Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

HOMEGROWN Life: Raising Romeo, a Love Story

Thursday, March 26th, 2015


HOMEGROWN LifeI love how just walking into a barn can be inspiring.

“What?!” you might respond. You may have to be a farmer to understand what I mean, but my guess is anyone who loves his or her job sees inspiration all around, every day.

My latest inspiration came to me in the form of a lamb. If you’ve been following the Bittersweet blog, you already know Romeo. If not, Romeo is a lamb who came to live with me on Valentine’s Day.


I had never raised a lamb in the house with me. Goat kids come every spring, and I always start them inside. I’m used to goat kids romping across the floor and chasing the cat in circles around the house. I’m used to lining up bottles on the kitchen counter for feedings. But I was not prepared for the complete joy I would experience with a lamb.


Brian, my farming mentor, told me, “It’s a whole different thing with raising lambs.” He wasn’t kidding. And that whole different thing has inspired me to write a children’s book about it. The difference is that lambs—or maybe just some lambs, but certainly Romeo—couldn’t be more of a joy to have around. Easy going, content, totally loveable, and constantly surprising. These are just some of the words I use to describe the experience.

The other way I describe it is a complete life lesson. As a farmer/amateur anthropologist, I am in the habit of observing behavior. It’s what makes us tick and defines our unique personalities. Within a few days of Romeo coming to live with me, I knew he was here to teach me how to teach him how to become a confident, well-adjusted creature. I saw I had the opportunity to guide him in finding his way in the world. “WHOA!” you might say! How is that fun?

All I can say is, it is. You should try raising lambs sometime. Beyond the bottles every six hours, beyond changing puppy pads in the playpen (I think I lost count at 150), beyond worrying about whether you’re getting it right, beyond laundering and replacing warm blankets so Romeo has something to snuggle up to since he doesn’t have his birth mom and I’m not always available, beyond all that comes the satisfaction of watching him grow into a healthy and confident little lamb.


I realized I had the opportunity to “make or break” this little guy, not unlike raising children. We hear a lot about different methods for raising animals. I have found that, no matter if you’re rearing these animals to end up knitted into a warming sweater or to provide a meal for your table, fostering their existence along the way makes a difference—the difference between that fiber becoming soft yarn or a tough-as-shoe-leather piece of meat on your table.

How does that translate into a children’s book? For me, easily. And thus the story of Romeo was born. The theme of the book is building confidence in a lamb by treating him humanely, letting him make mistakes along the way, watching him fall so he can get back up, and, ultimately, loving him just for him. It’s a tiny book, small enough to fit into a child’s palm. It’s a book for kids to carry around as a reminder they’ll always have a soft little lamb in their pocket. Maybe they can relate to that lamb. Maybe they know that lamb. Maybe that lamb is someone they want to become. It’s their story. They’ll know which version is theirs when they read it.


My hope is that moms and dads will love Romeo, too, and see him in their own little lambs. We get one chance to bring them along. We can be there to guide them, to pick them up and hold them when they fall, and ultimately to love the precious individuals they are. We’re their touchpoint, their harbor, their source of comfort. They’re here to teach us how to guide them. “That’s how lambs learn.”

I’ve come to realize farming is about so much more than just backbreaking work and muck. I’ve had some excellent teachers, with any number of legs, who remind me each day what a gift it is.


The book will be available on Bittersweet’s website as soon as it’s in print, and I’m also hoping to have it available online for e-readers and other devices. All proceeds will go toward maintaining the animals of Bittersweet Heritage Farm.


HOMEGROWN-life-dyanDyan Redick calls herself “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Bittersweet Heritage Farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney cross flock, goat milk soap, lavender woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Her farm is also an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food sources, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.


HOMEGROWN Life: Working On (and Off) the Farm

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013


HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150I’ve been rereading a book lately that I hadn’t picked up in a few years. It’s called Fields Without Dreams, by Victor Davis Hanson. This 20-year-old book is worth a read. It makes you think—perhaps especially if you’re living and working on a family farm—about why it is we care about the deeply revered and celebrated American institution of agriculture.

Why is it that so many are called to work the land, listening and learning from its rhythms? Why do we choose to live a life of hard physical labor when we could be hanging out in the air conditioning? Why do we pour money into something that might not be there for us the next day?

fieldswithoutdreamsNow, Hanson is a Greek classicist and orchardist whose family lives and works the annual grape-to-raisin harvest in central California. I’m not the biggest fan of the writer’s politics, as he can be an apologist for conservative economics and a worldview that lashes out at “the other.” He’s not up there on the pantheon of greats exploring the agrarian tradition, like Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, or Gene Logsdon.

Still, Hanson has a lot to offer. He is not a happy-pants romantic about farming. (That’s a good thing.) He understands the sacrifices and struggles we go through in coaxing income and such from the sometimes-fickle notions of plants and photosynthesis. His family’s greatest challenge is that of water management—irrigation, mostly, since they are in a very dry climate, although they’re also in a region and an industry that can be destroyed at harvest time due to rain.

Raisins, you see, are harvested grapes that are dried by the sun on paper trays, right out in vineyard, in the spaces between the grapevines. It’s a very traditional and non-industrial process. So the annual harvest’s quality and value is dependent upon this narrow little window of sun, rain, and temperature that occurs during drying time. If grapes are on the ground and the rains come, they’re soaked and ruined. If grapes are on the ground and the temperature is too high for too long, they’re burnt up and ruined.

In other words, what has taken 365 days of work (plus decades of time beforehand) to create and generate the family’s livelihood can be gone in a single day.


This fact is something I deal with every day here on the farm. Take last week, when the family herd of cows trampled and munched through my two-acre vegetable patch, destroying much of my summer harvest potential. I had been working since February to coax fruit from the tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers and eggplant. My new crop of salad greens and chard and kale was ready for harvest. And it was all gone in a morning. Ironic, isn’t it, that my Dad and I were out in the cow pasture, trying to get some fence fixed up so they could be moved to an area of better pasture later that day?

Like Hanson, and the rest of the members of the Oates Clan out here in West Missouri, we deal with all of this by living a double life. We live on the farm, but we also work off the farm to pay bills and “pay for the farm.” We are a duality, and it’s confusing to most people. Why do we work so hard with our non-work time and partial incomes to try and grow food? Why do we care about keeping, maintaining, and improving the homeplace?

I only can riff about this from the perspective I bring to the table. I was away for 17 years, going off and being “successful” in the eyes of most. I got a college education and worked as a professional. Victor Davis Hanson would contribute my success, if you can call it that, to the work ethic I developed on the farm and at my family’s small-town meat processing plant (another story for another day). But then everything changed. The sensation of missing the farm grew too large to bear. I had always wanted to get back home to help out and live a more agrarian life with my family and kin. That great gnawing became too much to ignore.

Bryce and kohlrabi

So here I am, out here: on the edge of the oak-hickory forest to the east and on the edge of the Great Plains to the west. Here I am, living a double life, trying to work off the farm as few hours as possible to pay the bills, trying to figure out how my brothers and I can contribute to the great legacy our father and his father are leaving us all.

Because, going back to Fields Without Dreams, we’re watching the slow, grinding demise of the family-farm system of agriculture. But we’re still here. We’re living a double life that society doesn’t understand. And while we might be wasting our time and effort according to some, while we might not have taken on the mantle of “professional farmers,” we’re still here. We’re not going to sell out and cash in to retire in Florida. We’re going to keep working and making this place our home.

I don’t see this as the tragedy that some might. I see it as a great gift—yes, maybe only to myself and my personal sanity—to be improving the soil through the combined wonders of science and magic. I get to see my grandparents age in their shack of a house just up the hill, right where they want to be. I get to sweat and cuss with my dad, sometimes only by text message as we coordinate daily chores. I get to grow plants nourished by the manure and urine of those destructive but wealth-creating cows.

We live in a funny world, for sure. There is food on the grocery store shelf, despite what happens on my family’s farm. The great agribusiness exploitation machine keeps rolling, but so do families like ours.

The only reason I keep returning to is that we need the land to keep us honest. We need the plants and animals that share this space with us to keep us sane. I don’t pretend to think that the land needs us, though. The sun will shine, the rain will fall, and something will grow. Something will eat the something that grows, and something will eat the something that eats the something that grows. And it will all go on, with or without me and my family.

For those of us with land and agriculture in our blood, or maybe just in our corrupted minds, we’ll still be here, watching and participating in this great process we hope to someday understand. We’re here to witness the annual cycle of growth and decay and living and dying. We’ll still be here, meditating with footsteps and shovels and hoes, hoping for rain or sunshine as we need it.

HOMEGROWN-bryce-oatesBryce 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.


Book Review: Ben Falk’s ‘The Resilient Farm and Homestead’

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013


Ben Falk’s The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach (available now from Chelsea Green Publishing) is packed with practical information for the landowner preparing for the effects of climate change, peak oil and resources, corporate control of food systems, and, basically all of the reasons many of us would like to set up on some acreage in the country.

ResilentHomesteadcoverI heard Ben say in a talk at the NOFA-VT Winter Conference that you cannot replace a society of producers with a society of consumers and expect to have a sustainable system. His fundamental goal is to build closer connections to our resources, and, ultimately, to produce as much as we can ourselves. Ambitious? Yes. Achievable? We’ll see. Inspiring? You bet.

The book begins with permaculture-type basics then offers a list of 75 guiding directives culled from Ben’s experience on his Vermont farm. He prefaces the list with a reminder that critical thinking is key—that, with land, there are no hard and fast rules, only a constant dialogue:

“The land system is not a machine—it doesn’t function in merely ways, though it is in part mechanical. This is probably why people are easily confused and end up habitually managing land as they would a machine. The rub is, however, that it also functions in far more complex ways beyond the patterns of a machine, or nonliving system. The land system is alive; thus, in a constant state of flux, evolving, responding, adapting, adjusting. It is never the same thing from one month to the next, one day to the next. Thinking it is the same thing leads us to conclusions that are at best ineffective, at worst dangerous. Relating in a way that truly appreciates and accounts for the complexity of the living land system is not mysterious or difficult —it is no different from relating to another human being. . . . Healthy interaction (with humans) is responsive—always based on the conditions of the moment and on past patterns and future goals.”

That said, there are also some terrifically practical things on his list, like:

  • Swales everywhere
  • Pee on plants
  • Embed skills and practice in daily routine
  • Cheap tools are too costly
  • Disturbance stimulates yield


This last one is exemplified in a way I found particularly compelling. When Ben moved to his ten-acre plot on a Vermont hillside, he let the lawn and another field “go.” As a result, he struggled with a host of weeds, brambles, ferns, and saplings that even his sheep wouldn’t nibble. He whacked and chopped and seeded heavily with forage crops—for three whole seasons—hoping they would overtake the problematic growth, to little avail. To begin with, that shows tremendous patience and conviction, and his honest humility makes the ultimate lesson all the more impressive: Fire. In the end, Ben learned that what whacking and chopping and seeding could not put the screws to, carefully controlled burns, followed by seeding, could. Disturbance stimulates yield. Cool.

Subsequent chapters of the book—on growing food crops, medicine, and fuel—are concise and useful. And tucked in the back are some really meaty gems for putting things into practice:

  • Crucial Skill List for Emergencies (I would add knot-tying to the list)
  • Tools and Materials (for rural self-reliant and community living)
  • Homestead Vulnerability Checklist and Strategy Summary to Reduce Vulnerability in Acute Events (whoa)
  • Glossary
  • Resources (or what Ben calls “Earth Engagements and Daily Practices,” such as: “Making things by hand and living close to things you make” and “Surrounding oneself with inspiring people and culture”)

For a good overview of the Whole Systems Design approach, watch Ben’s NOFA-VT talk and more on the Whole Systems YouTube page. Total permaculture nerd porn and definitely worth the time. If you’re hungry for more, the book should serve as a useful and inspiring guide.