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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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.

HOMEGROWN Life: Thanks, E. B. White

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

HOMEGROWN Life A friend gave me a copy of Down East magazine back before Christmas with a page earmarked. “You’ll die laughing,” she warned me. Turns out, it was a reprint of E. B. White’s “Memorandum,” from One Man’s Meat, published in 1944.

I knew of White from his story of a famous pig named Wilbur who befriended a spider named Charlotte in the children’s book Charlotte’s Web. I must have read that book 20 times over as a child. Maybe it was my first inkling toward wanting to be connected to animals in some way. I’ve never seen the movie version. I guess I always thought I’d be disappointed. Sometimes, the visions we carry in our heads are far more alive and vivid than anything on a silver screen. At least, that’s how I see it when it comes to some of my favorite things, one of them being the tale of a pig and a spider.

One Man's Meat, by E. B. WhiteI saved the magazine for a time when I could sit down and read “Memorandum” without the distraction of something on the stove or a dryer buzzer going off or another log needing to be thrown on the fire. I felt like I was due for a really good belly laugh, as was suggested was going to be the case.

What I experienced instead was the realization that E. B. White and I had so much in common. His litany of tasks and thoughts and expressions of worry or concern were exactly the same things I experience as I wend my way through “working the farm” every day. I said out loud, to nobody but the cats and dog, who gave me a concerned look, “This is exactly how my day is!”

I wasn’t laughing. I was completely struck by the description of a day on a farm and the reality of it all. The shoulds and the oughts and what it would be a good day to do. The things that occur to him and the things he lists he’ll need to complete. The endless tasks and suggestions of the tools that would be good to use to do them and the thoughts of what there is to do tomorrow and what he needs to do to prepare for that next day. If you haven’t read it, do. You’ll never feel alone as a farmer again.

HOMEGROWN Life: Goats in winter

I have conversations all the time with a farmer friend who has been at this for more than 30 years. Brian always says, “If you get behind one day, consider you’ll need three to catch up, if you’re lucky.” It’s an ADD delight, a constant never-ceasing barrage of things rattling around in your head, all equally important, that keep you from ever completely focusing on the task at hand and relentlessly reminding you of what’s left undone. If you farm, tend animals, raise crops, labor over orchards, house any kind of living thing, you know what I’m saying. White describes it in such exquisite detail, the needs of every living and inanimate thing on a farm, you are reminded of the connection to this way of life, and your heart stands still at the thought that you, too, experience this kind of intimacy on a daily basis.

Just as White “musn’t forget to set some mousetraps tonight,” I am reminded of my own tasks that need tending to: “I ought to make a list, I guess.” If you have a list, and my guess is that, if you’re a farmer, you have more than one, know you’re in good company.

HOMEGROWN Life: Bittersweet Herd

When it comes right down to it, the way I see it, the real essence of farming hasn’t changed much since 1944. White’s litany of chores and thoughts and shoulds and oughts is as alive today as it was then. I find that comforting. Maybe the certainty that each day will bring a new set of chores and tasks and unexpected jobs is the simple reason why we’re drawn to the farming way of life. Days unfold with wind and rain, snow and sleet, animals birthing, animals dying, papers that need filling in, stalls that need cleaning, rows of plants that need weeding, compost piles that need turning, wood that needs cutting or stacking, trash that needs burning, stickers for cars that need fetching and sticking, roofs that need mending, sheep that need drenching, and I should go on but won’t. To me, that’s the beauty of farming, the reminder that something much bigger than me is in charge of how my days are laid out before me.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time here typing, and I can see it is four o’clock already and almost dark, so I had better get going.” It seems even this task is one that takes on a life of its own, as these thoughts transfer from brain to paper. Thanks for the brain cramp, Mr. White.

HOMEGROWN Life: Dyan RedickDyan Redick describes herself as “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Her 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. Bittersweet Heritage Farm is an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food source, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.