Thursday, February 26, 2015

Winter Work, and a Few Winter Wishes

It's 4-degrees as the sun peeps over the eastern horizon, but given that this is as warm as it is likely to get today, sooner is probably better than later to get started on the chores.  There is snow again to shovel, although only an inch or so -- far less than the 7-9 inches predicted.  Given that meteorological inaccuracy it’s tempting to wager that instead of the forecasted minus 8 the mercury will climb to a balmy 72.  Tempting, but I’m not feeling quite that lucky.  It is, after all, February in Iowa. It's supposed to be cold.

Confined to their coop and run almost the entirety of yesterday because of the snow and wind, the girls will be anxious for me to clear some snow for traveling spaces to stretch their legs, fluff their feathers and put some distance between themselves and the others while drinking in a little sunlight.  And while I am at it, a more literal “drinking” will be appreciated once I lug a few jugs of water out to replenish their waterers.

Snow clearing, then, plus some spread straw for them to walk on; water and, of course, more feed since I emptied the remnants of the previous bag last evening.  They eat a lot when there is nothing else to do -- which is preferable to the alternative, otherwise known as getting on each other's nerves and pecking one another out of boredom and annoyance.  Sort of like the rest of us.

By that point it will be mid-morning and time for a deserved next cup of coffee.  After that, who knows?  More garden planning perhaps, or seeding, or into town to deliver some eggs and check off a few errands if the roads have been cleared.

Or, if the thermometer behaves like they predict it will, it might be a day to slip into the sweats, kick up the fire, and dust off that book that has been languishing on the nightstand.

Wishful thinking, I know; but wouldn't it be nice.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

There is a Reason Farmers Are Hungry

On the radio this morning I heard a story about the growing number of young people choosing to become farmers. The farmers in the story sounded a lot like me — in their late 20s to mid-30s, committed to organic practices, holding college degrees, and from middle-class non-farming backgrounds. Some raise animals or tend orchards. Others, like me, grow vegetables. The farmers’ days sounded long but fulfilling, drenched in sun and dirt. The story was uplifting, a nice antidote to the constant reports of industrial ag gone wrong, of pink slime and herbicide-resistant super-weeds.What the reporter didn’t ask the young farmers was: Do you make a living? Can you afford rent, healthcare? Can you pay your labor a living wage? If the reporter had asked me these questions, I would have said no.  Jaclyn Moyer, "What Nobody Told Me About Small Farming," February 10, 2015
She has been getting a lot of attention in recent weeks, this organic farmer and writer from Northern California.  In her piece she goes on to confess with disappointment and almost certainly some embarrassment how the numbers never add up -- now, or when she and her partner forecast the years ahead.  Moreover, after querying other farmers about their small-to-medium farming operation viability she could find none who paid themselves a weekly wage that equaled what a person working full-time would make on minimum wage, who abided by labor laws and therefore harbored no unpaid workers doing essential farm tasks, and actually earned their living from farming as opposed to grants and outside sources.  Even large farms, she notes, rely heavily on government subsidies to end the year in the black.

I am not in my late 20s to mid-30s, though the rest of her descriptors fairly well describe me.  I am, I suppose you could say, idealistic about healthy practices in the field and chicken yard and do everything I can to keep them chemical free and naturally good.  Moreover, I enjoy this giant luxury:  while I wouldn't turn it down if it leaked in under the garden gate, we didn't move to this farmstead to make money.  I understand, then, that my quarter in this jukebox must necessarily be taken with a grain of salt. While we are enthusiastically invested in making a different kind of life, it isn't wrapped around the added burden of making a living.

Ms. Moyer has received quite a bit of push back from those who, like her, are trying to make a go of small scale, sustainable farming, and some of those have put their numbers where their dissent is.  They are, they insist, making a living at farming.  That said, when the time and energy and capital invested are stood alongside the income generated I'm not sure I really believe them.  People make it work by doing all kinds of sometimes related, sometimes ancillary things -- selling jellies, fibers, salsas and soaps they've made on the farm, or dividing their time with off-farm employment.  None of which should be heard as disparaging.  Creativity, ingenuity, and capitalizing on assets in hand are the very things that lie beneath most success stories, and bi-vocationality is more and more prevalent among all sorts of professions, including my chosen career in ministry.  It isn't just farming, in other words, where the ends struggle to ever meet.

Perhaps we'll eventually have to revisit our expectations about what constitutes "a living," and almost certainly some will conclude that this "ag bit" isn't really for them after all.

But here are my two cents to toss into the conversation:  the problem isn't with farming.  The problem is with our specious assumption that food should be cheap.

I sell eggs for $5 per dozen and will tell you that I am losing money on every dozen I sell. That $5 almost covers the cost of the feed -- almost -- but it doesn't touch the cost of the coop or the miscellaneous hardware involved -- the waters, the warmers, the feeders, the litter -- let alone the cost of the birds themselves.  I only somewhat jokingly note that my eggs at this point are worth $125 per egg.  I could feed them for less, but I value the premium organic grains milled locally, and I value the liberal living conditions in which I keep them.  I rather prefer to call it "humane." I am putting these things into my body, after all, and I don't take that destination lightly. 

I am fully aware that eggs can be had for less.  Far less.  If you watch the ads you can find them in the major grocers for less than a buck.  And the way to produce those eggs for those prices is to employ strategies of scale and care that I deem untenable.  And then, as a country, subsidize them accordingly.  Similarly with tomatoes, peppers, pork and beef and anything else we plan to eat.  The only way to make it all cheap is to undertake it on a massive scale, and pay those who manage that scale next to nothing.  And then denigrate them and send them back across the border.

The fact is food is not cheap and we need to stop deluding ourselves into thinking we can nourish ourselves for nothing.  We need to pay those who produce it whatever it costs, and help those who have difficulty paying the tab.  Sure, it may mean a few fewer trips to Starbucks or the McDonald's drive-through, but it will at least start recognizing and shouldering the truth.  We can try to keep fooling ourselves -- and each other -- about all this "economical nutrition" and patting ourselves on the back about the wonders of "modern agricultural", but ask the astronaut what she or he thinks about the rocket built by the lowest bidder.  Again, this isn't to denigrate those who are giving us what we demand; it's just to beg the question:  Is basic life support really where we want to be cutting corners? 

The options are finally these -- as is true with virtually everything else we need:  we can produce more food for ourselves, or we can pay someone else to do it for us recognizing that the latter will come at a premium, not a loss. 

If we paid the price that our food is really worth then people like Ms. Moyers could spend their time growing more instead of lamenting what they are giving up on our behalf.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Foretaste of Anxiety

Already I am feeling anxious, excited, panicked...
...and behind.

It is a familiar feeling by now, surfacing each year about this time since moving to the farmstead three years ago.  It's February -- close enough to spring (or perhaps eager enough for spring by this time in the winter) to viscerally anticipate the new year's gardening adventure, but still too much in the grip of single digit temperatures to do much about it beyond worry.

There is, of course, preparatory work to do, and some of it has already been accomplished.  Seed catalogs have long since been scoured and marked.  Orders were placed weeks ago, and the boxes with their enticing little packets are piled in a jumble downstairs.  That's no small thing.  And the bags of potting soil and compost have been unloaded and stacked neatly in the barn.

But still there is all the conceptual work languishing for attention -- what will go where and how many of each.  All those seeds must be organized into groups, and the layout designed with the online garden planner.  There are rotational issues to consider -- not just "what goes where" but "what went where last year" and therefore needs to go somewhere else this time around.

 And, of, course, there is some manual work to do in the meantime.  This year we plan to try "soil blocking" -- making little blocks of potting soil in which the seeds are started in the greenhouse, rather than using those annoying seeding cell trays. There are all kinds of promised benefits to the plan -- expense, root formation, transplanting ease to name a few -- but before any of them can be realized those little blocks must actually be made.  We invested in the fabricating tool which will make 12 at a time, but there are dozens and dozens to be made and never having made them before I am sure there will be a learning curve.

And then the seeds must find their way into those eventually made blocks and be tended in the greenhouse.  But before that can happen considerable cleaning must be accomplished.  The greenhouse is a mess!  Reclaiming and reconfiguring it for a nourishing and habitable space will be a day's cold and dirty work.

And then the garden prep, itself.  One of these days I will learn to leave the garden in November in a state of readiness for April and May -- clearing out the spent stems and piling away the clutter. But I clearly haven't learned that lesson yet. By the time winter is approaching I am as spent as the vines -- weary, distracted with other things, and ready to store away the tools.  Consequently the rows that await me now are a cluttered jumble of garden ghosts -- a cadaverous echo of last year's vigor that will have to be hoed and raked and cleared and piled before any new life can be imagined.

It will all work out.  It's February, after all, and still 13-degrees with negative temps again in the forecast.  We will get the seeds organized tonight, and the planning, blocking and de-cluttering will get tackled in the coming days and weeks.  But trusting that doesn't leave me any less anxious.

It's just a down payment on the anxious,worrisome and hopeful hand-wringing that accompanies the garden all through the season.

A foretaste of the feast to come.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

It Takes a Village

Murray from Missouri turned into the driveway midday pulling a flatbed trailer bearing two chicken coops.  One of them was ours.  The bigger of the two.  We had placed the order almost a month ago but between construction, weather and respective schedules delivery was delayed until now.  In anticipation I had made a largely failed attempt at clearing a path through the snow toward the chicken yard, but given the residual snow mass and the increasingly muddy conditions I had little hope that we could navigate the new arrival much beyond the driveway.  Even with the wheels I knew it would be tough sledding.  But Murray came equipped with his wife and two young sons -- though the latter, not accustomed much to snow in southern Missouri took some persuading to abandon their snowball fight -- and with the help of us all we moved it along the makeshift trail.  Pulling up several supports that allowed us to lay flat the fence, we made the final push into the chicken compound and heaved a sigh of relief.  Especially the Diebels.  We were not looking forward to moving the cumbersome structure that final leg of the journey on our own.  We patted one another on the back, appreciated everyone's efforts, thanked the crew and offered refreshments before sending them on their way toward the remaining coop's eastern Iowa destination.

Now we are equipped for the new additions that will start arriving in a month or so.  There are some finer touches to ready before that time.  Once the snow recedes and we can move it more easily, the coop will need to be more advantageously situated.  There are feeders and waterers to arrange and bedding to spread inside.  A segregating fence will need to be stretched to prevent the upper classwomen from getting too assertive with the freshmen.  But the hard part is done.  The coop is here announcing "welcome."

So what's the point?  A good question that we keep asking ourselves.  It would be easy -- and not at all incorrect -- to reply that the chickens are simply fun and it will be delightful to multiply the joy.  They are fun, and we love to watch their playful, skittering antics.  It's a kick to see them hop up on the straw bales or mount the balance beams to sun -- or is it simply to gain a better view?  It cracks me up when, all of a sudden, upon some indecipherable cue, one of them sprints the entire expanse of the yard only to arrive and...simply stop and resume her search for bugs. 

So there is the entertainment factor, and out here beyond the reach of cable, and inadequately wired for satellite dishes, we take our entertainment wherever we can get it.  But that doesn't really satisfy the question.

There are, of course, the eggs and we are grateful for those.  Despite their actual value in the triple digits each, we consume our share and manage to sell the rest for just about enough to pay for the feed.  So it's hardly a money-maker.  When backed to a wall I suppose we have to admit that there is no objectively persuasive answer. 

And yet...

When we moved to the farmstead 3 years ago it was with a determination to join that great circle of memory that knows how to produce food.  The garden was the heart of that desire -- to know what it means to sow a seed and nurture a plant and pluck the produce to nourish ourselves and others.  We wanted to experience, to learn, and learning, to teach.   But it was a desire not necessarily confined to those three verbs.  Less articulated, but essential nonetheless was the commitment to sustain.  There are heirloom seeds the fruit of which we wanted to enjoy, to be sure, but more importantly to keep in existence.  The honey bees we harbor we hoped would benefit our fruit trees and plants, yes, but we also value insuring their safe habitat as well.  Heritage breed chickens somehow align with that larger concern.  There are better egg layers to be purchased -- commercial varieties bred to be laying machines -- but the value of these is somehow other than their productivity.  Even if we cannot quantify or quite articulate that value we nonetheless discern it to be there. 

As Wendell Berry intimates in the title of his new book, this is "Our Only World," and if we take that observation seriously it will require us all doing what we can to sustain it.  Or to remember the oft-cited African wisdom, "it takes a village..." 

In our case, apparently, it takes a village of coops -- three now, counting the "annex."  But over the next few months the population of our little village will expand to welcome a few more of those dwindling, but precious breeds.  According to the specs of the new coop it will accommodate up to twelve. 

And we will give thanks for their arrival.  Hopefully, they will be sort of happy about it as well.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Patience is the Virtue

Hungry customers are awaiting their delivery of eggs.  The chickens, meanwhile, are waiting for me to clear the snow so they have some place to play.  The electric fence is waiting for me to reset some posts so that the gate support doesn't bow from the tension.  The barn is waiting for me to mop up the water from the bathroom leak the plumber repaired yesterday.  The empty suitcase is waiting to be packed for my trip that begins tomorrow.  Class assignments are languishing, waiting for my review and response.  And I am waiting for deliveries. 

In and of itself that's nothing new.  Lori says I am always waiting for something to arrive, and even my neighbor laughs at how frequently the UPS truck pulls into our driveway.  Fine.  Mock me.  I'm an easy target.

It does, I recognize, beg the "how much is enough" question.  I am not exempt from the "wretched excess" contagion and I freely admit to already having too much.  I confessionally acknowledge that  arguments in favor of any alleged hierarchies of gluttony are necessarily suspect, and anyone who defends his own appetites is begging for condemnation. 

That said, however, this time
I'm not waiting for trivialities.  Important stuff is on the way.  The 24 bags of compost, for example should arrive any day from Wisconsin -- a foretaste of garden preparation this spring (in fact, it arrived late afternoon).  Already there is work to do with it as we plan to try soil blocking this year as an alternative to those little plastic seeding trays -- using a special device to create 2" X 2" blocks of compost/potting mix into which the seeds will be sown and nurtured in the greenhouse and then transplanted directly into the ground when the growing season begins.  Already I have the seeds.  The blocks will be the next step.  And then I am simply waiting for the right week to get it all started, which will lead to waiting for the seeds to sprout...and then fruit...and then ripen.

And then, of course, there is the new coop.  Yes, we are getting a new chicken coop.  Another one.  One like the other one, only slightly smaller.  Murray from Missouri, the gentleman who builds these fine "hen hoops", is bringing it up today...or tomorrow...or...  We'll see.  Even then we will have to wait to see when, given all this snow, we can drag it back to the chicken yard. 

And then we can start waiting for the new chickens.  Yes, more chickens.  A few more.  So many heritage breeds, so little coop space. 

And then we can start waiting for the eggs...

...which hungry customers will start waiting to be delivered.

And so it goes.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Frigid Temps, A Couple of Filters, and a Feeling of Triumph

"Well, you are a real farmer," my friend David responded when I let him know I wouldn't need his help after all.  Despite the fact that legitimate farmers everywhere are cringing from the association, I appreciate the affirmation.  I am rather proud of myself as well.

This week -- the week of almost a foot and a half of snow; the week of the heaviest snow fall this year, and quite possibly the heaviest in several years -- my tractor decided to sleep in.  This would be the lawn tractor to which in winter is attached the 48" snow blower acquired for just such a week as this.  Usually it roars into life and snaps right to work, doing anything I ask it to do...within reason.  But Monday morning, having suited up in full snow prophylactic gear and waded through the drifted tundra to the barn, I raised the overhead door, backed the tractor out with a roar and got half way through the job when it began to sputter and shutter and cough and belch out black smoke.  Power plummeted, and after repeated attempts to power through the problem, I finally limped the equipment back inside.

I scratched my head. I consulted friends.  We speculated that the diesel had turned to gel in the cold.  I tried again the next day but was met with more of the same.  Coughing myself, now, from the diesel exhaust I called the service department and explained my plight.  "You and everybody else," the man chuckled.  "When did you buy your fuel," he asked.

I don't keep track of such things.

"Well, you might still be using summer blend."

Entirely possible.  Who knew I was supposed to be emptying my tanks with the seasons?

He said a lot of other things about gel, additives, waxy buildup, ice crystals, etc., but most of it went over my head.  I know a few things about the New Testament but very little about Kubotas beyond turning the key.  He advised that I replace the fuel filters -- both of them.  Yes, it turns out that there are two.  "The good news is that they are cheap."

I wasn't sure that was adequate consolation,  "How much is the technician who comes home with me to put them in?"

More chuckling.

I wasn't kidding.

"Seriously, you expect someone like me, with a total dearth of mechanical prowess, to accomplish this task?"

He asked for a translation.

"You think an idiot like me can do this?"

"Well, probably" he responded without a whole lot of confidence.

That's when I contacted David to see if he could help.  David knows about such things.  Charitably he agreed.

Yesterday, then, I circled by the dealership, picked up my two two cheap filters along with every kind of fuel treatment in the shop, returned home, took a deep breath and mustered up resolve to make an attempt.  Less than an hour later I emerged from the barn smelling like a refinery, a little contorted from having to stand on my head and pretzel my arms into spaces not designed for human access, but smiling and triumphant.  I had actually done it.

By myself.
Without breaking anything.
Without profanity.
OK, without much profanity.

Somehow, while simultaneously thumping my chest and patting myself on the back, I managed to pour some of the fuel treatment into the tank for good measure before returning to the house to trumpet my success to my long-suffering and ever-encouraging wife.  And to fire off an email letting David off the mechanical hook.

That's when he maligned the fraternity of farmers by including me among their numbers.  Never mind.  I'll accept the compliment even if it's only momentarily deserved.

Last night I stopped at a station and refilled the can with fresh diesel -- winter blend this time -- and today we'll see what happens.  It's only 8 below zero this morning.  What could possibly go wrong?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Praying for Clearer Skies

The meter now runs both ways.
For all the good it's doing us today.  But I digress.

Last week the contractors tightened the last bolt on the solar array that has been under construction out behind the chicken yard since Thanksgiving.  Generally speaking, sustainability has been a guiding value for our little farmstead since we moved here three years ago.  We avoid artificial inputs in the garden, opting instead for organic and natural nourishment I concoct from bags of plant and bone meals, and the generously shared alpaca manure from next door.  That, and the bags of organically generated compost I order in from Wisconsin.  The chickens are fed a premium organic feed ground by a mill a couple of hours away.  And, of course, we eat what we produce.

So the solar system is a logical extension of that value.  Technically speaking it is a "photo voltaic" system.  Still more technically speaking it is a 26-panel, 280 watt SolarWorld mono modules with 26-Enphase M250 micro inverters.  Which is really more than anyone wants to know.  What inquiring minds want to know is, "what the heck is it for?"

It is not the plan that we will be migrating "off the grid," but it is our hope that the system will generate all or most of the electricity needed to supply our house.  Sometimes even more.  That's where the bi-directional electrical meter comes in.  At the beginning of this process we signed an agreement with the power company through which we will be credited on those days when we produce more electricity than we need.  Our own little energy savings account, so to speak.  Our fancy new meter makes that possible -- measuring the electricity that we need to buy, but now also measuring the electricity we get to return.

Which, as I indicated before, is not getting much practice these days.  Saturday night through Sunday morning the heavens blessed us with a foot of snow that completely covered the panels.  Yesterday afternoon I finally assembled the necessary gizmos to squeegee the panels clean, just in time for sunset.  And today, of course, it is snowing all over again -- a couple of inches so far -- so I'll need to do it all over again.

On the off-chance the sun is able to break through.

One of these days.

In the meantime I'll just admire that vast expanse of tempered glass, and savor this next expression of partnership with the world around us...

...or in this case, above us.  And pray for clearer skies.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

"Snowbound -- Let's Sleep in Today"

The "Christmas" playlist on the iPod eventually gave way to the more generic "Winter" one -- less festive, perhaps, but more seasonally appropriate.  A few songs survived the transition, but two that never fail to bring a smile to our face and a winsome longing to our soul are Donald Fagan's "Snowbound, let's sleep in today..." and Over the Rhine's "I wanna get snowed in with you..."  Perhaps it is that vestigial longing from childhood for those magical school cancellations that offered bonus time happily unprogrammed and free, but adulthood rarely allows for such frivolity.  Which, I suppose, is why the songs strike such an alluring note.

And then the songs came true.  SnowboundSnowed in.  Since last weekend's 12-inch of dump of snow we have been defining the phrase, "hunkered down."  After teaching a class on Saturday morning and making a quick run to the grocery store we haven't left the property, nor spent anytime trying to gin up a reason to.  Not that we have had much of a choice.  The county plows didn't clear the roads until yesterday morning.  I had fired up the tractor and snow blower and made a passable tunnel through the driveway, but that's where the possibilities ended.  I noticed a truck or two manage some passage, but we saw no urgency.  We have freezers full of last summer's harvest, and shelves lined with fruits of the canning kitchen.  Church was cancelled on Sunday.  We had no other obligations.  And so we stayed put, happy to have a habitable refuge.  We have a fireplace, windows through which to enjoy the view, books to read, projects to complete, and each other.

But we do not live here alone.  The dogs occasionally need some time outdoors and in addition to pressing business they love to romp in the snow.  Dolphin-diving through the drifts, they explore and frolic in each other's ruts, and toss with their noses the corgi equivalent of snow balls -- "Nose balls" perhaps -- and require some urging or bribing to return inside.

There are the dogs, but also the chickens.  The ladies don't mind the cold -- 3-below-zero yesterday morning -- but they are narrow-minded about the snow.  After I released them from their cozy coop at dawn they descended the ramp into the relatively dry and covered run, only to gather at the threshold of the outer door and halt.  An electric fence would not have contained them more effectively than the blanket of snow  that greeted them.  After surveying the options, they reversed course and opted to see what they could scratch up inside.  Later in the day I shoveled a path around the coop -- more for my egg-gathering benefit than theirs -- and a clearing outside the run.  Excavated straw made for a patio of sorts and I noticed them crowding into the clearing at intervals during the day.   The clearing, but no further.  Of course by yesterday their food and water containers were running low, necessitating still more travels from the house to the coop.  It's work trudging through a foot of snow -- work, and of course cold.  I have yet to find a pair of gloves that adequately keep my fingers warm, though the doubled socks, winter boots and the insulated Carhartt bib overalls do a pretty good job with the rest of me.  As is true in the rest of our living, it wasn't long before I was following a rut, dug by repetition.  All the attention must have been appreciated.  The girls rewarded me with 10 eggs gathered before dusk.

 Today, of course, will be different.  The roads have been plowed.  There are obligations to satisfy.  Life moves back into the more familiar and larger ruts we have cut by commitment and routine.  And it, too, will be good.  It will be nice to see what else has been going on in the world outside the fenceline of Taproot Garden.  But for this bitter and stormy weekend, winter has held us as happy hostages. 

And we will look forward to the next time.