Thursday, November 19, 2009

More Urban Agriculture

Not too long ago, I commented in these pages on an interesting piece in The New York Times about urban gardening. Now The New Yorker, that most urbane of all periodicals, is getting in on the act. Their staff writer, Susan Orlean, has an article in a recent issue about -- are you ready? -- raising chickens. Technically, Orlean does not live in the city, but in a more rural setting where having a few hens (and a rooster by mistake) does not scandalize the neighbors. But she writes for people with a lot less green space. Even real city folks, she says, can (and maybe should) raise their own poultry.

There are some cities in the U.S. that have ordinances against keeping chickens. And it's not always easy to figure out, or learn, what the rules are where you might live.

Urban chickens need the right equipment, and perhaps the ideal place to start is the Eglu. I don't keep chickens, and I don't plan to, but if I did I would start with an Eglu--simply because it looks like something out of The Jetsons. I'm more interested in raising quail, so I might investigate whether an Eglu can be modified for those much smaller birds. (If I try that, you'll read about it here!)

There must be some kind of urban poultry movement starting, because there are blogs devoted to the subject. (Okay, I know that there are blogs devoted to every subject! My point is--chickens!? in cities!? Who knew?) You can check out, or, or if you think I'm kidding.

Why would anybody want chickens in the tiny backyard of an Manhattan brownstone, or elsewhere in the concrete jungle? Well, for one thing, they lay eggs, and a couple of nice, fresh eggs every day is not a bad thing. But some people are attracted to these birds as pets: as objects of affection and companions. In other words, we humans seem to have a connection to other living creatures. We enjoy their company, and we care for them and feel affection for them, even if they provide us with no tangible benefits. A couple of hens, scratching at bugs and clucking contentedly in the backyard, renew that connection for us even when our lives are largely alienated from the earth we live on.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Orchard Dreams

"I am not bound for any public place, but for ground of my own where I have planted vines and orchard trees, and in the heat of the day climbed up into the healing shadow of the woods." (Wendell Berry)

I've commented here before that I'd like to plant an orchard on The Farm. Nothing grandiose or industrial in scale: perhaps five or six apple trees, as many cherry trees and perhaps some pears. Planting an orchard is a sign of hope, an act of confidence and optimism about a future unseen. He who plants an orchard makes a long-term commitment to a specific piece of ground. He gives a gift to his children and his children's children.

The Farm--this Farm--is a little patch of rolling hills, where the natural state of the landscape is a patchwork of woods and grassland. To plant an orchard would woo the nature of that particular place, cultivation most in harmony with the character of the land itself, and therefore holds the promise of being both fruitful and happy. No sense trying to grow what the land doesn't want to bear, or planting against the grain of the soil.

Besides, I like apples, and almost everything made from apples. Ditto cherries. Less wild about pears, but one needs variety, right? I dream of getting a cider press and bottling fresh juices on a crisp October day. As a dabbling homebrewer, this could put me in touch with cultures around the world where cider fills the culinary niche occupied by beer in other places. Brittany, Normandy, and southwestern England, in particular, cherish the venerable art of cider making, as do the Basques and the hill tribes of Rhineland-Pfalz.

Getting from here to there is another matter. Choosing, buying, and planting trees is the easy part. The little saplings won't survive long if we don't protect them somehow from the ravenous local whitetail population.

My first thought was to fence the whole orchard area with 7- or 8-foot deer fencing. Nice idea -- until a little research put a pricetag on that project. It turns out it's pretty easy to spend over a thousand dollars to protect a dozen fruit trees, and that is just too much (unless we're aiming at commercial production, of course; then we could recoup the investment over several years of profits).

I think we'll have to settle for improvised solutions, using whatever old fencing and posts we can find around The Farm. And this does not diminish the pleasure of dreaming hopefully toward my orchard. The art of cultivating with the nature of the land instead of against it involves compromise between what we want and what the land can provide. And there is another kind of compromise to learn: between a theoretical ideal and the affordable.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Farm in The City

I saw this column while very far from The Farm, on a plane from Philadelphia to Zurich to be exact. It's not that often that my agricultural leanings are fed from the venerable pages of The Gray Lady. This may be another sign of something -- I'm not sure what! -- or a clue to the puzzle of this thing we call popular culture. It might mean something like this:

The line between urban and rural is not sharp and clear. Because we live on the earth, even in those densely packed, overbuilt, and artificial environments we call cities, the earth has away of breaking through and re-asserting itself. Our technology and our architecture lay a thin crust over the ground, and given the chhance, the ground will do what the ground does best: send seedlings up through cracks in the pavement.

I suppose someone will quibble that the New York Times piece on tomatoes in Brooklyn is not really about farming but about "gardening," as if the two are clearly distinguishable. But what is a city garden but a farm painted on a very small canvas, and what is a farm but a garden that got out of hand? Both share the same media, the same instincts, the same struggles, the same culture. My favorite little magazine Hobby Farms is launching a new publication called Urban Farm, which sounds like an oxymoron, but is really just another clue in this puzzle i'm trying to work out.

I remember sitting in a classroom in western Kenya while my students scribbled away on their final exams. Looking out the window I savored the sight of the lush Kisii hill country in the distance and the bountiful vegetation surrounding the building. Vines had found their way in through one of the windows, and seemed to be flourishing happily inside the room. I got the impression that, in Africa at least, all our development and building amounts to little more than a temporary clearing of the natural growth on the hills. As soon as we turn our backs, the vines are in at the windows and start their work of reclaiming this little patch of earth.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Yes, You Can

"The only rules that really matter," said Captain Jack Sparrow, "are these: what a man can do and what a man can't do."

Until recently, I would have thought that one of the things a man can do is drive an ATV pretty much anywhere through mud and brush. Surely, I thought, one of the things a man can't do is get a 40-hp, six-wheel-drive Polaris Ranger stuck. Turns out I was wrong about that.

I had learned from the hard soils lesson with my brother's Jeep (see previous post!). We waited several days after the rains to give the place a chance to dry out. There was just one little creek-bed to cross, through a bramble of brush and vines, to get to the place I've started calling the Lost Acre. There was some water in the creek, but not much. It was steep, and steepest at the very bottom, so that the Polaris pitched forward at a thrilling angle as I drove down. I stopped to check for hidden holes or logs, and to check my exit route on the other side of the creek. Confident that this was doable, I drove powerfully through the ditch. No problem!

The Lost Acre isn't really lost and it actually measures 1.77 acres. It's bounded by two steep, densely brush-filled drainage creeks and a tight, gateless barbed wire fence between The Farm and our neighbor's manicured pasture. The steep, tricky spot where I drove the Polaris through the creek is the only way to get any kind of vehicle in or out of this particular patch of tall grass and volunteer cedars. It's not part of our CRP contract, so I dream of ways to make it productive. But if we can't drive the ATV in and out, it's going to be hard to put the Lost Acre to good use.

So, as I said, driving in was not such a problem. Driving out of the Lost Acre was another story. The alarming angles were just a little different coming from the other side. The trail took a turn to the right on the way out of the creek. Maybe I hesitated just slightly at just the wrong moment. Whatever it was, the game was over. Six wheels spinning in the muddy, wet weeds were suddenly but definitely worthless. The Polaris spent that night in the creek-bed, sheltered with a blue plastic tarp in case it rained. We pulled it out the next day with a borrowed 4wd pickup.

Captain Jack Sparrow was right. What a man can do, and what a man can't do are rules that matter. You certainly can get that 6x6 40hp Polaris stuck. We don't move at will through the world. Even on our own small patch of ground, the land itself sets boundaries and limits which we cannot cross, even when we wield all our horsepower and technology. Living with and caring for this land means accepting limits rather than fighting against them. Wendell Berry, a wise man who knows a thing or two about living with the land, said "A man with a machine and inadequate culture . . . is a pestilence. He shakes more than he can hold."

Saturday, May 2, 2009

"Know Your Soils"

The soil on The Farm ranges from Armstrong clay loam to Gorim silt loam. If that doesn't mean much to you, don't worry. It's a foreign language to me, too.

Everything I know about our soils comes from two sources. The first is the detailed conservation management report prepared for us by the local NRCS office. Each field--and even the distinct parts of each field--is carefully described and analyzed. Turns out we do not have any Menfro, which is the Missouri state soil. (I bet you didn't even know Missouri had a state soil!)

My second source of soil knowledge is first-hand. A couple of weeks ago, my brother and his overweight Labrador named Hagrid came for a weekend visit in their Jeep. When the drizzle on Saturday morning ruled out golf, we decided to head for The Farm (which he hadn't yet seen).

We had only been there about 30 minutes when our combined supply of good sense -- which is never as great when we're together as either of us can manage on our own -- ran out completely. I opened the wire gate to the pasture across the road from the house, and he drove the Jeep in. To get a better view, I opened the next gate, too, and he drove through that.

And then he was stuck. The drizzle-saturated clay suddenly seemed the consistency of pancake batter, and all four wheels of the Jeep were spinning uselessly. No matter which direction the Jeep was pointed, or which direction we spun the wheels, the vehicle only moved one direction: downhill. And downhill was not helpful, since at the bottom of the hill was a soggy creek and cow-trodden mud.

We took turns pushing and driving. We chopped branches to stuff under the wheels in an effort to grab some traction. We rocked the Jeep back and forth. We dragged big scraps of old carpet from the trash heap across the road, and stuck them under the wheels of the Jeep. That last one actually kind of worked, until the carpet was soaked with water and slimy clay mud; after that the carpet gave as much traction as shaving cream, and weighed about a hundred pounds a square yard.

The story has a long, sad ending, which involves cold wind and sleet, a tow-truck which got stuck worse than we were, and a drive home in the wee hours of the morning. Only Hagrid seemed to be enjoying himself: wind and freezing drizzle is a Labrador's natural habitat. We consoled ourselves next day with breakfast at Denny's. My brother's email when he got home summed it up pretty well: "had a great time. Hope we never do it again."

The NRCS soils report appeals to me in a kind of techy, cerebral way. I've always enjoyed learning foreign languages. But getting my brother's Jeep profoundly stuck in that wet patch of "Bevier silty clay loam" just north of the road was my real education about our soil.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What Do You Do There? (The Farm as Hobby)

Now that you have a "farm," what do you really do with it?

I said before that we weren't really interested in becoming working farmers: we didn't really want to plow, plant, cultivate, harvest, and market fields of hay or beans or corn. We didn't want to commit ourselves to the constant demands of a commercial livestock operation (and don't be naive: five cows are nearly as much trouble as fifty, and much less profitable!).

The fact is, I am mostly interested in hunting on the place. Whitetail deer, wild turkeys, and bobwhite quail are the crops I really look forward to harvesting. I have reason to believe that they are already there, to some extent.

And with some management of the land, they should thrive. We will put in some sunflowers and millet to provide a little food and cover for the birds. We'll avoid thinning out the woods too much, and make sure the creeks and drainage areas have plenty of cover for shy deer. Starting in 2010, we'll start a rotation of controlled burning to improve the CRP grasslands for quail habitat. We'll shoot coyotes and bobcats that put pressure on the small game.

There should be plenty of room on the property for a nice big garden, without bothering the game. In fact, I'm a little worried that the game will eat the garden: we'll see! A very tall fence might be in our near future.

If we want to get more serious about things, there is room for up to 6 acres (!!) of garden area, which would keep us all busy most of the summer, and might supply vegetables, herbs, and flowers to sell at area farmers markets. There is a growing movement of "community supported agriculture" that encourages people to buy and consume local produce, and this tends to favor small, family operations more than large, industrial farms. It is entirely realistic to imagine a one- or two-acre garden that could produce a couple of thousand dollars a year

Across the road from the house is a long pasture, about 4.5 acres, along a ridgetop. It is sheltered on the North by the oaks and hickories of our woods. It has a nice southern exposure for full sun. It looks like a beautiful place to plant an orchard. Apples, pears, cherries, and maybe hazelnuts, pecans, and walnuts -- wouldn't that be nice? With a small pump we can water them from the spring-fed pond to tide them over the hot dry spells of a Missouri summer. Most of the pruning and harvesting can be done during family work-weekends. There is probably room there for a couple of hundred trees. This sounds like the sort of thing that could quickly get out of hand.

If we have a big garden, and we start planting fruit trees, we're going to want some honey bees. In fact, given the global problem of Colony Collapse Disorder, and the tremendous importance of bees as pollinators for all kinds of plants (wild and domestic), I consider it our duty to the future of civilization to encourage a hive or two on the place. A good spot would be over at the east end of that area north of the road where I want to put the orchard; from there they can also pollinate the garden next to the house, without the bother of a swarm of bees right next to the house.

Somewhere in this plan there should be a patch of hops. Hops grow on bines (which are different from "vines" -- look it up!). The aromatic flowers are harvested in the fall and used for -- you guessed it! -- beer. It turns out there's also a sort of world-wide hops shortage, so growing our own makes sense, and might be a money-maker, too.

The worrying collapse of honey bee colonies, and the looming shortage of hops are two terrible signs of the fast-approaching collapse of Western Civilization as we know it. It's our duty to humanity, to our children's children's children, to cultivate a little pocket of these precious resources.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Farm as Family Project

We were looking for an investment that didn't depend on the vagaries of the stock market. One option, of course, is real estate. If you own land it never simply evaporates (unless it's in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans or something), so it's never worth nothing. Or so they say. Several of us in the family felt this way, and we'd been thinking about it (separately) for a while.

I also wanted a place to hunt. Hunting deer on public land in Missouri isn't bad, but it's inconsistent, and you always have the feeling that you're hunting the spot where somebody just got the big buck -- or worse, that some other (less careful) hunter will be shooting from the other side side of the thicket. Besides, landowners get a nice break on deer (and turkey) tags to hunt game on their own property!

Deer and turkey are the major game in northern Missouri, but with proper land management the area is good for quail, too. Even ring-necked pheasant can be encouraged (though for those big birds, the closer to Iowa the better!).

My in-laws needed a place to retire. The ideal spot would be closer to their children and grandchildren (but not right in anybody's lap, perhaps). They would be more comfortable in the countryside than in a city. The house needed to be decent, but not that large; one story, big garage, cheap to heat, modern kitchen. It had to have a good spot for a garden.

Since "retirement" was part of the plan, it meant that we didn't want a real, working farm with all the maintenance and chores and daily hard work implied by the term! We didn't really want to get into the farming business of planting and harvesting crops or caring for livestock. Ideally we wanted a place that would basically pay for itself (or at least cover the taxes) with little or no work on our part. Finding a place with most of the acreage enrolled in the CRP program (more on that another time!) fit the bill very well.

In the back of our minds was the future option of putting another cabin or two on the place, so more of us could stay there and not be in each other's hair too much. And that meant it couldn't be too small a farm; we wound up with 100 acres, split by a paved road, with two or three potential building scattered around.

In all there were seven of us interested in pooling our resources to buy together. Combining our assets meant that we could get a bigger, nicer place than any of us could afford alone. But it also complicated the arrangements a bit, especially since the amounts we could invest were equal. After doing some reading on various options (incorporation, joint ownership, etc.), we decided to form a "limited liability company" (LLC). It cost us a few hundred bucks (using to put the paperwork together, but after that the paperwork and tax process is quite simple, and we don't need to worry about complicated estate law or probate tying the place up. Since we thought (and still think) that we might eventually own more than one property, we called the new company "Wind Hills Properties LLC" -- drop us a line!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Finding the Farm

Once we decided that we wanted to buy some farm real estate, the next question was how to find a place that would suit us. This is one place where the web came in handy. A couple of Google searches yielded several sites which seemed to specialize in the kind of property we were in the market for. But my favorite was United Country, where I could search nationally, regionally, by state, or browse listings through specific offices.

To be useful at all for hunting, I figured we would need an absolute minimum of 40 acres, so Ii limited the search to tracts larger than that. The price was tricky, since I wasn't sure where to start: setting our limit too low filtered all the good places out, while setting it too high showed me places that made my mouth water--but which were simply out of reach. So it rapidly became clear that we needed to figure out how much we could afford.

"Afford" is a rather elastic term in real estate, isn't it? It often means "how much can you borrow?" But in this case we made up our minds that we didn't want to borrow any money and have a mortgage on the place. so we had to figure out how much cash we could scrape together between us.

To spread the pain of this kind of purchase, and to put this all on a proper legal footing, we organized an LLC (maybe more about that another time!), and anybody in the family could invest in it and be part-owner. What each member was willing to invest gave us the total we had to work with, and I started searching the websites for properties in our price range, with (a) enough acres, (b) a live-able house, and good hunting prospects. Once I identified some properties, I contacted the agents, and spent some Saturdays riding around north-central Missouri looking at farms. And this place northwest of Macon stood out as the pick of the litter!

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Farm as Investment

Sinking a significant chunk of money into a piece of real estate is obviously an important investment decision. In my case, without getting too specific, my share of this wound up being more than a year's salary, and that's just a little over half the value of The Farm. I have other, more traditional investments, too. My wife and I own our home in suburban St. Louis, and have a 30-year mortgage like a lot of other people. We have IRAs, annuities, and a modest portfolio of stocks and mutual funds.

Along with all the rest, I've been interested in real estate as an investment for years, but wasn't sure how to begin. I tend to over-analyze this kind of thing, and sometimes that means I am slow to take the plunge. Of course, given the economic thrombosis since the middle of 2008 or so, it's probably a good thing I didn't borrow a bunch of money to flip houses or buy apartments a year or two ago.

But I thought about it! I have just enough hands-on experience working on my own house that the idea of fixing a place up for re-sale doesn't scare me. My wife and I have finished our basement, done electrical wiring, hung drywall, installed new flooring, sweated pipes, and so forth. But I would not consider any of those chores as "hobbies," and I could never convince myself that the return on that kind of investment would be worth the trouble in purely economic terms. In other words, I think the decision to become a landlord is a lifestyle choice we weren't ready to make.

On the other hand, I thought that farm real estate would have a number of potential advantages. If you don't over-pay in the first place, it seems to hold its value fairly well. It doesn't "sizzle" and appreciate by double digits every year, but it's not prone to boom-and-bust cycles and the kind of bubbles that make "hot" real estate a risky venture. Farms can be a source of rental income, if you don't want to raise your own crops and livestock. Some farms (like ours, but that's another story for later) are enrolled in conservation programs which provide a guaranteed income to cover taxes and minimal management costs, even without actually "farming" in the usual sense of the word. And some rural land is attractive as recreational property.

So we had to do some thinking about what we expected this land investment to do for us, and how active we wanted to be on the property. We weren't ready to quit our day jobs and become farmers (although that seems tempting some days). On the other hand, it didn't seem to make sense somehow to own a piece of land just so that someone else could pay me to farm it. I wanted the property (a) to actually be of direct benefit to us, and (b) not to decrease in value over time. There's no way to guarantee (b), except perhaps to avoid over-paying in the first place, and to buy land which will probably not completely lose its value.

My first criterion (that the land should benefit us directly in some way) is a little more complicated. It meant, for instance, that the property would have to be within reasonable distance from where we live; I figured it would have to fairly easy to drive to the place for a weekend. This is actually what made us look at farms in the first place. Other kinds of "direct benefit" real estate might be a vacation home in the Rockies, or a cozy flat in Europe someplace, or a time-share in Cape Town.

But none of these would be easily accessible very often. We didn't want to own a place we only got to use once a year. In our part of the country -- far away from mountains and beaches -- it seemed we might find a place which could be a weekend getaway year-round, and also provide a little private hunting ground for me (more about the hunting angle in another post). We are not really bass-fishing and water-skiing people, either, or we might have bought a place on Lake of the Ozarks. The "direct benefit" consideration pointed us toward land which was not entirely devoted to crops or pasture, since we weren't interested in working it ourselves intensively or simply renting it out to another farmer.

What's left? And how to find the "right" place? More on that later.

Monday, March 23, 2009

I Bought the Farm

The title for this first post sounds a little apocalyptic, perhaps -- a little too final and morbid. One could get the impression that this will be the first post-mortem blog. But I mean no metaphor: I'm being literal. Last December, I bought a farm. One hundred acres in northern Missouri. About sixty acres enrolled in the CRP program until 2017. About twenty acres of oak and hickory woods on steep hills. Along a blacktop county road.

In fact, I didn't do this alone, but I was more or less the ringleader for a bunch of relatives who have tackled this project together. And that's part of the story I want to tell. Buying the farm has been a fascinating combination of economic analysis, long-term financial planning, balancing tangibles and intangibles, navigating family dynamics, and philosophical (or even theological) reflection leading to action. Each of these dimensions involves choices and decisions, and any human decision is fraught with ambiguity (at least mine always are!). Even relatively easy choices are seldom as simple or obvious as they appear at first glance. And therein lies the charm. Nothing is as easy as it looks.

This blog will explore The Farm as an investment, as ecology, as agriculture, as lifestyle, as family history, as hobby, as politics, as philosophical engagement. Maybe I should kick this off by explaining what I mean by each of those. So that's what my next posts will be about.

If you own a farm, I would love to hear from you!