Born early this morning.
This post goes out to my anonymous benefactor who surprised me with two camping plates, two bowls and two mugs. I’m not sure who gave them but I am incredibly thankful for them! Thank you!
From Leavings, 2010.
Men Untrained to Comfort
Jason Needly found his father, old Ab, at work
at the age of eighty in the topmost
tier of the barn. “Come down!” Jason called.
“You got no business up there at your age.”
And his father descended, not by a ladder,
there being none, but by inserting his fingers
into the cracks between boards and climbing
down the wall.
And when he was young
and some account and strong and knew
nothing of weariness, old man Milt Wright,
back in the days they called him “Steady,”
carried the rastus plow on his shoulder
up the high hill to his tobacco patch, so
when they got there his mule would be fresh,
unsweated, and ready to go.
for another, brought a steel-beam breaking plow
at the store in Port William and shouldered it
before the hardly-believing watchers, and carried it
the mile and a half home, down through the woods
along Sand Ripple.
“But the tiredest my daddy
ever got,” his son, Art, told me one day,
“was when he carried fifty rabbits and a big possum
in a sack on his back up onto the point yonder
and out the ridge to town to sell them at the store.”
“But why,” I asked, “didn’t he hitch a team
to the wagon and haul them up there by the road?”
“Well,” Art said, “we didn’t have but two
horses in them days, and we spared them
every way we could. A many a time I’ve seen
my daddy or grandpa jump off the wagon or sled
and take the end of a single tree beside a horse.”
– Wendell Berry
I would like to apologize and explain my recent hiatus from this blog.
A couple of weeks ago, I was house- and horse-sitting at Garry Lean’s house. Between working on my classes and working with the horses, I simply was not able to spend any time on the blog. That weekend, I was also house- and farm-sitting at Russet House, leaving me little time to do anything between all the chores that needed to be done.
This past week has been a barrage of school assignments. I’m actually getting somewhat ahead, in preparation for Adar’s visit for the next ten days. Luckily, I now have every assignment that needs to be done during her visit finished, which will allow me to relax a little bit.
So, some of the highlights over the past couple of weeks…
1) I drove tractors! I ploughed the laneway at Russet House farm while Brian and Sylvia were away, and also drove them at Baxter Farms, run by Glenn Baxter who is the local tractor mechanic around here. I know this is a simple thing, but it was really a big accomplishment for me to begin my tractor learning.
2) I’m writing a crop plan. We are taking Market Gardening and Greenhouse Operations with Mark Trealot and the primary assignment in this course is to create a crop plan, which is the key piece of planning that every vegetable farmer goes through every year. It’s a lot of work, but saves a tonne of stress during the actual planting year. It’s nice to be able to look on a sheet of paper in mid-July and have it written out what you need to do, when your mind and body are already exhausted from all the stress of farming.
3) I’m learning about seed genetics. This is a really confusing subject for a number of reasons. First, there is a lot of biology involved which was never my strong suit to begin with. Secondly (and much worse), there is a LOT of misinformation out there. Seed genetics are closely tied to a lot of controversial topics in farming (GMOs, hybrids, etc.) and both sides of the controversy are very guilty of not giving honest information, which makes it very difficult to wade through it to determine how I feel about it all. I went to a Seed Saving course a couple of weekends ago which helped a lot, though admittedly it was talking to one of my instructors, Sue Chan, who was helping organize the event, who really made a difference. She’s AMAZING at explaining tougher topics.
4) It’s getting warmer! The tarp over my tent is a dark green on the side facing up, and with the changing sun, it is really heating up the tent. In fact, when I come home after school, my water, which will typically freeze solid overnight, is usually melted. I’m not sure how warm it gets during the day inside… but it is definitely above 0° C. Beautiful! I’ll have to turn the tarp over in the heat of the summer so the white side is up, but for now, this is perfect.
That’s all for now… I’ll have another post hopefully coming out tomorrow and then one on Wednesday…
By this time of year, farmers have already planned the perfect 2014 garden. In their minds eye, there are no plant diseases, no insect pests, no deer and the weather is always perfect. It’s a chance for them to spend a season in hopeful bliss, before the reality of the first frost-free day arrives. By now, many farmers already have their seeds ready, organized dutifully in shoeboxes, and are ready to go into the ground, or the soil in the sprouting room, very soon. This poem is found in Berry’s book “Farming: A Handbook.”
The seeds begin abstract as their species,
remote as the name on the sack
they are carried home in: Fayette Seed Company
Corner of Vine and Rose. But the sower
going forth to so sets foot
into time to come, the seeds falling
on his own place. He has prepared a way
for his life to come to him, if it will.
Like a tree, he has given roots
to the earth, and stands free.
Note: If you’re enjoying reading about my Camp Life, I would like to suggest you check out my friend Spence’s blog, Rediscover the Wild in Wilderness. He’s also living in a wall tent (see, I’m not the only crazy one!) though he’s doing it up in Thunder Bay!
ed. I actually originally wrote this post a couple of Saturdays ago. It’s fairly normal for me to wait a few days between the writing and publishing of a post, to allow me a few read-throughs and edits before I publish it, though waiting over two weeks is strange. The reason I waited so long is because, through this specific post I use the word shit a lot. I’m aware that this word has a very visceral sound to it, and it can create a very strong reaction against it. I tried using other words, but none of them really fit. I suppose the reason that I prefer the word shit is because our reaction to the word is similar to our reaction of what the word represents. And that’s exactly the issue that I’m attempting to discuss here. That being said, if you dislike the term, I certainly would not be disappointed if you skipped over this post.
Shit is Old English. The word that is. Shit itself is probably much older. The word is Germanic in origin. Most of our cuss words in English are Germanic in origin. I was wondering about that. Turns out, when the Normans invaded what would become known as England, the Anglo-Saxon peoples that were living there at the time became a subjugated people. Anglo-Saxons of course, were Germanic. Their language became the language of the streets, the language of the uneducated peoples. Not like the Norman language, which was the language of the upper class, ruling elite. Thus, modern day English became a mix of French and German, with the lower class words becoming our cuss words. Technically, by cussing, you are celebrating the language of an oppressed people.
I was thinking these thoughts on Saturday (ed. January 18th) as I was mucking out horse and cattle stalls at a nearby farm. One of the advantages of living on a farm, one of the many advantages of living on a farm, is that the farmers know other farmers, farmers who always have a job to do for somebody with a strong back and a set of work clothes. On Saturday, I worked on the farm of Garry Lean (pronounced Lane). He’s an organic farm inspector and a trainer of other organic farm inspectors. Interestingly, I also met him several years ago in Thunder Bay when he was leading an organic certification seminar.
Mucking stalls is hard work. It leaves you tired and sore, and is an incredible work out. But that’s why I love it. I love cleaning shit up.
I first cleaned shit with Roots to Harvest. This is an amazing program that I was so incredible thankful to work with for the summers of 2011 and 2012. I’m not going to go into many details here, but at its most basic (and, in all honesty, too basic) form, it’s a program that gets teenagers to garden and farm. Throughout the summer, these youth get to work at many farms in the Thunder Bay area, and almost without fail, one of the key jobs is cleaning up shit.
Its funny to see youth come to terms with this. Often times, when first beginning the summer, the idea of cleaning shit is anathema to them. Their reaction makes sense. We don’t really care for our shit nowadays. We have elaborate systems to deal with it, systems which magically take our own shit and send it elsewhere. On a farm, at least on a small-scale one, there is no elaborate system. On a small-scale farm, the usual system is a pitchfork, a wheelbarrow and the aforementioned strong back.
As the youth are digging out the shit though, something happens. Suddenly, it becomes fun. I’m not exactly sure why that is. The work is hard, the days are usually hot and oftentimes, especially with the powerful ammonia pockets that often form in compacted sawdust, the lungs and eyes are burning. Normally, this is not a situation that leads to fun. My best guess is that there’s something almost liberating about being able to play with shit. Its a chance to actually get paid to break one of society’s biggest taboos.
On a small-scale farm like Garry’s though, shit forms another purpose. Shit is amazing compost. There are so many chemical and biological processes going on in it, it adds beautiful health to any soil. Its may be the biggest reason to have animals around a farm. I’ve heard of herds of cattle being used in areas that are suffering from desertification simply because their shit brings valuable moisture and microbiological life to it. Shit is actually restoring land!
After I cleaned out all the stalls, I went home to my tent. I don’t think I’ve described my toilet facilities, but I use a sawdust toilet. Basically, I shit in a bucket and cover it with a layer of sawdust that masks the odour while also helping with the composting process. When the bucket is full, I bring it up to the compost pit in the barnyard and empty it out. In a couple of years, that shit becomes beautiful soil!
In 1907, F. H. King toured farms in China, Japan and Korea. He described his findings in the book, “Farmers of Forty Centuries.” Apparently, farmers there had farmed the same land for 4000 years, and the soil was still incredibly productive. To put this in perspective, the United States has lost one third of its topsoil since it was settled. To be fair, China is, lately, also doing really bad in the soil building process. What was one of China’s big secrets that F.H. King had discovered?
Apparently, the Chinese knew about how amazing shit was! In fact, it was considered a gift to take a shit when you visited somebody else’s house! You were giving them the gift of fertile soil. Brilliant!
Harry Stoddart, author of “Real Dirt: An Ex-Industrial Farmer’s Guide to Sustainable Eating” and, more importantly, one of my instructors, describes peak phosphorus. I’ll let you read the book to find out more, but essentially, his argument is that we, as humans, are running out of phosphorus to put on fields, phosphorus which must be mined and transported thousands of miles from mine to farm. Meanwhile, we are each shitting out phosphorus into our elaborate systems where it ends up being “disposed” of.
Gene Logsdon, author of “Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind,” argues for another huge source of shit! In America, there are 73 million cats and 68 million dogs… which every year create a total of 190,000,000 tonnes of shit. Think of all that amazing fertility that is being thrown away every single day.
My point is that we as a society, really need to start dealing with out shit. We are getting to the point where we really can’t keep on trying to get it to disappear. We can’t afford to keep flushing it away and hoping that somebody else will deal with it. Shit is one of the best sources of fertility that we have, and considering the state of our topsoil, we need every extra bit of fertility that we can get. We need to get out shit together. Because if we don’t, we may be in deep shit.
I’m a firm believer that one of the largest problems facing modern agriculture is the recent loss of the rural culture that was so prevalent for much of human experience. Of late, there has been massive urbanization throughout the world, with the result being a chronic shortage of people left in rural areas. There are a myriad of reasons for this, which I won’t go into today, but the shortage of people in rural areas, coupled with the growth of the consumer culture has largely devastated most rural communities.
I’m really cognizant of the fact that I am heading into rant territory, but please bear with me. I promise I will not actually rant, but will only skirt the line momentarily.
I believe community is important for all people in all places and at all times. I believe it truly allows us to be fully human, in fact it is required in order for us to truly experience all of human existence. I believe however that it is especially important in rural areas.
Recently, I was driving across Ontario and was blessed to see a group of (I believe) Old-Order Mennonites doing hay. They had two teams of horses pulling the wagons and at least six people loading the hay onto the wagons. I compare this to how most modern farmers do hay, which involves a lot fewer people and a lot more tractor, and the difference is startling. Though I do not believe the Old-Order Mennonites are perfect, I do admire the importance they place on building community, especially through the discipline of work. I would also suggest that a lot of how they farm is incredibly sustainable, and has proven so over a long period of time. I believe there is more than just a coincidence there.
When I first thought of moving to Lindsay, I wanted to take part in building community, in a number of ways. I’ll discuss more of these ways in future posts. One way though that I wanted to build community was to find people I could live with. People who I could learn from, both within agriculture and also in other ways. Our homes are the building blocks of community. From there, from the everyday working out of daily lives, community begins.
While I will relate more details next week, I am happy to say that I have met an incredible family who have agreed to let me stay with them… a family from whom I will learn a LOT from! Let me say that I am so incredibly stoked to be able to get to know them next year.
And no. They are not Old-Order Mennonites.
First of all, a very happy Thanksgiving to all of my Canadian readers. Having worked in the gardening/farming world now for four years, I’ve spent a lot of time considering this holiday, which, for the record, may be my favourite holiday of the year. Like many people, I spend the time leading up to it counting my blessings and realizing how thankful I have every reason to be. I won’t create a full list here, though I think there is merit for taking the time to write that stuff down. Rather, I will share one specific thing that I’ve realized I am very thankful for, something that I never thought of before I began farming.
As I mentioned last week, I love farming and all the physical and mental and emotional work that goes with it. And so, this Thanksgiving, this harvest time… I’m thankful the growing season is finished for the year. This may seem bizarre, after all I’ve been waxing on about how much I enjoy working the fields… but right now, I’m looking forward to not have to pick and pull and bend and sweat and to being able to have dirt-free hands and… I’m looking forward to the blessed rest from farming that autumn and winter bring. And I’m looking forward to doing it all again next year.
Also, a very special shout out goes to my Mom. Who “liked” my last post on The Facebook.
And herein begins this week’s post…
Starting next January, I will be attending Sir Sandford Fleming College in Lindsay, Ontario, for their one-year, post-degree program in Sustainable Agriculture. I like saying post-degree as I feel it lends an extra element of credibility to my choice to go back to school. “Sure, I’m going back to school… but this time, it’s a post-degree program. Kind of like a PhD.” I also like saying it’s for sustainable agriculture since it makes me look especially hip and earthy. Certain segments of the population actually think I’m a hero for wanting to becoming a farmer. Another segment (largely though sadly made up of disillusioned farmers) thinks I’m quite stupid for doing this. In a way, they’re both right.
The program itself is a one-year program, as mentioned above, which is nice because I am getting old(er) and don’t have the interest to spend too much more time in school. The first semester seems to be a bit of an introduction to sustainable agriculture, which is nice because the word sustainable can mean a number of things to a number of different people. The second semester is an internship on a farm of my choice. The final semester is spent figuring out all the really exciting details, such as legal and business matters. At least that’s my idea of what it will be like. I suppose I’ll find out more in January.
Back in 2011* I decided to tour the program while on a trip to Uxbridge to visit my family. I managed to sit in on a lecture and meet and chat with some of the students. It was a very exciting time for me (the lecture was on sustainable grazing methods… I remember this because I am a dork. I actually still have the notes I took that day. See? Dork.).
Afterwards, I went on a private tour of the campus, which has a lot of really interesting sustainable systems (green roof, living walls, massive composting system, gigantic wind turbine/sundial…). The gentleman leading the tour was one of the primary administrators/founders of the program, so it was a great opportunity to ask all sorts of questions.
That’s when I knew I would be attending in 2014. I’m going to be a farmer!
* I’ve been trying to figure out what year I toured their campus and met the students and the program administrator/instructor… I thought it was earlier than this but it must have been this year… I believe it was late spring/early summer.
First of all, I would like to thank those of you who read the first posting. I would like to especially thank those of you who sent me a personalized message. I’m not sure if anybody can comment on my post or not… I know I have severely restricted access to my Facebook account for a myriad of reasons, though I would like to have some way to create discussion about my upcoming experiment… I’m trying to figure out how to proceed on this front and so I will keep you all posted on what I decide.
I’m excited and encouraged that people are curious about what I’m up too. Hopefully, as the upcoming year progresses, each of you will continue to check back, following along as I try to better learn how to live well in my place. I hope we can learn from each other.
In my third year at Lakehead, I took a course called Ecological Literacy. What a fantastic name for a course. Through this course, I was introduced to the idea of Place, a concept that still excites me whenever I think about it. Rest assured, I will explain this concept in much further detail in a future post. Through disciplines such as tracking, bird watching and foraging, I began to see the world around me in ways I had not previously seen. I was also introduced to the work of Mr. Wendell Berry. I will also go much further into him in a later post, though for my purposes today, I will provide a quick sketch.
Mr. Berry is a writer. Fiction, poetry and essays are his mediums and his messages include love and fidelity, stewardship and work, conversation and thought, and the power of fellowship, among others. Mr. Berry is living in a community in Kentucky, along the Ohio River, in which he can trace his family for several generations. This looks like it may continue, as his children and grandchildren also currently live there. Mr. Berry, though foremost a writer, is also a farmer. And he writes about farming extensively. Through his work, I began to become interested in perhaps pursuing agriculture as a possible career.
Around that time, I had the option of volunteering with some friends at a local farm. After spending a day there removing some old fencing, I began to realize that perhaps, this was something that I was really interested in. I began to work in agricultural settings. I worked with a historical farm in 2010. The summers of 2011 and 2012 saw me working with a local urban vegetable garden. This past summer I worked at yet another local vegetable farm, in a full-time capacity. Each step of the way, I realized, more and more, that this was something that I enjoyed doing. I enjoyed the feel of the dirt on my hands and under my fingernails. I enjoyed the honestly analytical questions that were required of me to be asked. I enjoyed the humility required by weather and pests and everything else that was outside of my control.
And I knew it was time to stop looking at agriculture as a fun way to spend a summer, and to start looking at it as a life’s vocation…
As many of you know, more and more I have become interested in learning how to better live in my place, wherever that is and whatever that means. This blog is my attempt to learn how to answer those two questions, and to share some of those lessons with you. Two notes before I begin.
1) In no way am I an expert on how to live well in my place. I am merely trying to learn how to do so, fumbling as I go, frequently making mistakes and only occasionally achieving anything that could confused with success. Furthermore, I not only highly doubt that I will ever be an expert, I highly doubt that anybody can ever truly become an expert.
2) I have made a promise to myself that this blog will not ever turn into a place where I air my rants. Not that I can’t rant mind you. Those of you who know me know that I am perfectly capable of ranting with the most cantankerous of old coots. But I really don’t want this to be the place where I air my rants. Instead, this will be an experiment in seeing how how close to the line I can get. It is up to you to hold me accountable.
So having now written that preamble, I will begin.
At the moment, due to the circumstances of teacher’s college, I currently find myself living in the small town of Palmerston, Ontario, about an hour north of Guelph, where I am working as a student teacher at a small, integrated environmental leadership program. While I won’t gush too much about this placement (it’s absolutely incredible), it has, within a week and a half, already afforded me with a tremendous amount of material for sharing in regards to issues of place, especially as those issues revolve around sustainability in agriculture. Over the next little while, I will share many stories, most, extremely positive, about things that I am learning, encouragements that I am receiving, and moments that I am experiencing. Today however, I want to share a story that is somewhat saddening.
Today, my class went to an agricultural career fair, of which I am sure to speak more of in future posts. There were many speakers and organizations present, from research organizations to equipment dealers to conservation groups and so on, all highlighting the incredible job potential currently existing in agriculture*.
One of the speakers was the owner of a local tractor dealership. He shared about the movement towards bigger tractors, how, for example, ten years ago a tractor may have had 15,000 hp and a highway speed of 40 km/h, while today, the tractors have 150,000 to 300,000 hp, and he’s seeing some with a highway speed of 60 km/h. It should be noted that I didn’t quite catch the exact horsepower numbers due to his accent (more on that later), and, since I’m am not even remotely knowledgeable about horsepower and have no real idea as to how much power those figures represent, I’m not sure if they’re accurate or even make much sense. The point, however, still stands that today’s tractors are notably more powerful then they were only ten years ago.
He then mentioned something that was very interesting, something that stood out for me, especially coming from somebody whose trade comes from selling those more powerful (and, I would posit, more expensive) tractors. “The way we’re heading is to bigger farms; is this right? No, but it seems to be the way that the industry is going.” He then mentioned that expectations were that farmers would need to farm three times the amount of land that they currently farm, though he wasn’t clear on why this was expected. I have my theories, but I will hold them to myself for now.
Three things stood out for me. The first was his tone. Though obviously you cannot hear it yourself, he seemed saddened by this trend. Or at least that is what I heard (it may have been my own bias detecting this inflection however). The second thing was his question to the audience. “Is this right?” Followed quickly by his answer, “No.” The third thing was his belief that this process was inevitable, a topic which I will let alone for another day.
Here was a tractor salesperson, dealing with quarter-million dollar tractors, who genuinely appeared saddened at the loss of small, family farms. I couldn’t help but want to find out more.
During the break, I approached him and first of all, asked him about his accent. I usually have a fairly good ear for accents, yet was completely unable to figure out where his was from. He smiled and told me that it was Pennsylvanian Dutch, which is not unusual I suppose for this area due to the large number of Old-Order Mennonites that live and farm nearby.
We then began talking tractors, though only in the most general sense since, as mentioned before, I am a complete neophyte with anything to do with tractors. I mentioned that, from the substance of his talk, it seemed that tractors had really gotten powerful.
He responded by mentioning the following**, “Sometimes, I think that the technology is moving too quickly. I mean seriously, I wonder where it’s going to stop. Right now, you have a tractor that all you have to do is press a button, and the tractor knows exactly how deep to plough, when to turn, and so on. All you have to do it push a button!” Keep in mind that his description of what the tractor does was much more detailed than mine, but the essence was the same. With the push of a button, you could now run a tractor.
Again, he seemed saddened by this change, which, considering that he could only profit by the large scale adoption of this new technology, I found interesting.
Compare this with the presentation by the speaker representing the 4H organization. “Technology is so cool nowadays! Farmers can now sit back and play Angry Birds [on their smart phones] while the tractor does all the work!”
It reminds me of a quote from a letter that Wendell Berry wrote to Wes Jackson many years ago, a quote which is one of Jackson’s favourites and can be found in the book Wendell Berry: Life and Work and also, I believe, in the book Consulting the Genius of Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture:
“As one who has farmed with both tractors and teams [of horses and/or mules], I would insist (to you; I would be more cautious, at present, in a public statement) that with the use of a tractor certain vital excitements, pleasures, and sensitivities are lost. How much numb metal can we put between ourselves and our land and still know where we are and what we are doing? Working with a tractor is damned dulling and boring. It is like making love in boxing gloves.”
* It should be noted that by agriculture, the speakers were including everything from farm to fork, including food processing and food sales. According to the career fair, agriculture is a very broad industry.
** I should mention that all quotes contained within this post have been edited by my memory of it. I did however write his first quote down as he was speaking, and also the quote of the 4H representative found below, as he was speaking, so they are much more likely to be accurate. For this quote, I was unable to take notes at the time, as this was a personal conversation and I didn’t want to be rude.