Young Farmers Conference 2013

Last week found me in Tarrytown, NY for the Young Farmers Conference, an annual event for young and beginning farmers held at the Stone Barns Center, home of the famed Blue Hill restaurant. Because of the limitations of the facility, they have to restrict how many people come, so unlike MOSES last year with 3,000 participants, Stone Barns was at capacity with about 300. That means every year people get turned away from their lottery-based sign-ups and those who make it are super excited to be there. Instead of doing a full play-by-play of the whole event, I'm just going make a few lists here before posting some pictures. The whole 3 days was filled with new ideas, both from the workshops and presenters and from conversations with other participants. No doubt I'll be referring back to things that I encountered at YFC in future blog posts!

Workshops I Attended:

  • Sustainable Hog Production (full day seminar)
  • Why Every Farm Should Have a Sugaring Operation
  • Agroforestry
  • Beekeeping for Beginners
  • Electric Fencing
  • Welding
  • Whole Animal Butchery

With the exception of the full-day seminar, these workshops were each an hour and a half, which was time enough for an introduction to the topic, some specifics and Q&As, and a nudge in the right direction for more resources and information.

Speakers and Full-Conference Events:

  • Staged reading of the verbatim play "Farmscape" and Q&A with playwright
  • Krysta Harden, USDA Deputy Secretary
  • Wendell Berry in conversation with daughter Mary Berry
  • Chellie Pingree, congresswoman and farmer from Maine
  • Kathleen Merrigan, former USDA Deputy Secretary and person behind the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative
  • Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill
  • Cheryl Rogowski, amazing, socially-conscious farmer and MacArthur genius
  • Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens, groundbreaking NY farmers
  • Social hour, barn dance, and lots of meal-time conversation over really good food

Fun facts, tidbits, things to think about from the conference:

  • From Tom Frantzen: while we may not agree with the methods used by industrial agriculture, we need to recognize that when it comes to efficiency and profitability, they do everything for a reason. When we prioritize humane treatment, quality of life and sustainability, we inherently make compromises in other areas. This is one of the "brutal facts" that we need to confront.
  • Pigs can be used to eradicate invasive species like multiflora rose!
  • The Practical Farmers of Iowa are doing amazing things and I need to spend a few days poking around that website.
  • You need to boil 40 gallons of sap to yield one gallon of maple syrup, which means that syrups is one of those crops that really needs a certain scale to be efficient. Small-scale aggregators who drive around buying raw sap from farmers and boiling it down using super-energy efficient burners is a solution to this problem.
  • Lacking this infrastructure, plain maple sap can also be a marketable commodity! Think of the popularity of coconut water and of local food - these combine perfectly in maple sap, which can be guzzled outright or used to brew coffee, make soda, cook, etc. Think of the possibilities!
  • To be considered Agroforestry, there need to be three levels of production. For example - canopy (trees/lumber/fruit), forages (grasses and legumes), animals (pigs, cows, bees, etc.)
  • A 1% increase in organic matter in topsoil sequesters an additional 10 tons of carbon per acre.
  • You can use a close-planted stand of evergreens like an overgrown/abandoned Christmas tree farm for an "outdoor living barn" to shelter cold-hardy cattle like Scottish Highlands during the winter.
  • Nurse bees, who take care of the eggs and larvae in the hive, are the youngest of worker bees and don't yet have stingers.
  • On each flight, a bee will keep collecting pollen from the same species as the first flower it encounters.
  • The pesticides that are thought to be a possible cause of colony collapse are fat soluble and may be stored in the wax (fat) in beehives, so using a method where the bees rebuild their wax from scratch every year, like top bar hives, might be effective in slowing the demise of the honeybee.
  • An electric fence is only as strong as its ground, which should be much bigger than you would think. The point is to be enough conductive metal in the ground to attract the current going through an animals nose and to the ground through its hooves to complete a circuit, which is what actually makes the shock.
  • You should always recharge deep-cycle batteries before they drop below 40% of their charge for maximum utility.
  • Never buy a used welder from a welding shop - they use them all day every day! Buy from a place where it gets more gentle/occasional use.
  • Having even a small welder means easy on-farm repairs and fabrication for tractors, greenhouses, etc!
  • Coppa is an alternative to prosciutto that still has beautiful marbling but due to its size only take a few months as opposed to over a year for a whole ham.
  • Finally, according to Wendell Berry, our generation will always be living on the "margins of a bad economy," which means that we're going to have to "learn to use the things that other people have given up on - including maybe land."

I'm off to the airport for a holiday visit to family in Argentina! More in the new year!



On prophet-farmers

As part of my educational quest this past winter, I took advantage of a couple of classes offered by the Michael Field Agricultural Institute (MFAI) in East Troy, Wisconsin. The courses attract a wide range of people, including established commercial farmers, hobby farmers beginning to attempt serious farming, and young farmers just starting out. During a workshop on multi-species grazing, two young boys sat in the back of the room taking studious notes. From what I could tell, they were brothers, might have been home schooled, and may well have been involved in 4-H. Near the end of the workshop when the presenter opened up the floor for questions and discussion, the older of the two brothers contributed a series of questions and comments that all began with "According to Joel Salatin," or "Joel Salatin says that..." Without the book in front of him, this young man was quoting statistics like biblical passages. He had obviously done his homework, and that homework seemed to consist of taking the word of one man as The Right Way. While farming is certainly not the only realm given to demagoguery, there are certain strains of the sustainable farming movement that seem prone to follow the word of one man to what seems to me to be an extreme.

For those of you who might not know, Joel Salatin is the owner of Polyface Farms in Virginia, the author of many books on farming practices, and a well-known and oft-cited personality in the sustainable farming world. His most well-known and widely-embraced method seems to be the practice of "mob grazing," specifically grazing chickens under a structure known as a "chicken tractor." The basic idea is that by keeping the chickens contained in a certain area, and moving that area either once or twice per day, you reap the benefits of "free ranging" a chicken in that they forage and scratch for edibles besides the grain you feed them, but by containing them for a certain interval on the same piece of land, you force them to eat more that just their favorite morsels before moving on. Anyways, Salatin has written quite a few books detailing his methods for pastured poultry, produced an instructional DVD, and holds weekend-long workshops on his farm where you can pay thousands of dollars to see him move around his chickens in person. His method has certainly worked very well for him and made him a successful farmer and businessman, but he seems to have ascended to such a position that certain followers will hear no wrong. There comes a point where a novel and unorthodox approach becomes in itself an orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is not, shall we say, my bag.

Perhaps it's my Unitarian upbringing, or a habit I picked up in academic writing, but I tend to take what I can use from any source and discard the rest. There are some interesting and instructive stories in the Bible, but I don't feel the need to keep an eye out for the great Whore of Babylon. Similarly, there are some tips to glean from people like Joel Salatin, or from the writings of Rudolph Steiner. Just as I'm not going to swallow the Bible whole, I'm not prepared to pick a farmer-prophet and blindly follow him (and it's overwhelmingly him) to the ends of the earth. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm looking forward to continue my agricultural education in the piecemeal way I started, picking tips up where I can and creating a set of best practices uniquely tailored to my principles, my farm, and my soil. There is no one size fits all approach to sustainable farming, which is a significant part of what differentiates it from conventional farming. As Wendell Berry points out in The Unsettling of America, before the rise of large agribusiness in the mid-20th Century there was no orthodoxy in farming. Each region and to a certain extent each farm had its own set of best practices passed down through the generations. But with the rise of the paint by numbers chemical farming, there was suddenly a "right way" to farm advocated by suppliers, universities, and even the government. In my opinion, even though none of the several approaches to sustainable agriculture has the institutional backing that conventional farming enjoys, there is still the danger of creating certain orthodoxies within the movement that prevent farmers from tailoring their own best practices and maybe even leads to the high incidence of people who "burn out" of sustainable farming before they've really established themselves.

I've only read one of Salatin's books, and while I'm not exactly itching to add another Salatin opus to my ever-growing pile of reading material, I'm sure I'll get around to it one of these days. In the meantime, I'll keep reading whatever I can get my hands on. As I finishing digesting these books, I'll post a mini "book report" full of the methods and ideas that interested me most in each. Hopefully, it will be a helpful exercise, and not too completely boring to whoever decides to read my assorted brain-droppings.

Holistic financial planning

This past winter, besides my usual heavy dose of reading and movies, I spent plenty of time on the computer looking for ways to continue my agricultural education even in the off-season. While there is no real substitute for learning by doing, my natural bent is towards exhaustive research and planning. In my digital meanderings, I came across plenty of very helpful resources and eventually will take the time to share links to some of the site I have found most useful. It was through internet searches and reading blogs that I found out about MOSES, and about the Cornell Cooperative Extension. All land grant colleges have farm extensions, but Cornell's seems to excel in certain areas like sustainable farming and small farms. After reading through the different online courses Cornell offered through the winter, I decided that a course geared toward the economic side of farming might be the most helpful. After all, learning about financial planning on a computer is about as in the field as learning how to seed in a greenhouse! The course consisted of a weekly live webinar supplemented by readings and assignments for about seven weeks.

Holistic financial planning basically consists of financial planning with a view toward the "whole" person, household, or farm. Holistic financial planning for farmers consists of laying out your farm and family/personal values and goals, and make sure the way you run your farm business falls in line with those goals. For example, one might look at a budget and suggest lowering wages to the minimum wage to increase profits in a certain enterprise, but if one of the principles of the farm is to provide a good job for its employees, cutting the wage would not be an acceptable option. (The principles I outlined on the Farming Principles page are in fact the result of an exercise we did in the beginning of the course.) Included in these goals and principals is the quality of life that the farm as a business is expected to sustain. With an eye on these goals, you evaluate each individual enterprise on the farm and make sure they fall in line. For example, if you've always raised turkeys every fall, but they make very little net profit and you hate cleaning up after them, you might consider doing away with the turkey enterprise. If, however, you always have people asking for more chickens after you have sold out, you make a healthy profit on chickens, and you like taking care of them, you might look for ways to scale up your chicken enterprise to meet demand. On the more technical side, the course also went into how important it can be to really crunch your numbers as a farmer. After all, you don't know what your profits are for each enterprise if you don't keep track of your expenses. Enterprise budgets led me down another internet-fueled rabbit hole, further confirming my tendencies towards compulsive information-gathering (not bad, as far as compulsions go!).

Because I'm not currently running my own farm, the tools I learned in this course were mostly in the "file away for later" category. Additionally, I learned just as much valuable information from the other farmers in the course, who discussed the problems and solutions they had found in their own personal experiences. While I don't regret taking this course in the least, I'm not sure I would take another online course. I don't think the format is very conducive to my learning style, mostly because the slow pace of the webinars resulted in almost instant distraction. Since I was on my computer already, the ultimate distraction (interwebz!) was only a click away. Overall, however, I come away from the course a little more savvy in spreadsheets, a little more clear in my own goals, and a little more prepared for the task of running a profitable farm business, which is all I could have asked for (and more!).