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HOMEGROWN Life: From September Rains to Holiday Radishes, Farmer Bryce Traces How Marginal Land Could Furnish America’s Christmas Dinner

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150Ah, yes. A rainy September morning.

It’s one of the glories of the annual cycle of seasons on the farm. Here in western Missouri, fall planting has commenced. Lettuce and spinach and radishes and other leafy and rooting plants are in the ground. But right now they’re just sitting there, waiting for calming temperatures and moisture. After a burning August (I’m not complaining; 2014 had some good and timely rains), we’re hoping for the heat to break and the fall crops to take off.

They need to get going soon if we’re to have a harvest in the next few weeks. The sun is rapidly retreating. The soil is still pretty dry. And yet, even knowing those conditions, we hope things will work out. Maybe the fall will be long and mild. Maybe the temperature will be in that magic 65-degree high, 45-degree low range until Christmas. Maybe.

HOMEGROWNsubmitthanksgivingphotosIt’s all relative, though. I count myself lucky. I live on fairly marginal farmland for specialty crop growing, specifically vegetable production. For the most part, that’s due to our occasional super-high winds and wild temperature fluctuations. And then there’s bug damage and disease and wilt—the latter thanks to our spotty but sometimes incredibly heavy rains. But this is only “marginality” in comparison with other places where veggies are the specialty, such as the mountain-protected regions of the American West. I’m talking about you, California. And you, Colorado River Basin.

I pick on the Colorado River watershed a lot in my head, for a very simple reason: Geography and environmental destruction are my nagging worries. I’m a guy who really struggles with water. The Colorado River has water worries in piles and piles. That sucker doesn’t even make it to its delta, on the southeast California-Baja California coast.

And this retreating river is only part of the issue. A lot of the problem has to do with agriculture. The Imperial Valley supplies an estimated 80 percent of US-produced winter vegetables. As the writer and photographer Pete McBride tells it, we might not realize it, but we Americans “eat the Colorado River” during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

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That’s because the majority of fresh produce in grocery stores has a Colorado River pedigree during the holidays. The microclimate there and the farmers in the region have developed a serious agribusiness based on the area’s “economic competitiveness,” or giant monocultures of industrial vegetables that get shipped out to the highest bidder.

I woke up to this reality while I was enjoying this morning’s rainstorm. Mother Jones blogger Tom Philpott laid it out clearly: The highly veggie-productive Colorado River region could be facing an absolute lack of water very soon.

So what does that mean for Midwestern, Southern, and Eastern veggie growers like me? We better get our acts together. We better embrace our advantages of fall and winter production, construct hoop houses and greenhouses, and try to build on the beginnings of a nonsummer production season.

hightunnel

Because those of us with experience know a longer season is ripe for the picking. We’re not trying to steal the market from our farmer friends in the Southwest. Rather, we know two things:

  1. Local food is fresher and can have a much smaller carbon footprint than industrial produce.
  2. People want a more transparent food system that aligns ecological practices with healthy meals.

So, get ready, veggie growers. Whether we like it or not, somebody needs to provide the greens and radishes and carrots for all those holiday meals. Entire industries are built upon such societal shifts. The question is whether, through agricultural policy and funding, we, as produce growers, and we, as a society, can make the transition away from desert-based veggie production in a manner that limits harm while providing maximum local economic development.

FennelApricotStuffing

Maybe it’s time we quit listening to all of those economists who keep nay-saying “government picking winners and losers.” If we can transition the fall and winter veggie system in our country from the desert Southwest to the Midwest, South, and East, everybody can win. Yes, everybody: farmers, consumers, and the environment.

Who knows? Maybe that broader geographic distribution of farm laborers who follow the produce would help us fix immigration policy, as well. Maybe not. But it’s worth pursuing.

HOMEGROWN-life-Bryce-OatesBryce Oates is a farmer, a father, a writer, and a conservationist in western Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig some potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

PHOTOS: (HOLIDAY PLATE) JENNIFER; (ROOTS AND GREENS) ANDREA DiMAURO; (HIGH TUNNEL) RICHARD MAXWELL; (FENNEL APRICOT STUFFING) PENNY V.

HOMEGROWN Life: Why I Raise Cattle

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150As a farmer and a writer, I often use this column as a way to work out something I’ve got stuck in my craw.

Today that’s the burden of beef.

I recently listened to one of my favorite radio programs, Living on Earth. There was a segment where the host, Steve Kerwood, interviewed one of my favorite young writer/activists, Anna Lappé. Anna and Steve had a very interesting and informative conversation about the environmental impacts of a system that puts steak and burgers atop the American diet.

HOMEGROWN-life-why-raise-cattle-grazing

Their discussion was a good one, and most HOMEGROWN readers could follow along closely. If you’re like me, you understand that we live in a world where resources are constrained. You’re deeply concerned about building ecologically resilient communities and about unequal access to clean water and decent places to live. You’re probably in favor of ethical, humane treatment of livestock and wildlife. You probably believe that giant industrial feedlots are disgusting and problematic on many levels.

I share these concerns and feel strongly about the need to transform the food system. I think Americans eat too much meat and that conventional beef production is a disaster.

But still, here on this farm, beef cattle is the main economic engine that keeps the farm up and running—well, that and my father’s good union job at a power plant. We raise cattle, and so do so many other farmers in our region, because cows are profitable most of the time, they’re relatively easy to keep, and there is an entire infrastructure that supports our production. We can find vets to help us when we encounter illness. We have markets for our calves. We can find hay (we grow our own but can locate more if necessary) and grain to supplement feeding, as needed. We can find people to come out and haul the cattle if we can’t do it ourselves.

Beef cows are born on mostly smallish farms. They spend half of their lives here. Yes, they end up in feedlots and in the messy industrial behemoth of the Western Plains. But they are born here, right across the fence from where I’m writing these words.

HOMEGROWN-life-why-raise-cattle-two

These beef herds pay the mortgages for the farms all around me. They also share the land with us human animals, as well as with a variety of wildlife. Cattle production is compatible here with the many species I see every day: songbirds, hawks, herons, squirrels, rabbits, deer, woodchuck, mice, wild turkey, raccoons, snakes, coyotes, frogs, and countless varieties of insects. Cows do use resources, but they also leave plenty of room for the other creatures I like to see around the place. (I might be in the minority when I say this, but I’d also welcome bears, elk, wolves, mountain lions, and other species that were native before Europeans arrived in North America. Yes, even the predators.)

At the end of the day, when we consider biodiversity in a working landscape, we have to take into account the reality of economics. Cows pay the bills.

I’m not trying to shill for the beef industry. I don’t think raising cattle is the answer to most questions. I feel strongly that people should eat more veggies and less meat (and less sugar). I make no presumption that the current beef feedlot system is anything other than an enormous mess that taxes human health and the environment, especially when it comes to the problem of greenhouse gasses and a disrupted climate.

HOMEGROWN-life-why-raise-cattle-sunset

But it seems to me that, strictly in terms of a sellable agricultural product, beef is one thing we can raise on a part-time, beginning-farmer basis that doesn’t rapidly and wildly damage the ecology. We already live in a region transformed by human impact. That’s the canvas we have to work with.

This is not so much an argument with Living on Earth or Anna Lappé. Anna might even agree with me that, done right, beef production can be part of a multifunctional landscape populated by diversified family farms. We just have a lot of work to do if we want beef production to improve and to minimize harm.

But if the decision is between corn and soybean monoculture or a herd of herbivores in the pasture just over the fence, I’ll take the beef cow any time. How about you?

Now let’s get to work on a system where those aren’t the only options.

HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

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 ALL PHOTOS: CAFNR/FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS

HOMEGROWN Life: Girls Versus Boys? Not on the Homestead

Friday, June 20th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-LIFE-MAGENTAWhen some people hear the word “homesteader,” they jump to conclusions, some right, some wrong. Like me, you may have dispelled a number of assumptions and perhaps piqued some people’s curiosity. Despite preconceptions, this is not an antiquated way of life. Even though I choose to use throwback skills and good, old-fashioned hard work, I find certain aspects of homesteading way ahead of their time. Take raising kids, for example. Homesteading can get a bad wrap for being gendered, or worse, but I’d argue it’s just the opposite.

HOMEGROWN-life-carpentry

Here’s what I mean: How many people teach their daughters skills that, in some households and areas, would be considered for boys only—and vice versa? On homesteads, our girls often learn carpentry by building coops and shelters, and our boys learn to can a harvest and mend a hole by sewing it up. This is a normal day for many of us but a revolutionary way to raise children in a world that, even now, holds certain expectations. Our kids generally come up doing more hard work than other kids (at least where we live, though certainly not everywhere), learning unconventional skills, and developing an appreciation for animals—and a practicality towards them as well. I suppose it’s not the norm, but to us, it’s life. And I like it that way.

HOMEGROWN-life-fishing

When my kids were fairly young, my father and I took them both fishing. This was, to me, a rite of passage. I started fishing with my dad when I was young, as did my sister. It wasn’t a “boy” thing to us. It was simply our life (although my sister was NOT a fan). We’ve fished every year since, and last year I looked down the bank of the Yellowstone River in Montana and smiled. There, right next to me, up to their waists in water, were my daughter, son, and stepson.

My parents were not ones for teaching us “girl” skills only. My father was determined that, even though he had all girls, we wouldn’t be helpless damsels in distress. I learned plumbing basics, how to change the brakes on my car, and how to change the oil. I learned to listen for a knock in the engine and how to strip paint off of a 1980 Cadillac Coupe de Ville (aka my Mack Daddy Caddy). Years later, all of these skills would be more useful than I ever imagined when I became a single mom, solely responsible for a farmhouse and two kids.

Because of this, I’ve never thought much about differing what my girl would learn versus my boy. They have equal chores at home, both help cook, and both scoop chicken poop. I grew up hearing stories from my grandmom about her and my great-grandmom’s duties on the ranch. They planted and harvested, plowed and cooked. They hunted and skinned, fished and washed. There were no lines, no boundaries for them. Then again, my great-grandmom settled on land in Wyoming when it was still very difficult for women to do so most other places. Wyoming figured that if you could last five years in that terrain, you deserved land ownership!

This year, my daughter will be driving. She will be trained the same as I was: change your own oil, learn to change a tire, change your own brakes so that no one takes you for a ride. Know what you’re asking for in an automotive parts store. If nothing else, the store clerks will be impressed, and you’ll feel good about it. In addition to that, she’ll learn how to filet a fish herself and how to milk a goat.

My boy will learn those things alongside his sister and stepbrother, taught by my dad and their stepdad. But he’ll also be called into the kitchen to make dough and pasta and will learn to knit, the same way his sister did.

HOMEGROWN-life-hiking

There are no lines in our homestead parenting, not between girl and boy or who contributes what. In addition to my upbringing, I chose this life for another reason. It’s human, not relegated to sex or race. It’s because the life we lead brings a certain toughness with it, a toughness I don’t feel kids get in school anymore. Like many of you, I’d imagine, when I was a kid, life wasn’t conducted with kid gloves. We learned about heartache from firsthand experience and notes passed in hallways, not plastered on Twitter and Facebook. Life on a homestead or ranch teaches kids about tough decisions, unpopular choices, hard work, and its results. They see death, they witness pecking orders. They develop a resilience and respect for life, whether they’re boys or girls.

This weekend, while we all fish and put the roof on the chicken run, I will be thinking of our homesteading predecessors. I will be thankful that, while they may have maintained certain gender roles, they weren’t limited by them. Pioneering homestead women and men were far ahead of their time. I guess some things never change.

HOMEGROWN-life-michelleAlthough she’s something of a newbie homesteader herself, Michelle comes from serious pioneer stock: Her great-grandmother literally wrote the book. It’s this legacy, in part, that led Michelle to trade in her high-stress life for a home on the grounds of a Pennsylvania CSA farm. You can read her monthly posts on beginner homesteading with kids and more here in HOMEGROWN Life, and sometimes you can find her popping up in The Stew, HOMEGROWN’s member blog.

PHOTOS: MICHELLE WIRE