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Farming Dystopia

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Farming Dystopia is an inquiry into radically holistic farming.
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Jan 1: A poem is nice to start, though this one is a little out of season! expand

YOUR BODY KNOWS

schii-ip...schii-ip...schii-ip
whispers the scythe under the leaves.
I'm harvesting milk and cheese.

Someone else has asked me what to do-
It's a question on everyone's mind it seems,
and sometimes it screams,
and I hear you,

and I hear the goats crying at the ga-a-ate,
and I know what I am doing is wrong.

But not all of it.

And when that question is on my mind,
I trust my body, because my body knows
that today is a good day
to put a fork in the ground.

And today is a good day to wake the sweet potatoes from the longsleep,
and maybe I wonder if they won't this time,
that maybe grandmother calls them back.
I question my celebration, that's a fact.
Why should they?

But that's another kind of question.
My body knows, but my mind was not made for this.
Enlightened faces drowning in screenlight,
my mind was not made for this.
Enlightened skies drown out the dark abyss
of home.

My mind will not have much to answer for your questions.
It wanders, looking for the dark.
But your body knows that the tension in your neck
is a manifestation of the train wreck
that we call civilization.

And I can't tell you what to change,
there used to be some kind of exchange
between us and the stars.
My goats want their freedom, and I want ours.

I want milk without plastic.
I want to do something drastic,
but I will remind the rules:

A cartload of grass makes milk for three days.
It's a contract of ages that's been lost in the haze
of backbiting bosses in back rooms of the maze
that we're running.

But it's stunning,
when the questions fade away.



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Jan 3: Frisky goats and chicken whispering. expand

This morning, when I went to let the goats out, they surprised me by running down the powerline easement to graze in the blackberry patch. For the last few weeks, they've been running across the road to eat the acorns out of my neighbors' yard. Maybe the acorns are getting old. I don't know these things.


goats

Privet and Nugget.

I followed the goats, even though I'd been intending to feed the pigs and work nearer to the area I expected the goats to be foraging. The blackberries where they were grazing are near the chicken barn, and I could check on the birds. I'm keeping the chickens locked up right now, because hawks have been attacking them. We wanted to have enough birds that maybe it's ok when the hawks take a few, so I traded with two different neighbors for more chickens, and now we're up to 14.

Bringing new birds into a flock is often a bit dramatic. The new birds have to get comfortable in the barn, so they'll return there at night where I can protect them from possums, raccoons, and whoever else eats chickens. But the new roommates didn't all get along: some of the birds were driven into the upper roosts and wouldn't readily come down—even for food and water. So over the course of the last two weeks, I've been sectioning off sides of the barn and rotating the birds through them so that they can get used to each other in smaller groups and without anyone getting beaten up. They've settled down a lot now, and this morning I removed the partition so they can mix freely. I think tomorrow or the next day I will be able to start letting them out in the late afternoon, and hopefully they'll all come back before dark. That will be nice, for them and me, I think.


goats

Chickens in the covered yard.

By the time I've finished my chicken social engineering project, the goats have moved on from the blackberries and started eating rutabaga tops and mustard greens in the garden. I run them out, but I appreciate the reminder that it's time to gather some of these rutabagas. I pull a few of the larger ones, take them in the house, and clean them up a bit. Then I go back outside and run the goats out of the garden again.

I'm on the opposite side of the farm now from where I'd expected to be this morning, but when the goats settle into the blackberry patch again, I'm reluctant to move them. I don't like moving goats when they aren't getting into trouble: it's a rare enough event that I'm willing to let them be. I can split firewood nearby and keep an eye on them while they're grazing, so I bust wood until I'm tired and the goats are bored with whatever they can find among the blackberries. Then we all walk back up to their yard, and I feed the pigs. Then I cook the rutabagas with some potatoes for lunch.


Reflection

In reflecting on this morning, I see that my activities were shaped by decisions that the goats made about where to forage. I don't know what I'd be eating for lunch today if the goats hadn't started on the rutabagas. Maybe cabbage and potatoes, but I'm bored with cabbage and happy for the rutabagas.

I think I often operate with this kind of flexibility and mobility. I'm aware that many growers and aspiring growers wouldn't enjoy such flexibility. In early years at this farm, I'd not have been able to follow the goats around so much, because I frequently had to leave and work on another farm. The goats could have stayed in their yard all morning and eaten hay, but their quality of life and maybe their health would have suffered, and I'd have had to buy more hay.

I am left reflecting on the subtle ways that my own liberty enables me to efficiently shift between tasks and manage my time organically so that I don't have to struggle more than necessary against the goats' natural behaviors; and I can even find a delightful reminder of fresh rutabagas in their antics. I suspect it would be more difficult to do what I do without this flexibility, and so I see how dystopian farming is not simply a means to achieve liberation, but also an exercise in some degree of sovereignty. In that sense, there is no clear distinction between means and ends, but I may have to emphasize scenarios where flexibility and opportunism are more clearly labor saving for this tactic to be meaningful for readers who can't rearrange their day on the whims of a goat.



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Jan 5: Out of hay. expand

Goats are hell-bent on shitting in their food. Back in October, I rolled a big round bale of hay into their yard and wrapped it with fencing. They'd love to play "king of the hill" on top of their dinner, which would leave it covered in droppings—it's not hygenic. The fencing holds the bale together and mostly keeps them off of it. They can reach through the wire to eat.

A couple of times since October I've had to cinch the wire up tighter as they've eaten away at the bale, and it's been clear for a while now that this hay isn't going to last the winter like I'd hoped. It doesn't help that Nugget slipped under the loose wire this morning, climbed on top of the slumping bale, and stood there confusedly—half stuck and half triumphant when I found him.

So if Wednesday's post was a reflection about liberty, Nugget reminds me this morning that dystopian farming also means obligations. Whatever else I had planned, I really must now take about 45 minutes to cobble together a new hay feeder with metal fence posts and scraps of wire if I'm to salvage the last couple weeks of hay from this bale. And sometime in the next couple weeks I need to string up some temporary fencing so the goats have more space to graze, or buy another bale of hay.

hay

We all have obligations. Hay for the goats in January is one of mine.



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Jan 10: Garden prep. expand

I have a feeling of expectancy these last few days, and I'm making small motions toward seeding of early annuals. I make sure that I have plenty of seeds on hand. I pull out my screens and sift some rotted wood chips for potting soil. Terra cleans off the shelves behind the wood stove where we germinate flats of seeds during early spring and which collect random clutter from late summer onward. I lead the pigs out of the garden where they've been tilling the soil and leaving their manure, so it all has time to rot before I plant anything there.

pig fence

Heavy rains this week! Pigs have cleared the left side of the fence for later planting.

I used to sprint into my spring seeding, because I germinated the flats in a standalone greenhouse heated separately from the house. It didn't make sense to keep a fire going out there for one or two flats of seeds, so I would fill the shelves up quick to make best use of my labor and firewood. Two or three years ago, we moved the seedlings into the house, and it's more low-key now that I can start just a few flats without committing myself to much extra work.

I don't know which seeds I will start first, or when I will do it. I don't know where the plants will go when it's time for them to move out to the field, or what the weather will be like then. We do have rather heavy weather this week, with several inches of rain and lows forecast in the teens. That might slow my roll a little. Or maybe I'll like the idea of little seeds uncurling in a warm corner of the house while the pond freezes over and we speculate on whether it would ever snow.


MAKING POTTING SOIL
screen screen screen

I make potting soil from screened well-rotted wood (and whatever grows in or on a pile of well-rotted wood). When we first started farming here, I would dig rotten wood out of a slash pile that loggers had left behind. More recently, I've found that I can pick up loads of wood chips for free from a local tree service. The piles take 3-5 years to rot. I screen to 1/2-inch (1.25cm) for 3-inch pots, and 1/4-inch (6mm) for 50-cell flats or for six-packs dumpster-dived from garden supply stores. Any well-rotted compost should work. When I didn't have screens, I just picked out the bigger pieces, and crushed the medium as fine as I could.




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Jan 16: Used up archetypes and frozen trees. expand

It used to be normal to get lows in the teens (Fahrenheit) for a week or so in the winter. I remember losing half my fig trees during the winter of '08 or '09 when temperatures sank into single digits, and I learned to plant them up against a building where they'd be more sheltered. We got a hard freeze last year, but before that we had several winters where lows didn't drop much below 20. Today everything is coated in ice—and it'll drop into the low teens for three of the next four nights.

Farmers like to complain about this sort of weather. Actually any weather will do, but this cold makes it mandatory. When I used to sell at market, vendors would shiver over their coffee and swap stories about frozen plumbing, machinery that wouldn't start, or hours spent covering crops only to have them freeze anyway. I guess I did this myself a little; I don't remember the details. I only know that for me as a market farmer, complaints about the weather were part of a powerful shared script about what farming is, and there's a lot of pressure to act it out.


market

Throwback photo from our market days (2016).

I quit market for a variety of reasons, but one of them was this pressure from customers and other vendors to act out a farmer archetype that didn't feel real to me. I still see social media posts from other farmers about their cold weather struggles—and it's true that I'll be knocking extra thick ice out of the pigs' water for the next few days—but I guess I don't relate. To me, the archetype just feels like a used up man vs. nature marketing gimmick: "Look at us out here miserably braving the elements to bring you grass fed beef and out-of-season produce! Come buy our stuff!" All this from people who lament in the next breath that young people don't want to go into farming anymore. Big surprise.


Beetles and ice

I did lose a persimmon tree to the cold weather last year. We had a freeze in late April or maybe May (I don't keep track) when many of the trees had already leafed out, and several were seriously damaged. Ambrosia beetles colonized the trees that were hardest hit, and people told me to cut them out and burn them before the beetles spread to other trees. I didn't do this, and we harvested figs from some of these trees toward the end of the season, so I'm optimistic, but at least one of them died, and maybe others will too. I'll know more when they leaf out in a few months—or don't.

dead tree

Fallen persimmon done in by cold and beetles.

So yes, cold weather can be troublesome in a way. I liked that tree. She was five or six years old, and had only just started producing in earnest. On the whole, we didn't have a great fruit year; I'll probably have to buy about twenty pounds of raisins in February or March when we run out of canned pears, or maybe trade some sweet potatoes to another farmer for a bushel of apples. Something to last us until May when the strawberries come in.

I did some running around yesterday to mitigate damage from the cold. I covered the strawberries (though maybe they'd have been fine anyway—strawberries are incredibly tough.) I drained the plumbing in the outdoor kitchen. During the fall, Terra had picked up several bags of leaves that were left on the side of the road in town, and we spread these around the base of the fig trees and some young mulberries. We spread more leaves in the goats' shelter and I covered the pigs' house with cardboard. I expect to do these things in the winter, just as I expect to plant seeds in March, can vegetables in June, and dig sweet potatoes in October. It's a rhythm, and I'd be a little confused or out-of-step if it didn't happen. It would mean that something was wrong.

Still learnin'

Maybe some other trees will die this year. I'm probably growing all the wrong varieties. This is what happens when you're a settler-colonial farmer. I don't have ten-thousand years of culture to inform my choices about fruit varieties. The dystopian culture I do have recommends varieties that turn out to be dependent on me to spray fungicides or to thin fruit to ward off blight. I've had to cut out many of my original plantings, because they don't produce without my intervention. Random seedlings with wild genetics frequently out-produce my grafted varieties. It takes years to figure all this out. There's a lot of starting over. We're still learnin'.



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Jan 24: Conservation of energy. expand

After some relatively intense cold (the little pond froze enough for us to stand on it!), we've had a pretty steady rain. Farming isn't something that takes up much of my time when it's this cold and wet. There are things I could do. I could shell a box or three of peas and beans, which isn't an unenjoyable job, but something I can do almost anytime, so of course it never gets done. Maybe, having written this, I'll take an hour or so and shell them later—or not. Weevils might find them if I put them off much longer though.

I did start a few seedlings, and the first broccolis are popping up in trays behind the woodstove. I will take them outside to get extra sun in the mornings now, and then bring them in at night if it's cold. There are fifteen or twenty of them, and cabbages will be popping up tomorrow I guess.

I also went through crates of vegetables in the cellar to be sure nothing was rotting, and found I could spare about 100lb (45 kg) of winter squash and sweet potatoes to sell.

So I have a few things I can do, but until the weather dries up I'm probably enjoying the last really long stretch of really slow time. When there are a few sunny days in a row, I'll start getting space ready for potatoes, sugar snap peas, and more or less the whole spring garden falls into step after that.



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Feb 1: Foolishness. expand

I'm a little tired now that I've done a bit of digging. We moved a couple of muscadine vines that we had planted some years ago, but which haven't done especially well, because they were too near the edge of the woods. At the time, I had thought I would push the woods back a little, but just after we planted them, many of the trees on the adjacent land were cut, so I don't feel like cutting any more. This week, we also moved a young fig tree who had a driveway pushed into them by a new fence, and we trenched around another young tree near the edge of the woods to cut out creeping tree roots.

muscadines

Newly planted muscadines (reprise).

Things change all the time. One of the reasons I don't say I do permaculture, is because I'd feel like a fraud if I put 'perma' in front of anything I do. Places I used to farm are now part of the woods; trees move, circumstances change, my body changes.

I've also been weeding parsnips, onions, strawberries, and some greens that are still in the garden. It's been weeks since I've had the right weather for this, so they'd gotten a bit lost among the ryegrass and deadnettle—especially the strawberries.


Strawberries

There is something a little foolish about strawberries. The way I do them, there's always a lot of weeding; and between the weeding and other work with the fruit trees, I'm a little tired. I can feel a familiar ache in my back.

So I wonder sometimes if I'm foolish to grow so many strawberries. I could grow something else that would make more food for less work, no doubt.

But then would I just be wanting strawberries?


Escape goat

Truffle the goat has been making fools of us for a couple of weeks now. We moved the goats into a new pasture with a fence that we cobbled together from bits of wire taken down elsewhere. We're trying to push some kudzu out of a little orchard area, and we don't intend this to be a permanent fence.

Truffle

The wire is loose, and the mesh has many broken welds. The other goats haven't yet managed to slip out, but Truffle is smaller and keeps slipping under our shoddy fence. I don't terribly mind at the moment, but there will be a day when the garden is off-limits for unsupervised goats, so we've been incrementally shoring it up by laying logs or cement blocks along the bottom of the fence. I think she's stayed in for two days now, so that's something.

The chickens are also not taking our suggestions about the ideal regions for them to forage and spend their time.

So I do sometimes wonder about all this. Perhaps there are easier ways to control kudzu or grow strawberries. I haven't even always grown many strawberries, and sometimes it's ok to let the kudzu go wild (which is how it got into the orchard in the first place). I don't have well-established systems for most of the things I do.


Be a fool

It's ironic that when I tried to systemize the way I make potting soil a few weeks ago, it turned out that the seeds I planted in that soil didn't do very well. This isn't completely foreign territory, but it's also not something that happens a lot. I responded by making more potting soil using different compost, but my point is that systems are continually confounded by circumstances, by change, by irony and foolishness.

Some scientists would ask why plants didn't grow well in that potting soil. This can be a useful approach. I can speculate about pH or whether there's enough nitrogen, but I don't ever measure these things. Maybe there weren't the right bacteria or fungus—or some combination of all these things and others. Some of the seeds did better than others. Why should that be? Am I sure it's the soil?—did I let them get too cold that one morning?

One can get lost along this line of thinking. Controlling all these variables—measuring them, systemizing the plant medium so it's the same every year, making it impossible for any chicken or goat to escape—seems like the sterile modern paradigm that handed us our dystopian reality. It does not feel joyful. It is all potatoes and no strawberries.



PROPAGATION (Layering)
Truffle

A pear branch, rooting in a pot below the tree with cameo by Brigit.


To propagate figs, I put a largish pot or a sheet of plastic under a low hanging branch and bury a portion of the branch in rotten wood or soil. After several months or a year, I cut the branch and slide the cutting out from under the tree. There will usually be visible, vertical new growth around the buried branch at this time, and it should have strong roots. This also works for apples, pears, muscadines, and many other plants.






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Feb 4: Breaking ground. expand
fork

Over the last two days, I have broken ground on about 75' (23 m) of bed space that I will probably plant in peas or potatoes. In all, I would like to have 200'-300' (60-90 m) of bed planted in these two crops by the end of February. I started working in an area where we had pastured the pigs a few months ago, because the ground is nearly bare and easy to work. I generally use a broadfork for cultivation, and my fork is 21 inches wide (53 cm). These beds are two fork-widths, making a 42 inch bed (106 cm). Sometimes for potatoes and other single harvest crops, I omit paths between beds in favor of a mass planting.

I have also started another 75' bed in a different location, because it is against the edge of the woods, and it has been colonized by tree roots. I haven't planted in that bed for a few years, and I would like to reclaim the space.


Short shifting

I'm watching myself work, and I notice that I bounce between these two jobs in approximately 15-20 minute shifts, working three or four shifts each day in total. The work is somewhat strenuous, especially on the latter bed with the tree roots. After two days of this (and already having dug several holes earlier this week planting fruit trees), I begin to detect some strain in my body, especially in my right wrist. So today I only worked two 8-minute shifts.

Working short shifts gives me time to feel how my body responds to the work and be sure that I'm not overdoing it. I'm also most efficient when I'm not particularly tired, so it makes sense to stop when I get winded. I don't mind a little muscle soreness, but I'm very careful to avoid strain.

The resting time also allows sod to dry so it can be more easily raked off.


Ageing and ability

I have used some version of this short shift method for about five years. When I was younger, I managed more space—some of it further from home—and worked longer shifts. I can cultivate a single row 21" wide and 30' (9 m) long in less than 20 minutes if the sod is light and the soil not too compacted.

I suppose that as I get older, my workflow will continue to change; people with different bodies than mine might use different tools and patterns. Terra doesn't transition between tasks as frequently as I do and typically works longer shifts. She also experiences some chronic pain and adjusts or limits her activity according to her body's needs.



BROADFORK CULTIVATION
fork
fork

I usually use a short broadfork to cultivate beds, remove sod, and prepare for planting. The tines on this fork are 9 inches (23 cm) long, which is shorter than most similar forks and less effort to use. If the bed has thick sod, I break it up with a cultivating hoe after forking, allow the sod to dry, and flip it over again with the hoe to dry more completely. Then I can rake it off without much effort, because the soil falls off, and it is lighter. I use a deeper 14 inch (36 cm) fork in beds with deep-rooted perennials.



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Feb 14: Seed interdependence. expand

In the past five years or so, I've given more attention to producing my own seed. There are practical and economic reasons for this, but they aren't as important to me as an intangible feeling that it's critical to have long-term relationships with the plants I grow—even if I could buy varieties of the same name from seed catalogues or find them on a rack in a box store.

It's tempting to label this effort at seed production "seed independence", but in a sense that's the opposite of what I'm practicing: I am cultivating dependency on specific varieties of plants that I have adapted to. My home, my diet, and my cultural practice are shaped by the plants I am accustomed to growing. Maybe this is "seed interdependence". I don't know what to call it.

I have some strains that I've kept for fifteen years or so, and a small handful for twenty. Sometimes I lose a strain to crop failure, unexpected cross-pollination, or simple carelessness. Seed interdependence is a complex science. It adds a degree of nuance to my choices about where and when to plant, or how to fill space. It is a commitment to completion of plant life cycles for those plants whose seeds and fruits aren't automatically collected at harvest. I doubt I will ever master this practice.

Seed potatoes
potatoes

Seed potatoes. Clockwise from top: harvested last summer; harvested before the first heavy freeze in early winter; just purchased for additional seed; harvested in October from a plant that volunteered among the sweet potatoes.

We eat a lot of potatoes. During early winter, they might account for as much as a quarter of our calories, but it's been a challenge to produce quality seed that I can use year after year. I usually have to buy new seed.

I generally plant potatoes about now, and harvest them in July. This means that I would have to store the tubers for about seven months (July back around to February) in order to plant them again. Usually after so much time, they lose quality and don't produce vigorous plants.

For the past few years, I've experimented with a fall crop that I would plant in July or August (almost immediately after digging them up) and harvest after the first frost. This hasn't usually gone very well, because our fall is short: we don't get much time when weather is cool enough for potatoes, but not actually freezing.

I did have some success with this strategy last year by selecting potatoes that showed signs of new growth immediately after harvest. By planting these more active tubers, I reduced the time needed to break the dormant period immediately after the plants die down in summer.

I've nearly completed my first potato bed, and and I will plant these tubers this week. I hope I am finding a pattern that will help me adapt a true interdependency with my potatoes.

garden

Early morning photo of beds being broken for planting potatoes and peas.



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Feb 24: Birth and death.

baby goat

Jewel the goat had babies this week. It was uneventful, which is always best: one morning, there were a couple of extra-cute goats in the yard, and that was that. I was a bit surprised, because I expected Truffle to kid first and not for a few weeks yet. Hopefully she still will. I wasn't even sure Jewel was pregnant, though Zinnia apparently knew all about it.


nursing goat

I should be able to start milking Jewel in a few weeks, so that will mark another seasonal shift in my routine. She's a pretty easy milker, but I'll have to get her used to the idea again, and negotiate the proper exchange in fresh cut weeds or grain to get her to keep still on the milking stand. It will be sometimes fun and sometimes frustrating.

If Truffle kids soon, we might have enough milk to make yogurt regularly. Maybe even cheese. We'll see.

Forty-two chickens

The other major event this week was an unexpected offer to slaughter forty-two chickens for meat. These were old laying hens that were no longer laying, and the farmer who had them didn't want to do the harvesting himself, so he called us. We get calls like this a few times a year: people looking to get rid of a couple of aggressive roosters or a goat that won't stay in the fence. An entire market flock of laying hens is a little more than the average call for animal disposal, but we'll take 'em.


chickens

I'm not going to reflect too much here about what it means that I'm the go-to guy for killing animals. I've written about it in other places, and I'd like keep Farming Dystopia on topic as an inquiry about growing food, which animal disposal is not.

I think I should only say that for us, getting food is something that happens in connection with other people. Sometimes I help another farmer dig sweet potatoes in exchange for a share of the crop. Sometimes I trade vegetables to a neighbor for eggs or chickens. I give sweet potatoes away whenever I can, and sometimes people give me jars of soup or a frozen ham.

These chickens also gave us an opportunity to connect with our community and teach about making our own food. A few of our homeschooling families and neighbors (most of whom had never slaughtered an animal) dropped in during the harvest to participate, and we were able to give away eleven of the birds.

Radical holism

As a radically holistic framework, dystopian farming can't just be about growing food. I don't know too much about how these chickens were raised (they're organic!), and maybe I wouldn't ever grow sweet potatoes the way my neighbor does it; but if he needs help digging potatoes, it would be stupid not to do it. Just as it would be stupid not to take forty-two free chickens and use them to orchestrate a dozen people learning how to kill a chicken, plus several months worth of soup stock.

Radical holism makes it hard to talk about things. It would be easy to get lost, because when everything's interconnected, nothing happens the same way twice. At some point, we're not even talking about growing food anymore—we're talking about education and community. So I won't go down these roads too often, but we should always remember that they're there.



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