Tanzanian Visitors

Thanks to Cherie’s efforts, our farm stay is now open and available (details HERE and HERE). Almost immediately after listing it on farm stay websites we had our first reservation.

This weekend we had our first guests: a Tanzanian farmer, a Tanzanian farm advisor and their American guide, a former Peace Corps volunteer who met them during her time in Tanzania.

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Our new Tanzanian friends were here to learn about sustainable chemical-free agriculture.  It was delight to exchange ideas and knowledge with them.

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They insisted on doing some farm work while they were here, so I gratefully allowed them to help me weed the beets and lettuce and lay drip tape.

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We loved sharing the message and having the opportunity to teach and learn from colleagues on the other side of the world who share our values and goals.

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A Good Day on the Job

The main character in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities is a bond trader. There is an amusing scene in the book when the character is attempting to answer his young son, who has asked him what his occupation is.  It goes something like: “Hmm. Well, you know the bridges that we cross when we come in and out of the city,” he says.  “You build bridges!,” the child responds excitedly.  “Well, no, but…”

As difficult as it would be to explain bond trading to a child, I imagine that for a hedge fund manager who rakes in billions of dollars per year with a computer program that executes trades with lightning speed–never intending to hold onto a security, but only to grab quick profits as the price moves on the trades of others–it would be even harder.

But in fairness, I suppose someone has to shuffle the money around.  It wasn’t so many years ago that I was pretty good at cleaning up the messes those folks often made, and The Man would toss me a few of his crumbs for my effort.  I could have generally described my job to my young son, but the daily specifics would have been challenging to explain.

I had a pretty good day on the job yesterday. Some of the things I did not do: I did not obtain a temporary injunction, or effectively cross-examine an expert witness, or win a summary judgment motion, or discover a fatal technical deficiency in a pleading, or jet off to the other side of the world to interview a witness, or schmooze a client at a fancy restaurant, or eat Tylenol and drink coffee all day, or come home stressed long after the family had gone to bed, or sleep in an airplane seat, or cancel a family vacation due to an emergency hearing. Some of the things I did do: I tended to farm animals, I weeded beets and lettuce, I picked vegetables for the farmers market, I spent all day with my wife, I watched the sunrise and the sunset, I stayed home all day, I went to bed tired.

If a child should ask me to describe my job, I could do it.

Easily.

Back to Work

While technological change has been destroying categories of jobs and reshaping the world’s work force for centuries, lately the process is accelerating.

In the past, some new category of jobs has always emerged to largely absorb the workers displaced as some other category was mechanized/industrialized. So mechanization and industrialization of farms drove workers to factory jobs (and factory work increased as the former farmers now had more cash to spend on factory-made stuff). Then, as the factory jobs vanished (when factory owners relocated to places with cheaper available labor) the workforce transitioned into so-called “service” industry jobs.  But now that those jobs are also being outsourced/mechanized, the obvious question is what will replace them?

This post and related podcast at NPR provide some food for thought.  Are we moving toward a time when, thanks to robots and devices, there simply isn’t enough paying work to go around?  And if we continue to eliminate the need for workers, aren’t we thereby erasing the means by which we make those workers into the consumers necessary to make the economic machine function?

The concept of a guaranteed minimum income (GMI) has been generating a lot of discussion lately.  The idea is that every person would be guaranteed enough income to meet their basic needs, thus eliminating the necessity of employment for those unable to find work or those satisfied with a life at that income level. Proponents argue that there won’t be enough income-producing work to go around in the future and that the GMI would eliminate the necessity of working out of fear–presumably freeing people to pursue more meaningful work (or, I suppose, to spend all their time watching television). In theory, because most people would not be content to live on $12,000/year, they would still pursue and compete for jobs that would that would provide the money for more luxurious lifestyles.  The concept is predicated upon the elimination of our current $1 trillion annual “safety net” spending, which is why some on the right have been receptive to it.  But however interesting the proposal may sound, it’s not likely to get much traction. The economic feasibility of it is questionable.  And even as we slide ever deeper into a culture of dependency, by and large we still accept the idea that we should have to earn our keep.  It is interesting however to reflect on what a world might look like if people could choose their work with their basic needs (food and shelter) already met.

Whatever direction we may take, if we are headed to a future where waiters and check-out attendants go the way of elevator operators and gas station attendants, we may have millions of people with a lot of time on their hands.

I wonder if we might see the tide turn again in favor of agriculture.  Maybe we’ll end back where we started. Back to the garden.

All of which brings to mind a letter to the editor Wendell Berry wrote in response to an article advocating a shorter work week.  It is full of wisdom and among my favorite things he has written:

The Progressive, in the September issue, both in Matthew Rothschild’s “Editor’s Note” and in the article by John de Graaf (“Less Work, More Life”), offers “less work” and a 30-hour workweek as needs that are as indisputable as the need to eat.

Though I would support the idea of a 30-hour workweek in some circumstances, I see nothing absolute or indisputable about it. It can be proposed as a universal need only after abandonment of any respect for vocation and the replacement of discourse by slogans.

It is true that the industrialization of virtually all forms of production and service has filled the world with “jobs” that are meaningless, demeaning, and boring—as well as inherently destructive. I don’t think there is a good argument for the existence of such work, and I wish for its elimination, but even its reduction calls for economic changes not yet defined, let alone advocated, by the “left” or the “right.” Neither side, so far as I know, has produced a reliable distinction between good work and bad work. To shorten the “official workweek” while consenting to the continuation of bad work is not much of a solution.

The old and honorable idea of “vocation” is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted. Implicit in this idea is the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction.

Only in the absence of any viable idea of vocation or good work can one make the distinction implied in such phrases as “less work, more life” or “work-life balance,” as if one commutes daily from life here to work there.

But aren’t we living even when we are most miserably and harmfully at work?

And isn’t that exactly why we object (when we do object) to bad work?

And if you are called to music or farming or carpentry or healing, if you make your living by your calling, if you use your skills well and to a good purpose and therefore are happy or satisfied in your work, why should you necessarily do less of it?

More important, why should you think of your life as distinct from it?

And why should you not be affronted by some official decree that you should do less of it?

A useful discourse on the subject of work would raise a number of questions that Mr. de Graaf has neglected to ask:

What work are we talking about?

Did you choose your work, or are you doing it under compulsion as the way to earn money?

How much of your intelligence, your affection, your skill, and your pride is employed in your work?

Do you respect the product or the service that is the result of your work?

For whom do you work: a manager, a boss, or yourself?

What are the ecological and social costs of your work?

If such questions are not asked, then we have no way of seeing or proceeding beyond the assumptions of Mr. de Graaf and his work-life experts: that all work is bad work; that all workers are unhappily and even helplessly dependent on employers; that work and life are irreconcilable; and that the only solution to bad work is to shorten the workweek and thus divide the badness among more people.

I don’t think anybody can honorably object to the proposition, in theory, that it is better “to reduce hours rather than lay off workers.” But this raises the likelihood of reduced income and therefore of less “life.” As a remedy for this, Mr. de Graaf can offer only “unemployment benefits,” one of the industrial economy’s more fragile “safety nets.”

And what are people going to do with the “more life” that is understood to be the result of “less work”? Mr. de Graaf says that they “will exercise more, sleep more, garden more, spend more time with friends and family, and drive less.” This happy vision descends from the proposition, popular not so long ago, that in the spare time gained by the purchase of “labor-saving devices,” people would patronize libraries, museums, and symphony orchestras.

But what if the liberated workers drive more?

What if they recreate themselves with off-road vehicles, fast motorboats, fast food, computer games, television, electronic “communication,” and the various genres of pornography?

Well, that’ll be “life,” supposedly, and anything beats work.

Mr. de Graaf makes the further doubtful assumption that work is a static quantity, dependably available, and divisible into dependably sufficient portions. This supposes that one of the purposes of the industrial economy is to provide employment to workers. On the contrary, one of the purposes of this economy has always been to transform independent farmers, shopkeepers, and tradespeople into employees, and then to use the employees as cheaply as possible, and then to replace them as soon as possible with technological substitutes.

So there could be fewer working hours to divide, more workers among whom to divide them, and fewer unemployment benefits to take up the slack.

On the other hand, there is a lot of work needing to be done—ecosystem and watershed restoration, improved transportation networks, healthier and safer food production, soil conservation, etc.—that nobody yet is willing to pay for. Sooner or later, such work will have to be done.

We may end up working longer workdays in order not to “live,” but to survive.

Wendell Berry
Port Royal, Kentucky

The King is Gone

The woman was moving away and needed a home for her chickens. She had some beautiful Dark Cornish hens and a magnificent Buff Cochin rooster.  I told her I’d take the hens, but not the rooster, as we already had a rooster and I didn’t think they’d get along well.  No deal, she answered, the rooster and the hens have to stay together. Reluctantly I agreed, figuring I could make sure that no one got hurt when the roosters sorted things out.

I didn’t give our rooster Dee Dee much of a chance against the newcomer, who we named Elvis.  But much too my surprise Dee Dee not only defeated Elvis, but Elvis nearly died as a result–not from any physical injury, but from the humiliation.  Fortunately Elvis eventually recovered and accepted his new subordinate role. (Story told HERE).

But I later learned that Elvis had only been biding his time.  Surprising me a second time, Elvis emerged victorious in a swift but decisive rematch, and took his place as the king of our flock.  (Story told HERE).

Elvis.  The king.

Elvis. The king.

Elvis reigned supreme on White Flint Farm until a few days ago.  We’d seen him stumble a few times lately, and then about a week ago he started sleeping on the floor of the coop, apparently unable to fly up to the roosting poles.  We knew Elvis was nearing the end of his life.

The end came Monday and now his understudy Little Richard has assumed command of the flock.

Little Richard.  Long live the king.

Little Richard. Long live the king.

Elvis was a gentle giant around humans.  He defended his ladies when necessary and sired a lot of chicks. He was a noble and dignified bird.  He will be missed.

RIP Elvis.

Diversity

It hasn’t rained here in weeks.  The seeds I put in the ground last week are still there, baking and ungerminated.  The seedlings I spent 3 long days putting in, are now wilting and dying.

This morning I’m going to bite the bullet and purchase a drip irrigation system.  I should have done it years ago.  Overhead irrigation just isn’t sufficient in times like these.

But here’s the thing: if all our summer crops fail, then all I’m out is my labor and the cost of the seeds and transplants. In a worst case scenario I’ll till everything under and start over again, with plenty of time to get the crops in before the first frost.

That’s a great advantage of course to having a long growing season.

A more likely scenario is that only some crops will fail. Already this year we lost our spinach, rainbow chard and snap peas.  So where they were supposed to be, now we have beautiful kale and Swiss chard instead.

Here we expect and plan for failure.  We go into the year knowing that not every crop is going to succeed.

A few years ago we lost our tomatoes to blight.  If we were tomato farmers, then we would have had no income that year.  If we had borrowed the money to fund the crop, we might have ended up bankrupt.  But because we plant as many as 100 different crops each year (in addition to keeping goats, chickens and pigs), losing a few crops doesn’t put us out of business.

As I wrote yesterday, nature doesn’t like monocultures.  Nature likes diversity. When we plant lots of different things, not only do we avoid having all of our proverbial eggs in one basket, but we’re also mimicking nature.

Wake Up

The worst outbreak of avian flu in American history continues to march across the country.  There are now confirmed outbreaks in 15 states.  A few days ago Nebraska became the latest state to declare a state of emergency as a result.

Over 35 million chickens on factory farms throughout the Midwest have been slaughtered in an attempt to curb the spread of the disease.

Iowa, where over 25 million chickens have been killed, has been affected the most. From the New York Times:

Iowa, where one in every five eggs consumed in the country is laid, has been the hardest hit: More than 40 percent of its egg-laying hens are dead or dying. Many are in this region, where barns house up to half a million birds in cages stacked to the rafters. The high density of these egg farms helps to explain why the flu, which can kill 90 percent or more of a flock within 48 hours, is decimating more birds in Iowa than in other states.

Once the infection is discovered, the CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) owner is required to kill every bird in the facility as a precaution.  The method of execution is carbon dioxide gassing or some sort of deadly foam. Imagine millions of hens desperately trying in vain to escape the tiny cages where they’ve been kept all their lives, as they’re being sprayed with a poisonous foam.

What we have done to these creatures for the sake of cheap eggs is shameful.

As authorities struggle to figure out how to dispose of tens of millions of dead diseased birds, the scenes are ghastly.

Mounds and mounds of carcasses have piled up in vast barns here in the northwestern corner of Iowa, where farmers and officials have been appealing for help to deal with disposal of such a vast number of flocks. Workers wearing masks and protective gear have scrambled to clear the barns, but it is a painstaking process. In these close-knit towns that include many descendants of the area’s original Dutch settlers, some farmers have resorted to burying dead birds in hurriedly dug trenches on their own land, while officials weighed using landfills and mobile incinerators.

Elsewhere the article refers to men in hazmat suits tossing dead chickens out of a barn into a Hertz rental truck.

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Maybe, hopefully, the disease will be contained.

But maybe it will continue to spread across the land, affecting both backyard flocks and CAFO chicken prisons. Maybe someday someone with a badge will even show up here on our farm, with the supposed authority to kill our chickens.

Nature does not like monocultures.  Concentrating so many animals of one species into such a small area is an invitation to an epidemic.

Let us hope that this is a wake up call.

We simply have to restore some sanity to how we produce food in our culture.