Monday, September 24, 2012

Goodbye, Colorado...

Sadly, as we move on from our military post at Fort Carson, we will be moving back to the other mountains -- the Appalachians.  Stay tuned for our next episode.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

consolidating instability

"Farming is also a high-risk industry. On the one hand, this goes without saying. On the other hand, risk is hard to appreciate at a distance. When we hear about weather destroying citrus crops in Florida, or the shutdown of a milk distribution and processing company in the Northeast, or a fresh spinach food-borne illness advisory coming from California, we don’t immediately appreciate the impact. Since weather, capital markets, and food safety are such large issues, it is hard to grasp their impact on the volatility of farming. ... The shutdown of a milk processing company recently happened. It began as a result of financial markets responding to financial improprieties at the parent company in Europe, which had been acquiring milk processing facilities and companies throughout the United States. When the parent firm collapsed, hundreds of dairy farmers were suddenly without a distributor for their product. Imagine knowing that consumers are eager to consume your product but that you can’t get it to them because of a business crisis on another continent."

This excerpt comes from a Entering the Farming Field, a cautionary pamphlet for new farmers published by the Pennsylvania Center for Farm Transitions. This is just another in a string of information handouts I've read recently, which all claim to point a finger at you, young dreamer, and ask pointedly whether you are sure you really want to get into this farming stuff?

The most interesting thing to me about this particular pamphlet is that most of the ills and pitfalls it identifies are the reason farming attracts me in the first place. Why should my community's food supply be disturbed by a business crisis on another continent? That level of centralization and corporate "efficiency" might work for widgets, but why would we even consider putting something so dear as the milk and bread our families must eat every single day into such fickle hands? Farming is inherently risky and unpredictable due to forces of mother nature, and doesn't need the mysteries of the global marketplace added on top.

Why should a farm not sell directly to consumers?

My idea of food safety is to look into the eye of a mother who comes to my farm to pick up her weekly CSA share. When she tells me she's concerned about spinach contamination in California, I'll be able to say, "Well, it's a good thing we don't grow any California spinach here."

Of course, direct farm-to-consumer sales are impractical in some senses. It's much easier for a dairy farmer to focus on milking, and sell their milk directly to someone who picks it up in a truck hundreds of gallons at a time and takes it somewhere else to be bottled. It might make sense for four or five dairy farms to get together and form a cooperative with someone who owns a bottling plant, who then also handles the deliveries to a local grocery store. It's bigger than a single farming family could manage on their own, and more efficient, and probably results in better profit for farmers and better quality control for consumers. Yet it's small enough that, as a child, I could bicycle to the dairy and visit the cows in person, speak to an employee who was tolerant of a short interruption from a neighbor, and be assured that I could literally know where my milk came from, even when we bought it through the intermediary of a grocery store.

I'm not opposed to small cooperatives and realize they are essential. One of the largest CSAs in Colorado, Grant Family Farms, actually sources their product from several smaller farms across the front range, in addition to their main family-owned plot in west of Fort Collins. But these operations toe the edge between local accountability and consolidated efficiency. Perhaps one day we'll reach a point where a large CSA serving a half-dozen counties has replaced the big box grocery store as the most common place for families to get their evening suppers. Maybe, at some future date in our socio-economic evolution, we might even have grocery stores who source their food from local farms in the first place. Because a small CSA such as Essex Farm, the horse-drawn operation described in the book The Dirty Life, can feed only a small number of people. But truthfully, such a farm serves a only the small portion of society that is interested in preparing their own meals from raw ingredients. Insulation from international financial crises is a fringe benefit.

Monday, March 26, 2012

gift for a son

“What can we give our children then, that won’t be outmoded, that won’t, under some eventuality that we cannot foresee, prove to be a handicap to them? I don’t know the answer to that one. Once I would have said “Ideas and Ideals.” But I grew up in the years after the first World War, when perpetual peace was supposed to be the easily attainable ideal. I was trained in that ideal, and I believed in it with all the sincerity of which I was capable. Perhaps it is still attainable – but if it is, it will be by some different means than those I was taught to trust in. I don’t want my child ever to feel as lost in the world as I do right now; nor do I want to inculcate in him the doctrine of force and aggression at no matter what sacrifice of the rights of others.

We can give him a happy childhood to remember, a way of life that he will be willing to die to protect, if the need arises. That sounds like a grim and Spartan gift to a little boy, but it’s not as dangerous a gift as the belief in pacifism and universal well-wishing to which my generation was exposed. I don’t want to raise my son to be a soldier – but if he has to be one, I want him to be a good and capable one. I want him to know what he’s fighting for – and Freedom and Democracy won’t mean a thing to him, unless they are all tied up with memories of things that he has loved ever since he can remember – things like the sound of the river, and the way [our dog] lies and dreams in front of the open fire on a crisp autumn evening, and the picnics we’ve held at Smooth Ledge. The name of his country won’t be worth fighting for, unless he can remember from experience that his country is the place, not of equal opportunity, not of universal suffrage, not of any of those lofty conceptions so far above a little boy’s ability to comprehend, but the place where he walked with his father down a woods road one evening and saw a doe and twin fawns; or the place where he came in from playing in the snow and found the kitchen warm and fragrant and his mother making pop-corn balls.

That’s all that I can give him; that’s all that I dare to try to give him – something that he will love enough to want to preserve it for himself and others against whatever danger may threaten from whatever quarter, and the toughness and courage with which to fight for it. To bring him up untouched by war, insofar as is possible in a world where no one is completely unaffected by war today, is about the only contribution that I know how to make for the future.”

-- Louise Dickinson Rich, We Took to the Woods, 1942

Sunday, January 8, 2012

peace in the valley

Been taking time off for the holidays -- more posts soon. Photo is from near Hartsel, CO.