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HOMEGROWN Life: Girls Versus Boys? Not on the Homestead

Friday, June 20th, 2014


HOMEGROWN-LIFE-MAGENTAWhen some people hear the word “homesteader,” they jump to conclusions, some right, some wrong. Like me, you may have dispelled a number of assumptions and perhaps piqued some people’s curiosity. Despite preconceptions, this is not an antiquated way of life. Even though I choose to use throwback skills and good, old-fashioned hard work, I find certain aspects of homesteading way ahead of their time. Take raising kids, for example. Homesteading can get a bad wrap for being gendered, or worse, but I’d argue it’s just the opposite.


Here’s what I mean: How many people teach their daughters skills that, in some households and areas, would be considered for boys only—and vice versa? On homesteads, our girls often learn carpentry by building coops and shelters, and our boys learn to can a harvest and mend a hole by sewing it up. This is a normal day for many of us but a revolutionary way to raise children in a world that, even now, holds certain expectations. Our kids generally come up doing more hard work than other kids (at least where we live, though certainly not everywhere), learning unconventional skills, and developing an appreciation for animals—and a practicality towards them as well. I suppose it’s not the norm, but to us, it’s life. And I like it that way.


When my kids were fairly young, my father and I took them both fishing. This was, to me, a rite of passage. I started fishing with my dad when I was young, as did my sister. It wasn’t a “boy” thing to us. It was simply our life (although my sister was NOT a fan). We’ve fished every year since, and last year I looked down the bank of the Yellowstone River in Montana and smiled. There, right next to me, up to their waists in water, were my daughter, son, and stepson.

My parents were not ones for teaching us “girl” skills only. My father was determined that, even though he had all girls, we wouldn’t be helpless damsels in distress. I learned plumbing basics, how to change the brakes on my car, and how to change the oil. I learned to listen for a knock in the engine and how to strip paint off of a 1980 Cadillac Coupe de Ville (aka my Mack Daddy Caddy). Years later, all of these skills would be more useful than I ever imagined when I became a single mom, solely responsible for a farmhouse and two kids.

Because of this, I’ve never thought much about differing what my girl would learn versus my boy. They have equal chores at home, both help cook, and both scoop chicken poop. I grew up hearing stories from my grandmom about her and my great-grandmom’s duties on the ranch. They planted and harvested, plowed and cooked. They hunted and skinned, fished and washed. There were no lines, no boundaries for them. Then again, my great-grandmom settled on land in Wyoming when it was still very difficult for women to do so most other places. Wyoming figured that if you could last five years in that terrain, you deserved land ownership!

This year, my daughter will be driving. She will be trained the same as I was: change your own oil, learn to change a tire, change your own brakes so that no one takes you for a ride. Know what you’re asking for in an automotive parts store. If nothing else, the store clerks will be impressed, and you’ll feel good about it. In addition to that, she’ll learn how to filet a fish herself and how to milk a goat.

My boy will learn those things alongside his sister and stepbrother, taught by my dad and their stepdad. But he’ll also be called into the kitchen to make dough and pasta and will learn to knit, the same way his sister did.


There are no lines in our homestead parenting, not between girl and boy or who contributes what. In addition to my upbringing, I chose this life for another reason. It’s human, not relegated to sex or race. It’s because the life we lead brings a certain toughness with it, a toughness I don’t feel kids get in school anymore. Like many of you, I’d imagine, when I was a kid, life wasn’t conducted with kid gloves. We learned about heartache from firsthand experience and notes passed in hallways, not plastered on Twitter and Facebook. Life on a homestead or ranch teaches kids about tough decisions, unpopular choices, hard work, and its results. They see death, they witness pecking orders. They develop a resilience and respect for life, whether they’re boys or girls.

This weekend, while we all fish and put the roof on the chicken run, I will be thinking of our homesteading predecessors. I will be thankful that, while they may have maintained certain gender roles, they weren’t limited by them. Pioneering homestead women and men were far ahead of their time. I guess some things never change.

HOMEGROWN-life-michelleAlthough she’s something of a newbie homesteader herself, Michelle comes from serious pioneer stock: Her great-grandmother literally wrote the book. It’s this legacy, in part, that led Michelle to trade in her high-stress life for a home on the grounds of a Pennsylvania CSA farm. You can read her monthly posts on beginner homesteading with kids and more here in HOMEGROWN Life, and sometimes you can find her popping up in The Stew, HOMEGROWN’s member blog.


HOMEGROWN Life: Farmer Bryce on Why Water Is a Privilege and What That Means for the Midwest

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014


HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150Today I want to talk about privilege—the privilege of access to water, in particular. Lest I ramble on too long and start to lose you (hey, we’re all human), eventually I’m going to get to a point about water, agriculture, and climate change, and I might debunk some conventional wisdom in the process.

I started thinking about privilege in response to some important information released yesterday by the Obama administration, the National Climate Assessment. This report documents the most up-to-date scientific assessments we have so far regarding what our carbon-enhanced atmosphere is going to bring about in the next few decades. The findings are clear: Average temperatures are going to increase, droughts are going to increase, flooding is going to increase, and different regions are going to experience very different impacts. Tom Philpott at Mother Jones posted an interesting and informative summary of the report just this morning.

How does that relate to privilege? In a way, my home state of Missouri is located in a privileged spot, at the convergence of the Great Plains, the Midwest, and the Upland South. And those of us living between the Rockies and the Appalachian Mountains are privileged to grow a lot of the corn, soy, wheat, beef, pork, poultry, and beyond that makes up much of what people eat. There’s a lot of climatic diversity to the region. It’s much drier to the west and much wetter to the east. But compared to, say, our water-starved agricultural brethren in California’s Central Valley, we’re lucky to get a good amount of rainfall and aren’t dependent on irrigation-based systems fueled by snowmelt.

So it’s incredibly important for us to be concerned about changes in weather patterns as we continue to grow the things that make up the foundation of our food system. I’m not going to focus here on whether corn and soy monocultures and confinement indoor livestock systems are efficient or ethical, because clearly they’re not. Instead, I’d like to discuss how the climatic disruption we’re experiencing, due to a supercharged atmosphere filled with greenhouse gases released by the burning of fossil fuels, poses some serious questions about the future of farming and agriculture.


The equation for any kind of farming system = productive, nutrient-rich soils + sunshine x climatic influence + the introduction of moisture. Given that the sunshine and the climatic influence and, to some extent, the soil is beyond our control, I’m going to concentrate on moisture (as in water) for the rest of today.

Water is as crucial to our lives as oxygen. We humans are approximately 60 to 70 percent water. So are the other mammals with which we share the Earth. Plants are more like 90 percent water. As a dominant species in the current geological age, we humans readily manipulate the water cycle, determining which plants and animals have access to the climate’s water supply. This is the system of agriculture we have developed. We have created very complicated and elegant systems for managing the flow and the distribution of water, both as it rolls down the mountainsides from snowmelt and as it falls from the sky as rain. We even pump underground water out of the geological deposits below Earth’s surface and use it to supplement surface water flows.

On my farm, we raise livestock. The animals require a substantial volume of water to grow healthy and marketable. Cows and sheep and goats graze the growing plants watered by rainfall to put on pounds and/or make milk for their babies. We  supplement their diets with grain grown by regional farmers who grow their crops from naturally occurring rains.

We also raise vegetables. These plants are watered by a combination of natural rains and an irrigation system that collects surface water in ponds, storing it for those times between rainfall when we have to pump water onto the vegetables. The irrigation system also feeds into stock tanks from which the cows, sheep, and goats drink daily to satisfy their water consumption needs.

But what is water consumption? Is it really consumption in the same way we treat modern fossil fuel consumption? Here’s where the debunking comes in: I truly don’t understand how the environmental community can think of water the same way it does energy use.

I don’t know about you, but I drink a lot of water. In fact, my one pet peeve is when people don’t drink enough water. Sure, drinking gallons a day means I weigh more than I would otherwise, and I probably look more bloated than your average 175-pound man. But I don’t feel right if I don’t have a steady drip to keep me moving. And if you’ve got a headache or aren’t feeling well, I’m going to tell you that you probably need to drink more water.

But is this water lost? No. My drinking water comes from local rainfall. It’s collected either by runoff from the Adrian City Lake or by pumping from the South Grand River. It’s treated by the Adrian Municipal Water Plant then pumped through the pipes of Bates County Rural Water District Number 5 to my farm. I turn on the tap and drink it up. Then it goes directly onto my lawn and pastures (that’s where I tend to “release” my body’s excess water) or into the septic tank, where ultimately the water is used by plants. If there’s runoff, it goes down a couple of feeder creeks before heading back to the South Grand River.

So we borrow water from the South Grand River. It flows back after it is borrowed. Sure, there’s a degree of evaporation. But is it that much? And if so, doesn’t evaporated water eventually fall somewhere?

I guess I’m saying all of this because I believe that water management is a crucial component to how we’ll forge a better agricultural system in a disrupted climate. Those of us in the places where ample water falls from the sky, even with periods of flooding and drought, need to prepare ourselves for more intensive farming. Maybe we Missourians need to prepare ourselves to take the place of California as the region’s “vegetable basket.”


Here’s the thing: Agriculture takes place in a working landscape. We have to remember that and tailor policies and programs that limit the pollution of our critical water flows. Is it really true that my family’s cow-calf herd uses hundreds of pounds of water per pound of beef produced? I say no, because the cows drink from waterers fed by the pond. Then they urinate on their pastures, helping the grass grow so that a couple of months later they, or the sheep or the goats, will have more grass to eat. When they eat hay and grain, we collect the so-called waste and use it as bedding and compost to enrich our soils and help those soils hold more rain.

Don’t get me wrong. I want to be clear: I don’t believe the Middle American Farm Belt is doing it right for now. I don’t think pumping the Ogallala Aquifer dry is the right path forward. I don’t think industrial livestock and monocultures are the way to go. I don’t think creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is a good thing. I do think we need to take the time to perform a deeper analysis of the way water flows through our agricultural system. If we decide to perform our agricultural acts correctly, and if we align incentives with an understanding of how the working landscape can best manage agricultural production, maybe we can continue to feed a growing population without a lot of social disruption that might otherwise come from the predicted climate change.

So, let me say this again: Those of us living in the water-privileged areas are going to have to shoulder a bigger burden moving forward. Let’s be ready, thinking about the kind of farming and water management systems we’ll need to do it most effectively. We might not be blessed with an abundance of ocean coastline or mountains to climb, but we do have an abundance of naturally falling water we can use to grow the things all of humanity needs to eat. And as long as we do it right, we’ll have enough water to swim in for a break from the summer heat. We might even have enough left over to grow some flowers or brew some beer.

Because is life really worth living if we don’t have swimming holes, bottles of beer, and geraniums?

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: 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.


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.