Another Day on the Farm
As I was riding my Quad up the road to Guy’s place in the minus 22F chill of the morning before daylight, thumping along on its frozen squared-off tires, I was thinking ahead to summer when Peder, Jim and I will again be cruising the highways of Northern Alberta on our motorcycles. A buggy grin trumps frozen ears.
My Honda TVX 1300.
In view of massive evidence of global warming and peak oil, to name just two of the potential calamities we may be facing, it seems odd that more ordinary people aren’t showing much concern. It’s obvious that our governments are only paying lip service to promoting solutions to these problems, so it seems to me the prudent thing would be for each of us to “look after number one”, in so far as possible.
Even if there is some doubt as to whether these potential calamities are real, it would seem wise for individuals to assume they are and make preparations to mitigate the effects insofar as possible while there is still time.
Fourth Excerpt from “Farmageddon”:
(My latest unfinished book)
Setting the Scene
For thousands of years, cycles of feast and famine were normal. In good years food was plentiful, in bad years there was starvation and many people died. But this was accepted as normal in pre-industrial societies.
In contrast, most industrialized nations of today seldom experience food shortages. In North America food is so cheap and plentiful that obesity is of far greater concern than hunger. In 1950 the average American family spent twenty percent of its income on food. Today that figure has dropped to ten percent and, since most living North Americans have never experienced anything but that trend, the expectation is that it will continue indefinitely.
The era of cheap oil and natural gas will soon end, with enormous implications for our petroleum-dependent food system. Modern agriculture has been described as a method of using soil to turn petroleum and gas into food.
With the end of unlimited oil and natural gas, another problem will become apparent — there is no longer enough farmers to produce the food required to feed the population. This is not because there will be fewer farmers, rather, its because their efficiency will be drastically reduced.
Much of the success of modern agriculture lies in its labor efficiency. Far less manual labor is required to produce a given amount of food today than was the case at the beginning of the last century. In 1900, seven times as much human labor was required per unit of food produced than in 2000. Consequently not as many farmers are needed now.
As the need for farmers diminished, more and more farm families were forced to find employment in the cities. Today so few people are farming that the knowledge and skills of farming is disappearing. The average age of North American farmers is approaching sixty years. Those under thirty five years old make up less than six percent of the total.
Obviously we are faced with several potential problems here. If less oil means more manual farm labor, and the majority of our farmers are well past their prime, who is expected to do that work? Old men well past their prime? Young men and women who know nothing about farming and have no land? With less oil and gas available, we will obviously need far more muscle power devoted to food production, and thus far more farmers than we currently have.
I recently read an article, written by a self-styled ivory-tower agricultural expert, claiming that fifty million new farmers will be needed in North America to produce enough food to meet our population’s needs. That may be the way it works out in theory mathematically, but it certainly doesn’t make much sense from a practical standpoint. In fact, it’s absolutely asinine.
First of all, where will these fifty million people come from? The only logical answer is from the cities. Fine! That problem is solved, no shortage of people. It’s just a matter of finding fifty million that are willing to give up their cushy city lifestyle and move to the country; take on huge debts for land, livestock and machinery; and learn to farm by trial and error. Not bloody likely!
I have witnessed a number of cases where city people have succumbed to the nostalgia of the “good life in the country”. In some cases it was to get away from the rat-race. Some of them had retirement pension income from previous employment. Some planned to keep on working at their present jobs but live on the farm, doing the farm work on weekends and holidays. Some had rural family roots and wanted to fulfill their life-long dream of going back to the farm. But, whatever their motivation may have been, they almost invariable all ended up in the same way – failure.
They all tended to follow the same pattern. First they scoured the country in search of their dream home-to-be, generally looking for a fixer-upper that didn’t cost too much but showed potential — which the present owner had apparently overlooked.
They weren’t interested in buying “going concerns” because they couldn’t afford them. And besides, they wanted to start small and work up, be apprentice farmers. Lots of treed land was considered a plus because of its recreational potential. They would not only have their own private hunting and snowmobiling sanctuary, but they could invite their envious city friends out to share it with them on weekends and holidays.
They learned the jargon because they wanted to talk like farmers so they would “fit in”. But it seldom fooled anyone. It may have even been counter-productive in the long run, in that real farmers might hesitate to offer help or advice to someone that seemed to be more knowledgeable than he actually was.
Real knowledge cannot be faked. Neither can skills. Having a shop full of power tools and knowing the terminology of woodworking does not make one a cabinet maker, nor does knowing the botanical names of plants make one a gardener. Although this kind of knowledge is helpful, hands-on experience is the only path to expertise.
At first, their new life was exciting and good and fulfilling and invigorating. The joys of being close to nature, going to auction sales to buy equipment, and fixing up facilities for their first animals was a dream come true. Even the unaccustomed feeling of aching muscles, after a good day’s work on “the farm”, was satisfying to the soul.
By and by reality begins to rear it’s ugly head. The second hand tractor that they had bought, practically stole in fact, for twenty five hundred dollars now needed a five thousand dollar repair. The cows they bought at the livestock exchange, which some farmer had just culled from his own herd, failed to calve. The vacations they used to enjoy so much were no longer affordable, and besides there were fences to build. Their pension and pay checks seemed to magically disappear into a sinkhole. After a year or two of negative income from the farm, and their city-savings all gone, they decide to sell out and move back to town.
No, I don’t believe that moving fifty million city slickers to the country is the answer. What is needed is to make sure that those who are now farming are able to continue farming on the same scale as they presently are, while converting to a sustainable system.
It makes no sense at all to turn our farmland over to neophytes from the cities and suburbs. If they want to help out, they can raise some of their own food in their back yards or come out to the country and perform stoop labor for bona fide farmers. Aside from that, the best thing they can do is make it possible for the existing farmers to feed them by insisting on enabling legislation.
The rules must be changed to make farming attractive enough and profitable enough to entice farm-grown youngsters to take over from their parents. There would be no problem at all in finding young fellows, that are more than willing to take over the family farm, if it paid as well as the oil fields. Continuity in farming is essential if the population is to be fed.
I can’t let this subject die without pointing out some other weaknesses in the “fifty million farmer solution”. One of the most foolish ideas, of this expert, was the suggestion that neophyte farmers, lacking adequate machinery to operate their farms, could borrow such things as tractors from farmers who had them.
To someone having no clues of reality, that may seem like a an obvious and sensible thing to do. But to anyone with any real farming experience, and an ounce of brains, it makes no sense at all, and this is why.
Let’s say there are a half dozen or so farmers in a neighborhood and only one of them has a tractor; combine; baler; or whatever. Is the owner of the machine apt to loan his implement out before he has finished his own work with it? Not likely.
Is he apt to entrust his multi-hundred-thousand-dollar machine to some neophyte that may not know what he is doing? Not bloody likely!
Is he likely to be so neighborly that he will let others wear out the equipment that he had to make sacrifices to acquire and will eventually have to replace? Not me, or any farmers that I know.
At best he might be willing to rent out his equipment, or do custom work for neighboring have-not farmers, but only after his own work is done. This would mean that someone is going to be the last to get his work done.
Timeliness is an important factor in successful farming. There is an optimum time to seed and an optimum time to harvest. Those who miss those time periods, for whatever reason, are more at risk of failure than those that don’t. Missing them for weather related reasons may be unavoidable. Missing them for most other reasons is irresponsible and a recipe for failure.
Trading work among neighbors may make some sense in some circumstances, but being self-sufficient is more reliable. My personal experience has been that someone always gets the short end of the deal.
Now that that is off my chest — back to the subject at hand.
Although I believe it is possible to maintain food production at a level that will support our present population, I’m doubtful that it will happen in time to avert a major crisis. This is mainly because I have so little confidence in politicians and government agencies taking proper and timely action.
To be continued next time…
Fourth Excerpt from “Defying the Odds”:
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)
My earliest recollections start around age four. My parents were very loving, family oriented people, but they had little money. Dad only made about forty five cents per hour and in those days working mothers were almost unheard of. Although there was always plenty to eat and we were adequately clothed, there was very little money for unnecessary things.
Some of my earliest memories centre around Christmas and birthdays. At Christmas time, a chair in the living room served as a Christmas tree. Lois and I would get one present each. I also remember being invited to a birthday party and taking a five cent rubber ball as a present—another time it was a Hershey bar. I realise now that mom must have been embarrassed to send me to parties with such cheap gifts, but she chose to suffer the embarrassment rather than have her little boy miss the party.
On my sixth birthday I had my first and only party. Not many kids came and I don't remember much about it, except for two things; we had ice cream and I got one present which I will never forget. Charles Aslin, a six year old friend, gave me a microscope set that must have cost his parents close to five dollars. That was my most prized possessions for several years. I used it to look at everything imaginable—little 'bugs' in brackish water, bird feathers, grains of salt and sugar…when I found something particularly interesting, I'd call mom or dad to have a look.
I remember my first day in school. I was very shy and a bit frightened because of stories I'd heard about stern teachers. I’m not sure what else was in the brown paper bag I took with me that first day, but I clearly remember the yellow box of eight brand new crayons. The crayons were all full length, no broken ones, and they all were perfectly pointed. However, I soon discovered that some of the other kids had boxes of sixteen and even twenty four crayons. But, before the year was over, I discovered that eight crayons are really enough.
Another discovery I made in grade one was a very pretty girl in grade two. Betty Cooper was the loveliest little girl in the world. She would always smile when she caught me looking at her. She had dark hair and dressed perfectly. I was very shy and blushed easily. I wanted her to notice me, but I could never muster the nerve to talk to her. I doubt that she ever knew that I had such a crush on her. We moved from that school district at the end of my second year, so that ended my first love affair.
For the sake of credibility, I suppose I’ll have to include at least one childhood memory that I'm not too proud of. Although I was "a very loveable boy", as a teachers note on my third grade report card confirms, like most normal boys I was also rotten at times. Besides the usual 'bad boy' stuff, like loitering around the girls playground area to get a peek up their dresses as they hung by their knees, there is one particular episode that still bothers my conscience.
Two or three of the neighbour boys and I had a secret hideout where we would go to smoke rolled up newspaper and make outlandish plans. It was a "Tom Sawyer" sort of thing, I suppose. Anyway, our secret place was inaccessible to adults because it was back in the middle of a huge blackberry patch. Blackberries grew like crazy there. They would engulf whole buildings in time. The vines often grew to lengths of thirty feet or more and an inch or better in diameter. They grew in a tangled mess that was impenetrable to anything but bulldozers or little boys with hatchets, knives and a sense of adventure.
We spent days cutting a tunnel into the maze. The entrance to our tunnel was just large enough to crawl into…flat on our bellies. After ten or twelve feet, back inside where the vines were dry and dead, we enlarged the opening into a small room where we could sit in tolerable comfort. It was a perfect hideout. The dense mass of vines filtered out all direct sunlight as well as making it acoustically safe for our purposes.
An old lady lived alone in the house on the other side of the blackberry patch. She had a few chickens which had free run of her back yard. One day we noticed one of her hens sitting on a nest of eggs just within reach of our secret room. With no particular plan in mind, we stealthily worked close enough to grab it.
She went berserk!…making an unbelievable racket with her flopping and squawking. She had to be shut up without delay else we would be discovered. Instinctively, one of us grabbed her by the neck and squeezed. Calm was restored in a few moments, but the poor bird had passed away in the interim. That was the first time any of us had witnessed the death of anything larger than a bug. I think we all felt a little nauseous.
We soon realised that we now had a corpse to dispose of. No problem....we'd eat it! After a lively but hushed discussion, we decided the feathers should be removed first. Jerking the feathers out went pretty well. Then someone suggested that it would be best to cook it before eating it. This presented problems. Smoking rolled up paper was one thing, but building a fire large enough to roast a Rhode Island Red was a whole different matter...someone might notice a smudge emanating from the middle of our blackberry patch and become inquisitive.
Well, it turned out that was the last time we ever used our laboriously built secret hideout. Not knowing what else to do with the naked bird, we just left it lay and crawled out. After a week or so, we tried going back. Part way in we were accosted by an overpowering stench...a fowl smell, as it were.
Our dastardly deed was never discovered, and, until now, I have never mentioned it to anyone, but my conscience still bothers me. Of course, this is not the only episode in my life that troubles my conscience, but I have no intention of telling all.
To be continued next time…
Fourth Excerpt from “But…What About Tomorrow?”:
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)
Our Most Precious Natural Resource…
I suspect that most people hearing the words Natural Resources would normally think of oil, natural gas, timber, gold, water, etc. Few of us immediately think of our most precious natural resource, aside from air and water, as the soil. But, if we think about it, as we learned in grade school, the three basic essentials of human life are food, clothing and shelter—all of which are derived from the soil—then it is obvious that the soil is our most precious natural resource.
Fortunately, unlike oil, natural gas and many other natural resources, our soil is a renewable resource, to a limited degree at least. It can withstand a certain amount of abuse and degradation and be brought back to life—renewed—providing it's done before it's too late.
I know from personal experience how long it took to bring our farm's soil back to life after it had been robbed of its virgin fertility by years of destructive farming practices. I also know how costly it was to do so. But I'm proud to say that we have succeeded in restoring our land's fertility after many years of diversified farming and crop rotation. Not only has the original fertility been restored but it has been greatly improved.
In the process of restoring the fertility, there have been a number of collateral benefits. For one thing, the erosion problem, that we fell heir to, has been virtually eliminated. Also the appalling weed problem, another result of years of bad farming practices, has been vastly improved.
In addition to the time it takes, it costs money to repair such damage and it's a burden that an individual farmer can scarcely afford. He needs help and encouragement if he is to bring the soil's productivity back to its full potential while struggling to make a living for his family. I feel that certain government experts and advisory groups have been guilty of advising farmers to do harmful things for decades, so it seems fair they should at least share the costs of undoing the harm.
These so-called experts have been urging us to maximize production by using fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. Those who followed such advice have profited monetarily from the apparently positive results. But it is becoming increasingly evident that such practices have had cumulative negative effects on the health and fertility of our soil. Now we must repair the damage that has been done and start farming in a way that will not cause additional degradation of our soil.
But it's not merely a case of repairing the damage done, our dilemma is much greater than that. It must be done while weaning ourselves from our dependency on synthetic fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals. These two factors alone make the task difficult enough but the time factor further complicates the problem. In my opinion, the job must be started immediately and be well on the way to completion in the next decade or two. And, it must be done in a manner that is not only sustainable but capable of feeding an ever expanding population. This will require innovation, ingenuity, dedication, perseverance and no small amount of sacrifice.
Speaking of ingenuity, I'm reminded of the story of the young farm lad who was looking for work to raise money for his college education. Upon noticing a "Help Wanted" sign in the window of a local store, he went in to inquire about the job.
Although the boy readily admitted to having done nothing but farm work, the proprietor, impressed with the boy's self confidence and willingness to work, hired him and asked him to report for work the next morning.
The following morning, after showing the kid around the store and giving him some basic instructions, the owner said, "I hate to leave you all alone on your first day but I have some urgent business to attend to, so I'll be away for most of the day. Just do the best you can until I get back".
When he came back that afternoon, he asked the kid how many sales he had made. "Just one", was the reply.
"Just one!", said the owner, "I would have expected at least a dozen sales. Oh well … what did you sell?"
"Well first I sold this guy a fish hook", responded the kid. "Then I sold him some line and a reel and a fishing pole. Then a boat and motor, a trailer, and pickup truck. All together the sale came to a bit over sixty thousand dollars."
The owner was amazed … his first day on the job the kid had made more than a normal week's worth of sales!
"You're quite a salesman son", said the owner, "A man comes in for a fish hook and you sell him sixty thousand dollars worth of extras."
"Well actually", the kid replied, "the man came to buy some Tampax for his wife and I suggested that since his weekend was obviously shot, he might as well go fishing."
To be continued next time…
Have a warm day…