Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Posts Tagged ‘missouri’

HOMEGROWN Life: The Gift of Good Rain

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

After months of waiting, worrying and hoping, the clouds finally arrived here at Yellabird Farm last week and brought us the long-sought gift of good rain. It was a great two days of slow and soaking moisture that the cracked soil guzzled up with gusto. Seven inches was the tally. And it has brightened up the spirits of all of us: man, woman, child, goat, chicken, cow, clover, oak tree, frog, songbird. The whole living community around here is crying out with joy.

Just like the Earth breaking from sleep in the spring, this soaking rain has brought the farm back to life. Alfalfa has shot to the sky in the past few days. Many grasses have re-emerged. The dust has settled, at least for now.

The rain even brought up some edible wild mushrooms, a special summer rain treat.

And while the feel-good moisture has perked up life throughout West Missouri, it also leaves me with a lot of questions about how to proceed. If it took a massive slow-moving Hurricane named Isaac to finally quench the thirst of a broad agricultural region, what can the agricultural community do to be more resilient in the face of drought?

I have had a very different set of experiences and education than many of my neighbors. My thirty-five years have been an era of ecological awareness and science-based education. I have even worked as part of the environmental and conservation movement throughout my career. This was my path back to the farm; the path of trying to find the right place for humans to live in and with the world without unnecessarily harming other creatures (human or nonhuman).

It is an outcome of this path that leads me to my greatest fear as a beginning farmer. I’m afraid that the drought we just experienced, followed by massive rain events, could become a more frequent weather pattern due to a changing climate. And the climate is changing partially because of our industrial agriculture practices. We have worked hard for more than a hundred years now to pump additional carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by consuming fossil fuels and using petroleum based fertilizers. We have concentrated our livestock and their manure into greenhouse gas emission factories in the form of feedlots and indoor poultry and pork confinements. Pumping all of that extra gas out into the atmosphere has consequences as the chemical makeup of the air changes. So we shall see what the long-term impacts are.

This is a tricky and sticky discussion because weather is always in flux. Weather is a highly local thing. You simply can’t blame single weather events on increased greenhouse gases. There have always been droughts and hurricanes and floods. But adding up the weather trends over a long period time is what we call climate. And climate, as  anyone looking at the long-term trends can see, is clearly changing. Summers are hotter over broad swaths of  agricultural areas. Summer are also dryer. Plants and pests have shifted their habitats further north (at least in the Northern Hemisphere).

These are the things I see all around me every day on the farm, and they are the core of a worry that I hear too little about in agricultural circles. In the context of a changing climate, how will we practice farming and agriculture? How will we feed ourselves and our communities? These are the questions we will have to struggle with even as  many in the farming community refused to see the problem standing right in front of us.

Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer and rural economic development entrepreneur. He works with his family to raise organic vegetables, beef, lamb, chickens, goats and manage the bottomland forest woodlot in Western Missouri. He has helped to launch numerous social enterprises including a sustainable wood processing cooperative, a dairy goat cheese processing facility and a conservation-based land management company that incentivizes carbon sequestration in forests and grasslands. Bryce currently co-owns the Root Cellar Grocery in Downtown Columbia, Missouri, where the local food store operates a weekly produce subscription program, the Missouri Bounty Box (www.missouribountybox.com). Bryce, along with 135 other farmers, sells his produce through this program.

 

 

HOMEGROWN Life: More on the Drought

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Out here in the Farm Belt, it’s hard to do much other than beat the
same drum again and again (and again). It’s hot. It’s dry. Nothing is
growing. We’re running out of water. And there is no sign of change on
the horizon.

As farmers, we all take risks. We’re part of the hallowed class of job
creators, entrepreneurs, small business owners or whatever else
becomes the soup-of-the-day political rhetoric about working and
living and spreading money around our communities. All of us farmers,
large and small, are a big part of the engine that drives the economy
of rural communities, rural counties and rural states.

This year, we are learning a lot about what happens when that engine
sputters. What happens when farmers have very little to sell?

On my multigenerational family farm here in West Missouri, we have a
daily discussion about how we’re going to make it through. The grass
we need to feed our herd of cattle and sheep and goats is simply not
around. We had a very tiny hay crop to tide us over through winter,
but we’ve already dug deep into that hay supply to make it through
this summer. We could purchase grain to feed our livestock through the
lean times, but grain prices are skyrocketing due to corn and bean
crop failures all over the Midwest. So, we really have no choice but
to sell off much of the herd until there is more to eat. Then, wait
for rain and grass growth once again.

In normal years, or even decent years, we’re not even close to being
overstocked. We nearly always have more of a problem of keeping up
with the grass rather than having enough grass for our livestock to
eat. We usually have to mow off top growth just to maintain pasture
quality and don’t even need the extra hay.

The plan of selling off livestock to make it through sounds simple
enough, but for my Dad it hurts. He’s a few years out from retirement
from his day job and a big part of his retirement plan is to get the
farm paid for so that he can have a decent income from the cow-calf
operation in his retirement years. Cutting the cattle herd from 85
head down to 35 or 40 is a big hit in projected annual income from
calf sales.

And let’s not forgot, we’re not on our own on some island of drought.
Broad swaths of the Farm Belt are in the same condition and making the
same decisions. There’s no hay to buy. Cattle prices are dropping
quickly as more farmers start to liquidate their herds. Our collective
crisis means that we’re all making individual decisions for survival
that end up causing the problem to get worse (lots of cattle hitting
the market at once leads to low prices and low farm income–this while
beef prices are likely to go up at the grocery store for consumers).

Enter the need for those “pesky” rules, regulations, incentives and
spending we call the Federal Farm Bill. The Farm Bill theoretically
helps farmers make it through these kinds of situations. The truth is,
though, it provides support for a very narrow group of farmers: row
croppers. Corn, cotton, soybean, rice and wheat farmers have both crop
disaster insurance and weather insurance to help. They also have
direct payments (crop subsidies) to help them through. The federal
government pays out billions each year to make sure these crop
producers can get back in the fields each spring and keep the wheels
of the commodity monoculture system moving full speed ahead.

I’m not attempting to paint a picture here about the moral fallacy of
row croppers. It’s just that livestock and vegetable farmers like me
are fighting for crumbs of farm bill spending while row croppers
experience a robust system of government support and aid. There are
good programs to help with conserving water and soil and enhancing
wildlife habitat, but those programs are horribly underfunded and
nearly always on the chopping block in farm policy debates.

I suppose it’s a sign of the times that here in Austerity Nation our
Congressional leaders are in a standstill over federal farm policy,
drought assistance and the coming elections. The Farm Bill is set for
renewal expiring at the end of 2012, but the Republican House and
Democratic Senate can’t come to an agreement about how to extend the
farm bill past this year (it’s typically a 5-year Farm Bill). The
drought of 2012 was a big carrot for Congressional action on the bill.
But this week, House leaders attempted to cram through drought relief
by cutting spending on some of those same conservation programs
livestock and produce farmers love. They tried to make even more cuts
than would have offset the price tag of the drought assistance bill.

This little situation is just proof of where our politics has been
headed for some time. Very wealthy row crop farmers enjoy untouchable
and unquestioned government support while programs that assist
livestock producers and so-called “specialty crop” producers are on
the chopping block. Row croppers generally have large farms totaling
thousands of acres; livestock and vegetable farmers are much, much
smaller. In other words, we’re on a track of cutting programs for the
many in order to pay for continued support of the handful of wealthy
elite at the top of the economic pyramid.

That’s an old story that courses through the river of human history.
We shall see how it turns out this time. We’ll see if it rains on time
to save our pastures and foragelands. We’ll see if it’s possible to
get our fall veggies in the ground. Right now, it’s all about waiting
around in the hundred degree heat saying “we’ll see.”

Bryce is a farmer, father, writer and rural economic development entrepreneur. He works with his family to raise organic vegetables, beef, lamb, chickens, goats and manage the bottomland forest woodlot in Western Missouri. He has helped to launch numerous social enterprises including a sustainable wood processing cooperative, a dairy goat cheese processing facility and a conservation-based land management company that incentivizes carbon sequestration in forests and grasslands. Bryce currently co-owns the Root Cellar Grocery in Downtown Columbia, Missouri, where the local food store operates a weekly produce subscription program, the Missouri Bounty Box (www.missouribountybox.com). Bryce, along with 135 other farmers, sells his produce through this program.

 

Farm Aid provides resources for family farmers in crisis. Go to www.farmaid.org/disaster for more information and learn how you can help. Donate to Farm Aid’s Family Farm Disaster Fund at www.farmaid.org/disasterfund

HOMEGROWN Life: Living The Dream (Sort of). Drought On The Farm

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

I am one of those people that does not actually believe the grass is greener on the other side of the hill. I am neither pessimist nor optimist. I am full of passions and gut-wrenching opinion but understand that others feel the same way. I am not a judge. I have a hard time with black-and-white thinking.

So that is some context for a rant I wanted to leave you with on this Independence Day: I want to rant about drought.

Drought is hard on us out here in Farm Country. But drought in the midst of boiling hot summer is amongst the worst conditions I can imagine. At this point in West Missouri we’re numerous inches behind on rain for the average year. (Note–I am not trying to be un-precise here. It’s just that we’ve had so many spot-showers it’s hard to
specific. On my farm, we’ve had right at 3 inches of rain since April 1st. April-May-June being a bulwark of the year’s annual precipitation jolt–between 12-15 inches per year on average. Some farmers have gotten more, others less). We normally get around 40 inches of rain per year, but maybe we need to get around to figuring out the “new
normal.”

Since I’ve moved home to where I grew up last Fall, I’ve already experienced 2 droughts. One was the Fall of 2011 where farmers in the area sold off many cows and other animals due to lack of pond water and low hay yields. The other is now 2012 Spring on the heels of a mild and gentle winter. While local winter wheat yields made the great
leap forward, corn and beans are going to be non-existent. Hay crops had the great promise of many cuttings (some people were cutting hay in March and early April–that’s unheard of around here) but now our pastures are parched and won’t grow a bit until rains and sub-90-degree temperatures return.

The lack of rain and poor preparation for drought are likely intensified on a vegetable operation. Piping in water is a fine thing, but there is nothing like a good slow and soaking rain to let plants get established and healthy. We have not had that. Many of us have waited and waited and waited to transplant our seedlings into the field so that soil moisture isn’t completely decimated. And if we got rain, it was too late. Now, temperatures are above 95 degrees with heat indices of above 100 for a couple of weeks. There is no sign of relief.

Local farmers, whether they be of the row-crop or livestock or homestead type, have a couple of rules that they count on. First, there is always (nearly always) a Fourth of July Storm that makes the corn. Second, there is a State Fair Rain that finishes everything up and gives us some relief before Fall. These “rules” for local agriculture exist upon the heels of a wet and friendly spring. This year we were dry in the pre-season, staggered early, remained stunted
throughout the mid-season and are looking at a long-term forecast that is very scary.

Hauling and pumping water to garden and farm plants has to be one of the most insanity-producing tasks of humanity. Yes, plants need water. But the human work of moving water to parch the thirst of plants is a
frustrating, time-consuming and resource draining job. I hate it. I know I have to do it, but usually it’s a supplemental activity rather than the main event. It seems to be the definition of futility. That’s because I’ve already been watering for months. Watering to keep the plants alive. Then the heat sets in, the deep and red-hot heat, and
all of that water and all of that work whither and die. That’s before harvest and cashing in to earn whatever income was projected to come in. I’ve got all of the expense, and none of the pay-out.

I’ve said it before and know that the lesson needs to keep being repeated. We learn a lot about our farming systems when we’re in marginal production times. I’ve learned that I need to invest in irrigation systems that move water most efficiently to actually help solve this challenge. Thank goodness I’ve been awarded a contract with USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) conservation program to help me pay for it.

Still, it’s a hard lesson to learn. Row croppers around here are protected by crop insurance programs that will keep them producing crops next year. Livestock and veggie farmers like myself don’t have that kind of safety net. We are left to off-farm work and toil and living on fumes to make it until next year’s planting season. We know it will rain eventually. But when?

I say all of this not to complain about being a farmer. It’s a pretty good life, despite the challenges. But I want to give you a look into the brain of a semi-mad young farmer trying hard to learn his craft. Drought is pain, and pain hurts. My great worry is that Spring/Summer drought is now the rule instead of the exception. My great worry is that I thought I was moving back home to the Osage Plains climate where I grew up. Instead, it appears as if I’ve moved to a climate that has shifted to something more like that of San Antonio, Texas. That’s not the same thing.

Bryce is a farmer, father, writer and rural economic development entrepreneur. He works with his family to raise organic vegetables, beef, lamb, chickens, goats and manage the bottomland forest woodlot in Western Missouri. He has helped to launch numerous social enterprises including a sustainable wood processing cooperative, a dairy goat cheese processing facility and a conservation-based land management company that incentivizes carbon sequestration in forests and grasslands. Bryce currently co-owns the Root Cellar Grocery in Downtown Columbia, Missouri, where the local food store operates a weekly produce subscription program, the Missouri Bounty Box (www.missouribountybox.com). Bryce, along with 135 other farmers, sells his produce through this program.