Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Northern Agrarian Tours the South.

The Month of May is always a busy time, and this May was busier than most, as we traveled a couple of weeks ago. I actually wrote this two weeks ago, but have just had a chance to post it now.

My lovely wife and I are homebodies, but as her family is scattered from Massachusetts to South Carolina, we periodically need to meet various family obligations. So for the first time in two years, we spent a night away from home---actually four nights. Our destination was The South Carolina Low Country between Charleston and Myrtle Beach.

One of the reasons we don't travel much is that we have many responsibilities here. Leaving overnight forces us to call upon friends and family to watch over our livestock. They don't seem to mind, and are competent at the task, but every time I leave I feel like a new mother leaving her baby for the first time. I fret and worry the whole time.

Another reason is that I believe that my home country is superior to all others and I see no reason to leave it. However, I do understand that many other people feel this way. The peculiar love of ones home countryside was understood so well by Kipling:

God gave all men all earth to love,
But, since our hearts are small
Ordained for each one spot should prove
Beloved over all;
That, as He watched Creation's birth,
So we, in godlike mood,
May of our love create our earth
And see that it is good.

So one shall Baltic pines content,
As one some Surrey glade,
Or one the palm-grove's droned lament
Before Levuka's Trade.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground-in a fair ground --
Yea, Sussex by the sea!

I rejoice that my own lot has fallen in the middle ground between the Ohio River and Lake Erie.

The final reason I dislike travel is I don't ever feel like I have anything to get away from. When I get tired of my off farm job, I work at home in the garden or cutting wood. By the time I am sick of that, its time to go back to my off-farm job.
We don't need to go to the park, because we have our own park at the back of the farm. My wife and I both enjoy being together for simple things: going to town to buy groceries and beer, or going to buy bedding plants. For a big treat we take a day trip.

When we travel, we try to avoid large Cities. We took The Interstate through West Virginia and western Virginia (near Galax. Then we cut through the heart of North Carolina, through towns such as Yadkinville, Salsbury and Rockwell. The area is interesting to me because there was once a fairly prominent Pennsylvania German presence there.

Here is a great country store we stopped at south of Mount Airy; friendly proproetor and a great selection of Case knives.

The South is not ideal sheep country, and we saw more meat goats than sheep in the Carolinas. However, we did see this nice flock that had some Tunis among them. This was interesting to me, as Tunis were the breed of choice in the South before the Civil War.

I find the Low Country interesting, because it is the natural world there is so foreign to me. None of the tree of plant species are familiar.

The soil is very sandy, and I am somewhat amazed that anything grows.

I appreciate the low country, but would have a hard time adjusting my agrarian skills to survive there. However, I do like the local people. On Sunday morning, I attended early Service at All Saints Anglican on Pawley's Island.

The Parish was extremely warm and hospitable. Like many of the parishes in western Pennsylvania, the folks at All Saints are involved in court cases with the liberal Episcopal Church which is more interested in their real estate than their souls. As this parish was deeded by The King for an Anglican church in 1736, I would like to see it stay in faithful hands. However, like many orthodox in the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, they will continue to meet wherever they can, if they lose.

The church had a fine bookstore, and I spent part of the afternoon reading JC Ryle and John Rocyhana, while perched somewhat unsteadily in a Pawley's Island Hammock.

We also spent about 20 minutes at the beach, and both of us had had enough. While the inland low country is foreign to me, it is a place where real people have lived for generations and built lives. I appreciate that it has its own cuisine, crafts, and local culture. By contrast, the beachfront resort areas are what James Kunstler would call capitals of unreality. People are drawn to live there under an illusion that they can escape from labor and live a carefree lifestyle of golf and parties. Even the old people in the beachfront communities dress (and often act) like graying adolescents. There is too much traffic, too much noise, it looks like one restaurant for every 3 people. I cant help but think that if someone believes that Myrtle Beach is getting away from it all, their life is WAY too hectic. Give me my northern agrarian rat race any day.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Small Scale Grain Raising is Back in Print !

There are many helpful gardening and beginning homesteading books. I collect books from library sales and flea markets, and many cover the same ground in different ways. There are many good books to tell someone how to start vegetable seeds, plant a garden. preserve the harvest, and save heirloom seeds, as well as milk a goat, raise chickens or cut firewood. However, if you want to move beyond these common basics into how to raise a patch of wheat and make your own bread, or plant an acre of corn to feed your own chickens, the list grows MUCH shorter.

I commend to anyone interested, Small Scale Grain Raising. Gene Logsdon wrote this classic years ago. There is material in there that can be found nowhere else. Unfortunately, the book is an agrarian cult classic and used copies were trading on Amazon for up to $100. I paid $3.00 for mine, was very stingy about loaning it out, and kept it in a mylar book cover.
It is very exciting to see this come back in print in an affordable edition.

Many of the skills in this book are not hard. Growing grain is very easy. Spill some oats or wheat on the ground at the right time of year and they will grow. The key is processing that grain. Logsdon makes processing small grains like wheat, oats, and buckwheat possible for someone growing on a quarter acre "pancake patch".

The best place to buy the book is from another agrarian-the good folks at Cumberland books. You can find it here

I only have one issue with the 1977 edition that I hope was corrected in the new one. Logsdon uses and discusses the classic American Scythe. I inherited one and used it until I found out about the vastly superior Austrian Scythe. The American scythe is clunky and awkward. The Austrian scythe is a joy to use. I bought mine about 8 years ago from the Marugg Company. I also recommend them.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Agrarian Rat Race

Spring is a busy time on most small farms. We are done with lambing, but with grass now coming on, my inevitably saggy old fences need repaired. They are holding the sheep in more through the custom and good manners of the flock than by design. I need to change the oil in both tractors, do some clean up in the orchard and grape arbor, and I should be cutting next year's wood. We do have sweet and yellow Onions, Broccoli, early cabbage and cauliflower set in. The next month will bring serious gardening, buying feeder pigs, and more tasks than I care to list. I always chuckle inside about those who talk about the quiet lazy life of the countryside.

My Spring rat race is as old as farming, but there is today a more disturbing kind of agrarian rat race. I have seen many small farmers desperately try to break into commercial production to "make the farm pay". They channel enormous amount of energy into livestock or produce that they can sell, and forget to provide well for themselves and their household.

This trend is visible in both traditional commercial agriculture and the newer "sustainable models". On the traditional commercial side, I have neighbors whom I dearly love that are milking hundred of cows but buying their milk, eggs and most vegetables from the store. I have also known farmers who tried various sustainable or organic approaches and literally burned out financially or emotionally. One good man I know went broke following a "sustainable" grass based beef production model as he was trying to get the right cattle genetics and buying expensive New Zealand and Dutch grass seed.

I tried going down this road in my youth. My ambition was to clear most of the woods of the back of the farm and develop a big dairy beef grazing and feeding operation.
We also tried direct marketing vegetables and raspberries. On the former, I lost a pile of money when beef prices collapsed. On the latter my wife and I just burned out, especially her, as she was also baking to add to the lure of our produce. My big goal was to break free from off-farm work and make a full time living on the farm.

I was saved from this treadmill by a bit of luck, as I watched a much better capitalized farm go under. I was also greatly influenced by the writing of Gene Logsdon, who advocates the "garden farm" or "cottage farm approach much more akin to my grandparents farming style. You can read Gene's Blog here. I also recommend all of his books. He tends to have more practical how-to advice than his more famous friend Wendell Berry, and he is more irreverent, earning him the epithet of "the contrary farmer".

The basics of the cottage farm approach are built around the needs of the household. We need vegetables, fruit, meat, and heat in the winter. Meeting these needs diversifies the farm. I find that working at a wide variety of activities takes some skill and planning, but also prevents burnout. We don't make much money but we save money. By way of example, I only drink about a case of good beer a month, but some months the beer bill is as high as the grocery bill.

Cottage Farming is NOT "hobby farming". Our approach to farming allows my wife to stay home full-time. It pays our land and property taxes. Sometimes it allows for a few extras, like a new gun or a check to Ron Paul. It also allows us to eat healthy food, and get beneficial exercise form a variety of work. To trivialize this as a hobby is offensive. I do know real hobby farmers, but that is another story.

The other great thing about the cottage farming model is that it can work on a wider variety of properties and settings than modern commercial farming of either the conventional or sustainable kind. We could do much of what we do on less land than we have and the model would still work. For those with only a couple of acres, there is no better model than Harvey Ussery, a homesteading genius from Virginia.

Any aspiring agrarian should beware of any sustainable farming advice that makes lucrative financial claims. "Make $3,000,000 raising groundhogs on 20 acres" might work in very narrow circumstances, but the promoter has probably made more selling the groundhog raising book and getting speaker fees at organic agriculture conferences. It may very well be possible to make that three million on groundhogs, but the lifestyle it creates may not be a whole lot different from owning a real estate brokerage.