A Crescendo of Photosynthetic Activity

Well folks, here I am, googling when turkeys are old enough to get rained on, in my underwear, ‘cuz all my appropriate pants are wet. It seemed like about time to offer y’all an update on happenings here at the holler, and so here goes…

I’m about dead exhausted from the amount of work needed to not only maintain our gardens, plantings, and livestock, but also give a hoot about the impact of our activities. To put it selfishly, we can’t feed ourselves into the future if our agricultural activities lead to further depletion and degradation of our soils. Or, to frame it as part of a bigger picture, none of us are making it out of this century if we can’t create systems that capture and store carbon. Luckily, the process of doing this has been really tasty.

We are still at height of photosynthetic crescendo here north of the equator. Between ample rainfall and (mostly) ideal temperatures, vegetative growth has been easy to observe on a daily basis. With near weekly precipitation events, pastures have been recovering back to grazing height in as little as a week. Our native warm season grasses are shooting up an inch a day or more. Sun, rain, appropriately timed mowing and grazing, and of course a bit of fertility go a long ways towards the process of generating more soil carbon, via photosynthesis and vegetative growth, but there’s an invisible but necessary component in the “farm ecosystem” that I have plans to address this year.

 Fungi and microbes are key for soil health… and healthy soil encourages more growth, therefore more photosynthesis and more sequestration. We’ve assumed for long enough that our fungal and microbial networks, our subterranean livestock, if you will, are naturally present and in balance… though there are places here and there on the land that do not seems to support healthy growth. Most of our pasture areas have had years of fertility enhancement at this point, so what’s the problem? It may be that they lack diversity on the microscopic level. 

It may be that our pasture soils need microbial inoculation. With bioreactive composting, spreading, and proper rest periods, I hope we may begin to see some changes. I’m not a soil scientist, and so measuring changes will have to be based on observation, though I’m open to hearing from anyone out there how else I might go about this.

Now I hate to get too technical about things… that’s sort of how we might’ve lost our way as a species in a world where larger and larger inaccessible technological “solutions” are proposed to solve issues caused largely by technology. I’m not some rich weirdo like Elon Musk, ready to rocket off and leaves the plebes behind on a dying planet in some spin off series of human conquest and imperialism gone galactic. No, I’m a much poorer weirdo, and I think the solution is in the top few inches of the earth we walk on and our ability to grow more plants in a tighter space. Now if you don’t mind me, I’ll be walking in my underpants cranking my seed spreader (really, that’s not a euphemism), sending good vibes to all the mycelium out there. But probably I oughta pick okra and herd the turkeys first. Google says they’ll be ok. 

Can we please evaluate our food resilience now?

Greedy pigs at the trough have me thinking about scarcity.

Y’all, I hate to be the first person you hear this from, but it might be time to ask some questions about the resilience of our food systems. And here is where I’d like to offer a couple of distinct measurements we as a culture might want to explore. At this time I have little to offer in terms of economic measurements, as I’m not all that well-suited to give anybody the what-for on money. Global food systems are inseparable from commodity markets, arcane and intangible as they are to some of us. While I know that commodity markets have real life impacts, I do not see that whatever is beneficial to Cargill in the stock market as being mutually beneficial for the 7 billion of us who gotta eat. So, in full transparency, I am not taking propping up global corporate hegemony as a given in any evaluation I make.

When it comes down to it, and it probably will, the value of food systems will depend more on their potential ability to sustain production (soil and fertility resources) and their ability to meet complete nutritional needs locally. I differentiate ability to sustain production from current production. Yes, with enough fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizers, farmers can crank out a lot of corn or beans. In a good weather year. It takes a long while for those calories to end up on anyone’s plate, if at all. Many of these fields would require years of regeneration to transition to more diverse crops, as the soil resources are depleted without a steady supply of synthetic fertilizers. Really, I am not dogmatic. If applying conventional agricultural chemicals is the difference between famine or none, I’m for it. But it’s just an attempt to triage a collapsing system. 

One of our better government programs (I state hesitantly as a responsible, non-dogmatic anarchist) over the years has been the Conservation Reserve Program which incentivizes farmers to rest and restore degraded land for use in times of great need. At least in our region, CRP agreements are being slowly phased out. Much of our current land here is set to expire out of the program in the next few years, and while it’s been managed with burning, planting, and reseeding, centuries of soil resources that took only decades to erode are still gone forever. For many farmers, the only way to receive income on these lands once they’re expired out of the program is to plow them under and squeeze out the fertility. Better uses for the land might include management intensive grazing, any type of silviculture, or, my favorite, both. If you’ve only got a few years left on your CRP, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with planting that walnut grove right now, but that’s not legal advice. I believe that the current CRP should be extended and improved, and not phased out.

The question I want to ask here is, how much food can X plot of land produce with limited imports and fossil fuels? Soil that’s been harmed cannot support sustained production without imports. Sometimes it cannot sustain life at all.

Then there’s distribution. Living in the rural midwest, where it’s common to see vast tracts of land devoted to producing food I’m never going to eat, the functioning of our food system is equally as obscure as in the inner city.  Upon closer inspection, both here and in urban areas, there are many folks, more and more of them, who do produce significant nutrition for local consumption, but by and large, most of the food easily available for purchase in a grocery store is from “somewhere else”, like pretty much between California’s Central Valley and Argentina. 

This may become more obvious a liability in the current social atmosphere of scarcity. Personally, I think being able to distribute our food locally is pretty bad ass, compared to hoarding tater tots or whatever. It’s clear to me that relying on local food networks can ease the chaos of living through an emergency, or successive emergencies, or the end times unless we decide to call it off.

Looking at our own food system here at Fox Holler, I see plenty to improve upon. About 1/3 of our marketing income is unavailable for the unstated future, due to the closing of a reliable farmer’s market. The market is 45 miles from here, and we’ve relied on it, partly, because it’s affluent, and we have some fancy foods for affluent people. I’m less altruistic when I have debt, just like anyone else. But it’s clear to me that 45 miles is too far to go, in uncertain times. Selling locally would require me to compete with local groceries, many of whom sell at nearly wholesale in our area. 

Not to disparage my area, but not too many folks outside of the clustered sustainable communities movement here care about pasture-raised, organically fed, or rotationally grazed enough to pay what our food costs us to produce. I get it. A large part of why I grow food is so that I can spend as little money as possible obtaining nourishment. 

The flipside, of course, are urban areas where local, sustainable food resources go for a high enough price to be exclusive to only the prosperous few. Here again, I’m not offering a solution right now, sorry. I’d just like to point out how worthy it is to consider how to re-evaluate our network of distributing food, to specifically insure that it’s equitable in every direction.

Another way in which we still fall short on resilience is our reliance on grain and feed importations. While a major part of our project encompasses providing perennial alternatives, this is a life long undertaking for us. We would likely need to radically downsize, change management, and/or plant field crops to survive into the long term, if our current feed sources dried up. In lieu of taking on more deep responsibilities, cooperation with our neighbors and an organized diversification of local land use seems a more enduring way forward. Many of our field crop farmers will also be in need of more local markets, and so the possibility of mutual collaboration may seem more practical now than ever. Looking into the future, it is not hard to imagine a day when selling commodities globally is impossible.

It seems like quite a lot of y’all may just have the time on their hands to ask similar questions, and, I don’t know, even come up a few answers. Me, I gotta go freshen the barn and watch how the rain flows. If you’re in the area, come on by for some produce. We’re all about local food, just keep a few feet away from me, please.

…on hauling water, fringe sustainability practices, and the act of trending

Howdy y’all. My name’s Ben, and I move cartloads of buckets of stuff around for something like a living. I prefer to shrug off the notion that I am somehow a farmer, (not trending in this economy) though the end result of my work often yields food. Mostly what I do has much more to do with land care and reallocating resources, material resources, nutrient resources, and fertility resources.

I haul twenty gallons of water to the cows and milk goats, fifteen gallons to the homestead for drinking, cooking, and cleaning, then I haul five to the scrub goats down in the bottoms, five to the sows out under the big oak tree on the old fence line, ten to the growing piglets, five to the chickens, five to the ducks, five to the dogs… this is all fairly regular in the wintertime, without any well placed ponds on our land yet, and with weather conditions too cold to risk leaving out the labyrinth of hoses which carry captured rain water between all these systems, plus our gardens and trees, in the warm season. And carrying all this water, along with all the desiccated pumpkins and sprouted grains for the pigs, the honey locust pods and home-baled hedge leaves for the goats, the loads of eggs, manure, bones, ash, trash, firewood and more water, I have a fair bit of time to contemplate my own relevance.

Is it relevant to carry my own water, eke out my own simple living, care for plants, animals, and land, and hopefully leave behind a few nice tree plantings and a couple of skilled children before I perish? In a world where women carry a majority of the water, I’m happy enough to haul my share, and some for others as well. According to UNICEF, 2.1 billion people do not have access to fresh water in their own home. Of those folks, over a quarter billion of them must travel at least half an hour to collect it.

Pushing my cart through mud and brush, back and forth, I am, for one, thankful to have access to a spigot providing clean, municipal water, which is more than a lot of folks can say. Hauling one’s own water will tend to build some appreciation in the drinker for whatever they can get. Only in enclaves of relative privilege do folks turn their noses up at a little fluoride. Perhaps these folks can just afford a trip to the dentist. Some of us cannot.

Anyhow, I was thinking about whether or not what I’m doing is even relevant, in the face of climate instability, social unrest, total abject poverty, famine, and the global trend towards nationalism, authoritarianism, and xenophobia. I’ve hauled plenty of water, but probably not as much as any fifteen year old girl in Sub Saharan Africa. My chances of stumbling upon a better way to collect water are minimal.

In the meantime, the affluent Western world’s relationship with sustainability is immaterial at best. We have some vague notion that there is some type of way forward through policy. There are slogans, ideals, and advertising campaigns. We all need a liveable planet, and we’re supposed to make our way there with reuseable straws and Impossible Burgers. Those options must feel like a joke to the starving and destitute.

I do believe that there are technologies and techniques that can aid in creating some type of level playing field for the human race. The affluent Western world needs to vastly power down its consumption, and reorganize into scaleable communities where fossil fuel use is minimized and carbon emissions are actively negated by restorative land based activities. We cannot expect the developing world to ignore what we have and want less than that.

Often, I marvel at the simplest of items that have improved my survival in this experiment. Chief among them are bearings and pneumatic tires. Without durable carts and wheelbarrows, the majority of what I do would be back breaking. Lo and behold, a lot of folks don’t have access to these things, let alone the batteries and solar panels that have enabled me to intensively graze animals, pump water, see what I’m doing, and communicate with all y’all. Quality carts to ease the burden of hauling water can leave more time for other things among subsistent folks. If something as simple as portable electric fencing were easily available to the world’s herders of goats, cattle, and sheep, different forms of management that we’re healthier for both livestock and land base could be performed. It’s just a thought, but in the face of an ever intensifying social media culture that seizes on fads until they’re sucked dry, where keywords, hashtags and memes drown out the actual exchange of ideas, my tiny notions about raising chickens among mulberries or incorporating pigs into nut tree plantings are irrelevant, suitable for a fringe audience at best. Somehow I doubt very much that the ideas that will save humanity, or at least lessen our struggle, are going to be ‘trending’.

Our culture isn’t prepared to value this necessary, if unsexy, work, nor the ideals behind it. Most folks would prefer to stay comfortable, even in expressing their progressive attitudes. But the comfort that’s being marketed as guilt-free cannot exist without a global economic system that is ultimately based on resource extraction. Nothing’s going to change if we keep waiting for the next electric car or plant-based burger to save us.

Perhaps veganism is a good example. I heard the advice recently to try to appeal more to the vegans. To be clear, I’m not picking on all vegans. (#notallvegans) I have plenty of vegan friends who I appeal to. I myself was vegan for several years, and I believe that the evidence is mostly clear that eating a plant-based diet has a less negative impact than one including animal products, speaking in general, conventional terms. I’ve also learned that it’s really hard to raise large amounts of vegetables and grains without manure, and that obtaining fats and oils from vegetable products is difficult in temperate North America without either tilling huge amounts of land for oil crops, or using huge amounts of fuel to import sketchy products like palm and coconut oil from the tropics.

I believe that domesticated animals have an important role in relation to human communities, and that the potential to utilize marginal lands for food production as well as sequestering carbon through thoughtful, intensive grazing practices is worth considering. It doesn’t mean that I advocate eating large amounts of animal products either. I’m not wealthy enough to go paleo. I just know that if I have my druthers, (and I do, I do have my druthers!) I’d chose to consume fat in the form of cheese from my cow or lard from my pigs that I can walk out the door and look at right now, rather than in the form of an avocado that was almost certainly harvested in unfair labor conditions, 2000 miles away from here. Besides, the affluent Western world isn’t about to go vegan, and neither is China, for that matter, where meat consumption has skyrocketed alongside the economy. Everyone wants a scrap of our decadence. There’s likely more potential in leveraging farmers to provide animal products that take into account humane, climate smart, restorative practices than getting Uncle Dale to eat Tofurkey.

But this is not what the conversation about diet in America is about, or has ever been about. Taking a moment in every meal to just consider what we eat and how it got there is, I believe, infinitely more helpful than the tendency towards labelling, trends, and identity politics surrounding food and diet.

I love food. I love growing it, preparing it, sharing it, and eating it, and I have many deeply held values around it that I’ll express some other time. No, dear reader, my goal today is to warn you of the pitfall of following trends. Trends, in this day and age, are often the fabrication of a vocal minority, yielding clout and media savvy to their own benefit. Perhaps you too have a practice you are deeply passionate about, that could benefit people and the planet, but isn’t sexy enough for a hashtag campaign. My unsolicited advice is to keep at it, regardless of the prevailing trends. In fact, run away from the trends as fast as you can, because there’s sure to be a lot of other people doing the same in short time, and some of them may end up looking for a more authentic solution when they do. That’s where you come in. Our contributions are too precious to be scrapped for clout.

To be fair, perhaps the revolution will be Tweeted. I dunno. We’ve seen it before, in the Arab Spring, before that went south into quagmire territory. We’ve also witnessed the rise of woke figures like Greta Thunberg. But the world needs those of us on the ground, making our own unique fringe contributions to sustainability and social justice too. It can’t be marketed, which makes it about as relevant as hauling your own water. Pretty damn relevant, at least to some people.

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