agriculture

A Good Day to Die

MeatChickens

Farming sounds romantic: the bucolic environment, the clucking of chickens and the smell of manure and soil.  Certainly, there are aspects of farming that are romantic.  There is the peace and quiet, the honesty of the work, the freedom of the day as well as the rituals of the chores.  But farming, especially when the farm includes animals, is a reality that soon makes itself clear.

This week I will be slaughtering the first set of chickens as well as some roosters.  And while I’ve done this before the act is never comfortable.  Most of us eat meat, but most of us do not slaughter our own meat.  This disconnect is clear for the farmer, and the disconnect soon becomes a cohesive whole as the day for the killing nears.

Killing an animal should never be easy, for any reason, even for food.  But when one sets off to the country to be self-sufficient, killing to eat becomes a reality.  Most hunters make this argument but I doubt that many of them kill simply to eat.  Perhaps the hunt becomes separated from the killing;  I’m not a hunter, and don’t see the point in it with few exceptions.  But I eat meat, and that necessitates the act that I will soon partake in: killing animals.

I believe that there is an honesty in killing your own food, but that honesty comes at a price: we must look our meals in the eye while we put knife to throat.  There is no easy way around this, at least any way that is honest.  But the fact remains: if I cannot kill the animals that I have raised, I should not be eating meat.  Peter Singer goes further with his concept of speciesism.

To raise animals for food is really a balancing act between morality and need, or perhaps desire: that I’ve not figured out yet.  However, if we decide that we cannot kill our food but expect others to do it for us, we really should not be eating meat.  I like bacon, and barbecued chicken and for those reasons I must do the deed and pay the price.  Moral food has a price.

And Then Pigs

piglets

(Meet Pork and Belly, our new pigs)

For some years I’ve wondered where the line was between being a gardener and a farmer.  It began when I made the conscious decision to grow my own food.  I felt like a farmer, but couldn’t really call myself one.  Then, I endeavored beekeeping.  I started with one hive; they unfortunately died.  I got two more and lost them.  I was really hurt.

I thought that this is what a farmer must feel like when he loses livestock or must acquiesce to some sickness and put an animal down.  They were just bees (I said to myself), but they were more than that: they were my livestock, my responsibility.  I was, however, still just a gardener with bees.

Last year when we bought our current property we had to start from the ground up.  I renovated the house over the winter: I was a carpenter.  I plowed a large plot for my garden: I was a gardener.  Early this spring I built a greenhouse: I was a market gardener.  Bees came and I was again (gladly) a beekeeper.  Not long afterwards I built a chicken coop: carpenter again.

Finally, the time had come to get chickens; there were animals coming to a farm.  I felt that finally I could call myself a farmer.  I picked up the small chicks and installed them in the coop.  They had water, they had food, they had straw; I must be a farmer, but alas…still nothing.  I could have chickens in the city.

Then, I got a call on Friday from a farmer that I had met.  I ordered manure and we talked pigs.  Evidently, I ordered two piglets when they were ready (about 8 weeks old), which would be in about 2 weeks.  He told me that “my” pigs were ready to be picked up.  My wife and myself scrambled to build a house for them, a pen and bought some electric fencing.  We had the whole thing ready within 24 hours.

We picked them up and put them down in their pen.  I was nervous.  The cuffed around in the dirt and ate some food.  They were getting use to their new home.  They were a bit nervous in their new surroundings; they didn’t know what to expect.  They were, in fact, a bit like me: nervous in their new position.  Without knowing it I had fallen into farming, but I think the pigs realized it before I did.

Spring

spring

The snow gave way quickly and just as quickly came the green.  The greenhouse went up just in time; the plants, some of which I thought must have died, buried under several feet of snow for months, poking their green sprouts out of the yet still cold earth.  This is no miracle; it is Spring.

The frogs in the back pond reappeared after a long hiatus, and frog eggs line the shallow pools in the back “roads” on the property.  I’ve seen moose tracks and more deer and turkey tracks than I care to count.  The fox is about and I hear the hawk’s screech almost everyday.  The garden is waking up and the plants stir in their pots anxious to get in the dirt.

As always Spring brings anxiety: some plants got burnt up in the newly built greenhouse (my bad).  But, most are fine and I kick myself for not putting spinach in a month ago.  Every Spring I forget what I remember the previous year.  Perhaps this is part of Spring too.

Small buds appear over night on the Birch, the Maple, the Oak and the Cedar and Spruce trees seem even greener than normal.  The fireplaces are cold and everyone is outside.  The wind blows the glorious warmth around and the leaves, freed from the snowy prison, take flight.

We all feel a bit more free in the Spring.  Perhaps Spring is when happiness gets a chance to shine, just for a little, to fly around with the leaves and rid itself of the heavy weight of winter worries.  A new start for an old, old cycle.

New-Old Lifestyles

Image result for old farm tools

When talking to people, especially older people who sometimes don’t understand why anyone would want to “go back” to raising and slaughtering your own meat, growing your own food and working your own land, they often point out that they are “fine” eating the modern products and processed foods of our current world.  They are right, of course; at least sometimes, or partially.

But the real point is lost on them; the point is not just the healthy aspect, but also the moral aspect.  We humans have somehow lost the necessary respect that life deserves and demands.  It is not just for health reasons that we till our own gardens and raise and slaughter our own meat.  It is healthier and better (lacking the additives and antibiotics) but is most certainly a more moral choice (respect for life and the living): a better choice.

A respect for life is the cornerstone of the agrarian lifestyle.  This does not preclude, but does not necessarily include, a religious adoration of life, but it is a necessary moral choice that does much to define who we are at the end of the day.  People that were raised on farms eighty years ago seem to remember the drudgery and forget the community.  They seem to remember the hardships and forget the rewards.  I’m not sure why and perhaps I will too at some point, but I hope not.

The irony of talking to older people who have had such “lifestyles” is that they seem to look upon the new crop of self-sufficient people as being a bit spoiled, but I would argue that the new farmers of old ideas are not spoiled, but curious and willing to do the work.  Although many people will fail at these new old endeavors (because the physicality and harshness of the work have not changed) there are many who have found solace and education in pursuing  “non-progressive” ways of life.

I think that when an honest lifestyle is dismissed so easily by others that it is because those that dismiss it have never really thought about their own life.  To do so, like the new agrarians will find, is physically and morally demanding; no less than the new- life that they have chosen to lead.

The Community of the Self Sufficient

self_sufficient

To be self sufficient is a personal thing, not unlike so many who just want to “get away” and have everyone leave them alone.  I am, and was one of those.  However, things often must change, and do.  NOFA puts on event up here in New England, and I went to a hog butchering class today.  There I realized that to be self sufficient, there must be a community.

It does sound strange, but it is, and always has been, true.  In the cities we often forget this fact of independence.  Often we can live around millions of people and be completely alone.  This is sad, true, but it is only because there are communities of self sufficient communities of people that support such lifestyles.

Aloneness is important.  Being alone we can often find our “true self”, and what we find is often a bit disconcerting.  But the self sufficient ought to be able look that self in the eye every morning and meet it head to head on those nights when we wake up feeling so alone and vulnerable.  One way to do this, is to realize our dependence on healthy communities.

Unfortunately, self sufficiency is often correlated with those who have opted out and see survival as a pile of rations and guns.  This is a misconstrued view of self sufficiency.  Self sufficiency is an education and there are many great teachers out there that are willing and often able to teach those willing to learn.  To realize that the community of the self sufficient are not these radical outliers one only has to reach out to learn, well, to be self sufficient.

At the class, there were seven of us, we each took turns learning to cut the 1/2 hog in such a way that would do justice to the animal, and to those who had, and will continue to create a community of the self sufficient.

An Update on the Experiment

experiment

This particular post is two things: an apology and and explanation.

First, an apology.  I realize that blogs are particularly important to those who write them, and less so to those who read them.  That being the case, I must still apologize for not being consistent, if only to myself.

Secondly, an explanation.  I have embarked upon an experiment in self-sustainability that involves moving from one side of this country to the other.  Such a move takes time and effort which explains my apology above.  This experiment involves buying a small (22 acre) plot of land with a house, a barn foundation, and a full woodworking shop.  This is the result of several years of contemplation and contrary thinking that has cost comfort and security, I hope, to a good end: to see just how self-sustaining an individual can be.

To this end I would like to invite anyone interested to visit two new sites that will be up and running this fall.  First, I will have a podcast called “The Philosophy of Gardening” and at some point and time a youtube channel called Trollcastle Works.  These endeavors will simply be a video/audio blog of ongoings around the property that will include forestry work, woodworking and of course gardening.

I hope to have several projects going that include: a small fruit orchard, vegetable garden, furniture making and carpentry, hops and grain fields, and brewing beer.  The podcast and videos, I hope, will be of interest to anyone that might consider self-sustainability as a way of life.

I call this an experiment, because I see 100% self-sustainability as being the speed of light, and the experiment’s goal itself being to see how close to this ideal that I can get.  There will be failures and there will be accomplishments, and I hope to share both.

The reason for this experiment is, of course, personal, but it stems from a belief that self-sustainability for individuals and families is the only moral option.  What better way to test this belief than putting it in practice!

I hope that some of you consider following me on this adventure!

The Foundation of Life

soil

Soil is the foundation of life, and so in my quest for self-sustainability I have chosen to start at that foundational point this year. On my quest to be self-sustaining, this year started with building my own seed starting soil. With $8 worth of vermiculite I have about three wheelbarrows full of starter soil, and the vermiculite was optional. I think a little sand would have done the trick. Nevertheless, the path is clear.

Self-sustainability is becoming more and more important as the industrial agriculture machine slowly chews up its gears and we are left with fewer and fewer moral options. But why stop at not buying industrial food products? This is just a beginning, and a beginning that ironically ends at the very soil that all of our food eventually comes from.

I started with well composted manure, grass and food scraps collected all last year and turned regularly until winter set in. Before putting the soil in my homemade boxes, I ran it through the chipper/shredder. This fluffed up the soil and chewed up some of the bigger chunks. I then filtered it through my homemade soil colander (four 4×4’s with ¼ wire stapled to the bottom) into a wheelbarrow and added vermiculite.

I have started my leek, onion, cabbage, and peppers in this mix and have watered (so far) about four times with no sign of compaction. I have yet to see if my little seedlings, after sprouting, like their new home. Tomatoes go in this weekend.

It is difficult to explain the satisfaction of not buying products in order to be self-sustaining. Although I have a long way to go, this new starter soil is a further new beginning on the road to independence.

A Split-Second Decision

 

John Cage was a composer who “wrote” and performed a piece of silence called 4” 33’ (four minutes and thirty-three seconds). It was simply himself, on stage, and sitting at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. However simplistic and absurd it might have seemed and still perhaps is, I believe that the art, while not found in the actual performance is in fact found in the thought. This is culture.

 

I believe that many of us are realizing that what we consider culture is really nothing at all but consumerism. Culture is virtuous; consumerism is not. A man sitting at a piano and not playing the instrument, I thought, can be analogous to individuals who find themselves in a consumerist society without being consumers. I know this is a stretch, perhaps, but I believe there is something true in it.

 

To play a piano is a choice and one must learn, and learning takes time and effort; much time and much effort. That is why so many begin by taking lessons but few come to play the piano. Not being a consumer takes time and much effort.

 

The burgeoning agrarian movement that seems to be blossoming in this country can be seen as a reaction to a society that has lost its priorities to profit and consumerism, but I like to think of it as a choice, an idea that often times is ridiculed (as John Cage was when he performed his piece).

 

Perhaps John Cage was reacting to the ever-more complexities of modern classical music at the time? And if so, the analogy becomes even more similar. Rather than complaining as a composer, Cage did something to point this out. In the same way, we can make choices that go against the relentless pressure to consume.

 

Some may argue that actions such as Cage’s piece or the agrarian movement are simply fads, but I’m not sure that the argument stands. Cage’s piece is famous (or infamous) even today and he as a composer changed the landscape of modern classical music. In the same way I think that as more and more people realize the cost of a consumer lifestyle is not sustainable, they too will choose to take a stand. In Cage’s situation it was not too play for 4 minutes and thirty three seconds.

 

Our stand against consumerism can start with a split second decision.

 

 

a Dead Leaf

a dead leaf

Fall is often looked upon as the end of summer. In fact, as I ride around the area where I live, I see everyone sweeping up the remains of the summer: the leaves on the ground, now brown, yellow, and red. They bag these remnants up and leave them on the curb to be picked up. The trees stand lifeless and the mess which is nature is uncovered for all to see. It is as if we hide behind the fullness of life until our secrets are revealed with the death of a leaf. However, a dead leaf is much more than the end; it is in fact, the future.

I cannot stand the sight of leaves being crushed in the middle of streets under the tires of cars. This unconscious act seems to denigrate the value of death because it is often seen as the end. The leaves have done their job and are discarded, unimportant and we busy ourselves “cleaning up” the mess left behind without thinking of the cost. The trees sometimes seem disgraced in their gnarly nakedness; nothing left to the imagination. However, it is the fallen leaves that hold the future and our lack of imagination the dooms us to repeat the mistakes that we seem to believe justified.

Gardens in the fall do not help. Our gardens have produced and are now left flat and unappealing; the dirt mocking the very labor that we have spent the summer on. The end is all around us and we sweep it into bags and under the eaves of the house. We prune the leftovers almost wishing that no one will notice the seeming ugliness that we uncover.

The fall is not the end, but the beginning. A dead leaf is much more than the end, or even a representation of the end, it is the beginning. In fact, the deadness of the leaf is only an illusion because it is the life that it holds that counts. The dead leaf holds the key to the future. It is such a simple concept; an endless cycle of birth and rebirth, Buddhist in its nature. I picked up a leaf before throwing it into the shredder and looked upon its brown acquiescence. I thought as I threw it into the machine that it was at my mercy. But I was wrong: it is the other way around.

We are at the mercy of the fall and what it promises us. The fall is in fact the beginning of what will be. The labor of the summer is a direct consequence of our understanding that it is we that are at the mercy of the leaves in the fall. It is they that hold the answers and them that hold our future. Within the thin, crackly membrane of a dead leaf is the necessities of life. If we do not understand this, we are in fact, doomed.

So, grab those black bags that hold so much; rip them open and spill their precious contents over your garden, over your lawn, over your land. Remember, the land will only give back as much as we let it. The dead leaf that you crumple in your hand is a deciding factor not only for your garden, but for our lives. A society that does not value the importance of a dead leaf, is a society that is unable to value the importance of a sustainable life.

Perma-mess

perma mess

This year I tried a permaculture approach to the garden. I have hops, viola, and tomatillos vying for space in a single bed while across the boardwalk, there’s squash and red cabbage throwing around with tomatoes and potatoes. Walk a way down and I find asparagus poking through the long tendrils of the leek bedded down for winter. I look over the garden from the asparagus and notice the peppers peering around the eggplants and what’s left of the cauliflower. One bed has a few kale plants readying themselves for winter; the rest of the bed being laid fallow, compost and manure being soaked in by the soil and the worms wiggling around in it.

The garden is unorganized, unplanned and well, messy looking. But a walk through it and I find that the plants are thriving, healthy, and somewhat natural looking in their environment. However, this is not the English garden that so many have in mind. Recently, I’ve been reading about permaculture and the idea that we should learn from nature. I’ve found much of permaculture is permeated with types of new age thinking, but this is not the permaculture that I recognize.

There is nothing new about permaculture. In fact, it is as old as the earth itself. Permanent agriculture, the full name, refers to a train of thought that is Zen like in its simplicity, but takes the patience of a saint and the wherewithal to understand that such agriculture is not measured by profit or product, but by quality and produce. It may be that this way of thinking is not profitable. But, it is sustainable, which in this day and age we are finding to be more and more necessary.

One thing that I must come to be accustomed to is the aesthetic of permanent agriculture. First, I learn that I must relinquish control. Secondly, I must learn that such agriculture is time-intensive and in a time when attention spams are measured in minutes, permaculture can seem very unappealing. Lastly, I am learning to take chances and to trust what I have put into motion. Put in and step back is my new motto.

The consequences are messy and disorganized. However, at this late date in the season I’ve found a certain beauty and even pride in the necessity of stepping over vines and cabbage leaves to get to the tomatoes buried among the basil and asparagus. Time, I think, is something that we have available to us, but to take the time often messes up our lives. We have come to like efficiency and modern cleanliness. Permaculture is not that efficient and is certainly not appealing to the hard line English gardener. However, the permanence of permaculture is an acquired taste; a taste that given our environmental problems and looming changes is necessary.

So, give up the ghost to a natural and often fun way of gardening: permaculture. I think you’ll find that permanence is a lot more fleeting than you may think!