Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How Technology Almost Killed Mixed Farming

Technology has a way of changing the very fabric of our society, usually without our even noticing. Some major changes to western agricultural technology occurred in the 60's and 70's thanks to the development of two machines. As with all technological shifts, these new machines were intended to increase farm productivity and profit potential, while reducing the amount of human labor required. The two machines were the combine and (later I think) the swathing machine.

Before then, but since the industrial revolution and the proliferation of machines, grain harvesting was accomplished by an involved process. I'm proud to say that I am one of VERY few in my generation in North America who can say I know and have taken part in it. The first step in the process was using a horse (and later tractor) driven machine called a binder. This machine cut the ripe lengths of grain and tied them into simple bundles or sheaves. These bundles were piled on a small one ended rack which could be lowered to the ground. Friction would then pull the pile of bundles off, leaving them on the ground and the rack would lift back up to receive the next pile of bundles. At some point, someone would come along and rearrange all those piles of bundles into "stooks", or upright tipi-like structures which allowed the grain stalks to finish drying.

Once the stooks had enough time to dry, carts were driven through the fields and each bundle was pitched (yep, with a pitch fork) into the cart. Then the cart would be brought to the threshing machine where each bundle would be tossed into the front, to then be separated into grain and straw. In a lot of ways, this was ideal for the mixed farmer. This is why you used to see wooden granaries in groups of two or three, with some space in between each group. The grain could be funneled into a granary and the straw blown next to the granary, into a large pile. This straw would then be used as bedding for the herd through the long Northern Winter.

* Thanks to the website from whom I borrowed this picture. There are several old pictures of this process out at the farm, but I have not yet gathered them for scanning.

By the time I was a part of the process we were already switched to using a tractor instead of horses and/or steam engine, so we basically did it all ourselves. We also used an actual grain truck instead of the tiny grain wagon you can see in the picture above. We still have one of those grain wagons on the farm still though, not totally dilapidated yet (gosh I need to get at saving it somehow). Before I was old enough to help (and I admit I was not made to work until I was fairly old, compared to my dad for example) dad would hire a fellow to help him, and mom did her significant share of course. I never saw the days of the wandering harvest workers but I know the days were long and brutal and the pay was not much. I also know that even though we used machines, the days were long and hard and exhausted both of my parents. I think a lot of the reason I look back at it was such fondness, is that I was allowed to watch or play, I didn't have to start working my ass off at 8 years old like my dad did. I can understand why it is hard for my dad to look back at those days with much fondness, where I find it kind of...magical I guess.

But back to my point...

The introduction of the combine meant that all separation could be done in the field and all that "waste" straw could be chopped finely and blown back onto the field. Priority could finally shift to maximizing either grain or livestock production, and the benefits and alternate efficiencies of mixed farming were soon forgotten. Now grain farmers had to buy manure from animal farmers and animal farmers had to buy food for their animals from grain farmers. This created a market for alternate options like synthetic fertilizers and chemical herbicides which were cheaper but of which we are also now seeing the results. This allowed for the proliferation of "middle-man" enterprises which were ripe for absorption by the new large-scale industrial corporate agricultural sector.

So, the result of not truly pondering the outcome of technological advancements, the result of ignoring wisdom and avoiding forethought, is what we see now; a global choke-hold on sustainable agriculture and a massive struggle in front of those of us who recognize the real necessity of local, sustainable agriculture.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Return of Codex Alimentarius?

When I became aware of the Codex Alimentarius concern, the biggest detail which made this seem a "conspiracy theory" to me was the very specific date of implementation offered by some of the loudest warning voices. Apparently on December 31, 2009 the full range of this global, UN-driven policy was supposed to come into effect, removing or almost totally restricting the ability for the general public to attain natural foods, dietary supplements (vitamins and minerals), and natural non-chemically derived medications. Then within the next year, and subsequent years, billions would die (I also find it hard to believe that these massive corporations would willingly and rapidly wipe out the vast majority of their customer base).

BUT, I have no difficulty at all in believing that these corporations would do whatever it takes to keep as many people as possible needing to buy their products. History has shown that morality rapidly disappears from societies of people beyond some general size in number. This doesn't mean that all individual members of the society see their morals vanish, but that of the society itself does seem to. This is especially the case in corporations, where the very basic purpose of the thing is to derive profit for the (and especially certain) members of the society.

So I went and tried to read Codex. I did read some of the documents and know that I should read more, but to focus on it too much would drive me mad. It is exceedingly long and detailed and indescribably boring. But some of it is pretty scary, such as the amount of attention paid to detailing what chemicals, toxins and otherwise, which were allowed in any specific product. Not getting rid of the toxins, but determining how much was considered safe to consume. And no discussion, that I saw, of the problems with overlapping various combinations of these "safe" amounts. From what I read, it did not seem so much a manual for wiping out huge swaths of humanity but for keeping them just going on in an increasingly toxic environment, internally and externally...and keeping them addicted to large-scale corporate goods.

It seemed to me that, as with all large scale control mechanisms, for one such as Codex Alimentarius to be implemented successfully it would mean doing so gradually, so as not to overly arouse the masses. One of the first specific concerns about Codex was the push for Bovine Growth Hormone to be used in ALL cows, thereby being introduced to all Beef and bovine dairy products. This has been, at least temporarily, avoided in most of the world.
Canada also has a bill in Parliament now, I cannot remember its "name", which speaks to this issue...apparently on the side of Codex. C-somethingorother has been talked about for a few years now. Personally, I thought it had disappeared as well. Silly human, losing focus...

But then, a week or so ago I heard about a National Post article which was supposedly about Canada banning the sale of all natural dietary and health products. I figured that I should have a look for this article, but kept getting distracted (very sore neck, Olympics, etc). Well today I found it and it looks like another quiet step towards restricting natural products.

The article is here (at least as this is being written).

What it actually says, and I find problems with both sides fo the debate, is that Canadian Pharmacy regulators are asking that Canadian Pharmacies do not sell natural remedies which have not been licensed by the Canadian government. I'm not sure exactly to what extent this Vitamin C a natural health remedy? Can I not buy echinacea at Save-On anymore because it contains a pharmacy?

In some ways, I can see why such products might need to be regulated to a certain extent. It would be pretty easy to label any garbage as some kind of natural remedy or product without SOME regulation, especially as things are now when there is just no way one individual can properly investigate the origins of everything they consume. But at the same time, Big Pharma and other global corporations like to keep us needing more and more of their crap and to see their crap regulated less and less. I can't speak for everyone but I know on which side I stand. We don't get to demand to be taken care of, we have to take responsibility for ourselves or we lose our right to be....simple as that.

Anyway, I don't really have the time to go off onto a rant here, although it is tempting! I just wanted to point out that winning one battle doesn't mean we can let down our guard. Those who want control will always keep prodding to see what control can be taken. As much as I wish it were not so, some of us have to stand ready to oppose that control...and to be wary of becoming it ourselves.

Peace and comfort, brothers and sisters.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Red Worm Update

Well my little Red Wiggler breeding experiment continues to move along successfully but, as with most such ventures, there have been stumbles as well. Primarily, the opportunities for learning have come in regards to temperature, moisture...and bugs.

I believe that the temperature and moisture issues have actually been working together. My first bin often needed water added once in awhile, but the 3 main ones that I have been running lately have all become quite soggy in the bottom, despite having drain holes. One of them was actually draining some water out, including some VC and even some worms. I had to retrieve the wanderers or they'd have eventually drowned. The other two bins merely got soggy in the bottom and I have had to do plenty of stirring and adding of absorbent bedding in order to avoid smelly anaerobic activity.

I suspect moisture issue had two causes. One is simply that I have been feeding the worms things that have had a higher moisture content, like cast-off pumpkins from our fall harvest. The other factor is temperature. The one main bin that I have had here in the condo has been by far the least soggy of the three, whereas the worst of the three seems to be the bin that has been sitting on the cool floor of the basement at my parent's house out at the farm. So I think the trick is going to be keeping them off the floor and, if I can, away from the cool walls. These cooler temperatures really seem to slow down the activity of the worms, both feeding and breeding. Now that I have eased off on the feeding of water-heavy things to the condo bin, I am starting to see some very nice and nearly finished VermiCompost that should be ready for use in the greenhouse within a couple of months. Hopefully the other two bins will catch up quickly.

The more frustrating issue has been bugs.

In the last update I wrote about the fruit fly infestation that I was fighting. Well no sooner had I won that battle than I had an infestation of small manure flies which came from some dry cow patties that I brought from the farm. These little bastards are tiny things that like to come to my computer desk and fly up my nose when I am working or watching something. I don't know of any way to get rid of them other than to remove all food sources and let them die off, which is hard to do when trying to actively breed bins of worms in my condo. However soon I will be able to move the bins from here back out to the farm where bugs are much less of an issue. Let this be a lesson, however. Don't bring manure into your house unless it has been properly composted already. Its a lesson I should have known already but I am a boy after all!

But if you're wondering why I brought the cow shit into the condo, well, it makes GREAT longer term food and serves as bedding. As bedding it can come in real handy for sopping up excess moisture if the manure is very dry. And of course, plenty of bedding over top of added food that might attract bugs is always a good way to not attract them in the first place.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Name!

One of the most important parts of doing business, be it industrial, commercial, agricultural or what-have-you, is having a good name. Even if the goal is building an intentional community, its usually important to have a good name. So one of the things in the back of my head when thinking about moving the family farmland forward, has been what name to call the thing. My own company has a relatively bland corporate name as it was never planned to be involved in marketing of any kind. But the farm project needed something good.

Well I think that mom gave it to me today.

I am not going to really get into it now, or tell the story of how SHE got the name, I just wanted to report this happy step forward. The story will be told, but I think I will save it for telling when I reveal the new Jackson's Corner website, which will happen before too very long.

Yep, it's looking like the home place (at least what we still own) will soon come to be known formally as Jackson's Corner or possibly Jackson's Corner Farm. Since my own personal goal is for it to become an intentional community (in time), and because I think adding "Farm" is kind of overdone and a bit redundant, I am tempted to leave it off. Feedback would be highly appreciated, however.

And yes, the farm website will have a blog section and that aspect of this blog will cease to be. I'm sure I will keep this blog around for its original purpose; ranting, news-sharing/discussing, and the search for balance and wisdom, but all the farm stuff will shift to the new site. Blog friends and regular readers will obviously be invited to the new site when it is up and running. But like I said, that could be a little while yet.

For now, back to more research and learning. Peace and comfort, all.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Farm Update

Other than the Great Owl Massacre I have not reported much from the farm in awhile so I thought I would remedy that now, seeing as I am not sleeping anyway.

It has actually been a rather slow winter seeing as the cattle herd is small. If it were not for the hens and their shed needing to be cleaned every 10 days to two weeks I probably would not really be a lot of help this winter. The last two winters have required quite a bit of snow blowing but this year we have not yet had to break out the blower. It has even been warm enough to use the tractor on some days. Just yesterday I spent 4 hours in the tractor doing some chores and clearing some snow. This is the first snow that has been moved so far this winter. Rather disconcerting considering the extreme droughts over the last two summers. If we do not get at least half again what we have now OR some decent spring rains (which we haven't seen as long as I have been back, at least 5 years) it could be a very bad year. I have actually started looking at farmland for sale in Ontario. If precipitation does not pick up here in the next two years, it may be time to consider relocating. I will likely be writing about this subject more soon.

For now though, my focus has been on reacquainting myself with the important details of working with animals on a daily basis. I have kind of a weakness with maintaining attention to reoccurring details over the long-term so it is important that I find ways to deal with this now. On the path I am choosing, one cannot just decide at the drop of a hat that a few days away from work is needed.

Getting back to the Great Owl Massacre for a moment, I thought I'd share a couple more pictures. Don't worry, none of them will be of the pile of carcasses that I drove over to a stand of brush for the ravens, crows and coyotes to deal with.

This is the original screen. In all honesty, I kind of see this as my fault since the screen was not able to be properly mounted in the window so it was just kind of jammed in place at the top. I didn't think of the possibility of some bird of prey tearing through the screen but a weasel could have easily climbed through so I should have just made the end fix then...and saved the slaughter. Ah well, live and learn.

This is the gate that I closed after the horse was out, so to speak:

This window should now be predator-proof. As soon as we get above freezing for a couple of days, I have to re-work the rear exit holes as they are not so secure currently. Happily, the ladies started laying again the very next day. It was a bit of a trickle for a couple of days but, to some surprise, they were pretty much back to their same rate within a week. I think they are currently giving about 5 or 6 dozen a day. Not bad for what I think is 75-85 birds.

Back in October, we added these four female weaner pigs to our menagerie. I meant to introduce them back then when I took this picture, but I did not get around to it until now. This is the first time in over 10 years that pigs have run about on our farm, and they have been missed greatly. These girls are intended to be meat but I suspect we may keep one or two to be bred. They are also the first pigs that I ever remember being fed hay in the winter. In the past I only remember feeding them "slop", a mixture of water, milk, kitchen scraps, fish oil, and a dash of apple cider vinegar (my dad's utility supplement for animals and people, long story), all mixed with ground barley. Thanks to the learning I have done recently, however, both the pigs and hens are being treated like the grazers they are and having their winter diets supplemented with hay. Both are loving it. Here is what the girls looked like as of mid-January:

They are growing quite impressively I must say. They are confined in a pen but it is of decent size and there is a thick layer of straw and hay at the "living" end (where they do all but crap) that they have taken to rooting deeply into, revealing and assisting in the compost activity happening about a foot down. Come spring I am considering setting up a temporary pen over in a spot that I would like to remake into a market garden plot. Then, when pig-breeding time comes, this will hopefully be the spot that we will use for one year. This will let the sows and their piglets work the space up for us a bit as well as add some good fertilizer.

I was going to talk about the worm bins some as well, but I think I will leave that for another post of its own. Until then...

Peace and comfort to all.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Haitian Response

Just yesterday I made reference to peak oil, an issue which I have come to take seriously over the last couple of years, and my sense that it might soon come to affect our lives severely. Today I must say that I am no longer so sure of the immediacy of this problem. My reason for saying this is one that also helps to explain something that I have been wondering for the last couple of weeks.

It bothered me that this was the case, but I have been very curious what was inspiring the overwhelming response to the recent Haiti disaster. Now, this is not to say that I believed the human response to this disaster was unwarranted...far from it. But the truth is that this kind of thing happens fairly regularly with nothing like this kind of response. Of course people try to send money and food and such but rarely is there such a "high level" response. By "high level" I mean several thousand US troops and vocal involvement by names like Bill Clinton and George Bush. By "high level" I mean the Canadian government deciding to match all support fund-raising dollar for dollar. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there was such response to all catastrophes?

So what makes this Haitian disaster particularly special?

This article by F. William Engdahl at lays out an answer that makes a great deal of sense, even though it is...well...maddening.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Razor's Edge

I doubt I am the only one who feels a strong sense of walking a razor's edge, both personally (in my case at least) and at a global level.

On a personal level, the edge is financial. Without going into too much detail, I will just say that my and my family's financial situation is somewhat precarious. Our resources have grown very thin and the opportunity for income is still restricted until some kind of short term operating funds can be arranged. Obviously this is a sticky situation since the vultures are eyeing good farmland all around the world. I hate to think that we might have to sell more land in order to continue with what is left...just doesn't seem wise in the long term. I will do just about anything to avoid that.

But on a global level, I cannot help but feel that all this personal stuff might be moot. This is where I feel the razor's edge analogy fits best. Anyone who is looking at the world through rational and truly honest eyes knows that the economic situation is highly unlikely to be on the path to a stable recovery. Quite the opposite, we are waiting for the other shoe to drop...that shoe which threatens to crash right through the floor when it finally falls, likely taking the whole house of cards down with it.

Then there is the increasing tension between the world's powers, this tension heightened by issues such as climate change, peak resources (most importantly peak cheap energy), and understandable concern about the aforementioned economic situation which is also fueled by the first two listed issues.

And all this happens as the world's greatest power seems to be marching right toward being the most recent failed Empire. We all know these empires do not go down easily so the increased police state style measures are hardly surprising, but still terrifying. Nor is it surprising to see this crumbling Empire engaged in significant foreign military activity. Only this time, a major global conflict is likely to be like nothing we have ever seen before. Yet still swords are rattled, threats made, intrigue plotted. I can't help but feel closer to this catastrophic conflict that at any time growing up in the 70's and 80's.

All told, its a little hard to get up and get going some days. Thank goodness I am not in a city, I think I might go mad.