Monday, January 31, 2011

Radical Agrarianism 4

The Food Politics Group at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt recently read and discussed James C. Scott's new book, The Art of Not Being Governed. In addition to being a professor of political science and anthropology, Scott is also the director of the Center for Agrarian Studies and the editor of its book series, all at Yale. At once intuitive and unorthodox, the "crudest version" of Scott's thesis turns on the following basic formula:

"Political and military supremacy requires superior access to concentrated manpower close at hand. Concentrated manpower, in turn, is feasible only in a setting of compact, sedentary agriculture, and such agro-ecological concentrations are possible, before the twentieth century in Southeast Asia, only with irrigated rice. These relationships are, however, not deterministic.... Irrigated best understood politically as the most convenient and typical means of concentrating population and foodstuffs."

Drawn from what was for me the most revelatory chapter, "Concentrating Manpower and Grain," here are a few more choice selections:

"The abundance of arable land in Southeast Asia favored shifting cultivation, a pattern of farming that often yielded higher returns for less labor and produced a substantial surplus for the families practicing it. What constituted an advantage for the cultivators, however, was profoundly prejudicial to the ambitions of would-be state-makers. Shifting cultivation requires far more land than irrigated rice and therefore disperses population....[C]oncentration is the key. It matters little how wealthy a kingdom is if its potential surplus of manpower and grain is dispersed across a landscape that makes its collection difficult and costly."

"Conditions in a flourishing wet-rice heartland, then, were favorable to the development of what might be called the premodern state's ideal subjects. That ideal is represented by densely packed cultivators of permanent grain fields who produce a considerable annual surplus."

"The paramount importance of manpower rested, in the final analysis, on military considerations. Occupation of a fertile rice plain, of an important temple complex, of a choke point along vital trade routes was of little avail if it could not be successfully defended. This homely fact goes to the very heart of the analysis of power in such premodern political systems. Rather than wealth begetting power, as it might in Lockean systems, where the state's first duty is to defend citizens' life and property, in premodern systems only power can guarantee property and wealth. And power, before the technological revolution in warfare, was largely a matter of how many men a ruler could field; power in other words, boiled down to manpower."

"Less reliant on volatile trade, more hierarchical, more insulated from food-supply crises, and capable of feeding quite massive armies, these ['coercion-rich and capital-poor,' landward'] agrarian states might lose a battle or even a war, but their staying power over the long haul tended to prevail."

"The imperative of concentrating population and grain production, in fact, confronts all would-be state-makers who must operate in an environment where open land is abundant and military technology simple. Some means must be devised to counteract the tendency of the populace to disperse widely so as to take full advantage of the hunting, foraging, and less labor-intensive farming techniques available to them."

"The objective of this [early modern state-making] policy was, it seems, to starve the population into grain farming and subjecthood by separating them from the open commons."

If you're interested in hearing Professor Scott speak at length on this book, check out the following lecture; for a more informal interview, have a look here; for the relationship of Scott's work to the libertarian tradition, have a listen to this.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

2010 Egg Count

Well, we've done it. We've collected a full year's worth of Egg Counts. Over the course of the year, the accounting became more finely-grained. We began to record significant weather events, such as the May rains that brought the flood, the record drought from July to September, and the November snow that once again caught us unprepared for the shift in seasons; we began to record precisely (i.e., in decimals) the odd eggs at the end of each day; and we began to count the number of eggs discarded, whether from being dirty, broken, or otherwise inedible. In addition, we also began to note the days on which I moved the hens to fresh pasture, as well as any major disruptions to flock life such as a hawk attack. Below find the numbers, as well as some hen highlight photos from the year that end with them in winter bivouac.
Throughout the course of 2010, the hens of Ecotone laid a grand total of 26,906.28 eggs, or 2,242.19 dozen. Over any given day this works out to an average of 73 eggs, or just over 2 dozen, from an average of 284 hens over the year. (Remember that the first flock of 150 hens was joined in March by the remaining 150 or so, which didn't begin to lay until late October.) Each Ecotone hen, then, laid an average of 10.02 eggs per month.
Of these, however, only 2,204 dozen actually got into the hands - or rather the mouths - of Ecotone egg eaters, as we discarded a full 40 dozen eggs in the course of gathering, cleaning, and transporting. Noteworthy is the fact that only after I began to record this number does it actually seem to have gone down. A welcome artifact of accounting, I suppose.
For the entire year, the Ecotone hens ate a total of 21,436.90 pounds of feed grain at an average of .24 cents per pound. While for the first six months we fed commercial grains from Edward's Feed at an average of .17 cents a pound, in July we transitioned to organic grains from Windy Acres Farm at an average of .29 cents per pound. Total grain costs for the year, then, were $5,078.87, or about $450 a month. Add to this the supplements such as kelp and calcium we've mixed in since transitioning to organic grains, and total feed costs were well over $500 a month.
To view these same numbers from a different perspective, each Ecotone hen ate an average of .26 pounds of feed per day, or 9.49 pounds a month. Each day, in other words, both flocks ate a total of 58.73 pounds of grain, for an average daily feed cost of $14. Thus for the year - which included three months of almost no eggs at all - the grain to egg ratio was 9.56 pounds per dozen, or .80 pounds per egg. In this way, the average feed cost per dozen of Ecotone eggs for 2010 was $2.26, or .19 cents an egg.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Women and Agriculture

As I was heading out this morning to do chores, NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday did a nice story that kept me in my seat until after dawn, making some other ladies I know none too happy. My favorite line: "You don't talk bad about a farmer with your mouth full."
And even though women are described as "the largest minority in agriculture," which seems somehow strange to me in terms of a figure, the juxtaposition of these two farmers is striking. For the interested, listen to the story here: "Women Farmers Grow Strong".

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Farming and Philosophy 3

In the last few weeks, I've had occasion to recall the following passage from Berry in The Way of Ignorance:

"One may begin as an agrarian, as some of us to our good fortune have done, but for a farmer agrarianism is not enough. Southern agrarianism is not enough, and neither is Kentucky agrarianism or Henry County agrarianism. None of those can be local enough or particular enough. To live as a farmer, one has to come into the local watershed and the local ecosystem and deal well or poorly with them. One must encounter directly and feelingly the topography and the soils of one's particular farm, and treat them well or poorly. If one wishes to farm well, and agrarianism inclines to that wish above all, then one must submit to the unending effort to change one's mind and ways to fit one's farm."

So often, it seems, farming is done the way it's done because that's the way it's always been done. In fact, this tendency to be "stuck in a rut" seems both deep and wide in agrarian communities, and points to an important sense in which such communities are conservative by both nature and tradition. What works, works; it is what it is. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Sometimes, however, we aren't able to see what doesn't work, or isn't working, precisely for the way certain things work.

Enter William James, one of the founders and popular voices of American pragmatism, who once wrote that habit is "the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent." The radio program On Point with Tom Ashbrook recently did a show on James, which in turn made me think of Berry - perhaps in one of his more flexible moments - and again about the relationships between agrarianism and pragmatism. Have a listen to the show here, if you're interested.

All this is to say that it is quite difficult to maintain such a flexibility, such an open, experimental orientation to your plans, especially when they are painstakingly constructed in advance and often involve financial investments. Indeed, sometimes it seems that farmers - myself included - are especially prone to fall into the habit of Thoreau's "worldly miser" in "Walking," who failed to see that "heaven had taken place around him, and did not see the angels going to and fro, but was looking for an old post-hole in the midst of paradise."

To avoid such paths, I offer the following passage from James' essay "The Sentiment of Rationality" as an antidote, as well as an amendment to what are ongoing notes toward a more radical agrarianism:

"Philosophers long ago observed the remarkable fact that mere familiarity with things is able to produce a feeling of their rationality. The empiricist school has been so much struck by this circumstance as to have laid it down that the feeling of rationality and the feeling of familiarity are one and the same thing, and that no other kind of rationality than this exists. The daily contemplation of phenomena juxtaposed in a certain order begets an acceptance of their connection, as absolute as the repose engendered by theoretic insight into their coherence. To explain a thing is to pass easily back to its antecedents; to know it is to easily foresee its consequents. Custom, which lets us do both, is thus the source of whatever rationality the thing may gain in our thought."

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year's Piglets!

On the morning of New Year's day, Ruby began to deliver her second litter, farrowing 11 piglets by about 5 pm. While one was stillborn and another born seemingly lame (its hind quarters never moved), another piglet was found dead a day later with a deep laceration in its front shoulder. Since then, however, each of the remaining eight continue to live and thrive. Welcome to all 15 of the new piglets now living at Ecotone!

Below are some photos of the other, older litter of piglets from Sadie, which now venture boldly out into the snow to romp and root around.