Monday, February 28, 2011

F.L.A.G. 2: Accounting

As I've discussed with several of the potential founding members of middle Tennessee F.L.A.G. - Farmers for Local Animals and Grain - an important principle for such an organization is open accounting.  By opening our ledgers to farmers and eaters alike, we encourage a measure of transparency that is often obscured by the sheer scale and norms of privacy that typically govern "business" endeavors. 
In fact, from my perspective, it is precisely this conception of a farm as a business - of every family farm a profit-maximizing corporation unto itself - that I want to question.  From the ancient Greeks to the current seal of the State of Tennessee, agriculture and commerce have long been representative of two distinct realms of human activity.  Yet lately that's all agriculture is taken to be.  If you can't make money at it, it's not worth doing.  And maybe that is indeed the case. 
But in any case, such a question certainly is not one that can be answered in the abstract and according to "theory alone," whatever that may mean.  This question of agrarian economics, in other words, remains for me an open question, open to further inquiry and experimentation.   In such a spirit, in the next post I will present the facts and figures for Ecotone in 2010.  To spice it up a bit, I'll present these numbers in a format similar to the Harper's Index.  Finally, to get a better understanding of the sentiment behind my approach to accounting, I cannot but recommend that you watch the wonderful short-film The Accountant (2001) as soon as possible.  Then you will also understand that, as with all accounting, with mine there is inevitably a 4.5% margin of error, plus or minus. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Egg Count 1

I've finally had a chance to catch up on some accounting, including the January 2011 Egg Count.  During that month the Ecotone hens ate a total of 2,911.78 pounds of feed, or a whopping 93.93 pounds per day.  In exchange, the hens provided you and yours with 5,959 eggs, or some 497 dozen.  This works out to an average of 16.02 dozen per day.  Not bad given the especially cold and snowy month.
In terms of grain, then, for the month of January each dozen eggs from Ecotone took an average of 5.86 pounds of grain, or .49 pounds per egg.  Not only is this figure down from December, when it took 6.90 pounds of grain per dozen eggs, but it's also a significant improvement over last year's annual average of 9.56 pounds of grain per dozen.
Due to the cold, relatively hard winter we've had in middle Tennessee, feed consumption per hen was up to .30 pounds per day, or 9.30 pounds per month.  This figure should go down rapidly as more forages and insects become available in the pasture as spring approaches.  

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Swords Into Plowshares

For both my own reference and yours - should you be interested - I'm posting several relevant links, the first of which is a recent New York Times article on efforts helping veterans become farmers.

Next is a recent report published by the Applied Research Center on the racial wage gap in America's food industry, entitled "America's Food Sweatshops".
Finally, on a more hopeful note, above is a video about an exciting new project - Food Corps - that is just getting started on a national scale.  Eat Local.  Live Free.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Morning Visitors

As I was heading out to feed the pigs this morning, I was instead greeted by a sounder of piglets at the back fence sniffing around for a pre-breakfast snack.
Ozark - a true lover of all things porcine, especially those in miniature - soon led the somewhat confused "herding" back to their mothers, who were awaiting with snorts of concern.
All of this reminds me of a fellow farmer friend's favorite quotation regarding such incidents, accidents, and their aftermaths:

"The Pig: mogul of appetite, lord of misrule, the king who must die."
- John Thorne, Serious Pig (2000)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Farming and Philosophy 4

For the interested, I'm posting a link to the latest version of my dissertation prospectus, Freedom and Food, Slavery and Agriculture: A Philosophical Ecology of Democracy. I sincerely welcome any comments you may have, constructive, deconstructive, or reconstructive. Though I'm just starting to write in earnest, it's still very much in a form receptive to comments and criticisms of various sorts. As such, please do not cite or otherwise use any of this material without permission. So enjoy, and let me know what you think!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Farmers for Local Animals and Grain

Yesterday I spoke with a farmer in Williamson County about the new agrarian organization - F.L.A.G., or Farmers for Local Animals and Grain - which nominally began with AWA awarding Ecotone one of its 2011 Good Husbandry Grants. Following this conversation I wanted to elaborate on the background to this idea, and the problems its initial ends and means were taken to address.

The idea for F.L.A.G. began in the summer of 2010, when Fletcher Gonzales and I went into together and bought a 1972 New Holland Mixer-Grinder 352 from a pair of brother-farmers up the road. Not only was this machine entirely mechanical (i.e., no hydraulics), but was in great condition and a great deal, and over the long term would save us $100 per ton of feed, which Windy Acres charges to mix and grind grains. Plus, with more control over the process we naturally have more control over the product, and so can add specific supplements as needed.

As we realized one of the main missing links in the local food economy surrounds the cultivation and availability of quality, local grains for the consumption of humans and other animals, we also began to think about how we might work with other farmers to build such infrastructure in a community-oriented way. The mixer-grinder was the first installment of this, and Ecotone is proud to offer "The Homesteader's Grind," which is a custom-mixed feed ration with organic, local grains from Windy Acres made especially for backyard and homesteading poultry enthusiasts on the Highland Rim.

But before Fletcher's Poultry became part of that dismal statistic looming over small-scale American agriculture - i.e., that 9 out of 10 new farmers fail in the first 3 years - Fletcher purchased several key pieces of equipment that have allowed at least 6 other local farmers and homesteaders to process their own chickens, ducks, and turkeys over the last year or so. Included in this are a professional grade scalder and a 25 foot long trailer, which is the foundation for the AWA Good Husbandry Grant's Mobile Processing Unit (MPU).
On January 8th, Brooke Gillon and I began work on the MPU by removing the old flooring and insulation that was connected to it. Tomorrow a neighbor and professional welder Jeff Collier is coming to pick up the trailer and complete the requisite work for its road worthiness. After this, Jonathan Smith, Hugh Hansen, Michael Allison, and I will complete the remaining welding work and install its central pieces. It also turns out that Eli Reiff - the Mennonite "Poultry Man" of Mifflenburg, PA, who also first taught me how to butcher a chicken - is fabricating a custom made evisceration table designed by Jonathan. We hope to have the unit completed by this year's TOGA Conference in late March, soon after which we will begin offering it on a rental basis to local farmers and homesteaders.
One way to think about F.L.A.G., then, is that it is oriented less toward "production" and more toward the "means of production." By making certain key pieces of agricultural infrastructure available to the entire agrarian community, that is, we could build a just local food economy and work against some of the pernicious influences of market economics that have come to dominate the sustainable food movement. Chief among these is the rigid and disheartening amount of enmity that currently predominates among middle Tennessee pastoralists at farmer's markets and beyond. Not only do many of the area animal farmers dislike one another personally, but several refuse on principle of competition to help other, newer farmers as to how and where to access important resources and information, much less allow them to visit their farms for the sake of education and cooperation.
The other significant problem, as I see it, is precisely this lack of transparency. Since I entered farming a few years ago, I have been astounded by the sheer plurality of terms and labels, the amount of vagueness and ambiguity accompanying their correlative practices, and the ways farmers obfuscate real differences that exist between operations and products under the banner of local, natural, and/or sustainable food. You can, for example, buy a share of raw milk from one of the largest such farms in the area without ever knowing that they sub-contract with other smaller dairies and package it under their singular name. Nor, for example, would you know that when you buy a chicken from another popular animal farm that they paid another farmer - much younger and smaller in operation - a mere pittance of the price to raise the bird for them, which is marketed as having originated on their farm. Finally, then, it should come as no surprise that the largest local, "all natural" egg farm in the region has 5,000 chickens on 5 acres and not a blade of grass in sight. And while their eggs are to be sure cheaper than ours, bear in mind we have 300 hens on 12 acres.
Now, of course, nothing about these practices are inherently bad. The problem, it seems to me, is the lack of transparency about their organization, and the overall lack of thought given to the ethics and politics involved with the labor relations that make them profitable. Put differently, if I'm going to buy raw milk for me and my family, I damn well want to know exactly where it's coming from and exactly who is doing the milking on a daily basis. To ensure these things, I'm willing to pay more for that product; in fact, it is in my direct interest to pay that person well so that they will do an extra-good job in preparing a deliciously sensitive beverage. The same goes for poultry and eggs, but I need not go there now. My point is simply that, like the questionable practices themselves, the regulatory exemptions by which these foodstuffs come to my table can be both a boon and a bomb for my family's gut. The difference between these outcomes does indeed make all the difference, and by shifting the emphasis away from the political economy of producer-consumer and toward a political ecology of farmer-eater, new forms of food politics and pedagogy can emerge organically from particular communities.
To begin to address some of these problems, F.L.A.G. would be a decentralized organization of farmers and eaters that works to build local food economies in just and community-oriented ways. Toward this end member farmers, in partnership with interested eaters, would visit each others' farms to exchange ideas and information, and ensure that the various pastoral practices match their respective marketing claims. To encourage simplicity in form, multiplicity in practice, and a robust sense of bioregional autarky, I envision no fees for membership, nor any centralized decision-making body; rather, this organizational structure aims to facilitate other farmers and eaters, in other locales, to initiate their own chapters and their own locally appropriate standards. Participation in the organization entitles farmers in good standing with one another to use the name and logo of F.L.A.G. on their products and marketing materials.
In another light, then, while the central agrarian aim of F.L.A.G. entails developing the infrastructure necessary to farm with local raised animals fed locally grown grain, one of its most important consequences will be educational. Not only would F.L.A.G. draw attention to problems facing local food economies, it would actually serve as a positive counterpoint to building in fact the communities we claim to want in speech. In these ways, educating eaters into the central issues surrounding the foods they eat, as well as enabling farmers to cooperate in new ways that solve old problems that benefit local people, are just two of the main ideas motivating an initial chapter of Farmers for Local Animals and Grain.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Welcome Baby Jasper!

On Friday January 28th, at 5:13 pm, Jennifer gave birth to our first child, Jasper Weiss Sentell. Born after 44 hours of labor, Jasper weighed 6 lbs. 12 oz. and was pronounced healthy at the scene. In attendance were the magnificent doula Tracy Good of Good Births, lifelong friend Jennifer Tlumak, grandmother Beth Sentell, me (AKA "Dad"), and the dedicated medical professionals at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.Beginning around the 40 week mark, in an attempt to induce the birthing process as naturally as possible, Jennifer began trying a number of folk methods to ripen her cervix. Beginning with red raspberry leaf tea, walking some 2 miles a day, she soon moved to sperm - often the easiest and cheapest source of prostaglandin around - and evening primrose oil. By the end of the week Jen was even trying acupuncture. All to no avail. At the time of check-in on Wednesday, January 26th, she remained completely undilated.

At 41 weeks 3 days, Jen decided to check-in to Vanderbilt to begin medical methods of induction. Beginning with the cervical ripener Cytotech, by Thursday morning Jen was dilated only one centimeter. After this, the option presented to Jennifer was the Foley bulb, a mechanical device placed against the cervix to dilate it to at least 4 or 5 centimeters. (Only afterward did we learn that most women then choose to have an epidural due to its associated pain.) Before the Foley bulb, however, Jen and the birth team got a break, and moved into the deluxe room with the labor tub. Apparently some country music singer floated the tub for her own use, and the use of others in her wake. Bulb in place, mind in place, Jen labored gracefully in the tub for some 7 hours.Around hour 16 or so, Jen requested some assistance with the pain, and after the bulb was removed received a small dose of Stadol. This allowed her, as well as the birth team, to get some much needed rest. Afterward Jennifer's mood improved greatly, and she seemed to catch her second wind. At 9 pm on Thursday, after almost 9 hours, the Foley bulb finally came out with a gentle tug from the nurse, and Jen was 4 cm dilated. The bulb was said to only take 2-4 hours. Around 11 pm that night, the attending physician broke Jen's bag of waters and gave her a second dose of Stadol to help her with the increasing pain. That night, each member of the birth team kept vigil with Jen, holding her hand during each contraction and generally helping her be as comfortable as possible.

At 3:45 am on Friday morning Jen finally got an epidural, which took about 30 minutes to put into place. Unfortunately, the anesthesiologist had to come back in short order, as Jen was only numb on one side of her body and was having intense pain in her hips. After the second try, though, everything worked wonderfully and Jen felt much better. By 6:30 am on Friday, Jen was 5 cm dilated and 80% effaced. Finally some real progress, and Jen was among the most excited with the developments. Around this time - some 30 hours in labor - the medical midwife ordered a Pitocin drip begin in earnest.

At 11 am or so, with impatience building palpably in the air, the attending physician came in to request Jen's informed consent for a C-section, but also did a cervical exam that revealed her to be 90% effaced and 8 cm dilated. She understood the risks, consented, and decided to wait just a bit longer. A few hours later the doctor was back and eager to cut. A check of Jen's cervix revealed yet more progress. By 2 pm she was 100% effaced and completely dilated. The room prepared for birth. By 3 pm it was time to push. Everyone assumed their stations. Jen T. and Tracy held Jen's legs; I stayed by her side, counting, whispering encouragement, and keeping her forehead cool in between contractions; grandmother Beth took photos and helped the helpers. It was an awesome team! After more than an hour of pushing, the doctor discovered that Jasper was turned a bit wonky in the birth canal. He still wanted to cut, and mentioned it again to Jen, which seemed to give her even more determination. With Tracy's guidance, Jen switched to her side in an attempt to straighten Jasper out with several good pushes. The attending reached in and attempted to turn his head manually. Now with the nurse reporting progress directly to Jen, she became very encouraged and quickly gave birth to Jasper, welcomed by tears of joy from all.
Immediately following birth, Jasper was placed on Jen's stomach while the nurses accomplished their requisite checks. After ceasing to pulse, I cut the cord. When they moved Jasper to the heater to weigh, suction, and stamp his little feet - the first of many numbers that will define his biopolitical life - the doctor and midwife began to suture Jen's "spontaneous" tears. This, incidentally, was the same word they used for the birth more generally - i.e., "a spontaneous vaginal delivery" - and after 44 hours of labor the propriety of both usages remains highly suspect.

All in all, it was truly an amazing experience that only solidified my love for this truly amazing woman. I began to see clearly, perhaps for the first time, how the roots of masculine domination stem from a deep fear of this beautiful, ferocious, and truly awe-inspiring feminine power. And while he is no doubt one of the fathers of our tradition's version of patriarchy, Jasper's birth has nonetheless been an occasion for me to reflect on Aristotle's claim that "it makes no small difference, then, to be habituated in this way or in that straight from childhood, but an enormous difference, or rather all the difference."

From Jennifer, then, came Jasper, the newest member of Ecotone who we're so happy to introduce. Welcome Jasper, we've been waiting on you for some time! My hope, above all, is for you is to acquire those habits of character that will enable you to become a man of whom the women attendant your birth into this world can be proud of progress indeed.