February 2, 2008

3rd Book Excerpts

Another Day on the Farm:

Got an e-mail from my distant cousin, Marilyn, who is transposing my Grandmother’s diaries (25 books which I inherited) into digital format. Marilyn is very dedicated and much appreciated family genealogist!

A bit warmer this morning, which just happens to be the mid-point between the shortest day of the year and the first day of spring. Whoop-tee-do.

Have been feeding a lot of hay to the cattle during this cold spell but should have enough to see us through to spring. Lots of snow so far. Should be a good run-off and full dugouts when it melts.

Current Rant:

Can’t understand why the wealthy are so admired. Take the stock market parasites for example. The most wealthy of this ilk gain billions by gambling on changing values of stocks and contribute nothing to the welfare of the general population. Their greed is insatiable yet they are admired and envied by many. The same generally applies to the wealthy of all genre – royalty, entertainers, entrepreneurs – celebrities of all kinds.

The true test of a persons value to society is not how wealthy they are but how necessary they are – do they provide an essential service. Those who labor with their hands generally do.

A world without the greedy would likely be a world with fewer needy.

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

What is the Point of Trying?

Some might say, “What is the point of trying?”, assuming that our problems are so immense that they cannot be solved. Why not enjoy what is left of the "good life" before the worst happens? What is the sense of spending time evaluating new evidence of the coming of a collapse if it is inevitable. Their logic tells them that, if the calamity proves inevitable, they should at least have the satisfaction of “living it up” prior to its occurrence. Should they realize that their children will likely suffer the consequences more than themselves, they placate their conscience by convincing themselves that there was really nothing they could have done to prevent it anyway.

Other people don’t recognize global warming, energy depletion, soil erosion, and the whole range of ecological threats, as problems at all. These people simply deny the existence of such problems. Even if they are not totally convinced that they are right, they assume that the consequences of any developing ecological calamity will be so far in the future that it will not effect them or their children.

And then there are those who, although they may believe that there are some potentially serious problems over the horizon, they also believe that technology, guided by the marketplace, will inevitably solve the problems. They may even trust that government intervention, through carbon taxes etc., will help slow global warming. The advantage of this view is that it relieves them of any personal responsibility. There is no need for individuals to do anything because technology and the government will take care of everything.

It is not easy to sell the idea that solving the problems will involve work and sacrifice at every level; individual, household, municipal, state, federal and even international. Realizing that when the job of preparing for a collapse is done, all of us will probably have considerably less material wealth than we had before and we will likely have to spend considerably more physical energy carrying out our daily routines, does not make the selling job any easier either. It is not surprising that the thought of working hard for a future with lowered expectations is not all that appealing to a public whose hopes and dreams have always been pegged to self gratification.

The advantages of a sustainable lifestyle are often quite subtle and unlikely to inspire much enthusiasm. They tend to be nonmaterial benefits, such as closer communities and family relationships, closer contact with nature, a slower pace and a more sound ecology for future generations. These advantages have little appeal to those with a bird-in-the-hand mentality.

Given the more-or-less universal loss of hand-labor skills by the general population, and our ever diminishing personal daily contact with nature, it is understandable that some might wonder if we are equal to the challenge of providing for our own individual needs. We are more comfortable thinking that our governments and experts in science and industry, whom we assume know what they’re doing, will look after us.
But, regardless of what others may think, in the end, each of us have to make our own individual decisions. When one is convinced, as I am, that our global oil and natural gas resources will run out sometime in the near future, and that the world’s shaky economy is teetering on the brink of collapse, it would seem wise to prepare for such events, insofar as possible.

Although this book focuses primarily on farmers, that does not imply that we are more important than anyone else. It is just that farmers are among the few who can actually do very much to prepare themselves — provided we don't wait too long to start.

Being an old man without much time left anyway, I don’t have as much at stake as younger people. I’ve had an interesting life and have already outlived my life expectancy at birth, in 1927. I’ve experienced the luxuries and pleasures provided by our heedless waste of petroleum products and pillage of Nature. I am as guilty as the next guy of this waste and have contributed more than most to the destruction of our forests. I could probably ride out the coming chaos without too much inconvenience or change in my lifestyle, and even “Live it up” in my final years if I chose to do so.

But I am the father of eight children, the grandfather of eleven and the great-grandfather of one. I am concerned not only about their future but the future of all young people. My intent is to do whatever I can, within my limited means, to help them survive as painlessly and comfortably as possible. I propose to do this by working out a plan for my own survival and offer it as an example that others might follow as they see fit. But, to paraphrase a corny old saying, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him think”.

To be continued next time…

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

Departure from Canada...

Some of dad's family had already migrated back to the United States prior to the depression. They sent letters back telling how much better it was down there. Jobs were available to willing workers and the pay was good.

The temptation to take a hiatus from farming began to take seed in my folk's minds. The seed germinated when a hailstorm wiped out their crop just before harvest time. Luckily dad had hail insurance on the crop, in fact it happened to be the only time he ever insured a crop. Since there was no crop to harvest, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to leave the farm for awhile. There would be enough money from the insurance to finance a train trip south and a bit left over to start a new life. So, on Christmas Eve of 1929, we boarded the train, with all the family possessions, and headed for the state of Washington.

A note of clarification is needed at this point. Dad did not actually intended to quit farming altogether, he just wanted to go to the States long enough to save up some money and then move back to his farm for a fresh start. He had not planned to sell the land…just the livestock and machinery. But the people that he had rented the farm to, until he could return, waited until the auction sale was over and then they presented him with an ultimatum—he could either sell them the farm or find a different renter. The train fare had already been paid, living arrangements had been made in the States and it was too late to change their plans, so dad had little choice but to sell the land.

We moved from place to place, in Washington, two or three times during the next few years. At first dad tried dairy farming. I don't know much about that venture, except that it ended in failure. He bought some milk cows from a local farmer, and it turned out that they were infected with Bangs Disease—brucellosis—a contagious abortion disease. He was pretty bitter about the deal. The former owner claimed that he had not known about the disease when he sold the cattle and he refused to pay compensation or take the cattle back. Consequently, the folks were forced to give up the farm and we moved to Camas, Washington, where dad got a job in the paper mill.

At one time or another, most of his brothers worked at the paper mill. Dad worked there until the war broke out in 1941. Starting out as a labourer, he eventually became a millwright, but he was never happy there. He didn't get along well with some of his bosses and he didn't like working on Sundays…which was the day millwrights often had maintenance work to do. But I think the truth is that he just wasn't happy working for wages, he was a farmer at heart and that’s all he ever wanted to be.

To be continued next time…

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

Some Personal Background…

I was born in south-central Alberta in 1927. My parents had been farming near the little town Huxley for a number of years but, due to the hardships of the Great Depression, decided to move to the United States to find employment when I was just a baby. I grew up in the southwestern part of Washington State. Upon graduating from Washougal high school, I joined the U.S. army and served in Korea for about a year. After my discharge from the army, I worked in industry until I became fed up with it after fifteen years, and, at age thirty-five, moved my young family to Canada to seek our fortune in farming.

When we began farming, back in 1962, I knew next to nothing about farming but I had read some books on the subject that made a lot of sense to me—two in particular. One was The Plowman's Folly, by agronomist Edward Faulkner and the other was Out of the Earth by the famous novelist Louis Bromfield. (Actually, there were three books, the third being Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which in 1962 exposed the hazards of the pesticide DDT. Although Carson's book strongly reinforced my reluctance to use chemicals of any kind for pest control in farming, the other two books were far and away the most influential in my case.)
Falkener's book, the trailblazer of the two, written just as the calamitous dust bowl was playing its self out in the 1940s, blamed the almost universal use of moldboard plows for the disastrous pillage of the soil that led to the event. His ideas set the stage for improved agricultural methods of soil management. His assault on the tillage practices of his day stimulated farmers to seek fresh solutions to the problems that plagued North American agriculture. Decades before direct planting and soil conservation were to become fashionable, Faulkner challenged the almost universal belief that the moldboard plow was an essential tool of proper soil management.

In his book, Out of the Earth, Louis Bromfield praised Faulkner's ideas and then went on to put them into practice when he launched his agricultural experimentation's at Malabar Farm in Ohio. Although Bromfield enjoyed considerable income from the numerous books he had previously written, he insisted that his farm be self sufficient and independent of any off-farm funding. His guiding principle was that they would do nothing at Malabar Farm that could not be done by farmers who lacked off-farm income.

The main thesis of Mr. Faulkner's book dealt with his theory that moldboard plows had two very negative effects on the land. Number one: They produced a hardpan at the plowing depth, which, over time, became almost impervious to water and root penetration. Number two: The moldboard plow was designed to turn the soil upside down in an unbroken ribbon, which deposited the organic material, from the surface of the land, squarely on top of the hardpan at the plow sole depth. He theorized that this organic matter, being sandwiched between the hardpan and the overturned soil above, was compressed into a kind of blotter. This interfered with both upward and downward percolation of water. It also concentrated the valuable nutrients and minerals, contained in the organic materials, at a depth and in a state that was virtually unavailable to subsequent crops.

Mr. Bromfield, convinced that Mr. Faulkner's theories were correct, decided to conduct a private experiment to find a better way of tilling the soil and further develop Mr. Faulkner's ideas. He designed his farm, located in a glacial till area of Ohio, to be a self-sustaining commercially viable enterprise that could serve as a model for farmers the world over. His guiding principle was to use only tools and practices which were available and affordable to farmers who derived their sole income from their farms. His main objective was to till the soil in such a manner as to eliminate the problems pointed out by Mr. Faulkner. In the process of doing so, Bromfield apparently kept meticulous records and used a scientific approach to his experimental work.

As a result of his work, Bromfield proved to his own satisfaction (and to many of the thousands of visitors who came to his farm and/or read his book) that the use of tillage machinery which tears the soil apart, rather than merely flopping it over, is a key factor in solving the problems associated with the use of moldboard plows. In the process of tearing apart the soil, the sod and all surface residues are thoroughly mixed with the sub-surface layer of soil, which makes the organic matter of the surface more accessible to the micro-organisms throughout the tilled layer.

The implement he championed was a machine that is now commonly known as a Chisel Plow—a cultivator with sharp pointed semi-ridged tines that penetrate the soil and rip it apart, rather than turning it over. These sharp pointed tines not only did not give rise to a hard-pan, they actually penetrated and ripped apart any existing hard-pan.
In the opening pages of Out of the Earth, Bromfield included a quotation (written at the beginning of the eighteenth century by a man named Victor, Marquis de Mirabeau, a French author and political economist) which struck a chord with me. Victor said: "The State is like a tree. The roots are agriculture, the trunk is the population, the branches are industry, the leaves are commerce and the arts; it is from the roots that the tree draws the nourishing sap…and it is to the roots that a remedy must be applied if the tree is not to perish."

When we took over our farm 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 specific160 acres of North America. Consequently the condition of the land, when it passed from his hands, was solely the result of his farming practices.

I'm not accusing the man of willful mismanagement. 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 degrading the soil…in fact 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 turkeys. The horses were his 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 form of crop rotation. Much of the hay for his cows and horses came from natural meadows on his own land or nearby public land…a prevailing practice of the time. The hogs and turkeys were raised primarily to consume grain, the principle product of the farm.

With such an operation there obviously was 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. When we took over the farm, one of the first things I did 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. One must understand that many of those people were barely able to eke out a living from their marginally productive land with their labor intensive methods. Often the very limited income from such enterprises barely covered the expenses. What little profit there was had to be frugally budgeted between family living 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" theme. As well, many of their generation would soon retire, so there was little incentive for them to change their ways at such late date.

"Let the next generation shoulder the burden and expense of restoring the land's productivity", seemed to be the prevailing philosophy.

A bit of clarification is called for at this point. In the short term, it is both very costly and difficult to switch to sustainable farming practices once the soil has been severely depleted of organic matter. One reason for this is that 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 cannot. The weeds that do best in our area are such things as Canada Thistle, Stink Weed, Sow Thistle, Dandelions, Plantain, Wild Oats, Tansy, Chamomile and such stuff. 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 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 scarce 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, in fairness 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 (I'm quite sure that's the proper botanical name), that's shaped something like a grasshoppers hind leg, that 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 years later, as a result of crop rotations and diversified farming enterprises, our land is now totally free of wild oats, and, with the exceptions 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 I was informed by the regional government weed control officer that we would either have to spray our fields with herbicides or they would do it for us and bill us for the costs—not one drop of herbicide has 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 which are incorporated 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 much improved water retention capability makes maximum use our twenty-inch average annual rainfall.

Since we took over the farm, there has never been a moldboard plow in any of our fields. We use chisel- and disk-type implements exclusively for tillage and we use the age-old method of broadcasting, followed by harrowing and roller packing, for all of our seeding.

To be continued next time…

Have a warm day…


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