Gene Logsdon Blog – The Contrary Farmer

GENE LOGSDON: Soil Science Spelled It Out A Whole Century Ago

 
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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

An organic farm marketer brought me a strange book to read and I can’t get it out of my mind. It was written by Cyril Hopkins, an agronomist at the University of Illinois in 1911. Already a century ago, science had committed the wisdom of the ages about maintaining soil fertility (Hopkins quotes Cato, Varro and Virgil from ancient Rome) to the finely wrought analysis and statistics of science. Soil scientists knew very well how to practice sustainable farming a century ago but then as now many people, including some fellow scientists, paid little attention. The strangeness of the book comes from the author’s efforts to write “The Story of The Soil” in the form of a novel, embedding his treatise on soil science in a more or less fictional love story.  He had already written a factual book on how to restore and maintain fertility in America’s declining soils but, surprise, surprise, hardly anyone read it. I suppose he figured that maybe people would pay attention if a little sexual intrigue were woven into his pages of dry facts and figures about manure, lime, rock phosphate and clover rotations and what happens when you don’t do it correctly. I doubt his ploy worked except with those of us who think sustainable farming is a pretty sexy subject all by itself.

GENE LOGSDON: Speed Farming

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

The farm news (DTN/Progressive Farmer) reports that Finland is boasting a farm tractor that can go 80 mph on snow. How’s that for technological progress? As far as I can tell, the speed is not meant for farming— crops won’t grow on snow. However, farm machinery companies in both Europe and the United States are touting their latest models that can hit 50 mph on the open road. This is not mere technological fantasy trying to find an outlet: many farmers today spend about as much time moving their rigs from one farm to another as they do in the fields, so having a souped-up road gear makes cents if not sense. Field speeds are increasing too, and that makes even more cents. Farm machinery engineers say that increasing field speed from 10 mph to 12 mph increases productivity by 20%. How about that? With my kind of arithmetic that means that when you bury a monster tractor in the mud and need three more monsters plus three snapped cables plus ten hours to get it unburied, as happened in my neck of the woods one spring, your productivity decreases (four tractors times zero) to a minus 80%.

GENE LOGSDON: “Stop Mowing and Start Growing”

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

That’s the motto and battle cry of a fairly new (2011) organization called Urban Shepherds. Its purpose is to encourage grazing sheep on  urban and suburban vacant lots, larger lawns, and other grassy areas like school campuses and the acreages surrounding historic sites and factories. You can find out all about this new idea at urbanshepherds.org. The people involved are having a day of training on May 16  at Spicy Lamb Farm near Peninsula, Ohio. Their website tells you how to get there. Spicy Lamb already uses a power line right of way close by to graze its sheep, benefitting the power company and itself, controlling weeds without mowing or nearly so much herbicidal spraying. Cleveland, Detroit and Akron all have Urban Shepherd projects underway and I suspect other parts of the country are getting into this idea. One of the selling points is that if you have a business open to the public, grazing sheep have proven to be a big attraction.

All right. Why should chickens have all the rights to the backyard barnyards of America? I like to think I had something to do with this laudable project at least indirectly. When our daughter and her family moved to the Cleveland area years ago, for the first time I had a chance to observe suburban lawns closely. I was amazed how they stayed green most of the winter. Many times, trying to be funny, I wrote that suburbanites were the best pasture farmers in America and didn’t know it.

GENE LOGSDON: The News Is Blind To Farming

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From GENE LOGSDON

Staying with relatives recently, I spied a big coffee table book on a shelf titled Britain On Country Roads published in 1991. I love pictures of farming landscapes, especially in the British Isles, so I paged through the book. There were gobs of photos of seashores, village streets, old castles, quiet roads, crossroads taverns, flowery hillsides, quiet forests and glistening rivers, but not in a hundred pictures or so was there a hint of farming activity. Whoever chose these pictures turned a blind eye to what makes the countryside along those country roads so lovely and alive, economically as well as socially. It was assumed, evidently, that tourists would not be interested in farmers working in the fields, livestock out on pasture, or barns burgeoning with hay.

I keep thinking that with the rise of interest in local food, this blind eye in journalism for farming will soon end. But try to recall if in all the news flowing out of the turbulent Middle East in the last few years, if you have seen any scenes of farm activity.  Just recently there was a one sentence reference to the food situation in Yemen, pointing out as a quick aside that 90% of the food is imported— not one word of how significantly this fact impacts what is going on there. Anthropology and cultural history, if not economics, teaches that a big part of the problem when war and genocide are rampant is population outrunning food, or more accurately, population outrunning farm land upon which to grow food. So why doesn’t the daily news address this?

GENE LOGSDON: What Truly Is Progress In Farming


 From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

Now that glyphosate (Roundup) doesn’t work so well, the chemical industry is using the old Agent Orange in various new herbicide admixtures. When the general public learns about this, there is going to be an uproar. But what if the only other alternative is for farms to “go back” to mechanical cultivation to control weeds. Big farms probably couldn’t do that because cultivating weeds is so slow compared to chemical weed control. But if big farms become obsolete, the world would end according to current economic theory. Is that true?

It is amazing what happens to your mental calculations if you start thinking about a future based on the assumption that smaller farms are inevitable. Without the striving to get bigger in order to get profitable, agriculture suddenly becomes a very promising way for more people to live and work, akin to gardening. Instead of glorying in how many acres big machines can prepare and plant in a day, we could take pride in figuring out how many people can be employed profitably in farming smaller units. Instead of counting how many jobs that factories create while make those machines, we could concentrate on how many jobs farming could provide at less energy and carbon cost. It is practical to control weeds with cultivation and hand labor on small farms and so the lack of herbicides would be only good news. Hoeing and plowing out weeds may not be the nicest work in the world but there have surely been more cases of clinical depression since we quit doing it.

GENE LOGSDON: Watching The Basketballs Float By

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

There’s always something new headed your way, especially if you live beside a river. I visited Wendell Berry recently and we had the most marvelous time just sitting on his porch watching the Kentucky River flow by. The whole state had been experiencing serious flooding at that time and the river was way out of banks, licking up against his garden. Not as high as the “Thirty Seven Flood,” as it is referred to in Kentucky, which covered what would become his garden. (Everyone along the river knows exactly how high that famous flood rose, either in memory and with in-land markers.) We were discussing the awful erosion this part of Kentucky has suffered because of last few years’ corn and soybean craze that suckered landowners to once again cultivate land that their ancestors had learned the hard way should be kept in pasture. We had seen lots of gullies newly gouged out the rolling landscape on our way to Wendell’s farm. I was wondering how much mud would be deposited in the Gulf of Mexico just from this flood. Then Wendell said, in that tone of voice he assumes when he is about to say something droll: “But I haven’t seen any basketballs float by for an hour or so.”

“Please?” We were at the height of March Madness at the time, but basketball was not a part of the kind of madness we were discussing.

“When the water comes up this high this fast, hundreds of basketballs and soccer balls come floating past,” Wendell said.

Gene Logsdon: Bravo The Bloody Local Butcher Shop

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

Our butcher retired recently and in the process of finding another, it seems clear that there’s a great opportunity opening up in local meat marketing if you can stand the work. Nobody wants to do it but most people want to enjoy its fruits. I have done my share of butchering hogs, chickens, even a few steers and lambs and I don’t much like to do it either. Carving up a dead carcass is not so bad once you learn how to sharpen a knife properly, but slaughtering is a nasty job, even when done “humanely.” On the other hand, so is hanging high up on an electric pole in a blizzard repairing a power line, emptying bedpans in an infirmary, or repairing a ruptured water main in below zero weather.

Meat is a part of the local farm, local food, local restaurant business that needs more participation. It can be lucrative and begs for more skilled and even artisanal entrepreneurial types. On a small scale, even the killing is not as distasteful as it sounds. Our method, the one most used in home butchering, is to shoot the animal in the head with a twenty-two rifle, which stuns it motionless momentarily during which time the jugular vein is cut. Professionals can do this swiftly and calmly and the animal never knows what happened to it. Small animals and chickens are generally hung upside down or held by some contrivance in a vertical position and the jugular vein cut with one swift pass. If reading this overwhelms you with revulsion, you should be a vegetarian. I have a hard time listening to people who pretend that killing animals is terribly barbaric even while they are chomping away on a hamburger.

Gene Logsdon: The Happiest Farmers

oFrom GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

Carol and I attended the first annual Organic Farming Conference in Mt. Hope, Ohio, recently, and were struck by how happy the attending farmers appeared to be. Unlike typical agricultural meetings this spring, I heard no handwringing discussions over which kind of government insurance to apply for to keep from going broke this year, nor any obsessions over whether one’s farm was subject to the new Bt corn rules and practices coming along. Instead, a whole group of farmers were talking to each other about how good things look right now. What made that particularly remarkable is that most of them operate dairy farms with no more than 40-50 cows which the economists say is too few to make a living.

The group was composed mostly of Amish and Mennonite farmers with a sprinkling of us “English” types. The organizers had figured they might get 200 people to attend. Instead the count was closer to 500. All of them were excited about farming organically. I was a bit taken aback since in the circles I usually move if I move at all, this type of farming is hardly new. One of my big mistakes in life is to think that new ideas that I favor will take over much quicker than they actually do. It was certainly obvious at this conference, as it had been at the Acres conference last December, that really practical and profitable organic farming was now, 50 years after I first got excited about it, stepping into the trenches of real agriculture.

Gene Logsdon: Corn Lover Delights

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

I get carried away sometimes with my misgivings about corn farming, so I have to balance that out occasionally with praise for one of my favorite foods. A reader, I think it was Ken, recently asked me to write about our experiences with cornbread and so I will, although I know many of you could do it better.

Daughter Jenny provided the photo of me and the corn.  The ear is 14 inches long with 22 rows of kernels if I remember correctly. I don’t see any practical reason to try to grow big ears of corn except for the fun of it, although with ears like this it would not take an impossible number of stalks per acre to make a record breaking yield. The corn is open pollinated Reid’s Yellow Dent, which I grew for about 35 years and quit only last year when the deer started eating every bit of it. I hope to be able to grow a bit of it in the garden now. Friends and family who have used it for cornbread always come back for more. I have a hunch that if our corn does taste better it is because it is fresher than store-bought meal.  As any food ages, it loses taste. We use new corn every year. The trick is to store it on the cob in a dry cool place, shelling only as needed. Leave the corn out in the field in the fall as long you can. When I bring it in, I tie the ears we want to save for cornmeal by the husks to wires in our airy garage with metal disks at both ends of the wire so mice can’t get to the corn. Looks sort of like clothes on the line. Carol also stores ears of corn in the freezer after they are dry. This is a good thing to do if you are having problems with weevils.

Gene Logsdon: Village Farming


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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

A lot of attention is being given to urban farming and that is certainly good. But there is a somewhat broader view emerging under the impetus of garden farming. I call it the ascendancy of  village farming. As far as I can find in history and archeology, as the hunting and gathering age gradually evolved into settled communities, farming was very much a village affair, not an individual family undertaking.  People congregated into groups for mutual protection and for sharing the work load. Their garden farms were clustered around the outskirts of their villages. Among the many advantages, there were plenty of children and dogs running around, scaring wild animals away from the crops. Traditionally in Europe and especially Asia where even today the average size of farms is under five acres in some areas, farmers lived in villages and went out to their acres during the day.  Immigrants who lived this integrated village farming life in Austria have told me how much more comfortable and enjoyable life was compared to what they found in America. In their homeland, farmers often worked in groups in the fields and then returned to town in the evenings, to community, and on porches, street corners,  and in taverns, they talked to each other, shared ideas and events, tended to see both farm field and urban shop as one community united in work and play. In America they felt lonely on American farms.

But even here, there were close connections between farmers and villagers as I grew up. On Sunday morning, we country people went to church in our villages and after services, everyone stood around outside and talked sometimes for over an hour. We children played hide and seek among the legs of the grownups. And on Saturday night, everyone went to town and stood on street corners visiting with townspeople and each other until after midnight.

GENE LOGSDON: Same Land, Same Crops For 2000 Years

 

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

I think this will blow your mind as much as it did mine. A book I am working on prompted me to wonder who all farmed my land before me. So I looked into the history. The first pioneer I can verify was a rancher, R.N. Taylor, who ran sheep and cattle over his extensive acreage, mostly to keep down brush while the tree stumps were being cleared. Then my great grandfather Charles Rall came from Germany and went to work for Mr. Taylor. The Ralls prospered and eventually purchased most of R.N.’s land and more, turning their holdings into small grain and livestock farms operated by the third and fourth generations.

Gene Logsdon: Shipping Hay Overseas

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

The farm news is reporting that the amount of hay we are shipping overseas, mainly to China and Saudi Arabia, has doubled in recent years. The total is still only a small part of our hay production so it’s not yet earthshaking news, I guess, but for someone brought up in agriculture “before farmers went crazy” (my father’s pet phrase), that is an alarming trend. I grew up with the common saying: “sell the hay, sell the farm.” Selling off hay was a big no-no because it meant you were removing from the farm the soil nutrients tied up in that hay that should go back onto the soil as green manure and animal manure. The articles I’ve read so far on exporting hay do not mention this very important factor, so, even though I know most of you who read this blog are well aware of it, maybe it is time to review one of the basic fundamentals of sustainable farming.

Hay— or forage, speaking more broadly— is the foundation of economical farming. Corn and soybeans get all the glory, even as their production propels agriculture toward much higher input costs than is necessary to feed the world. I personally think that we started down the road to ruination when most farmers took legume forages out of their crop rotations. The main reasons that happened were that making hay requires lots of physical work and, in most heavily farmed regions, there’s a likely chance that rain will fall after the hay is mowed, making a good harvest a chancy affair. But both these concerns have been rendered rather minor by modern technology. New hay-handling machines take much of the work out of the job. And modern hay-handling methods along with much improved weather predicting have reduced at least by half the chances of getting hay ruined by rain before it can be baled and stored.

Gene Logsdon: Starting An Old Tractor

From GENE LOGSDON

I don’t know of a better argument in favor of farming with horses than trying to start an old tractor in the winter time. I have never thought I could afford a new tractor so I know quite a bit about starting old ones. Or rather I know quite a bit about new and more imaginative combinations of foul language when old tractors won’t start. Some will say that it is all a matter of science. A friend of mine, Roy Harbour, who ran a car dealership most of his life, was fond of saying that “if everything is right, you can’t keep a car from starting.” Maybe so, but to me the fact that a spark from a battery will ignite gas in a carburetor, and the explosion engendered will push pistons up and down to make a drive shaft spin round and round so that tires go forward and backward is sheer magic. To start that process sometimes requires mystic manipulations and incantations heavy on swear words. Once I disgustedly kicked the front tire on my WD Allis when it wouldn’t start, and wouldn’t you know, it fired right up when I tried again. After that, I would as a matter of course, kick the tire superstitiously before trying to start the obstinate thing. That worked for about a week.

Gene Logsdon: GM Stands For Genetic Muddle

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

I say I am against GM foods and even consented to be in that documentary making its rounds (“GMO-OMG”) declaring my opposition even though I hate the public stage. Then I turn around and write something supportive of genetically modified chestnut trees. I have to try to explain myself. I have read all your good responses last time about GM foods and looked at the links you all suggested and in fact have spent the greater part of my writing career examining and reporting on food safety. I am sure of only one thing. No one will ever solve the debate over which foods are safe and which are not. It is a fruitless (pardon pun) endeavor. The most dangerous foods in the world are alcoholic beverages and we embrace and glorify them.

Game Logsdon: Will Genetic Modification Save The Chestnut Tree?


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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

I am against Big Ag trying to use genetic modification to monopolize the food business, but I don’t damn all genetic modification. First of all it is useless to do so because there are a zillion possible applications of this biotechnology and science is not about to abandoned all of them. And there is good in it I think, although I am not knowledgeable enough to speak with any authority. For example, scientists have been experimenting for some time at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to put a wheat gene (of all things) into the American chestnut tree that helps the tree to resist the blight that brought it to near extinction. The wheat gene keeps oxalate or oxalic acid from accumulating in the wood of the tree. Oxalate is a necrotic agent to which the tree is extremely susceptible, and if I am starting to sound erudite, I must add that I am just repeating what the news is reporting and don’t really know oxalate from oxbows.

Gene Logsdon: Could King Corn Be Our Downfall?

From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

That is a perfectly ridiculous question, if you look at corn yields lately. Corn farming has never been so successful. Last year production soared to a new record high in the U.S., with an average yield of 171 bushels per acre. A new individual record-breaking yield was also set, an unbelievable 503 bushels per acre by a farmer in Georgia. He must have set the field up on edge and planted both sides of it. I’m sure that every agronomic aid known to science was scrupulously applied, every fertilizer and mineral added to absolute perfection as far as science knows, the crop irrigated so as never to suffer the least stress of dry weather, the soil used the very best available. What it cost to achieve that kind of yield didn’t matter; bushels per acre was everything. But that is still an achievement worth a gasp or three. Just how many bushels per acre are possible? Using estimates based on history, the experts say that corn production increases on a forty years basis about 1.8 bushels per acre per year on average. How far into the future will that be true?

Gene Logsdon: Out a Winter Window

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

I was sort of startled by the two foxes at the edge of the woods outside our kitchen window. Son-in-law Joe took the picture. Those are well-fed foxes, I can vouch, courtesy of our hens. A part of me wanted to shoot them but a part of me didn’t. The lazy part saved them. I’d probably have missed anyway, given the state of my eyes these days. Red foxes are so pretty. Worth a hen or four I guess. Coincidentally, I had just read in Poor Will’s Almanack 2015, by Bill Felker, a book that Brad Roof, a reader of this website, gave me: “As the sun starts to rise a little earlier in mid-January, mating time approaches for foxes. Watch for their playing and courting in the fields.” I think these two had sex on their minds because they were so preoccupied with each other that they did not notice us standing at the window.

Then I also remembered another reason I should not have been surprised by the foxes. We live far out in the country with lots of cover and woodland around. Visiting son-in-law Joe’s house recently, which has some woody area behind it but which is very suburban, I was staring out the window, as I so like to do, and a coyote came slinking across his yard. I’m telling you: wildlife is everywhere these days. I was talking to an old-time coonhunter recently who was lamenting the lack of skillful hunters these days. “I think squirrels are about to take over the world,” he said, shaking his head. I agreed. We have so many in our woodlot. I keep thinking that “our” foxes will start catching them and pay us for their chicken dinners. Maybe they are.

Gene Logsdon: Strawing Strawberry Beds

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

Here in our neighborhood, we’ve been arguing about when, if ever, strawberry beds need to be winterized with a covering of straw. There are enough different answers to that question that I am beginning to wonder about traditional ways as much as I doubt modern ways in gardening and farming. Here are the answers I’ve gotten to the question: should you straw your strawberry patch over winter?

1. Momma always did it so that must be the right thing to do.

2. I don’t do it and I get just as many berries as Momma did.

3. The reason you do it is to keep the ground from freezing and thawing repeatedly in winter warm spells, which heaves the plants out of the ground.

4. No, you do it to delay spring growth of the plants so they don’t bloom too early and get killed by frost.

Gene Logsdon: How Henny Penny Came To Rule the Roost

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but when reporters are interviewing people on the radio news, especially in so-called third world countries, there are often roosters crowing or hens clucking in the background. I think I know what’s going on. Chickens are using the airways to signal each other about the latest advances in their conquest of the backyards of the world. All that cockadoodledooing and clucketyclucking translates into “we shall overcome. No more egg factories.”

I got a huge kick out of what a respondent on this blogsite, Betty, wrote recently— that she had heard about cases of salmonella popping up from people kissing their hens. I can believe it. People kiss their dogs and cats, so why not their chickens. My only problem is where do you kiss a chicken?

Gene Logsdon: Front Porch Garden

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

We are fortunate to have Jan Dawson and Andy Reinhart, who operate Jandy’s Farm Market near Bellefontaine, Ohio, for friends. Nearly everything they do or say has potential for my scribblings. The photo above is a picture of their front porch. Need I say more?  I tease them that they have turned their porch into a garden simply because they are addicted to gardening and can’t quit just because winter is here. But actually there is plenty of method to this winter madness when you can saunter out on your porch without bundling up or wading through snow and gather your salad for the next meal.

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