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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Farming

This will be the first of a short series on growing food, from the perspective of someone who has lived most of his life in the “breadbasket” of the US. If you're growing food for yourself and family you have a garden, but if you're growing a crop for sale or trade then you have a farm. Truck gardens fit somewhere in between the family garden and the commercial farm with some of the advantages and problems of both. I'll start with what I know best: farming.

The People
Farmers are aging. For the last few generations, farmers have sent their children off to college and not many of them are coming back to work on the farm. I know men in their 60's and 70's that are still farming, or working with farmers, some out of necessity but others because they don't know any other way of life. Finding young workers isn't easy when McDonald's has similar pay and better hours. 

Farming is dangerous. Farm work usually ranks about #4 on any list of the most dangerous jobs in America (police work is usually #8 or #10). Not many people are willing to work around dangerous, chemicals, moving machinery, and livestock that can crush you at all hours of the day, in all kinds of weather, and often alone. Scars and missing digits aren't unusual in a gathering of farmers.

These all lead to a smaller number of people feeding the rest of the population. If a catastrophe were to hit the US, the impact of losing just a “few” farmers would have major repercussions. The percentage of the population that actually grows food has been shrinking for decades, and the size of farms has been growing as family farms are incorporated into larger operations. As farms have gotten bigger so has the equipment, which is now equipped with state-of-the-art electronics to help manage their operation.

The Land
Fields are being reworked to take out fences (GPS has eliminated the need to mark property lines) and terrain features in order to use larger equipment.What used to be done with four-row equipment is now done sixteen (or more) rows at a time. The "big" tractors I used as a teenager are now relegated to hauling wagons and powering augers - they can't handle the new field equipment.

Farms vary greatly in size, from a few acres for a truck farm to several hundred acres for growing grain and several thousand acres for cattle/sheep ranches in marginal land. Regulation of the farming industry is growing, and it is just as easy to file paperwork for a large farm as it is for a small one.

Prime farmland is currently selling for around $10k/acre around here; pasture land (too steep or poor soil to plant on) is selling for $2000-3000/acre. There are a lot of millionaire farmers, but it's all tied up in the land. For tax purposes, a lot of land is held in a family trust - a legal way of passing the land on to a new generation without having to sell half of it in order to pay the inheritance taxes.

Developers building houses for the urban-flight crowd have been buying a lot of marginal land and turning a quick buck planting McMansions in the hills. They don't fare well with the intermittent power and blocked roads that occur when winter rolls around, and most of them aren't built well enough to stand alone in a field without a windbreak and the heating bills are astronomical.

The Definitions 
Acre: 43,560 square feet. There are 640 acres in a square mile (also called a “section”). For city folks, an acre is about 90% of the size of a football field. Fields were laid out or surveyed in square-mile blocks when the middle of the country was settled. A section (square mile) was divided into fourths (160 acres) called quarters, which were further divided into fourths (40 acres).

Fertilizer: Anything that can be used to provide the nutrients needed for plants to grow. Manure was used for centuries, but has been replaced with mined minerals and manufactured blends.

Nutrients: The three main nutrients used to grow plants are Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P), and Potassium (K). Fertilizer is often marked with three numbers designating the percentage by weight of these three major nutrients, in that order (N-P-K), so if you see 28-8-4 on a bag you can know that it contains 28%N, 8%P, and 4%K.

Permaculture: Any crop that reproduces itself without human assistance. Meadows, forests, and orchards are good examples. They have lower maintenance, but produce less quantity or lower quality food/feed.

Monoculture: A farming technique that favors specializing in one crop, and often only one variety of that crop. The major downside to monoculture farming is its susceptibility to disease: one potato blight (a fungus-like disease) can wipe out an entire economy based on monoculture farming.

The bird flu hit hard this year and has caused the extermination of many large poultry flocks (tens of millions of birds), which has already raised the price of eggs at the grocery store.

This (2015) spring and summer have been wetter than normal for a large portion of the middle of the country (sorry, California). Since wheat is grown in two seasons (winter wheat gets planted in the fall and matures in the spring; summer wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall), most of the wheat in the fields has been water-logged this year. If it stays wet there is a good chance of mold and fungi starting in the fields, which will reduce the amount of wheat for food/feed use and therefore increasing prices.

Monoculture farming is becoming more common around here; the days of a farmer growing his own livestock feed and raising meat animals are mostly gone. Poultry is raised in factories, beef in feedlots, and pork in confinement buildings. Where most farmers used to grow wheat (for bread), corn (for feed), oats (for the horses), hay (for winter feed), and often some of other small grains (sorghum, barley, flax, rye, etc.), now they specialize in either corn or soybeans, and buy whatever else they need with the money from the sale of their single crops. In other areas of the USA, this specialization leans towards wheat or cotton with the same lack of diversification.

Agronomy: The study of how to best grow plants for human use. It's a messed-up combination of economics, chemistry, biology, geology, and a few others for good measure. It's part science, part art, and usually a whole bunch of experience. Most colleges in the middle of the country offer degrees in Agronomy, but without the experience a new graduate is going to be lost.

A good agronomist can survey a field and tell you what you'll need to put on it to grow a good crop. A bad one will sell you whatever his boss is pushing the most.

Truck garden: I know several truck farmers locally. The typical setup is an older family farm (40 acres or less) that is not economical for raising corn or soy beans, and the family doesn't want to sell the land to a big operation that would be able to blend a small field or two into their existing fields and still make money (I've been on single fields of 500+ acres of corn).

Unlike traditional farming, truck farming doesn't rely as heavily on one big harvest every year to pay the bills; most truck farmers have structured their planting and harvesting schedule to provide income throughout the year. Diversification of your crops minimizes the bad effects of a disease or pest infecting one crop and leaving you broke and hungry. Typical spring harvests are “new potatoes” and berries of all sorts. Summer crops are sweet corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, and string beans. Fall crops are melons and squash with apples and other tree fruits being a minor specialization. Winter crops are rare, but some people have found niche markets with nuts and preserves that they can sell through the cold weather.

There is a growing market for locally-grown produce with a premium price for “organic” anything in nearby cities, so there are customers available. Since most of the sales are made off the back of a pickup (there are some grocery stores that will carry locally-grown produce) and paid in cash, the tax burden implications are clear.

The Wrap-Up
If growing your own food is part of your strategy to deal with disasters, let me know if there's anything I can expand on. This is a subject that is so deep and broad that I'll never be able to cover everything on a blog. I'll be recommending some reading material in the near future, and will take a stab at gardening soon.

The Fine Print


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