Bean There: Mixed (Up) Farming

There are many reasons I farm. Foremost is the welcome diversity of the work, the many physical and mental challenges – always a new puzzle to take apart and solve. It also involves extended periods of repetitive tasks, undemanding of acute attention, that allow my thoughts to wander. This is when a creative solution to a sticky problem may percolate to the top of my consciousness or a letter to a long-neglected friend gets composed, to be typed out word for word when I get back to the house, or, dare it be said, I sketch out arguments and points for a new column.

The task for this particular rainy April morning was to begin the gargantuan effort of shoveling out the past winter’s deep bed litter of manure and bedding from the barn into composting windrows outside. With the amount of bedding I use, the job is not as odorous as you might think, and the physical nature of the work is enjoyable after a winter’s relative inactivity. There is also immense satisfaction in directly improving the soil and fertility of my farm. As a result, my meandering thoughts turned to the conversation I inevitably get into with market growers at conferences and gatherings.

 

Serious farming

“Big manure pile, eh?” they say casually, unable to hide the gleam in their eye. “Want any help shifting that? Maybe we could take a couple of truckloads off your hands…”

Muscovy duck, ducking the spotlight.

I politely refuse, pointing out that this fertility is priceless for my farm and I intend to let it do its work. The discussion then progresses to their lament about how to buy, beg or steal the necessary quantities of organic matter so essential to soil health. I helpfully point out that even with a small land base, they could close the gap themselves with chickens or even some of the smaller ruminants, like sheep or goats. They may now say, regretfully, that they are vegetarians. I am markedly less patient. A pet donkey or horse, then, fed boughten hay and a bit of grain, and out comes soil-building gold. A pet sheep, a ewe or a wether, could even provide wool. They demure. They don’t like to be so tied down, unable to travel or take a weekend off. No trace of politeness now – they want me to feed, care for and, presumably, take on the “negative karma” of butchering so they don’t have to give up their weekend jaunts? Call me when you’re serious about farming.

Granted, the type of mixed farming I do has become an anomaly in our society, and not only because of the dominance of large-commodity agriculture. Larger markets favor specialized, intensive production and do not accommodate the farmer with the half dozen pigs, small flock of hens and eight to 10 milk cows recorded in prose and pictures by William Kurelek’s A Prairie Boy’s Summer.

Market gardeners, large and small, are not different, with their production efforts focused on high-value crops like leafy greens and warm season annuals. Fair enough, in some ways. If you want to stay farming, you have to go where the money is, or you end up bagging groceries at the Co-op to pay the bills. I get it, but farming smart, and profitably isn’t only about the value of the output, it is also about the cost of your inputs and the sustainability of production on your farm. Sensible economists trumpet the benefits of diversity in the larger economy, but a farm economy also benefits from diversity, both in its revenue streams and its ecology.

 

Voice of experience

I modestly offer some of my own experience to make the point.

The growing season in 2011 was the wettest on record. It rained every single day for the months of June and July, and the temperature, even in my greenhouse, didn’t get above 15 C until August. Everywhere, fields were flooded and the government began talking about emergency-relief funding extraordinarily early. Farmers just had to turn their backs on their wet fields and rotting crops.

My farm is too small to benefit from government crop insurance programs. I had five acres under cultivation initially, but even my field, with its 5-degree slope, had trouble draining, and I couldn’t cultivate with the rototiller. By the end of July, I had written off the warm season crops and was concentrating on what I could salvage from the root crops and work I could accomplish by hand — about two acres. And it wasn’t the light, friable soil M. Fortier contends with, armed with nothing but his grelinette or broadfork. It was good Cape Breton rocks and clay.

Spring lambs (Photo by Catherine Campbell)

Coupled with a mail strike that left parts of my personal finances in chaos, I was left looking around for ways to stay afloat. I’ve been in this game awhile and could see exactly where cash-flow was going to count in the months ahead. At the end of August, two months early, we butchered and sold the spring lambs, even the ewe lambs we had planned to use to increase the flock. Paying the mortgage was more important than another five pounds of dressed weight – and anyway, the grass was so lush that year, they weren’t really undersized at all. Instead of keeping some back for ourselves, we would eat mutton from the elderly ram instead.

The meat chickens we’d gotten to vary our winter diet, with a few for sale off-farm, were every one of them sold; a late hatching of ducklings provided our festive dinners. My then 15-year-old son was commandeered to help dig those field and root crops out of the sticky, waterlogged clay. We went on a financial crash diet, eating almost nothing we hadn’t grown ourselves and paring an already trim budget to the bone.

Our reward was that by Christmas our major bills — mortgage, power and phone —  were paid. Nothing left for presents or other celebrations, but it still felt like a win for that hateful year. By the next spring, we would be heartily sick of our unvaried menu, root vegetables and frozen berries unending, no treats to alleviate the monotony, but it was the healthiest winter we’d ever had, which sweetened our hard-earned solvency.

 

Mama

No Romance

Let me be clear. I am the last person to romanticize hardship. Those who wax lyrical about an idyllic past should count the number of tiny gravestones in the pioneer cemeteries and take note of the average life expectancy of women back then. I would not wish the kind of white-knuckle stress and effort of that year on anyone.

There are also times when too many and too varied tasks mean that work is badly done, when more thoughtful, concentrated effort would have yielded better results, not to mention sanity. A good market garden has to have variety both to attract customers and to make maximum and best use of the land. However, too many small crops of dubious marketability and high needs will, without doubt, lead to overwork and ultimately neglect, unless you have access to a free and undiscriminating labor source, like WWOOFers or perhaps your own children until they rebel, leave home and never speak to you again.

I no longer try to grow every weird and exotic vegetable under the sun. Why grow most of the brassicas, when I am not good at it and Peter LeBlanc of Front Porch Farm is? I find myself growing larger amounts of fewer things that are either necessary to the farm ecology, like grains and greens for the chickens, or are highly marketable, like the 600 row-feet of peas I plant each year.

It’s just me here now, though. My son left home (to study engineering, not because I overworked him, outside 2011, and he is still speaking to me). My crop rotations are still very complicated, 10 to 12 distinct planting groups, with both seed-saving and soil health considerations to keep in mind. By contrast, the Holland Marshes, which once produced the vegetables for most of southern Ontario, are now only black, dead soil, depleted nearly beyond recovery by years of heavy continual cropping, bolstered by increasingly large doses of chemicals. In the end, those chemicals were the only things feeding the plants barely held upright in that lifeless medium.

Extravagantly complex crop and ecosystems are best left to Nature, which has been doing it for eons. But to leave farming to the industrial production model is even greater folly. Used to be, whenever I felt a need to send my blood pressure skyrocketing, I would listen to the economic polemics of Michael Holenka. He rages against the inefficiencies of farmers and how they need to be taken off the teat of government subsidies and left to the mercy of the free market, which will dictate how and where our food is grown. It always ended badly, with me at the losing end of a shouting match with the radio. (There may be an in-depth discussion of this another time.)

 

Specialization

The business mantra is specialization, concentration and exploitation. If diversity exists, it comes in the form of conglomerates and sector monopolies. But on the ground, even the most carefully managed – and profitable – agricultural sector, the dairy industry, has suffered from the drive to specialize. The crisis of bovine encephalopathy gut-punched not just beef farmers, but also dairy farmers, who had enjoyed a small but useful revenue from the sale of their cull cows and steer calves. Not destined for the high-end market of grocery store meat counters, most fast food burgers were made from this side-product of milk production.

For a long time, dairy farms in the Maritimes benefited from grain for their feed rations produced on the Prairies, with the government mandated Crow Rate heavily subsidizing transportation costs. With increased oil prices, this subsidy was modified and finally dropped in 1995. Meanwhile, many recently retired farmers here never planted a single field of grain in over 35 years and the hike in grain costs made small dairying even more tenuous. Both knowledge and infrastructure have struggled to catch up and fill the gap, once again eating into farm profits and resiliency.

In the United States there has been a hard drive to further specialize dairy, with separate farms dedicated to the operations of breeding, milk production and forage. Each is minutely managed for maximum efficiency. Million dollar prize cows are stimulated to produce and fertilize multiple embryos which are then flushed and inserted into incubator cows to finish gestating. Milking production cows rarely see fresh grass or sunlight, moving them back and forth to pasture would cost too much.

The author’s left hand.

 

Economic resilience

Large-scale production must also occur on large tracts of flat land for the equipment to operate — land which is in increasingly short supply and often at astronomical costs. Small farms with diverse topography are more affordable and, as a result. are attractive to new entrants, but require a complex approach to production and profitability. There is economic resilience to diverse production and that includes the savings and improvement in soil health through on-farm fertility management. Wendell Berry reported on the wisdom of an older farmer in his area, brought up in the day of animal traction, who told him you shouldn’t farm more land than you can plow with the horses you have, and you shouldn’t have more horses than you can feed with the land you farm. In that way, your farm and its long-term fertility are in balance.

It is well to remember that Berry himself does not earn his living farming and the age of petroleum power on the farm won’t end anytime soon, but this succinctly describes the importance of understanding the constraints of the land and its production capacity. Industrial models stress steady increases in productivity without acknowledging that there are limits to healthy growth. Markets may become saturated. The material, labor and environmental costs may become onerous, even unconscionable, yet the internal logic of increased, specialized and concentrated production is unquestioned.

 

Topographical restraints

Ready for her closeup.

Mixed farming may well sometimes be called “mixed-up” farming. I can’t help thinking this at especially busy times of the year, running to care for several hundred baby chicks in between discing and seeding fields with vegetables and grains. I purchase more of the feed ration for those chicks than I would like, though I continually try to incorporate crops that will pare that percentage down. I buy hay, rather than cutting and curing it myself. I struggle with too many complicated tasks and not enough time to concentrate on how to do them better, though I flatter myself I am improving in that regard. By the time I die, hopefully from old age and not overwork, I may be quite good at it.

The topography of my land imposes its own restraints. The hill pasture is too steep to plow safely. When the sheep are gone or their number reduced, I may plant some rows of cropping trees or shrubs that can be managed with small, nimble equipment, though what will I feed the soil for those trees then? Sheep can eat and relish the young leaves of Tansy Ragwort that is deadly to cows, and chickens scratching the droppings and cowpats have reduced any parasite load in those pastures to nearly nothing. Cull apples, vegetables and over-mature greens are a tasty treat for all the ruminant and avian livestock and keep them healthy even through the winter. The obvious output keeps the micro-livestock in the soil healthy too, judging from results.

There is also some wisdom in small farms in close proximity cooperating on production and sharing some of their burdens while maintaining their autonomy. Do I really need to take on pigs when my daughter does that well? Trade chicken for pork and call it a deal. I will here and now offer a reward in the form of a portion of that manure pile to reliable growers who assist me with some of my seed growouts. Every woman has her price…

leaf border

 

 

 

Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.

 

 

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