Here’s an interesting piece reviewing a book that addresses how China “escaped the poverty trap.”

What has happened in China over the last few decades is truly extraordinary. In 1981 almost 90% of China’s population lived in poverty, making less than $2/day. By 2012 that number had plummeted to less than 7%. From 1990 to 2000 per capita income in China increased by 500%. From 2000 to 2010 it increased another 500%. In only 20 years China went from being extremely impoverished, to being a “middle income” nation, fast approaching “First World” status. This may be the most amazing economic turnaround in world history (even as it has come with a lot of growing pains).

I found it interesting that this analyst attributes China’s success in part to “a highly decentralized system where local government officials have a fair degree of autonomy to choose their strategies.”

The main argument for decentralized governance is that it creates opportunities for competent individuals to pursue political leadership, for societal groups to invest in building political parties, or for existing subnational governments to adopt innovative policy solutions.

This won’t come as a surprise to the economists who have long argued that organic economies are too complex to be centrally managed and that economic decisions are best made by the many, not by the few.

What I Think About Before Chores

Listening to an interview of a physicist recently, I was struck by his remark that 99% of scientists believe there is no human free will–that what we perceive as free will is just an illusion or mind-trick. Everything, including everything that happens inside the human brain, necessarily obeys the laws of physics. So, being the nerd that I am, I’ve been researching this, and it seems that among physicists and neuroscientists at least, he’s right.

But because the implications of this are so potentially disruptive to society, it’s not talked about much. As one piece I read put it, “there is no free will, but we’re better off believing in it anyway.”

So the philosopher Saul Smilansky:

advocates a view he calls illusionism—the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend. The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, “look the dark truth in the face.” Smilansky says he realizes that there is something drastic, even terrible, about this idea—but if the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.

Think about that: “If the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.”

About a hundred or so years ago, I took a course on free will and determinism. And I’ve studied philosophy on and off in the years since then. So I’ve long known about hard determinists–I just didn’t realize how completely they seem to have carried the day. As the physicist put it, to believe in human free will you have to believe in miracles–that is, that the laws of physics are sometimes violated or suspended. Scientists don’t believe in miracles, ergo they don’t believe in human free will.

Which brings me to something I read this morning to the effect that stereotypically the right concerns itself with freedom and the left concerns itself with equality. And I imagine the world’s scientists watching as the two camps argue, shaking their heads with the knowledge that both are building their claims on premises that are nothing more than illusions.


Stand On

A song I’ve been noodling around with.

Capo 2
strum pattern: dduudu

There are things that I have
That I never earned
There are things that I know
That I never learned
There is ground that I’ve plowed
That I’ve never turned
There are fires I’ve desired
That have never burned


Freed from the illusion
of pretending to own
the things I possess
that are only on loan
Cleansed by dirty hands
I have been shown
That what I stand for
Is what I stand on


(After typing this I chuckled when I realized the last bit will only rhyme in our particular variety of  southern accent, where “on” rhymes with “shown”)



Laura Grace Weldon Tending.jpg

I like the feeling of dropping the needle onto a new album. Some of the tracks will be familiar already, thanks to radio, and others will be new, like unexpected gifts.

Laura Grace Weldon’s volume Tending is like that. The words are chosen and arranged beautifully–the images uniformly delightful. Some are songs I recognize and others are fresh and unfamiliar, their authenticity validated by the truth of those familiar.

I’ve never been a teenage girl with an imaginary boyfriend, but I have stretched to reach a distant blackberry (the best ones are always the farthest away), briers grabbing my clothes and tearing my face. And I’ve learned from experience, as she has, how to hold the bowl when you stumble.

I never learned tea party manners, but I have baled hay deep into the night, enjoying the satisfaction that comes from a long hard day sweating in a field with one’s children. Those days are in my past now, but I nod in agreement when I read: “even swallowing this day/I couldn’t feel more whole.”

I’ve never seen a window washer reading poetry while dangling from a skyscraper, but I have been moved to prayer at the sight of a CAFO.

And I think it’s like prayer
to farm, mindful
that plants and animals
need to be exactly where they are,
seeing as nature is God drawing circles
for us to learn the shape of things.

And, increasingly these days, I too am

weary of those who talk
in slogans stamped and packed
by someone else, like
long distance truckers paid to drive
without knowing the weight
hauled onto that dark highway.

Yes, well said, I think, smiling at the reminder of a tractor in a hay field “circling ever inward,” and journeys that “trace all the way back to blessed dirt.” And likewise at the image of some future archaeologist discovering the truth of the aluminum salesman’s pitch.

This is a record whose grooves deserve to be well worn.

Winter Spinach


While our lettuce has grown best, the best-tasting thing we’ve grown this winter is spinach. Whether because of the weather, the hoop house conditions, or some other factor(s), it’s the tastiest spinach we’ve ever grown.


We’ll definitely grow it again next winter.

Lettuce Be Thankful for Lettuce

We’ve grown lots of different types of lettuce over the years, in the spring and in the fall. Most of the varieties we’ve planted in the past have, for a variety of reasons, fallen by the wayside. Now we only grow lettuce in the spring and we only grow green romaine (from transplants) and a salad mix (from seed).

But it looks like that is going to change.

We installed our hoop house in mid-October, a couple of months earlier than anticipated. The site we picked out for it happened to be where we grew sweet potatoes this year–the last crop we harvest. It also happens to be some of our most difficult soil to work–red clay.

So there was no time to do much soil prep (not much that could be done, in any event) before the hoop house went up.

It’s new to us and I had no idea what to plant in it. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I  broke up the crusty clay with a shuffle hoe, shoveled in a thin layer of leaf compost, and broadcast some extra seed we had left over from earlier in the year. On October 29. If nothing grew I figured we wouldn’t have lost anything–spring was when we expected to begin using the house anyway.

Our favorite lettuce mix is called All Star, from Johnny’s. It’s a mix of lettuces, green and red, intended to be planted thick and cut while little. We had some of that seed left, so I tossed it onto one of the improvised beds and waited to see what would happen.

And guess what? Shut my mouth if we didn’t get ourselves a fine crop of baby lettuce.



We’ve been eating it and sharing it with our farmer’s market customers for months now. It grows slowly this time of year, and so far (despite a crazy warm/hot winter) it hasn’t bolted.

I’m still not sure what all we’ll be doing in the hoop house next winter, but I’d say the odds are very good that overwintering lettuce will be one of them.

Machine Work

One of my friends at the farmers market, a large scale conventional vegetable grower, told me that our big local nursery just bought a machine that will do the transplanting now. That machine eliminated 15 jobs.

By now I’m sure most people are aware of how rapidly automation and robots are eliminating human jobs. From cashiers, to truck drivers, to anesthesiologists–everybody seems to be on the firing line. I’ve seen estimates that as many as 60% of American jobs could be eliminated over the next 20 years.

These stories are usually in the context of concern about what will happen to the people who are working those jobs. I’ve written about that myself, several times.

But there is an interesting agricultural angle to this, that seems under-reported to me. Industrial agriculture is frantically trying to mechanize, not so much to increase profits as to address what they’re calling a crisis: the shortage of labor.

The cover story of last month’s Vegetable Grower magazine was titled: “The Disappearing Workforce. Vegetable Growers Need Labor.” The article began:

The No. 1 issue for vegetable growers isn’t pests, food safety, or even weather. It’s a lack of labor. Growers handle a lot of issues, from pests to uncooperative weather to heavy regulations. But all of those pale in the face of labor issues.

There are stories of crops rotting in the fields. For a variety of reasons, the labor source upon which the industry has historically depended is drying up.The growers are saying that their survival depends upon finding ways to harvest crops with fewer workers.

For commodity crops like corn and soybeans, automation isn’t very difficult. All you need are long rows and a big pile of money.

Mechanizing vegetable harvests is considerably more difficult, as machine harvesters damage the produce in ways skilled human hands don’t and, at least until lately, machines haven’t been able to distinguish ripe from unripe produce.

The agricultural machinery manufacturers are predicting a coming boom in sales, as they start rolling out newfangled machines that will do the old-fashioned human jobs. It’s interesting to see the kinds of changes that are being required by growers.

Row spacing has to change, to enable the machine to have enough room. Double row beds are being replaced by single row beds. Vegetable varieties that mature all at once are being engineered, so as to allow single-cut/destruct harvesting. Breeders are generating varieties that cluster their fruit more tightly, facilitating mechanical harvest. And now there is even a machine with an electronic sensor “eye” that can supposedly tell a green tomato from a ripe tomato, brushing one into one bin and the other into another (this after another machine yanks up the entire crop, vines and all, and delivers them to the sorter machine, which also grinds up the vines).

I can’t imagine that the taste and quality of vegetables will benefit from these changes.