Sunday, January 18, 2009

Thirsty Birdies

I have a part-time job where I work at an environmental center. One of the classes we teach is called Outdoor Living Skills. We use something we call "the Rule of 3's" to teach kids how to prioritize their survival needs in an emergency. Everyone needs food, water, air and shelter in order to survive.

Let's put those in order of importance:

You can survive 3 minutes without air. (Better get out of the water!)
You can survive 3 hours without shelter. (Weather dependent)
You can survive 3 days without water.
You can survive 3 weeks without food.

So assuming your lost and also assuming you're not submerged in water, you'd better start looking for some shelter ASAP. Once you can protect yourself from the elements, then you worry about water.

Should you worry about food? Well, maybe. But most likely you'll be found long before you'd starve to death.

So what does this have to do with farming?

Well, when you're a livestock farmer, you've gotta be prepared. The animals depend on us to provide them with food, water and shelter. I don't know if the Rule of 3's is exactly the same for animals--the time ratios likely change. But it does help me prioritize what needs to be done first.

Shelter in the winter is of utmost importance. Animals have no electric blankets, no heated barns, no tea kettles on the burner. We must provide them with a place to hide from the wind and snow, and a nice straw bed in which they can hunker down and keep warm.

But water is a close second. The animals rely on their metabolism to keep themselves warm. They ramp it up in the cold weather, and it won't "fire up" without lots of fresh water.

So when I walked into the chicken barn the other day, I immediately knew something was wrong.

First off, the chickens ran towards me, not away. Hmmn. The chickens and I have a pretty cool relationship. They don't fear me, yet I'm not their favorite person either. When things are running smoothly, they could take me or leave me.

But not today. Today these birdies were all over me.

In fact, they were fighting over the snow on my boots.

Next I saw this:

That's the heat lamp that keeps their water thawed out in the winter. You see, we have automatic waterers for the chickens. And we worked very hard developing our system. (I use the term we very loosely here.)

We have a heat lamp on the spigot where the pipe comes up from the well. We tied insulation around the pipe to keep it nice and warm. We connected a garden hose to this pipe, around which we have wound electric tape, around which we have added another layer of foam insulation.

(You might do well to substitute he for we in that whole paragraph, if you know what I'm saying.)

The insulated hose runs through a window into the interior of the barn here.....

...and to a water trough equipped with a float:
It works pretty similar to your toilet. When the water levels drop, the float opens a valve to let more water in.

We farmers are an ingenious lot. Cough.

You did notice the cat in the picture, right?

In Irish Grove, we believe in inter-specie-al harmony.

Anyways, someone put a chink in our system by knocking the light bulb out of the lamp. And the float froze to the trough.

Our chickens were so thirsty, that one of them had stuck her head out a little hole in the barn door to eat snow.....and got stuck. I didn't get a picture of her because I was so distressed.

Her head and one wing were outside in the elements, and the rest of her body was inside, smushed under the barn door. Poor birdy. If I hadn't checked on the chickens that morning, she would've died for sure. I gently slid open the barn door, trying not to break her wing, and set her free. She was OK. Whew!

I knew the birds were thirsty because they all ran outside into the snow and started to eat it.

Chickens normally don't like snow.

Then I spent the next 3 hours running back and forth from the house to the barn. I was boiling water on the stove to pour into the water trough. I was trying to melt the ice-jammed float.

Finally the ice melted, the water started flowing, and the birds got a drink of fresh water.

Disaster averted. Barely.

When you're a livestock farmer, you can never relax. If you do, you threaten the very lives of your animals. That's why I developed the Farmer's Rule of 3's:

Check your animals, 3 times a day.

Friday, January 16, 2009

South Pole, Illinois

The local newscaster informed us this morning that our -23 degrees outside was every bit as cold as the South Pole. The South Pole!! That's right. They woke up to -23 degrees, too.

Now that's cold.

We're warmer than the North Pole. Warmer! They woke up to a balmy -8 degrees.
P'shaw....that's nothin'.

This is what Lucero looked like this morning:

This is what Lucero's nose looked like this morning:

This is what Chip looked like this morning:

Look at his ears. He looks like a scooter.
I'm probably a bad farmer for thinking that's funny.

This is what one of our calves looked like this morning:
This is what the farmer looked like this morning:

Yeah....not so smokin'.
Oh well. At least I didn't freeze.

What Happens When....

What happens when.....

the cows are hungry,
and they're really giving you the business for not bringing them hay any sooner,
and these are frozen to the ground?
A farmer temper-tantrum, that's what.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

When You Live in the Country

When you live in the country, you can park your vehicle in the middle of the road.

You can leave the keys in the ignition in your vehicle in the middle of the road.

You can even leave the engine running with the keys in the ignition in your vehicle in the middle of the road.

And ain't nobody gonna come along and steal your vehicle.

I love living in the country.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

An Op-Ed from Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson

Seeing as I'm on a Wendell Berry kick, I figured I'd copy and paste this article here for your reading enjoyment. It is an Op-Ed piece written by Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson (founder of The Land Institute of Kansas). It was published in the New York Times on January 4, 2009.

A 50-Year Farm Bill

Published: January 4, 2009

THE extraordinary rainstorms last June caused catastrophic soil erosion in the grain lands of Iowa, where there were gullies 200 feet wide. But even worse damage is done over the long term under normal rainfall — by the little rills and sheets of erosion on incompletely covered or denuded cropland, and by various degradations resulting from industrial procedures and technologies alien to both agriculture and nature.
Soil that is used and abused in this way is as nonrenewable as (and far more valuable than) oil. Unlike oil, it has no technological substitute — and no powerful friends in the halls of government.

Agriculture has too often involved an insupportable abuse and waste of soil, ever since the first farmers took away the soil-saving cover and roots of perennial plants. Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland. This irremediable loss, never enough noticed, has been made worse by the huge monocultures and continuous soil-exposure of the agriculture we now practice.

To the problem of soil loss, the industrialization of agriculture has added pollution by toxic chemicals, now universally present in our farmlands and streams. Some of this toxicity is associated with the widely acclaimed method of minimum tillage. We should not poison our soils to save them.

Industrial agricultural has made our food supply entirely dependent on fossil fuels and, by substituting technological “solutions” for human work and care, has virtually destroyed the cultures of husbandry (imperfect as they may have been) once indigenous to family farms and farming neighborhoods.

Clearly, our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable. We must restore ecological health to our agricultural landscapes, as well as economic and cultural stability to our rural communities.

For 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe that as long as we have money we will have food. That is a mistake. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy. The government will bring forth no food by providing hundreds of billons of dollars to the agribusiness corporations.

Any restorations will require, above all else, a substantial increase in the acreages of perennial plants. The most immediately practicable way of doing this is to go back to crop rotations that include hay, pasture and grazing animals.

But a more radical response is necessary if we are to keep eating and preserve our land at the same time. In fact, research in Canada, Australia, China and the United States over the last 30 years suggests that perennialization of the major grain crops like wheat, rice, sorghum and sunflowers can be developed in the foreseeable future. By increasing the use of mixtures of grain-bearing perennials, we can better protect the soil and substantially reduce greenhouse gases, fossil-fuel use and toxic pollution.

Carbon sequestration would increase, and the husbandry of water and soil nutrients would become much more efficient. And with an increase in the use of perennial plants and grazing animals would come more employment opportunities in agriculture — provided, of course, that farmers would be paid justly for their work and their goods.

Thoughtful farmers and consumers everywhere are already making many necessary changes in the production and marketing of food. But we also need a national agricultural policy that is based upon ecological principles. We need a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.

This is a political issue, certainly, but it far transcends the farm politics we are used to. It is an issue as close to every one of us as our own stomachs.

Wes Jackson is a plant geneticist and president of The Land Institute in Salina, Kan. Wendell Berry is a farmer and writer in Port Royal, Ky.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Wendell Berry and the Local Library

Our local library is very quaint. It has a great children and youth section, and large, comfortable facilities. The librarians are nice and helpful, they have story hour for little ones, they host meetings and events for different local entities, and they work nicely with the local schools.

My only complaint lies with their adult reading selection. Or lack thereof. This could, admittedly, be due to the fact that I read almost strictly non-fiction. And, well, unless I want to read the next political manifesto (which I don't) or find the (newest) secret to financial success, I'm out of luck.

Our library has both a fiction and a non-fiction bookshelf near the front door where they display the newest selections. Seriously, out of maybe 40 non-fiction books, I'd say close to half are about losing weight or healthy cooking. Another large percentage has either a strong religious slant or the typical new-age "Love Thyself, Heal Thyself" theme.

And I can't decide whether those categories are complimentary or contradictory.

But what really has me confused is why our library, in a small, rural town--a town that is (or at least used to be) agriculturally-based, has so few books about farming or backyard gardening? Why no books like The Rural Rennaissance by John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist, or something about revitalizing small-town America? Why can't I find a book like the Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery or anything about the local foods movement?

And why, why-oh-why did nothing (nothing!!) come up when I typed 'Wendell Berry' into the computerized card catalog? Wendell Berry, folks. Perhaps the most ardent advocate for family farms and small town America. A man who champions rural culture. A man who has painstakingly documented and vociferously protested the rise of industrial agriculture and the subsequent demise of the small family farm (and their local rural communities). A man whose books should be showcased in our small town library.

I have to admit it. I was a little incredulous that our library didn't have anything by Wendell Berry. Especially since Berry has written many charming novels about a fictional rural town in Kentucky that lovingly and realistically depict life in small town America, and our library loves fiction.

I thought to myself, "maybe I spelled his name wrong or did something wrong on the computer search page." So I asked the librarian to help me.

"Do you know if we have any books by Wendell Berry?" I asked nicely.

"Hmmn, Wendell Berry. I've never heard of him. Let's check," she replied sweetly.

To which my head is screaming, "NEVER HEARD OF HIM????"

"No, Jackie, I don't see anything. If you have a specific title in mind I could get it for you on the intra-library loan," she added.

Now this librarian is the nicest, sweetest lady ever. She is exactly the type of small-town person that Wendell Berry exemplifies in his books. The one who knows your name. The one who knows who your family is, where you live, and that your grandfather is sick. The one who marvels at how big your children are and who will thank you profusely for that 25 cent donation you put in the Friends of the Library jar.

Of course not everyone is going to know Wendell Berry.

But in a world that values speed and efficiency over mindfulness and quality.....

in a world that promotes upward mobility and independence over strong communities and neighborly responsibility......

in a world that teaches our own, small-town rural kids that in order to be successful they must abandon their birthplace, their family, their rural heritage and move to the city.....

isn't it a shame that we've never even heard of the one person who advocates for us, who values us, who champions us?

What more evidence do we need that we bought the party line? That we lost ourselves and our community somewhere inbetween financial success, upward mobility and individual achievement and recognition?

We drank the punch, people, and it's killing us.

Maybe if we stopped reading "Fat-Free Cooking Means a Fat-Free Me" books and instead read The Unsettling of America, Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry, we could do away with the "Love Thyself, Heal Thyself" books altogether.

*Disclaimer: All of the unattributed titles above were made up. But I wouldn't be surprised if these are real titles to real books. If so, my apologies (and a good finger-wagging) to the authors.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Random Thoughts for the New Year

Marcel and I have joined the ranks of homeowners, but we are more adeptly described as loan-owers. We are buying the farmhouse, farm buildings and 5 acres from "the farm" (AKA mom).

I giggled as I watched our new horse Brittany slowly and painstakingly slip and slide her way across the icy barnyard. Then I felt like a bad farmer.

What does it mean when I call up each and every Irish Grove owner (AKA Mom, Matt, and Laura), ask them to come over on Sunday to help with the organic certification record keeping, and no one shows up?

Farmer Bill sold the last of his cattle herd. He is officially, completely, 100% retired. It's the end of an era for the Donald Flynn family. Which makes me sad. And worried about the future of their farm.
I wish one of the cousins would get the farming itch. (Hint, hint.)

We are getting nearly 4 dozen eggs a day. Holy Cannoli.

My grant-writing partner, Andrea, and I have written up evil plans to take over the agricultural world. Bwa-ha-ha. OK, not really. But we are pitching ourselves to the local U of I-Extension Director as the up-and-coming, most perfect alternative-agriculture-education-team she's ever laid her eyes on. Think she'll buy into our load of (composted) cow manure?

Correction: The all important Madam Secretary Laura did come to my Sunday meeting, and helped me get started on the all-encompassing, extremely frustrating job of organic certification record keeping. Kudos to you, Madam Secretary.

Can you believe that on the very eve of our new status as homeowners the furnace broke? We fixed it, to the tune of a few hundred bucks, only to have it break again 4 days later. Would this be karma, or a coincidence, or just plain bad luck?

Did you know that the cows and horses both grow a winter coat of fur to protect them from the cold? They're pretty charming this way, all woolly and fuzzy. Olivia the Border Collie also grew a second layer of fur. On top of a layer of fat, the lazy thing.

Marcel and I bought a new point and shoot digital camera. Which means I'll be able to take more (and better) photos of the goings-ons around here. Stay tuned.

I didn't get around to mailing Christmas cards this year. But everyone here at Irish Grove Farms, animals and all, wishes you all a wonderful 2009.