February 25, 2008

15th Book Excerpts

Another Day on the Farm:

Ever since our well went dry, several years ago, we’ve had to haul potable water for household use. It’s a weekly chore…takes about 200 liters per week for drinking, cooking and showering, the toilets are piped to the dugout which waters the cattle. Until recently we had to haul from Athabasca…about a 25 mile round trip. Now that purified water has been piped from Athabasca to our little village of Colinton, the round trip has been reduced to 8 miles.

This is a picture of Guy loading up in Colinton’s new coin-operated pumping station.

Hauling Water

Current Rant:

This business of bottled drinking water bugs me. Everywhere you go you see people packing a bottle of water. It would make sense if they were crossing the Sahara Desert but in a country where purified water is piped into just about every residence and business establishment it seems a tad foolish, to say the least. It seems that it has become a status symbol…”See how health conscious I am”, or some such foolishness.

The fact is that, in North America, the standards for tap water are often higher than for bottled water. Rather than spend a buck and a half for a bottle of water that was transported halfway across the country, or imported from Scandinavia for Pete’s sake, it would be more practical to at least re-fill your water bottle from the nearest tap. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what some bottled water companies have been found to be doing.

Save your bottled water money and pay off your credit card debt…tough times are coming.

15th Excerpt from “Farmageddon”:
(My latest unfinished book)

A Brief History Of Our Farm

Our farm is located in central Alberta, Canada. The climate can be quite severe at times. You can count on having a few days of thirty-below temperatures just about every winter, but in general it is quite suitable for farming. The annual precipitation averages around twenty inches, an adequate amount for dry-land farming provided the bulk of it comes when it is most useful. The frost-free period is approximately a hundred days long on average, but over the forty odd years that we have lived here we’ve seen both frost and snow in every month of the year.

My oldest son, Guy, and I have been farming together since 1962. Starting with a five quarter-section mixed enterprise operation, the farm has evolved into a ten-quarter cow/calf beef enterprise. Our only crops are hay and pasture. We use little or no commercial fertilizers and no chemical herbicides or insecticides. All of the livestock manure is returned to the fields.

When we first started farming, our land was classified as marginally suitable for agriculture. The native top soil averages under four inches deep. The land is very rocky, with stones ranging from baseball size up to pickup-truck size. Over the years, by means of crop rotation, manure application and hundreds of hours of rock removal, the cultivated fields have been greatly improved in productivity. We now have just over eight hundred acres of arable land and about the same in native and improved pasture. Although we are not registered "organic farmers", for all intents and purposes that description best fits our system of management.

At the present time we have a breeding herd of approximately two hundred Limosin and cross-bred beef cattle. The cows are bred to start calving in early April, when the worst of winter is generally behind us. The calves are weaned and shipped in late September. We raise all of our fodder and pasture but buy some supplemental grain-based feed for the replacement heifers. The pasture season starts around the first of June and ends with the first killing frost, usually mid-September, so we have to feed hay for eight to nine months of the year.
It takes from six to seven twelve-hundred pound bales of hay for each mature animal, which works out to about four tons each.

The reality is that winter dominates everything we do — even in those three or four months between winters, the bulk of our time is spent preparing for the next winter. Around here a year is described as, “Nine months of winter followed by three months of poor sledding”, or “We have two seasons ― winter and the Forth of July” .

Over the years we have acquired a full line of haying and tillage machinery. We also have land clearing, rock removal and manure handling machinery. The only custom work we hire is cattle hauling, when we ship our calves and cull the herd in the fall.

We are debt free and have been for more than a decade. Our annual operating expenses are approximately fifty thousand dollars and we normally have two to three years operating funds in the bank.

When we took over our farm back in 1962, the land was actually in terrible shape but I was too inexperienced to realize it. The previous owner had farmed the place since 1927, the year of my birth. He had homesteaded the home quarter, which made him the first person since the beginning of time to have cultivated that specific 160 acres of North America. Consequently, the condition of the land, when it passed from his hands, was solely the result of his farming practices.

Now, I'm not accusing the man of wilful mismanagement and he certainly wasn't an ignorant man. In fact, he was a school teacher by profession. He must have realized that his method of farming was destroying, or at least degrading, the soil (he hinted as much after we had purchased his farm). I'm sure he did the best he could under the circumstances and I'm equally sure that he would have liked to have done better. But by using the machinery that was available and the farming practices that prevailed at the time, the results were inevitable.

The farm had been operated as a grain farm for thirty five years with very limited, if any, diversification. The only domesticated livestock that ever set foot on the farm were a few hogs, a couple of milk cows, a team of horses and a flock of chickens and turkeys. The horses were the primary source of power until tractors came along late in his farming career. The cows supplied his family with milk and meat but, being such a small part of his farming enterprise, they did not require enough forage to justify raising hay on a scale that warranted any kind of crop rotation. Most of the hay for his cows and horses came from natural meadows on his own land or nearby public land. The hogs and turkeys were raised primarily to consume grain — the principle product of the farm.

With such an operation there was obviously very little manure generated, certainly too little to justify the effort, machinery and expense of spreading it on the grain fields. To make matters worse, the straw from the grain crops, aside from a small amount that was fed to the horses or used as bedding for the cows and pigs, was either burned or left in stacks in the fields where the grain had been thrashed. One of the first things we did, when we took over the farm, was burn old straw stacks because they were a nuisance to cultivate around. There were dozens of them and burning was the only practical way to get rid of them.

In defense of the previous owner, and other farmers of his generation, I want to point out that there was little incentive to maintain the fertility of the soil. As a matter of fact, there was, and still is, a disincentive in the form of short term gain. It must be understood that those people were barely able to eke out a living, often from marginally productive land, using labour intensive methods. The very limited income from such enterprises often barely covered expenses. What little profit there was had to be frugally budgeted between family expenses, machinery replacement, debt payments, and all the other expenses associated with farming.

The incentive to maximize immediate profits, as a trade off for long term depletion of soil fertility, was very strong — a variation of the old "bird-in-the-hand" philosophy. Besides, many of their generation were soon to retire, so there was little incentive for them to change their ways at such a late date. "Let the next generation shoulder the burden and expense of restoring the land's productivity", seemed to have been the prevailing philosophy.

A bit of clarification is called for at this point. In the short term it is both costly and difficult to switch to sustainable farming practices once the soil has been severely depleted of organic matter, the primary damage in this case. First of all, Mother Nature, in her attempt to restore the soils productivity, makes sure that something grows, if at all possible. Unfortunately weeds tend to thrive where cultivated crops do not.

The weeds that do well in our area are Canada Thistle, Stink Weed, Sow Thistle, Dandelions, Plantain, Wild Oats, Tansy, Chamomile, to mention a few. A field left uncultivated, even though the soil's organic matter has been severely depleted, will produce prodigious quantities of these odious plants and the soil soon becomes polluted with their seeds.

Obviously weeds also do very well in healthy soil, as any gardener knows. But, as any gardener also knows, if the soil is healthy the cultivated plants are able to compete much better with the weeds than they otherwise could.

Once the soil has reached a certain level of degradation, restoring it to health, while trying to derive a living from it at the same time, is difficult, to say the least. In our case, it took approximately twenty years to nurse our soil back to a reasonably productive condition. It took about the same length of time to get rid of our worst weed — Wild Oats.

Our first crop was a disaster. As soon as it emerged from the ground it was evident that the soil was polluted with weed seeds — wild oats in particular. Within a week of emergence the fields resembled lawns more than grain fields. Wild oats grew so thickly that they even choked themselves out, turning yellow in their competition for soil nutrients. Unusually wet weather compounded the problem. Within a month the grain was stunted beyond belief. It was a miserable looking crop. My visions of a bountiful harvest turned to worry and embarrassment.

By the way, with regard to the wretched wild oat, the cockroach of field-crop weeds in my opinion, it is a very interesting plant. It is a survivor, if nothing else. One reason for this trait lies in its ability to "plant its self" — literally. The seeds are designed in such a way that they can actually "dig" their way into the soil. The wild oat seed has a little hairy doohicky, shaped like a grasshoppers hind leg, which reacts to the sun's energy in a way that causes it to kick back and forth and cover its self with soil. Really!

Anyway, some forty-plus years later, as a result of crop rotations and diversified farming enterprises, our land is almost totally free of wild oats, and, with the exception of Dandelions in the hay fields and Stink Weed in the grain crops, the weed problem is almost non-existent. Bear in mind that this was all done without the use of herbicides. The only herbicides ever used on Ells Farms are for brush control in the fence lines and spot spraying of Tansy in the pastures. With the exception of our first year on the farm — when we were informed by the local municipal weed control officer that we would either have to spray our fields with herbicides or the county would do it for us and bill us for the costs — not one drop of herbicide has since been used on any of our field crops.

Furthermore, very little synthetic fertilizer has been used. On average, about once every four or five years, we top-dress some of our hay land with a nitrogen fertilizer (34-0-0) at the rate of about a hundred and fifty pounds per acre. Other than that, the only fertilizer used is the manure from the cattle and crop residues incorporated back into the soil.

I am proud to say that our land is now in much better condition than it was, even in its virgin state. The organic matter has been restored and is maintained at a level which has virtually eliminated erosion — another serious problem when we first took over the farm — and its water retention capacity makes maximum use our twenty-inch average annual rainfall. These are some of the reasons why I feel qualified to give advise on soil restoration. I know from personal experience that it can be done.

Since we took over the farm, there has never been a mouldboard plough in any of our fields. We use chisel- and disk-type implements exclusively for tillage and the age-old system of broadcast seeding for planting. The seeding system, which we have used very successfully for the past forty years, consists of a medium sized tractor pulling a spin-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 for fifty acres.

After broadcasting the seed, the field is harrowed and then rolled with a ten-ton land roller, 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). Our yields are comparable to those of farmers who have a much larger investment in seeding equipment. For example, oat yields in excess of one hundred bushels per acre — bearing in mind that we use neither chemical fertilizers nor herbicides.

A side benefit of using a broadcast seeder is that we don’t 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 yearn to be the envy of their peers, as well as the most prized customers of the machinery dealers. "What fools we mortals be."

With that background on the past and present conditions of the specific farm which the rest of the book deals with, I will now get on with the main subject of this book: Preparing ourselves to farm without cheap and abundant oil and natural gas products.

To be continued next time…

15th Excerpt from “Defying the Odds”:
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)

Flying At Last…

At that time the government sponsored an education plan, under a program called the G.I. Bill of Rights, which entitled veterans to grants for educational purposes. The plan basically covered the cost of one year of school for each year in the military. Since I only had seventeen months in the army, the plan would only have covered my college expenses for about a year and a half.

I figured there wasn't much use in starting school if I didn't have sufficient money or the prospects of finishing were not good. The truth is…I really wasn't sure of what I wanted to do, although I had thought some about becoming an architect. No one in my family had ever gone to college before. I had saved a little money while in the army, but had spent most of it already. There were no student loans available in those days and the folks certainly couldn't afford to pay for my education…even if I would have permitted them to.

But college wasn't the only thing that was covered by the G.I. Bill. Among other things, it could also be used for flying lessons. There was a time limit in which you had to start school to be eligible for the government grant. As I recall, you had to enrol in an approved course within two years of being discharged. Anyway, rather than loose the benefits of the G.I. Bill altogether, my friend, Gene Nelson, and I decided to use up our education entitlements on flying lessons.

In order to qualify for a pilot license you had to pass a physical examination. My old nemesis had loomed up again, but this time the exam could be made by any medical doctor. With my past experiences in mind, I went to my doctors office with some trepidation. As usual, the only thing he found wrong was my high blood pressure. He knew how often I had been disappointed by failed physicals in the past and I suspect he also knew the psychological effect of those past failures. After pointing out that I would probably never be able to get a commercial pilots license, he signed the forms, giving me a clean bill of health.

The training consisted of ground school and flight training. The flying lessons were from a half hour to a couple of hours in length. We trained in single-engine land planes. After eight hours of dual training with an instructor, the student was eligible for his first solo flight. The landing strip was just a grass runway in a former cow pasture. At one end there was a high tension power line and tall Fir trees at the other end. Dropping down behind that power line was a bit intimidating at first but it was good training for emergency landing situations. Ward Grove, the owner of the airport, as well as one of my instructors, had actually landed a plane between the goal posts of a football field, as a half-time stunt…which took a bit more skill than landing between power lines and fir trees on a runway at least three times as long.

I qualified for my first solo flight on schedule. It proved to be an uneventful flight but unforgettable nevertheless. Ward had shot a couple landings with me as a final check out before soloing. As we taxied toward the hangers after the second landing, he had me stop and as he got out said, “Looks like you’re ready to shoot a couple by yourself.”, then grinned and walked away.

That was a moment of truth, a rare moment in life never to be forgotten. As I taxied to the end of the runway, all alone for the first time, my mind was racing through the pre-flight checklist. There was no feeling of panic…just a high state of exhilaration and total concentration. After checking the controls once again and making a final check for incoming aircraft, I taxied onto the runway. The hours of practice took over as I revved the engine and released the brakes. As the plane started rolling I thought to myself, as I had done many times before when in tense situations, “This is no big deal…thousands of people have done it before you. Just don’t do anything stupid.”

It seemed that the plane accelerated more quickly than usual and used up less runway to get up to flying speed. Leaving the ground smoothly, I climbed to the proper altitude and made the left turn of the take off pattern. Still climbing, in preparation for making another left turn onto the landing pattern, it dawned on me that the reason that the plane had accelerated faster and was now climbing faster was because it was a hundred and eighty pounds lighter since Ward got out. While flying along the landing pattern, before making my final approach, I reminded myself to compensate for this loss of weight when landing.

Pulling the throttle lever back to half throttle to start my descent and lined up on the runway. In order to clear the power lines, without using up too much of the runway, it was necessary to lose altitude quickly by side-slipping the aircraft. Luckily I had thought about the plane being lighter than usual and compensated by side-slipping a bit more than usual. After touching the wheels down to a decent landing I pushed the throttle full forward and took off again, much relieved that the landing had been okay.

As I taxied back to the hangers, after making the second landing, I was pleased that it had gone well and tried to look cool while preparing myself for the good-natured harassing I was about to receive.
During our training, we made a couple cross-country flights, both dual and solo, but most of our time was spent practising in our own locality. More time was spent shooting landings than anything else but we also practised aerobatics…looping, stalling, et cetera. I really enjoyed flying but knew that there was no hope of a career for me there. After getting my pilots license, I used up the remaining hours of government sponsored flying time, by taking friends for rides or just fooling around by myself. Since it cost twelve dollars per hour to rent a plane, I couldn't afford to fly after the government funds ran out, so that was the end of my flying experience. It was nothing like my dreams of being a fighter pilot, but at least I had experienced the satisfaction of beating the odds to a very limited degree.

To be continued next time…

15th Excerpt from “But…What About Tomorrow?”:
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)

Summing Up…

Somehow, in this age of greed and self indulgence, we have lost our sense of what is important and what is not. Our standard of living is the highest in human history, but at an unconscionable cost to the environment and natural resources. We capriciously consume and waste the resources of coming generations at an obscene rate. We are more concerned about our own immediate comfort and amusement than we are about the future of our progeny.

It's taken us a couple hundred years to screw up the environment to its present condition. Repairing the damage will likely take a lot longer, if indeed it is even possible at this eleventh hour. What we have done to our descendant's planet is amoral, if not criminal. We have looted and spoiled natures perfection in our selfish pursuit of the good life. We not only owe our progeny an apology…we should beg their forgiveness. But, forgiven or not, the very least we should do is start repairing the damage we have done.

But I seriously doubt that we will do much for a while because it's our nature to procrastinate and, besides, we're having too much fun. It's our nature, as well, to assume that the unidentified "they" are responsible…therefore "they" must fix it. Wrong! We let it happen therefore We should fix it!

It's also our nature to assume that the bright boys—scientists, engineers, politicians, inventors—will save our bacon somehow. We assume these smart guys will find alternate energy sources before we burn that last barrel of oil. They will develop a chemical-resistant microbe that will make our burned out soil well again and maybe even permit us to use more chemicals to produce even more surplus commodities. They will invent a water purification system that will allow us to continue dumping the shit of civilization into our rivers and oceans and get away with it. And, they will pass new legislation to correct the unforeseen consequences of their past self-serving legislative mistakes—retroactively, one would hope.

Dream on! That's the kind of reasoning that got us into our present mess and it isn't likely to get us out. One of the signs of insanity is, "Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results each time".

I don't pretend to know much about the scientific, technological or political worlds, but from personal experience and observations, I have some ideas about what needs to be done as far as agriculture is concerned. For what they may be worth … here they are.

Agriculture must move toward more diversification. No, I'm not suggesting that we go back to the small family farms of the past—the nostalgic little storybook farm with a few chickens, a cow and a pig or two—that is obviously ridiculous and unworkable. What I do suggest is a gradual movement away from the large factory-type farming operations—the huge hog and chicken production plants and the enormous cattle feedlots—that have proven to be so environmentally harmful.

We should limit the concentration of animal populations to a size that the waste they produce can be absorbed beneficially by the farms in the nearby surrounding area. Smaller operations scattered throughout the country will not only make a more tolerable impact on nature but will also generate local ancillary employment. It could, for instance, encourage the construction of mid-sized meat processing facilities, which would also serve as a market outlet for the smaller local farmers. Mid-sized feed lots and farm factories should be located only where their waste byproducts can be absorbed efficiently and beneficially.

"But", some might protest, "that would be counter to the principle of efficiency of scale and would tend to reduce profitability!"

Probably … but the single-minded pursuit of profit—the almighty bottom line—at the expense of the environment, is exactly what got us into our present predicament. A greedy few have made fortunes at the expense of the environment, but only because of the complacency of the rest of us. Over a period of time, the farm has evolved from the nostalgic independent labor intensive family operation to the present day mechanized capital intensive subsidy dependent political nightmare. Efficiency has been stressed to the detriment of conservation. Return on investment is the focal point of management. Money has become the ultimate goal.

Aside from the guilt I feel for my personal part in creating this legacy of problems, which we are leaving for our kids to clean up, I'll likely not live to experience the real cost of our crimes against nature. But, on the other hand, my optimistic side tells me, "There's still hope …provided we come to our senses before it's too late."

To be continued next time…

I would like to hear from you! You may send your comments by clicking either the Comments or the Letter icon below. Thank you…

Have a warm day…


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