Farming Writing

40 Acres Sans Mule

Flooded Farm Near the Cedar River, Sept. 27, 2016

There is nothing magical about 40 acres in the 21st Century. Today’s American farmers can make a living on much less, largely because of crop diversification, technology, and emerging markets for locally grown food.

For a beginning specialty-crop farmer, 40 acres might be too much to handle.

“40 acres and a mule” entered the vernacular as a way of dealing with the question of what to do with newly freed slaves during and after the Civil War. Give them 40 acres and a mule to get started as free men, or so the line of thinking went.

In 1865, William Tecumseh Sherman provided for confiscation of 400,000 acres of land in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, to redistribute in 40-acres parcels to formerly enslaved farmers. The arrangement did not persist, although even today, presidential candidates posit the United States should pay reparations for slavery.

While specialty crop farmers work hard, long days to make ends meet and sometimes take a job in town to provide enough household cash, they increasingly seek to own their future. To a person, that means buying land. In Iowa good farmland is expensive.

For farmers, the desire to create a farm on less than 40 acres has to do with start up capital. To make a go of it as a specialty farmer on 40 acres, that means $350,000 or more for land, another $100,000 or more for an on-farm dwelling, and more for at least one barn, a couple tractors, and other equipment for cultivation, mowing, tilling, fencing and general operations. Finding a banker to finance such an operation is difficult without collateral other than the land. There is also the hurdle of what to do with all that land. While a small farm can grow into 40 acres with success and over time, a beginning farmer has much to learn and the scale can be intimidating.

Shouldn’t there be opportunities to start a farm on less than 40 acres? The county board of supervisors said no. Couldn’t you move to another county? The market is in urban centers.

In Iowa farms have an agricultural zoning exemption. Beginning farmers seek the ag exemption in order to make ends meet on narrow gross margins. To be defined as a farm in our county, and get the exemption, 40 acres is required. Some of my farmer friends have been asking for accommodation of smaller farms for many years and none has been forthcoming from the county board. The future belongs to the young and they will not be stopped.

That brings us to House Study Bill 239, an act relating to the county zoning exemption for property used for agricultural purposes. Farms are defined as follows:

The bill provides that property is used for agricultural purposes if at least 51 percent of the annual gross revenue derived from the property comes from the growing, harvesting, or selling of crops and livestock raised and produced on the property or brought to the property and not more than 49 percent of the annual gross revenue derived from the property comes from the sale of agricultural experiences and other farm-related activities.

The number of acres defining a farm becomes irrelevant should the measure pass the legislature and be signed by the governor.

This bill amounts to an end run around the county board of supervisors. While it didn’t clear the state government committee this session, it remains eligible for consideration and debate next year in the second session of the 88th Iowa General Assembly.

A representative from our county made it to the bill’s subcommittee hearing on March 5. In what was described as a long, arrogant speech, the official characterized rural residents who had been working with the county board of supervisors as “loud complainers.” Not a good look for anyone, especially a county official.

Today was a great day of spring-like weather. We can feel it in the air as farmers prepare equipment, tend livestock, and prepare for another crop. Whether on 40 acres or 4,000 there are many common threads running through farming. Whether they will be defined according to the same standard is an open question. It’s time to see if the legislature can resolve the issue for beginning farmers, since the county won’t.

Environment Farming Work Life

Wind Howled All Day

Squirrels Dining on Sunflower Seeds

The store manager from the home, farm and auto supply store phoned Sunday afternoon to ask me to work on Monday. The colleague who assumed my full time job last spring was visiting family in Nebraska and bad weather closed roads across the state, including Interstate 80. She couldn’t make it back in time for her shift.

In Iowa, helping out is part of our culture. I said yes I’d work and rearranged my plans so I could.

In addition, the farmer decided the weather was bad enough she didn’t want people venturing out to the farm. The roads were iced over and the wind howled at 30 miles per hour all day. Her sister, the shepherdess, posted social media photos of installing a new anemometer and weather station. Its LED panel displayed the digital message, “hold onto your hat!”

As I was settling in last night, the Washington Post put up an article about White House plans to form an “ad hoc group of select federal scientists to reassess the government’s analysis of climate science and counter conclusions that the continued burning of fossil fuels is harming the planet.”

In other words, the Fourth National Climate Assessment told the story of how dire our future could be without climate action. Rather than doing something, the administration is arguing with their own scientists that global warming is not caused by burning fossil fuels. These are times that will fry men’s souls.

Which part of yesterday’s howling wind was an amplification caused by global warming? The answer doesn’t matter because it’s the wrong question. We know the deleterious effect of burning fossil fuels. We also know thawing permafrost, agriculture, methane releases during oil production, building construction, manufacturing processes, air transport, deforestation, landfill decomposition and other human activities contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. We can’t get bogged down in details when the bigger picture is we have an obstructionist government led by Republicans and their conservative, dark-moneyed think tanks who would interpret the howling wind as something else. The better question is when will voters do something to fix this?

Yesterday’s wind was the kind that calls for hunkering down until it ends. Eventually we will have a calm, sunny day and the opportunity to work as normal. Or maybe it is something else, as Bob Dylan sang in the 1970s,

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

Farming Local Food

Moving the Goal Posts

Farm Landscape

More than at any previous time I feel a goal line was crossed when I left full time work last spring.

So what’s next?

I don’t anticipate buying a fancy television with new, matching easy chairs to put in front of it.

My late aunt and uncle had that. When we visited their Alabama home our conversations turned to the evangelical Christianity their family had undertaken. It was a distance from the socialist and Catholic household in which she grew up with her brothers and sisters. I suspect aunt and uncle watched FOX News, although we talked the entire visit without turning on the T.V. Dinner was a tuna-noodle casserole taking me back to a time I hardly remembered. Mom never made tuna-noodle casserole at home. My uncle died shortly after we left them and she died soon after that. All that’s left are memories.

My fear is if we had a digital television I’d sit back in an easy chair, watch too much, and my mind would succumb to the blather that invades people’s lives from cable news. I’d spend the rest of this life talking about, to and at the television.

There is only one answer to the question, and that’s to stay active physically, emotionally and mentally. That’s really a lie. There are plenty of answers, although doing these three things can form a foundation upon which an answer can be built. Maybe that’s what I’ll do.

Birds eat from the feeder and a freezing rain falls on the county. Snow melt is filling the ditches and running toward the lake. Soon there will be floods in Iowa as the crazy weather continues.

Tomorrow I return to the farm for the first round of soil blocking. They already started seeds in the house, but these will go into the greenhouse despite the coming cold spell. I’m waiting another week to plant celery. At 120 days, celery has the longest plant to pick cycle.

Will farm work bring catharsis to my search for truth and meaning? I don’t know, but I’ll be spending time with friends again and that means something.

I’ll get to see the lambs, those sad but cute creatures destined for someone’s dinner table. I’ll be careful not to get attached but new life is always a pleasure. That’s what I need in the rainy, snowy, flooded Iowa I call home as the cycle of the growing season begins anew.

Moving the goal posts once they are set is not a good option in retirement. We may only get one chance for new goals and it’s important to be sure. I’ll be thinking about that as I make the soil blocks tomorrow morning. I’m looking forward to getting started.

Environment Farming Local Food

Gathering on a Farm

Farmer Kate’s High Tunnel

A lone bald eagle soared over Rapid Creek north of Wild Woods Farm. We were pulling plastic over the new high tunnel.

The eagle lofted in the wind as if it were summer. We would rather the wind died down until we finished. The project was well-organized and it took an hour and a half for 20 of us to get the plastic stretched over the aluminum frame.

Someone asked how many inches of frost were in the ground. That struck me as funny while standing in two inches of sloppy mud. We have yet to have a hard freeze this winter. Vegetable farmers have ordered seeds and as soon as they arrive plan to plant onions in trays. Spring planting will begin soon enough. With the ambient temperature at 50 degrees it doesn’t feel like we’ll have a winter even though an extended hard freeze would be good for farmers.

The fact of a warming atmosphere is all around us. Eagles attracted to open water in January is just part of it. Climate has changed, disrupting weather patterns we learned to expect coming up. Local vegetable farmers dealt with the weird weather last season and could use a break back to “normal” this year. A 50 degree January day may be a fluke — a welcome one for this project — but there have been too make flukes.

During wait time I finalized a spring soil-blocking schedule at the two farms. It was a productive day of catching up with friends in mid-winter… talking about spring.

Environment Farming

A Difficult And Strange Season Of Weather

Carmen Black at Sundog Farm

By Carmen Black

(Editor’s Note: Iowa Farmers deal with an existential reality that is the weather. Regardless of increasingly polarized discussions about climate change, weather affects real people in tangible ways. Carmen recently wrote this piece to members of her Community Supported Agriculture project Local Harvest.)

The weather has been consistently challenging from the late spring to immediately hot May, from lots of rain to this current dry spell. There hasn’t been a catastrophic weather event, but all these different difficult weather conditions create more work to keep everything growing well.

I’ve been thinking more about it as we’ve been observing its impacts while harvesting more of the summer crops. I’ve talked to many other farmers (including folks that grow other types of crops) about the challenges of this season, and anecdotally it seems like the conditions have been hard on many types of crops and livestock alike. One of things that has struck me about this year is that it hasn’t been just one way like really hot or really wet, but every month has brought a different extreme to contend with. It’s made me wonder if it’s all this erraticness that’s been stressful to the plants and animals rather than just the heat or just the late spring.

I was curious to find out if the weather has just felt difficult to us or if it really has been extreme in the grand scheme of things, so I did a little internet research for weather data. What I found was interesting, and did seem to affirm my feeling that this year really has been weird. This was the coldest April on record (since records began in 1895), and was on average 10 degrees colder than normal. It was also somehow both the 5th snowiest April and the 13th driest April, which seemed a little ironic. 2018 tied for the 6th warmest May with 1887, and the average temperature was about seven degrees warmer than normal. Des Moines had three consecutive daily record highs from May 26-28. I was surprised that in Cedar Rapids the daily record highs for the end of May were all held by 1931 or 1934, and then I realized that was the dust bowl! June was the 10th warmest and 10th wettest June on record. July seems to have been pretty average after all those top 20 finishes for the previous months, as it was the 54th coolest July and the 47th driest July on record. Which I think kind of puts the extremeness of the previous months in perspective. Kind of nice to have an average month finally.

Anyhow, my main takeaway is that this year really does seem to be remarkably erratic when you look at the numbers, and it makes sense that plants and animals would respond unpredictably to all of these changes in the weather. I feel both good that I wasn’t making up that the weather has been extreme in many different ways this season, and kind of bad that it really has been historically weird this year. The fact that it took the dust bowl to beat this year out for daily heat records in May felt kind of grim.

Some crops like onions seem to have really suffered from this weather. You may have noticed that they’ve been smaller than normal this year, and after getting most of onion harvest done last week I’m sorry to report that many of the longer season onions are even smaller. This was especially disappointing to me after such a bountiful onion harvest of really giant ones last summer, but I think makes sense considering what we were up against. We planted more than 3 weeks later than we did last year because it kept snowing, and then had to irrigate the onions (which we hardly ever have to do) because it was so dry. We struggled to keep the weeds under control in the onion field in June when it was so wet, and spent almost a week wallowing in the mud trying to hand weed. All in all I’m glad we have some onions to show for all of it, and have a few ideas of things to try in case this ever happens again.

I also have to say that some crops seem to have really thrived in this weather. We’ve never had such a good cucumber or spring carrot crop before, both of which are crops that we have historically struggled to produce large quantities of for several weeks in a row. The combination of having plenty of carrots and cucumbers has felt like a great accomplishment, and I hope that we’re able to replicate it in a better weather year as well!

~ Carmen Black farms in Cedar Township in Johnson County, Iowa.

Farming Politics

Why Don’t Iowa Farmers Export More to Europe?

Sundog Farm

During a brief appearance at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta on July 26, President Trump claimed a trade breakthrough with European allies.

“We just opened up Europe for you,” he said.

Not so fast!

On Saturday, European Union Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who met with Trump, said trade talks almost collapsed over U.S. agricultural demands.

Agricultural trade will remain off the table in any trade talks between the U.S. and EU, Juncker said, according to Deutsche Welle. A European commitment to buy more U.S. soybeans is driven by market conditions.

Europe is the second largest importer of soybeans after China and prices are low because of the U.S. trade war with China. In other words, after market conditions driven by the president beat the price of soybeans down, Europe sees a bargain. It is hard to fathom how Trump sees Europe “opened up” under these conditions. Granted Iowa farmers planted more acres in soybeans this year, but the president’s statement can only be seen as political posturing in advance of the 2018 midterm elections and everyone should know it.

There is a more significant problem with “opening up” Europe for agricultural trade — the issue of genetically modified organisms.

There are very few genetically modified crops grown in Europe compared to the U.S., according to a July 27 New York Times article. The reason is in 2001, the EU issued a directive about GMOs. From the early stages of research to the marketplace, these products would have to pass a series of tests for environmental risks and human safety. The consequence of the directive in Europe is few farmers produce GMO crops.

In the U.S., neither the USDA nor the National Academy of Sciences is concerned that GMO crops have any impact on consumers different from non-GMO crops, despite a slate of regulations. Driven by science, farmers embrace GMO crops because of their acceptance in the U.S. marketplace combined with the attributes of genetically modified seeds. Regardless of science, increasing the amount of GMO crops exported to Europe seems unlikely given the fact many European countries have banned GMOs.

Shorter version of Trump’s statement, “Farmers, here’s a bone.”

It’s hard to see how help for Iowa farmers will materialize from current discussions with Europe. The irony of increased soybean sales to Europe after Trump’s trade war beat down prices as something positive seems lost on his true believers. They may swallow this hook, line and sinker, but other sentient beings should not. It is another deception from a president with an unending supply of deceit.

~ First posted on Blog for Iowa

Farming Work Life Writing

Last Day of the Season 2018

Chicken at Sundog Farm

Beginning on Feb. 25, and 862 trays of soil blocks later, my 2018 farm work season ended today at Sundog Farm. I finished at Wild Woods Farm on Friday.

More than anything, farm work has been time with young people — doing the work and talking about crops, challenges, and everything else.

In my sixth year of soil blocking I kept up physically. I plan to do it again next year if able.

Now to take a break from farming until returning to Wilson’s Orchard for the fall season.

This will be the first summer in a long time we haven’t taken a share from the CSAs. Our garden is big enough to provide most vegetables and I’m confident of the yield. What we can’t get at home I’ll secure elsewhere. Getting enough to eat is never a problem when working in a local food system.

Next on the practical agenda is home repairs and cleaning. There is never a shortage of work for home owners.

It’s also an opportunity to resume writing. Each time I rejoin the project I lose track of everything else. Hours and days pass and like a coal miner I follow the seam wherever it goes. There is a lot more reading, thinking and organizing than writing at this point. I’ve forgotten more than I know about my own life and it can’t be re-lived, merely touched through a gauze woven of memory.

I began addressing the chronology. I’m not sure that will be the presentation. As I delve into the volumes of writing and artifacts collected since college a thematic approach seems better. It would be cultural aspects of growing up, education, work life, how we developed an ecology of living as a family, and my path toward social responsibility. It will also focus on what readers may find interesting.

Writing is exhilarating at a time when the rest of the world seems weary and worn down. What a great way to spend the rest of this summer.

Farming Review

Summer Begins

First Marketmore Cucumber

A letter from our rural medical clinic reached me early this morning. I read every word it had to say.

I said, the letter reached me early this morning, I read every word it had to say.

Rural life ain’t nothing but the blues, how much longer can we live this way?

The physician I saw in April is moving his practice to Williamsburg — too far to drive for routine appointments. His replacement is an ARNP, which stands for advanced registered nurse practitioner. I read the definition but don’t understand what it means except we’re changing from two physicians to one… another nail in the coffin of rural health care.

We’re lucky to live close to the clinic’s hospital, and a large teaching hospital operates in the county seat. We won’t be deprived of care. I don’t look forward to changing physicians for the fourth time since leaving my transportation career.

I’ll try the new arrangement. What else is there to do?

This is the last weekend for soil blocking at the two CSA farms. After that, the farmers will make their own for the remaining fall share starts. I’m taking a break before returning to the orchard in August.

I finished reading The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks before heading to the garden.

The shepherd went to Oxford, so it’s natural he would do something outside the normal range for a sheep herder. He’s been traveling and speaking to groups of farmers about his life in the Lake District of England. Last January in Ames, he spoke to members of Practical Farmers of Iowa at their annual convention. They made a YouTube of his speech. I haven’t viewed it yet.

What struck me about the book is the comparison with Iowa. Not necessarily what one might think.

On the one hand a well-settled place of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Beatrix Potter and the Lake Poets. In front of us a landscape barely settled since the Black Hawk War of 1832. Any sense of ancient Iowa prairie is long gone and replaced with a grid of roads outlining row cropped fields and concentrated animal feeding operations. The long history of sheep herding in the Lake District served as a reminder most Iowa farmers are recent trespassers as agriculture and land use continue to evolve. There won’t always be soy and corn in what was once an ancient lake bed.

Rebanks informed my view of the annual cycle of sheep farmers. Now I know why some of my friends are so stressed during spring lambing. I’m sorry I missed the speech, and when spring farm work is done, I plan to spend the hour to watch it.

For the time being back to working on the garden to chase away these summertime blues.

Farming Politics

Farmers Talk Land Use

Ready to Exit Stage Left if Proceedings get Dull

The room was packed for the Johnson County Board of Supervisors public hearing on the County’s comprehensive plan. Current and would-be farmers were present and spoke about their profession. The hearing took two and a half hours.

Supervisors have been working on the plan for two years and would like to finish it and move on to what matters more, the Unified Development Ordinance, which codifies how the plan will be implemented. Last night’s public hearing brought the county closer to closure, even if the subject of land use will continue to be debated well beyond my years of walking the earth.

The main points were the 40-acre rule for definition of a farm is an obstacle to beginning farmers, and there is a wide difference of opinion regarding the role of animal feeding operations in producing the beef, pork and chicken non-vegetarians love to eat.

The Frequently Asked Questions page of the plan website addressed the first issue, “Will the new Comprehensive plan change the 40-acre rule?” Short answer is no. While officials expressed a desire to accommodate smaller farms during the process of developing the comprehensive plan, one expects the 40-acre rule to remain intact. A farmer can make a living on less than ten acres, especially if they can benefit from the State Code’s agricultural exemption from county zoning regulations. The path is unclear to enable farmers to acquire smaller parcels that would be zoned as ag exempt. There may not be a path, except by supervisors establishing special criteria and deciding each parcel individually on its merits. That’s no way to go. Not only is it labor intensive the politics of the board can and will change over time. People have spoken on the issue. Now it’s time to see what supervisors do.

If people want meat and meat products, livestock will be raised to meet demand. The words “concentrated animal feeding operation” have become a lightening rod of tumult about livestock production. Many do eat meat and few non-farmers want to live next to a livestock production facility. In any case, the State of Iowa maintains preemption over concentrated animal feeding operations. Under Republican control of government, preemption is here to stay. I doubt that would change under Democratic governance. People like their pulled pork, fried chicken, hamburgers and steaks, and it has to come from somewhere. Environmentally it would be better for humans to source protein from plants. If you believe they will over the near term, stand on your head.

The highlight of the hearing was a grader and son of a farmer who read an essay titled, My Barn. “I see my cows Jake and Nick coming up to me because they’re excited for me to rub their noses,” he said. “They feel as soft as a teddy bear.” The hearing engaged several livestock farmers. The ones who raised cattle and hogs took issue with persecution of their trade and the appellation “CAFO.” They said treatment of animals was humane on their farms.

There was insider baseball about the new map to accompany the comprehensive plan. My view is “whatever.” Let the supervisors decide based on best practices. There’s no going back to the way the land was before it was settled. It’s already been ruined by development and that happened in the 19th Century. The North Corridor Development Area has been designated as a buildable area in the plan in order to preserve county farmland. When one flies over it, it’s clear it has been settled from the outskirts of Iowa City and Coralville all the way to the county line. Everyone who has a strong opinion on the NCDA has an ox being gored. Speaker and naturalist Connie Mutel made the best case about how the new map was developed using “best practices.” Managing development in the county is like carrying water in a half empty leaking bucket.

Despite the serious nature of the presentations last night was fun. I got a chance to see friends and acquaintances in the context of working together to resolve issues of beginning farmers. That counts for something and in these turbulent times where would we be without that?

Farming Local Food

Farm Friday


Friday is my day to work with Farmer Kate near Iowa City.

I made 30,288 soil blocks for plants at Wild Woods Farm this season. Add in additional work at Sundog Farm and my total production was 59,688 soil blocks since Feb. 25. That’s a lot of vegetable seedlings.

We’re planting lettuce, squash, cucumbers and zucchini which indicates we are more than halfway through spring production. Last year I finished at both farms on June 25 to get ready for the apple season beginning in August.

Cucumber Seedlings

Soil blocking is specialized. I use unique tools and soil to make the 72 and 120 block trays. This is my sixth year and I’ve incorporated soil blocked seedlings into our kitchen garden. Better propagation through this process makes a difference. Soil blocked seedlings are a part of growing better plants which produce great tasting vegetables. With retirement, healthy seedlings combined with additional weeding and better cultivation should result in higher yields. Importantly, it is all about freshness and flavor.

I receive fair compensation for my farm work. Over a few years we arranged a part barter – part cash settlement that works out for both parties. Each season has been a little different. This year I exchange labor for standard CSA shares in the spring and fall, then secure crates of tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and onions for preservation and storage. If my labor is more than that, I get a cash settlement. It is probably unnecessary to place a monetary value on these arrangements. Vegetable shares supplement our kitchen garden which produces much of what we need along with some specialty crops not grown on the farms. In turn, sourcing some crops from the farms reduces work in my garden. The arrangement is part of an ecology of food our household developed over time.

Over the course of spring, soil blocking at the farms has become part of our culture. I intend to continue as long as I can and the farmers are willing.