Thursday, May 30, 2013

Post Industrial Agriculture: An Introduction

                Now… just what is this “post industrial agriculture” nonsense?
                I don’t even have a voice in my mind that uttered that previous question. Sometimes writing these Tales of Idyllia I hear an English voice, a nasally voice, etc., but I hear none in my own mind at the moment. Nonetheless, in this introduction, I hope to relay what “post industrial agriculture” may someday come to be… if we should be so lucky… (Oh, and I don’t “believe” in luck, by the way.)
                Today’s news relayed how a two mile wide tornado ripped through Oklahoma. We, that is, if you are a member of the United States collective, oops, society, and care for the other members of the country aforementioned, have been “afflicted” by MANY “super-sized” storms of late. Whether it was last year with Super Storm Sandy or way back when with Hurricane Katrina or the two mile wide tornado mentioned above, the weather extremes have indeed graduated to a level that is quite… EXTREME. And this has nothing to do with the focus of this entry! Well… maybe a little… Okay, actually it has a lot to do with this entry, but one must put on one’s wide vision glasses to understand what is actually involved. The scope of those glasses must be fine tuned to clearly see our current malaise, as well as the history, in all its aspects, on how…”we”… arrived in our current situation.
                How to relay this will not be easy. That is my first thought, as I think about how needlessly fast paced our “society” currently is, which requires “fast food” to be available at any given moment on any given street corner. But here I feel that I am preaching. Enough said. The point is, it has not always been this way. So I will continue in a vein that will require some thought… that actually reveals, to a degree, that it has always been this way… Egads but I am writing in riddles!
                To start, I agree with the devil. More succinctly, I agree with Mephistopheles… Even more succinctly, I agree with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s depiction of Mephistopheles in his classic work of literature, Faust, (as translated by Peter Salm in my Bantam book edition of 1988, but I digress.) In reference to humans, Mephistopheles states, “He would have had an easier time of it had you…” (I guess I should have mentioned that Mephistopheles was talking to the Lord…) “not let him glimpse celestial light; he calls it reason and he only uses it to be more bestial than the beasts.” I love reading historical analysis’ on the human character that reveals the ultimate stupidity the species undertakes… endlessly. Unfortunately, the current stupidity of the species has led ALL species on the planet to the brink... (And by the way, Faust Part I was written is 1808.)
                I read recently that the first supermarket was started in 1946. This was not the beginning of industrialized agriculture, but the first nail in the coffin for “real” food. (And that coffin has not been buried… yet.) But just what am I saying with all this? Human beastiality… well, for the most part, it reached its zenith, at least for the food chain, in industrialized agriculture. To be sure, I quoted from Goethe above, merely to relay that the warning signs of the climate/agricultural/societal catastrophe before us has been well documented in the past. Over two hundred years ago, Goethe relayed the imbecilic patterns of human activity, which is easily matched to our current day. But I have digressed too greatly! Nonetheless, that circle continues…
                Once the entirety of the nation currently known as the United States of America had removed/destroyed/etc.  the surface of their portion of North America of every foe, even the buffalo, which were not really foe…
                Anyway, the government looked upon the terrain, the vast, mighty and incredibly diverse terrain of the United States of America… and decided that certain regions were the ideal area to grow certain crops. Idaho would be perfect for potatoes, for example… And I have to stop here. Idaho is NOT perfect for potatoes. The season is too short for those tubers to grow to full size and maintain their flavor, aka. Health value. It was a simplistic analysis that at the time, late 19th/early 20th century, was deemed quite scientific.
                And time passed. Less and less analysis was spent on how crops can thrive in almost any environment. No, more and more thought was put on how to grow as much as possible with as little effort as possible. Instead of farmer’s raising cattle, growing their own grain for those cattle and also growing tomatoes, etc… It led to a situation that became…industrialized.
                A couple of hundred years ago, one did not have to concern oneself over the term “Made in China”. The tools of any trade were created, manufactured, etc. in each town by a craftsman of learned skill. The tools were quality, and many still exist as “antiques” that are most assuredly still useable to this day. When I was younger, we used to see “Made in Japan”, then it switched to “Made in Taiwan”, and now it is “Made in China”. Also, when I was young, there was a memorable clamor to “buy American”, which faded once the 80s… well, I’ll stop there… ugh.
                The same sort of situation arose around agriculture. Fresh, local vegetables became a rarity, and corn was soon grown ubiquitously. The healthy aspects of food were soon forgotten or ignored in favor of uniform shape and color and ship-ability. And then the corn… Processing. Eating real food became a thing of the past and the new ingredients made through chemical processes that turned corn, and soy beans into a myriad of ingredients that are often hard to pronounce. And no thought was given to the health of the product. And that is industrial agriculture. It “manufactures” food on an incredibly large scale with the only true power behind its activities being profit… money.
                As a result, chicken farms went from having coops the might fit a hundred birds to houses that fit tens of thousands. The same chickens never see the light of day and are fed a myriad of antibiotics and other “preventative medicines” due to the high disease rate in such unnatural “manufacturing” buildings. And industrialized “manufacturing” of food products treat all parts of the agricultural situation in a similar manner, whether the “product” is beef, pork, eggs, high fructose corn syrup or carrageenan.
                Today, after about a hundred years of industrial agriculture, (to be sure back in 1913 it did not resemble the mighty machine it now is, but that was about the time the machine was first constructed), we are left with a food system that none of our ancestors from a hundred years ago and before would even remotely recognize. Cardboard boxes of “food”, frozen packages of “food”, and vegetables with no flavor that resist rot due to genetic modification. But that is where we are. And now that scientific studies are more and more able to show that the side effects of most of the chemically and genetically engineered foods are at the least detrimental, and some downright poisonous… there is new hope.
                Yes, that is right. After all of the idiotic manipulation of our “food” into poisons, there is new hope. I am happy to announce that industrial agriculture has reached its end… I hope. Okay, let me pause, industrial agriculture is incredibly powerful in its ability to lobby lawmakers into creating laws essentially requiring us citizens to intake their poisons whether we want to or not. These are no sleeping giants… but they are extremely short sighted. Over the past decade plus, I have witnessed an awareness growing over the truth about the nefarious food stuffs “manufactured” through industrial agriculture that has been staggering. The amount of people seeking out my fresh, local organic produce grows substantially every year. You see, while Big Agriculture, that is, industrial agriculture can sway the legislature, it cannot control the individual’s, that is, the informed individual’s choice for where they buy their food.
                So here, we are. Should the citizens continue to become informed and demand healthy food again, that demand will be met. It is refreshing to me to hear from so many people who have become aware of how their food from industrial agriculture is not really “food”. And this leads to the next level of food production in the history of our species’ development (or demise)… Post Industrial Agriculture.
                This is merely an introduction and more concrete examples of what will be involved in Post Industrial Agriculture (PIA, for short) will be included in future entries. But as an example, when I first started into my organic farming situation, my intention was to avoid all chemicals, to, as it were, return to how food was raised prior to herbicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Many people think, whether they are in the organic movement or not, that that is the ideal. And that is by no means the “ideal”. It is through science that the path to PIA has been made, but not the science of chemicals and genetic modification. That science is “naïve” science and is yet another example of how reason has led us to be more bestial than the beasts. ONLY our species has developed the power to poison ourselves through our own ingenuity, or truly lack there of, but I digress. The “science” that has been used to date has been only simplistic and short sighted in nature. The “science” of the future, of Post Industrial Agriculture, will be complex, and surely make some people’s head hurt. The point is, not backwards, but forward.
                Anyway, this is the start. To the horizon, a horizon of Post Industrial Agriculture…

Thursday, May 16, 2013


                For Nev-R-Dun Farm, the 2013 year really began on February 15. Yes, there were greens overwintering in the greenhouses, but for the actual “new” farming year of 2013, it did not start until February 15. Why? On February 15, as is done every year, the onion, leek, celery, celeriac, parsley, and early tomato seeds are started in the “grow” greenhouse. (What a terrible name for that greenhouse. And to think, I just now named it that!) Many trays of soil blocks are made and seeded and placed on the grow racks which contain heating coils covered with sand, and the entire area is kept warm with a portable heater. Everything was planted on time, so 2013 was a go!
                Unfortunately, 2013 was not a go. Quite the opposite, actually, but it took quite some time to figure out all that was involved in the difficulties. And I am by no means certain I have figured them all out. But it started like this…
                The first seedings germinated as expected. The leeks, first onions, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, celery, etc., all germinated as expected. The tomato seeds, however, did not. And this was the beginning of the “strange situation” of 2013. Why did the tomatoes not sprout? A few did. A VERY few did. Instead of the one hundred and fifty plus expected, only a couple did… Why was that? The early spring/late winter season was rather cold, and I suspected that that was the reason. Perhaps the “grow” greenhouse heat situation was not sufficient. So I waited…
                A week later, still no more tomatoes sprouted. On top of that, the later plantings of onions had an extremely poor germination rate as well. The outside temperature had dropped to quite low temperatures in comparison to last year, which was the first year for the “grow” greenhouse. As I was taking in the different variables for the season, I thought that the outside cold must have been significantly affecting the inside temperature for the greenhouse. I feel the need to explain here that tomato seeds tend not to germinate unless the average temperature of their soil situation is… and I don’t actually have a temperature decree here… but, the temperature tends to need to be above fifty degrees. With the heating racks heated to seventy plus degrees… in theory, that should have been sufficient. And yet it was not. Something was amiss in the land of…
                And why had the later onion seedings germinated so poorly? And yet the brassicas, the broccoli, cabbage, etc. seemed to thrive? I will pause here again…
                Farming is such a wonderful occupation! It does not matter how many years of experience one may have earned through the constant toil required, nonetheless, something “new”, something “different” will inevitably arise to cause us farmers to once again question… WHY DO WE EVEN TRY TO DO THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE?!!!
                Alright, so I have a bit of experience, as well as a bit of analytical skill, so what was happening to the early seedings? Why did the brassicas succeed and the later onions and tomatoes did not? Temperature-wise it did not make any sense… until… I realized I left some of my seed packets in a cardboard box in the “grow” greenhouse…
                I have to pause here also. One of the aspects of vegetable farming is that there is a relatively small framework of time the vegetable producer must deal with in order to start those transplants that will eventually grow into the delectable produce of the spring/summer/fall. While us farmers are gauging how the weather is flowing, etc., the seedings in the greenhouse are an almost expected situation, if that makes sense.  To have such a situation of plant failure like what was experienced that early on in the season was not good. Germination of crops is expected. The extent of germination will vary, and that is also to be expected. But to have 6 tomato sprouts out of over 150?!
                So, I left a box of seed packets in the “grow” greenhouse. Somehow it slipped from my attention until I needed to move the box for room. As I did, I noticed loose seeds in the box… and mouse droppings! There was a mouse in the vicinity! And that mouse had eaten into the packets of seeds in that box! Damned mammals! What is one to do with them?
                And I will pause again here to reassert that the intensity of activity required of the produce farmer leaves little time to dwell on particular situations… unless the situation becomes dire. And dire it had become! The second planting of onions was negligible at best! Other plantings that had sprouted soon disappeared! What the… was happening? And then, I saw this!

The yellowish/green thing in the middle of the photo used to be a tomato sprout, one of the few that actually “germinated”. Something had clearly eaten the top off of the tomato plant. Here is what a tomato transplant normally looks like.

They look something like this, but this also reflects one of the trays that had been assaulted. Very few tomato plants actually survived.
                My first thought was slugs. I searched for those nasty critters and only found a few, and they could not have damaged the plantings in such a manner, especially the beheadings of the tomatoes. Then, when I moved one of the trays, I discovered not only a mouse trail in the sand beneath the trays… but the mouse as well. I instantly realized the culprit. For those unfamiliar with mice, they are extremely quick, and it darted away beneath the wooden framework of the grow racks before I could even think about how to attack it.
                By that time, I realized that that mouse… had to go, get evicted, however one wants to think about it. In the meantime, I NEEDED to have sprouting tomato plants!  Instead of seeding an exact amount of 400 or so, I planted thousands! And I purchased every type of mouse trap I could find… except one, but I will get back to that.
                Now back to the farming aspect of things. There is a timeline of attack when it comes to planting. The seasons are quite unpredictable in the Mid-Maryland region in which I farm, and even more so now that the extreme weather situations have become… predictably EXTREME. Nonetheless, having lost the first planting of tomatoes set me back. And I have to pause here again.
                I have been farming, more specifically starting all of my produce from seed for over fifteen years now. Never… NEVER have I had an issue with something eating tomato transplants! Here is another picture.

This was yet another tomato that had been beheaded, and yet still attempted to survive. And while I appreciated that tomato’s fortitude, it would eventually amount to nothing… due to… What eats tomato sprouts? I have never had this issue before! And here is the crazy part of the situation as one analyzes from an organic farmer’s point of view. It was that damned mouse! One damned mouse that found a home in that little green house! Mice don’t eat tomatoes! They eat brassicas! They… okay… nibble on… broccoli and cabbage, etc… but tomatoes… NEVER! And yet the brassicas were untouched. What the…?
                I will pause here to present the reason why organic farming will NEVER be easy. There is a statement I have used for longer than I can remember:  “If organic farming was easy, everybody would be doing it.” It ain’t. Reason number one? Evolution. With all of the other variables in front of the organic farmer, and I’ll keep it simple with the crazy climate and bug infestation, evolution is also another constant guest at the table. Evolution is an equation that takes two plus two to equal 1/16 plus 100/7 minus 3.23% over a… sine curve I have no idea how to relay over a keyboard… Anyway, it can tweak and disrupt everything in no time at all… and it has no concern over how one’s profession cares about it!
                So back to the mouse. More seeds were planted. A lot of more seeds were planted. Frustration is an incredibly weak term for what I personally experienced. The more seeds I planted, the more the mouse ate! But I had no other area in which to germinate the new seedlings! My only recourse was to plant more and more, and then more and more. (And set more traps.) Celery, chard, ALL the peppers, sweat peas, CALENDULA EVEN were devoured by that damned mouse… and yet the brassicas remained untouched. What an odd… and VERY crafty mouse! All of those seeds were covered with more grow mix, so the mouse sifted through the soil to find the seeds. And yet… the brassicas survived!
                The more I thought about it, the more my thought dwelled on that mouse being of an “evolutionary” mentality. That was no “normal” mouse. That mouse was wired for a different approach, if you will. And that different approach devastated my early produce seedings! And I tried every trap I could find… humane, inhumane… mouseane, inmouseane… I did not care, (without using any type of synthetic chemical  or mouse poison of course). And then… I finally reverted to the old spring trap with the wooden base that my parents used in the farm house when we were kids to eradicate, okay, diminish the mouse population within the abode.
                And it worked. And it worked the very first night it was set. I will eschew the gory details of the “kill”, but that mouse was definitely “different”. The manner in which it met its demise… was strange to say the least. But, the mouse is dead. Call me a murderer. I can deal with that. And to anyone who would deal me that verdict, I will remind them that the entity I murdered… the ONE entity that I murdered…(although it ultimately committed suicide in a trap, but I digress)… was a MASS MURDERER on a level never experienced before at Nev-R-Dun Farm!
                Adieu, mouse. I will not miss you. The amount of stress you have caused was indescribable. Thankfully, we, in theory, have a long enough grow season to salvage all the “eaten” vegetable transplants, perhaps even the peppers…
                Enough on the mouse! I am over that! Eesh! Let the growing season begin already!!!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


                So, here we are… it is the year 2013. Is it just another year to follow the last? It depends on how one analyzes the situation. As a farmer in the Mid-Atlantic, Mid-Maryland region… absolutely not! To use the often referred to cliché, “What a difference a year makes”.
                At this time in 2012, summer was already upon us. Perennials were at least two weeks ahead of schedule in their seasonal growth. Warm days had been aplenty, in fact, there had been no deep freeze over the winter, which caused some fruit crops to abort… like the peaches, when a late freeze descended upon the farm. Alas. But nonetheless, the early warmth was invigorating and the spring was sufficiently wet enough to have all of the crops thriving at the onset. Then, of course, the rain stopped…
                But that happens every year. I will admit that that last statement is absolutely in error. After about fifteen years of farming, I have witnessed quite an array of different seasons at this point. I keep thinking of Forrest Gump’s statement, only it is a little modified toward the farming situation in spring: “Spring is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” And that has been my experience in most dramatic fashion, especially over the past few years.
                2013’s start has been the coolest I have experienced. Check that. 2013 has been the most elongated cool spring I have experienced. We had a cold spring a couple of years back that quickly leapt into summer. This year the temperature has been rising oh so slowly, which makes me wonder if this is what was once known as a “normal” spring. Nonetheless, and in deference to last year at least, this spring has been rather cool. But what results from the cooler temperatures?
                I remember oh so vividly the spring of 2010. From February 1 through February 10, almost 4 feet of snow fell on our region. Four feet! (Perhaps if you have never had to use a shovel to remove such a huge amount of snow, four feet of snow may not appear astounding. If that is the case, I ASSURE you that that is A LOT OF SNOW!) The main issue that year for my efforts farming is that the snow did not melt until mid-March. Then, on the low land on which I farm, the ground did not dry enough to till until the second week of April. For a vegetable farmer, that is very late. And without getting into the specifics here…
                2013 has been the same as 2010 when it comes to the tilling possibility. By late April, almost all of the plantings were back on schedule. By no means was that easy to coordinate, but, nonetheless, the planting has been done. The MAJOR strange occurrence this year is that, for the most part, we have not experienced the high temperature fluctuations that have been common… over the recent years. We had a three day stint of eighty degree temperature a few weeks back that triggered the grass to grow… fast! Anyone who has to mow grass is surely aware of that. But since then, we have settled into a cooling pattern quite foreign for the region, at least foreign for the years I have been keeping data over the last decade or so.
                So how does the cooler weather affect the farming situation?
                At this point, it is difficult to determine. Personally, I am so used to the temperature swings that I no longer stress myself out over it. And I must admit there has been A LOT of stress to endure over the past decade or so. I have earned a bit of experience over those years, and a large part of that experience was realizing that the climate is DEFINETLY changing, and as a farmer, that is the FACT with which needs to be dealt.
                It has been a lonely experience attempting to grow crops beneath the weather extremes that have been delivered over the past decade or so. One thing I have learned over that time period is that all of us farmers experience the same situation. When one is new to farming, it is easy to suspect that one’s efforts were in error, but after the number of years personally spent farming, and subsequent conversations with fellow farmers, we all go through the same difficulties. That said… 2013?
                I actually have quite a bit of optimism for the beginning of this year’s growing seasons. While all of the crops are not nearly developed to the stage I had planned, the weather has cooperated for the cooler season crops, which simply means those crops will be a little later than normal, but… (perhaps a knock on wood would be appropriate here)… those crops appear to be growing quite well.
                The summer crops are also being planted “on time”, like the tomatoes, beans, etc. The forecast appears conducive to plant the cold intolerant plants as well, like squash and peppers. For whatever reason, the highs and lows have been less extreme than I am used to and I am proceeding as the weather dictates. There is always a possibility for a late frost, but that feels to be a non-issue for this year…
                But what about the rest of the growing seasons? Who knows? I have personally experienced so many out of the ordinary weather extremes over the past years, that is seems quite ludicrous to me to speculate. Here are some examples of those extremes: as mentioned above, four feet of snow in February; a frost AFTER May 15; no rain for multiple months (you pick a couple… June through July, August through September); a 115 degree Fahrenheit day, which has been simply unheard of; tropical storms and hurricanes stalling over the region dropping ten plus inches of rain in a couple of days; six inches of snow in OCTOBER!; Hurricane Sandy…
                That list is by no means exclusive, but it is reflective of what us farmer’s must deal with in our current age. And while the future of such wild climatic fluctuations appears to be even more intense, there is no recourse to give up when it comes to growing the organic food we eat. That is not an option. What is an option is to continue to learn from such extreme situations… and prepare for them in a more scientific and rational method. So, the climate is changing… It is not time to bunker down with doom and gloom, but rather a time to look past our current tormented period in order to steer our food system towards a better and healthier horizon.
                But what am I talking about here? I wish I knew. Actually, I do know. What I am addressing here, and on what will be of focus a few times through these Tales of Idyllia for 2013 is a concept that my eyes first fell upon in 2011. It struck me back then as an interesting idea, but with more investigation and research, has grown into what seems quite clearly the future of farming for our species. And just what is that interesting idea? Post Industrial Agriculture. It is real. It is the future. And there will be much more explanation on that soon to come in these Tales of Idyllia…