Monday, November 26, 2012

One Step at a Time

This morning The Washington Post ran a story on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ( It mentions her attendance at the rollout of a new online forum intended to help countries "navigate the transition to democracy." Among other things, the forum will enable new leaders to get in touch with each other. Imagine, "one day they’re a political prisoner or they’re in exile or minding their own business in their job or at the university they teach at and the next minute they’re a president or a prime minister or a foreign minister." Why would someone as "important" as Clinton attend such a small event? The event may have been a tiny step, but that's how everything begins.

The importance of tiny steps often astounds me. Our 25-acre field sits across the road waiting to teach us how to use it. Was it Wendell Berry who said not to change a landscape until you've observed it through at least four seasons? We've been watching that field, more closely now than when we bought it 8 years ago. The first thing we did, other than use it to access the river and provide hay for a cattle farmer, was to mark off a 100' by 100' area for gardening. Gardening went great the first year, pretty well the second, and very badly the third when four-legged competitors found it. It's now home to our pigs. A couple years ago we had the field re-fenced and gave the pigs some neighbors -- goats and donkeys. We also built a run-in shed and a little goat shelter, not yet having heard Joel Salatin's warning against permanent structures (although we're happy with the result). There's more to come over there, we're sure of it.

Let's go tinier. The garden beds near the house began with one boot on a shovel, another, and another. Each season finds me pulling weeds, one by one, planting seeds, one by one, picking beans, one by one, until our freezer and cupboards are full. Each morning Karen's fingers (or the electronic milker) squeeze one squirt, another squirt, until she has enough milk to fill a glass, then a jar, then a kettle for cheese-making. Most days find me typing one letter, then a word, then a paragraph, a page, an article, a book.

"It's downright amazing what we can do, bit by bit by bit," says Virginia.

You, too.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Turkey Day

As the sky pinks, Earle, Jaz and Mac pace our field, grateful for the chance to graze more freely after several hard frosts have helped brown the foliage and reduce its sugar content (we hope). The donkeys, adamant vegetarians, may be happy turkey day is done at Elk Cliff Farm.

I didn't notice them watching the goings-on this morning, as we fetched cold water for a couple large coolers and heated three giant pots of water on the stoves. As most of you know, Kroger is our backyard and our backyard is Kroger. We no longer buy butterballs.

Fortunately, poults are cute in May and six months later they are pests. Karen returned from milking a couple days ago with a still-bleeding finger, an omen, perhaps, that turkey day must not be postponed. If they wanted to win her sympathy, biting her wasn't the way to do it.

At 9:30, Dan and Amy arrived and we began Thanksgiving in earnest. Karen caught the first bird and carried it by its legs, upside down. As soon as the world's topsy-turvy, turkeys are quiet and docile. I held it high while she bungeed it to a clothesline pole. She applied the first killing knife and we watched the grass redden, which Lex and the chickens would clean up as soon as we moved away. I continued holding the feet while she held the head and covered its eyes, sort of like holding hands bedside I suppose, probably comforting the holders more than the held, waiting for the last energy to flow. Then came sixty seconds at 150 degrees, hand-plucking, a cold soak, and time in a freezer or refrigerator.

No photos, please, not on this knife-initiation day for me. This is not something we enjoy, nor do we wish to preserve pictures for posterity. How can we do this, many people ask. We do it because we want to know where our meat comes from, we want to watch it eat and grow, and we want to believe its life was happy until this final day. If I can't do this, I will be vegetarian (and recognize that animals live inside the vegetables and were likely killed during the growing).

"I thought turkey day was Thursday?" says Virginia.

That's meat day. Today was turkey day, a beautiful day with good friends, feathered and not.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


As I returned from my run this morning, I noticed this in the middle of the road near the end of our lane.
"That looks like a scrambled version of a National Geographic picture I saw not long ago," says Virginia.
Maybe it knew what happened to two of our ducks.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sustainable Agriculture Symposium

With deadlines piled high, I decided I should stay home to knock off a few on Friday. Phooey! My publisher can't seem to make its payments on time, so why should I plan my life around its deadlines? I packed in a quick morning run, pulled on some decent "casual" clothes, and drove toward a sustainable agriculture symposium sponsored by the Washington & Lee School of Law's Journal of Energy, Climate and the Environment.

Judith McGeary, of the U.S. Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, a Texas lawyer and farmer, compared "industrial" to "sustainable" farming. Industrial farming takes a linear, additive approach focused on NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) and the greatest quantity of food at the cheapest (short-term) cost. Sustainable farming seeks synergies in a holistic approach aimed at nutrient-dense food good for consumers, the environment, the farm, and labor. Industrial farming is energy-intensive, oil dependent, and controlled by a few corporations. Sustainable farming promotes social justice, human rights and animal welfare.

She then turned to food safety, where the greatest clash occurs between industrial and sustainable farming. Industrial farming, focused on maximizing profits, is the great consolidator, commingling food through long, complex supply chains. Finding the source of a contaminant, such as the cause of the recent spinach scare, is difficult because the produce of many farmers was commingled and then distributed under 34 different brand names shipped all over the country. Sustainable farming, on the other hand, has a completely different management system, with a much smaller scale. When/if problems arise, fewer people get sick because it takes days instead of months to track down the issue.

The major regulatory problem is "scaleability." Agricultural regulations are aimed at large-scale producers and based on industrial production. Requiring a giant monocultural producer to develop and monitor a 30-40 page procedural manual on spinach production for its 10,000 acres may make sense. Requiring a 30-40 page manual for each of the 100 varieties of vegetables grown on a 5-acre farm does not make sense. The typical approach taken by sustainable farm organizations to this sort of regulation is to seek an exemption for small, local, cottage food producers.

Ms. McGeary asked a number of questions:

  • Who decides whether consumers should take the risks involved in food production? Consumers, regulators, judges, farmers?
  • What's the role of victims? Is it fair to let decisions be driven by victims' groups?
  • Is food a business like any other? Does the market system work well with food? Is food production unique in its dependence on "good" or "bad" weather? Does the market system properly account for positive "externalities" (such as less reliance on foreign oil or superior soil development)? Does the market system work if consumers don't understand the risks involved in use of a product (such as GMO -- genetically modified -- foods)?
  • Is an undefined label such as "natural" useful?

The other speaker was Joel Salatin, the internationally renown "beyond organic" farmer. For a good read, try his book "The Sheer Ecstacy of Being a a Lunatic Farmer." He said Ms. McGeary hit the nail on the head when she identified the primary issue as one of scaleability, and launched into a series of colorful examples from his life as a farmer near Staunton, Virginia. You can read about these in his books. Don't miss this fabulous speaker when he visits your area. You may not agree with his libertarian politics, but this entertainer speaks with authority, humor, and flash.

He mentioned the Capitol Hill testimony of a senior USDA ("US-duh" in Mr. Salatin's vocabulary) manager (maybe an assistant secretary), who bragged about how the elimination of a multitude of small local food processors (abattoirs) enabled US-duh inspectors to markedly increase the number of products they could inspect in one day. This was an AHA-moment for Mr. Salatin: in a country that worships efficiency, why not expect its government to worship efficiency too?

He pointed out that our culture has not had a good record when it comes to dealing with the lunatic fringe.

Mr. Salatin turned to four remedies that may be available to deal with the regulatory inflexibility and unscaleability:

  • By "commerce." Designing food production so it is not involved in "commerce." Here he threw in his famous observation that you can give food away and be admired as a philanthropist, but charge a dollar and you might as well be selling cocaine.
  • By "definition." For example, selling raw milk as "bath milk" or "pet milk." He told the story of a small producer who sold cheese at a local farmers' market. After an inspection of her "facility," she researched State laws and discovered that fish food seemed to be the least regulated food. She called the appropriate state employee and confirmed that there were no restrictions on fish food. So she began to sell "fish-food Colby" and "fish-food Swiss" and the regulators couldn't touch her.
  • By "substitution." He offered the example of a farmer who packaged gallons of manure and sold them for $8 each. Buy the manure and you can get a gallon of raw milk for free.
  • By "waiver." Calling this remedy "unexplored" and ineffective in States like Virginia, he suggested having consumers sign waivers taking full responsibility for the risks they assume when buying food.
"What can we do?" asked one of the law students in attendance. Mr. Salatin suggested, "Begin to participate in the food system you want to see. The beginning of attorney scruples is consistency of life."

Asked to predict 20 years in the future, both speakers declined. Mr. Salatin quoted someone (I missed the reference): "If we keep going the way we're going we'll end up where we're headed."