Suburban Flight

Last night I was in a funk-attending 2 funerals in a week will do that. Doubtless it says volumes about me, but I went to the coffee shop to steep my solemnity in Arabica instead of whiskey at the local watering hole. Sitting down, I picked up Friday’s issue of USA Today and was pleased to see several articles with a ‘progressive’ bent (why are clean air, water and food progressive ideas?). The first was by Haya El Nasser concerning population growth, the second was Mimi Hall featuring my living folk hero Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm fame. Nasser’s article did about as much as one can on the immense topic of unchecked growth as you can expect in 500 words or less, but spent more energy on transit times and greenspace than on the pending pressures on water, food, and oil. Hall’s article had lots of energy on electronic chips in cattle, but less focus than I would prefer. This is probably why I don’t get newspapers.

Growth is inevitable-at least for now (optimism-remember?). With us cresting the 300 million mark here in America we are currently riding a wave (well maybe a ripple) of rare introspection as a nation. We are getting bigger, more populous, and more diverse than ever before…and the rates of all three are accelerating. It took us 40 years to add the last hundred million, and it will take us less than 30 years to add the next. Due to the fact that the established upper-middle class is reproducing less (affluence has at least some environmental up sides), most of this growth will be driven by immigration: walls or no walls. Europe is experiencing this now, so if we can step out of our Might Makes Right worldview we can learn from their recent history.

One of the interesting trends Nasser drilled in on was that the current data point towards a re-urbanisation of American, or more precisely a de-suburbanisation. Young people are fleeing the suburbs with their impractical commutes, cultural wastelands, and cookie cutter houses. The coolest part of it all is that the cities, in many cases, are ready for them. The infrastructure that was built decades ago to house the workers of America are still there-and with some updating we have cities like St Louis, Cleveland, and Detroit that are currently at 50% of their peak population levels of the 1930’s to 1960’s before Suburbia afflicted us.

I have written about this before, but urban life has taken a bad wrap from the environmentalist ethic. We think of sustainable living as safely ensconced on our 5-10 acres raising some chickens, tending a large garden-living closer to the land. This is still a great option for those like me who are currently employed 50 miles from a major metropolitan center. But for what I can’t grow I have to drive 20 miles to get good organic food and 50 miles to see any even remotely cultural event. But if you work near a city already, the easiest way for you to reduce your ecological footprint is to move in and live in a multifamily building on a mass transit line. Ever live in a apartment building? When I have I never had to run my heater due to 5 of the six ‘walls’ surrounded by climate controlled air. Even in Midwestern Milwaukee within 6 blocks of my apartment I had 2 grocery stores, and Art museum, open air Jazz every Thursday, several dozen good restaurants, parks, and of course Lake Michigan. If I had landed a job there, I would have had no need for a car. Fresh local produce? The Milwaukee Public Market has it in spades, or I could join a CSA. City neighborhoods are alive with community, provide easy access to amenities, and can seriously reduce your impact on the Earth.

I have been nominated to be one of our Village’s 3 representatives in a well funded Smart Growth initiative, and the best bet that we have here in rural America to combat sprawl is to incorporate as many of the needs of our citizens into our villages as possible. To contain our growth seems impossible, like stopping the ocean’s tides. But inherent in that unstoppable force is immense energy-we need not contain the growth (yet) just control it and use it to help the community grow as we intend it to. If Manhattan can put turbines in the East River to generate electricity, then maybe I can change zoning to foster Eco-Villages that are net energy producers, have water runoff that is cleaner than the rain it came from, and share community hybrid cars.

Be the Change!

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Future of Farms

I have blogged at length on the future of farming. I see it vividly every week at the Madison Farmers Market and at our local CSA. I saw it in depth at Michael Field’s Institute when I worked there a few summers back. The future of farming is smaller and more intimate-I think of a well run organic micro farm as a den lined with well thumbed tomes to Con Agra’s multimedia room with its 72″ flat screen. That ‘future’ is happening now all across the coasts and in the upper Midwest. But the farms it is happening on are run by established farmers who have either ‘seen the light’ or never stepped into the darkness in the first place.

But what about the rest of the farms-the remaining good ones? Last week Mia, the kids and I were invited out to tour a local sheep farm that is run by an older couple that is attending the Natural Step study group I am in. The farm is breathtaking-like an agricultural time capsule from 1940. Turning into their gravel lane we were greeted by a mated pair of Sandhill cranes feeding not 20 yards off to our right. Then our eyes drifted up to the barnyard: not a single metal building-all red painted wood plank barns and sheds with field stone foundations-freshly painted with solid roofs. A working farm, and it looks like a Vermont postcard. The farmhouse is smallish-probably under 1400sq ft, and is nestled against an east facing hillside to protect it from winter winds. We climbed that hill behind the house to get a look around. The farm itself is divided into 3 “40’s” with another 25 or so broke off for the pond which is set aside for the cranes and migrating birds-the sheep are not allowed access. The first and second 40 use the ridge line of the hill as a dividing line, with the 3rd 40 divided off by a 20 yard thick mature windbreak that also borders the preimeterof the property. From the barnyard you can see neither road nor house. The first two 40’s are dotted with bleating white puff balls that surge over as we approach-each a herd of 50 sheep-the lambs in one and the ewe’s in the other. From the crest of the hill we can see the second pair of Sandhills that trusts the farm enough to raise their young on it as well as a hundred or so waterfowl in the distant pond.

Our friends are not young people, though I doubt I could keep up with him for a day-in-the-life. Having worked in the factories of Milwaukee for over 40 years before retiring to run a farm for another 18, they deserve their rest, but will need income or at least liquidation to achieve it. It does not appear that their children are interested, so this farm could be on the market within a matter of years. This area is becoming less rural by the month-my backyard was farmed 30 months ago. There aren’t a whole lot of comps up right now, but I figure $5-6k per acre-and they have 143. Round it down to an even $750,000-but this is not including the structures. Current income for the land is about $20k plus whatever they are getting for the 70 acres they rent out. Mortgage on $750k is roughly $6k per month. Granted the land is underutilized now, but I am fairly sure it could not support a herd of 500 sheep-and a herd that big would mean hiring help-cutting into margins. An organic dairy operation would work, but most likely it would be sold to one of the large local corn/bean farmers who will cut the windbreaks, plow under the pasture and plant corn up to the EPA limit on the pond despite the fact that the small (50 head) dairy operation would be more profitable.

We live in a hub of organic agriculture-within an hours drive of a critically acclaimed Biodynamic Farming Institute that seeds the state with a few dozen new graduates a year. These kids work hard, have amazing ideas…and no money. Try talking a bank into loaning you $750k for a biodynamic farm and you will be thrown out on your biodynamic ass. Plus it took 10-20 workers to keep the 30 acre CSA I worked on running. A 140 acre CSA would be a Big Business employing dozens and taking millions in capital. Not within the scope of your average 23 yr old hippie. The dairy would work, but again the loan is the stopping point. The Farmer will have to hit the ground running a business capable of grossing $100k the first year, and repeat that every year for 30 more or they will literally “lose the farm”. I can here the dirge of “Corn on Beans! Corn on Beans!” looming patiently in the background until I quit whining about biodynamic dreams so it can set in with fiscal reality.

I don’t know what options that this generation of small farmers have, but the reality of our shrinking rural landscape is testament to the results of the more common solutions.
I am an optimist. There has to be a better way-a Land Trust would be a good start but there isn’t enough money in them to save them all.

Anyone want to start a Co-op? I’ll drive the tractor and you can brew the biodiesel.

21st Century Man

I’ve been churning over the 45 second conversation that I had with Michael Perry Thursday night. One of the things I expressed to him was my thanks for writing that it was OK to be one part Red-neck, one part Car Guy, and still enjoy growing leeks, browsing seed catalogues, and going to poetry readings. I have always been hard to Pigeon Hole, but Mike is comfortable in just about the entire coop. Like he said-he was probably the only guy working on a cattle ranch in Wyoming to pay his way thru nursing school…

Our society appears to have come out of the 90’s hell bent on ever increasing specificity. Degree programs become more narrow and precise and minor things like apparel are splitting into ever finer chunks (should I wear my Gore-Tex light hikers, my off road cross trainers, my trail runners, or my Keen’s?) Even food preferences are being muddied: remember when you could just be a vegetarian instead of a lacto-ovo-pescatarian? Specificity is a sign of affluence-go back several thousand years-commerce and technology didn’t really take off until agriculture freed a portion of the workforce from the daily need to procure their own food. Compare that to today’s rate of each American farmer supporting upwards of 125 people (though the quality of that nutrition is highly suspect and they are farming 5x the land per farmer) and it is easy to see that the rest of us have some free time on our hands. Simply put, we are the most affluent society in history.

On some levels this incredible degree of focus allows us to plumb depths of scientific and engineering fields that were unthinkable 40 years ago, but I can’t help but think we are prepping for a fall. General degree programs-specifically the humanities and fine arts, are being dropped from curriculum’s at alarming rates across the country. I studied Philosophy and History in college so I could learn how to think -I figured I would have the rest of my life to fill in the details. My eclectic reading (currently have books going on civil engineering, organic agriculture, religion in politics, and existentialism) allows me to live a full life. But it is more than that. I strive to be hands on; to do things. I drive a hybrid car and still change my own oil and plugs. I read Sartre and have started a gardening business that uses nothing but hand tools. I also see very few people like me in Corporate America. What has this focus on specificity cost us? How many of us can collect seed from a tomato or can that tomato if we needed to without getting sick? How many Americans know how to weld, wire an outlet, or write HTML? We live in a society built on things we don’t understand.

Michael Perry said he was sick of his Redneck friends dogging on his academic friends and vice versa. I distinctly remember the look of horror on my high school guidance counselor’s face when I chose auto shop over AP Calc my senior year. I had this theory that most people had a similar level of intelligence-most of my geek friends called the burnouts morons, but most of those morons could rebuild a carburetor in a few hours…without directions. How is that any different than running force vectors on your T-85 graphing calculator? When the chips are down I’ll take a ‘burnout’ over a geek any day. And I consider myself a geek-just one with a 3 ton jack in the garage and dirt under my nails.

The world needs generalists. The second half of the 20th century-the great Pax Americana- was one of the more stable times in world history (speaking in grossly general terms). Stability breeds affluence, which in turn breeds specificity. Looking down the barrel of the next 50 years I see change in the wind. The deep discontent of the “third” world, the undeniable facts of climate change and resource decline, and the ever accelerating advances in technology placing ethical strains on a generation without the intellectual tools to handle them.

Times of change demand right brain thinkers-or better yet those in the middle and comfortable in both sides to help forsee impending challenges and then to plot sustainable solutions to those challenges. In my quest from dyed in the wool left brain to left of central brain I am attempting to do many things. Read more poetry-ok read any poetry. Grow Permaculture gardens instead of monoculture beds. Do more, and talk less. Try things for the explicit reason that I think they won’t work or because I don’t want to.

I think that the problems my children will face will be more similar to the ones my Grandparents faced and am deeply concerned at how our society is prepping them to handle those challenges. My children will need to be Self Reliant, Innovative and members of a community, not specialists who don’t know their neighbor’s name.

I think I’ll go read some poetry and then talk it over with a friend.

-Rob

Thursday

Thursdays aren’t really your Top Shelf kinda day. They aren’t part of the weekend-heck they can’t even claim Hump Day status. Here in Johnson Creek they are noteworthy mostly for their status as garbage day. And this Thursday was the first in a month that I actually remembered to take our the garbage. Missing garbage day 3 times in a row is kinda cool, because we still had a foot and a half to go in our garbage bin. But it is also kinda sad because for three weeks now I have simply forgotten to take out the trash. With our reduced waste generation level garbage day is now optional. At least in the fall and winter.

Another reason that today was an above average Thursday was because I went to a meet and greet for an up and coming Wisconsin author, Michael Perry of Population: 485 fame. Mia had commented a week or so ago about this author she heard on NPR-something about a Truck Love Story based on an old International Harvester truck. When Mia first met me in college I was the proud owner of an ancient IH Metro van that looked almost identical to the one at right-though maybe not as nice. The fact that she made it thru the first date is a testament to her optimism. So I picked up a copy of his book (Truck, a love story) only to learn that he was to be in town this week on his book tour. His book is a rambling journey threw the year that he resurrected a truck, killed a garden, and wooed a Good Woman. Perry is often funny, frequently poignant, and always small town Wisconsin. In person he is Legit. Oconomowoc, WI is putting on airs as it property values grow, but Mike went on telling his stories of belching women, giving CPR to sheep, and old beater trucks despite the fact that the room was full of Book Club women, who frankly ate up every word. Here was Real Life!
If you get a hankering for a good wholesome book about nothing in particular, but with something to say about everything that matters I recommend it. I dig Mike, if for no other reason than he confirms my suspicion that there are other men out there that both grow kale and dream of increasing their skill with a plasma cutter.

Real Men Eat Leeks!

Mending Wall

“…And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game…”
-Robert Frost, Mending Wall

Sometime during my June spent digging up sod along our Back 40 (OK its really a back 12’), and lining our raised beds with field stone, I conjured up a terraced garden scheme to double the amount of cultivated space in my garden and make use of the slope up to the DOT Fence along I-94. Putting in timber seemed wasteful and railroad ties are so full of nastiness that they were never considered. The biggest hang up was not so much that I have never built a rock wall, but in the acquiring the rocks and their transport. Until proven wrong I will believe that I can build anything with the right tools and a book. So all summer I have pestered my more rural friends for sources of cheap (ok: free) field stone from a farmer they know-and I got several leads. So last week when we got the trailer I set a date for the stone hunt for this morning. Other than the incredible weight of stone: a cubic feet of stone is 100lbs and those corner stones are the better part of 2 cubic feet, this project was amazingly easy. I had prepped the ground with a very rough grade several weeks ago so today all I did was cut the wall footing out with a flat spade and then play some Real World Tetris. Total time from when we left the house this morning to the picture above was 6 hours-including drive time, lunch, and a few hours of gabbing with the buddy who gave me the stone. However, considering each stone was lifted by hand 4 times I doubt I will be able to move tomorrow. I had figured I would need to use mortar, but it turns out that rubble retaining walls are a breeze. If I had gone another course I would have probably mortared it for stability, but the clay I packed in should hold it. Next weekend I will do another run and terrace in the garden above this one, but the progress is heartening!

Someday’s Today!

Today was The Day: the point of no return with our small business venture. That’s right… today we picked up the trailer. Of course it wasn’t just the trailer, we needed a hitch. Oh, and the wiring harness. And I am swamped so I paid to have it all installed. All these reasons and more is how a $680 trailer turns into a $1000 trailer. $1000 is ALLOT of rain barrels. So before we even went home I took the kids straight to the brewery (never thought I would say that!) and picked up a full load. I am calling it Karma that eight barrels fits perfectly-and is exactly at the recommended tow weight for our Forester on an unbraked trailer (1200lbs). Even Benji the brewery guy was impressed at how slick it looked. Aren’t they beautiful!

But here is the beauty part. Every single one of these barrels is already sold! This is a small beginning, but we have sold 4 tandem sets and 4 singles-that is not too shabby for a marketing budget in the $5 range. Best of all- that is 700 gallons of water that is not running off each rain event. Factor in the rain events over the year and that is easily 30,000 gallons. Not bad for the first month! It will be a while until the trailer is paid off, but we have another nibble on email, and one garden install will but us in the Black.

Coming to a downspout near you…

Why We Mulch

With the coming of winter and the dying back of the perennials we chose to capitalize on the relative openness of our beds and re-mulch them. Last month I had stopped and talked to a father/son tree trimming service (AJ’s Tree Trimming) that was cleaning the neighborhood up after a wind storm and in addition the load of chips on their truck, he gave me his card and the promise of ‘a load of chips’ whenever I wanted them for $25. This seemed like a sweet deal so I called them up last week.

The chips were set to be delivered on Tuesday. But Tuesday came and went with no chips. So did Wed. And Thursday. I had given up, but then on Friday I came home to a pile of chips 3′ deep and larger than the Forester. Not bad for $25! So we spread them on the front beds. Then the side beds. Then all the trees along the ‘back 40’, under all the raspberries, and the grape trellis. And we still had 1/2 the pile to go.

So today I looked at our wood chip paths, which were getting a little threadbare and weedy after 2 years, and decided to spruce them up a little. My thought was to pull up the weeds, spread new chips, and dig down the paths in the places where they had grown higher than the beds. I ended up scraping the paths clean of old mulch and reaping an unforeseen harvest in the process. You read about the benefits of mulch in virtually all gardening books-less weeds, and more constant soil temperature and moisture levels. Typically somewhere in there the author will mention that natural mulches also help build the soil, but it is typically an after thought. I can see why-the other benefits are more readily at hand. After you mulch there is obviously an immediate reduction in new weeds, and the plants take much longer to wilt. How often do we go into an established bed and tear down thru the mulch to see what’s going on? I never have. So that is why today’s little path maintenance project was so illuminating. In 18 months, 5″ of mulch turns into 2″ of compost with a thin 1/2″ veneer of chips on top! The picture at right is one load of ‘path’-it is now about 75% finish compost, and if not for all the quack grass rhizomes it would be ready for the winter garden-instead I split my compost bin and mixed it in to cook the weeds. Now here is the irony. While I have been working primarily on the front perennial beds, and the edible garden beds in back, I have still given the rear flower beds some attention-green manures lat winter, and compost this spring. But check out the quality of the soil in the beds (brown/gray on right) vs the path cleanings-rich black earth in picture on the left.

The paths actually have better soil than the ‘prepared’ beds!

2 Paths diverged….

This is after 2 yrs of work!

So in addition to granting me pleasant, mud free access to my beds for virtually free, my wood chip paths will also now generate about a third of my yearly compost. Without turning, running to get coffee grounds every week, or feeding the worm bin every other day. This is a good gig!

So when you are looking at mulching your beds and are debating going from 3″ up to 4-6″, think of this: I was getting 1 cu ft of compost for every 4 sq ft of mulched path. That is allot of compost for very little work! Thinking of the mulch bill? Remember my friend AJ. Chances are
there is an AJ in your neighborhood too-check your yellow pages for small mom and pop sounding tree trimming services. A few calls will find you one that doesn’t want their chips and would be happy to dump them on your driveway for the price of the trip. I got 5 cu yards of chips for $25.

Plus, these chips are uber cool. Why? No corporate fingerprints! All chips are sourced within 25 miles of my house, have no dyes added, no plastic bag waste, and I get to support a local small business. Big Fan! AJ’s chips are fresh, meaning the pile is full of leaves and some of the smaller branches aren’t chipped. For mulching the beds the fresh organic matter is a bonus and I don’t mind pulling out some branches for $5/yrd. The green leaves are composted down within days and the larger chips shine thru soon after so aesthetics aren’t hampered much. Next year I will just keep piling new chips on top in another layer of 3-4″ to replace the 3″ layer that is now humus. Thusly I keep a constant 6″ layer on top to prevent weeds and keep in moisture, and generate virtually all the fertilizer the beds need-all thru locally sourced mulch. Stick your hand down into the leaf litter on a healthy forest floor and you will have a good idea of the soil under a continuously deep mulched organic garden-rich deep loam teeming with life. Organic gardeners don’t grow plants, we grow dirt. And the easiest way to do that? Mulch!

I love mulch!!

PS A special thanks to Ol’ Red, my stalwart wheel barrow, featured prominently in these photos. I’d be lost without him!

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