Books

Christmas gifts happily bolstered my reading materials

It is no secret that I love to read. Typically multiple books will be read simultaneously if they are wildly different topics like 1 fiction novel and 1-2 non fiction novels covering different matters. For example I am currently re-reading (well, listening) to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn read by Elijah Wood (affiliate link) while physically reading the two books discussed below. I had audible credits to use or lose so why not re-read this masterpiece with a twist?

As christmas gifts I received two books that have been on my list for a very long time. The book relevant to the farm venture is Humanure Handbook: a guide to composting human manure (affiliate link). We are flushing away an astronomical amount of agricultural nutrients and using an equally astronomical amount of drinking water to do so. The first step to rectifying this major oversight is to work through the taboo of discussing recycling nutrient-rich human excrement. In fact, the author had to self publish the book because as he states it “no publisher would touch this book with a 10 foot pole”.

The Humanure Handbook covers a large amount of science behind composting so I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the various applications of compost whether it be landscaping, horticulture, gardening or reducing the environmental impact of the waste each of us produces. In order to successfully fight through the fecal-phobia and taboo topic, the author definitely needs to delve into the science of composting to adequately explain how to safely turn human excrement into a nutrient rich soil amendment. He does so beautifully based on the 40 pages I’ve read so far.

The other book I received has been on my list for about two years before it was even written. Steve Rinella is an idol of mine because of what amazingly honest content he produces regarding responsible and ethical hunting. His TV show Meateater is a huge breath of fresh air  from the norm which are basically half hour infomercials for hunting products with people I don’t consider hunters shooting animals that are functionally livestock (contained in a fence and fed corn). I’ve recommended the show to friends in the vegan or animal rights categories that, while still uncomfortable with the realities of gutting/butchering/harvesting meat, gained a new and valuable perspective on hunting. His podcast by the same name is also enjoyable while more geared for hunters.

When he announced they were undergoing a seemingly impossible venture of writing a complete guide to hunting, I immediately wanted the book. Over a year later, the big game edition was released followed shortly by the small game edition. For anyone interested in processing their own meat (or just how meat is processed in general) including hunters, farmers, etc. these books are invaluable resources. Affiliate links: Big Game edition, small game edition.

I’m excited to learn more in depth and hopefully share any relevant information I pick up!

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Uncategorized

Long break spent begrudgingly but responsibly planning farm venture

I have not posted since November. The truth is that I started crunching numbers in order to formulate a true business plan and the outputs of those calculations did not look pretty.

If all of my calculations are accurate (which is a big assumption), including pigs, cattle, laying hens, broiler chickens and apiary products, the first year would net $24258.85889 of income but this only considers direct costs of producing each animal while omitting general start up costs like fencing, water troughs, mineral feeders, plumbing, etc. Certainly not bad in of itself but it relies on a few assumptions, mainly that I will be able to sell each finished animal to 1-4 people as regulations require the processed meat to be sold as a full, half or quarter animal to a customer who must pick up the meat at the processing facility themselves. Being honest with myself: Marketing and sales are the most intimidating part of this farm venture so that assumption may be a dangerous one.

I will go into more detail about all of my calculations soon, but the spreadsheets are quite messy and require either re-organizing, lots of explanations, or both. They will also be subject to change as I find errors, new information or updated information (ie: major shift in market prices of animals or hay).

In the course of researching for then making all of these calculations, I discovered a two major things: Sustainable agriculture/permaculture is generally extremely exploitive of labor and that most small farm ventures operate at a loss or gross under $10,000 annually. To the latter point, that means the most farm ventures cannot be the sole income source of the operator.

To the first point, I attempted to find a single example of a sustainable agriculture/permaculture business with open books that is successful without exploiting labor or relying on other income sources for its very existence including off-farm jobs or a reliance on speaking/book deals for financial success. Spoiler alert: I couldn’t find a single one.

All these revelations lead me into a bit of soul searching as well as research that showed me that most sustainable farm enterprises MUST have a business plan to provide structure and goals. From gathered anecdotal evidence: most farms fail because they choose what they will produce and expect it to sell on its own thus the operators figure once they start farming, income will sort itself out. From USDA research: In 2012 small farms that gross less than $10K average -9% of the operator’s income (aka: a loss) while farms that gross from $10K to $250K only yield 10% of the operator’s household income. The “Family Farms” category averages $3,140 of farm income while averaging $80,978 from off farm sources. ( Source: 2012 USDA Agricultural Resource Management Survey.)

As to the exploitive labor practices of the industry, I did not have any objective data to back up my observations. So I decided to dig in a bit deeper and dust off my computer programming skills to collect data from sustainable agriculture internship postings. After analyzing the 135 most recent internship postings on the top sustainable agriculture job board, the results seem to back my observations. Now I just need to finish my report!

Lastly, now with a more practical approach that came with all the revelations of the industry, I realized I could be doing all of this objective planning while working to maintain a source of personal income. When the business plan is done and I have concrete figures and goals, I can move into the farm operation full time with minimal gaps in personal cash flow. So I took a seasonal job while applying for position in the field in which I hold a degree.

 

In conclusion, all my time since November has toward the seasonal job, applying and interviewing within the GIS field and working through the laborious but absolutely essential calculations involved in planning the farm business. There was simply no creative or analytical power left to maintain a good blog. From here on out, expect the normal blog content plus some boring, technical analysis of my calculations!

 

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General Pasture

A Nod to the improvements of Industrial Farm Practices

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed some shifts in the operations of the nearby farms that produce crops for animal feeds here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Farmers are now practicing crop rotations in greater numbers than ever before; usually just corn and soybeans with grains mixed in occasionally. Using a leguminous crop like soybeans in the rotation harnesses their power of fixing nitrogen into the soil from the atmosphere replacing soil fertility lost to grain crops as well as cutting down on the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers with the included salts that damage soil life.

Occasional inclusion of grains also plays into the second major improvement I’ve noticed: cover cropping. Most grains I see used here are planted immediately after the long crop harvest in the late summer or fall to provide a winter cover crop. Some are never even harvested and knowing before hand no harvest will take place allows a much broader choice in crop selection. Preventing exposure of bare soil to the forces of mother nature and weather keeps erosion at bay. If the grains grow to maturity, some fertility is taken from the soil but if the frost kills the crop, roots and plant residue returns that fertility. I’ve seen radishes, turnips and other non-grains planted instead of the conventional choice of winter grains. These brassicas amass nutrients only to be killed by frost releasing the mineralized (bioavailable) nutrients back into the soil as well as providing aeration by leaving voids where the roots or tubers compost.

Another key change I’ve seen is the inclusion of no-till seed drills. While row cropping still requires herbicide application, the lack of tilling helps preserve fertility by reducing vaporization of nutrients. The benefits of not disturbing the microbial soil food web are likely lost to the burning salts in herbicides however. Yet a benefit is still seen with the seed drills: fall cover crops can be planted right into existing corn stubble or soybean residue. The former provides habitat for wildlife such as ground nesting birds and helps hold the soil in place as the cover crop gets established while the latter releases the mineralized nitrogen stored in the leguminous plant tissues.

While not in my home area, on a trip to the beach in Delaware, I noticed some soybean farmers leaving uncultivated and wild strips of weeds and wildflowers through their fields. I can only assume this is to harbor wildlife like native pollinators to ensure a full seed set in the crop of beans.

The next key step in more sustainable industrial fodder production is replacing the organic matter lost from soils to crop harvests removed from the farm for sale. No-till seed drilling is a step in this direction, but an inclusion of carbon matter if not compost would be ideal. Maybe it will take one of the big local names or the regional extension office to sway the masses.

Confined animal rearing operations have also slowly began to show signs of improvement. I’m noticing more and more carbon stockpiles amassing near livestock barns and poultry houses. Massive and numerous piles of chipped wood are being dumped on these farms and judging by the continuous changing of the piles, farmers are using it for bedding and using it frequently. Also judging the varying quality and chiping size of these mulches, these farmers are sourcing the carbon for free or cheap as waste from local government agencies, power companies or tree service companies that have to clear brush or trees. Carbon in this bedding bonds to nutrients and ammonia from animals wastes reducing vaporization (air pollution) and leaching (groundwater pollution) then composts directly in the animal house (providing free winter heat!) or on fields adding both fertility and organic matter back to the local soils. This formation of a winter manure pack is an old practice that will the backbone of improving my soils. I could not be happier about this development!

There are still a lot of farm practices I don’t agree with…especially in the industrial food production field. However it is vital to give credit where it it is due. Pitting industrial vs. sustainable agriculture is polarizing and damaging to both fields, not to mention building of animosity and the subsequent ability of human emotions to hinder progress. Remember, agriculture is historically slow to adapt to new practices so patience is vital in improving our overall food production systems. Very few of these practices would have been used even as little as a decade ago. Notice how the oldest practices of crop rotation and winter cover are the most widespread now even though the forces driving the practices have shifted from economic in gaining extra income from a winter grain crop to soil preservation. We can only improve from here and from the looks of it, conventional farms are already doing do!

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