A Tale of Two Couples

Let me tell you a story of two couples.  Couple A is well-educated, traveled, and liberal. They both have humanities degrees from prestigious colleges. They spent a few years living abroad to gain perspective and get the wanderlust out.  They were both involved in marching band, and enjoy reading and playing board games in their free time.  Now for Couple B. They both grew up in the countryside and after marrying young now live in a little farmhouse in the country.  They were both involved in 4-H and are now in the Farm Bureau, a mostly conservative organization.  She is a teacher at the local school and he is a welder.  In their free time they enjoy going to tractor pulls and car shows.

Many people would say that these two couples are awfully different and don’t have a lot in common.  I would agree with that, except that we are both Couple A and B.  Crazy, I know. There are days I don’t quite believe it myself, but each one of those things I wrote about those two couples is true of Jordan and I.  It does sometimes seem as if I have been two people in my life already, and harmonizing one with the other can be tricky.

This has led me to occupy a unique place in the agriculture world.  One half of me identifies with the crunchy, foodie, ‘back to the land’ types while the other half is a ‘salt of the earth,’ country farmer who wants people to leave farmers alone so they can do their jobs.  Mix the two of those with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a hefty dose of science literacy and I have become what could be considered an equal opportunity offender.  

Let me explain what I mean by this.  I believe strongly in animal welfare so I oppose the use of gestation crates in pork production, however I am not opposed to giving an animal the best treatment science has made available when the animal is sick so as to reduce suffering and the spread of disease.  I believe strongly that soil health holds important answers for the future of humanity and I therefore oppose the use of certain chemicals that undermine healthy soil biomes, and on that same note oppose the organic farmer’s use of the plow for weed control as that is almost worse.  Am I making friends yet?

When I got my job as a high school agriculture teacher and my students found out what kind of farming I do, they made it clear that they thought my “organic” methods were a little crazy.  I never even told them I was organic (because we aren’t), but the mere hinting that I thought organic wasn’t all bad and conventional wasn’t all good was evidence enough.  On the flip side, when “organic types” hear that I am an agriculture teacher and they think I am on their “side” they are quick to ask whether I teach organic  or “sustainable” methods in school.  My answer usually dumbfounds them; “I teach my students that the most important things are healthy soil, healthy animals, and healthy communities, and that there are lots of ways to achieve those things.”

So by now you’re probably getting the sense that it’s lonely being me and I don’t have many friends in agriculture.  The tagline I have given myself over the years is, “conventional people think I’m crazy, and organic people think I’m a sellout.” But here’s where the good part comes in.  You could call me an equal opportunity offender, or you could call me a unifying force.  Because while there are definitely practices I disagree with and wouldn’t use on my own farm, I understand why people make those decisions for themselves and their farm and family. 

I get it, a lot more than most.  Many of my friends own certified organic farms and they do a great job, but I also spent a year teaching English at the largest dairy farm in the state and know a lot more about how that place is run than most, and they do a great job, too. When my students present me with a practice that they have seen and want my opinion on, my first goal is to always try to understand why the farmer made that decision and what perspective led them there.  And by showing my students that there is merit and potential in agricultural practices across the spectrum I hope that they can also be unifiers in a world that badly needs them. 

But back to that loneliness, it is true that I have often felt like I didn’t belong anywhere on the agricultural spectrum.  The conventional side is too quick to dismiss alternatives or acknowledge that agriculture has any problems and the alternative side is too quick to believe in things that aren’t true either by demonizing conventional or ascribing to woo-woo. However, I have found a few allies over the years.  One of them recently remarked that they wished agriculture didn’t have “sides.” And they are so right.  Because when less than 2% of the nation can call themselves a farmer and the world is nearly literally going down in flames, we have bigger fish to fry. 

Agriculture, good or bad, is going to drastically affect the future of the planet. Agriculture can and will affect climate change, the economy, water availability, and whether people live or die.  That is why I continually make the choice to be an agriculture teacher and not give up on farming when some days moving back to the city and getting a desk job sounds really nice.  Agriculture is just too important, because it has to save the world.

This salvation, however, is going to take all of agriculture. It will not only come from the organic farmers who have valiantly tried to find alternatives to the ills they saw, and it will not only come from conventional farmers who have worked miracles in the name of progress.  The agricultural village may be widespread, but it is small, and it is going to require all of us to care for the planet that is under our stewardship.  And that is why I am encouraged that I am starting to find more and more unifying voices in agriculture that want to work towards these common goals regardless of farm type or size.

So where does that leave us, specifically Jordan and I? Well, I am going to make you a promise. It is something we have lived by for a while but haven’t articulated out loud.  When you log on to our farm website or social media, you won’t see us going negative.  There are a lot of farms out there that promote their products by using fear or putting other farmers down, and we won’t.  We will do our best to explain the practices we choose with honesty, science, and positivity. We believe in what we do, but know that every other farmer out there believes in what they do, too.  We believe there are real problems in agriculture and the environment that you should know about, but we want to focus on fixing them rather than pointing fingers.   Maybe you will find this lack of inflammatory language dull, but I don’t know how you could find a feed full of cute animals and delicious food boring. 

So with that, I want to thank you for reading this far and hope you will join us on our quest for a positive, unified agriculture that provides healthy food, animals, soil, and communities. 

Just How Do We Have "Grass-fed Beef" In Wisconsin Where There Is This Little Thing Called Winter?

We get asked this question a lot, so I made the video below to show you. 

The simple answer is we feed hay, which is dried grass.  In the summer we have fields set aside that we let grow and don't graze, and then go in and cut the grass with a large mower. If the stars align and we get three sunny and dry days after that we can then rake it into tight rows and then make bales out of it.  Easy, right?

Well in this climate changing world we live in, three consecutive sunny and dry days in the summer is increasingly rare, and rarely happens when the forecast says it will. If hay that is drying on the ground gets wet it can rot and we lose the crop, which is rough because we need it to get through winter.  The alternative is to rake and bale the grass when it is still moist, then wrap it in plastic so it is airtight.  This is called making haylage, and is similar to using a silo, just much less expensive and labor intensive.  Once wrapped the moist hay ferments a little which actually makes it tastier and more digestible for the cattle.  

But that sounds resource and labor intensive, isn't there another way?

There is, and we are working on it.  It is called stockpiling, in which we simply let a field grow and don't mow it, and then let the animals graze it in the winter.  Cattle and sheep will actually dig through snow to get to tasty grass underneath provided there isn't an icy crust, which again is an issue in our climate changey world. This last year we fenced in an additional 21 acres and next year we are fencing in the last 24, so we will have lots of opportunities to stockpile forage and use fewer fossil fuels in the winter, woo-hoo!

The problem? In order to stockpile forage(grass), your soil has to be good enough for things to grow in it. 

Our farm has not had a lot of TLC in the last oh, say, 50 years. For the last five we have been using cover crops and green manure crops to try to bring them back to life, but have found that animals really are the key. Want something trampled and fertilized? Bring on the cattle. Want something turned over? Pigs are at your service. Want something weeded? Sheep to the rescue! 

So that brings us back to hay and haylage. 

There wasn't much growing in the front fields we just fenced in, so we are feeding the cattle out there all winter and using the waste hay and manure they leave behind as fertilizer and compost to kickstart the circle of life. We place the bales somewhat systematically in different spots in the field to even out the distribution.  This way we hope to be able to become more self-sufficient, grow our soil, sequester carbon, and provide GOOD FOOD! 

Watch to see how we feed "grass" in the winter in Wisconsin!

A Blog?

I’ll admit it:  I am not a huge lover of the Internet.  Yep, there is tons of information out there that is really cool, but you have to search around through tons of muck just to find it.  Usually I just try to pinpoint exactly what I need and then get the heck off.  This is largely the reason I have neglected to utilize the “blog” portion of our website.  Why would I change now you ask?  Firstly, I recently purchased a new computer (first one in 11 years!!) and getting online/editing is much easier.  Secondly, I am slowly realizing just how important communicating within the local food/environmental biome is. 

Working the local county Extension Agent on a “watershed quality improvement” task force, I have come in contact with many farmers, agency representatives and good people all wanting the same thing; a healthy environment.  If you managed to find this website, my guess is that you do also. 

In working with the task force, the foremost need that I have found is that of good communication.  Most all people do want what is best, but their ways of communicating it vary greatly.  Trying to create an open forum for the sharing of ideas and goals is paramount to accomplishing, in this case, cleaner water and a healthier surrounding environment.  But, it made me start thinking: isn’t that exactly what the Internet really is, an open forum for communication and the sharing of ideas? 

Perhaps it dates me a bit, but I remember when I started using the internet: it was not for searching u-tube, Wikipedia or direct banking.  It was for communicating.  Being able to email someone across the world instantly was an awesome thought.  Instant Messaging with your friends – holding multiple conversations at once without your parents finding you on the phone at 3am.  Chat rooms, personal web pages, forums for similar interests; those were my early experiences.  While communication is still there, so much additional information and options have transformed what was – in my opinion – (er, IMHO??) a more personal exchange to an all-explosive gamut of personal expression, knowledge (correct or otherwise) and consumption.   

Be that as it may, I still believe that personal communication is the most important part of being human.  Therefore, I am taking it upon myself to attempt to blog, focusing largely on our personal farm, the animals and our interactions with the environment.   Perhaps you will find some of what I post to be interesting, informative and helpful.  More likely; laughable, obscure and useless.  Either way, let us smile and tip our hats to each other for being human, for communicating.