Friday, August 27, 2010

Corn harvest 2010

Sabbath eve, August 27, 2010

Corn harvest is near done and the end can’t come soon enough. I am seriously considering not planting corn again as a commercial crop. Like many that have studied sustainable agriculture, I decided to get away from genetically modified grains. So the corn we planted was non-Roundup-ready corn. Not only non-Roundup-ready corn, but also a non-hybrid. The idea was to grow corn from which I could keep back my own seed.

Our fields lie along the banks of two rivers, the San Marcos and the Guadalupe. We had an unusually wet spring and early summer this year, a good thing. Actually, too much of a good thing. Every time we cultivated the field it rained and some of the weeds survived the disruption. After the third pass through the field, we had a single day rain of ten inches and much of our field land was flooded, particularly the 120 acre field bordering the San Marcos. By the time the ground had dried, the corn was too tall to cultivate again.

It’s a common practice to apply atrazine, a pre-emergent herbicide to a field in these parts to reduce weed populations. I did not use any. After the flood, careless weeds, blood weeds, sunflowers, cockle burrs, Johnson grass and tie vines (morning glory) came up amongst the corn. I could have sprayed the whole field with roundup after the corn had matured, but that seems to defeat the purpose of avoiding herbicides.

So, I had a royal fucking mess on my hands when harvest time came. Quentin Holtz, the guy that owns the combine wanted to whip my ass for the first couple of days. By the time we got done on the San Marcos place, I had eight men wielding machetes and one young man riding the combine with Quentin to unstop the header when it clogged. Couple that with temperatures well above the century mark. Despite being mad, Quentin persevered. He doesn’t understand and he won’t be back again if I plant this kind of crop next year.

My right arm and hand is so sore I can barely make a fist and my back hurts to the point that I grimace with each move. I know each and every one of my helpmates is exhausted as well.

For all of this we harvested about 60 bushels to the acre, while most people that grew Monsanto’s best harvested between 120 and 140 bushels to the acre. They didn’t work half as hard as we did. Half hell, one-tenth as hard. Their crop is worth as much or more per bushel than mine in the local market.

There’s a reason farmers use chemicals and genetically modified grains. People want cheap food. Farmers want to make money growing food. Oh, you’ll hear talk about organic this and that or natural this or that. Bottom line: at least 95 out of every 100 dollars worth of food sold in this country is produced by industrial agriculturalists. You cannot grow good wholesome food for those prices. Period. Every goddamned advance in efficiency or productivity over the years has been met with a price cut in the value of the commodity produced.

The hell of it is, I still remain convinced modern industrial agriculture will fail, probably catastrophically. During the first Great Depression, almost half the people in the land lived on a farm or in a rural area. Now farmers make up less than 2% of the population.

In foreign lands, subsistence farmers have also been broken by industrial farming techniques. Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, China, or India. It doesn’t matter. Hand labor can’t compete with fossil fuel powered machinery.

Quentin left a few acres of the field un-harvested. I plan to send men in to pull the ears by hand. Past experience has taught me that if I pay them the value of every grain they can collect, they will earn less than minimum wage. So I will take my loss and smile. Or try to, anyway.

But we will have sacks of corn. And it will be good corn. My horses will eat it. So will my chickens, goats and milk cows. And so will I, good Lord willing.

An old joke goes something like this: A man asks a farmer, “What would you do if you inherit a bunch of money?”

His reply: “I’ll farm until the money is gone.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A story

A young man living and working illegally in the United States decides that he wants to bring his wife and his seven year old daughter to this country. He learns of a woman that supposedly can get them across, over the bridge and through checkpoints, but the price is high, $3,000 apiece.

The young man’s father lives and works in the United States legally. Unlike his son, the father can come and go across the bridge, legally. So the father goes down to San Luis Potosi on a bus and picks up his daughter in law and his granddaughter. They ride the bus to Nuevo Laredo. When they arrive, he tries to call the woman but can’t reach her on the phone. A man approaches, one of many that seem to be looking for potential pollos.

The father in law tells him he’s waiting on someone that will take his daughter in law and his granddaughter to the US. But he doesn’t know who exactly he is there to meet.

“I’m your man. Come with me,” the man says. The father in law, the young woman and the seven year old girl get in a taxi and go to a house. At the house is another woman and a young boy about 16 years old, also waiting to cross.

“Do you have the money?”

“I was told I didn’t have to pay until they are delivered to the US.”

“No, you must pay me to get them across the river and then pay the woman the rest.”

“How much?”

“Three hundred dollars.”

“I don’t have three hundred dollars.”

“How much do you have?”

“Two hundred in Mexican Pesos.”

“That’s not enough, but if that’s all you have it will have to do.”

“That’s all I have.”

The father in law gives the man the money and is taken to the border where he has to stand in a long line of people waiting to cross on foot. He is told to wait on the other side for his daughter in law and his granddaughter.

The young woman and her daughter are taken to the river by the coyote along with the sixteen year old boy and the other girl. They are told to wade the river, that someone waits for them on the other side. They cross the river and run into a couple of border patrol agents.

“A donde van?” the agents ask.

The sixteen year old boy turns and makes a run for the river. He is shot and killed by one of the border patrolmen.

The two women and the child remain still and are taken into custody.

The young mother and her daughter are immediately deported, but the other young girl is not. Or maybe she is, too. The young mother doesn’t know for sure.

This story takes place three days ago. There is no mention of any death along the banks of the river in the media.

But then why would there be, since this is just a story.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Living in hell

Sabbath eve. August 20, 2010.

This week started on a sour note. Monday morning Victor called to tell me he planned to turn out our stallions in order to clean their stalls. We’ve been so busy with hay of late that the horses have gone neglected. Truth is, Victor probably had a hangover and used this as an excuse not to come out to the ranch. Monday afternoon he called to tell me that Racing Rhinocerous, my solid black fifteen year old Thoroughbred stallion was dead. Then he said something like, “I don’t know what happened….”

Well let me tell you what happened, you (expletives deleted)... It was 102 fucking degrees in the shade and about 120 in the direct sun. You put the horse in a pen with no shade and probably no water. Noss died of a heat stroke. Made me want to stake Victor out in the sun for a day. But…

I too bear responsibility for this cruel and senseless act. I pay others to assume my responsibilities, and have not been diligent in ensuring that things get done. Poor Noss has lived in a cage (stall) for a couple of years now and I didn’t take the time to check on him. I relied on someone that has proven himself unreliable.

Do not try to console me for this shortcoming. You nor any other creature on this planet has the authority to forgive my sin. I hope someday when I die, I go where Noss is and that I get the chance to say I am sorry.

Tuesday, I learned that another friend had been hit while riding her bicycle and was in critical condition in an Austin hospital with a shattered arm, a compound fracture to one leg (protruding bone) and a punctured lung. Sarah is an intelligent and pretty young woman, trying to stay in shape by riding her bike. I don’t know exactly how she managed to get run over, but it’s a tragedy, regardless of the circumstance.

My corn crop is past ready to harvest, waiting on the combine, but we’ve had a bumper crop in these parts. Despite a board price of $4.36 a bushel at the moment, local buyers are full and not taking corn. Feedlots might take a load here and there for $3.50 a bushel if you get down and grovel. I was told that all local storage bins are full and some farmers are leaving corn to stand in the fields, to cut and sell to feedlots, as needed.

I grew white corn, non-genetically modified, also non-hybrid, so the seed can be re-planted. It is suitable for human consumption. I made tortillas from it last week and they came out great. Feral hogs are testing my fences daily and have managed to do quite a bit of damage. The corn is dry and fragile and any kind of rough weather could be devastating. Luckily, I found a man that once raised hogs and was forced out of the business with an empty grain storage bin. It needed repairs and a good cleaning, but we’re on the way to getting it fixed up and should start cutting corn Monday, good Lord willing.

The heat continued to hammer on us for the remainder of the week; each day temperatures reached a hundred or more. Pastures are turning brown. I don’t know if we’ve reached the end of this year’s wet spell, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if that turns out to be the case. At least we have plenty of hay stored and possibly feed and food as well. I don’t call a job done until it’s done.

Meanwhile I’m irrigating once again. Preparing a fall garden. Doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense at the moment, but I’ve learned a man better do all he can while he can for the day will come when you can’t.

I think people are beginning to realize that this downturn in the economy has just begun. We are about 3 years into what will turn out to be a 20 year crisis, with no guarantee what survives. But something will survive, and a new day will dawn on this planet.

Of that, I remain relatively certain.

In the meantime, there’s no need to go looking for hell. We’re living in it.

Max Keiser interview

Read it here:

America: a walking dead Zombie country.

Workers song

Never heard of these guys but I like this song. Hat tip Chesyre:

Monday, August 16, 2010

God damn the pusher man

Our goddamned government intends to pass a law making it illegal to grow share or sell homegrown food.

Read about it here.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


From Apocalypto. A father speaking to his son:

"The people in the forest. What did you see on them?"

"I do not understand."

"Fear. Deep rotting fear. They were infected by it. Did you see? Fear is a sickness. It will crawl into the soul of anyone who engages it. It has tainted your peace already. I did not raise you to see you with fear. Strike it from your heart. Do not bring it into our village..."

The threats these people faced were real, but the old man's advice was sound. Fear is a disease. It cripples and destroys those that harbor it, rendering them ineffective.

Everywhere I turn in this land, I see people embracing fear. And it's killing us.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Raising beef

Sabbath eve, August 13, 2010

I read quite a bit of material talking about how raising livestock for food is a poor use of natural resources. The argument usually goes, it takes X pounds of grain or protein derived from grain to produce Y pounds of meat, X always being a larger number than Y. And, left at that, the argument is correct. In the real world however, things are a bit more complicated. What some fail to understand is that sustainable agriculture (or unsustainable agriculture for that matter) involves a closed loop system. What you take from the soil must be replaced. Nothing is lost or gained, but rather moved from one place to another. While the process of photosynthess comes as close to getting something from nothing as it gets, utilizing the sun’s energy and chlorophyll to convert water into sugar in plant cells, those plants need additional nutrients to grow. And an animal burns a certain amount of energy moving or staying warm that is burned off or lost from the equation. However, in a properly run farm, animals play an important role, utilizing land and plants not suitable for cultivation to produce dense, high protein food we can eat, and also serve as vehicles by which nutrients can be returned to the soil.

To be sure the current arrangement of raising calves and shipping them to a few horrendously large and isolated feed yard/processing facilities where they are fed grains grown hundreds or thousands of miles away from both the farms where the grain is produced and markets where the resulting meat is consumed is a wasteful practice from the standpoint of sustainability, and totally dependent on cheap and plentiful supplies of fossil fuels. But raising livestock doesn’t have to be done that way and wasn’t until recent times.

A fairly large percentage of whatever cattle eat, particularly when it’s a grain product, passes though the animal and comes out as shit, or manure, for you of gentler natures. That’s where the largest loss of energy and protein takes place. If that animal happens to be eating that grain in some big ass pen full of his brothers and sisters in the panhandle of Texas or the high plains of the heartland, miles from anywhere the manure can be spread back on farms where grains are grown, or good pasture land where calves are produced, it becomes a hazardous waste product. Cattle manure is bulky and not particularly concentrated, so hauling it any large distance from where it’s produced is not an economically or energy viable practice.

In earlier eras, just about every small town in Texas had a slaughter facility. Small feed yards dotted the state as well. Butchers were respected members of the community and knew their clients. They also ate the meat they produced and took care to see that it was properly prepared and handled. If they didn’t, they would soon be put out of business by someone else that did.

These small feed-lots were in range of pastures and fields where grain products were produced and the manure could be reapplied to the ground, replenishing not only the principle nutrients like Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium, but also trace elements and minerals not found in chemical fertilizers. In addition, this manure contained beneficial bacteria and organic matter to improve the texture and condition of the soil.

There are still a few farms utilizing primarily grass fed beef in coordination with other livestock and plant production that serve as models for a time when the current system fails. I first read about Polyface Farms in Michael Pollan’s excellent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I don’t honestly think this type of farm is entirely economically viable at the moment, though some would argue otherwise. No doubt, Joel Salatin is making money, but he employs hands that work for free to learn his processes, interns they’re called, and also generates income by selling lectures to others wishing to learn his trade. I don’t know how well he’d do if his only income came from selling the produce he raises in the free market, or more properly termed rigged market in which we now operate.

Neverthess, I aspire to create something similar to what he does on our farms and ranches.

One of the most sustainable systems ever employed, albeit one that would not support the numbers of people currently living on the North American continent, was that of plains Indians that followed and hunted buffalo. Buffalo ate grass and deposited fertilizer to the ground from which they ate, constantly moving and grazing fresh ground so the grass did not get overgrazed and was allowed to reseed each year. This also kept the animals from being infested with intestinal worms, as the animals were long gone when any resulting eggs might have hatched.

I’m not trying to convince anyone to eat meat. In a perfect world, we probably wouldn’t. What I am saying is that the idea that eating animals by necessity causes famine in the world, is flawed thinking. There’s hardly anything in modern agriculture less sustainable than the endless waves of genetically modified, chemically laced grain we now grow with oil powered machines and oil and gas based fertilizers, perticides and herbicides. Absent fossil based fuels and fertilizers, this ground will become hard packed barren waste land in two years or less.

What you take from the soil, you must put back. There’s no way around this.

Here’s another fun fact: The largest population of cattle by country on the planet is in India. Because they don’t eat them.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hard times

Sabbath morn, August 7, 2010.

I heard last night that wheat prices are soaring. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. I sold the wheat we grew about a month ago for $5.45/bushel. At harvest time, a couple of months before, wheat sold for less than $4/bushel. I figure hauling and storage costs ate most of the difference between those two numbers. The factors listed for this sudden shortage were known when I harvested my crop, but kept quiet. Now that corporations own the crop, news about Russia’s drought and sudden move to halt exports, the spread of Ug 99 wheat fungus, and pending world shortages suddenly explode into news casts. Commodity investors rush in to make a buck and the price of wheat spikes. Steinbech’s Caleb Trask has become a role model in today’s American casino.

I would have written last night, but the scorching heat of our hay fields all but sucked the life out of me. I sat at my computer in a daze for a few moments before giving up and going to bed. You’d think a man would sleep well when so tired, but when you’re body feels like you’ve been in a car wreck, it’s hard to get comfortable. I’m sure Leah gets tired of hearing me wince and moan.

We have another day of hauling left to finish this round, our third cutting of the year. The barns at Belmont are full. I hauled two trailer loads of small bales to Seguin, but decided against hauling any more. The asphalt roads were melting under the intense rays of sun and I figured I’d be on the side of those roads taking the rags of an exploded tire off in short order. Should we get rain and have more grass, I suppose I’ll have to round bale it.

Yesterday evening, a couple of illegal Americans showed up looking for work. They told me they were going to get kicked out of their rent house today if they didn’t come up with $300. I imagine this scene being played exponentially around the land. And then I imagine the potential consequences. What happens when they get kicked out? They have no family to turn to in this country. I guess they could turn themselves in to immigration police. But they won’t. There are no jobs at home either. Wonder what it costs to round up and transport 15 million people home? And then what it costs to round up and send them home again after they return?

One of my milk cows has developed mastitis in one quarter, so I’ve been treating her with antibiotics. The drug has to be squirted though a plastic syringe into the teat and she’s none too happy about the process. The recent hot weather has taken its toll on our cows as well. In the evenings they ignore their feed, standing panting in the shade with a semi dazed look in their eyes instead.

The new orphan heifer has survived and seems to be doing relatively well. Teah won’t let her nurse unless I am there to watch, but I think the calf is starting to grow on her.

In other news, the blown out well in the Gulf of Mexico has been killed and a cement plug has been installed near the top of the well. To be sure the damage has been done and the effects will linger, but at least the flow has been stopped for good. I’m not overly concerned about eating fish or other sea food from the gulf, but you can bet that a lot of plants and animals have already died as a result of that spill and no amount of remediation will give them their lives back.

53 years of life on this planet convinces me that we’re not ready to learn our lessons. Not yet. It matters not whether you believe this: hard times lie ahead. For many, hard times are here.

My cows wait, none too patiently.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Time to get a gun

It's a damn shame that you have to read Rolling Stone to find real hard hitting journalism. After reading Matt Taibbi's account of the psuedo finance reform bill Fred Eaglesmith's Time to get a gun began playing in an endless loop in my head:

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Parable of the talents, updated for 2010

Sunday August 1, 2010, first workday of the week.

Sitting here looking out the window watching hay bales spitting out the back of a baler, anticipating (or is it dreading) going out to pick the damned things up in 100 degree weather (taken in the shade and there ain’t no shade in our hay fields).

Been thinking a bit about the parable of the talents. You know the one: master goes off and leaves ten talents with one guy, five with another and one with the last. When the master comes back the guy with ten talents has turned ten into twenty. He’s good. Guy with five has turned his five into ten. He, too, is good. Guy with one buried his for safe keeping. He’s bad. His one goes to the guy that turned ten into twenty.

Having been given some talents, I’m busy working my ass off trying to produce more, but I’m wondering what the master is going to think when he comes back and I tell him I managed to lose nine of the ten talents he gave me?

Perhaps if talents isn’t money, there’ll be another outcome, but the way I see things, the harder you work nowadays actually producing something, the quicker you’re liable to go broke.