Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The old ways

I have been trying to shape this land for a while now. We've tried different strategies and seen a lot of failures. So I turn to the internet to research what works and what doesn't. Inevitably, there comes the discussion about yields, sustainability and how everyone views that differently.

 Modern farming

Conventional farming seems to think modern agriculture is the only way to feed the world. Unconventional farmers however, want a moratorium on killing everything in sight. There's a tussle between who's right.

It got me thinking recently, about my own farming experience. I don't mention it much, but I come from several farming backgrounds. My mother and her siblings, grew up on farms. They killed rabbit and poultry for food, grew fruit and vegetables, with just enough to sell to pay the bills.

An old fashioned way to pick fruit

It wasn't an ideal life, it was hard work, but as the seasons came and went, they always seemed to be healthy and have food they produced themselves. My grandmother married several times in her life. In the beginning it was a grape farmer in a winery area, and at the later part of her life, it was a cattle man, much older than her.

But the stories I heard from that last marriage, were quite valuable in retrospect. At the time though, I thought they were weird (like from another planet weird) because I was used to a completely different way of living. How could a man spend most of his life in the saddle, living with his cattle? How could he get up every day in the small town we lived, waiting to trek to his property and check the cows? Wasn't town more exciting? Weren't cows boring?

Sale yards

I overheard my grandmother saying in a conversation once, that her husband was well respected in the farming community. I didn't realise how well, until I attended a cattle sale at the local yards. Everyone wanted to shake his hand. Every man wanted to steal his ear. He couldn't move a few meters before someone else stopped him. He was always polite to people, but you could see he was never far from the cows either. Looking back now, he was really quite obsessed with cattle.

I started to piece together the stories I heard in conversations - the little things I had no idea about at the time, but always seemed important for my grandparents to discuss. I never heard my grandfather complain about the weather. He was an astute observer instead, always noting where the wind was coming from, and if the rain was coming from the west, to expect bad storms. He never got it wrong.

Weather watching

I remember my grandfather remaining resolute that a government subsidy was a bad thing too. He didn't want to be told how to treat his land, in order to be eligible for a subsidy. He seemed far happier for avoiding them.

Whatever he was doing as an experienced cattle man though, it was certainly noticed in the yards, because his cattle were consistently getting the highest prices, even during a drought. He had fewer cattle to offer than some, but you could be sure, ALL were the finest quality. And what would you expect from a man who dedicated his life to living with his cattle?

Life in the saddle

From what I can gather from my grandfather's experience droving cattle, is that whatever those animals experienced, he did too. If it rained, he was in it. If it was hot and dry, he experienced it with the cattle. Over the years, I'm sure he must've observed the natural features on the landscape which provided enough protection, shade and water, for everyone to depend on.

Why would someone who knew the value of such features on the landscape, suddenly take a government subsidy to remove those elements and start poisoning his land, as a matter of course? It was the conventional way, but it wasn't my grandfathers way.

 Life outdoors 24/7

My grandfather knew the value of the old ways - tried, true and dependable. If anyone thought him weird, they didn't tell it to his face, because they were too busy asking his advice for the pick of calves at the sales. It didn't matter how good the stock was however, if they were taking them home to conventional land practices.

I remember visiting his land as a youngster and it seemed so messy. Everything was overgrown. But then I was raised in the controlled environment of trimmed hedges and cut lawn. As an adult now though, I can appreciate those overgrown masses, were actually windbreaks.

An example of a windbreak

His cattle were never truly exposed to the elements. In fact, they had quite the cozy home for bovines. Whenever they saw his car enter the top paddock, they would slowly walk along the windbreaks to meet him. I was fascinated by their orchestrated procession, and never knew why they preferred that particular course. It seemed to go the long way around. I can hazard a guess now though. Why walk out in the open, with the sun and wind on their hides, when they could walk the cool path beneath their hooves, next to the shrubbery instead?

It took a dependable farmer, who went out into the elements with his animals, to know what had true value on his land. If he experienced the benefits for himself, how could anyone pay him, to remove those things from his animals?

 Water is an important resource

In one way, his job was made harder by failing to mechanize and maximize production. On the other hand though, he could spot a problem with an animal early, before it became fatal. That's because he was out  in the environment, keeping only what stock his land could handle. He was extremely astute at noticing when the balance became even slightly changed, and it was his responsibility to adjust.

When I read about what is the best land management practices today, I see a lot about what scientists tell farmers is good to plant or remove. Also there's a lot about the importance of yields. All garnered from research conditions dependent on fitting the mould. While these are not necessarily bad things, of themselves (information is not inherently evil) but they seem to have dominated the conversation, so that maximizing production is considered the norm, and sacrificing yield, is considered financial suicide.

A farmer's companion

Multiple species inhabit the middle ground though. It's where they can advantage each other by interconnecting. Like the messy windbreak my grandfather kept completely dishevelled. He had a multitude of species of animals, living their life cycles around that shrubbery, which ultimately benefited his cattle. Birds are natural pest eaters after all, and lots of birds eat lots of bugs.

But his bovines were also eating food (and medicine) nature intended for them to eat. That's why he always fetched the best prices at the sale yards. He didn't waste his energy fighting the natural elements with poisons. He spent a lifetime, learning to embrace the natural elements to his advantage instead. I guess something only living in a saddle for weeks on end, could teach you?

 When all is said and done...

My grandfather died a happy and wealthy (though you wouldn't know it to look at him) cattle man. Unfortunately once he died, so did much of what he knew. None of his children wanted a part in the old ways. Not completely.

I wish I could have stolen my grandfathers ear, to ask him about land management though. I was too young then, and didn't know I'd be managing land myself at some point. But I still have the small conversations I overheard and the memories of his unkempt acreage. The old ways seemed to be more about contemplation of a hundred different strategies to manage something, as opposed to only the one.

 Freedom to choose

Specialization of modern agriculture made everything the same. We've lost a great deal of diversity in that process. So as meagre as my farming experience is, I want to write it all down, as a small contribution to the larger picture. And that picture is all those unconventional land stewards, striving to go against the grain of modern conventions.

It is the unconventional farmer who inhabits the middle ground - where the natural cycles are respected and enhanced. Technology is used only for the benefit of the land, and still allows the farmer to connect on a personal level.

The unconventional farmer will also have more conversations around food, than just maximizing production. We're making and seeing connections in our natural environment, that takes years to practice observing. We're raising families or animal families, that doesn't make our lives picture perfect either.

Talking about it, normalises the natural challenges that comes with our environment of living things. Although he's long gone, my grandfather's memory was a reminder that the old ways, endure, so long as someone sees the value and puts them back into practice. We should be willing to experience some of the conditions we subject our food to, if only to learn how better to protect our investment.

(SIDE NOTE: None of these pictures are mine, they are borrowed from a free photo resource here)


  1. I feel much the same about my grandmother. Nanna died just over 12 months ago and I commemorated the day by bottling tomatoes. She was a wonderful homemaker in that she grew and bottled fruit and tomatoes, knitted, sewed and cooked up a storm. In fact the eulogies given at her funeral waxed lyrical about her cooking and baking. I wish I had been into bottling when she was. So very much I could have learned but sadly, I was not interested when she was still able to share the knowledge and when I began bottling was when the dementia started to grip her much harder.
    I wonder if that will be the greatest folly of all in modern times. That we have failed to respect that our elders have done it for much longer than any scientist and that in many cases they actually know a better way. Sure, there is sacrifice but there is a sacrifice however you do it. Lower yields for a wholesome means of production or lose skills, lose viability of species, lose fertility of soil and the power to empower and enrich onesself

    1. That's the trade off, isn't it? We lose much more in the long run, by taking the fast road to production. Many of the elders remember what it was like to have "living" things all around them. While they were probably always short of a bob to buy stuff with, they rarely got sick because all the food they were eating was fruit of the earth, and sweat from their brow.

      We do have to sacrifice something, and for our grandparents, it was sacrificing having lots of things. Our generation has all the things, and sacrificed our time with living elements to fully appreciate (and invest in) them. I'm glad you shared your grandmother's story, it was lovely to read about more salt of the earth people.

      If you feel so inspired, perhaps you could do a regular feature on your blog, sharing about the elders you came in contact with. I hope to pluck memories from my own grey matter in much the same way. :)

  2. I always think about the potato farmer Michael Pollan interviewed in one of his books. The farmer grew GM potatoes, but confessed to Pollan that he wouldn't eat them himself. He grew his own potatoes organically in his house garden.

    It seems like modern farmers have lost the plot regarding care of the land and producing healthy food. I don't know what's caused this turnaround. Chasing after the holy grail of huge profits?

    I think it will change back as oil begins to become seriously scarce. There won't be the fancy hybrid seeds or GM crops or chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Farmers will have to go back to square one and work with nature and the soil as they used to do.

    1. I don't blame farmers for wanting to make a profitable gain, or for taking science seriously in achieving that end. But its become tunnel vision now, where they wouldn't know what to do with their land if they weren't poisoning it in some fashion.

      They've lost that knowledge only traditional farmers could possess, and exchanged it for what only adds up on paper. At some point, farming will have to return to the natural equilibrium set by nature, and those who go voluntarily will be ahead of the game, come crunch time.

  3. When money is the only good, the only goal, that's what happens. It took me awhile to figure out with my goats that maximizing their "genetic potential" wasn't in their best interests, nor mine. I would rather adjust our diet than try to force them into a particular yield. The same is true with our chickens, and our garden too. Learning how to be content is not an easy thing, but satisfaction with one's life has been lost in the push to get ahead. Ahead of what, I don't know! Sounds like your grandfather was a content man.

    1. It's easier when you learn to figure it out on a different equation, isn't it? It's easier because you're not having to manage more than what you need to. My grandfather was a very unique person for me to know, because he was so content just to be outdoors with the cows. No-one could pay him to do anything else - not even himself! ;)

  4. I'm not a farmer but surrounded by both organic small family farms ( English and Amish) as well as conventional ones. The conventional farmers around us are not actually growing food but ethanol. It's been more lucrative. We have beef and dairy farms as well. The thing is that the Amish and English organic farms are just as much about production as the conventional ones yet with respect to the environmental issues we all worry about. There's a difference in making a million off of GMO corn and wanting more and making 75,000 off of diversified crops and being content. I was shocked at first that conventional farmers in my acquaintance don't generally eat well. Afraid of vegetables and fruit. Lol. I can't prove that there's a correlation but there really is. Lol.
    But I think it's a mistake to believe these conventional men and women don't know the old ways. They do. They just see them as wrong.

  5. Agreed. :) There is some wilful ignorance on some conventional farmers parts, but I also think it stems from never really seeing how non conventional farming work. Grandpa told them a story, and Dad told them another, but to the grandchildren to the old ways, they treat it like folklore, suggesting its not relevant today.

    But if they could actually stand in the land Grandpa worked, and step forwards into what their land looks like today, it would be harder to be so wilfully ignorant of the results of their actions. Having air-conditioned tractors, helps to remain ignorant of what they're doing to their own inheritance. Grandpa had natural air conditioning, in nature.

    Although I have to say, its good you live in a region with strong diversity, so its not ALL conventional farming.

    1. The conventional farmers I know learned to farm in the old days. They don't recall those times fondly and see today's farming as " progress" . They see organic farming (even the big production farms) as the enemy and view it with mistrust. They are somewhat brainwashed by the industry I would say so you are right about the folklore aspect.

      It'll only change when the price of a bushel of corn doesn't justify the cost of fuel to run that air conditioned tractor. Last winter it was revealed that the biofuel plants were costing far too much to operate so there is a concern as to what is going to happen next. I stopped following the story but I found it hopeful!

    2. I would agree with all that. It was something my grandfather often came across. Not that he would try to convert farmers back to his methods, but whenever they'd ask what his secret was, he'd tell them boring stuff they weren't interested in pursuing.

      They would laugh and think he was holding something 'bigger' back, and prod him in another conversation later. They only wanted to talk in the language they knew, which was conventional farming. They thought he had a secret in conventional farming techniques he wasn't sharing, lol.

      He was telling them his secret though, they just didn't believe it because it wasn't conventional and it required a different way of thinking about their land.

    3. Your grandpa was a very patient man. I like some of the local farmers around here and they are not stupid but they are not willing to think outside the box I guess. I also believe there is alot more pressure involvded to produce in this way than we know. I think there are incentives (subsidies but also private ones) and they are watching organics for its flaws they say but I think that if it were to yeild a million a year they would all jump to it.


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