“We Give Thanks”, painted by Jessie Willcox Smith. This image was used by Fr. Ray Suriani for his blog posting on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2011. That blog entry was a writeup of his sermon given at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I the same day. He spoke of the importance of giving thanks, certainly during times of plenty but also especially during times of difficulty. Regardless of a person’s religious convictions, his blog entry was compelling, and a reminder to us all that giving thanks isn’t simply an American holiday, but rather a universal human characteristic. Visit his blog at fatherrays.blogspot.com. For information about Jessie Willcox Smith, please visit her Wikipedia entry.
A short blog this time, focusing on a topic that is applicable to every last member of humanity. Namely, the art and duty of giving thanks. Thanksgiving may be an American holiday, but every culture through time has come up with a variety of ways to say thank you - thanks to family, thanks to friends, thanks to various members and classes of society, thanks to God, Allah, Great Spirit, Earth Mother and/or whatever higher spirit a person believes in.
Countless essays have been written about the merits of gratitude, and my small contribution here will probably amount to no more than a drop in the proverbial bucket. Nevertheless, I want to humbly remind folks that none of us ever accomplish anything with help from somewhere. Supportive family and friends, research done by countless individuals throughout time, and various professions which support us by providing skills and services which we cannot ourselves provide.
So tonight I’d like to say Thank You to all the folks who have made a difference in my life - my folks, my family, my husband, his family, and our many friends scattered around the world. Our various mentors who have guided us along the way as we’ve built our farm, and who continue to answer the phone at 2am when we’ve got some crisis on our hands. The various blue-collar trades who have built and fixed and diagnosed and resurrected various appliances, vehicles, and structures in our home. The various white-collar trades who have provided expertise in health care for us and our animals, legal counsel, accounting, licensing, insurance and tax advice. I’d like to thank those who are a tad behind us on the learning curve, for asking so many great questions. Questions that we thought we knew the answer to, but which drove us to dig up more information and sometimes, new answers. I’d like to thank God for ordaining that I be born into such a wonderful family, living in a beautiful place, in what I still think is the best country in the world, and to all our friends at our congregation who are there when everything else goes sideways.
None of us have perfect lives. But everyone I know has something to be thankful for, regardless of what’s happening at any given time. I believe as long as we draw breath, we have something to be thankful for.
We would not be where we are without all these folks. Dear Reader, we invite you to look around your various lives and give Thanks to whomever has helped you along your own journey, wherever it has taken you.
We’ve been taking a family financial planning class this fall, ostensibly to learn how to set financial goals, create and keep a budget, pay off all our debt, and get ourselves on the road to financial well being. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of such classes available around the country, some better than others. And before your eyes glaze over, Dear Reader, know that we initially had the same reactions you’re having now - oh, BORING. Financial planning classes have to be about as exciting as, well, watching mold grow on bread. At least that’s what we thought.
The first class we attended, a preview of the class as a whole, introduced us to a dynamic speaker who proceeded to tell us some horrible statistics - 7 out of 10 households in the United States are living from paycheck to paycheck. Only five out of 10 households are concerned about that, which means the other two households at such risk aren’t even aware of it, or have concluded it’s beyond their control. Credit card debt per household averages around $15,000, but many households go much higher than that. But it’s not just households; our nation as a whole is in even worse shape. As of this writing, our national debt and our gross domestic product both stand at about $15 trillion dollars. That’s akin to saying that a household making $50,000 a year also has $50,000 in credit card debt. In either situation, there is precious little chance to pay back the debt - we can either pay the debt or pay for everything else in life, but not both. Not simultaneously. And as we’ve seen in recent European news, that’s exactly what’s happening with other nations who have amassed such heavy debt loads.
Yet that same speaker also gave us some much happier news. Every household can change spending habits, borrowing habits, and saving habits such that this dismal pattern can be reversed. And yes we’re talking about habits - learned behaviors picked up over the years. Habits which seemed like a good idea at the time, but which later became burdensome, expensive, or downright destructive. No one needs to live in debt, even though we’ve all been taught that we should. Taught by companies and industries who then profit on that trend. No thanks. As we have been working through that course, we have learned that we do not need debt, we absolutely have the ability to achieve what we want without borrowing to do it, and it’s never too late to get going on a better road.
What does this have to do with farming?
The same mentality which has lured Americans into unprecedented borrowing, and the financial ruin that often results, is also at work within our farming and ranching communities. You’ve heard the joke about “want to make a million dollars in farming? Start off with two million dollars and wait.” Or “farming is the conversion of cash into dirt.” Or my ultimate favorite, “no one can make money at farming.” This attitude is the same attitude that has convinced us to borrow more than we can pay back. The same attitude which tells us that we can’t ever get into the black, let alone stay there. The same attitude which tells us to go into debt buying new, buying big, and buying wants instead of needs. Often only to watch it depreciate as soon as we buy it. These attitudes were not developed overnight. They were sold to us slowly, laced with the promise that we “deserved” to have these options which we couldn’t otherwise afford. But these attitudes in farming (or any industry) are just as dangerous, and just as destructive, as the per-household and national debt numbers given above. We don’t have to farm at a loss. We do, however, have to reconsider how we farm, how we budget and save and spend and earn. Just like with personal financial management, farmers and ranchers have tools at their disposal to help ensure their operations get profitable and stay that way. We just need to get over this “can’t make money at farming” mentality and start looking for ways that we can. It’s only the banks that benefit when we give up trying.
Another dangerous assumption has been that we can’t get paid for our time with farming. The vast majority of growers and livestock owners that we know, make NO attempt to pay themselves for their time. That’s absurd. Farming and ranching can be run as hobbies, purely for enjoyment. But they can also be run as businesses where everyone gets paid and there’s money in the bank at the end of the day. It’s not rocket science. But it is a new idea for a lot of farming and ranching folks who have assumed for years that it’s simply not possible.
Towards that end, we have been working here to make our operation profitable, and to share those methods with others. To be blunt, it’s been a steep learning curve. Not so much because farming itself is hard. To be certain, it has its challenges. But that’s not the real problem. There’s three issues here:
1) growing the crops and raising the livestock to be sold,
2) finding ways to sell our products in ways which keep as much money in our pockets as possible,
3) building our financial habits such that we spend less than we earn.
All three of those steps need to be in place. There’s been an inconceivably large amount of how-to articles written for the first topic. There’s been a decent amount written about the second topic. But precious few are writing about the third, thanks to this blasted national conviction that we can live beyond our means and get away with it indefinitely. Can we earn enough to cover our costs, our living expenses, and still have something to put in savings? Yes, in multiple ways, whether we’re farmers, teachers, mechanics, waiters/waitresses, factory workers, office workers, whatever. Can we earn enough to buy all the things we’ve been told we want, all at once, and then pay the interest for the rest of time? No. And that’s not just a problem with farming - that’s any job in any industry. When we live beyond our means, we reach a point where no job would earn enough. However, when we live within our means, any one of a variety of jobs would pay enough to provide the basics. It’s not the farming as a job which is at fault. It’s this “Keeping up with the Joneses” disease. As the instructor of our class has said, “Normal is ‘broke’. So why be normal?”
As we have been going through this course, we have learned what many other courses would have taught, namely, the mechanical skills for budgeting, for calculating interest (both interest paid and interest earned), the basics of saving up for large purchases, choosing financial investment options and setting up life insurance. Yet that’s not what made the difference for us. We also learned how the “industry of debt” has systematically brainwashed us over the last 60 years. Convincing us that the world can’t turn without credit cards. Until we learned that piece of the puzzle, we used credit just like everyone else. But then we "got it" - how we'd been hoodwinked into thinking we had to live this way. Once we learned that history, and those methods, we began making changes. Changes which will benefit both our household and our farming business. Changes which we encourage everyone to make, so that we can throw off the debt shackles that hold us down. And ultimately, make changes so that our great nation does not go the way of Iceland, Ireland, Portugal, Greece and all the other nations currently drowning in debt. This is America, land of the free, home of the brave, and model for how the little guy can launch a bootstrap business and succeed. Our families, our farms and ranches, and our nation need us to get back on that track. Right now. By paying off the debt we have, as fast as we can, staying out of debt from that point forward, and learning to live within our means. And by requiring our local, state and national governments to do the same. We encourage everyone to try, lest we follow those other countries into the poor house.
While searching for an image suitable for this blog, I found the above image from the popular Calvin & Hobbes cartoon strip. But the website I found it on was even more interesting - a site dedicated to changing the world through art. Their focus is on fiction literature rather than the non-fiction we work on here. Nevertheless, the concept was the same. We encourage you to visit Fiction4Change for more information.
As blog readers will no doubt remember, we’ve recently taken a relatively in-depth look at composting - what it is, how it’s done and what it can do for soil condition and fertility. I had planned to continue that series in this blog. And as I described in my last blog, sometimes certain topics are simply so big that they need more space than certain formats will comfortably accommodate. Turns out, composting is one of them. The bulk of materials on the topic (no pun intended) make it unwieldy to publish in the blog format. There’s just too much to talk about! So I’m going to change gears. I’m going to create a new Composting section of the website, which will give me more room and better format options for such a varied topic. I’ll move the existing compost articles, plus my additional planned articles, to that new site in the near future. In the meantime, I’m going to return to topics for the blog which I can adequately cover in this format.
I’ve also recently been mulling the future of the blog. When we started this journey together in January this year, I wanted to provide a commentary about what life is like on a small family farm. To document that life in a relaxed, humorous, yet informative format. I wanted to share why we do what we do - the joys, the frustrations, the ambitions, the limitations, the humor and the moments of revelation. I felt that the combination of factual content elsewhere on the website, plus the commentary in the blog, would be a nice balance of information.
Yet as the year has gone by, these blog entries have moved away from that commentary and towards the factual presentation of topics within sustainable agriculture, which I was already doing elsewhere in the website. The composting series was a perfect example. As we’ve already seen, there are multiple ways to address those topics. I also found myself spending more and more time researching those articles. Finally, I found myself writing longer blogs less often, rather than posting shorter blogs more frequently. I found myself wanting to get back to this blog’s original intent.
On the other hand, I have thoroughly enjoyed writing up some of the more factual blog entries. I’ve also learned a lot from the research I’ve done for some of them. And I’ve gotten some wonderful feedback from readers, particularly on some of the more involved blog entries. Farming has so many different facets, a writer could keep busy indefinitely trying to cover them all and still not be finished. So I don’t necessarily want to abandon the more factual topics, simply because they stretch the blog’s boundaries a little.
So I’m back where I started - what topics to cover in the blog? I look around at the day to day life here, the various projects and obstacles and frustrations, and I want to find a way to include you, Dear Reader, in this life somehow. I suppose the best I can do is to more carefully consider each blog’s topic, see how I can provide both the personal perspective along with the more factual elements, rather than focusing on one or the other. So that’s what I’ll try to do from here on out. Thanks for riding out these ups and downs with me as I continue to chart this course over new terrain. I’m not sure where we’ll be going next, but I’ll try to make it a worthwhile trip.
We take a breather now from our recent, in-depth review of composting (whew!), to announce an exciting new project we’re working on here.
As we’ve seen with the composting topic (amongst others), sometimes a blog simply doesn’t give us enough room. Room to fully describe a subject’s core concepts, let alone the current opportunities, controversies, tools and options related to that subject. We have explored setting up additional sections of the website to explore certain specialized topics. You can see examples of that with our sections on Season Extenders, Hydroponic Growing Mediums and High Intensive Discharge Lighting. But even that approach has certain limits on length, format, keyword searchability, portability and other issues. We have also explored creating on-going publications to cover a wide range of topics within a certain subject. Our largest effort to date in that category was our 18-month experiment in our self-published magazine called Hydroponics for Market Growers. We loved that magazine and we loved putting it together. But the ongoing costs for researching, creating, printing, distributing and marketing that magazine ultimately proved to be too much. Yet there are so many topics yet to be explored within the realm of sustainable agriculture.
So, (drumroll please), we are going to launch a new product in the coming months: a series of single-topic, comprehensive articles, ranging from 15-45 pages in length, presented as downloadable PDF documents. These articles will attempt to introduce some core concept in sustainable agriculture, explore the various scientific, economic, and social foundations for that topic, provide an up-to-date presentation of all the various opportunities, threats, tools, methods and markets for that subject, and then give readers a very well populated list of additional resources with which they can further their knowledge.
So, what sort of topics do we have in mind? This is by no means a complete list, but we believe the following subjects are large enough, complex enough, and potentially profitable enough, to be worthy of this effort:
1) Long term, cost-effective seed-saving techniques which enable gardeners and farmers to legally, scientifically and proactively produce their own seed from year to year.
2) Pastured swine production as it applies to piglet production, market hog operations and heritage breeds management.
3) Cost-effective, nutritionally complete, on-farm feed and fodder production for landowners and/or livestock owners.
4) How and why folks either succeed or fail to make money on small farms.
5) How to shift from commodities production to value-added, diversified farm management.
6) Urban agriculture as a robust source of local foods, particularly for low-income populations.
7) Permaculture and its role in modern farm and ranch management.
8) Cost-effective holistic healthcare options for livestock owners.
9) Value-added micro-dairy operations, products, regulations and options for the small-scale livestock producer.
10) Value-added on-farm meat production for the small-scale livestock producer.
11) Modern marketing channels, options, tools and challenges for the small scale producer.
12) The roles played by various local, state and federal agencies, and land grant university agencies, for farm and ranch management.
13) Predator control for livestock owners.
14) Pest control options for gardeners, farmers and other growers.
15) Livestock ownership options, challenges and techniques for urban and suburban residents.
16) The pro’s and con’s of using livestock guardian dogs in both rural and suburban settings.
Not all topics will appeal to all readers. In fact, any given reader may only be interested in a small fraction of the complete range of articles. And we may not pursue all of them. We will only be able to focus on one or two of these articles at any given time. And we’ll have to balance out the time and effort needed for each article, versus all the other projects we have going at any given time. But our aim is to provide a well-researched, well-organized, comprehensive review of these topics, such that they serve as a solid foundation for anyone who is interested. Armed with that foundation, those readers can then go forth in those subjects, knowing the issues, the options, and the additional resources. Readers will hopefully use that information to further their own goals. If these articles help readers succeed in their own goals, we will have succeeded in ours.
As you may imagine, this new project will be a major new undertaking. We may easily spend a month or more researching, creating and formatting each of these articles. It is, however, a logical progression in our ongoing attempts to provide valuable, cost-effective information to the sustainable farming and gardening communities. We invite you, Dear Reader, to consider which additional topics you would personally find valuable. We may add those proposed topics to the list of subjects to be researched.
We are currently debating whether to offer these articles for free, or to charge some small fee for their download. It’s a touchy subject. The time spent researching and compiling this information is substantial, and that is time and effort we could instead apply to other production activities. Yet, we have a philosophical commitment to providing tools and information so that all producers, everywhere, can benefit from the lessons learned by those who have gone before. As such, we want this information to be freely available. What we are tentatively going to do, as a variety of other publishers and research organizations have done, is compromise. We are planning to offer summaries of each article for free download, so that the general lessons learned are freely available to everyone. Yet we will also offer the longer, in-depth articles for a small fee, so that those who wish to have more detailed information may pay for that detail.
We hope this new ongoing project will add to and strengthen the body of information we have so far compiled. We will post updates on this new project as we make headway on each article. When these articles are ready, we’ll announce them here, on our website’s home page, and on the parent subject page for each topic. We look forward to getting started, and we hope you benefit from our efforts. Please contact us if you have suggestions or requests.
Previous Months' Blog Entries:
October, 2011 Blog Entries
September, 2011 Blog Entries
August, 2011 Blog Entries
July, 2011 Blog Entries
June, 2011 Blog Entries
May, 2011 Blog Entries
April, 2011 Blog Entries
March, 2011 Blog Entries
February, 2011 Blog Entries
January, 2011 Blog Entries