Summertime and the Living is Easy

I hope that you’re taking advantage of the final weeks of summer and enjoying all of the tasty delicacies we’re blessed with this time of year.   We’re pretty much over the hump with work finally, and have done nearly all we can for our crops at this point.  We can now let the gardens “lay by” for the most part and wait on harvest.  “Lay by” is an old expression I first encountered in the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Farmer Boy.

Although best known for Little House on the Prairie, Ingalls’ Farmer Boy documents a year in Laura’s husband’s childhood on a farm in upstate New York in the mid 19th century.  Outside of being sweetly entertaining and beautifully written and illustrated, like the rest of the Little House series, Farmer Boy is particularly interesting because it is set across the St. Lawrence not far from us.  A mixed farm of cattle, sheep, horses, swine, fowl and crops, the novel provides a very detailed account of what farm life would have looked like here at the time of Confederation. 

When you reach this stage of the year in the book, Almanzo’s parents have enough breathing room that they go on a week-long journey to visit some loved ones and leave the children behind to care for things.  Naturally the children get into all sorts of mischief, not to mention making as much ice cream as they like and eating melons all day every day.    Our children’s daily melon consumption seems to be approaching their own body weight at this point in the summer, proving as always, that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Letting crops “lay by” can be a little bit frustrating, because I always want to “do something” to swing odds in our favour.  But there is only so much that can be done.  When I first started farming my mother often quipped that I was crazy to do something that so heavily hinged on the vagaries of the weather.  I didn’t really notice at the time how right she was: when you are just learning, there is so much in motion that you don’t really see how everything is being affected.   But at this point in my career, it is challenging not to directly tie my mood and outlook to weather conditions: they are that critical.

So, we go from high stress, blistering 30c+ dry heat, to mild, sopping wet 99% humidity.  The plants can relax, but pathogens love it, and you can watch diseases spread by the hour under these circumstances.   It is normal and expected this time of year: just sometimes a bit hard to watch.   A few days, and even a few hours of extreme weather can have profound impacts on crop development: plants really are these hardwired environmental feedback machines.  Now it’s one thing to note all of this in our gardens, but weather trends actually play a huge role in the business of agriculture. 

Futures trading in agricultural commodities is a giant business (which many farmers also engage in) and weather patterns in major grain producing regions around the globe directly impact these prices, which can swing dramatically by the hour.  Data released by the USDA regarding planting, crop conditions and expected yields will directly affect the price of a loaf of bread: and these crops have not even been harvested yet!

Right now there is an event called the Pro Farmer Tour, where crops are being sampled across the US Corn Belt with an eye to predicting yields in the fall.  From what I’ve seen on Twitter, things are looking less stellar than hoped for.   The silver lining to information like this, of course, is that poor crops means high prices – and they were record high to begin with!  This is good news to farmers in our area (which is really a tiny, marginal outpost in the world of commodities), because, as you may notice, the field crops in our area are looking pretty mint. 

I can only get so excited about the success of industrial export corn and soybean crops, however.  Although they represent continued cashflow for the farmers who persist in our area, the real wealth they generate largely is made elsewhere: by the companies who supply the inputs to grow them, and the companies who actually process these products into their final form (often one and the same).   It becomes quite stark when you compare it to Farmer Boy… 

Almanzo’s family produced not only crops for direct human consumption, like wheat and potatoes, but also dairied: separating milk to make butter for sale, and value-adding the byproducts by feeding the skim to pigs and calves.  The farm also produced and sold means of transportation and traction (raising and breaking horses and oxen), as well as the energy/fuel they required (hay and oats).  And if all that wasn’t impressive enough, they produced the raw material for textiles as well: shearing sheep for fleece to be sent off and carded, spun and woven at a mill just like the one on the Cataraqui.

So, we go from farms operating as dynamic organisms: feeding, moving and clothing their communities, to farms acting as substrates for industrial chemical conversion.   It’s hard to say which system is more “sophisticated” but it’s very clear which is more aesthetically pleasing and which generated and retained more wealth in our communities.   The Woolen Mill itself is a great analogy for this transformation when you observe what businesses it contains now:  we went from controlling the means of production to put clothes on our backs, to offshoring it to the third world, and traded it for an economy of recreation, restaurants, spas, media and professionals.   Ostensibly this took place in the name of Efficiency, but when you learn of the absurdity that Ontario sheep producers shear their flocks at a loss (it costs more to remove the wool than the wool itself is worth) it is hard to accept that any of this is actually sensible.

When you take this model of efficiency to its logical conclusion, things get pretty grim. London, Ontario is now home to the world’s largest cricket factory.  Producing 28 millions of pounds of crickets per year, the plant was subsidized by the federal government and although due to lack of demand most of the output is being directed into pet food, the entire project is couched in feel good language around food security. 

Founder, Mohammed Ashour:  “We have a massive growth in both population and appetite for protein, while at the same time we’re seeing a significant reduction in arable land and resources to produce food. Our longer-term vision is to make sure that this is a protein source that can be available and affordable to genuinely address food insecurity in many countries around the world.”

Egghead from University of Guelph, Evan Fraser: “I think it is so exciting that we are at a moment in history where we’re really re-evaluating our food systems in general, and exploring new ways of exploring protein and more efficient ways of producing protein.”

Here’s the funny part, though.  Guess what the crickets are eating?  CORN AND SOYBEANS

You can watch this video from Entomo Farms in Norwood, Ontario and observe for yourself.

So when you hear our central planners talk about “food security”, know that they’re not talking about changing the food system or blanketing the landscape in diverse Farmer Boy style family farms.   They’re talking about reinforcing the current industrial paradigm, all of which effectively erases local distinctions, and is ultimately dehumanizing in the way that it removes us from our environment and the people that make up the systems that support us.  I am really grateful for all of you taking the time to work with our farm, and not letting your eating habits “lay by”, but rather deliberately working towards the type of diet you can savour and the type of world you want to leave for your children.

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