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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Summer is a'goin out
November 15, 2009 - 5:30pm

It's getting cold at night around Backboro. The stock tanks have a quarter inch of hard ice on them in the morning. The feed buckets get kicked farther into the pastures because their rolling resistance, like that of the ground itself, has been decreased. It's time to put the snow fences up and the tank heaters in. Time to double-check the fencing so that (with luck) no repairs will be needed through the winter. Time to raise the gates up a notch higher to clear the anticipated snowpack. Time to tarp the woodpile, which has been seasoning since spring. Time to dig and cover the kitchen garden, put up the storm windows, drain the exposed supply lines, mount the snow blade on the tractor.

There are a hundred things that need to get done around a farm at this time of year. Some of them (like making sure each animal is carrying good weight into the winter) started months ago. Others can't really be addressed until the last cutting of hay or corn is in. Most of these are things that you learn by doing, and you've been doing all your life, and you know why if anyone asks, but no one does so you don't generally think about the reason. Most of these are things that you do because that's how a well-run farm operates. Many of them are things that they don't teach in ag school.

I was chatting with a colleague a while back, and expressing my concern that family farms around here are dying just at the time when I'd like to see (and momentum is starting to build behind) more localized food production. We have a number of "farmer's markets" in and around Backboro, but probably half of the produce sold there (and maybe more than half, this year) is commercial product from California, or Mexico, or Chile. Local farmland's getting sold off for residential lots or consolidated under corporate ownership; farm kids are going to school to learn marketing, or computer technology, or retail management.

What concerns me is that low-emission farming is labor-intensive farming. As a result, the economies of corporate-sized scale pretty much disappear. Local food production, low-emission food production, could well be the salvation of the family farm -- at least, in the north-eastern USA. But you can't save the family farm when there aren't any more family farms to save, and you can't have family farms without family farmers, and while family farmers don't have to be born, that's the easiest way to go. If you're going to train someone to be a family farmer, the trainer better be someone who grew up farming. Even then, it takes a while (several years for niche herb and vegetable production, longer for truck farmers, longer still for stock farmers). And we're running out of folks qualified to be trainers. Not to put too fine a point on it, they're dieing off. And State Land-grant U isn't in the business of filling that need.

I heard once that if you wanted to build a new Gothic cathedral today, you couldn't do it. The story was that there just aren't any stonecutters with the right skillset any more. I can't swear to the truth of it, but it wouldn't surprise me. After all, family farms hit their hay-day (sorry!) a lot more recently that Gothic cathedrals did. And, absent the necessary attention, they crumble to dust a lot faster.

 

 

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