Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Posts Tagged ‘Bryce Oates’

HOMEGROWN Life: A Trip to Remember

Thursday, July 9th, 2015


Vacation is something that I have a hard time coming to terms with, something that creates a great deal of confusion.

I recently returned from a road and camping trip that began here in West Missouri and ended up visiting my wife’s sister’s family in the Puget Sound of Washington. It was in most ways awe-inspiring and life-changing. I suppose in some ways it was depressing. Whatever it was, in the end, I’m still working out. But let me say a few things regarding the perspective of a place-based farmer that cares about the complicated nature of balance between people trying to feed ourselves while leaving room for the non-human creatures with whom we share the surface of our ever-evolving home.


I haven’t had a bona fide vacation since the summer of 2011 (a trip with my family and parents to Yellowstone National Park), so this was a big deal. This is not really a complaint, more of a data point. My wife and two sons and I had been saving pennies and quarters and random dollars in a “trip jar” for about two years so we could make the trip happen. We pitched our tent and made most of our own food, traveling light though covering many miles.

As an overview, we saw the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Mesa Verde National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, Crater Lake National Park, the Oregon Dunes, and more. My wife, my hero, planned most of it and made the trip possible. If there’s an award out there for someone who inspires and takes care of what the family needs to ease tensions and feed the soul some nature-based nourishment, please let me know. I’d like to nominate her.

Anyway, back to the trip itself. Traveling through a dryer-than-seems-possible place to practice agriculture always provides interesting fodder for the farmer-minded. Colorado and Utah and Nevada, though mountainous, were full of agricultural activity. There were crops and cattle and sheep, seemingly larger than life attempts to make hay to last what have to be long and brutal mountain winters.

Mostly, I was shocked by Mesa Verde and the history of humans inhabiting and making a living in the cliff dwellings that dot the region. Before we visited, I had assumed wrongly that the agricultural practices would have occurred in the bottoms near creeks or streams. Instead, the farmers lived in the cliffs and climbed directly up to the blufftops (the “Mesa”) to tend their crops. They dryland farmed using innovative practices that certainly conserved water and directed it to the corn, beans, and squash the farm families depended on. This in an environment where trees can’t survive, other than some scrubby cedars and shrubs with limited height. To be honest, it was the desert. And while farming has long-occurred in the desert, it always boggles my Midwest/Upland Southern mind.


Couple that shock at lack of moisture with an “infrastructure” of vertical rock-climbing to go too and from the field, and it becomes obvious why we humans can collaborate and figure out how to occupy any ecological niche within the planet. We’ve got a toolbox, including farming, that helps us to engineer ways to make a living in almost any climate. While it might be a tenuous and fragile living (subject to changes in rainfall patterns and climate), we humans can figure out a diversity of strategies for hammering out communities. I say it again: Amazing, mind-blowing, inspiring, etc.

Now I’m back home, experiencing historical June/July rains and flooding. I’m still trying to sort out the details of how the travels have reinvigorated and changed me. Had to get back to work, write grants, sheer sheep, sort cattle. And all I can think about is how blessed we are to live in a society where we value special places enough to preserve them as shrines to visit.

So get out there, fellow citizens. Pitch your tents somewhere interesting. Look at the stars, smell the air somewhere. Watch the fireflies. Visit the places our ancestors have set aside for us to enjoy. We helped to invent the National Park system a few generations ago, and we need to keep them as sacred and protected places. They are our own domestic temples of inspiration. Farmer or non-farmer, country person or city person, get out there and see something new. It might change your life. If nothing else, it might confuse you in a very positive way.


HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, a father, a writer, and a conservationist in western Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multi-generational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: 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: What will be the future of agriculture?

Thursday, June 4th, 2015


HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150Drones, robots, and humans collaborating from a control room monitoring the wheat crops? Vat-grown “meats” in factories? Drinkable nutrients for the on-the-go “consumer?” People swinging pitchforks and scythes at compost parties? Tomato plants floating atop tanks of tilapia in greenhouses filled with solar-powered lighting systems?

It’s all possible, and most of the scenarios above could likely be on their way. I am torn about it.

That’s because I struggle with the concept of a technological “fix” for how we produce and process and distribute food. Technology and science and innovation are clearly one of the most important investments in how to move forward for modern society (I’m tempted to say “civilization” here, but I’m holding back). And yet, the direction of that complex of innovation investments can lead to some awful outcomes.

Take the scientific fix of how to solve the problem of sick pigs when you put thousands of them in enclosed factories. Give the pigs a steady stream of antibiotics so they don’t get sick. It’s a logical scientific response to a very narrowly defined problem. But then, years in the factory farm pig production system with people and pigs bio-accumulating the antibiotics, scientists and society have raised real concerns about the utility of our antibiotic strains remaining viable. Viruses and bacteria have evolved to become more resistant to our antibiotic supply. What happens if there is a disease outbreak and we need those valuable medicines? Too late. We used up the biological supply to prop up factory farm pig production for past thirty-odd years.

I suppose we all have our favored notion of what’s to come, what’s preferable, how we should move along the path. Mine is more people on the land farming a mix of crops and livestock, minding the recycling and biological renovation of nutrients while producing healthy food for people, and leaving room for the wildlife with whom we share the planet.  That’s already a mouthful, I know, but there also needs to be something said for economic fairness, decent pay, and incomes sufficient to support these food producers and conservationists.


The swirling of these issues comes crashing home sometimes when a news article or study or something comes along. Yesterday was such a day for me, reading a new study that offers up some interesting data for those of us wondering if our dream of local food systems could actually meet the food needs of modern America. Turns out that the answer is pretty much, “Yes.”

Professor Elliott Campbell, with the University of California, Merced, School of Engineering, discusses the possibilities in a study entitled “The Large Potential of Local Croplands to Meet Food Demand in the United States”. Dr. Campbell’s new farmland-mapping research shows that up to 90 percent of Americans could be fed entirely by food grown or raised within 100 miles of their homes.

It’s an interesting piece of work. It turns out that most metropolitan areas (other than some parts of the New York-New England Megalopolis) have plenty of productive land around that can be used to produce most of the food.

Here at home in West Missouri, just outside of Kansas City, that potential is clearly evident. Lots and lots of land lies in an “unproductive” state. Most of the land is grazed by herds of cattle, the nursery for the beef industry. Some land raises corn and beans and wheat. Some is bottom land hardwood forest. Very few acres are used to produce actual food for people. Instead, our local area provides raw material for the industrial economy (feed and calves for the feedlots out West, corn for the ethanol plants, etc.).


And the thing that most of us in the local food movement fail to realize is that this industrial commodity system is in place for some understandable reasons. First, the conventional system works in a way. It functions in that there is an understandable system for producing goods (corn or calves) and then selling them into a marketplace with local access points. Second, there is an existing capital system in place to keep the commodity production system chugging along. Third, there are policies and incentives and regulations in place that support this industrial commodity structure.

We can, and should, certainly argue that the industrial commodity system is problematic. It’s dependent upon a steady supply of cheap fossil fuels and lack of accountability for pollution to air and water. It discounts soil health and conservation activities (mostly, but with some exceptions). It tends to concentrate wealth in the hands of the already wealthy and the food processors, and tends to pay farmers poorly for their efforts and risk over time. This corresponding wealth accumulation and capital flight to the food processors leads to lack of economic opportunity and depopulation of many rural communities. On and on it goes.


So what’s the future of agriculture, then, if we hope to use the opportunity of transitioning agriculture to more of a focus on raising healthy food for people in the cities near us? The technological and innovation engine needs to keep chugging along for sure. But more important than these technological considerations might mean building a policy framework and developing market opportunities and infrastructure.

You know, truly sexy things like food processing shops and developing trucking routes. That along with making sure that the newly developed infrastructure doesn’t steal off all of the income from food production and leaving farmers with too little income once again.

Feeding the metropolitan areas with locally raised goods is a wonderful opportunity and a goal worth pursuing. We can do it if we choose that path. We just need to make sure that when we’re building out that re-localized system we “innovate” with community and ecological health as critical ingredients for success.


HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, a father, a writer, and a conservationist in western Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multi-generational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: 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: Bryce on Growing Up in Farm Country

Friday, May 8th, 2015


HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150Ahh, the glories of spring. Morel mushrooms. Dandelion bacon salad. Mornings with extended sun. Frisky livestock. Weekly lawn mowing.

OK, so maybe I could go without the lawn mowing, but I suppose it’s a small price to pay for nutritious and growing pastures and plants (and correspondingly animals).

In my neck of the woods, spring is also a time for the annual ritual of reflecting on one’s school years. This year that reflection is an incredibly rich mix of joy and regret and memory. Maybe it’s because my wife is a teacher. Maybe it’s because I can’t believe my boys are already concluding their third and fifth grade years. Maybe it’s because I’m getting ready to attend my 20 year high school reunion here in a couple of days.


Regardless, I’m feeling a swirling bundle of thoughts pertaining to what it means to grow up in farm country in today’s world. The complexity is interesting.

Take the graduating class of souls at the little country school where my wife teaches art, creativity, open-mindedness, and lessons on growing up in the city (my wife is from St. Louis originally). There are seven graduates. Yep. Seven. It’s a class filled with good kids most of whom have grown up on multi-generational family farms. They have been expected to work with their families to help out where they can. They have learned skills regarding mechanics and biology. They have absorbed worries of economic disparity in the farming sector, moral questions about how to be a good person, confusion about an urban dominated media landscape (local radio and TV stations are sent out to us from Kansas City) and tenuous positions as modern teens trying to figure out what they should do next.

In most ways, they are similar to graduates of public schools in small towns before them. In other ways, I feel like they face some important differences. Mostly, I am feeling a bit of despair for them as they struggle with questions of continuing their education, getting into the workforce, or joining the military.


I should say now that no one gave me a word of caution when I came up through my small town school about whether or not I should attend college. I didn’t give a minute of concern as to whether or not I would be able to pay for it. My older brother was in college, and we were the first generation in our family to attend University. I was a good student, got good scholarships (the best I could get from Missouri’s public University) and still left school with thousands of dollars in student loans.

The big difference is that these 2015 graduates fully understand their possible college debt load. They’re scared of it, and rightfully so. They’re making some important considerations for what this debt load would mean for them in their life to come. That’s a good thing for these students. Remember, we’re talking about seventeen and eighteen year old kids here.

My big questions to throw into the great bonfire of public discourse here are: how do we as a society help a gang of confused Farm Belt graduates make good choices within the parameters of their understanding? Do we want to maintain the status quo of developing a pipeline of military prospects from the places with questionable economic futures? Or should we rethink our educational system and try to develop new pathways of economic opportunity for the future leaders coming up through our public school system every year?

The choice is an important one. And the lack of a public dialogue about these important issues is disturbing. But maybe this, like the issue of student debt, is something we can illuminate in the important years to come.

There is much, much more to write about this topic. I’ll keep thinking about it as I attend graduation and alumni and reunion festivities over the next few weeks.

My hope is that society will do the same.


HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, a father, a writer, and a conservationist in western Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multi-generational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: 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.