucets where you could wash off a bit of grime. Drinking water was supplied in canvas Lister bags, heavily laced with chlorine tablets. Meals were cooked in an outdoor field kitchen which the infantry cooks had set up. By comparison, the old wooden barracks back at Camp Roberts seemed like the Waldorf Astoria.
After staying about a week in the paper mill, some of us were moved to an old Japanese girls schoolhouse, where life was considerably better. About fifteen men were assigned to each of the former classrooms, allowing each of us enough room for a cot and a duffel bag. There was a small sheet-metal oil stove in the centre of the room, with a bare stovepipe running to the nearest window. The room, and eventually our clothing, reeked of spilled heating oil and smoke fumes.
There was a communal shower room which featured cold water only. To get to the shower room you went outside and walked down a long open corridor exposed to the elements. After a cold shower in the dead of winter there is a tendency to hustle back to the warmth of your bed in some haste. Picture a group of nude teen aged boys running wildly through a cold snowy corridor, clutching their wadded up clothing in their arms and uttering profanity at every step.
When the Americans first arrived in Korea, they set up a Military Government in the capitol city. Of the twenty five hundred men on the ship that brought us to Korea, about fifty of us were assigned jobs in Military Government. Almost all of the rest were sent to Infantry outfits. After living about a month it the schoolhouse, some officers showed up one day to conduct individual interviews. We already knew we had been to be assigned to Headquarters Company of USAMGIK (U.S. Army Military Government in Korea)…these interviews would determine our specific assignments within that organisation. I was assigned to the National Food Administration, for reasons still unknown to me.
It turned out to be the best assignment I could have hoped for. I was in Korea for a total of eleven months. Having arrived as a buck private, I advanced through the ranks faster than any other enlisted man in Military Government and left as a Staff Sergeant. While working at my job in the capitol building, my official classification was Sergeant Major. Outside of working hours, I was one of four platoon sergeants in Headquarters Company, USAMGIK, of the Twenty Fourth Corps. In other words…just another teen aged kid pretending to be a soldier.
Actually my job in military government was quite interesting and it afforded some unique opportunities. One experience, which I will always remember, happened when ex-president Herbert Hoover came to Korea during his world wide food famine survey. An ex-president is treated with a good deal of respect by military people, if for no other reason than he was the personal representative of their commander in chief.
Although the capital building was crawling with military brass, ranging from a couple of generals down to hundreds of lieutenants, the eminent appearance of President Hoover was a cause for consternation throughout the building, but particularly in the National Food Administration. The entire office staff was preparing for his visit and a fair amount of activity filtered down to my level. I became kind of a personal 'gopher' for colonel Hill, the head of the department. It was an interesting period, helping with the preparation of displays and charts for the coming conference, contacting other offices and just generally doing anything that the colonel asked me to do for him.
When the big day arrived, and the conference room was all set up—military police stationed at every entrance and patrolling the hallways, high ranking officers in their best dress uniforms with all their campaign ribbons and medals, strict military discipline being enforced—colonel Hill said he wanted me to attend the meeting as his personal assistant. As we started to enter the conference room, the MP guard saluted colonel Hill and then informed me that I was not allowed to enter. Colonel Hill just said, "He's with me." and the MP replied "Yes Sir!" and stepped aside. Once inside, I discovered that I was the only enlisted man in the room.
The meeting was actually rather boring, but while one of the principle speakers was giving his talk, using flip charts as an aid, he almost knocked the chart stand over while turning pages. Noticing his problem, Colonel Hill nudged me and pointed in the direction of the lecturer. For the rest of the meeting, I steadied the stand while the speakers gave their talks and I was within a step or two of the president—my moment of glory! Mr. Hoover was an old man and spoke very softly. I must have been one of few that heard every word spoken.
Another event also stands out in my memory. It had been raining for several days, and the ground was already pretty well saturated, when a major rainstorm hit. It rained another six inches in the next twenty four hours. The following day reports started coming in to the National Food Administration about infrastructure damage and washed out rice paddies due to heavy flooding. Anticipating potentially disastrous food shortages, it was decided that an assessment of the damage should be conducted immediately. Three Korean officials from the National Food Administration were selected to make the survey. Army trucks were about the only vehicles that could be expected to make such a trip over washed out roads and muddy detours. The Koreans had no such vehicles.
I was assigned the job of driving these officials all over South Korea in a jeep. I attended every meeting with them, although I couldn't understand a word. One of the three Koreans spoke a little English and he would explain what was happening as we drove to the next village. The Koreans roomed at government facilities overnight and I would hunt up the nearest military outpost. The credentials, which Colonel Hill had provide, never failed to secure me a place to eat, sleep and fuel up.
At one isolated military establishment, about a company in size, I ran on to a good friend who I had taken basic training with. He was now a mechanic in the infantry motor pool. I was actually embarrassed by the fact that he was still a private first class and I was a staff sergeant...embarrassed because my stripes had come so easily and he was working his butt off with no hope of advancement. We had a good visit that night, but I felt badly because he was stuck in such a miserable job and I had it so good. Such are the fortunes of 'war'.
While I was stationed in Korea, the army medics made a survey of a hundred or so prostitutes that they had picked up on the streets of Seoul and found that ninety eight percent had a venereal disease of one kind or another. As a result of this survey, all military personnel were warned of the risks involved and advised that anyone contracting VD would be subject to courts marshal. Although fraternisation with Korean women was not prohibited, they made it clear that the odds of contracting VD were great.
Letters from home came quite regularly. Mail call in the services is always exciting, especially when you're on the far side of the globe. Whenever the announcement, "MAIL CALL" came over the squawk box, it was as though the announcement had been, "FIRE!"—everyone stampeded for the assembly area.
I was one of the lucky ones…there was nearly always two or three letters for me. Usually there would be one from mom, occasionally one from dad or one of my sisters, but most of them were from Shirley. When the last letters and packages had been handed out, the guys with letters generally went straight to their bunks and started reading. The ones with packages surreptitiously place their loot in their footlockers, to be opened later in privacy. The empty handed tended to just wander away or maybe start a poker game.
I always read the family letters first…savouring the ones from Shirley until last. Her envelopes were generally thicker that the others because she often sent pictures— tantalising shots of her in bathing suits or photos of her pretty face. After a quick look at the pictures, I would stretch out on my cot to read her cherished letters.
About two weeks before I was due to go back home, we had a mail call. I don't remember if there was any other mail for me, but there was one letter from Shirley…a very thin one. The single page began, "Dear Floyd", not the usual "Dearest" or "Hi Honey". The two paragraphs that followed informed me that she was married.
That night I got drunk. That one thin letter was to radically change my attitude in many ways.
After spending nearly a year in Korea, it was finally time to go back home. The trip home on the Marine Jumper was uneventful and took only nineteen days…taking into account the day lost in crossing the International Dateline. We disembarked at Oakland where we had our first fresh milk in eleven months and then boarded a troop train for Seattle to be discharged.
I think of most of my military experiences in a positive way. It was one of the most interesting and adventurous periods of my life. A great many firsts happened to me while in the service. I had my first train ride, first smoke, first ship ride, first alcoholic drink as well as my first exposure to regimentation and authority over others. But it was a far cry from the romantic vision of fame and glory I had dreamed of such a short time ago. My fantasies of shooting down the enemy, while roaring courageously through the sky, had been reduced to desk jockey in the bloody infantry. The odds of winning had been slim from the start.
To be continued - if any interest is indicated…
13th Excerpt from “But…What About Tomorrow?”:
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)
Suppose I'm Wrong…
Let's suppose I'm wrong about the damage that has been done to our top soil by the excessive use of synthetic agricultural chemicals. In fact, let's assume that the only thing that is correct in this entire book is the fact that, according to prevailing evidence, the world will run out of oil and gas sometime in the next fifty years if we continue to consume these resources at the current rates. Aside from the effect that it would have on industry, home heating, transportation and all sorts of other industrial, commercial and domestic consumers of these products, it would also mean that farmers would be forced to drastically change their farming practices. (By the way, wouldn't it be a hoot if, when our oil and gas is about gone, someone discovers a better use for them than setting them on fire?)
But, let's go a step further and use a technique used by disaster relief organizations, terrorist security people, and such, to formulate plans for worst-case-scenarios in their particular fields. Let's assume that there has been a little miscalculation and instead of having fifty years, before our gas and oil wells run dry, there's only a ten year supply left.
After debating the situation for a couple months and setting up special investigative committees to figure out who to blame, our politicians finally decide that robust action is in order. Their initial knee-jerk reaction was to declare war on any nation that's in a position to cut off our oil and gas imports. But this plan is abandoned when China subtly hinted that it wouldn't look favorably on any country that decided to take preemptive action against a democratic Iraq or a militarily-challenged Canada, for example. Besides, burning up our emergency oil reserves in the killing of innocent people might not be such a good idea anyway … maybe we might find a better use for it. Reluctantly, warfare is decided against and the robust act of fuel rationing is decided upon instead.
When the demands of the airlines; the entertainment and sports industries; commercial and residential heating; and such are provided for, it is decided that the fertilizer industry should be sacrificed. The farmers needs are ignored because, after all, they only represent two percent of the votes.
After the initial period of whining and toothpick chewing, grain farmers across the land realized that they might actually be better off without fertilizer. Sure, their crops might be half what they had been, but their relative position within the agricultural industry would be unchanged. As a matter of fact, they might actually be better off because poor yields would result in short supply and higher prices. The math is simple enough: half the yield at twice the price equals no change in income. Besides that, if there was only half as much grain to handle, storage and freight costs would be halved and net profits would actually be a little higher.
On the other hand, the diversified farms, with their well established crop rotations and lack of dependence on fertilizer, would see no difference in their crop yields, but their net income would increase because of the higher commodity prices. No longer would they be looked down upon as the retarded step-sisters of the industry. How sweet it is to contemplate!
Of course, the above scenario is a bit flippant but it is not totally inaccurate. A shortage of natural gas will cause a shortage of nitrogen fertilizers. This in turn will result in high prices for the little that is available and it could also mean that using fertilizers at previous levels would no longer be profitable. A shortage of oil would obviously have similar effects on farm fuel costs.
If some version of this scenario were to become reality, then crop yields would drop drastically. In such a case, it is conceivable that North America would no longer be a net exporter of grain and other agricultural produce. Imagine the effect this would have on the countries which depend on our exports, not to mention the effect it would have on our own economy.
Waiting until we run out of oil and gas before preparing for that day is not a sane thing to do. The bountiful crops that we are so accustomed to are not possible without the application of liberal amounts of fertilizers and pesticides. My guess is that North America's agricultural production could be cut by fifty percent without the use of these chemicals. Not only would the yields be drastically reduced, but weeds would have a field day … pardon the pun.
I know, from personal experience, how long it takes to bring soil back to full production once it has lost its fertility and becomes infested with weeds. Although all situations would not be the same, on our farm it took approximately twenty years to make a significant improvement in soil fertility and weed reduction. With a four-year crop rotation—three years in grass and one year in grain—each parcel of land was only broken up five times in those twenty years. Plainly it is only when the land is broken up that the organic matter from the grass phase is incorporated into the soil.
Although I have no proof, it seems that the improvements to the fertility of the soil are more-or-less uniform with each succeeding cycle. In other words, there doesn't seem to be much difference in the percentage of improvement gained from the first rotation cycle or the tenth cycle. There is a gradual but uniform improvement each time, as far as I can see. At any rate, it takes a number of years to make a significant improvement. This is one reason why I believe it is imperative that we prepare for the end of oil and gas long before we run out of these resources.
The transition from a chemical-based system of farming to a natural system must be made in an orderly step-by-step manner. It cannot be done in one swell foop. This might best be understood by looking at it from the view point of one individual farmer.
The farmer's top priority will obviously be survival. He must continue to make a living and pay his bills while making the change from chemical-dependent cropping to quasi-organic (sustainable) cropping. He will likely have to gradually make the change over a period of years. The change will not necessarily be limited to discontinuing the use of synthetic chemicals. In many cases it will also involve some changes in machinery, setting up a long term crop rotation system and starting up a livestock enterprise of some kind. All such changes take time and cost money. If he is to survive the transition, the costs of such changes must be spread over a sufficient period of time. It must be realized that, during much of the transition period, the farmer's income, both gross and net, will likely be reduced significantly. Why? Because it will take several years to bring the soil back to its productive potential.
If I were a grain farmer faced with the problem of converting to a diversified farming operation, I would go about it in the following way … assuming that I have a full line of grain farming machinery and no livestock facilities at all, including fences.
First of all, I would seed from one-sixth to one-forth of my land (depending upon whether I planned to have a six-year or four-year crop rotation) to a grass-legume crop. I would do this by seeding an oat and grass mixture so that there would be a crop of oats to harvest, either as grain or forage, in the year of seeding. The use of fertilizer on this crop would be optional, but herbicides could not be used because they would kill out the under-seeded grass and legume seedlings.
Assuming that I have no haying machinery, I have the options of harvesting the oats as grain; buying a baler and making oat hay; selling the standing crop to a neighboring farmer for hay; or hiring someone to bale the hay for me.
If I choose to make hay of the oats, I have the options of selling it, or buying some cattle to feed it to. Selling the hay is simple enough, but the cattle option will necessitate building some sort of confinement facilities like fences and corrals. Then there is the matter of the class of cattle to buy … feeders or breeding stock being two options. Since I am making long range plans, I opt for breeding stock.
Basically, the pattern for the next few years is now established. Each year I will seed another parcel of my land to grass and add to my cattle herd and facilities and exchange grain machinery for haying machinery as necessary. Eventually all of my land will have been seeded to grass and then the whole cycle will repeat itself and my farm will have been fully converted to a sustainable diversified operation.
For those that opt to continue in a predominantly grain business, but wean themselves from their chemical dependencies, they will have to use a rotation scheme that may only involve grasses in one or two years per cycle. Of course it will take longer to build up the soil this way and the best use will not be made of the grass, but it will help and eventually the soil tilth and organic matter will be improved.
In reality, there are probably as many variations of ways to make the transition as there are individual farms. The main point of the examples given is to demonstrate that, no matter how it's done, it's going to take time to convert to a sustainable long term soil management system.
To be continued - if any interest is indicated…
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Have a warm day…