The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the pigs on this farm.
I’ll eventually get down to a serious matter after I’ve had some fun. I want to lay out issues I face making long term plans and investments in this farm. I’ve been sitting on this post for a half year while trying to figure out how to best discuss it without sounding too shrill. So I’ll try to diffuse the tension by offering a cute picture of cuddly nursing piglets.
We’re going to talk about sucking from the public teat. The phase has a long history in political debate, and being that hungry piglets are the quintessence of selfish immoderation, the metaphor has probably existed since people first domesticated pigs. Our modern usage seems to have settled on the verb “suck”, but if you do a Google Books search for this phase in the 1800s you’ll be impressed at the variety of verbs used: “attach to”, “draw from”, “pull at”, “hang on”, “have a hold on”, “feed at”, “luxuriate on”, “draught from”, “subsist at”, “grow round at”, etc. One early instance was in a parliamentary argument from 1853 where Henry Drummond characterized his opponent’s complaints as the “squeak of a pig that had got no teat.” Shortly after George Muntz rose to state he “was not one of those pigs that wanted a Government teat”. The earliest American reference I could find was from a speech in Congress by Senator Duncan of Ohio in 1845, where he complained “this caricature represents Martin Van Buren upon his back in the mire sucking at the teat of a long-eared old sow, and is labeled ‘Matty Van sucking the public teat.’” It’s a pity that we could not find that picture, but we did find another Van Buren cartoon from that period.
Since the phrase has a piggish origin it is fitting to frame our discussion here. In its long history, those groups accused of being teat suckers have included the lazy, entitled rich and the lazy, entitled poor. It is also used to describe the lazy, entitled bourgeoisie. And since corporations are people too, we should note that they have been decried for sucking public teats. So everyone gets stuck with this appellation at some point.
Now down to business… Should Wrong Direction Farm latch on to the government mammary? The reality of our lives is that we all suck from the public teat to one degree or another. The question before us is just how sucky should this farm be?
There are several types of government funding, price supports, and insurance available to farmers, but most of them are targeted toward grain and dairy farms, so none of that is under consideration here. The teat that is being offered to us is to work with agencies such as the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These organizations work with farmers to manage topsoil loss, manure runoff, streambank erosion, silt deposition, and all sorts of other items that are important to the overall environmental health of farmland and water. They also fund rural development projects, provide loans and grants to expand farming operations, and support and subsidize activities to bolster agricultural production.
We really need a useable lane across our land. The back three quarters of our property are only accessible by traveling through our neighbor’s property. And that involves crossing some very muddy stretches that are simply not passable much of the year. So we need a gravel lane. It will require quite a bit of fill material to build up the roadway across the muddiest stretches. Plus geotextile fabric, culverts, and many truckloads of stone and gravel. We also need a water source for our livestock in the back fields. We have two locations that would be suitable for ponds. Then we need buried water lines to provide frost-free water from the pond to the winter pastures used by the livestock. Adding it all up, it comes out between $40,000 and $60,000, depending how much rock and gravel needs to be trucked in, how complicated the pond construction gets, and how much buried water line we install. That is far more than we can fund out of pocket, so it would require getting a loan. Interest rates are pretty good historically speaking, but the monthly payments would still be hefty.
Here’s where the government help comes in. They want to fund farm project. They have a budget they need to spend every year. The conservation folks can document the muddy lane (prima facie erosion) and take pictures of cattle standing in a stream (prima facie pollution), then apply for grant money to fund the projects. About a year later, the funding appears to build a lane, dig a pond, and install water troughs. Contractors who do this work tell me that for a project like ours, the government assistance would probably cover the complete cost of the project, in some cases overfunding the project so we end up with cash in our pockets. Many farmers have these sorts of projects ongoing every year, getting wells, barnyards, drainage, sewage, fencing, greenhouses, equipment, and barns all built for prices that range from free to 50% cost share.
There are downsides. One is that once you involve the government, you deal with the bureaucracy. There’s no need to wallow in the potential the liabilities involved there. And this aspect is really not the big deal for me.
The big downside is ethically based and far more thorny. Is is right to take public funding for these projects? Does the public owe me the money to expand my business? Does anyone owe me money because I farm? If we were to accept this funding, would we have any right to decry other government subsidies and price supports, such as those that that give us factory farms and high fructose corn syrup? Tough questions, these, at least in my mind.
I haven’t met many people who consider turning down the government money. Organic and conventional, Democrat and Republican, everyone is into this. There is an interesting blog post on the pressure to accept public funding here, but you won’t find this openly discussed in many other places. We know farmers who are opposed to the principal, but cynically take the money anyway “because someone else is going to get that money” or “because I already paid it out as taxes”. Even some of the local Amish sects get in this game in a big way (that seems like a very inconsistent position for them to take, but I can’t pretend to be free of contradictions either).
What would you do? Let us know what you think of this dilemma either in the comments or by dropping us a note. We’re not interested in blaming, shaming, or political ranting, but we are curious about how others have worked through these sorts of issues. We’d especially like to hear from farmers and from people who regularly buy directly from farmers. For farmers: how do you decide whether to apply for cost matching versus what you do out of pocket? Do you find that public funding restricts your independence? For customers: what value do you place on unsubsidized food? Is that a worthy cause or a quixotic pursuit? Is increased price a fair tradeoff?
Part of my ideal for the farm is to be gently contrarian, hence the name. The goal isn’t to be a nasty, judgmental crank. But I don’t want to settle for the mainstream. For now, I’m pursuing the goal of continuing to try to self-fund the farm. I hope I can produce food that will win the loyalty of customers so they will stick around for the long haul and fund these investments. Is my naivete showing?
We are about to rotate the cattle into some poor pasture. I recently wrote about the transformation of a portion of this field with last year’s grazing. We plan to move the cattle through the untouched portion of that field this year, and then to graze an adjacent scrubby pasture.
When I am bringing cattle into an overgrown field without solid perimeter fencing, I want to make sure that they know where the temporary fences are, particularly because the foliage at the same height or higher than our fence wires. I prefer that the cattle see a visual change before they run into the fence. In grazing tall foliage they otherwise sometimes stepping into a fence before they realize it. This leads to spooked cattle and then to broken fences.
I don’t have a brush mower, but I’ve found that I can cut adequate fence lines by gently back blading with the tractor’s bucket. A quick trip around the perimeter and along any intermediate fencelines gets me a nice six foot swath for the temporary fences. I don’t flatten the foliage for the cross-fences because I can’t always plan that far ahead. I vary the size of each sub-paddock depending on how the cattle are eating it down. There are fewer problems with the cattle missing the fence when only one fence obscured in the foliage. The fence-breaking problems become particularly acute when they do their galloping charge into a new field in which they are unable to see any fences.
Check back with me in a year or two to see what this field looks like after being treated to a few episodes of high-density, short-duration grazing. I have high expectations.
We have ten weaned piglets for sale. See our Craigslist ad for details.
Edit 30 Jun 2015: Thanks for your responses. All the piglets are sold.
I have not seen a single wild honey bee this year. For several years they have been scarce, but it is shocking and disappointing for them to be gone.
It is no secret that bee populations have been declining. All the smoking guns point back to human activity. I’m reminded of Wendell Berry’s words that our solidarity with larger society prohibits us from taking the easy option of decrying the bad guys. He was talking about farmland in general, but the destruction of bees is part of our shared agricultural and industrial self mutilation. We all participate in activities that have contributed to the collapse of bee populations. :
“That we live now in an economy that is not sustainable is not the fault only of a few mongers of power and heavy equipment. We all are implicated. We all, in the course of our daily economic life, consent to it, whether or not we approve of it.” Wendell Berry, It All Turns on Affection
In the absence of bees other pollinators have stepped up. Despite the dire predictions of a “future without fruit,” the disappearance of bees hasn’t resulted in total flower failure. More attention is being paid to attracting and sustaining native pollinator populations. Pollination is still happening, albeit with species that may not have all the pleasant connotations we associate with bees and pots of golden honey.
One native pollinator extraordinaire is the greenhead fly. If you live in the Northeast United States, you know this bug. This is no bumbling housefly. This is a dogged foe with a single minded goal: to tear a jagged patch of skin to drink your blood. On our farm they feast on cattle, pigs, and humans. But the greenhead fly has a Dr Jekyll side to counterbalance its Mr Hyde reputation: only the reproductive females drink blood. Like mosquitoes (another pollinator with whom I have a fraught relationship), the males are vegetarians. They hang out in the flowers all day feeding on nectar and pollen.
Of course there is a knee jerk solution for the biting greenhead fly problem: permethrin. This chemical is marketed under evocative names like Ambush, Dragnet, and Pounce. It can be applied as dust or liquid on livestock. It works. It kills biting flies and many other “pest” insects. But it also kills bees. So not only will it kill the “undesirable” pollinators, but it will also kill the “desirable” pollinators. Despite the growing awareness of the collateral damage caused by pyrethroids like permethrin, they remain a cheap and easy quick fix.
The hard reality is that a lot of pollinating insects have body parts for stinging, biting, and blood-sucking. As much as they pester us all, we need them to do their jobs. I’m not ready to pursue the Jainist ideal ahimsa, so I’ll still swat greenheads when they land on me. But I won’t destroy them using non-targeted, broad-spectrum methods, such as poisoning with permethrin. The potential for destructive unintended consequences is too great. Perhaps my little actions here are largely symbolic when this chemical is being dosed on crops and livestock all over the place.
I’d like to aspire to Wendell Berry’s conception of affection and let that motivate my decisions on this farm. I’ll never have affection for biting flies on their own, but I have affection for the land, for the total ecology of that land, and for my family’s work in this place. Thus my affection encompasses the greenheads without particularly liking them. This is similar to how my affection includes exhausting work without liking the exhaustion itself. I hope that there can be a difference in that distinction. I’ll finish by turning back to Wendell’s previously quoted discussion about farming, since he always says it better than I do:
“The primary motive for good care and good use is always going to be affection, because affection involves us entirely.” Wendell Berry, It All Turns on Affection
We’ve been experimenting with hilling discs in our potato patch. Last week we tried it, but the ground was wet and the weeds matted, so the discs were just lifting sheets and then dropping them back in place, slightly disturbed. After a few (somewhat) dry days and some light rototilling along the rows, we used the discs again.
It took several adjustments to work out the optimal ground speed and cutting width, but with practice we got good results. It got me thinking about building a two-row toolbar to run two sets of discs so I could gather hilling material from a wider swath instead of making multiple trips up and down the row. The effort and cost wouldn’t be tremendous, but it probably isn’t worth it for as small a potato crop as we grow. Still, it is fun to dream up garden implements.
I pay my landscapers less than minimum wage, so it makes sense that they leave crap all over my lawn. But to me, its worth it if I don’t have to go out there in the summer with a lawnmower and weed whacker. Just don’t go barefoot in the grass…
I moved the cattle this evening into a particularly colorful pasture. Except for the flies on the cattle, this evening has been idyllic with mild weather and bobolinks flitting all around. At this time of year it is accurate to say that the cattle are as much flower-fed as grass-fed. Maybe we could command higher prices if we sold the beef as flower-fed? Just you wait, it could be the next big thing.
In discussions among grassfed producers, invariably we get around to discussing managed grazing. There are different names and different practices, but to vastly simplify, the formula is basically:
- Move the cattle frequently so they don’t regraze plants that are recovering from a previous grazing.
- Use high (a relative term) stock density to maximize animal impact for the short grazing duration.
- Allow enough rest period for the forage to fully recover before grazing again.
- Don’t follow any of the above rules so woodenly that you do something stupid and lose sight of what you are trying to achieve. (This point is often omitted, but it is probably the most important.)
In grazing presentations there are usually dramatic fenceline shots showing managed pastures next to continuously grazed pastures, where the managed pastures are tall and lush and the continuously grazed pastures are mostly dirt. To be honest, we haven’t seen those night and day differences. I think a lot of that has to do with climate; the most vocal advocates for various forms of managed grazing live in climates that are much hotter and/or much drier than ours. Moderate summer temperatures and consistent precipitation help to level the playing field here. Our grass productivity is higher than on continuously grazed pastures, but overgrazing in Upstate New York doesn’t create the severe desertification problems found in more brittle environments.
But even though I downplay the more extravagant promises of managed grazing, I’m still enthusiastic about it. Take a look at the field below. It is packed full of goldenrod and milkweed. There are various grasses and clovers in the understory, but they are outcompeted by goldenrod. This field was plowed about ten years ago, but due to wet weather it was never planted, so it just grew back wild. When we first moved here, several people (including strong grazing advocates) advised plowing it under and planting a new stand of grass.
Instead of plowing the field down, we put cattle in half of it to see what would happen. Last July we ran the cattle through it in tight grazing patterns with two moves per day. In November we brought them back for a second grazing. The results speak for themselves below.
Last year the cattle mostly trampled the field. They had enough food to eat, but we had to pay close attention to moving them because there were so few edible plants. This year the field is many times more productive. Just using my grazing eyeball measurement, I think we’ve more than doubled the edible forage in this field. We can use cattle to renovate a pasture into a field that better suits cattle in just one season’s grazing. We don’t need to burn fossil fuel to work this land; we don’t need to expose the soil to erosion or compaction; we don’t need to spend money on seed or equipment. Managed grazing is a powerful tool.
Two of our feral hens hatched clutches of chicks this past week. Most of our egg layers are a half mile from the house in the back pastures, but we have a few mongrel yardbirds we keep around for tick control. They rustle all their feed, raise their chicks, and poop all over our patio. Here are some shots of the hens with their new chicks.
Also in the lean-to, between the roof and a windowsill, I found the nest shown below. I took the picture on tip-toe, so my hand was wobbly and the focus poor. Notice the dots all over the wood beam at the top? Zoom in and you’ll see lots of Red Mites. I’ve never noticed mites or lice infestations on our chickens, but these poor little guys must be getting bled dry. Just in the few seconds I was holding the phone near the nest, more mites dropped down from the roof and swarmed over my hand to take bites out of me. I’ve seen mites in songbird nests several times. Mites and lice can be a drag on poultry health and severe infestations hurt egg production. This is more of an issue in confinement, but I’m not sure why our chickens seem to do avoid this problem altogether. Perhaps because chickens take more dust baths than wild birds? Maybe their grooming habits are better? I don’t know. I’m just glad we don’t have to deal with these little bloodsuckers.
(By the way Jerry, I made no attempt at identifying these birds. The mother was a fast flyer not much bigger than these nestlings. A day after this picture, they all fledged and disappeared.)
Earlier I described our inefficient grain handling system and the need to upgrade. During the winter and spring I started buying the equipment and for the last few months I’ve been building, repairing, and assembling all the components. This week we put all the pieces together and tested the system end to end.
I bought a moderately beat up gravity wagon. It wasn’t the prettiest wagon I looked at, but it sure wasn’t the ugliest. I couldn’t afford the nice boxes not in need of repair; I couldn’t afford the time and frustration that would be required to repair some of the rusted or smashed boxes. I straightened the top rails, welded a few split seams, caulked a few lap joints, sanded all the exterior rust (or at least all that I could easily get to), attached additional ladder rungs, replaced the cracked 4×8 runners, built upper box extensions, added a roof, fitted a new access hatch, and installed pneumatic fill pipes and vents. The exterior received two coats of paint. The metal paint came from the “oops” pile at the hardware store, but it looks like Ford/New Holland Blue or pretty close to it (but don’t trust my color-impaired eyes). Inside the wagon I applied a graphite paint to help material slide down the slope to the trap door. The jury is still out as to whether the graphite makes any improvement. The only remaining to-do is repairing the extendable wagon tongue. I need to put in a new steel channel since the old one is twisted and consequently it doesn’t telescope properly.
The grain auger is new. I looked for an used auger, but all the ones I found were either too small or too damaged. I’m sure with more persistence I could have found one at an auction, but auctions are time-wasting traps. After attending a few auctions, I had to call it quits because I couldn’t justify spending so much time for so little benefit.
The feed mill delivered three tons of grain to test the pneumatic fill setup. Everything blew into the wagon without a hitch. It appears that I can fit four tons in the wagon, but I wasn’t sure how the material would pile up, so I was conservative with the first load. After driving the wagon out to the back fields where the pigs currently reside, I hooked the tractor hydraulics to the auger and pumped out a ton lickety split. The last ton of feed is probably going to need coaxing to flow down into the hopper, but the first two tons should dump without difficulty.