The Accidental Agrarian

Aspiring to the Agrarian Life

Welcome To The Accidental Agrarian...

I woke up one day to realize that over the past 18 years I have become a farmer without ever thinking myself one, or ever purposefully setting out to be one. This site is about things Agrarian and Pastoral; Farming, Gardening, and the pursuit of country pastimes. A way to keep traditional, viable agricultural practices from dying out. So we all can have a chance to connect with agriculture.

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Of Pigs & Ducks & Far Off Things

Posted By Podchef on November 2, 2009

Whew! I’m finally feeling like I have a little chance to breath. Last week I slaughtered our annual pig and this weekend I butchered and processed it. Right now I am in a tiny window of rest before the remaining 7 pigs I have been raising are slaughtered here on the farm and taken away by the butcher to be processed to their owners’ desires. On that day I will be dealing with a glut of offal, heads, trotters, lard and anything else my customers don’t appreciate and would otherwise go to waste.

One of the reasons I go to the trouble of slaughtering my own pig, is so I can scald and scrape it on-farm, in the traditional manner. This is easier for me to do where I live and far less stressful for the animals, then hauling them to a mainland slaughterhouse. It is awfully hard work and I was very grateful this year to have the help of my daughter Oona, an intern, Danielle from a neighboring farm, and a Porkshop 09 participant, Greg, to help with the physically demanding scraping. It is a real challenge and learning opportunity for all–including me, each time I do it.

Why do I go to the trouble? Why bother? Because I believe it is valuable to preserve traditions, and I have put so much effort into raising my animals I hate to see waste. Normally, when a butcher skins an animal a high percent of lard is lost with the hide. On my pigs, which have a nice 1 inch layer, this is a crime. By preserving the skin on the pig until it is chilled and the lard firmed up, nothing is lost. I also prefer to leave my hams whole and cured in a brine and smoked in a traditional way and I like to leave the rind on my bacon and pork roasts for crackling–for all of this, the skin is essential.

Porkshop 09 In addition to all of this, this year I have done one more thing with the rind. Something I would never have considered doing before–I put it in sausages. In order to make the Duckfest 2010 as authentic as possible here on my farm in the Pacific Northwest I am making traditional French sausages out of self-produced ingredients. Cassoulets usually use two sausages in them, in addition to pork rind, and duck confit. Two of the more common sausages are the Saucisse de Toulouse and the Saucisse de Couenne. This second sausage is made up from pork rind, back fat and lean shoulder meat.

And so I found myself on Saturday morning, while preparing a range of sausage fillings, boiling up pork rind in a well seasoned chicken stock to make it more supple before grinding it. After it had chilled, I cut it into large chunks and ran it through my grinder alternately with the back fat and some shoulder meat. What I got was a sticky forcemeat, unlike any other I have dealt with. I then mixed in the other ingredients as suggested by Kate Hill, my accomplice in the Duckfest, via twitter:

@Podchef Saucisse de Couenne: cook the rind in a well-seasoned bouillon for 2 hours. when cool (cold) run through grinder.

@Podchef add lean pork and leaf lard to match weight of rind. season w/parsley, chives, clove, thyme, bay, coarse salt & pepper.

@Podchef place loosely in casings, tie. grill or poach to cook. or use in extra special #cassoulet!

I was a little confused as to the exact ratio, so another exchange a short while later:

RT @KatedeCamont: @Podchef Saucisse de Couenne<–do you know what size these are? Savelloy? banger?
@Podchef fat little boys. shorter than long. they plump and crack apart with gummy goodness. each butcher makes them differently. 4-5 inch.
@KatedeCamont Kate thank 4 Saucisse de Couenne recette..I think I’ve got it figured out. Equal amts of pork, rind & back fat, right?
@Podchef more like half rind and 1/4 fat, 1/4 pork meat. well season since the cooked rind is more about mouthfeel then taste. #pork

Here, then, is the recipe as I concocted it from what I had on hand:

  • 960g Pork Rind–cleaned, hair singed off, boiled 2hour in richly seasoned stock
  • 400g backfat
  • 600g lean meat/shoulder-I cut back on fatback due to fatty nature of the shoulder I was using.Porkshop 09
  • 8g white pepper
  • 30g salt
  • 1 bunch fresh Italian parsley
  • 1tsp ground clove
  • 3 fresh bay leaves
  • 1 bunch chives
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
  • Slosh of Cognac

After grinding the 3 meats together the first time, I mixed in the remaining ingredients–leaving the herbs fairly chunky–and then reground everything. It was only after the second grinding that I felt things were a bit gummy, so I sloshed in the Cognac to loosen it all up a bit.

I then filled some hog-middles, a slightly larger casing than is used for bangers, and left the filling fairly loose in them to allow the rind some room to expand during cooking–the sausages are pictured above. I tied off the links in approximately 4 inch lengths. I now have them in my outdoor airy meat cupboard for a few days–the weather has turned perfectly cold and damp for this–so the sausages can lose the moisture acquired from soaking the casings and to allow the flavors to mingle. Once they have tightened up a bit I will be trying one.

Here is a “Year in Pigs” slideshow to get you from the winers I bought in February to the above forcemeat:

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

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Duckfest 2010 Name That Duckling

Posted By Podchef on September 23, 2009

Ducks Arrive I’m not quite sure how this happened. I seem to get myself stuck in the middle of things quite often. Perhaps I am too good natured. Perhaps I am too game for fun & a lark. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. All I know is I find myself raising ducklings this Autumn when not a duck had been on my horizon all year. But don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad thing. This is fortune taking a turn into interesting & uncharted waters. This is Social Media–and Twitter–working its magic. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain why I have a Rabbitry floor covered in 40 ducklings….

One morning on Twitter, as it so often happens, I was having one of many conversations. This time Kate Hill (@KatedeCamont) & I were discussing Confit, Cassoulet & ducks. When I discovered Kate was coming here from Gascony in the New Year, an idea hatched in my head that we should do one of her confit workshops here. But where to get the duc…hey! Wait a minute! I could raise some here. Before I knew it I was asking Kate all sorts of questions about how the French raise the ducks she uses, and what breed was best and within the hour I had purchased 40 Rouen Ducklings. I flitted back & forth between the calendar and the ordering page to make sure they could be ready in time for a New Year’s Day workshop, aka Duckfest, and I ordered them to arrive as early as possible.

As I readied a place to brood the hatchlings, I naturally tweeted about the venture to build a little excitement about it. Once the ducklings arrived I began photographing them and posting a “Daily Duckling” photo each morning as I walked back from milking and passed by the brooding house. A few people noticed and commented on the ducklings, some noticing that they seemed to have grown. This wasn’t really Rouen Ducks obvious until this morning when a second batch of ducklings arrived and I could see one week old ducklings next to two day old ducklings. (I ordered two batches of ducks from two different hatcheries so that I could maximize my chances of having unique breeding stock…) After I had posted this morning’s Daily Duckling, two separate people (tweeps in the vernacular) commented that I should keep it up. In answering @GaryGlen I decided that since I was going to keep a few ducks alive after the Duckfest, and selling the extras, his suggestion that people getting attached to the photos wasn’t such a bad thing. Perhaps people could name their favorite duckling/duck? I’ve already thrown out that one might be called Cassoulet and another Margaret–a play on the French term for duck breast: Magret. @PatInOz suggested I name one Kiwi after her nationality.

Here are some daily ducklings for you to view (this will keep updating as the ducks get older…):

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

So, the idea is I’m going to keep up to 4 hens and a drake. Hopefully the best of the flock. These will hopefully become my breeding stock, so that I don’t have to buy day-old ducklings again for a while. Your part in this adventure is to use the power of social media–Twitter especially–to help pick the best names for the ducks. There isn’t a prize for this Herculean effort, just recognition, and perhaps a chance to meet the ducks should you ever drop by the farm. To participate, be sure to follow @duckfest2010 on Twitter, and check out and use the #dailyduckling hash-tag there. You will also be able to keep up to date on the Duckfest’s goings on and catch the adventure of the workshop once Kate & I begin on New Year’s day! For more information about the Duckfest and my other workshops please look here.

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A Meaty Problem

Posted By Podchef on August 19, 2009

Livestock_By Danna As a small-scale, artisanal pork producer I work hard to raise a quality product for my customers. From start to finish it takes almost a year for me to raise pork to the quality I like to offer.

This often means coaxing piglets through February frosts, seeing to their comfort on a scorching July day, and picking tons of apples for them in the Autumn so they can be finished on apples and barley.

With all of the care and attention I spend on creating a product which is both quality and affordable to my customers, and is profitable to me I want my pigs to have as good a death as they had a life. Calm, non-stressful, quick and clean.

To me this means the pigs must be slaughtered on the farm. They are in the comfort of their pasture up until the minute they cease to live and become meat. I am fortunate to live in an area where on farm slaughter has an active history and is currently growing in status. However, this is both a blessing and a curse.

PigSlaughterDay2101707_06The business model I use to sell my pork is to sell the animals to my customers live1, I help them arrange to have a custom slaughter company come to the farm, slaughter the animals and then take the carcasses away to their shop for hanging, cutting and wrapping. Because each customer owns the animal before it dies, it is theirs and their meat comes from it. This means the custom slaughter company does not have to have a USDA inspector at the point of slaughter. It also means that the meat coming from the transaction cannot be sold to restaurants or into the retail market. This helps keep the cost down and works well for those people wanting a whole, half, or quarter animal to stock their freezer with.

There is currently another option for on-farm slaughter which does allow for retail, Farmers’ Market and restaurant sales of locally produced, artisanal meats–the mobile slaughter unit. This is a USDA licensed and inspected slaughterhouse on wheels. It rolls on to the farm with a USDA inspector to supervise the slaughter and assure quality standards are maintained through the butchery process. The carcasses are then taken back to a USDA licensed facility for hanging, cutting and wrapping. I am fortunate to live in the San Juan Islands where the first of these units was developed and the idea is gaining in popularity around the country.

The only problem with this second on-farm slaughter option is it has been a victim of it’s own success. The Island Grown Farmer’s Cooperative–the closest of these units to me–has been full for years and has been turning away new memberships. You must be a member to use the mobile unit’s services. Additionally, the memberships as it stands now keeps the mobile unit running at capacity and there has been trouble getting slaughter dates. This is great for the business model, bad for farmers and customers crying out for their services.

From my perspective, there are two additional problems with the unit, both of which are related. The original Mobile Slaughter unit was developed to be able to travel out to the San Juan Islands. To keep the cost of bringing the unit on the ferries, the size was kept down. This, however, means that the capacity is also lower than ideal to keep the Unit cost-effective. Quite often farmers in the islands have to pool their slaughter dates and transport animals around the islands to other farms to be able to take advantage of the unit’s availability, and to keep the unit operating at maximum efficiency. Hardly maintaining the ideal of on-farm slaughter.

There is also the issue of cost. Because of the size of the Unit and the associated ferry fares, and the USDA inspector, having meats processed by the Mobile Slaughter unit cost almost 40% more than using a non-inspected Custom Slaughter business. This is fine if you can then charge a premium for your meats and pass the cost on to the retail market by selling individual cuts at the Farmers’ Market or a restaurant. For those of us who sell by the whole, half or quarter it really pushes the margins to use the Unit. For me, keeping my quality meat affordable for everyone is paramount. I am already charging more than commodity pork prices, to then add an additional $2.40 per pound would alienate my core customer base causing me to search further a field for buyers and costing me more of my profits in the long run. At the moment I have a waiting list for my pork which is growing year by year, I would hate to loose that momentum.

Such is the problem of living on an island. If I were on the mainland I would have more of an option of either trucking my livestock to a slaughterhouse close by, using one of the other Mobile Slaughter Units which as cropped up in recent years, or use the Custom Slaughter company which just informed me they are no longer going to serve the islands. And there is the crux of the matter. As local meats gain popularity and as more people invest in raising some animals of their own the Custom Slaughter companies are no longer looking for work. The business I have been most happy with–after trying and rejecting several over the years–is also working at capacity, so much so that coming to the island for 7 pigs once a year isn’t worth the trouble for him. Usually there are other farms on the island who need to slaughter around the same time and the custom slaughter truck can make several stops, this allows the farms to share the cost of the ferry trip, making it more affordable for everyone. But the point is the good butcher shops are in demand on the mainland and they know it. They can afford to be a bit more choosy leaving the rest of us in the lurch.

customtruck1-2When I got the news last night that my preferred butcher was no longer going to serve the islands I was dumbfounded. I had called him early enough to assure a November slaughter date–one of the Custom Slaughter shop’s busiest times. Now it is getting late in the game to go calling around. I googled butchers in the area and came up with several, unfortunately not all of them serve the islands, not all of them offer custom slaughter, the list is incomplete and I have already rejected several of the companies due to quality, or lack of, issues or cost. For the moment this has me stymied. I feel like the carpet has been pulled from under my feet. I am sure if I pick up the phone I can get two different companies to come, they always seem to have time and that is the problem….I don’t care for their quality, operating procedures or costs. It would be a compromise of my values, but the deadline is looming and my customers are going to want their meat soon.

No doubt I will come up with a solution, and I will of course share it with you. But for the moment I am left scrambling and wonder about the future sustainability of raising affordable meats on my farm if I have such troubles getting to my customers in an acceptable way.

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  1. or in the case of a large animal, sell it in shares of half or quarter to several people

To Market, To Market, To See A Fat Prig

Posted By Podchef on April 28, 2009

Farmer's Market Soundseeing Tour Perhaps I live in a bubble. Perhaps I have just been incredibly lucky in many ways. Farmers Markets have, in one way or another, been a part of my life. And no, before you go thinking that I was some sort of market stall brat at the hems of my farming parents, nope…I grew up in middle-class suburbia on Wonder-Bread and Yodels.

Both my parents were children of the Depression. Both were farm kids from large families. I am fortunate that farming is in my heritage, although far from the manicured lawns, oriental carpets and Hepplewhite days of my upbringing. These things aside, I grew up on the outskirts of a rural community and could bike through farmer’s fields as a short-cut to school. As a teen, my summers were spent picking crops for local farmers who generally sold them from farm stands at the corners of their properties.

When I was much younger–in the early 70′s–my mother participated in a food co-op. These buyers clubs are quite common now, but as I think back on it now, it was very odd back then. Once a month we would go to the city warehouse district and buy produce from vendors and bring items back home to share out among neighbors. Deep in suburbia, this didn’t last too long, but long enough to leave an impression on me. The trip to the terminal, the divvying up of goods. It was odd, yet some how normal. These were housewives taking charge of their budget and food in an old-school way, long before it was out of fashion or an acceptable norm.

When I was in the Fifth Grade, my teacher, Mr. Sturgeon, was a farmer. Our maths lessons in April and May revolved around laying out a garden and placing an fictitious order from the Burpee seed catalogue. That summer he invited us to his farm for a class picnic. It was rural, idyllic and wonderful. Rows of corn, the soft fruits, and other crops. I don’t remember what we ate exactly, but it was mostly from his small farm. Rare. Many times that summer my mother and I would visit Mr. Sturgeon at his stall in the Hartford Farmers’ Market near the center of the city. It was the mid-70′s.

Throughout college, I was fortunate to live in the countryside outside my university and regularly bought food at farm stands and weekend markets. Produce, rabbit, berries–it was all part of living cheaply and exercising a lifetime of habit. When I traveled to Ireland, the second time, I leapt at an opportunity to work the occasional day at a small farmers’ market during the winter months. Set up in a vacant lot, adjacent to the local supermarket, the Midleton Farmers’ Market is always well attended and has an amazing amount of variety throughout the year. To me it has become the epitome of what, at the very least, a market should be.

Against this backdrop, then, I read with growing ire, this article about how to avoid the pitfalls of farmers’ markets and their cheating ways. Now, I am not blind to the faults of farmers’ markets. I have been to good, bad, and horrid markets in many places. I have written before about what I feel makes a good stand, and how customers and producers need to help each other. The Smart Money article portrays the range of farmers’ markets as something to avoid. This is not good. Obtuse writing like this does a great deal too much to harm good farmers and good markets everywhere. The Every Kitchen Table blog does a good job countering some of the worst flaws in the piece, item by item.

To be sure, there are some Farmers’ Markets which pander to the lowest common denominator. Slyly trying to trick customers into thinking their food is fresh, local, organic and grown by small farmers when it is not. These markets, I hope, are few and far between and easily identifiable by the complete absence of knowledgeable, farming, sellers. Sure, it is a bit of a hassle to, as a consumer, have to weed out the good and bad producers at each market you visit. But isn’t that part of the mystery of sourcing your own food? Or is that, perhaps, the point? That consumers are really just looking to replace their supermarket experience with the feel-good greenness of a farmers’ market, in as painless and simple a way as possible? Ms. Barron seems to think so. Other markets have become the elite dens of Foodies and the well heeled, there to see and be seen. These places have there own buzz and are worth the visit, but are not for the everyday.

There are bound to be bumps in the road to forging a new, local, food system. One in which quality ingredients are the centerpiece and not big name farmers, chefs and raconteurs. It is going to take consumers some getting used to. Slowing down, paying attention to ingredients, quality, and flavors is not a bad thing. Learning about vegetables, growing conditions, variations, varieties and seasonality can only make us better cooks and better people. The key is openness. And farmers, producers, agriculture interns working at farmers’ markets….If you are only there to make money, then find another outlet for your wares. You will never make it. The Farmers’ Market cuts out the middle-man, replaces the warehouse and supermarket buyers protection. When you are at the market selling, you are on stage. If you don’t want to engage customers, talk the talk and show your passion, then you will be at a loss. Either find someone else to do your marketing or pack it in. As a chef I have looked over many market stalls with a critical eye. I have asked questions about produce, meats and how to cook them to learn what the producers themselves knew. If the answers aren’t up to scratch I buy from someone else–sorry. Lost sale. You should be willing to have samples of your foods for people to try–and yes, there will be those annoying people who come to make a meal of your freebies and never buy anything. Suck it up. If your market won’t allow samples, find somewhere else that will. Customers will want to try before they buy and your wares had better be up to snuff. Be prepared to answer questions about your farm, how you grow, and what you do for fun. Be prepared to invite people back to see your system of production. If you find the customers annoying, a hassle or you don’t want strangers tramping about your farm, you are in the wrong place and the wrong business. Transparency isn’t an apple variety–it’s a way of succeeding at business.

Another thing I find odd is someone who complains about the picking, packing and driving, to get their goods to the market. You do want to sell this stuff don’t you? You are looking to get a better price than selling it wholesale aren’t you? Don’t complain or seem to complain to the customers. Talk with pride about what you do. “I was up at dawn cutting these asparagus so you could have the freshest available. Try some, isn’t it worth the price? Have another dozen spears….” As a market producer, stall holder, whatever you are calling yourself, you should be looking to organize with the other producers at the market or the market board to make sure the market is advertised correctly. That it remains a Farmers’ Market and not some quasi-vegetable fueled craft fair–unless some of the crafts are made from products from your farm…. The more positive a face Farmers’ Markets have, the more educated the public can become then the less chance articles attacking Farmers’ Markets will have weight.

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Tough Shoes To Fill

Posted By Podchef on April 13, 2009

Smelly Wellies! Imagine if shoe manufacturers only made their styles in a few sizes. You might have difficulty finding a pair which fit your feet at different stages of your life. The one-size-fits-all approach would certainly be cost effective for the shoe industry, and because every one needs footwear, the customer base would be captive. Consumers needing different sizes, or having special requirements would be out of luck. Many people would have to go without shoes all together. This is the sort of situation that several new bills before Congress seek to leave our food system with–a one-size-fits-all system geared towards the majority, large scale AgriBusiness’, while leaving the rest of producers faced with adopting an oversized system or being out of luck and out of business.

However, there is no one solution to our current food safety issues. In fact, our current food safety issues are so unique, and so problematic that they have rarely, in history, been faced before. How is it that the size and scale of the most recent food borne illness outbreaks and product recalls keeps increasing? Why haven’t such problems been faced before? Sure, there was the problem with the meat industry back in 1906 which Upton Sinclair brought attention to in The Jungle1 but since then American’s have had a relatively safe, secure food system. What has changed and why?

For one thing, the farming situation has changed. The source of raw ingredients comes from fewer and bigger farms. Ingredients for manufactured foods are treated less like nutritional foodstuffs and more like commodities, such as steel or coal. Imported ingredients have made their way into a food chain that never needed to import anything before. The more steps in the process, the more potential for problems to arise. The more substances and ingredients in food, the more manufacturing which goes on, the more chances for disease, industrial hardware, or rat feces to enter the product. Hence the cry of “Regulate! Regulate! Trace, Track and Tamper proof!”2

But how is a one-size-fits-all approach going to help? How do my free-ranging organically raised hens and their 250 eggs a year equate with a commercial battery farm, egg factory which produces 250 eggs a second? My flock of, at most, 30 hens is easy to manage, gets quality care, fed a variety of low-impact feeds in addition to some grain, and is kept clean, healthy and alive for longer than one year. The egg factory is so far from the realm of natural reality that it defies reason. Why should the meat I raise and sell locally, to customers who know me personally, and have seen how I keep my livestock, be treated in the same manner as if the livestock had been shipped hundreds of miles, mixed with other animals and then ram-rodded through a production chain at one per minute? This is commodity versus food. Abstract industrialism versus food with a face, story and connections.

Somewhere along the way personal responsibility and common sense have left the building. Rules such as “no livestock within 2 miles of a vegetable production facility” make no sense in any way other than reactionary. This rule was brought in after the 2007 Spinach fiasco when wild animal dung was blamed for a massive salmonella outbreak. The fear of manure, soil and germs has become epidemic. Bio-dynamic, organic, and small, diverse mixed farms could never follow this rule. The break up of farms into corporate owned entities, devoid of a real face–a known farmer with a reputation willing to stand behind his crops–has led to an era of food-irresponsibility. While I advocate and see a need for a return to agriculture that is “the scale of a (wo)man”3 I fully realize this is going to take time, as we have to re-train a whole generation which has been removed from the farm. I also realize that even in this Locavore movement of small farms there need to be stringent safety requirements for the food produced. But I also strongly feel that these regulations must be scale-appropriate. One-size-fits-all does not work. Not in shoes, clothing, or food standards.4

Rather than build a robust, secure food system, one which can withstand climate and fuel fluctuations, these proposed rules seek to limit the power of creating such a resilient situation in order to repair and maintain a flawed status quo. Worse yet, many of the proposed rules are so broad and open to interpretation that they may, at best, achieve nothing, and at worst, tilt the tables further in favor of Industrial Agriculture at the expense of small scale, local producers.5 We need open dialogue and solutions for the problems our food system faces. It is time for our policy makers to change tack and alter a course for sanity by involving more organic, sustainable & alternate-method farmers in the discussion. I am hopful that the time has passed when the food industry could pull the wool over consumers’ eyes. I am hopeful that the time for transparancy in corporate America and our Federal Governement is Now. But we can’t wait for these things to become a reality. As farmers, consumers, backyard growers, we need to weigh in on these issues if we want them to go our way. We need to organize. To study the proposals and not stop shouting until our voices are heard.

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  1. a problem which was solved, but not fixed by congress allowing the meat packing industry to police itself and write its own rules–rules they largely ignore..The reaction to The Jungle eventually led to the formation of the FDA. Large Slaughterhouses are still in the news, both for working conditions and animal health.
  2. Traceability is a joke. How can we trace ingredients through the entire chain of manufacturing? Meat from animals through the slaughterhouse, cold storage, shipping, grocer or restaurant to consumer? The tag is only as good as the record keeping, the honesty and practices of the middle-man. The farmer in good faith raises a product. The consumer in good faith buys the product. Cut out the middle-man–or reduce the steps between farmer and consumer–and traceability is solved, not by software and hardware, but by real human interconnection and networking.
  3. The amount of land one person and his immediate family can work without recall to extra full-time labor and machinery which cannot be paid for with the proceeds from one season’s harvest.
  4. Wasteful food grading requirements in the EU led to the rejection of tons of perfectly edible vegetables based on rigid standards for how the vegetables should look.
  5. Although at this point the chance of backlash is so great that lawmakers should look to a future beyond their own terms and tread carefully.

The New Order Serfdom

Posted By Podchef on April 9, 2009

KEEP OUT In an excellent article on the New World Order Capitalist Powergrab, the point is made that the ensuing class struggle may well lead to a sort of neo-Feudalism. There will be the Haves in their gated communities and Have Nots, or Serfs, outside, poor, exploited, and powerless. A glance at the comments to the post show the post itself to be tame in discussing the problems the world is facing.

In many ways, we are already Serfs of the New World Order. But, if the world were to devolve to a sort of Feudalism, I am not so sure those in power are as powerful as they think. Cloistered away in their gated communities with private armies, power and wealth will do them no good when the functions of gated communities–the infrastructure–are in reality run and controlled by the serfs. Who will cut their lawns, grow their food, drain their septic systems, provide them with starched collars? Should it come to class warfare, the breakdown of civilization as we know it, a new era of slavery, will the elite actually be up to the challenge they are setting themselves?

12th Century feudal lords were used to a hard life. They earned their castles through warfare and distinction. How will an AIG Executive fare in ordering a new peasantry to grow his food, shield him from gunfire, man the gates of the cul-de-sac? If enough serfs revolt, the reign of corporate power would be over. The quickest way for the serfs to seize power would be to lay siege to the gated communities–stop the Nieman Marcus delivery vans, the bottled water company, the shop-at-home grocer. Cut the phones, the power, back up the septic. Those within can have all the ammunition they want, all the video-security systems, and toys they need, they can still be starved out. The well-healed corporate raider, for all his vainglorious self-image of power, is useless in real-world applications of survival. I fear they realize this, which is why control over farmers, blue-collar workers, and liberal thinkers has always been at the heart of power struggles.

Let’s hope it never comes to this. Let’s hope some common sense and sanity return to the world and the motto, “Live and let live” rules the day. Until then, let’s work to make sure this never happens, let’s prevent “them” from bankrupting our future any more, and let’s learn to be a bit more self-sufficient just in case.

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What is Agriculture without Technology?

Posted By Podchef on March 30, 2009

Gastrocast #135 In a discussion that erupted on Twitter today, I think I may have come across as some sort of neolithic agrarian rube. It is certainly hard to maintain clarity or explain rationales in 140 characters or less.

While I do tend towards being a Luddite, I am actually in favor of technology. I use technology every day, especially as I sit here typing on my computer, connected to the internet. However, I do feel that at times technology has taken over our lives in an addictive way. We don’t need technology often, we just think we do. I don’t need a microwave to re-heat coffee, thaw frozen meat or boil water. Sure, it’s convenient, but there are other, perhaps better or less costly ways of achieving the same results.

Now, when it comes to agriculture the issues of technology, sustainability and ability to feed the world become extremely obscured. Perhaps we need to come to some hard-and-fast definitions of what “technology” and “sustainability” mean in this circumstance. The question was put out there, “Do you consider Agriculture a “high tech” industry? Why or why not?” To which I answered “NO!” Because I feel “High Tech.” is non-sustainable. It became clear through some back-and-forth that how I view, “High Tech.” is not shared by others. Perhaps we all just don’t understand what we mean by “High Tech.” “Technology” or “Sustainability”.

To further add to the confusion, I was asked whether I would “consider the Amish sustainable? They use high technology selectively in agriculture.” While I have very little understanding of the Amish way of life, I do know they embrace appropriate technology when it doesn’t interfere with their values. How the Old Order Amish make this choice is a mystery to me, but it seems a bit odd when you realize the technologies which tend to be accepted are those which stand to make the most money. But again, I don’t understand such matter….

I tend to take the view of Heidegger. Technology isn’t good or evil in itself, but by its use it can affect others in good or evil ways. It can be a force for freedom or enslavement. It is here that we must, now, define what I understand by “technology.” Clearly technology is all around us. It makes life possible. Always has. Technology has been in agriculture since day one. The first tool for digging earth was a technological advance. The plow was technology light-years ahead of the first flint hoe…. These are mechanical technologies. They can be produced from common materials and anyone with ability can create advances or adaptation of these “technologies.” There will always be a place in agriculture for improvements in machines, energy use, crop yield and harvest where farmers can adapt and make these improvements themselves, if they are so minded. In order for agriculture to survive today’s turbulent times it must be adaptable, sustainable, and be able for anyone to participate in.

Sustainability, as a base definition, means the ability to “to maintain a certain process or state.” When applied to agriculture, it can mean the”ability of a farm to produce food indefinitely, without causing severe or irreversible damage to ecosystem health.” This is why I do not feel that “High Technology” can be allowed to carry on in agriculture without some severe limitations. “High Technology” is the antithesis of sustainable agriculture. How so?

I think of “High Technology” as those sciences which create improvements in crops, agricultural chemicals, or animals and crop management which the farmer not only cannot participate in the creation of, but is actively excluded from. This includes such “tools” as GPS in tractors–which not only relies on equipment in tractors, but satellites in space–and Radio Frequency ID tags in livestock–not only are these suspected of causing cancer, but again, rely on exclusionary practices which prevent the farmer from participating actively in on-farm improvements or adaptations. Additionally, most new farm technologies are developing so rapidly that they are barely tested before being unleashed on the environment. How are we to know whether Genetically Modified Organisms have caused, “severe or irreversible damage to ecosystem health” or not? The act of monitoring such events has largely been policed by the makers of such “technology”, and any data gathered is therefore highly suspect. Again, the unproven, exclusionary nature of this sort of advancement in agriculture simply cannot be viewed as sustainable.

Once upon a time a farmer planted a seed, grew a plant, harvest the seed, a portion of which was saved to be planted the following season. This is sustainable. The farmer bred his animals in the time-honored, natural way, using regional, or geographic criteria and his own personal eye to improving his livestock. Today, cloning, embryo transplants, gene-splitting and genetic manipulation have altered all of this. These have effectively taken control out of the farmer’s hands and placed it into the control of specific corporations or agencies. Farming is a hands-on industry. It is day to day. It is contact with soil, plants or animals. It is cyclical. it is seasonal. To remove any one part of this– to take the power out of the hands of the farmer and replaced it with “High Technology” or “tools” from an advanced “toolkit”–removes agriculture from the realm of sustainability and the many and places it firmly under the control of the elite, the few and the exclusionary.

No, I do not think that “High Technology” will lead to a more sustainable agriculture. No, I am sorry, but I do not think that such “improvements” in agriculture will help us feed more people. The world is rapidly changing. We are readily waking up to the faults and limitations of such “High (and mighty) Technology”. It is too reliant on cheap petroleum, dwindling consumable resources, and a pollutative model which was never sustainable in the first place. How can poisoning the environment with salt-base fertilizers and chemical pesticides be good in the short or long term? How can wearing out the soil by taking too many nutrients and minerals from it, without replacing even a small percentage of them, be sustainable? How can wasting the most valuable resource on the planet, our soil and our ability to produce food from it, be seen as improvement or ability to feed an increasing population?

I am sorry to say…sorry for Industrial, Technology-driven Agriculture’s sake..sorry to say, that the ways to improve crop yield, restore fertility and depleted topsoil, and to produce more food, lay not in the latest, untried scientific advancement, but in the hard work of farmers. Farmers whose desire is to invest in the future, to leave the soil in a better condition than they found it. Farmers who want to not just grow food, but to grow health. Farmers who can think for themselves without reading the directions of the back of a bottle. Farmers who use common sense and observation of the natural order to help guide them. Farmer’s willing to learn how to restore soil naturally, how to increase fertility without the aid of out-of-reach technology.

We need more farmers of this sort. We need more farms, more land, on the road to restoration. What we do not need is bigger, more unsustainable, wasteful operations so removed from the agriculture a farmer can control. Is all farming to be turned over to robots? Are we to push agriculture far away, out of sight to a place where we need not think about it? It would be a sad day if ever that were to happen. We need more people participating in this most noble endeavor of humanity–producing food, giving life, restoring health. Along the way there are bound to be casualties, pain and heartbreak. Such is the human condition. Along the way there is bound to be dramatic change, adaptation of lifestyle and attitudes. We cannot keep feeding the world as it is. Any model which seeks to perpetuate a broken diet, is not only non-sustainable, but also foolhardy. We can still eat meat, and vegetables, and seafood if we can find a more moderate, less greedy manner of doing so. I firmly believe one such path is for more people to be involved in sourcing, producing, growing and processing their own, and their countries food. Such a practice would create jobs, feed people, restore health and be sustainable, as it is self-limiting.

Just because we can create a cyborg system of robotic, chemical agriculture doesn’t me we should. It doesn’t mean it will be a good thing, or save us from doom. The more we can free ourselves from the realm of the few, the powerful and the controlling, the better we can remain free, use and explore humanity’s intelligence for the betterment of all. Yes, for this we do need technology, but we do not need a “High” exclusionary, Technology which prevents us from participating directly in every facet of our chosen existence.

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The Backyard Revolution

Posted By Podchef on March 19, 2009

Pigs Day One When the Industrial Revolution began to take hold, countless country bumpkins flocked to the cities, lured by the promise of money, a better life, some sort of future out of the dung heap. What they found was enslavement, death, disease, and crippling poverty at the hands of often cruel masters who grew wealthy on the backs of the new urban poor. Of course there has always been poverty, especially in agriculture. Farmers have always been undervalued in any age and have always lived close to the boards. But farmers have generally had one salvation–they can grow their own food. We may not be rich when judged by the scale of society, when viewed in terms of monetary value, but when adjusted for land, food produced for family, and earnings saved, farmers do quite well when they participate in the agrarian economy and live like true cottagers. Moreover, in the 18th Century more than just farmers raised food–almost every one of every social strata raised some amount of food.((William Cobbett, in his Cottage Economy, outlines very nicely how this may happen.))

As people moved out of the countryside and into cities they lost the land on which to raise self-supporting crops and livestock. In the slums of the Machine Age, there were no backyards and the dank conditions prohibited the healthy keeping of animals for food. The nature of agriculture changed. Sheep, long a supplier of fertility and wool, were now grown larger to provide a burgeoning labor force with cheap cuts of mutton, or at least their bones for broth. The rift between country and city widened. Farmers were farmers, country folk: rubes to be avoided. More recently, with the exception of the two World Wars, raising one’s own food was looked upon with suspicion. There was a brief resurgence in the 1970′s of a “back to the land movement” and an awareness that self-sufficiency could be had on even a limited scale. This attempt at the “Good Life” didn’t last long and many who participated in it were left out in the cold–oddballs in a society which expected order and conformity. The myth of plentiful, cheap food, pleasure and entertainment masked the reality of what was really happening.

We are now 9 years into a new century. The blindness of the past 100 years is staring at us full in the face and we are scrambling to change modes. People are once again turning to their backyards to help them survive. They are rediscovering what they can raise, and how much. Globally, we are returning to a pre-industrial mindset when backyards supplemented what we earned and helped us to survive. The vaule of a backyard garden has always been known, by those who value fresh, tasty, wholesome food, but now more and more people are digging up the lawn and planting seeds. But let’s not forget livestock.

In our small agrarian economy of the backyard we can raise enough meat to keep us for a year, eggs for breakfast a few times a week–with enough to barter with–and fertilizer free for the taking. If you have enough room and time, dairy–goat, sheep or cow milk–could be had. And, I am not talking 5 acres here. I am referring to lots 1/4 acre((10,000 square feet)) or more. Chickens would, of course, be the simplest to keep. They are inexpensive, easy to raise, and can be quite productive. They are great recyclers of kitchen scraps and garden trimmings. Their manure is vital to great fertility. But let’s take this a step further. If you can keep some chickens then you can certainly keep a few rabbits. Raised in cages, the chickens can keep the area underneath clean and pest free, or you can use the manure on the garden. A 10 pound doe can raise 320 pounds of meat in a year.((By breeding her daughters you can easily raise more meat than a steer can produce on vastly less land.)) Rabbits dress easier than broiler chickens and are healthier. What’s even better is, if you live on a small lot, your neighbors might never know you even have rabbits…until they come to dinner.

If you have a bit more land in your backyard, you can keep a few pigs. Pigs always do better in pairs at a minimum. It is more work, of course, but they are content enough in a sty as long as it is mucked out daily and they have access to fresh air. It isn’t the same as the ideal of pasture raised pork, but it will be vastly better than its factory-farmed cousin. If pigs aren’t for you than how about the aforementioned goat, sheep or cow? There is enough room on a 1/2 acre, especially if you have access to roadsides or common land for grazing, to inexpensively keep a dairy animal. All the while, you can use the manure to provide fertility for the garden. You can raise food for your family and for your new backyard food factory. This isn’t free-range, pastured meat and dairy, I know. But with the welfare of the animals being looked after, anything you can raise in your backyard will be vastly better than anything you can find in the supermarket.

It might not be easy. It might not be sane. But if you are fed up with high prices, poor quality, unhealthy or deadly foods and want to keep you freedom to choose, then join the revolution. Dig up some yard, plant some seeds, get some chicks. Take control of your food security and safety. It’s not as hard as you may think.

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The Anti-Agrarian Timeshift

Posted By Podchef on March 9, 2009

Dorking Rooster Most people think of the rooster as the harbinger of dawn. Chanticleer, perched on top of the barn greeting the sunrise with lusty crowing. Those of us who raise chickens know it is far less poetic. Roosters will crow all day and all night. In fact, the more roosters there are in any given 1/2 mile, the more crowing that takes place as they all try to outdo each other. Some of us can tune them out. Others cannot. If you were planning a visit to a quaint country farm thinking that you will be gently awaken by a cock-a-doodle-doo in time to catch morning milking, you might be in for a reality-check. Bleary-eyed you would rise at first crow, 3:30 am. Realizing Rex Goliath must be off, you would doze back into the duvet only to be aroused at 3:45, 3:50, 4:00 and on, until wide awake and pissed off you strain to hear the farmer head out to the barn, thinking it must be any minute. By the time he actually gets going, you’ve fallen into a deep frustrated slumber and miss the whole thing.

This is how Daylight Saving Time makes me feel. I’m not the most motivated of individuals, but I have my schedule and I stick to it. Bridget, the cow, does too. Get up at ten to six, head up the road and milk for an hour before coming home to do the rest of morning chores before breakfast. As Spring approaches, it is light enough in the morning to see with out a headlamp, and in the past few weeks as I return from evening milking it has been getting lighter as well. Walking the 1/2 mile to the pasture in the early morning light sharpens the senses. There is bird song and movement in the wood. There is the gradual creep of daylight over the trees–will it be a sunny and clear day or are those clouds a premonition of something worse? Above all, there is hope as light comes earlier each day in the natural course of things. The same is true of the evening return from milking. I love watching the bats hunt for the first time in months as dusk comes later and later. That is, until this past Sunday.

Since 2007, this shift in time has come earlier and later in the year than it has previously. Already a contentious topic, DST was changed to begin three weeks earlier and end a week later on the platform that it would save energy, reduce traffic accidents, and provide children with more daylight after school, among other things. While it may attempt to do these things, it largely falls short. In fact, rather than saving energy, up to 5% more is consumed. The results of traffic studies are inconclusive, and the only people who seem to benefit from the added leisure hours are the golf courses. And that’s where this whole twisted plan began–one man’s attempt to skyve off from work a bit early to get in a a game of golf. Sure, it took two wars and countless hours of leisure industry lobbying, but now we have it: DST–the anti-agrarian time shift.

People claim that Ben Franklin came up with the idea, but really all he did was write a satirical pamphlet on the slothfulness of Parisians sleeping in during the summer. Originally he didn’t even put his name to it. And, he was correct–city dwellers, people with no ties to agriculture, needlessly expend artificial energy in their day because they are cut off from the rhythms of nature. Some people are questioning whether DST makes sense in a non-agrarian society. I think that’s the wrong end of the stick. It certainly doesn’t make sense in an agrarian society, and while it may make some sense in an industrialized society, is that what we still have today? Really, in a 24/7 world of never sleeping cities, round the clock shifts, and houses full of clocks, do we need to pretend we are mimicking natural cycles? The mesh of the industrialized and agrarian has never been pretty. The hollow promises of industrialization have never been fulfilled. Instead generations of slaves have been created, tied to their masters, society, or slaves to material goods.

Man and machine, not nature, dictate how we live our lives. We fight natural cycles whether we know it or not, whether we want to or not. So Sunday morning I found myself forced to rise before first light to milk the cow earlier than “normal”. Why? I asked myself that many times as I stumbled along the path in the dark. The Spring time shift isn’t so bad. If I had left the cow till the new six o’clock, the new dawn, I would still be milking her early, not late–which is worse on a balanced system like a dairy cow. But, if I milked an hour early in the morning, I would throw off the twelve hours between milkings and within a day I would end up with a highly pissed off and confused cow. It is better to ease into these things, if into these things we must dally. So, I milked a half hour early. Which meant I got even less sleep than normal, which means I am even more out of sorts than the cow.

Not to make this piece cow-centric, either. The whole farmyard is in disarray. At feeding time, the pigs are still asleep, the chickens, who lay their eggs mid-morning, seem bothered that I’m shooing them out of the coop an hour earlier–egg production, just beginning to pick up in the spring light, has gone down again. Sure, I could try, like my brother-in-law did a number of years ago, to keep to standard time. Not set my clocks forward–I don’t wear a watch, it’s unnecessary where I live. Live a life of anarchy and abandon. But, I must catch ferries once and a while. I must communicate with people in other time zones. I have to play by the artificial and ridiculous rules. What Am I supposed to do with an extra hour of “leisure time” light at the end of the day? I don’t live a life of leisure. I work to live and live to work. I take time off with the seasons and find my pleasures at the odd times when the come.

What if we were to do away with DST? Would society collapse? Are we all awaiting that morning in Spring of confusion and forgetfulness of how to set the DVR clock, the car stereo, the microwave, the answering machine, etc? Would more accidents occur, or less–especially as sleep deprived farmers would be kept off the roads. . . .? The industrial and post-industrial eras are over. The current financial crises is causing more people to question how they spend their time and money. More people are looking to some form of agriculture to re-connect with the land, to reduce costs, to get healthier food. It is time to embrace a new age of Neo-Agrarianism and to dispense with ridiculous systems of time-control. I can hear the crowing of roosters and the sound of cow bells from my bedroom window. I awake with the dawn in the summer whether the clock tells me to or not. The rest of us should have that choice and the freedom to do with it what we want.

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Dumb Struck

Posted By Podchef on February 28, 2009

New chicks Small farmers are truly a silent minority. With just a little over 2% of Americans classified as “farmers”, we are a very small minority, as well, with just 57% of us earning well under $250,000 per year. This has me worried. Although small farms are on the increase, and inroads are being made into sustainable, local agriculture–an agriculture which may be our only hope in the future–that still leaves 43% of agriculture earning the lion’s share, holding the power, swaying the vote. In truth, it makes me feel very small and powerless.

But if I am so small, so powerless, then why is the industrial-agricultural complex working so hard to squash me and others like me? 2009 is shaping up to be a very troubled year. Not only are we having all sorts of financial “crises”1 , but there are water worries for Californian Farmers. In the first two months, alone, there has been trouble in our food systems and questions of whether our food supply is safe. All of these things seem to build the case for a stronger chain of local, sustainable, diversified, systems of small farmers. And yet, Government actions seem to indicate the opposite. Indeed, many people are suggesting that 2009 is going to be a year of food collapse. That a power grab at international and corporate levels is going to force small farmers out of business and make it impossible for the average citizen to grow their own food.

I want to scream, “THIS IS NONSENSE!!!”. But I have seen some of the documents. I have read behind the scenes reports and interdepartmental USDA emails. At least some portion of this scenario is grimly true–at least for those trying to create the situation. But when I email colleges and talk with local farmers, they deny ever hearing of such schemes. They treat me like I’m off my rocker. When I raise the specter of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) they all claim they heard somewhere that it is completely voluntary, that “some one told me it went away.” But the trouble is, it hasn’t. The trouble is it has only gotten worse. The trouble is that an 100% voluntary scheme means that total voluntary compliance is really MANDATORY! I am left speechless.

No one will wake up to the fact that even if this program is remotely helpful to the little guy, even if this program will add to the marketability of livestock, even if this program will be better, act quicker, cost less to operate than any of the current, effective, proven animal health monitoring programs2, even if. . .the NAIS has already cost millions to get to where it is now–a shadowy dream of a few control freaks–and is going to cost $100′s of millions more to get and keep running, and will cost taxpayers–including farmers who will have to pay twice–a packet in higher food costs, lack of accessibility to local meats, and higher taxes to help fund the system. How is this responsible government? How, at a time of deep recession–so deep it is verging on a Not-So-Great Depression–how can this be a practical, efficacious thing to promote? The system largely works now. It doesn’t need a costly fix. It doesn’t need a solution which skirts the issues of BSE, and food security while creating more problems than it solves.

Farmer's Market Soundseeing Tour What farmer’s do need is better access to local slaughter facilities. They need more support and scale appropriate regulations–not the one size fits all, costly systems meant to benefit the mainstream, large scale agri-business corporations. Farmers need more money spent on education, not subsidy. They need programs to help diversify, supply local markets, provide safe foods at a reasonable cost that can earn them a comfortable living. They don’t need threatening regulations, fees, fines and raids. Not unless the likes of Cargill, Tyson, Smithfield, and Monsanto are subject to the same scrutiny. Currently on the slate for Congress in March is an appropriations bill which will fund NAIS with at least another $154 million. This is money we, as taxpayers, will have to pay–and the interest on the loan which funds it–in order, not to have any safer a food system, but to assure foreign governments that our food is as safe as we say it is. Something which should already be a given, if it weren’ t for the total failure of the USDA and the FDA to do their jobs and police the corporations who consistently fail to produce safe, edible, nutritious food. So we pay for it once as taxpayers. Twice, in higher costs, as farmers, forced to implement the system, pass on the fees and fines to consumers. Thrice, in less access to quality, local foods. And even a fourth time, because as corporations–who do not have to play by the same rules as the rest of us–gain market shares by regulating small farmers into the ground, us to their suspect food procedures and poor, low nutrition foods.

NAIS fails on so many levels, only incompetent government and simpletons support it. It has more holes–and the arguments which defend it–than high quality Swiss Cheese. But don’t take my word for it–read about it. Learn about the canker which rots the system from within. And then protest. Take to the streets and cry foul! Boycott producers who support NAIS. Boycott agencies and markets which think the loss of freedom and choice are part of being “safe”. Safe from what? The imaginary, some-day-may-happen, disasters these agencies are fond of conjuring up to keep fear stirred up? Stand up and be counted as one who values quality, healthy, truly safe food. Safe because you know where it comes from, who produced it, and can follow the path it took to your counter yourself–not some government propaganda “farm to fork” bullshit: as if they could really tell you which farms the 100 cows came from in any lump of bargain basement ground chuck. Hell, they had trouble tracing salmonella to peanuts, e coli to lettuce, and their nose to their bosses ass.

The only way to assure yourself of safe, healthy, quality food is to rely on yourself, and individuals you can trust. The government’s pie in the sky promises won’t help one bit. In fact, the harder the government seems to try the worse it gets. That’s what happens when investigating agencies are in the pockets of the worst offenders. The time to act is now before it gets any later. The time to secure the food system is now, without the aide of the enemy. The time has come for individuals and communities to support the farmers among them who have the same values and are willing to stand up for them. If you think food is expensive now–and I’m talking about the cheap, supermarket crap–then just wait until it has been monopolized. Wait until even more than 60% of it is imported because there are no farmers left in the US to supply our needs. We either foment the change now at the grassroots level or suffer the soup lines and hunger which will follow. Don’t be speechless, dumb stuck, silent. Shout, scream, and be heard.

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  1. Bank collapses, a teetering stock market, spiraling credit card troubles, but to name a few.
  2. Bangs, Scrapie, TB–all of which have worked well for decades and are proven and established schemes without the need for databases and technology. Not to mention the USDA’s refusal to implement a Mad Cow–BSE–monitoring, testing, eradicating scheme. . .