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HOMEGROWN Life: Farmer Dyan Gets a Four-Legged Valentine

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015



Oh, Romeo, Romeo.

Is there anything more endearing than a newborn lamb?

Meet my Romeo!












I made the decision last fall not to breed the ewes and to take a year off from lambing. Last winter was tough. We had a lot of snow and it was frigid for weeks on end, sort of like this winter. But when January came rolling around, even with blizzard after blizzard threatening, I started missing lambs.

dyan2I called Brian, my farming mentor and friend. I told him my plight. He just laughed. As one animal nut to another, he understood. So, I put in my order for a ram lamb. I even told him if he had one that needed bottle raising, I’d take it. Two days before Valentine’s, I got the call. His ewe Marianne had twins but no milk. I drove over to take a look. Romeo came home with me two days later.

It happened to be Valentine’s Day—thus the name. So, Romeo has joined the Bittersweet flock.

I’ve raised lambs on bottles, but only ones who just couldn’t get the knack of nursing. I bottle fed them, but they lived with their moms out on pasture and in the sheep barn. Raising a lamb inside, sharing your home with and being the one on whom a lamb relies for everything, is a different kind of commitment and a 24-hour-a-day job.


It took just 24 hours for Romeo to steal my heart. I love that he follows me around the house, his tiny hooves clipping along behind me. Lambs grow very quickly, so even though he’s small enough now to sit in my lap and nap or enjoy his bottle, I know that, in a few short weeks, he’ll be (almost) too big to do that.

I also already know I’ll miss it. So, when he calls from his playpen, simply because he wants to come sit with me, I’m happy to oblige. It seems a small thing to ask. After all, it wasn’t his choice to have a strange human be a substitute for his real mom. For now, I’ll let the dust bunnies have their way with the corners. The laundry can be done another day. I have a baby lamb to cuddle.

dyan3Looking outside my window, with snow swirling around and the day coming to an end, my world is blessed with a lamb sitting on my lap as I type these words. I can feel his tiny heart beating and hear his baby breath flowing in and out of his newborn chest. Let the snow fly, let banks of white stuff pile up outside my door. Thanks, winter. It’s time for lambs.


HOMEGROWN-life-ireland-4Dyan 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: Deciding Which Vegetable Varieties to Grow

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015


HOMEGROWN-LIFE-LT-GREENAnother year has come to an end. The seed catalogs are rolling in, and as I sit here drooling over them, I keep coming across new, exciting vegetable varieties that I just have to try.

There’s a part of my brain that’s screaming at the rest of it: “Don’t fix what isn’t broken!” Year after year, I post about what I’ve learned, and one of the recurring themes is to stick with the things I know work for our area—not to risk losing productivity because I’m feeling adventurous. But really, what fun is that?

Vegetable VarietiesThere are some things I’m set on keeping the same. The Orangeglo watermelon and Bidwell Casaba have been very kind to me, unlike most other watermelon and melon varieties, so those are here to stay for the long haul. Catskill Brussels Sprouts will also probably stick around. There seem to be so few varieties of heirloom sprouts, and these do the best.

I always say not to mess around with our corn selection. We grow Bloody Butcher corn, which has served us well. It gets HUGE and gives us multiple relatively long ears on each stalk. The corn can be used fresh, or you can let it mature into a dent corn. After a failed attempt at saving seed from it and coming to the realization that we just don’t have enough space to save corn seed and avoid inbreeding depression, I’ve decided to expand my corn-growing horizons to include a flour corn, a sweet corn, and a popcorn.

Unfortunately, there’s no fast way to determine which varieties you should grow for all vegetables. Your best bet is to find varieties that were developed in areas that have a similar climate to where you live. For instance, Italian varieties will probably do best in coastal California, where we have the same basic climate. Russian varieties might serve you well if you live in colder areas. If you have a short season, choose varieties that mature quickly. This, of course, can take some research to figure out. For cool season crops, you’ll want to make sure they have enough time to develop before warm weather hits. For warm season crops, you want to give them time before the frosts come. Seed packets and catalogs include a number, usually next to the name or after the description, denoting that variety’s average number of days to maturity.

When it comes to latitude, rather than season length, onions are much more specific than most other vegetables about where they can grow. Varieties will either be long day, short day, or intermediate. If you live north of 35 degrees latitude (draw a line from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to approximate), you’ll want to grow long-day onions. South of that, grow short-day onions. If you’re just on either side of that latitude, you can grow intermediate onions. I’ve also had good luck with long-day onions here on the 35th parallel.

Besides climate, you’ll also want to look at the size, yield, and disease resistance. If late blight is a problem in your area, choose vegetable varieties that have some resistance. If you have a small garden, choose compact or high-yielding varieties to make the most of your space.

Or you can do what I like to do and just pick a bunch of varieties to try and see which ones do best. Good luck!


Rachel on Vegetable VarietiesRachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!


HOMEGROWN Life: The Problem with Pedestals

Thursday, January 8th, 2015


HOMEGROWN-LIFE-YELLOWIt’s cold outside, people. Winter is here, and while it’s right on time, it means quite a bit of staring-out-the-window daydreaming for those of us used to gawking at the geese and the deer and hawks from their natural habitat: outside. Oh, there are still animals to feed and water to check, but many of the other chores have to wait.

I get antsy in the winter. Here it is, the first true subzero temps we’ve had in West Missouri, and I’m already getting cabin fever. But patience must be had. We’ll get some warm days here and there, although a long February and probably March looms cold and dreary. Patience. Patience.


In weather like this, my thoughts turn to two poles: one devoted to planning and anticipation for the spring and summer to come, the other stuck on the past. It’s the past—and with it, a reflection on the duality of farm life—that I can’t get out of my head today and that I’d like to share with you.

My ruminating got started by a great piece written by James Fallows for The Atlantic. Fallows’s article is about American attitudes and reverence for the military, despite the fact that very few of us actually have anything to do with the military itself. It’s worth a read.

What I can’t stop returning to is a passage where Fallows makes a comparison with the American farming sect:

“Now the American military is exotic territory to most of the American public. As a comparison: A handful of Americans live on farms, but there are many more of them than serve in all branches of the military. (Well over 4 million people live on the country’s 2.1 million farms. The U.S. military has about 1.4 million people on active duty and another 850,000 in the reserves.) The other 310 million–plus Americans ‘honor’ their stalwart farmers, but generally don’t know them. So too with the military. Many more young Americans will study abroad this year than will enlist in the military—nearly 300,000 students overseas, versus well under 200,000 new recruits.”

In a way, this is odd territory for those of us who live and work out here in the middle of Farm Country. We are farmers. We know farmers. We are surrounded by farmers and farming operations. That’s the way it has always been, at least since our ancestors occupied the place we call home.

Yet we are also members of broader American society. Most ofarf us work off the farm to support our families. The younger (and even some older) members of our community carry around smartphones and travel miles to eat sushi. We have a notion of Times Square in New York, South Beach in Miami, and the Vegas Strip.

I’m struck by the question of how this all happens. How can such a large part of the American economy—that’s agriculture—be so hidden to the larger society? How can so many Americans speak so highly of American farmers when they know so little about our lives and our communities?


For the sake of comparison, I’m going to pick on the gigantically popular ratings monster that is the NFL. Football games consistently rank among the most-watched shows on TV. Sports radio stations abound. There are all kinds of podcasts related to pro football, college football, and high school football. Millions of people play fantasy football and gamble on various aspects of the game. Super Bowl Sunday might as well be a holiday in American society.

And while agriculture is much more calm and stark and slow than the gladiatorial spectacle that is football, it’s interesting to look at the numbers. I’m going to list some revenues for our Missouri-based teams here for your information. First, the Kansas City Chiefs’ franchise value and revenue, as reported by Forbes. The Chiefs come in 24th in a league of 32 teams, with a 2013 revenue of $260 million. The St. Louis Rams, on the other side of the state, came in at $250 million in revenue. That’s $510 million in combined revenue for a state with two big cities and two NFL franchises.

So, let’s compare that number with Missouri agricultural revenue. I’m going to choose cattle sales, since it’s our farm’s economic engine. It’s too early yet to get USDA economic reports for 2014, so I’m going to make some estimates.

First, you have to estimate how many calves were sold in 2014. The Missouri Agriculture Statistics Services, a part of the USDA, reports that 1,820,000 beef cattle reside on Missouri farms. If we assume that most of those momma cows would birth a calf, and that slightly more than half would be sold (some female calves are kept back to either increase herd size or replace aging animals), we’re left with approximately 1 million calves hitting the market.

Now for prices. I’m going to use an average price in 2014 of $2 per pound for calves. This is a historical high, and for a good chunk of the year, calves sold for even more than this for a lot of reasons: smaller national herd size due to drought and grassland conversion to cropland, continued strong demand for beef on the international market, etc. So, if you convert the sale of calves at something like 600 pounds each (some sell at higher weights) at $2 per pound with 1 million calves sold, you reach a whopping $1.2 billion in cattle revenue in Missouri.


I’m not surprised that the amount of money generated by Missouri agriculture is much higher than that of the state’s two NFL franchises. But remember, I’m only talking here about a single aspect. Calves are just one part of the beef system, which is just one part of the big picture of farming in Missouri. I haven’t included the sale of corn or soybeans or cotton or rice or hogs or dairy or wood products or poultry. I haven’t even included the sale of older cows or finished beef ready to be sold as steaks and burgers. Remember, too, that Missouri is a diverse agricultural state and not the king of any of these farm products. Iowa and Illinois we are not.

By now, you’re probably wondering about the need for going through this mental exercise with me. Is it really interesting or important or even accurate to start threading together a comparison of the military with agriculture and football? What’s the point? I’m still trying to figure it out myself.

Part of the answer, such as it is, has something to do with a couple of arguments that have stuck in my memory—maybe because they don’t quite ring true for me.

The first one is a repeated conversation I’ve had with several middling-to-older age farmers right here at home, my dad included. I have heard them say, independent of each other, how much better off the football program at our public university—that’s the Mizzou Tigers—could be with a few roster spots reserved for small-town and farm players. Maybe they would never see the field, the thinking goes, but they would improve the “morality and culture” of the otherwise troubled group of young adults we root for on Saturdays.

The second comes from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, whom I heard at the National Rural Summit in 2010, as well as on other occasions, lay out his version of why rural America provides a much larger proportion of military careerists than other Americans. Vilsack’s line is an attempt to debunk a long-held belief that, in the modern era of a volunteer military, it’s not that rural Americans join the armed forces because we lack economic opportunities. It’s that rural Americans have a superior sense of “service” compared to other Americans. Vilsack has made it a repeated theme in his public comments to explain that while only 16 percent of Americans come from rural areas, 40 percent of American military service members come from rural areas.


What I’m concerned about is the notion of “exceptionalism” with respect to all three communities: the military professionals, the farmers, and even the footballers. We erect a fortress of reverence around each in our society, making criticism and questioning tantamount to betrayal or even treason. In trying to reconcile these seemingly confusing themes, I’m left with a few thoughts:

1.) American farmers, like American military professionals, are generally good folks. The vast majority are good people who provide important roles and sacrifices for our communities. That role should be celebrated.

2.) Outside of their work—I’m talking about their personal lives here, not their service—American farmers, like American military professionals, should not be put on a pedestal above Americans.

3.) It is wildly unfair and creates a lot of society-wide problems to hold certain populations—in this case, farmers and soldiers—as “superior” to others.

At the end of the day, I hope we can move past these preconceived notions of moral superiority. In returning to the Fallows article, I would hope we can break through some of the same misunderstandings and romanticisms of farmers as morally superior beings.


Let me be 100 percent clear: We should celebrate and revere our nation’s farmers. But we should also be able to question our paths moving forward. That’s our task as members of a democratic society. Some of us might need to spend more time and effort getting to know the people who raise our food. Others of us, those who try our hardest to raise good food and generate a strong economy for our communities, might need to spend some time listening to the people who buy our products. Maybe there’s something to learn if we take the time to talk to each other—normal humans, responding the best we can.

That’s all I’ve got. Happy New Year! Let’s see what happens in 2015.

HOMEGROWN-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.