Tag Archives: farming

Does Climate Change Really Matter?

One of the great, most politicized debates of our time is whether or not the Earth’s climate is changing. Many have claimed scientific consensus that the planet is warming, while many, including scientists still remain skeptical. The corollary question of “What do we do if it is changing?” has unleashed a whole host of government regulations and controls.

The truth is, the whole debate is completely irrelevant. How can a topic that has potential to so greatly affect the lives of all the people on this planet be irrelevant? There are two reasons.

First, the ecological damage the planet has sustained through soil erosion and poor agricultural practices is so severe that we are in extraordinary danger, regardless of the climate change issue. In addition our “improvement” efforts over the last century or so, have caused dangerous climate change at the local level. The straightening of the Mississippi River for example has left us with a devastating flooding problem. Soil erosion, however, should remain our top priority. Monoculture based, chemical intensive, industrial agriculture is destroying our soil at a ridiculous rate. One report I saw recently said we are now losing 200 tons of soil per acre on acreage turned over to the 5 main food crops traded on the stock market, soy, wheat, maize, rice, and potatoes. This is totally unsustainable, and has resulted in a situation where maintaining our current production requires more energy, chemical, and water input each year. Sooner or later this loss of soil is going to result in a catastrophic failure of our agricultural system, when it does we will see massive food shortages. In a period of extreme global famine, I don’t think there will be tremendous concern whether the earth warms or cools.

The second issue is where the good news begins to come in. The key point is that the solution to our soil loss problem will also reduce the level of carbon in the atmosphere that is blamed for climate change. When we return to healthy food production processes, through careful application of the design principles of permaculture, and a restoration to normal, local food production systems, we can begin rebuilding soil, but we also begin returning carbon back into the soil. According to Joel Salatin, a move to perennial based, high efficiency grazing, if done only in the United States would sequester all of the carbon emissions since the industrial revolution, in as few as 10 years. This methodology also builds soil at a faster rate than the environment can normally do on its own. In addition, permaculture systems can produce vastly more nutritious food per acre than industrial systems, allowing us to reduce the distance food travels to the table, and allowing us to return a lot of the acreage of forests we destroyed for farm land back to sustainable forestry.

This fix is a total package. It not only heals the land in the micro space, but it also meets human need in a way that fixes the larger issues facing our planet, assuming climate change is real.

The news gets better! This is not a large scale solution that requires massive government regulation and the loss of liberty, instead this a solution that can be carried out by individuals and communities at the smallest scales imaginable. Only as more and more small scale answers are found will the large scale problems be repaired.

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Chicken Tractors!

I finally managed to finish the chicken tractors this weekend, what started as a Saturday project ended up eating the better part of 3 weekends but these things happen. The design is entirely my own, I’ll go into more of the details as I go along.

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For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the concept of a chicken tractor (Europeans typically call them arcs). The idea is to place the birds in a space that meets their needs for green forage for one day, then they are moved each day to fresh forage.

There are a couple of advantages to doing things this way compared to other methods of keeping chickens. With a traditional coop, any grass in the chickens run is typically gone within the first couple of weeks, after this if you feed them fresh greens they will have to be cut and hauled in. In addition, because they are moved daily, chicken tractors don’t generate a bad odor, which is often the case for more traditional coop designs.

The tractor also provides protection from the elements and from predators, whereas birds who are free-ranged, while they get plenty of fresh forage, don’t have this level of protection. This is particularly helpful for smaller flocks where the loss of even one bird is pretty devastating. The tractors are also helpful for people, such as myself, who are involved in urban or suburban agriculture. The neighbors after all wouldn’t appreciate having chickens running crazy in their yard.

The tractor gives me an aesthetically pleasing way to keep the chickens exactly where I want them. For more details read Chicken Tractor

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I patterned these tractors to look like a miniature version of a little red barn. As you can see they are accessible on both sides via the doors. This makes it relatively easy to access them to get the eggs out, feed, and water. We have been getting 8 eggs a day so far, which is pretty impressive since we only have 8 birds. As you can tell from my post “Mini Farming”, the hens are very glad to get fresh greens everyday instead of every few days.

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Inside I have chosen to use plastic crates for nesting boxes. I love to use them because they are cheap, easy to find, and have a variety of functions around the farm. Versatility is a must for small scale, low acreage operation.

The waterers are kind of special so I’ll mention them here. This is a new design I encountered when I picked up my chickens. I was unhappy with traditional designs because they tend to get dirty very, very quickly and in our hot summer time weather that can be a dangerous thing for the birds. These waterers are built using poultry nipples which the birds peck from below. Each time they peck at it they get water. Because the water is enclosed in the 5 gallon bucket it stays fresh and clean. These systems are also cheaper on price point, a five gallon traditional style waterer costs $35 or so. I got a set of 5 poultry nipples for only $9 and the bucket was free. You could probably get the bucket for $5 though if you didn’t already have one. These are also super easy to make. All you do is drill a 5/16 in hole in the bottom of the bucket, wrap the threads of the nipple in plumbers tape and then use a drill and an 11mm socket to screw it into the hole. It might have taken me 5 minutes total.
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These tractors have been customized for Alabama’s incredibly hot summers. The birds will need lots of shade come summer, so I brought the sides all the way to the ground on two sides and left the front and back open. I will face these east-west so that the birds get plenty of morning and afternoon light but are well shaded in the heat of the day. The heat is also why I put in the roof vent, which you can see is screened with poultry wire.
For anyone interested in building something along this design, most aspects of the build were relatively easy. I bought all the materials new and it ended up costing me about $150 or so each.
If anyone wants more details I’d be happy to share more information on how I built these. Just email me or leave me a comment.

The Bard’s Book Reviews: The One Straw Revolution

Hat tip to JB for suggesting this great read!

The One-Straw Revolution, written by Masanobu Fukuoka the father of “natural farming” or “do nothing farming” reads like a treatise on the philosophy behind permaculture.

Let me begin by saying the book is most definitely influenced by Bhuddist and eastern metaphysics, particularly the view that everything represents an integrated system and that mankind cannot improve upon this system but should instead strive to be in harmony with it. While these philosophical roots will occasionally fly in the face of the Christian worldview, the book is still worth the read for a variety of reasons:

I am deeply concerned by the level of compartmentalization in American and other western cultures today. Particularly in agriculture this compartmentalization is very dangerous as it is largely responsible for our industrial, monoculture based system. While Fukuoka probably goes to far the other way, his influence deeply helps Western readers to be pulled back to a healthy middle ground n this issue.

In addition this book provides a beautiful philosophy of permaculture both I. Terms of the good of mankind and of the earth, while pointing to some of the dangers of an overly scientific approach. All of this is wrapped in fascinating narrative with neat first hand accounts of Fukuoka’s success with his very unusual approach to farming.

I don’t know that this book would be on my top recommended reading,list for those interested in sustainability, particularly since most of the technique is tied to Japan’s unique environment. However, it is a short and delightful read and well worth your time if you are looking for more of the “heart” of sustainability.

The Bard’s Book Reviews: The Quest of the Simple Life

The Quest of the Simple Life, by William J. Dawson is the story of one man’s journey from the urban world of early 20th century London to a life living off the land in the countryside. The book has a more unique topic than most such books, however. Rather than seeking to be a handbook of useful skills or a how to on sustainable living topics which, in my opinion, have been thoroughly covered elsewhere; it instead takes on the more difficult topic of the moral and philosophical motivations behind the back to the land movement. If you are looking for more of a homesteading handbook then my current recommendation is Abigail R. Gehring’s Back to Basics: A Complete Guide to Traditional Skills.

Mr. Dawson takes on his topic in a way that most modern readers will find fascinating, since all of our modern knowledge about the consequences of an overly industrialized society is absent from the book. The author argues instead that the countryside is better suited towards men’s happiness than urban life, and that it represents a better stewardship of his economic and physiological resources. For my part I was often shocked by the authors deep understanding of his material, and in particular areas where he frequently anticipated the negative consequences of urbanization. For example, the author argues for the paying of all expenses in cash, lest the we forget just how much were spending on any given object. This topic of course has come more and more into the spotlight as our society gets more and more reckless in its spending.

The author proceeds to explain how it was that he finally managed to take his leave of London, and then in response to criticism from a friend gives a moral defense of his move. This may represent the most interesting part of the book for some as it works towards reconciling the happiness of the author with his country life with the collective good of his society. As noted above this particular section is particularly interesting since it is written well before we realized the environmental and sociological damage that industrial based urbanization would ultimately cause.

Particularly if you are day dreaming of one day escaping to the countryside yourself and living in a more traditional human relationship with the earth this book is for you. This book is also available as a free, public domain download for your e-reader.

Will Regulations Solve Our Environmental Crisis?

I don’t really care what you think about climate change; to be honest I barely care what I think about climate change. My reasons are simple enough, we can easily document the massive amounts of smaller environmental damage that has been caused by industrialization. Even more importantly, if we fix the things that we can easily prove are happening we also fix the larger situation that theoretically is causing climate change.

The question then becomes, “What do we do about it?”. For my part I believe we have to go after our agricultural problems first. The entire world is currently tottering on the brink of starving to death, primarily because of dependency on industrial farming. The damage we have done to the world’s farmland is so extensive that we could easily see a massive downward movement in food production at any moment. We have only been able to keep production as high as we have by pumping in more and more artificial pesticides and fertilizers every year.

The good news is there is a farming revolution taking place. Farmers like Joel Salatin are taking back our nations food supply and reintroducing the idea of the family owned, sustainable farm. They have found a model that creates high quality, nutritious foods in a way that is good for the environment and provides for the farmer. In short this method is wholistic it takes care of the soil, the animals, the people, and pretty much all other involved parties. Many are concerned, however, that this change is not taking place fast enough. They are arguing that for the sake of human health, animal rights, soil erosion, etc. the government needs to step in and use regulation to force the issue in the right direction.

Those who advocate such changes have a fundamentally flawed understanding of the nature of government regulations. We have a top down, government lead agricultural infrastructure now and it isn’t taking us anywhere good! In other words, we are calling on those who created the problem to now take the lead in fixing the problem. The problem is that regulation is fundamentally unable to improve the situation, because to do so is in direct opposition to basic the nature of government.

There are 2 very fundamental problems with regulation that contribute to its failure to create the kind of positive change that we are looking for:

1. Regulations are ALWAYS created by the industries they regulate. Regulations go into effect when members of an industry use “the common good” as a pretense for keeping their competition out of the market. Look at the key policy makers in the USDA, FDA, etc. pretty much all of them are former employees of companies like Monsanto, ConAgra, Tyson, etc. They can’t regulate agriculture in a way that damages their former employers, otherwise they won’t have anywhere to go back to when they get tired of being in government. In addition they are in government, precisely to aid their employers interests. Think about it, who else could claim to be qualified to regulate the agriculture industry? What’s more, any legal change has to come from Congress. Congress likes to get re-elected which means that they like campaign donations. The result is that Congress only passes laws that favor large campaign donors. Since the multi-national agribusinesses are loaded with cash and the small farm movement has only small cash reserves, all regulation is going to favor the industrial agriculture model. These causes exist in pretty much all government agencies but the results are always the same, regulations are used pretty much exclusively by the industries they regulate to keep out undesired competition. For this reason, regulation cannot bring in substantial change to an industry.

2. The government always reflects the majority opinion. The government cannot causes substantial change because it always reflects the view of the majority. No politician can push for substantial changes, unless the majority of voters approve, because in doing so he risks his political future. This is a simple, inherit fact in all representative forms of government. As a result, when the government is entrusted with care for an area like agriculture regulation, the industry will remain unchanged until a large enough majority of the American people care enough to make things change. In fact, the government will fight to protect the status quo in the name of protecting “democracy”. Only in a free market are minor innovations constantly created and then tested based upon their success. The result is that only the best innovations are brought to the forefront and the system gradually becomes the best it can possibly be.

The best course of action for the government to take, if we want to restore America’s ecological resources and food security, is to get out of the way.

Let me give some examples of how the government is currently contributing to America’s failed industrial model of agriculture:

Farm subsidies are used to coerce farmers to pursue certain courses of action. Money is a powerful tool, and it is frequently given with strong stipulations. In many cases these stipulations force the farmer to pursue an ecologically flawed method of agriculture because of the need for government money. They also create an economically flawed method, by encouraging farmers to put large amounts of capital into single use, capital heavy equipment.

Zoning and food safety laws are being used to keep American’s from growing their own food. The government has consistently used “food safety” and zoning laws to keep people from providing food for themselves, or from making food choices for themselves. It has become extremely common recently for homeowners to have food gardens removed by force in the name of zoning. It has also become difficult to buy, sell, or even grow food that doesn’t have government approval. In the recent food safety act, even home canning equipment got defined as “food processing equipment”, with the government giving itself regulatory control over all “food processing equipment”.

Regulations are used to make it prohibitively expensive to be small, local producer. The mandatory purchase of $20,000 piece of equipment in the name of “food safety” is much more manageable for a producer that produces millions of chickens every year than it is for one who produces hundreds. This clever type of legislation appears to create innovative food safety solutions, but it is actually being used to lock small operators out of the marketplace.

This is just a small sampling of how regulations are used directly to benefit the large agribusinesses that have created the crisis we face today. Only a return to an individually run, small scale, grass based system will bring us back to where we need to be. This will only happen if thousands of people begin making small decisions for themselves that push us back from the edge of the cliff and towards a more sustainable future.

One final objection rebutted: Don’t subsidies make food cheaper? Some have advocated the need for farm subsidies in the name of keeping food prices lower for those who have lower incomes. As a the head of a single income family of 4, I certainly understand this sentiment; however subsidies are making your food more expensive. Those who, like myself, have to keep up with grocery prices will have noted a substantial increase in the price of food every year for quite some time. The cause of this increase is inflation, inflation caused by the government printing more money to keep up with its growing debt burden. Since subsidies are one heavy contributor to Federal spending, you could say they are responsible for the inflation that is driving the prices up.

Beyond this, it should be noted that American’s spend a much smaller percentage of their income on food than has been historically noted, and instead spend a great deal more on healthcare. If American’s were actually spending as much as they should on food, perhaps they wouldn’t have such high healthcare costs. In addition, it has been historically normal for most of society to produce some of their own food. A better price control would be to teach those who are not financially well off how to produce their own food, rather than trying to artificially reduce the price of food.

At the end of the day the ultimate problem with any argument that we need a top down, centralized, government run food system is that we already have one. Any attempts at advocating for such a system are going to have to explain why over the last 100 years the system they are advocating for has done more extensive damage to our environment and the farming culture of America than any other farming method ever tried.