February 1, 2008

2nd Book Excerpts

Another Day on the Farm:

Nice balmy minus 28F this morning. Noticed the wood heater in the barn isn’t drawing well … will have to clean the chimney this afternoon.

Dora, our nanny goat, is showing signs of pregnancy. Expect her to kid in April.


My Current Rant:

If you think the current American Presidential Candidate nomination “auction sale” is disgusting and ridiculous, you should take a look a our Canadian Parliamentary “Question Period”! The original intent of this parliamentary procedure was laudable, in that it gives the opposition parties an opportunity to ask questions of the governing party. But it has long since degenerated into nothing more than a circus … a raucous spectacle reminiscent of our present day school classrooms. While class clowns and disorder are bad enough in juvenile schoolrooms, it is unacceptable behavior for elected leaders of a country in their place of business. Our parliamentarians are referred to as MP’s … Members of Parliament. On camera, during Question Period, they often conduct themselves as “Moron Politicians”.

Second Excerpt from “Farmageddon”:


In writing this book my thoughts, emotions and fears have run the gamut of lows and highs. At times I have questioned my own sanity ― a question likely shared by many readers. At other times there was no doubt whatsoever that writing this book was the right thing to do. Time will tell.

Whether or not the book is ever published is not of great importance to me. If no one but myself and members of my family read it, I feel that the effort and time spent will have been worthwhile. The thought and research that went into this book have force me to think about which things in life are really important and which are not. It turns out that it is largely a matter of distinguishing between needs and wants.

Even more importantly in the long run, it has lead me to think beyond myself. It is so easy to slip into the self-centered habit of me-ness and forget about everyone else ― a trait that is overwhelmingly characteristic of most north Americans in their relations with other nations. We take what we want by whatever means we please. We exploit the poor and hopeless of other nations to support the lifestyle that we think of as our “birthright”.

I want to point at the outset that there are two simultaneous, but opposing, themes in play throughout this book. On the one hand, there is the optimistic hope that things will turn out fairly well in the end. On the other hand, there is the pessimistic fear that it may be too late to do much about correcting the damage already done. The latter is emphasized more than the former, for the shock effect if nothing else.

The opening chapters present background information on two of the main contributing factors to the threatening global economic collapse: 1) The expected oil shortage, which I believe will spell the end of agriculture as we know it; 2) The precarious state of the United States dollar hegemony.

The balance of the book focuses on the effects that those two events could have on agriculture and how we might be able to cope with the resulting problems. A discussion of sustainable farming is followed by a detailed outline of what we are doing, here on our farm in central Alberta, to prepare for the anticipated collapse. Although I don’t truly believe that the worst-case scenarios described in this book are likely to happen, it seems prudent to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Think of Basic Survival as “Plan B”.

I don't really like the term "survival", although it may turn out to be appropriate. A preferable word is "pioneering", for two reasons. First, we will be taking the lead in a new way of life. Second, it appeals to my sense of adventure. That may sound silly but, if you think about it a moment, one’s attitude will likely be a key factor for succeeding in a survival situation. Things will be tough enough even with a positive attitude. A negative attitude may make survival impossible or even undesirable. So, I will use the terms survival and pioneering more or less interchangeably.

This is not intended to be a “How-To” type of book. More than anything else its purpose is to awaken people to the fact that our current unsustainable lifestyle is about to end. It then offers suggestions and examples of ideas that might be helpful in adjusting to a new (old?) sustainable lifestyle. Bookstores are full of “How-To” books on just about every subject imaginable and I would strongly recommend adding a few of the better ones to your book shelf.

Despite the profusion of gloomy books of the last few years, written to wake us up to the fact that our planet cannot sustain our extravagant lifestyle, the message still seems to be largely ignored. The majority of those books deal with global warming, environmental damage, peak oil, greenhouse gasses and other related things of a global nature. Those that offer resolutions to problems tended to speak in top-down terms — the need for new legislation, educating the public, etc.

I believe that a grass-roots (bottom-up) movement is more likely to solve our problems than leaving it to our political leaders to save our butts. After all, it is largely their “leadership” that got us into this mess in the first place. Besides, even if they should manage to come up with workable plans, by the time they completed their studies, debated the results, formulated the bills, put the bills before the legislature, pork-barreled them to the limit, catered to the demands of lobbyists and then ear-marked the bills at last-minute sessions, it could be too late. (One thing you can bet the farm on is this; very few politicians are giving more thought to preparing for the pending oil and economic crisis than on keeping their cushy jobs in the next election.)

I also believe that those of us who are concerned about the future should take individual responsibility for our own security. I’m not referring to solving global problems now. I’m talking about looking out for ourselves and our families — individually preparing ourselves for a softer landing when the inevitable collapse comes.

Having said that, I’m not very optimistic. We tend to learn things the hard way. We procrastinate. We ignore incredibly obvious evidence that our present life style is unsustainable. We assume that we can violate natures’ laws with impunity because technology will bale us out, even after we’ve gone too far. But, worst of all, we don’t seem to give a damn that we are trading our progeny’s future welfare for our own immediate pleasures.

Take the issue of smoking as an example of the moronic behaviour we are capable of. Common sense should tell us that sucking tar and toxic chemical-laden hot gasses into our lungs is probably not a good thing to do. But, despite the fact that overwhelming scientific evidence supports common sense, many still choose to gamble that they can defy the risks with impunity. Fine. It’s their health that is at risk and they are free to make their own choices.

If they should lose the gamble and end up being one of those who suffer a lingering death — wracked with pain and near suffocation as they hack and puke up great gobs of bloody mucous on their death beds, then I say, “I’m sorry! — you have no one to blame but yourself”.

But if their self-centered indifference causes illness in others, that’s a different matter. In my opinion, anyone that knowingly jeopardizes the health of others, particularly their own children, deserves to die a painful death.

In a broader sense, I feel that the same rationale applies to whole societies as well as individuals. When our collective actions, as a society, sicken the environment and threaten our very survival, we will suffer the consequences whether or not we are aware of the harm we are doing. If we knowingly make choices that are harmful to our environment then we deserve the consequences of our inexcusable behavior. When we blatantly continue doing things that are known to be harmful, we have nobody to blame but ourselves and deserve the consequences, no matter how catastrophic they may be.

If we thumb our noses at our kids, as we destroy their environment and greedily use up their rightful share of natures’ resources, then we deserve their contempt. But if we heed the warning signs and take timely action to halt further damage, attempt to repair damage already done and adopt a lifestyle that is sustainable, then our children may be inclined to forgive the sins of their parents.

Unfortunately our track record does not offer much hope that we will come to our senses before it is too late. We tend to rely on new technology to solve all problems in spite of the fact that technology is largely responsible for the mess we are in. So I’m not really very optimistic about the future welfare of our children.

With that pessimistic thread throughout this book, it is nevertheless written in the hope that, if stated forcefully enough and is motivated by tough love, it might cause some to at least think about the legacy we are leaving our children because of our mindless selfish behavior.

Although the words “United States” and “Americans” appear extensively throughout this book, in many cases, if not most, the words “North America” and “North Americans” could be substituted and would be more fair and appropriate. We Canadians, with few exceptions — the economic hegemony of the U.S. dollar being one — are just as guilty of greed, waste and excesses as the Americans.

If criticizing our greedy unsustainable extravagant North American lifestyle is unpatriotic, then I plead guilty. I was born a Canadian and raised in the United States. Having spent about half of my life in each country, plus having dual citizenship, I have a sense of loyalty and patriotism to both countries yet claim the right to be critical in the name of truth.

As for my fellow Americans who interpret factual statements as “America Bashing” — i.e. a quote from one blindly loyal flag-waving critic of an article that I wrote, “America might not be perfect, but it is my country, right or wrong, and as far as I’m concerned, you can go to hell.” — my response is, “Bingo! Thank you for making my point so eloquently”.

To be continued next time…

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

Farming With Horses…

In those days almost everyone farmed with horses. Dad's sixteen head of work horses was enough to handle his three quarter-sections of land. The fertile soil of that part of Alberta was well suited for growing grain. Wheat was his main cash crop, but some oats and barley were also grown as feed for the livestock. With good management, hard work—plus a bit of luck—it was possible to make a comfortable living.

When measured by the standards of the day, the farm was about average. Although tractors were in use on some farms, they were relatively expensive to buy and operate and, as a rule, only well established farmers could afford them. The changeover, from horses to tractors, entailed either adapting the existing horse-drawn implements to tractor usage, or purchasing new tractor-drawn machinery. Most farmers who made the change, found it necessary to spread the cost over a period of time.

At any rate, dad farmed with horses. He liked horses. He liked working with them. He liked the pace. He liked the smell. He was proud of his horses and his horsemanship talents. A great deal of practice and skill was required to handle a team of eight horses. It took knowledge, stamina and horse-sense as well…and he had it all. Many times, long after he quit farming, I've seen tears in his eyes as he talked about his experiences with horses.
The common practice, in the days of horse-powered farming, was to manage a farm as three individual parcels of land and crop them by using a two-year-grain and a one-year-fallow system. Each of the three parcels would therefore be in different phases of the cultivation cycle at any given time.

Dad managed his three-quarter farm in that manner. One quarter would be ploughed and seeded, another quarter would be stubbled-in … seeded directly into the previous years stubble without ploughing … and the third quarter would be summerfallowed—not seeded, but cultivated to control weeds and conserve moisture for the following year's crop. This system was well suited to horse powered farming because it spread the work load more uniformly over the whole growing season. But, it also meant that there was very little spare time during the growing season.

Grain farmers generally started working in their fields around daybreak, but their workday actually started several hours earlier. Before breakfast time, the horses would have been fed, groomed and harnessed…most likely by the light of a kerosene lantern, hung on a nail in the wall behind the stalls.

After his own breakfast, he would hitch the horses up for the days work. Two by two they were led from the barn and hitched to the implements…placing each member of the team in the position that had been found, by trial and error, to best suit the temperament of each horse. The better trained animals, usually older and quieter, were placed in lead positions. The younger, newly trained or unruly horses were given mid-team positions, preferably alongside old reliable horses that didn't put up with any nonsense from young upstarts. When all had been properly hitched up, the team was finally ready to begin another day in the fields.
Plowing and seeding were both riding jobs—meaning that all the farmer had to do was sit on a cold hard steel seat all day, while bracing himself against unexpected jolts and lurches as he repeatedly adjusted the implements levers with one hand and kept the team on course with the other hand, all the while offering a words of encouragement or colorfully imaginative comments on the ancestry and intelligence of trouble makers in the team.
But some implements—harrows for instance—did not have the luxury of seats, so the farmer was obliged to walk behind the implement for hours on end in the choking dust. Keeping pace with the long legged creatures, hour upon hour, tended to influence his stride in a way that forever marked him as a farmer.

As mentioned—before wandering off into the fields—my sister was the first baby to arrive. I suspect that dad was a little disappointed that his firstborn was a girl…most farmers wanted to start raising their future helpers as soon as possible…but, as it turned out, it didn't matter much because the next three babies were boys.

I showed up about two years after my sister. Although the arrival of a son no doubt brought great joy and hope for the future of the farm, ironically, dads farming days were about to end.
For a while though, times were good and reasonable profits were made. I believe those were probably the best years of my parents lives…dad's at any rate. Then came the depression. Times got tough. Grain prices plummeted. Money and jobs became scarce. Many farmers were forced to give up, while others continued farming only because they had no better options.

To be continued next time…

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

September 2004…

As a farmer for forty three of my seventy seven years, I have witnessed some changes in agriculture that cause me to fear for the future of our children. In one brief lifetime a trend in farming practices has led to our present state of unsustainable agriculture, a situation which will inevitably lead to catastrophe unless we act very soon.

Walk into any grocery store in North America and you will find shelves bulging with seventeen varieties of every kind of food imaginable at prices that make us the envy of the world. We are so accustomed to seeing these bountiful displays that it's all taken for granted. So … what's the point? Simply this: There are hidden costs to this bargain food which don't appear on the cashier's receipt—costs that will ultimately have to be paid by our children, or theirs. These deferred costs could well prove to be insurmountable in the long run. Cheap abundant food is fine for today, but … what about tomorrow?

That is the main message of this book, but its main purpose is to bring the ninety eight percent of our population who are not farmers, up to date on what's going on in the world of agriculture, where our very survival is at stake. It should be known how those who are entrusted with the care of our land, arguably the most precious of all our natural resources, are actually doing their job.

The book is not intended to be an authority on any subject … quite the contrary. It is largely based on the opinions and observations of an ordinary farmer who makes no claims to expertise of any kind. The book is merely offered as a cursory review of a variety of issues related to farming and agriculture in general. My limited formal education makes it necessary for me to observe nature and form my own conclusions, supplemented by a bit reading. The statistical data in this book can be found in almost any current encyclopedia, book of statistics or via the internet.

There were several reasons for writing this book, none of which involve making money. For one thing, having spent most of my life as a farmer, accumulating on-the-job knowledge by trial and error, succeeding at times and failing at others, it bugged me to think of those valuable lessons going to the grave with my old carcass. But equally as important, I wanted to gather together, in one small book, a compendium of information pertaining to the present unsustainable state of agriculture and offer this information in simple understandable language to all who have acquired the habit of eating.

I also hope to stimulate some curiosity about farming in those who seldom think about it. Stimulating a bit of fear and/or disbelief would be satisfying as well if it should goad someone into doing further research on their own. Should anyone feel the urge to verify or challenge any statements made in this book, or become so roused by some thought-provoking pronouncement as to be driven to do further research, I will feel amply repaid for my efforts. The internet is an excellent place to start such research.

I would also like to repay, in some small measure, the indebtedness I feel to those who wrote the books that have been so helpful to me. And finally, having been in the food-for-consumption business for the past forty odd years, and now faced with the prospect of retirement in the next twenty or thirty years, I wanted to try my hand at producing some food-for-thought for a change.

The main message of this book is: Our soil is our most precious natural resource and its proper care and management is the key to farming sustainability, as well as to the future of human life on our planet. Tied to this thesis are a number of related factors, ranging from cheap food to over population, which are only briefly touched upon so as to limit the book to a reasonable size yet paint an holistic picture.

The need for yet another book or essay on this subject is admittedly debatable, since there are literally dozens of them already—although many of them were written by experts of one kind or another and tend to be a bit too scholarly for easy reading. But, even though there is no shortage of information, it seems that the message has not caught the attention of enough people, or at least the right people. Maybe the very fact that there is so much information available gives the impression that something is actually being done about correcting the problems we must soon come to terms with. If so, it appears to be a false impression and therefore I have chosen to take a whack at it.

Converting my thoughts into words is difficult enough but exposing them to the public is frightening. However the importance of the message has conquered my fears. Observation, reason and logic have stood me well in my years of farming and they are also the tools that I rely upon in writing this book

Unfortunately, in telling the story as I see it, the farming community is apt to be seen as the villain. Although that is not my personal opinion, we farmers do have to assume our fair share of the blame for the predicament we helped create. Being a whistle blower on my industry may not count for much when I have my interview with St. Peter, but it is said that confession is good for the soul, so I hereby confess to having contributed, in some measure, to the mess that we farmers helped bring about and to the regrettable legacy we leave for our kids to deal with.

Although I am a Canadian and farm in Canada, much of the statistical information in this book was derived from researching U.S. data. This is primarily because the U.S. economy is about ten times that of Canada's and consequently has a much greater global influence, which results in more available data. However, since the agricultural problems, and solutions to those problems, are very similar in both countries, I have chosen to present my thoughts from a North American perspective.

The book is written as a series of inter-related free-standing essays presented more or less in a building-block order. In my attempt to make each essay free-standing, yet related to all the rest, a certain amount of redundancy was necessary. Hopefully this will not be perceived as "padding" but as repetition designed to hammer home the overall concepts of the book. Much of this redundant material has been relegated to the appendix … in the back of the book, of all places.

I believe that our planet is fast approaching a crisis in its ability to feed its people— while still maintaining the lifestyle that we are accustomed to—and, if we give a damn about our kids, we had better do something about it before it's too late. But, I repeat, it seems that this belief is not shared by all, or is not yet taken seriously. Maybe the subject is just boring or maybe it's a matter of preaching to the converted or possibly it's just resigned indifference. But, whatever the reason might be, and even though my efforts may be for naught, I will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that I made an effort to help get the message across—in which case my epitaph shall simply read, "I TRIED".

To be continued next time…

Have a warm day …


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