Saturday, March 26, 2011

Piglet Zen

Nothing has taught me patience like farming, and nothing more so than living with pigs. On March 5th, a majority of the third and fourth litters of Red Wattle piglets left Ecotone.  While nine went with Andy Roddick of Blackbird Heritage Farm in Franklin, two went with Bill and Cynthia Trew of Trew Organic Farms in Ocoee, Tennessee.  
That morning, in preparation for their arrival, I began to wrangle the piglets.  Alone.  There was a steady, heavy rain as I rounded up the materials and my patience.  I sat cross-legged in front of a bowl of grain under an adolescent maple, my head bowed in dissimulation.  One by one they would approach, and one by one I would grab them by a single leg, wrap my arms around their entire body, and give it all I had to get them into the trailer. 
If you've never tried it and are so inclined, I cannot but recommend that you try wrestling wet, hungry piglets in the mud at least once in your life.  One of the litters was a month older than the rest, and while this may not look like much of a difference with four hooves on the ground, I can promise you in retrospect that that difference in age does indeed make a difference in weight.  At one point, having underestimated the size of a particularly large gilt, I initiated the contest and she pulled me - holding onto her two back legs - clear through the porcine soup.  Having at times been a competitive judo player, this young porker was not to have the best of me.  I held on, dressed now in the finest spring mud Tennessee has to offer, and won. 
But - besides being soaking wet, muddy, and taking all day - it all otherwise went off without a hitch.  Bill Trew and I traded piglets, with he bringing two very nice Berkshire gilts from his sounder in east Tennessee.  Thanks to Stella Hansen who named these newest editions to Ecotone.  Welcome Peggy Rae and Ellie Ann!  In the future, these girls will begin the experiments with hybrid heritage pigs, hopefully giving the gene pool some much needed diversity, as well as your pork chops some added agrarian vigor.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Radical Agrarianism 5

If you're in the middle Tennessee area and are interested in either the practice or politics of agriculture, this upcoming weekend is for you!  First, on Friday, March 25th from 9 am to 4 pm, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers will display the Mobile Slavery Museum at the edge of Alumni Lawn on the Vanderbilt Campus.  At 5:30 pm that same day, join workers from the C.I.W. and Rev. James Lawson in Benton Chapel for a round-table discussion on "The Politics of the Lunch Counter."  Both events are free and open to the public.  Below is the flier for the events, after which is some background information on both.  
Mobile Slavery Museum:
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers comes out of a community of low-wage tomato pickers of Haitian, Mayan, and Mexican descent.  Many speak different languages, and many are highly mobile--moving throughout the country during the agricultural season.  They work in a region of Florida that supplies 90% of the nation's tomatoes, and has been called "ground zero for modern-day slavery' by the U.S. Dept. of Labor.  And yet the CIW has not only helped prosecute slavery cases in the region, they have also pressured food giants to help end exploitative conditions in the fields.  McDonalds, Burger King, Sodexo, and six other global corporations have signed with the CIW to pass on a penny per pound of tomatoes directly to farmworkers, and ensure that their tomatoes are sourced responsibly. 

With these successes already in place, the CIW is currently targeting Publix grocery stores, which has until how avoided responsibility for the conditions which bring them discount produce, stating "If there are some atrocities going on, it's not our business."

The Museum, which has been visited by former president Jimmy Carter and the U.S. Secretary of Labor, shows the region's long heritage of exploiting farm laborers--from slavery to convict labor, to current cases of slavery in Florida's fields.  But it also shows the unprecedented agreements being reached between farm-workers, farm-owners, and food corporations to end those abusive conditions.

The Politics of the Lunch Counter:
A group of migrant farm-workers from some of the most exploitative working conditions in the country are fighting an abusive food system--and they're winning. To cap off the day-long exhibition of their award-winning Museum of Modern-Day Slavery, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers will be joined by Reverend James Lawson, one of the original architects of the Civil Rights Movement lunch counter sit-ins to reflect on food politics in America.

Second, on Saturday March 26th is the annual meeting of the Tennessee Organic Grower's Association, which includes farm tours on Friday and a conference on Saturday.  For the interested, here's the press release, conference schedule, workshop descriptions

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Jasper's Orchard

Following the Roman agrarian Cato's advice that the best time to plant a vineyard is yesterday, over the winter Jen and I planned and planted an orchard in honor of Jasper's birth.  In addition to providing fresh fruit for the future, we thought it might be nice for him to see his age in lives other than his own.  With the wonderful help of several friends and family we've just finished planting everything, and here's what we put into the ground:
Granny Smith (semi-dwarf)
Arkansas Black (x2)
Black Limbertwig
Hubbardston Nonesuch
Korean Giant
Harvest Queen
Redhaven (x2)
Sour, CKVL #1 (x3)
Santa Rosa (x2)
Big Red (x2)
Illinois Everbearing
Meader (female)
Melon Tree
1 female, 1 male
Mary Foos Johnson
Cornelian Cherry
Ben Lombard
LSU Purple
Brown Turkey (x2)
Blueberry (x20)
Raspberry (x15)
Blackberry (x5)
Grape (x9)
Muscadine (x3)
Scuppernong (x3)
Bush Cherry (x3)
Goumi, or Wolfberry (x3)
Rose Hips

"In youth the farmer should devote attention to planting.  He should think a long time about building, but planting is a thing not to be thought about but done.... Remember that a farm is like a man - however great the income, if there is extravagance but little is left."     
                                                         - Marcus Cato, On Agriculture

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Bread and Revolution 2

So.  All this has me thinking about how - at least for the people of grain in the Abrahamic traditions - agriculture is in fact a curse.  Before the Fall, in the Garden, there was no work associated with subsistence; abundance was the norm.  Of course, there was but one prohibition - do not eat from a particular tree - and like all prohibitions this one simply increased its respective desire.  

Following this inevitable transgression, God declares humans "cursed among all animals and among all wild creatures."  After putting enmity between men and women, increasing the sufferings of childbirth, and subjugating a full half of the species to the mortal dominion of the other, the benevolent God of Abraham turns to the land itself: "Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles its shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field."  From original equality, innocence, and abundance, God concludes his curse of humanity with the curse of farming:  "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  

In an important sense, then, the curse of humanity is at once the curse of agriculture.  In fact, throughout the book of Genesis there is an important and fascinating interplay between the Hebrew words adam - translated variously as man or human, and only after verse 17 or so as a proper name - and adamah, or the ground or soil out of which humanity was formed and enlivened by the breath of God.

But eating something changed all that.  Life became work.  Work became toil.  Toil became necessity.  Necessity became death.  And only through constant toil to recreate ourselves on earth could humans escape such a fate after death.  With sweat we would grow grain, and with grain we would eat bread for all our mortal, dusty days.  By having to farm to eat, the God of Genesis curses human beings with agriculture.  From the ground we came.  With the ground we work.  Unto the ground we return. 

And while, of course, certain traditions of Abraham are in the midst of that soteriological ritual that begs a New Testament revision of this narrative of bread and revolution, for now I simply note how the rest of the Old Testament recounts the horrendous trails and tribulations of people forced to farm to live.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Bread and Revolution 1

As you’re well aware, the price of oil is once again making its random upward walk.  Well, perhaps it's not so random, and it surely isn't walking alone.  But with events in the Middle East continuing to unfold dramatically by the day - bringing uncertainties welcome and unwelcome alike - we'll all soon be very aware just how intimate the connection is between the global oil market and the corporate-industrial food system.  

According to figures released last week by the U.N's Food and Agriculture Organization, the average price of staple agricultural goods - known as the "food basket" in its Food Price Index -  went up 2.2 percent in the last month alone.  This is the largest percentage jump since such accounting began.  Here are one and two recent stories drawing some of these connections, i.e., between the price of food and the politics of scarcity on the one hand, and the politics of food and the price of scarcity on the other.  For a more in depth look, have a look at this article from Harper's, "The Oil We Eat".

And yet, all of this is complicated even further by another ingredient in the gas tank.  Last year alone, some 30% of the American corn harvest joined crude oil from the Middle East in fueling our "developed" lifestyles.  Diverted from the sugar factories and confinement animal operations that raise the cheap food on which such economies depend, the price of corn is approaching its all-time high of $7.88 per bushel.  While the housing market remains in the gutter, the price per acre of productive land, especially in the Mid-West, is going up dramatically.  Even in Tennessee the rental costs of acreage suitable for row crops is rising quickly.  

The question is whether this is yet another bubble.  In what precisely this bubble will consist is another question entirely - i.e., whether it's in the price of land, or in a particular crop, or in the futures markets, etc. - but there are at the moment a few people making quite a bit of money.  In fact, as Frederic Kaufman details in a recent article for Harper's - "The Food Bubble" - the 2009 financial collapse had everything to do with  the "free" market in wheat derivatives being traded on the floor of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange. 
And well, as they say, all this trickles down.  A few weeks ago I received from Windy Acres an email announcing their new spring prices.  And even while such grain is not, strictly speaking, part of the agricultural commodity chain, one can only assume that the basic costs of production rose sufficiently to justify the price increase.  Just for your information, corn, wheat, and barley went from .20 to .25 cents per pound, while roasted soy went from .40 to .50 cents per pound.  At least for me these cost increases are significant.  So significant, in fact, that they have given me cause to pause over the sustainability of this kind of farming in general, and what we're doing here at Ecotone in particular.  

After receiving word from Windy Acres, I began to research other alternatives.  After exploring having five tons of "non-GMO" grain - i.e., from fields in transition to organic - shipped in from Ohio, I was ultimately dissuaded by the $3,500 price tag.  With a few more calls, however, I learned that the folks I've been getting feed supplements from also manage an old-style farmer's grain co-op in Guthrie, KY.  This small community of Mennonite farmers associated with Organic Valley, which pays for the certified organic grain to be delivered to their mill en mass and then bills individual farmers for what they use.  While, of course, they don't have much of a web presence, Kentucky Organic Farm and Feed is run by Wilbur, who can be reached at (270) 265-5004.   

This, for now, is where I am getting feed grains for the poultry and pigs.  And while Ecotone is not yet certified organic, which potentially gives us more flexibility in what we feed our animals, it is the political and ecologic - rather than the personal and economic - that has kept me from using such grains on our farm again.  While corn remains significantly higher than before, the rest of their grain remains largely in line with what I was paying before.  Nevertheless, the total feed bill for the month of March was $898.41.

In the next week or so, I'll post the link to a survey we've put together to help us adapt the various economies of Ecotone to these dynamic, uncertain agrarian days.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Egg Count 2

The Egg Count for February was 448.39 dozen, or 5,380.68 eggs.  In exchange, the hens ate 2,510 pounds of grain for the month.  If you can't "cipher in yer head," that's an average of 16.01 dozen eggs per day for 89.64 pounds of feed.
In terms of grain, then, in February each dozen eggs from Ecotone took an average of  5.60 pounds of grain, or .47 pounds per egg.  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.   

DIY: Water Catchment

With last year's floods, heat, and drought still visible in the landscape, it may be difficult to remember that just the year before was only moderately warm and consistently wet.   That being our first year at Ecotone, Jennifer set about quickly try to manage this resource from the sky by installing several water catchment bins on the north side of the house.  With spring well nigh, it's time to begin again to think about water for the future.  Our neighbor and good farmer friend - Jonathan Smith of Happily Ever After Farm -  recently asked about how to reduce the two inch output of these bins to a standard garden hose, and so I thought I'd post the photos we took back in 2009 as the first in a series of DIY projects we've completed that may be of assistance to homesteaders and small farmers.  

The first step, of course, is to acquire some type of catchment bin.  We got these bins off Craigslist, and if you're looking for something similar just be sure to ask about what was in them, and try to confirm that they are food grade quality.  The next step is to direct your gutters into the bin as in the photo above.  
Next comes the tricky part.  In the photo above you'll see the various pieces needed to go from the two inch valve to a garden hose connector.  (As soon as I can find their particular measurements, I'll put them here.)  The final assembly is below.
Once you've gotten this far, you're almost done!  Clean and glue the plumbing pieces, and don't forget to apply Teflon tape to the large male threads on which you'll place the reducer.  Let it dry, connect your hose, and move some water!
Since these photos were taken, we've elevated the bins so as to get more pressure in the hose.  The final photo is from a friend's house who has really perfected the technique of catching, saving, and using rainwater.  He's got various food grade containers, and if you're interested I can put you in touch. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Fieldnotes 2

It's that time of year.  The winter has denuded the brush and the pasture is less than a quarter inch tall.  It's time to pick up trash.  Both the new that the wind and dogs have bequeathed, and the old that the chickens and pigs have unearthed.   
And so I was thinking.  If you're ever experiencing uncertainty about that perennial metaphysical question - What's natural? - just go out and pick up some trash.  This will resolve rather quickly any doubts or anxieties you may have. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

2010 Ecotone Index

Total number of eggs laid by Ecotone hens in 2010:  26,906
Total amount spent on hens:  $8,732.52
Total income generated by their eggs:  $7,354.57
Number of Red Wattle piglets born at Ecotone:  29
Estimated number of households that eat Ecotone eggs regularly:  115
Pounds of grain eaten by hens in 2010: 21,436.90
Feed costs alone per dozen eggs in 2010: $2.26
Pounds of grain eaten by pigs in 2010:  13,200
Number of piglets sold as breeding stock, i.e., are still alive:  12
Estimated number of pounds of pork from the rest: 3,400
Average annual ratio of grain to eggs:  .80:1
Infrastructure costs for laying hens in 2009:  $3,309.18
Infrastructure costs for laying hens in 2010: $668.18
Total infrastructure costs for Ecotone laying hens:  $4,050.36
Infrastructure costs amortized over 5 years: $0.54 cents/dozen
Cost of each new egg carton:  $0.33 cents
Total costs to date to begin Ecotone:  $49,606.54
The above figure minus truck and tractor to date:  $38,434.22
Total income generated by Ecotone to date:  $11,172.30
Estimated number of trees planted since moving to Ecotone:  165
Total infrastructure costs for the Ecotone pigs:  $985.90
Gross income from pigs in 2010:  $1,650
Total costs of grain for pigs in 2010:  $3,622
Total pounds of grain eaten by the animals of Ecotone in 2010:  34,636
Total costs since 2009 of Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dogs:  $2,216
Total cost of fuel for 2010:  $1,108
Total amount paid in sales tax in 2010:  $289
Number of miles driven to acquire feedstuffs:  1,650
Estimated number of hours C.J. spent collecting and washing eggs:  438
At 10 cents an hour, C.J.'s annual hourly wage for such work:  $43.80
At $5 an hour, C.J.'s hourly wage:  $2,190
At $20 an hour, C.J.'s hourly wage: $8,760
With infrastructure, feed, fuel, and labor at $5/hr, the true cost of a dozen Ecotone eggs in 2010:  $4.27
Per dozen, the amount subsidized by C.J. for eggs in 2010:  $0.62
Total amount spent on fencing since 2009:  $2,697.13
Cost of Jasper's Orchard: $1,644
Number of edible plants in Jasper's Orchard: 102
Estimated number of years these plants will bear fruit: 50
Total amount since 2009 spent on tools:  $2,531.09
Total spent on the mixer-grinder in 2010:  $1,101.83
Total amount since 2009 spent on the garden:  $353.85
Average cost per day of the Ecotone layers in 2010:  $13.41
Average cost per day to feed the Ecotone pigs:  $6.63
Estimated number of hours C.J. spent working with pigs in 2010:  219  
Total amount in 2010 spent on pasture seed:  $214.40
Number of Farm Members who joined in 2010: 4
Number of years typically needed to begin turning a profit in farming: 5