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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin

Darwin's Beagle Blog

I was recently cajoled into participating in Facebook. My first foray into social networking was pretty much a disaster. Seemed like the riffraff of my past rose to the top. This time is different. This time the cream has risen and reminds me of so many important things that have become muddled by years of living.

One of those rediscoveries is Charles Darwin. How do I get from Facebook to Darwin? Well, in spite of all the media coverage about his 200th birthday, I had been merely nodding recognition and passing the butter. Through Facebook, I reconnected with my old friend Ric Brown, now an esteemed professor at Pratt. Looking through his course materials, I found links to many cool things... one of them being Darwin's Beagle Diary annotated and put into a Blogger Blog.

Anyone who knows me, knows that Darwin is one of my greatest heros. But more importantly as a farmer, Darwin's art of observation is precisely the skill needed to build a deep working understanding of the farm ecosystem. He puzzles through so many conflicting bits; holds on to so many loose ends; and recognizes the importance of the obvious in a uniquely darwinian way. Pouring through Darwin's diary is intellectually inspiring in a way that is at once abstract and practical.

I recommend that anyone who has the urge to dust-off their relationship to Darwin, do a little survey review, and use the meditation to celebrate one of the most important scientists of the modern world.

happy birthday Darwin

It is so satisfying that we can have friends that keep us connected -- not only to our own past -- but also to connect our past to the fabric of history itself -- Facebook as a manifestation of Hegelian Sprit? Ok, that's a stretch. But it is true that we tend to forget more than we learn -- i.e., we relearn the same lessons many times in the course of our lives. It is quite reassuring that we can retain more of our better selves by taking an active interest in our friends.

Thanks Facebook. Thanks Ric for staying in academia!

And Happy Birthday Charles Darwin.


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Friday, February 6, 2009

Berkshire Botanical Garden Hosts Permaculture Greats

Dave Jacke and Paul Stamets gave great presentations last saturday at the Berkshire Botanical Garden.

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Those Who Don't Learn From History... Using Grain To Make Alcohol

new york times clipping

Yes, it would seem that we are doomed to repeat a dark moment in our agricultural history. This is not the first time that America has faced a food price crisis because corn was diverted from the food supply to make alcohol. In the early 1900's, grocery prices began to rise in large part because massive amounts of corn were being sold to brewers and distillers. By 1912, over half of all corn grown in the United States was used to make beer and liquor.

Last night, while I was doing some research, I stumbled upon this great little clipping from the June 5, 1912 New York TImes that covers many of the central issues of the day. Essentially, in 1892 Standard Oil had bought the rights to a patented process of converting corn starch to sugar -- ostensibly to produce fuel alcohol. Since Standard had plenty of cheap oil at the time, fuel alcohol was viewed as a competitor to their core oil and kerosene businesses. However, Rockefeller was smart enough to realize that getting into the booze business would make them a pile of money while hedging their bets in energy. It also put them in a position to lean on other fuel alcohol producers since they could now flood the market with its surplus and force competitors out of business practically at will.

So they became the kings of corn-based malt (since malted sugar had historically made from barley, it was often called "barley malt" even if derived from corn or other grains). With feverish demand for corn and skyrocketing corn prices, farmers quickly switched to corn from other grains (sound familiar?). Standard Oil built a network of malting facilities wherever corn was grown. Voila! the demand for alcohol created radical distortions in the food supply. So extreme were the manipulations of commodity grain prices by the dawning of the 20th century, that these tactics were cited as justification (among many) for the Sherman Anti-Trust Act that lead to the break-up of Standard Oil in 1911.

corn tassel

Combined with a couple of droughts and the pressures of the First World War, worsening shortages of corn and other grains (particularly wheat) became an ingredient in the debate over prohibition. It is rarely recognized that this intense temperance debate was far more complex than simply bible thumping fundamentalists and angry wives waving signs around.

In spite of the fact that America had a far better grain supply than most of Europe, grain prices were an important national concern and played an important role in politics. From an agricultural policy point of view, the industrial states (which tended to be more liberal on the moral issues) were very concerned about the impact distillers had on food prices. In the great "bread basket" states (which profited most from high grain prices) there were very strong "dry" movements driven by well-organized and pious Protestant churches that trumped the financial issues. Both sides used "food vs booze", "farmer vs city folk" arguments to help make their cases. Take your pick -- economic or moral -- the Temperance Movement had the wind of a perfect storm at its back.

It seems to me that there are three important lessons to take away from this.


First, we cannot allow the choice to be food vs fuel. Food must always come first if we want to eat. Agricultural policy must realign itself with the fundamental social importance of food. Even more importantly, it must affirm the connection between agriculture, social culture, and environmental stability. Current policy is measured purely by dollars going back into the "agricultural economy" formulated through a complex calculus of the political benefits of various agricultural commodities. The structure of these policies treats agriculture as if it were some monolithic, trade-protected, manufacturing industry. The fact that even the current energy bill singles out corn as the de-facto source for ethanol as an alternative fuel is the quintessential example of how disconnected national policy is from real need or vision.

Secondly, it is possible to have a "food and fuel" agricultural policy. Biofuels can be made from all kinds of things normally considered agricultural or forestry waste. Corn stalks, straw, whey, slaughter house offal, sawdust, manure .... and the list goes on and on. Ethanol alone can be made from myriad feedstock materials. Agricultural policy should focus on creating new valued added energy products from agricultural waste. Focusing on waste can make agriculture more profitable, provide new sources of energy, reduce environmental problems created by agricultural waste, and bolster the food supply in one fell swoop (of course, this is starting to happen, but not nearly fast or broadly enough!)

And third, standardizing on any single source for energy, be it oil or corn, is dangerous. As soon as a feedstock for energy production become a broadly traded commodity, it becomes ripe for manipulation through global market forces and governments -- if these are agricultural products, external market forces have a direct impact on the stability of agriculture. The flip side of the Standard Oil/corn story is that prohibition led to the collapse of grain prices in spite of an increase in fuel alcohol production (raising profits for the distillers and bankrupting farmers).

In the science of ecology, there is a postulate that diversity leads to stability -- that maturing ecosystems seek their own level of sustainable diversity based on available resources and energy. Humans are not immune from this tendency and should actually use this principle for guidance. If energy policy were tied to agricultural policy in a way that identified regional opportunities to turn agricultural waste into a multitude of energy products in a mosaic created by farmers improving their farms, the benefits would be enormous and long lasting. It seems to me that making every farm in America a net exporter of both food and energy should be a national goal of the highest priority.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

The Goshawk

We have a Goshawk in residence -- actually, a mating pair.

The environmentalist in me is pretty excited about it -- the farmer, not so much. I had never really heard of goshawks in these parts and it took a while to figure out what was getting at our chickens -- that is, until one managed to get itself caught in the brooder pen.

The Goshawk

We have had all kinds of predators: coyotes, fox, owl, red tails -- each can be handled with a little ingenuity and some understanding of the animal you're dealing with. A bit of electric fence; strategic placement of fishing line; careful timing when the chickens go in and out -- there is usually a simple change that can encourage a predator to look elsewhere for dinner. The goshawk is different.

For those who might not know, goshawks live and hunt in the woods. They are very comfortable swooping through brush and tight places to get their prey. Unlike the wary red tail hawk who likes wide open space and will avoid any situation that it doesn't completely understand, the goshawk throws itself with reckless abandon at anything that seems like food. They are amazingly patient. I have had one watch me do chores for well on forty minutes from his perch high up in the willow above the chicken house.

Goshawk haning out

Worst of all, these guys will fly right into a chicken house and hang around until it has finished it's meal. I knew I had trouble when I was finding partially eaten chickens and guineas lying in the middle of the coop floor. It never occurred to me that my adversary had less than four legs. It started as a one bird loss a week; then one every other day; then nearly every day. At that point, there was no sign of what was getting into the coop. Clearly it was happening in the late afternoon when we were either at work or picking up the kids from school. We started shooing the chickens inside and locking them down earlier and earlier in the day. It seemed to be working. And then...

One chilly Saturday afternoon in January, my eldest came running into the house screaming "Papa! come QUICK!". Out in a brooder pen was a dead chicken and a very alive goshawk. I had put the guineas and a few chickens in the small house with an enclosed pen attached to keep the guineas (who aren't too bright) from roosting in a tree and freezing to death. The top had only been rigged well enough to keep the guineas in. Unfortunately, there was enough of a gap to let the goshawk drop himself in as well. Getting out was another matter.

goshawk talons

It was really fascinating to get such a close look at our intruder. Fear is not a word I would use to describe his behavior -- mad is more like it. He climbed around and hung upside-down and stood in defiance. These pictures are from that event. His talons are extraordinarily long and thin. Not as brutish as a red tail -- more like surgical instruments.

We let him go and started fortifying the chicken houses. He still has managed to get himself stuck inside a few more times and we have responded with more fortifications. This is difficult for me since I will not hurt this noble bird, but I am also committed to getting my girls on grass at least part of the year. Necessity is the mother of invention -- I have a few ideas -- we’ll see what we come up with.

chick for breakfast

Yesterday morning, I went out to feed the chicks and there was the goshawk as proud as you please. We are quite used to each other at this point. He was sitting on a stump watching my next batch of pullets scratch around in the wood chips. He looked at me as if to say: "well, you got those young'ns locked up pretty good."And then he flew up into the top of a locust tree. I watched as he launched himself out of the tree only to see a second goshawk also take flight -- this one with a twig in it's grip. I guess we'll be living with goshawks for a long time to come.

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New Piglets Arrive!

tamworth piglet

This Sunday, I made a trek up north to Hogwash Farm to get ten frisky, squealing, Tamworth/Gloucestershire Old Spot feeder piglets. I consider this a near perfect cross. Lots of vigor, rich dark meat, friendly disposition, and self-sufficient in field or wood: these pigs are ideal for the smallhold farmer with semi-tamed land.

tamworth piglet

The Tamworth provides a long, lean, bacon-type body shape with lots of genes carried forward from the ancient wild British Isle boars. They are not particularly large and have fairly narrow shoulders. Tamworths are considered the oldest and most pure continuously bred line of pork. They have survived in large part because of their rarified genetics. Since most other “modern” or “improved” varieties share a lot of genes with China pigs, crossing one of them with a Tamworth provides the farmer more “hybrid vigor” then if crossed with another modern breed. Even in their own right, Tamworths were considered a great “bacon type” right into the 1950s since they tend to make long, meaty bacons - far better bacon than a typical “pink pig.” But like so many of the superstars of the old-school farmyard, the industry passed over the Tamworth for breeds that did better in dense confinement eating mostly corn. In fact, in the 1970s the USDA promoted the idea that hogs should be raised near large factory corn operations to help prop up the price of corn on commodity markets. This is not the environment nor the diet where Tamworths thrive. Their numbers declined at an alarming rate until they eventually became listed as “endangered” on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s watch list in 1977. Fortunately, the Tamworth is making a comeback. While still listed as “threatened”, so many small farmers have rediscovered the virtues of Tamworths that their numbers are increasing nicely.

tamworth piglet

Gloucestershire Old Spot, on the other hand, are large and affable foragers. They provide some of the girth and marbling in the crosses; improving the butts and hams and rounding out the compact Tamworth frame. Another very old breed of questionable origin, the GOS was known as an “orchard pig” since it was used to clean up the windfall apples and pears in the orchards of Gloucestershire, England. Unfortunately, their numbers are even smaller than the Tamworth with a “critical” designation on the ALBC watch list.

tamworth piglet

Anyone who has eaten pork from these breeds (or their crosses) knows that it shares precious little with the dry, faintly flavored, “white meat” of supermarket pork. It is truly another type of food entirely. So rich and flavorful, tender and marbled: there can be no more stark an example of why preserving older breeds is important work. As a consumer, the superior quality of the meat alone should be enough. For me as a farmer, its the whole package. Livestock that can be productive on forage and wholesome leftovers from other farm activities -- rather than mountains of grain -- is an important start. But more interestingly, it is precisely the things that make these pigs thrifty that define their quality on the table -- a nice example of how sustainable agriculture improves human culture in a simple, tangible way.

This is why I admire folks like Nancy LeRowe and Dave Yesman of Hogwash Farm. Unlike folks like me who buy in feeder pigs in the spring and then take a break in fall through the winter, keeping a herd of registered stock requires a deep ongoing commitment to the breed. These are some mighty fine piglets. My hat is off to you Nancy and Dave -- thanks again.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

March Madness on the Grill

Jeremy Stanton clearly can't wait 'til summer to get the grill going. Actually, he's making a pitch for a spot on Bobby Flay's new show Grill It!. Well known in these parts for fantastic pig roasting and his unique brand of apple hooch, it's fun to see him dabble in a little "viral Internet marketing."

I think you local foodies may recognize many of the folks who show up to Jeremy's spring cookout deluxe.

Tim Newman provided the yard and shot the video.

Makes me think of summertime. Georgene has these great weekly potluck cookouts down by the river. With kids and dogs running around, swimming, playing games; parents chatting in the cool shade; and our own pork, beef, and veggies on the grill - it serves as an important reminder of the profound pleasure of growing great food and the community of people who make it possible.

I think Jeremy has inspired me to build a better grill pit for Georgene this season...


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