Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Archive for the ‘Farming’ Category

HOMEGROWN Life: County Fair Season Is Here

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150If you are a born and bred keeper of livestock, there are certain rights of passage that our agricultural system expects you to participate in. One of these is the annual cycle of county-based livestock breeding competitions we’ve come to celebrate in the form of county fairs.

For those not in the know, agriculturally driven counties have a strong tradition of holding summer convenings, where farmers get together in common spaces to compare their outputs, eat some fried junk food, and yuk it up in overalls and cowboy hats. (My people tend toward overalls, which we pronounce “over-hauls.”) The county fair is a celebrated institution. It’s an outgrowth of the kind of mindset that’s driven to grow more food, raise “better” breeding stock, use science and the understanding of genetics to learn from one another, and show off what we do on our individual farms.

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Knowing our history is key to understanding how things work in the modern world. One-hundred-plus years ago, the country life movement helped inject professionalization, scientific inquiry, and educated competition into our agricultural system. The county fair is part of that great legacy as are the county-based, university-educated professionals who would live and work throughout the rural population, helping train a new generation of farmers. County-extension programs, as well as 4H, FFA, and other groups represent this history today.

My two boys, and my nieces and nephews, take part in our local 4H scene. As a family, we have a longstanding history of participating in and supporting the Bates County Fair, in Bates County, Missouri. It really is a sight to behold. Dozens and dozens of local youth work with their families to produce projects and livestock that demonstrate our agricultural capacity. There are contests for vegetable production, hog production, beef production, quilting, woodworking, jam making, photography, and even singing/performance art to wow the parents and grandparents.

The whole system is a beautiful conglomeration of hard work and community-minded spirit. It’s got some publicly financed support (that’s the university-driven outreach and extension system), but the primary driver is farmers and rural businesses working hard to create an event that serves and promotes youth entrepreneurship. Parents, grandparents, and small business owners have a stake in supporting the next generation of farmers.

This year my boys will be showing off their farming chops by participating in the goat- and swine-production contests. They’ll also be raising potatoes and tomatoes and peppers. And taking some photos, too.

Do we expect to win? No. Winning generally means spending thousands of dollars on breeding stock and high-powered feeds. We are in it for the experience rather than the competition side of the equation. I’m just glad they want to participate in the continuing agricultural legacy of the county fair system.

Plus, they have chores to accomplish every day. My boys are athletic and academic in nature. I was the same way. As farmers, we have to find ways to entice our young people to round out their education with daily activities that demonstrate a different way of living. Do your geometry. Work on your soccer footwork. But also feed your pig and make sure it has clean water.

It’s not the only way to live in the modern world. But it can connect you to a very basic human need to feed ourselves and our community with food. There’s a lot to be said about the mess of agriculture and its discontents related to fossil-fuel dependency and resource consumption. But there’s also a lot to say about a kid forming a bond with a growing goat or a gilt (a female but not-yet-mothering pig). It’s a real-life connection with a growing and breathing creature that depends on us for its sustenance.

I don’t particularly care whether my kids end up winning the county fair or not. Mostly, I care that my kids understand the annual cycle of living and dying and utilizing our resources responsibly. I care that they make a connection with the living creatures around us. I care that they care about the animals and plants here on the tallgrass prairies and the bottomland hardwoods that surround us.

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.

HOMEGROWN Life: Finally! Signs of Spring on the Farm

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN LifeMornings in Maine come softly and quietly. My days begin with tending flocks and herds. Then Penny, my English Cocker Spaniel, and I slip up to Harborside Market for a cup of coffee before heading to Marshall Point Lighthouse. As Penny runs along the rocky beach, across the hills surrounding the lighthouse, and through the woods behind, I sit on a granite bench engraved with a local family’s name. I drink in my coffee and the view. Islands dot the watery landscape. It’s March, and they’re still dusted in white.

shapeimage_2 I take time to do this each day. It’s more than just the dog needing to stretch her legs. These trips remind me of the history of the people who, for generations, have worked these waters. Likewise, there are those who have eked out an existence working the lands that hug these coasts. It’s not an existence for the faint of heart.

Sometimes, usually when I least expect it, I get rewarded for keeping at it. Small things, like a tiny newborn goat kid laying its head on my shoulder after a bottle feeding. A doe in labor, resting her chin on my knee in the stall, awaiting her new arrival. A lamb falling asleep in my lap as we sit in the sun on a hay bale. On days when my patience has worn thin from spending time repeating the same daily tasks, I’m reminded why people before me chose this life.

IMG_7493Sunrises and sunsets here remind me why artists are drawn to coastal regions. Whether a cold wintry morning or in the heat of a summer sunset, colors intensify around the water. Who cares about the weight of a hay bale when you step out the barn door and are greeted by such stunning skies?

Some people say farming is too much worry. Worry that predators, either overhead or on land, will snatch up a tiny one when you’re not looking. Worry that winter snows will never melt and uncover buried fences, leaving flocks vulnerable. Worry that the hay won’t stretch through until next season.

Worries fade when sacks of newly spun wool, rich with color from each flock member, wait by the spinning wheel. Milk sits in shiny stainless totes, so white and creamy you can’t help but pour big, tall glasses of it. Vats full of curds evolve into fresh, crumbly cheeses. Eggs in shades of every brown imaginable softly rest in nest boxes.

IMG_7668We’re moving from winter to spring on the farm. It may not feel like it or look like it when you glance out the window. But it’s in the air. The animals feel it, too. They are anxious to get back to grazing, foraging, scratching in the earth. It will feel good to have luscious green blades underfoot after such a long, cold winter. We’ll take our morning walks again through the pasture, into the edges of woods. The herd will nibble at green shoots and emerging buds. I’m happy to let them take it all in. They deserve it after a long time being stuck in coops and stalls while the snow drifted high.

IMG_1051Fishermen will lay their traps out soon. They, too, will be glad not to be cooped up. Just as the girls are being sheared for their wool, lobsters will begin appearing on a more regular basis. Witch hazel will be popping, forsythia budding.

The last vestiges of winter are fading. I’ve already received my application for Open Farm Day in July, when Maine farmers throw open their barn doors to visitors. It’s sort of like being invited aboard a lobster boat. Bittersweet will, once again, celebrate farming. I’m happy visitors can stop by, take some time, sample fresh made cheeses and farm fresh milk, ask questions about wool, and simply share what I am privileged to experience every day, on my farm by the sea.

HOMEGROWN-life-lambing-dyanDyan 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.

ALL PHOTOS: DYAN REDICK

HOMEGROWN Life: A Farmer’s Take on the Agriculture Census

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150For data nerds like me, I suppose there are few gifts that could compare with the joyous release every five years of the USDA Census of Agriculture. Given that I’m a farmer and sustainable agriculture advocate, I naturally want to track the real-time data trends about what’s happening with our nation’s agricultural scene. I’m interested in farm numbers, farm size, economic viability, the aging farm population, and more.

But what really interests me, just like in the broader social context of the wildly widening gap of economic disparity, are the differences between the median and the mean.

Inequality. It’s an important concept. So put on your social science goggles, and let’s get down to it.

Lots of people are familiar with the term “average.” In social sciences analysis, we call that the mean. Take the total amount of farm products sold in a year, divide it by the number of farmers, and you’re left with the mean. In 2012, the agriculture census tells us the mean, or “average,” amount of products sold was $187,093 per farm.

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Bryce on the farm

That sounds pretty good until you compare it with the median, which is actually much, much lower. The median is where you stack up all of a given population or wage-earning group and describe a characteristic from the middle. In this case, you’d stack all 2.1 million U.S. farmers by rank of sales per year, and the median would be farmer number 1.55 million. That’s a figure the USDA doesn’t even provide.

But here’s a signal: More than 1.6 million farmers of those total 2.1 million farmers sell less than $50,000 per year in agricultural products. That means the median is likely down in the $30- to $40-thousand level. (I’d be more precise, but this is preliminary data, and we won’t know more until all of the USDA ag census data for 2012 is released in May).

Here are some other interesting things to consider:

1.) The average size farm nationally is 434 acres per farm. The median is 80 acres.

2.) The average age of the farmer is 58.3 years old. Only 120,000 of the total 2.1 million farmers are under the age of 35.

3.) Of those 2.1 million farmers, just over half have jobs where farming is not considered their primary occupation. (This one can be confusing because farmers can have seriously low income levels but still be increasing their wealth. Also, USDA’s Economic Research Service generates annual reports demonstrating that between 82 and 95 percent of annual farm household income comes from off-farm sources.)

What does all of this mean?

Well, that requires some context to go with our content. My first thought is that agriculture is much like the rest of society. We have large levels of inequality. The larger farms are getting richer, as they’re wired through financing, cash-on-hand, equipment, and more to lock up more land that lower income farmers simply can’t afford. Those of us wanting 80 more acres for pasture and cattle and sheep can’t really outbid somebody coming in with a bulldozer, Roundup Ready beans, and lots of wealth on their balance sheet.

The larger farms are also getting richer because they have a policy situation in hand that protects them from weather and markets in a way that most small farmers do not: government-subsidized crop insurance. So larger farmers have used their wealth and power to create a political situation in their favor.

One thing I will say is that the 2012 census data for farmers isn’t an anomaly. It’s the continuation of trends that have existed for the last 40-plus years. Farmers are getting older. Big farmers (that’s primarily the row croppers) are getting bigger and richer. Small farmers are hanging in there but primarily through working off-farm jobs to pay their bills.

This sounds pretty much like the broader story of American society to me in 2014. It’s disappointing, for sure. And, no, I don’t begin to expect full equality and equal incomes. But taxing the rich and providing services and funding to the bottom 50 percent sounds like a better idea every day.

Bryce 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.