Another Day on the Farm:
This is Rosebud, my yearling donkey. Hope to find a mate for her this summer. Plan to build a Roman Chariot type of cart for her so we can go tooling around the country Ben Herr style. That should make my kids proud of their old man, eh.
Note: The following is a recycled rant that I posted on a different blogsite a few years back. I’m reposting it for two reasons: 1) I like to taunt bullies. 2) This rant set a personal record for the number of comments it generated … ONE!
As a Canadian-born citizen (raised in the United States, drafted into the U.S. Army, and a citizen of both countries but claiming Canadian only) I feel it is high time that we stand up to our Bully Buddies south of the border. Teddy Roosevelt often used the term 'Bully' to express admiration or approval, such as, "Bully for you!"—obviously meaning, "Good for you!" He also advocated that America, "Walk softly, but carry a big stick."
But, Bully has a totally different meaning nowadays. America, being the sole remaining superpower (temporarily anyway) still carries the big stick but no longer seems to feel the need to walk softly. Roosevelt's counsel appears to have evolved into, "Carry a big stick and trample those without one." (For detailed evidence in support of this, I highly recommend everyone read Rogue Nation, by Clyde Prestowitz, published in 2003 by Basic Books.)
There are a number of examples that could be cited to illustrate the American government's bullying tactics toward Canada, the softwood lumber trade issue for one, but, being a cattle producer, I'm more interested in the Bovine Spongyform Encephalopathy issue (BSE). The Americans claim that BSE is a health issue is BS. It is strictly a political issue, which is unlikely to be resolved until after their federal election this fall because Pretty Boy Georgie - alias "Yosemite Sam" - wont risk losing the votes of American cattlemen who are presently enjoying their highest prices in history. It is also political in that we Canadians are obviously being punished for not backing the Americans in the Iraq war…"You are either for us or against us", as Georgie said.
In my opinion, the best way to teach this bully a lesson, that he might remember, is to give him some of his own medicine. If I were in the Canadian Prime Minister’s position, I'd go down to the Oval Office and look Georgie squarely in the eye and tell him, "We're sick and tired of being bullied and we ain't gonna put up with it anymore! Now…as soon as you open up your borders to Canadian cattle, we'll turn your gas and oil lines back on. And there's a couple other things you might want to think about…you've had your eye on our fresh water for some time now and you've been pretty negligent about paying your United Nation's dues…maybe it's time to start acting more neighborly, eh."
What are they going to do about it…Nuke us?; Precision bomb our parliament buildings?; Stop all cross-border trade? Not bloody likely!
As the whole world is learning, the last remaining Super Power is just a Paper Tiger...a Super Bully that needs to be taught a lesson in neighborliness.
Fifth Excerpt from “Farmageddon”:
(My latest unfinished book)
The Green Revolution
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, agriculture underwent a drastic transformation, commonly referred to as the “Green Revolution”. The Green Revolution resulted from the mechanization and industrialization of agriculture. Between 1950 and 1984, as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture all over the globe, world grain production increased by two hundred and fifty percent.
But that huge increase in the amount of food available for human consumption did not come from an increase in sunlight, nor from an increase in arable land. The additional energy for the Green Revolution came from fossil fuels, in the form of fertilizers derived from natural gas, pesticides from oil, and from hydrocarbon-fueled irrigation.
It is estimated that the Green Revolution increased the energy used by agriculture by an average of fifty times the energy input of traditional agriculture. In extreme cases, energy consumed by agriculture was increased a hundred fold.
As of 1994, it is estimated that each North American consumes the equivalent of 400 gallons of oil annually, just to feed themselves. Of those four hundred gallons of oil consumed by each person, 124 gallons is used in the manufacture of fertilizer, 76 gallons for operating field machinery, 64 gallons for transportation, 52 gallons for irrigation, 32 gallons for raising livestock (not including their feed), 20 gallons for drying crops, 20 gallons for pesticide production, and 32 gallons for miscellaneous purposes. Energy costs for packaging, refrigeration, transportation to retail outlets, and household cooking are not included in those figures.
To illustrate that in another way; the production of one kilogram of nitrogen for fertilizer requires the energy equivalent of from 1.4 to 1.8 litres of diesel fuel. In one year, from June 30, 2001 until June 30, 2002, the United States alone used 12,009,300 short tons of nitrogen fertilizer. Using the smaller figure of 1.4 litres of diesel consumed per kilogram of nitrogen, this amounts to the energy content of 96.2 million barrels of diesel fuel. These rough comparisons are merely offered to help us comprehend the energy requirements for modern agriculture.
Unfortunately there is not a direct correlation between energy input and energy output in agriculture. There is actually a marked energy loss. For example, during the forty nine year period, between 1945 and 1994, energy input to agriculture increased four-fold while crop yields only increased three-fold. Since that time, energy input has continued to increase without a corresponding increase in crop yields. In other words, we have long since passed the point of diminishing returns.
But the really bad news is that, due to soil degradation, increased demands for pest management and increasing energy costs for irrigation, among other things, modern agriculture must continue increasing its energy expenditures simply to maintain current crop yields. The Green Revolution is effectively bankrupt.
In the past forty years, total fossil fuel consumption in North America has increased twenty-fold. We now consume twenty to thirty times more fossil fuel energy, per capita, than people in developing nations. Agriculture directly accounts for seventeen percent of all the fossil fuel energy used in this country.
It should be obvious to any thinking person that, as fossil fuel production begins its expected decline within the few years, there will be less energy available for the production of food.
To be continued next time…
Fifth Excerpt from “Defying the Odds”:
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)
At the end of grade two, actually just before starting grade three in the fall of 1936, we moved again. By this time our family had grown to six, two more brothers had arrived—Clifford in December of 1929 and Donald in March of 1932. But dad was not happy living in town, he wanted to be back on a farm. Moving back to Canada had been discussed many times, but it had become an impossible dream. All the money from the sale of their original farm was long since gone and dad's meagre wages were barely sufficient to meet daily expenses. His dream of farming again would have to be scaled down considerably if it was to be realised at all.
Eventually he found a seven acre farm on Forest Hill, about four miles east of Washougal. The asking price for the property was seven hundred dollars. As I recall, dad was able to put together a two hundred dollar down payment and agreed to make monthly payments, plus two or three percent interest, on the balance. Most real estate deals were handled in this manner in those days. Bankers and Realtors were often not involved at all…the landowner held the mortgage. Borrowing money from banks wasn't as common as it is now.
Our new farm was actually seven acres of large trees and dense underbrush—the area wasn't called Forest Hill for nothing. There were no buildings or fences on the place; no house, no well, no electricity...nothing! Between the time school let out, at the end of my grade two, and started again in the fall, we spent every possible weekday evening, and all day long on Saturdays, working at the farm. My folks never worked on the Lord's Day except in cases of necessity.
By fall, a small clearing had been hacked into the dense brush and the shell of a house had been constructed. The house foundation consisted of timbers laid on logs, large stones, and oak tree stumps that happened to be conveniently located. The outside walls were sheathed with shiplap boards covered with laminated tar paper. The exterior windows and doors were in place but not cased in. Inside, the partition walls consisted of open studding with no doors in the doorways. Blankets and cardboard boxes were fastened to the interior framework for privacy. There was no electricity, and would not be for several years. Neither was there a bathroom, water supply, or linoleum on the floors. But, it was liveable and we moved in.
Bit by bit the house was eventually finished and we lived in it until each of us kids had graduated from high school and left home. The folks stayed on several more years. In the meantime, dad cleared most of the land by hand, built a barn and several other out buildings, planted a two acre blueberry patch, hand dug several wells, and all the other things involved in building a home. It was an ongoing project but he was never really happy because it wasn't a real farm. I was happy there though, and I think my brothers and sisters were too.
To be continued next time…
Fifth Excerpt from “But…What About Tomorrow?”:
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)
Land Mismanagement Review…
When the white man first put his hand to the plough in North America there was a tendency to exploit the land—mine the soil's nutrients and then move on to more fertile ground. Apparently there was the sense that, with such an abundance of prime farmland, there was no need to practice conservation. It was easier and cheaper to just abandon the old land and move on to new land. Those first settlers took custody of some of the most fertile grassland soils in the world. But from that time on it appears that we have been intent on abusing one of the most valuable natural resources we have.
One would assume that these pioneer farmers did not realize how unwise and destructive some of their practices would prove to be. For example, the plowing down of hundreds of thousands of acres of native prairie grass lands, which had not only maintained enormous herds of grazing animals for thousands of years but had actually improved in fertility all the while.
But this was not the first time in the history of agriculture that farmer's mismanagement of the land had proven disastrous—overgrazing in Spain being one example. In this case, intensive grazing by livestock, which exceeded the environmental carrying capacity of the land, led to the destruction of the turf, dominance of unpalatable plant species, soil erosion and even a complete loss of vegetation in some areas.
But, in spite of the lessons of the past, similar destructive practices continue throughout the world to this day. North America is not the only culprit. The rain forests of South America are a prime example—deforesting huge areas by farming it for a few years and then moving on, leaving the land bare and vulnerable to erosion.
By contrast, the farmers of the orient learned lessons long ago, with regard to sustainable agriculture, that we, the leaders of the developed world, have yet to learn. For example, they have been putting their human waste back into the soil, rather than flushing it into the ocean as we do. As well, China, the world's leading producer of rice and wheat, annually harvests an estimated five hundred million tons of straw, corn stalks, and other crop residues for livestock feed and then returns the animal manure to the land. Hopefully they will not be overly influenced by us in their drive to westernize.
Now I'm going to ask you to bear with me while we wade through some rather boring statistical information in the next several paragraphs…hopefully you will notice the change.
Nitrogen, phosphate, and potash are all essential plant nutrients. U.S. farmers annually use about twenty one million tons of these nutrients, in the form of chemical fertilizers, to sustain our high crop yields. But the sources of nitrogen and potash fertilizers have changed markedly from domestic to foreign suppliers in recent years, making the U.S. increasingly dependent on fertilizer imports. Today the U.S. imports over half of the nitrogen and eighty percent of the potash fertilizer used on its farms. Most of the phosphates still come from domestic sources however.
The U.S. changed from being the world’s largest exporter of nitrogen fertilizer in the 1980s to the largest importer in the 1990s. Domestic production of nitrogen fertilizer declined during the 1990s as the price of domestic natural gas (the primary source of nitrogen) increased because of greater overall demand for natural gas in the U.S. Imports of nitrogen—mainly from Trinidad, Tobago, Canada, and Russia, all having lower natural gas prices—filled the gap.
On the other hand, the U.S. remains the world’s largest exporter of phosphate fertilizer. About thirty seven percent of it goes to China and smaller amounts to Australia, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, and other countries. But exports have recently declined by about twenty five percent as production increased in other countries. Domestic use of phosphate remains steady at just under five million tons per year.
(I hope you paid close attention to those statistics because you will be tested at the end of the book. First prize for the highest score will be a free copy of this book … second prize will be two copies.)
Long before we knew much about plant nutrition, it was generally recognized that decaying organic matter … manure and fish, for example … was somehow beneficial to plants. The effects were obvious; the plants looked healthier, grew bigger and produced more. The practice of routinely using such manures (later to become known as fertilizers because they appeared to make the soil more fertile…we are so clever!), eventually became a standard practice among the more progressive farmers.
I sometimes wonder whether or not the high fertility of virgin soils was at first linked with their high organic-matter content, and whether the gradual decrease in productivity, after being cultivated for a number of years, was seen as a result of cultivation. I like to think that it was some ordinary farmer, perhaps a bit more observant and contemplative than most, who first realized the connection between continued cultivation, dwindling production and the loss of organic matter in the soil.
The exploitation of our virgin-soil organic matter has been devastating to our soil's natural productivity and could ultimately lead to the downfall of our civilization if we continue our destructive practices.
If we think of organic matter as the fuel or food for the soil bacteria—which convert it into nutrients, carbon dioxide, ash and other residues—we have a very simplified explanation of the process of decomposition. Although we are focusing on the plant nutrients at the moment, carbon dioxide gas actually is the major end product of this process. This gas is released in sufficient quantities that the earth's atmosphere is maintained at a constant level. This whole process is comparable to the respiration process of animal life: the earth inhales and exhales as we do and thus acts as a living organism like ourselves. (Hint: Remember the test at the end of the book.)
Decomposition within the soil is the reverse of the process that is going on above ground. Growing plants, using the energy of the sun via the process of photosynthesis, synthesize carbon, nitrogen, carbon dioxide gas and other elements into complex compounds and releases oxygen back into the atmosphere. Then the microorganisms within the soil break these compounds down into the nutrients necessary for new generations of plants. One could isolate any component of this cyclical process and define it as a key component, but since we are focusing on organic matter at the moment, it can be thought of as the very life of the soil and consequently the most precious of our natural resources.
The important thing to understand is that in order for the whole process to function properly, every component is key. Although the whole process is rather robust, a very delicate balance must be maintained. Screw up one component and the whole system gets screwed up.
It stands to reason that there should be some optimum level of organic matter, but what that might be I don't know. From personal experience I do know that a soil that is more or less pure organic matter, a peat bog for instance, is not the answer because our farm fields have many areas of pure peat interspersed with other soil types. These peaty areas generally raise very stunted crops, if anything at all, except for the transitional areas around their perimeters where peat and clay-based soils are intermixed. These are actually the areas which are often the most productive of all our land. It should be remembered, however, that we use very little, if any, commercial fertilizers.
Bearing in mind that the benefits of organic matter become available to plants only as the organic material decays and is destroyed, it is obvious that only that part of the organic matter which is in the process of decaying is useful to plants. Its primary value lies in this dynamic characteristic. Therefore, one could conclude that excessive amounts of organic material are not necessary insofar as vitality of the current crop is concerned. However, it must also be kept in mind that organic material in soil has other important functions, such as improving the soils ability to retain moisture, preventing the soil from packing excessively and helping to reduce erosion.
In general, North America's current system of farming is not designed to provide a steady supply of organic matter, rather we are doing the exact opposite in most cases. Instead of providing continuous replacement of organic matter, as the existing supply is used up, we have chosen to provide the depleted nutrients in the form of commercial fertilizers. In many cases the amounts of fertilizers that need to be added per acre are calculated from the results of soil samples taken field-by-field. In fact, the trend, for economic reasons, is moving toward providing the precise amounts of specific fertilizers required by each square foot of a field—but that's another story.
The point I want to make is that the prevailing system of farming largely ignores the need for replacing our depleting organic matter. Instead the focus is almost entirely on supplying the optimum amounts of synthetic fertilizers according to the requirements of the crop or the soil nutrients it is expected to consume.
The true value of sod crops is apparently not fully appreciated. Generally speaking, grasses have been relegated to land that is only marginally suitable for cultivated crops or to soils so depleted of fertility that cereal cropping is no longer profitable. In other words, grass crops have been incidental in many farm management systems. Consequently, such farms may not have attained their maximum potential in animal production or total farm income.
In the "Old World" across the Atlantic, with its longer history of agricultural experience, lands that are still producing well today are generally those which have been occupied by sod crops regularly for a large part of the time. They are generally the lands where clean, or summer-fallow, cultivation has been reduced to a minimum. In France and England just over a fourth of the cultivated soils are in clean cultivation. In Germany the figure is even less, and in all of these countries there are vast acreage's of permanent pastures. In contrast, in the United States the area in clean cultivation and row crops is approximately one-half of the total cultivated land.
The Old World experience demonstrates that sod crops are a principal factor in holding the soil and maintaining its productivity because of their ongoing replacement of organic matter. There is, however, a negative aspect to sod—it is more difficult and costly to break up than soil which is cultivated annually. But this is a small price that must be paid if we are to have a sustainable system of farming.
The benefits of grass-sod crops as a means of soil restoration include the following: They help to assure a moisture supply for their own needs by absorbing more of the rainfall. They add a heavy annual root growth that may amount to more than a ton per surface acre-foot. The annual death of part of these roots helps to insure a constant addition of organic matter to the soil. And, erosion is prevented by both the living grass and the spongy surface residue accumulated on top of the soil from the dead plant tops of the previous season.
With respect to soil fertility, it may be helpful to briefly review how soil is formed. The process requires two material inputs: rock (the earth's crust) and dead organic matter. These basic materials are converted to soil largely through the process of decomposition.
There is certainly no shortage of rock anywhere in the world, and in temperate countries there should be no shortage of dead organic matter. The optimum temperature for the production of organic matter is nearer to the annual mean temperature of temperate countries, than to the optimum temperature for its decomposition. This, in fact, is the main reason why we find a deep litter-layer in most of our forests whereas there is usually no litter layer in lowland tropical forests.
The decomposition process is carried out largely by soil bacteria and fungi. Thus, if certain members of these soil organisms are killed or reduced by agricultural chemicals, the activity of the bacteria and fungi species will decline. On the other hand, increases in the population density of certain groups of soil organisms can lead to problems through imbalance.
While my detailed knowledge of these processes is very limited, it is sufficient to know that by taking into account the vital need of organisms in the soil, and catering to their needs, soil fertility can be built-up and maintained. The primary requirement is that organic materials taken from the land must be returned. Although the stock of organic matter in the soil is still being exhausted at an alarming rate, with proper management practices this can be corrected … provided we start before it's too late.
Crop pests and diseases are symptoms of poor management practices. Pesticides, antibiotics and drugs are generally regarded as "magical bullets" that can eliminate problems. But in reality, we do not suffer from pests because of a deficiency of pesticide in the environment just as we do not have headaches because of a deficiency of aspirin in the blood.
The chemical approach to the control of weeds and pests prevails largely because most of the environmental and human health costs, for example, are not taken into account in our cost/benefit analysis We tend to opt for private short-term gain at public long-term expense.
An important difference between the use of chemicals versus cultivation for weed control is that the effects of chemicals last longer. The most common negative effect of agricultural chemical usage is the decrease in the number of species of soil organisms. While cultivation and crop rotation may change the balance of the soil fauna or flora for a matter of weeks, persistent chemicals can alter them for years. In my opinion, the available evidence indicates that in most instances the use of agricultural chemicals is inappropriate.
Changing from chemical control of these pest to a sustainable management system will not be easy nor an easy-sell. Modern agriculture has become dependent on pesticides almost to the degree that heroin addicts dependent on their drug. Because of this dependency, the change to alternative ecologically friendly strategies will require the cooperative effort of farmers, the general public (consumers), industry and commerce, researchers, educators, and governments.
It is estimated that we humans have seriously damaged more than thirty per cent of the natural world since 1970 by such acts as destruction of the forests and depletion of marine systems on which life depends. Common sense should tell us that this cannot continue indefinitely. It's high time we start thinking about tomorrow.
Author's Note: Considering the large amount of facts and figures and the complexity of some of the concepts in this chapter, a quick review might be in order before taking the test at the end of the book.
To be continued next time…
Have a warm day…