LAKE MACBRIDE— Good Friday is my first day without external obligations since I can’t remember. The sky is clear, temperature already warming— some part of today will be spent outside preparing the yard and garden for a dallying spring.
Work at the farm this week was cutting more soil blocks for planting. Some of the first trays of lettuce were being moved to the big hoop house on the top of the hill. The gravel roads are thawing, leaving a film of dust/mud on my new-old vehicle. It is great to be part of a farming operation. I’ll be washing my car more often.
Do opossums have a social network that clues them into where chickens roost? Or, are they constantly trolling the universe in their egg-seeking ways? Whenever an opossum crosses our yard, it looks like it is smiling, the full mouth of teeth preventing closure. When I spot one, they seem very busy, going somewhere with a fierce intensity. Of worldly creatures, the only one more sinister in appearance is the human. Everyone I know that raises some chickens has an opossum story.
There will be other posts this weekend, but for now, I am going to relax at home, finish my coffee, and contemplate what is next this morning, this weekend, and in this one life of the billions on the planet.
LAKE MACBRIDE— A layer of snow covered everything this morning, indicating that the calendar start of spring meant nothing to Mother Nature.
A few days ago, I checked the soil in the garden— it was still frozen. During many a previous year, the lettuce had been in the ground for three weeks, and seed potatoes were in the garage, waiting to be cut and seasoned before planting on Good Friday, now just five days away. Spring is not all it was expected to be this year.
I decided to try starting my own seedlings again. In the past, I failed miserably, but after making soil blocks at the CSA, found the confidence to try it again. The cells are mapped out on graph paper, and yesterday, I started putting the trays on a heating pad set to low for a few hours at a time. When I looked at the green pepper seeds this morning, they had begun to take root after this first heating pad session. There is plenty of moisture in the soil mix, so I’ll continue the practice and see how the seeds sprout and grow. So far, so good.
In an effort to avoid the deadly intersection of cabin fever and spring fever, I have been exploring some new writers and found Girl Gone Farming, which is a blog by someone who recently moved to a farm in Pennsylvania after living in New York City for three years. Worth reading here, especially for readers who are city folk.
The snow continues to float through the air, morning has turned to afternoon, and it appear to be spring, not at all, in the garden.
LAKE MACBRIDE— Eggs play a role in a local food system, however, it is difficult to say anything new because the topic has been well covered. In 2012, Iowa led the country in number of eggs produced, with 14.5 billion, or 16 percent of the total U.S. egg production. The vast majority of these eggs were grown in mechanized, highly efficient, large scale poultry operations. Americans generally purchase eggs, along with most of their food, at a grocery store. It is hard to tell where an egg was produced from looking at it, but odds are that in Iowa it did not travel far from producer to consumer.
I picked three stories from personal experience to highlight my views about the relationship between eggs and sustainability, one each from rural Appalachia, Des Moines, and rural Cedar County, Iowa. I will present each story in a separate post.
In 1983, while visiting my father’s home place in rural Appalachia, my great aunt and uncle, my father’s brother, and my wife and I, decided to make a trip to my uncle’s four acres near Jefferson, North Carolina. Aunt Ruby loaded a basket of sandwiches and a cooler full of drinks, we piled into a car, and headed south on what seemed like a moment’s notice to see the property.
Situated above the New River, geologically one of the oldest rivers in the world, my uncle grew an acre of tobacco, and kept four cows. He had established a temporary residence by moving a mobile home to the summit of the property. He planned to build a permanent structure that could draw down into the earth via a system of hydraulic lifts so he could survive a nuclear holocaust, should that be necessary. He lived in Florida and had a local farmer tend his property most of the year. We paid a visit to the caretaker while we were there.
The caretaker was indigent, and by that I mean native to the area and living on a subsistence basis at the lowest end of any economic measurement. He invited us for a chicken dinner, and we could see the subjects of the proposed meal walking around his property. The offer of dinner was generous by any standard, but we declined. My uncle said it would have been a hardship for him to share some of his family’s chickens with us.
When people talk about indigents, the tone is often pejorative, meaning needy, or lacking some necessity. The indigent caretaker appeared to have most of what he needed to make a life.
His property was in a hollow with a spring at the top. The spring water provided much of what was needed to grow food and live a life. There appeared to be plenty to eat, including eggs and the aforementioned chickens, milk from my uncle’s cows and food from a garden. He had a government draw of less than $50 per month, which was apparently the only source of regular income. He was saving the money to buy a tractor, indicating government money can be used by indigents for capital expenses when their labor was providing everything else a family needed for basic living.
Reflecting on this thirty year old experience, all the talk about urban chickens, concentrated animal feeding operations and the impact of types of feed on egg quality seems a bourgeois concern. When people live at the edge of subsistence, and an extra person or two at dinner makes a real difference in how much food a family has to eat, an egg is an egg. The fortunate ones, like my uncle’s caretaker, have space to produce their own.
The bourgeoisification of egg production in contemporary urban society seems trivial by comparison to indigent living. If a person is hungry, an egg is an egg, and those who live close to the means of production have no choice but to produce their own.
LAKE MACBRIDE— During the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas, lodging books up well in advance. The annual March event started as a way of controlling the snake population and has evolved into a festival that attracts more than 40,000 visitors annually. I haven’t tried rattlesnake meat, which is popular at the festival, but it reportedly tastes like chicken.
During a business trip the weekend of the event, I stayed at the home of an area cotton farmer because there were no motel rooms available. The octogenarian owner provided a pickup truck tour of the local cotton operation before dinner one night, driving most sections of his 5,000 acres. There were other large cotton growers in the area, and our conversation covered a range of topics from government subsidies, soil quality, tumbleweed, boll weevil control, growing conditions and harvest. We drove by the large cotton gin built by a cooperative of growers. Cotton hulls were stacked in gigantic piles near the equipment. There was a use for cotton hulls, but not enough of one. He was cottoning up to me because of the financial investment our company made in his sons’ troubled trucking operation.
We wouldn’t call his cotton growing practices sustainable, quite the opposite. It was as good an example of industrial agriculture as there is. If there was a boll weevil outbreak, the crop dusters came out in force to spray the section and eradicate the pest. He did what he needed to manage the risk of growing cotton, and cooperate with his neighbors to get the annual crop planted, grown and harvested.
I met his two sons, and they leveraged the farm to try to make ends meet in their trucking company. The reason I was in Texas was the troubled trucking operation. The experience helped shape my view of the importance of capital in a farming.
It is one thing to locate a plot of ground and grow vegetables to sell at the farmers market. It is another thing to sustain operations over decades. The lack of adequate capitalization seems to be a primary tension point for beginning, local producers, with start-up, scalability and processing mentioned frequently as challenges. Like any farmer, local food producers make deals with people who have capital in the form of land, equipment and money: banks, government, parents and neighboring farmers.
For a local food grower to sustain operations, managing capital is equally important with managing growing practices. In my experience, not enough attention is paid to capital management by sustainable agriculture practitioners. Financial sustainability goes with everything else in sustainable agriculture, and can take decades to achieve in the best of conditions.
My experience in West Texas was a bit disturbing. The way the land was treated, the use of chemicals, the attitudes of the farmers, all of it had a sense of desperation about it. It was especially evident in the way the sons used the farm as leverage for their failing trucking business.
If sustainable agriculture has a chance in the 21st century, practitioners must learn more about the relationship of capital to farming. As a successful practitioner of sustainable agriculture recently told me, “the ‘kids’ who were not depression era people never got the hang of the financial end of things and overspent even though much was handed to them on a silver platter.” Last time I checked, very few people continue to hand out silver platters.
LAKE MACBRIDE— If U.S. fuel prices were the equivalent of gasoline in France at $8.52 per gallon this week, perhaps the discussion about food miles would be more meaningful. Food miles are the distance over which a food item is transported from producer to consumer, as a unit of measurement. In theory, it is better to grow food locally, and use less fuel.
Food distribution and related costs are a social construct that makes transportation seem inexpensive, or irrelevant to what we find in grocery store aisles. Our food distribution system considers an economic model, with many actual costs— such as global warming pollution and federal subsidies of all kinds— remaining unrecognized. Unrecognized costs drive the current producer to consumer model and most people won’t get beyond the basic fact that transportation costs don’t matter much when picking an item from the bin or shelf. It isn’t clear they should.
Where advocates of local food may have gone wrong is using the idea of food miles as a place holder for complex, flawed arguments. Costs are costs, and a producer has to recover his or her financial production costs when the consumer buys an item. Using any complex argument, including food miles, as a place holder seems a diversion. Such talk belongs more appropriately in a sales and marketing context as a form of puffery.
What would be better is to create a local food system that competes on price and value, using existing financial structures. I’m not sure that is possible given the current, labor-intensive state of sustainable agriculture. To say consumers should be willing to pay more for organic lettuce because it was locally grown at a higher net cost is a non-starter. Society teaches us that organic lettuce is a fungible commodity, and if everything is the same, and one head costs $1 and the other costs $1.75, what reason is there to spend more?
Local food producers would do better to leave food miles out of their arguments, and create real value in the form of tasty food that people want to buy. They should recognize such value is subjective, the playing field is not level and therefore, growing a local food system will not be entirely rational, or scalable the way well capitalized operations are. Recommendation? Leave food miles in the rear view mirror.
RURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— The seeds I planted last week had sprouted when I returned to the farm for shift number two. The work was easier this time and I finished quickly. I used a water bottle to stay hydrated, and it helped a lot. The greenhouse is starting to fill with the flats of seedlings for three growers who use the space.
Even though it was only my second day of making soil blocks, the skill had been learned, and I trained another worker.
The CSA where I work is not organic. “We can’t afford that,” said the producer. This attitude is common among vegetable growers, and while some equivocate, saying they use “organic practices,” the truth is the discussion about organic is based on penetrating markets. While it is not mentioned much anymore, the purpose of Community Supported Agriculture is to know your grower, and how they raise vegetables. It requires the buyer to have a depth of knowledge beyond fungible commodities. Being part of a CSA is about more than just the weekly share of vegetables, even if our consumer culture focuses on that aspect of the arrangement.
Most consumers don’t have time to know the farmer, and buy food at the grocery store. Maybe there is an alternative, and while labor intensive, it starts on farms like this one.
LAKE MACBRIDE— Food. The afternoon revolved around food after a once every two weeks trip to the grocery store. Root vegetables, a turnip for $1.09, a parsnip for $0.85, potatoes for $0.40 per pound, carrots from the fridge and a leek for $1.05. It’s chik’n stew tonight. With protein cubes from Morningstar Farms®, and vegetables past their prime, but good for stew. The pot is full of the simmering stew. Hope it tastes good, as there is enough to last ten days and I hate to waste— food.
RURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— Yesterday was the first of a long series of work days at a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project. I spent three and a half hours making blocks of soil mix to grow seedlings, then planted lettuce seeds in some of them. I had no expectations for the day, but mostly because of dehydration, had to cut it short. (Note to self: next time take a water bottle). I am not physically ready for farm work, but hope to be soon. As this growing season evolves, my physical condition should improve. The reason for being at there was to learn how a greenhouse works in late winter, and about growing lettuce from seedlings. I am also trading labor for a share of produce.
If one would write about local food, some experience on a CSA seems mandatory. It is one thing to talk and write about local food and another to grow it. The latter takes more work than people realize. What was immediately apparent was the labor intensity of sustainable agriculture in its current iteration. Machines could have done all of the work I did more efficiently, but with substantial capital investment. Local, sustainable agriculture starts out behind in the race with large scale operations over efficiency. It is a conscious choice among options for how to spend limited capital, and as long as cheap labor is available, capital investment will be directed to other things on a long list of priorities.
We didn’t talk much, but between periods of work, managed to catch up on news, and what’s going on with family. The only thing to report is that local CSAs continue to struggle to find customers, with some of last year’s customers cutting back to half shares, or not renewing this season. Managing a base of members whose investment is less than $1,000 per year is also labor intensive.
My sense is that there are pockets of strength in the local food movement in Johnson County. It is not really a cohesive system yet. People enjoy going to the farmers market to buy produce, but they often do so with discretionary income. In a tight economy, discretionary income can be reduced or evaporate completely, effecting farmers markets and CSA business alike because they are perceived as an indulgence rather than a way of life. There is inadequate attention paid to the role of home cooks as buyers/promoters of sustainably grown food. That needs a remedy as well, but is also labor intensive, and the planting season is here.