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With the coming of the new year, we’ve reflected on the things that have gone well and not so well in these first six months of farming. It important for us to share what we’ve learned in order to reduce the learning curve for new farmers, so here are a few of the most important lessons we’ve learned since we received our first animal in August.

1. Don’t be a Tough Guy

My friends and family members often come to the farm for a couple of days to get fresh air and exercise by helping with chores and building projects. They’ve helped build practically everything on the farm, from the pastures to the hoophouse to the brooder, and they’ve all had two things in common: their help was indispensable, and they’ve tried to be tougher than necessary.

People, especially men (which is why this point says Guy instead of Girl; women know better), arrive on the farm from the city thinking they need to prove a certain degree of hardiness. They often go about it the wrong way, usually by doing one of two things: 1.) refusing to use basic safety equipment like work gloves and eye/ear protection, and 2.) doing things the hard way.*

hard_way

When people did this on my farm (including me, in the early days), the results were predictable: I nearly chainsawed into my own leg going one-handed after high log that didn’t even need to be cut (and I have the hole in my jeans to prove it); one friend aggravated an existing fracture in his hand driving hoophouse posts; another friend got a splinter in his eye using a handsaw to cut plywood; another threw out his back carrying a gigantic tree stump that he could have simply rolled down a hill; and a cousin spent a weekend as an invalid after getting a wood shank through his un-gloved hand while splitting firewood.

This is all fine if you’re only working a holiday in the country, but it’ll kill you if you’re planning to farm for a living. A professional farmer’s most important asset is his or her body, and injuring it is just as bad as blowing a piston in a tractor. Breaking a hand, losing an eye, getting unnecessarily sore, or slowly going deaf by refusing to wear earmuffs when working with power equipment will cost you money in terms of lost or slowed productivity, if not medical bills.

So wear the safety gear and learn to do things the smart way. After a year, you’ll still be tougher than 90% of the population anyway.

*The only two things required to prove you’re tough enough for farm work: 1.) Don’t whine, 2.) Don’t drag your ass.

2. Don’t be Perfect

Ecological farming is not a unified discipline. The Big Organic people differ significantly from the Small Organic people, both of whom are reviled by the Beyond Organic people, who share an uneasy alliance with the Slow Food and/or Pasture Systems people, who themselves are often seen as myopic and non-holistic by the Permaculture People.

It's just like this. The beards especially.

It’s just like this. The beards especially.

The world of ecological farming is full of tribes united in their hatred of conventional agriculture and divided in practically every other way.  If you’re coming into farming as a total neophyte, as I did, then you’re probably going to start with research. The information coming from that research will quickly turn into a firehose that knocks you in every imaginable direction before pinning you to a wall, paralyzing you with indecision as to exactly what kind of farmer you want to be.

Here’s the onion of the matter: doing ANY kind of ecological farming is better than NOT farming ecologically, and you always have the option to change your operation in the future. This is why, even though I’m in love with Permaculture, I’m starting out with pastured systems. Corn-fed pastured broilers aren’t as sustainable as heritage free-rangers, but they’re infinitely more sustainable than conventional pasture operations and give me a source of income that will allow me to convert to permaculture in the near future. And, of course, both options are much better than doing nothing.

Decide whatever. Staying off the boat is the only way to screw this up.*

Decide whatever. Staying off the boat is the only way to screw this up.*

Of course, not all of the confusion will surround the big questions like “what kind of farmer do I want to be?”  The real devil is in the small decisions you have to make much more often: opaque or translucent greenhouse plastic? RIR or Barred Rock laying hens? 12 ga or 14 ga aluminum wire for the pigs? Organic compost or raw milk on the pastures? Overseed in Spring, Fall, or both… or not at all? Get the birds vaccinated for Marek’s, or no? Nipple waterers, game waterers, or make something by hand? Do I really need the nestboxes with the special plastic lining? Water the animals with ponds or an intricate system of interconnected rain barrels? Burn the brush pile or bury it for raised beds?

Again: do SOMETHING. You’ll get some decisions right, and you’ll get some decisions wrong. Your experience will lead you in the right direction over time.

*Ladies, I recognize the sexist nature of this image. So… uh… here.

3. Don’t be a loner

Farming is like any other business. There are skills you have to develop that are particular to your chosen field – e.g. animal husbandry, botany, carpentry – and there are more general skills that you’ll need to make sure you can actually sell your products/services and stay out of trouble with the law –  e.g. social media marketing, basic accounting, public relations, salesmanship. Each of these things has to be kept in balance in order to achieve stasis in your business.

Entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship.

Many a middling, struggling* entrepreneur at once boasts and laments about “doing it all”, “wearing lots of hats”, etc.  while the story of every lasting (e.g. 50+ years) and successful business I’ve studied involved an entrepreneur that surrounded him/herself with other talented people. Farmers tend not to be this second kind of person. In fact we tend not to be either person. We don’t enter farming to collaborate with people and start a business… we enter farming to escape people, enjoy the beauty of pastoral solitude, and maybe write the millionth freaking city-to-farm memoir wherein the author waxes redundant about “OMG I fell in cow poop!” and “OMG the rooster crowed!”

In one of the few books of this type worth reading, Joel Salatin makes an important point that there are “people that farm with money, and people that farm for money.” The former are hobby farmers and, while I wish them well, this article isn’t for them. This article is for people who, like me, want to make a comfortable living from ecological farming and JUST ecological farming. To that end, I’ll say that farming is just like any other business, and the more successful among us will be those that surround ourselves with talented people. The more good people you surround yourself with, the more surface area fortune has to latch onto.

I don't know what fortune looks like.

I don’t know what fortune looks like.

In my own operation, my wife and in-laws are everything. My wife is the empress of regulatory compliance, PR, and value-added products. My mother in law is the expert in horticulture and customer networking. My father in law is a general contractor and the reason nothing I’ve built has yet fallen down. My brother in law is something of an expert in avant garde methods of fundraising and crowdsourcing. So while my own talents lie in animal and pasture/forest production and strategic planning… they’d mean nothing if we couldn’t comply with state food regulations (my wife), secure loyal and repeat customers (mother in law), build facilities that didn’t fall down (father in law), or obtain seed funding through Kickstarter (brother in law).

Beyond that, I frequently rely on the help of friends and other family members to lighten the load or speed things up on physical tasks. When you’re accustomed to working by yourself, you’ll be amazed at how incredibly easy things seem to get when you add just one more person. When you get farming, be aggressive about getting help and complementing your weaknesses. You’ll be the better for it.

*Being financially successful does not mean you’re not struggling. If you’re working 60+ hour weeks, can’t take a vacation (without working), and don’t seem to have time for anything that isn’t work or materially-oriented play… your soul is undergoing atrophy, and you will pay the price sooner or later.

Click here for the first article in this series, Sustainability Rant Part I: Canaries in Camouflage.

Click here for the second article in this series, Sustainability Rant Part II: The Renegade Generation

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Here’s one great thing about Millennials: they don’t want to live in traditional suburbs. The sterile, cookie-cutter, vinyl-sided planned developments filling the space immediately surrounding cities are arguably among the most poisonous, least productive, wholly-uninspried landscapes on the planet. Suburban landscaping says little more than “at least I’m not concrete.”

Cities themselves, however, are generally too expensive to offer Millennials the space they’ll need to raise the families that, though they’re doing it later than their parents, they still very much want to have. And so this generation will move to the area outside the cities, and reinvent them completely. In fact it’s already begun; next time you’re driving through the closest-in suburbs of a major city, take a good hard look at the kind of development taking place. Real estate developers are finding higher demand and profits in mixed-use, high-density neighborhoods where all necessary amenities are located within walking distance of the residential units, lawns are replaced with common areas, room are smaller, hallways shorter, and bathrooms/kitchens more chic than grand.

This applies, of course, mostly to new development. There are countless suburbs of the old “white picket fence” model that will wind up coming on the market sooner or later, and it’s in these wasteful spaces that the Millennial’s appetite for change and transformation could revolutionize the way we live… and especially the way we eat.

Next time you’re taking a walk through a suburban neighborhood, take a look at all the lawns. The medians. The park and recreation areas. While you’re looking at them, think about this: a mature permaculture food forest can produce six million food calories on an acre, in a year. That’s the equivalent of 4,000 lbs of beef and enough food to feed eight people for an entire year. Assuming I’m off by half since we’re not raising any animals in the suburbs, that’s still enough to feed four people for a year.

Now imagine your typical suburban development with a 200 units sporting 0.2 acre lawns. That’s 40 acres without counting all the medians, common areas, and woodlots – and it’s enough space to easily provide a free organic lunch every single day to each and every person in the neighborhood. Imagine the amount of money households would save! The average worker spends about $2,000 a year on lunch. Doubling this figure to account for most suburban households having two workers (but leaving the estimate conservative since we’re not accounting for children) means the food forest would save the entire 200 household neighborhood close to $1 million annually. That’s going to be important as adult Millennials are predicted to enjoy lower inflation-adjusted incomes than their parents.

The environmental and aesthetic benefits are manifold. Food forests are polycultures that don’t have to be mowed, weeded, or artificially fertilized. Car-averse Millennials could narrow the roads in the neighborhood to encourage bicycles and more space for planting. Less impervious surface area coupled with a multi-story food forest means less runoff, flooding, and pollution. Finally, tree guilds are quite beautiful as they rely on a dozen or more different species planted together. The boring tree-mulch-grass trio common in suburbs today would be replaced by guilds of apples, comfrey, lupins, clover, daffodils, dill, fennel, chives, and chicory growing on every non-concrete surface in the neighborhood.

These benefits also wind up in your pocketbook as your HOA doesn’t have to spend money on lawnmowing, trimming, pruning, mulching, and annual ornamentals. The runoff reduction, if the food forest model were adopted among enough neighborhoods, would curtail runoff to the point where stormwater taxes could be halved, the costs of treating water quartered, and the price of environmental cleanup transferred to the corporations and factory farms doing most of the polluting.

You get all this just by changing the way we “decorate” the suburbs, and the seeds of that change are already being planted. Many universities and regional parks are already adopting the concept of “edible landscapes,” and it’s only a matter of time before a critical mass of individuals decides that it’s silly not to grow food right where they live. And there’s no reason this revolution couldn’t happen in workspaces either, as office parks suffer the same uninspired landscaping as most suburbs. Office food forests could save employees money and save the employer lost productivity as workers no longer need to take time to drive to lunch. Supporting all this could be an entire new industry of farming-as-a-service rising from the ashes of the landscaping industry, as the latter trades in its lawnmowers and hedge trimmers for greenhouses and harvesting tools.

The possibilities of this new model of sustainable food production are positively endless.

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Part IV of this series will be released on December 23, 2013.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

Click here for the first article in this series, Sustainability Rant Part I: Canaries in Camouflage.

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Go to reuters.com, nytimes.com, npr.org, wsj.com or the website of just about any other major news outlet. On each of those sites, check out their major topics. Then drill down into those one or two levels and check out the subtopics. Notice what you haven’t found in a single one of them? The topics of sustainability and the environment.

The lack of primacy and general visibility afforded to sustainability is a glaring indicator of our general attitude toward the subject: It’s someone else’s problem. To be sure, you can find environmental writings on any of these websites if you search for them… but you do have to search for them, which means you have to already have an interest in the topic.

Meanwhile, we don’t have to search for the latest nonsense Kim Kardashian was involved in, the launch of the next Apple product, the latest unfortunate thing said or done by some politician, or what the stock market did today. These things wind up front and center under the main media topics of Style, Fashion, Politics, and Business, shoved into our faces whether we want to know about them or not.

What we see, and don’t see, on these websites reflects a striking public dissonance on the environment. Most people seem to believe that climate change and environmental degradation a.) are occurring, and b.) pose existential threats to humanity, yet these problems are afforded a measure of practical seriousness so small that critical environmental problems literally starving millions of people require a search feature, while the score of an NFL game involving two teams that aren’t even in playoff contention (I’m looking at you, NFC East) finds itself on the front page above the fold. How can we explain this? I pose the following:

  1. People in developed nations are, by and large, not yet directly and materially affected by environmental issues. As explained in part I, environmental problems are the kind that will hurt our great-grandchildren, not us. The problems are important but not urgent, and therefore are not afforded gravity in a culture obsessed with short-term-everything.
  2. People in developed nations believe that technology and financial wealth will either curtail environmental degradation or, failing that, insulate them and future generations from the consequences.

There isn’t much that can be done about the first item. Self-destructive short-term thinking is the inevitable long-term result of a society whose culture promotes material wealth as its highest calling, and over the past few centuries has systematically exterminated cultures offering appealing alternatives.

Regarding the second item, a good friend of mine once told me, “I tell my kids to go to school to get good jobs and make as much money as they can. If you have money, you don’t have to worry about how stuff works.” He wasn’t being completely serious, but there’s a kernel of truth to the statement that underlies our rationale for not taking environmental issues seriously: we regard money as the Great Insulator. Whether it’s conscious or not, an awful lot of us believe that a healthy bank account will somehow protect us when the air is too poisonous to breathe, the water too filthy to drink, and food impossible to grow.

We don’t ignore the environment entirely, of course. We toss our soda cans into special recycling bins, drive Volts and Priuses and Leafs, become vegetarians, and shut off the lights when we leave a room. These little things constitute “doing our part,” but ultimately we’re hoping for some magic bullet(s) to do the heavy lifting and spare us any substantial changes in lifestyle. So we look to innovations in technology (e.g. offshore wind farms, hydroelectric cars), policy (e.g. cap and trade, farm bills), or some combination of the two (e.g. municipal composting), only to watch in horror as even these limited solutions are ripped to shreds by interests possessing no concerns beyond the next quarterly earnings call. It’s at that point, I suppose, that we tell our children to accumulate lots of money so they can eat it once there’s no more food, potable water, or clean air for that money to buy. Or maybe we think the money will secure a berth on Elysium.

Interestingly, however, it seems that a lot of kids aren’t buying what the parents are selling. Millennials will be the first generation to have a lower standard of living than their parents, and the first generation to be denied the American Dream since its inception. As dreadful as that may sound, I believe this is where the best hope for a sustainable future lies. Millennials and the generations that come after them are going to redefine the American Dream, because they’ll have no other choice. And the characteristics of this generation that will define a new social, cultural, and economic order are looking rather promising.

Unlike the previous few generations, most Millennials won’t scoff at the notion of homesteading, being organic farmers, working in skilled trades, or creating technology to be offered to the world for free. They prioritize relationships over careers and wealth, probably because the latter feel hopelessly out of reach. They love modern technology, but not to the exclusion of the value of ancestral knowledge. It’s a generation that wants to travel, meet people, share ideas, and volunteer for reasons not related to their resumes. It’s the first generation in recent history searching for meaning beyond the context-free pursuit of profit, accumulation of wealth, and advancement of technology.

In adopting these values, Millennials are balking at the prospect of adopting a socio-economic model, created by Gen X and the Boomers, that doesn’t include a mechanism to thrive beyond its creators. They’re the Renegade Generation that just might save us all by turning their backs on the traditional notion of the American Dream, and the traditional tools for achieving it.

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Part III of this series will be released on December 16, 2013.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

Sustainability Rant is a multipart series from Sylvanaqua Farms about the need for sustainability to become a ubiquitous concern in American life.

Part I: Canaries in Camouflage

Environmentalists aren’t going to save us. Neither will America’s wealth or power.

Let’s examine a few facts:

  • Air quality is decreasing
  • The planet is warming (regardless of the cause, yes, it’s happening)
  • The rivers are polluted and starved of oxygen
  • The oceans are filthy and being precipitously depopulated
  • Land is desertifying at a terrifying clip
  • Storms are intensifying
  • Soil is becoming sterile, then eroding
  • Pollinators are dying
  • Species diversity in plants and animals is vanishing.
  • “Pests” that attack our food supply are getting harder to kill

Take a minute to re-read the list when you’ve slowed down for a moment. When you’re not commuting to work, or arranging play dates, or picking the kids up from soccer practice, or worrying about a deadline, or checking Facebook statuses and Twitter updates, or sending text messages. Read this list after you’ve had five minutes to unplug, to sit down, and to do absolutely nothing. Find a moment in which the stillness lets you hear nothing but the passing of air through your lungs and the beating of your heart – the simple, unconscious things without which your life, as busy and important as it is, would cease in an instant.

Done? Found your center? Good, let’s continue the discussion with some better news.

Here are some things that probably won’t happen in your lifetime:

  • The air gets too poisonous to breathe without machines
  • The planet warms to the extent that few regions are able to grow food
  • The rivers become undrinkable
  • The oceans rise and warm to an extent that changes weather patterns permanently and catastrophically
  • Hurricanes are the size of continents and routinely kill thousands of people, even in developed countries

That’s good news! The bad news, however, is that it’s well within the realm of possibility that these things will happen within the lifetimes of our great grandchildren. If you’re 30 years old and have a child today, the lives of your grandchildren would, more or less, span 60 to 140 years from now. It’s not crazy to think the Earth, even (and perhaps especially) in the developed world, could be utterly uninhabitable in the next century and a half.

Why isn’t that a crazy thought? Because I asked old people.

In the 1940s, my grandfather Ernest could walk into the Potomac River with a big net, scoop it in a long circle around him, and come up with a net full of blue crabs. Oysters and clams were similarly bountiful. And we’re not talking about some idyllic location in the rural upper reaches of the Potomac. My grandfather pulled this stunt in southern Prince George’s County, MD within eyesight of the nation’s capital, where his and my ancestors had similarly fed themselves for at least a thousand years prior.

Seventy years later, the crabs my grandfather ate all summer long for free are now $140 a bushel at the Wharf. The oysters he harvested on God’s dime to accompany pre-hipster PBR while he and his friends played Tonk now sell for nearly $30 a dozen at Hank’s Oyster Bar. It took just seven decades of overfishing and environmental degradation to turn what was once a staple meat along the Potomac into a delicacy that even bespoke-suited K Street lobbyists can’t afford eat everyday.

You don’t have to go back to World War II to see this kind of difference. Ten years ago, my father-in-law’s fishing trip on the lower Potomac yielded an unbelievable catch of stripers, croaker, spot, and perch. Last month’s fishing trip yielded literally nothing that could be kept. Vegans and animal rights activists bemoan the existence of hunters and fishermen, but the former would do well to recognize the latter as a very useful component of the sustainability machine: they are the camouflaged canaries in the coalmine of environmental sustainability. And they’re not singing.

If you ask any seasoned hunter of fisher(wo)man how their last outing was compared with a decade or two ago, it’ll probably elicit a despondent grunt. Unless, of course, that person is a deer hunter. Deer populations are exploding in the east as the animals enjoy an environment utterly devoid of predators, unless you count Toyotas. Couple that with habitat being continually compressed by urban sprawl, and you wind up with deer hunts that are like turkey shoots, while the actual turkey shoots turn up nothing.

Moral concerns about game sports aside, what is not debatable is that “sportsmen” are the first people to really notice when something is off in the natural world. They notice it even before farmers because, unlike farmers, sportsmen harvest their food from animals whose fate is directly pegged to that of their immediate environment. As that environment thrives or degrades, so too does the animal live or die, and that right soon.

In farming – even pasture-based farming – things aren’t so elastic. The pastured poultry farmer brags about his phalanx of corn-fed broilers injecting organic nutrients and building topsoil while staying mum on the 500 acre monocrop corn field that feeds those chickens while decimating the organic life in, on, and above the soil which, incidentally, is eroding. It’ll take awhile, perhaps centuries, but ultimately the corn monocrop will fail (either by refusing to grow or becoming impossibly expensive) and thereby starve the chickens on that pasture.*

Whereas the Rockfish succumbs to environmental degradation almost immediately, the pastured chicken endures for a hundred years, but only by transferring the environmental damage to a slowly-dying cornfield. Thus will environmental degradation spare us, only to starve our great-grandchildren. Toby Keith has the luxury to wax myopic about “both ends of the ozone burnin’, funny how the world keeps turnin’,” but his great-granddaughter won’t. She’ll be too busy battling skin cancer because her great -granddaddy didn’t give a shit.

Over the next 140 years and through the lives of your great-grandkids, as the population and demand for resources increase at a greater-than-linear pace, we can only expect the stories of my grandfather and father-in-law to accelerate in severity. We can also expect the stories to bleed out of the realm of outdoor recreation and into the Earthly Trinity that keeps us alive: air, water, and food. And be warned, America: neither our money, nor our power, nor an elite cadre of environmentalists, will save us.

Unless, of course, we change the way we use our money, power, and environmentalists…

*Incidentally, this is why Sylvanaqua made the strategic decision to move from pasture systems to permaculture systems.

Part II of this series will be released on December 9, 2013.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms