Farming

There is a sentence in my thesis that reads: “The modern food system seemed to be personified in scientists, chemists and biological engineers, rather than in a farmer and his mule.”  One of my advisors commented, “Farmers today have to be commodities traders.”  He was correct of course.

Consider this from this month’s issue of Progressive Farmer magazine: “An Iowa farmer with a 195-bushel APH and an 85% RP policy spent 10 cents per APH bushel to guarantee $4 corn on Sept. 5. That’s equivalent to a strike price of $3.60 on a put, he says.”

Much of the magazine reads like that.

My grandfather subscribed to Progressive Farmer from as far back as I can remember. He would have no idea what to make of sentences like those.

Today industrial scale farmers not only have to deftly trade futures contracts on the commodity exchange, they also have to navigate the complexities of federally subsidized crop insurance and the myriad of federal programs upon which a significant portion of their revenue is dependent.  Those kind of farmers probably spend more time filling out paperwork and meeting with accountants than they do on the tractor.

That’s what farming in America has become.

Worth Getting Dressed Up For

Last night Cherie and I were at a reception in the Governor’s mansion in Richmond.  Forty-eight hours earlier I’d been out in a pasture, wearing a headlamp, pushing a prolapsed pigs insides back to where they belong.  I’m pretty sure I was the only person there would could say that.

It was the first time I’ve worn a tie since my last improbable invitation to the Capitol.

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The First Lady, Cherie and some guy who ruined the photo

The reception was to announce the creation of a task force whose objective will be to “bridge the nutritional divide” in Virginia.  Specific objectives (taken from the press release) include :

·       Improve food distribution systems to better serve a diversifying Virginia agricultural economy

·       Improve accessibility to farmers’ markets

·       Increase acceptance of SNAP/Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) and WIC/EBT at farmers’ markets

·       Encourage the development of innovative and sustainable retail models to provide access to healthy foods in areas classified as food deserts

·       Increase farm-to-school and other farm-to-institution programs

We’re hoping this project is a smashing success.

Tegong

To avoid having to eat the products of China’s rapidly increasing industrialized and chemical-based food system, government officials and others in positions of privilege get “tegong” (meaning “special supply”) food–food produced naturally, organically (and discreetly) and especially for them.  As this article in the Los Angeles Times describes it:

Organic gardening in China is a hush-hush affair in which the cleanest, safest products are largely channeled to the rich and politically connected.

Many of the nation’s best food companies don’t promote or advertise. They don’t want the public to know that their limited supply is sent to Communist Party officials, dining halls reserved for top athletes, foreign diplomats, and others in the elite classes. The general public, meanwhile, dines on foods that are increasingly tainted or less than healthful — meats laced with steroids, fish from ponds spiked with hormones to increase growth, milk containing dangerous additives such as melamine, which allows watered-down milk to pass protein-content tests.

“The officials don’t really care what the common people eat because they and their family are getting a special supply of food,” said Gao Zhiyong, who worked for a state-run food company and wrote a book on the subject.

Athletes receive tegong pork, the article reveals, because the growth hormone residues in factory-raised pigs were causing false positives in their steroid testing.  Unsurprising to me.  As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, a recent study found 20% of the pork sampled in U.S. grocery stores to be contaminated with the rapactomine, a pork growth hormone.

We’re exporting a lot more food to China these days than we’re importing.  But if you buy seafood, garlic, apple juice or honey in a grocery store, there’s a good chance it came from China. And an increasing amount of the food we export to China is processed there and then returned to us.  We can be sure none of it is going into the tegong system.

We’re fortunate to live in a country where wholesome natural food is not reserved only for those in positions of power and privilege.  But our supply of good food depends upon the continued support of consumers.  The existence of something like the tegong system is evidence that we ought not take for its availability for granted.

Rainy Day

It was cold and rainy yesterday.  It would have been a good day to spend inside writing and relaxing, enjoying an extra cup of coffee or two.

But as we prepare for another premature Arctic blast this week, I spent much of the day out in the gardens working in the cold rain, trying to salvage a harvest. Because the weather won’t allow us to let it mature, our broccoli was very disappointing this fall and our cauliflower was worse.  But we had excellent spring and summer gardens, so I suppose we were due for a failure.

It was a dreary day in more ways than one.  Our cat Mr. Fabulous didn’t come home yesterday morning and has now been missing for over 24 hours.  That has us concerned of course.

And when I fed the pigs last night, just before leaving to do our Monday deliveries, I noticed that Gracie had a rectal prolapse.  So when we got back I had to don the headlamp and go out the pasture and push her insides back into where they belong.  Not an experience I care to have often.

After a day like that, last night’s glass of wine was particularly welcome.

Stir It Up

These days it’s easier than ever to stir things up.  While it’s always been possible to start an argument with someone, today’s social media and interactive news sites are particularly well-suited for flamethrowers and pot stirrers and seem to draw them in like flies to you-know-what.

I’ve been sucked into the fray myself a few times, but I’ve found that I can usually eliminate the temptation by not reading comments on news sites and by blocking or ignoring provocateurs on social media.

That’s not to say I don’t ever want to do some stirring of my own.  I hope sometimes to stir up some things on this blog for example.  But I try not to be unkind or obnoxious when I do.

An ancient writer urged folks to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.”  That’s good advice I think and something I need to work harder on.

Don’t neglect meeting together and encouraging one another, the writer continued, especially in anxious times.

Saturday night we hosted our monthly gathering of the group we call “Piedmont Sustainable Living.”  We had an excellent pot luck supper followed by a fun and interesting discussion of natural and home remedies. A lot of wisdom and good advice was shared.

We also discussed our county’s plan to try to attract over 500 chicken CAFOs and a monstrous processing plant to our community.  On that subject, I think it’s fair to say we were stirring up one another.

It seems to me that when a group of people gather in friendship to help and encourage one another, the stirring they do will be good. On the other hand, it seems to me that the stirring that happens when angry people bang out insults on their keyboards is just a pointless waste of energy and passion.

Unfallow Fields

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Speaking of fallow fields, we have two now.  We shouldn’t have any.

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When farming organically ideally a field should never be bare.  There should always be something growing in it. The roots of growing plants contribute to soil’s health and help hold it in place.  Then when the plants are tilled in, they contribute biomass and nutrients to the soil.  So covercropping is an important part of sustainable organic agriculture.

We aim to grow at least one cover crop in each garden for every food crop we grow.  Usually we will have two cover crops between harvestable crops.

Right now we have a garden producing lettuce and Asian greens, a garden producing the basic brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), a garden growing radishes, turnips and overwintering spinach, and a garden growing onions and garlic.  The rest of the gardens are sowed in winter cover crops. We’ll till those crops in this spring before planting the food crops.  For gardens that will grow fall veggies, we’ll plant a summer crop and also till that in before we plant in the fall.

But we do have two bare fields right now.  One was this year’s tomato/pepper/eggplant garden and the other was this year’s pea garden (English then Purple Hull).  Both were sowed with a cover crop about a month ago, but it hasn’t rained since we planted them and nothing has germinated yet.  So I’m not happy about it, but we do have some bare soil.

The chemical-based farmers around here use a turning plow in the fall and leave their soil bare all winter.  I’m sure they wonder why in the world we are planting grasses on our fields in the fall, when they are working to kill any grasses in theirs.

But just as they don’t want anything growing in their fields over the winter, we don’t want any fields to lay plowed and fallow.  We want soil that is always alive.  Nature prefers it that way.