Tilth Association

David DeFrancesco just sent an interesting note about the term ’tilth’ and the northwest Tilth Association.

First of all, tilth gets us ‘along the path’ to renewing the cultural nature of agriculture.

From the Tilth Association website:
The people who started the Tilth Association first met on July 1st, 1974, at a symposium in Spokane entitled “Agriculture for a Small Planet.” One of the featured panelists was Kentucky farmer, poet and writer Wendell Berry, who spoke forcefully about the culture of agriculture. 

In his speech Berry described the loss of the traditional farm economy and the destruction of rural communities. He was blunt in detailing the impending collapse of rural America, and he linked the “drastic decline in the farm population” with “the growth of a vast, uprooted, dependent and unhappy urban population.”

“Our urban and rural problems have largely caused each other,” he said. “My point is that food is a cultural, not a technological product. A culture is not a collection of relics or ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its destruction invites calamity.”

“If we allow another generation to pass without doing what is necessary to enhance and embolden the possibility of strong agricultural communities, we will lose it altogether. And then” he concluded, “we will not only invoke calamity, we will deserve it.”

The ‘now complete’ moral and economic collapse of rural America and the traditional middle class has been starkly evident in the recent American election.

How morally and religiously responsible people act to restore what has collapsed will set the course of Earth.

A Small Vegetable Operation in Western Massachusetts with Horse Power

NPR Article

An interesting article on a vegetable farm at a small scale using work horses.

Some comments that David DeFrancesco and I will elaborate in future posts:

  1. It is our experience that there are carefully made pieces of equipment that can enhance production and environmental health without damage or externalized problems created by the making of the equipment…much of the equipment is not American in design or manufacture.
  2. Scale of farm is critical to viable economies…so they are struggling at a small scale even though highly productive…and even though they work long hours.
  3. It seems they have become very integral to the community with the CSA…wonderful and loving.
  4. I wonder what harvest/picking tools they use?…It is back-killing work. I would quibble with the article in that both writing and photography leave out the ‘hard stuff’.

Note the picture of the family – the parents and children. They remind me of past Kentucky farm relatives and friends in their leanness and spirit.

Solving for Pattern in Agriculture

  • A good solution accepts given limits, using so far as possible what is at hand. The farther-fetched the solution, the less it should be trusted. Granted that a farm can be too small, it is nevertheless true that enlarging scale is a deceptive solution; it solves one problem by acquiring another or several others.
  • A good solution accepts the limitation of discipline. Agricultural problems should receive solutions that are agricultural, not technological or economic.
  • A good solution improves the balances, symmetries, or harmonies within a pattern – it is a qualitative solution – rather than enlarging or complicating some part of a pattern at the expense or in neglect of the rest.
  • A good solution solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems. I am talking about health as opposed to almost any cure, coherence of pattern as opposed to almost any solution produced piecemeal or in isolation. The return of organic waste to the soil may, at first glance, appear to be a good solution per se. But that is not invariably or necessarily true. It is true only if the wastes are returned to the right place at the right time in the pattern of the farm, if the waste does not contain toxic material, if the quantity is not too great, and if not too much energy or money is expended in transporting it.
  • A good solution will satisfy a whole range of criteria; it will be good in all respects. A farm that has found correct agricultural solutions to its problems will be fertile, productive, healthful, conservative, beautiful, pleasant to live on.
  • A good solution embodies a clear distinction between biological order and mechanical order, between farming and industry. Farmers who fail to make this distinction are ideal customers of the equipment companies, but they often fail to understand that the real strength of a farm is in the soil.
  • Good solutions have wide margins, so that the failure of one solution does not imply the impossibility of another. Industrial agriculture tends to put all its eggs in fewer and fewer baskets, and to make ‘going for broke’ its only way of going. But to grow grain should not make it impossible to pasture livestock, and to have a lot of power should not make it impossible to use a little.
  • A good solution always answers the question, How much is enough? Industrial solutions have always rested on the assumption that enough is all you can get. But that destroys agriculture, as it destroys nature and culture. The good health of the farm implies a limit of scale, because it implies a limit of attention, and because such a limit is invariable implied by any pattern….a healthy farm incorporates a pattern that a single human mind can comprehend, make, maintain, vary in response to circumstances, and pay steady attention to. That this limit is obviously variable from one farmer and farm to another does not mean that it does not exist.
  • A good solution should be cheap, and it should not enrich one person by the distress or impoverishment of another. In agriculture, so called ‘inputs’ are, from a different point of view, outputs – expenses. In all things, I think, but especially in an agriculture struggling to survive in an industrial economy, any solution that calls for an expenditure to a manufacturer should be held in suspicion – not rejected necessarily, but as a rule mistrusted.
  • Good solutions exist only in proof, and are not to be expected from absentee owners or absentee experts. Problems must be solved in work and in place, with particular knowledge, fidelity, and care, by people who will suffer the consequences of their mistakes. There is no theoretical or ideal practice. Practical advice or direction from people who have no practice may have some value, but its value is questionable and is limited. The division of capital, management, and labor, characteristic of an industrial system, are therefore utterly alien to the health of farming – as they probably also are to the health of manufacturing. The good health of a farm depends on the farmer’s mind; the good health of the mind has its dependence, and its proof, in physical work. The good farmer’s mind and his body – his management and his labor – work together as intimately as his heart and lungs. And the capital of a well-farmed farm by definition includes the farmer, mind and body both. Farm and farmer are one thing, an organism.
  • Once the farmer’s mind, his body, and his farm are understood as a single organism, and once it is understood that the question of endurance of this organism is a question about the sufficiency and integrity of a pattern, then the word organic can be usefully admitted into this series of standards. It is a word that I have been defining all along, though I have not used it. An organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of natural systems; it has the integrity, the independence, and the benign dependence of an organism. Sir Albert Howard said that a good farm is an analogue of the forest that ‘manures itself.’ A farm that imports too much fertility, even as feed or manure, is in this sense as inorganic as a farm that exports too much or that imports chemical fertilizer.
  • …In an organism, what is good for one part is good for another. What is good for the mind is good for the body, what is good for the arm is good for the heart. We know that sometimes a part may be sacrificed for the whole; a life may be saved by the amputation of an arm. But we also know that such remedies are desperate, irreversible, and destructive; it is impossible to improve the body by amputation. And such remedies do not imply a safe logic. As tendencies they are fatal: you cannot save your arm but sacrifice your life. Perhaps most of us who know local histories of agriculture know of fields that in hard times have been sacrificed to save a farm, and we know that though such a thing is possible it is dangerous. The danger is worse when topsoil is sacrificed for the sake of a crop. And if we understand the farm as an organism, we see that it is impossible to sacrifice the health of the soil to improve the health of plants, or to sacrifice the health of plants to improve the health of animals, or to sacrifice the health of animals to improve the health of people.
  • It is the nature of any organic pattern to be contained within a larger one. And so a good solution in one pattern preserves the integrity of the pattern that contains it. A good agricultural solution, for example, would not pollute or erode a watershed. What is good for the water is good for the ground, what is good for the ground is good for the plants, what is good for the plants is good for the animals, what is good for the animals is good for people, what is good for people is good for the air, what is good for the air is good for the water. And vice versa.
  • But we must not forget that those human solutions that we may call organic are not natural. We are talking about organic artifacts, organic only by imitation or analogy. Our ability to make such artifacts depends on virtues that are specifically human: accurate memory, observation, insight, imagination, inventiveness, reverence, devotion, fidelity, restraint. Restraint –for us, now – above all: the ability to accept and live within limits, to resist changes that are merely novel or fashionable; to resist greed and pride; to resist the temptation to ‘solve’ problems by ignoring them, accepting them as ‘tradeoffs,’ or bequeathing them to posterity. A good solution, then, must be in harmony with good character, cultural value, and moral law.

 

Source: Solving for Pattern, Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: North Point Press, 1981, pp. 134-145)

Note: This list – directed at the farm – has much broader cultural meaning given the state of our current American economy and government.Movie All Is Lost (2013)

China’s Agricultural Soil

Unbridled industrialization with almost no environmental regulation has resulted in the toxic contamination of one-fifth of China’s farmland, the Communist Party has acknowledged for the first time.

The report, issued by the ministries of Environmental Protection and Land Resources, says 19.4 percent of the country’s soil is polluted with toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, nickel and arsenic. It was based on a soil survey of more than 2.4 million square miles of land across China, spanning a period from April 2005 until December. It excluded special administrative regions Hong Kong and Macau.

In a dire assessment, the report says: “The overall condition of the Chinese soil allows no optimism.”Review Android Smartphone

The NPR Report

Seeds

This week, scientists, farmers and sustainable food systems advocates will gather on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus to celebrate an unusual group of honored guests: 29 new varieties of broccoli, celery, kale, quinoa and other vegetables and grains that are being publicly released using a novel form of ownership agreement known as the Open Source Seed Pledge.

The University of Wisconsin Article

The NPR Report

California Chicken Cage Laws

By most measures, David Kesten’s hens are living the good life.

“They can act like chickens, they can run around,” says Kesten, who’s raising hens in an old wooden shed in the open countryside near Concordia, Mo. “They can go out and catch bugs, they can dig in the ground.”

But most U.S. hens live crammed into very close quarters, according to Joe Maxwell, with the Humane Society of the U.S. And he says that’s just wrong.

“There are some things we should not do to animals,” says Maxwell.

California voters felt the same way, and six years ago they passed Proposition 2, requiring California producers to provide cages that are almost twice as large as most chickens have now. The Legislature followed that with a law requiring that all eggs sold in California be raised under those conditions.

The NPR Report

Implementing the Farm Bill

The new Farm Bill requires substantial changes to USDA’s current rules and methods.

Now consider the current size of USDA and how it is organized (this is an excerpt from a Politifact’s ‘Truth or Pants on Fire” analysis):

George LeMieux says USDA is employs 1 person for every 30 farmers

U.S. Sen. George LeMieux’s crusade against the national debt has become the hallmark of his short stint in Congress.

The Florida Republican, appointed in August 2009 to fill Mel Martinez’s seat, has been touting a plan to roll back and then cap federal spending levels. LeMieux says returning federal spending to 2007 levels could cut the now $13 trillion national debt in half by 2020.

PolitiFact Florida previously rated LeMieux’s claim that his plan would halve the national debt True, but we wondered loudly at the time how the government could make the massive, necessary spending cuts.

In a meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board on June 4, 2010, LeMieux presented some ideas and gave us more numbers to crunch.

LeMieux said no program could be shielded from potential cuts, whether it be an across-the-board 10 percent cut in every federal agency, or raising the Social Security retirement age, or making higher-income seniors pay more for Medicare services.

When pressed further, LeMieux singled out the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“There’s more than 100,000 people working at the Department of Agriculture,” LeMieux said. “That’s 1 employee for every 30 farmers.”

In his mind, that’s clearly too many. “Fiscal responsibility is nothing but background music in Washington,” LeMieux added.

We wanted to check LeMieux’s statistics about the number of USDA employees and the ratio between employees and farmers.

USDA press secretary Caleb Weaver said the agency currently employs 105,000 people scattered across the country and in dozens of countries across the world. Weaver said the number varies slightly because many of the workers are seasonal, particularly those that work for the Forest Service, which is a branch of the USDA.

We’ll note immediately that there are lots of things the USDA does that wouldn’t traditionally be considered in support of farmers. Dale Moore, who served as chief of staff to the Secretary of Agriculture during President George W. Bush’s two terms, gave us the lay of the land. (Employment figures come from USDA budget documents.)

The primary group that deals with farmers is called the Farm Service Agency, which employs a little over 5,000 people and has regional offices all over the country. Besides that, the USDA is made up of more than a dozen other agencies and work groups. Among them:

  • The Forest Service, which accounts for more than a third of the overall USDA workforce (36,760 employees), manages the 193 million acre national forest system.
  • The USDA’s Rural Development office (6,100 employees) oversees economic development projects in rural communities. One of its current projects is to increase rural access to broadband technology.
  • The Food and Nutrition Service (1,387 employees) manages the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called the Food Stamp Program) and the National School Lunch Program. The food service programs account for about two-thirds of the department’s budget.
  • The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (7,888 employees), among other things, monitors and examines the plants and animals that people try to bring into the country.
  • The Food Safety and Inspection Service (9,696 employees) monitors the nation’s commercial supply of meat and poultry products.

“The USDA I would say is the most diverse federal department in terms of the scope of what it does,” said Moore, who now works for Policy Directions, a Washington lobbying firm.

Getting back to LeMieux’s claim, the number of USDA employees is one-half of his equation. The other is the number of farmers, tracked by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2008, farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers held more than 1.2 million jobs, according to the BLS. Nearly 80 percent are self-employed farmers and ranchers.

LeMieux’s office provided PolitiFact Florida with a different figure from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. According to them, the number of farmers is more than 2.6 million.

The numbers were so different we contacted Steve Crutchfield, the assistant administrator at USDA Economic Research Service for an explanation.

Crutchfield said the 2.6 million figure comes from a 2008 Department of Commerce economic analysis measuring farm employment — which is defined as “the number of workers engaged in the direct production of agricultural commodities, either livestock or crops; whether as a sole proprietor, partner, or hired laborer.”

The same Department of Commerce study lists “Farm Proprietor’s Employment” as 1.9 million. That number counts “non-corporate farm operators, consisting of sole proprietors and partners.”

Crutchfield says there are a number of different ways to calculate the number of farmers, based on whether you’re including hired laborers or hobby farmers or people who farm but have a different primary source of income.

That makes creating a proper ratio of USDA employees (a number that varies depending on budget years and the seasonal workforce) to farmers (a number that varies based on how you define a farmer) difficult.

Watch:

Using 105,000 total USDA employees and the BLS figure of 1.2 million farmers and farm workers — you get a ratio of 1 employee for every 11.4 farmers.

If you exclude Forest Service employees (who have very little to do with farming) in the same calculation, there remains 1 USDA employee for every 17.6 farmers.

But if you count just the Farm Service Agency, the main agency that works with farmers, the ratio becomes 1 Farm Service Agency employee for every 235 farmers under the BLS numbers or 1 employee for every 510 farmers under using the Department of Commerce figure LeMieux cited or 1 employee for every 373 farmers using the other Commerce figure Crutchfield provided.

If you use LeMieux’s 2.6 million figure and count all USDA employees, the ratio is about 1 employee for every 25 farmers.

We’re not sure any of these ways is a valid ratio.

“The senator’s point is to highlight the growth of employment at government agencies even in light of declining areas of responsibility.” LeMieux spokesman Ken Lundberg said. “According to the USDA, the number of farms in the U.S. in 1935 was 7 million. That number has since declined to estimates around 2 million (depending on how a farm is identified). Anecdotally, the senator is informed that a similar shift in employment of those in charge of agricultural-related roles at USDA has not seen a similar reduction.”

In pushing for cuts to federal government spending, LeMieux singled out the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noting that the agency has more than 100,000 employees and 1 employee for every 30 farmers in America. The USDA currently employees about 105,000 people but that actually translates to 1 employee for every 11 or so farmers based on one calculation, not 1 in 30. That’s strike one (though we should note that the correct ratio better makes LeMieux’s point).

But our point is that you should give that ratio little thought, because it appears to rely on an oversimplification of the USDA’s mission. The USDA does a lot more than just deal with farmers, from managing the national forest system, to overseeing the school lunch and food stamp programs, to inspecting meat and poultry products heading to the grocery store. That’s enough of playing with the numbers in our mind to warrant a rating of Half True.

A Changing Agricultural Land Economy

An estimated 400 million acres of farmland in the United States will likely change hands over the coming two decades as older farmers retire, even as new evidence indicates this land is being strongly pursued by private equity investors.

Mirroring a trend being experienced across the globe, this strengthening focus on agriculture-related investment by the private sector is already leading to a spike in U.S. farmland prices. Coupled with relatively weak federal policies, these rising prices are barring many young farmers from continuing or starting up small-scale agricultural operations of their own.

In the long term, critics say, this dynamic could speed up the already fast-consolidating U.S. food industry, with broad ramifications for both human and environmental health.

“When non-operators own farms, they tend to source out the oversight to management companies, leading in part to horrific conditions around labor and how we treat the land,” Anuradha Mittal, the executive director of the Oakland Institute, a U.S. watchdog group focusing on global large-scale land acquisitions, told IPS.