Archive for ‘farming and learning’

July 1, 2019

Complexity and clay soil

by Carl Dyke

From time to time I’ll post things here from the works of Dyke the Elder (Chuck Dyke). This one is from his series of reflections on Hesiod in collaboration with his friend Yrjö Haila:

Just to fill in some of the blanks on clay soil. Hesiod leaves a lot to be said on the topic. My direct experience with Mediterranean soil is all from Italy, with basically volcanic soil the norm, and sandy soil in second place. Of course we know there’s clay in the area (Crete): it would be hard to account for all the pottery otherwise. The sources simply say that clay was readily available everywhere, with some better than other because of the presence of particular metals.

Clay is also readily available all over my property. In fact, Bucks county is famous for its clay soil. Yrjo is absolutely right about the waterlogging issue so we’ll start there. Our clay soil, left to itself has two attractor states: mud, and adobe — unbaked brick. So something has to be done about it. How much has to be done depends on scale and crop. Acres and acres of feed corn (maize), as well as sweet corn, are still grown all around my area, even though the dairy farms have all but disappeared. Probably by now everyone knows what varieties to plant for high clay conditions, so the corn is successful most of the time. But for obvious reasons, either excessive wet, or drought, or both will give you a bad year. The excessive wet is worst in the Spring, because you can’t get your equipment into the fields to prepare them. There’s hardly anything more character building than getting your tractor in up to the hubs in waterlogged clay, and having to somehow pull it out. So the farmers are always moaning about the “late Spring”. The droughts are a late July and August phenomenon. Even if you’ve been lucky enough to plant your corn in good time, and it’s thrived to the point where it’s knee high or taller, midsummer drought can stop its growth in its tracks. Of course irrigation is an option – but watch out. If you irrigate and it then starts to rain, you may not be able to get your equipment into the field for harvesting.

One of the most conspicuous consequences of climate change around here is that, in effect, the seasons have precessed a month. What you used to be able to do in March, you now do in April; and what you used to have to do in October can now wait until November. (I’m writing this on March 19. Yesterday I tried to get some things done outside, but the ground is still frozen, and the temperature below freezing.) As we’ll see in a moment, I can wait, though not patiently, but the farmers are already getting edgy.

About five years ago it became obvious that if I was going to be able to get a good start in the Spring, I’d have to do something about the excessive wet. It was showing signs of being the new norm. Now, it has to be remembered that I’m growing things on a significantly different scale from that of the farmers. Strategies are available for me that would make little or no sense for them. So I dug a drainage trench across the bottom edge of the garden: deep enough to affect the drainage from the plot, and in a position that would considerably increase run-off. It’s made a big difference: several weeks, I think. Sure enough, the excessive wet has become the norm – something I can reasonably count on. We’ll see in the next month or so ….

However, the best thing I could do, at my scale, was improve the clay soil by adding large amounts of organic fertilizer. In the old days, especially when there were many dairy farms, the farmers could do the same, as Hesiod could have done. These days they use chemical fertilizers almost exclusively. Thus they lose the contributions to soil texture that organic fertilizers provide. But what with all the manure, compost, and organic mulch I use, I’ve been able to reduce (over forty-odd years) the clay-ness of the soil, as it were. It doesn’t make as good adobe bricks as it used to, but roots have an easier time growing through it. The good black dirt is by now about 8 to 10 inches deep in the garden.

Now is where we have to start to think of the “non-linear dynamics” of this whole situation , where the phrase “non-linear dynamics” means, for present purposes, that you can’t do something straightforward to fix one problem without affecting (and often causing) other problems. For, that wonderful 100 square meters of black dirt is, in effect, a shallow well within the surrounding field of clay. If you were a drop of water, where would you want to live? Well, the point is that the improvement of the soil exacerbates the wetness problem even as it helps with the clay-ness problem. It’s well worth it; but it starts another round of improvements we’ll get to in a minute. First, a parallel non-linearity:

Clay soil is naturally very acid. Some plants like that, or don’t mind it much; others hate it. On balance, clay soil is too acid. Adding all that organic matter makes the soil more acid still. So you find yourself buying a whole lot of powdered limestone, and spreading it around. Fertility of clay soil – the kind of fertility you really want – depends on lime. Since it dissolves easily a lot of it runs off with the drainage, reducing the efficiency; but the grass below the bottom of the garden is nice and green (good for the mulch, so you get back what might just have drained away). So, you can’t deal with tilth and fertility without increasing your drainage problem, which has to be addressed further. This leads to the final two important moisture management strategies: hills and valleys, and mulch.

We return to the shallow well filled with good black dirt. The ground water slowly oozes in from the clay field outside, gently slides from the high to the low side of the garden, and, to some extent, drains into the ditch; but not nearly quickly enough, especially during really wet weather. Furthermore, the wettest times are early in the season, at planting time and just after, when the plants are most vulnerable to being swamped, and, in the worst case, to rotting out. So, after I’ve tilled the garden I get out the hoe and build a system of ridges, in and upon which things are planted. The tops of the ridges end up about a foot above the low stretches between them, but settle a few inches over time. The bottoms of the holes into which the young tomato, eggplant, and pepper plants are set are about 3 or 4 inches above the low stretches. Beans are seeded a little deeper than you’d plant them on flat ground.

A short way to put the point of the system of ridges is that the aim is to buffer against extremes of wet and dry. Tomatoes, for example, develop one kind of vascular system under dry conditions, and another under wet conditions. You can tell that from the texture of the stems. The dry weather stems don’t work well in wet weather, and vice versa. So you don’t want the tomatoes to have to try to switch back and forth between the two kinds of stems. With the ridges, my tomatoes start their major growth under moderately moist conditions, and, as you’ll see in a minute, live their maturity and fruit production under moderately moist conditions. The same holds for the beans and everything else. Occasionally, if the time after seeding brings no rain, I have to keep the seeds on the tops of the ridges moist: a couple of watering cans usually does the job: no extensive irrigation.

Meanwhile, the grass in the field and the lawn is growing. It gets cut and dumped into the garden: first in the low stretches then over the ridges themselves. This doesn’t affect the drainage, but, obviously affects the amount of evaporation considerably. I mulch four to eight inches deep. That’s the last part of the puzzle. The result is that I never have to do a whole lot of watering, sometimes if it’s really dry the squash are happy with a bath, and sometimes I never have to water at all. By the time dry weather comes, of course, everything has sent roots all over the place, well below the surface of the low stretches. Under the conditions I’ve created, the clay down deep can actually become an ally, holding water, and releasing it slowly. My friends the earthworms do the rest.

Well, isn’t that a long song and dance just for a little garden! Yes. It takes time and patience to write it down; it takes time and patience to read it; and it certainly takes time and patience to do it. But that’s what it takes to deal intelligently with a complex system of interacting and largely competing requirements and problems. It’s also important to see that the song and dance it takes me to get things right is particular to my circumstances. The farmers growing corn couldn’t, and shouldn’t do what I do. Then, there are really good gardeners in my general area who do things differently. For instance, you may have heard or read about the (originally French) “raised bed” system. Some gardeners around here have come to use that system very successfully in their circumstances. Isn’t that what I’m clumsily groping for? No. I’ve thought a lot about using the system. It has some real advantages. For instance it’s a lot less work than what I do (especially if you can get someone to make the raised beds for you). But I don’t move to it because it doesn’t answer complexly enough to the tangle of interacting requirements and problems I have. The people who use the raised bed system “swear by it”. I’d probably swear by it too, in their circumstances. But one size doesn’t fit all. That’s one of the major messages to gain from the study of complex systems, even little ones like my garden. Yrjo and I have been thinking together about such things for a long time now, so the best possible example of one size not fitting all is to compare my account to his account to which this is appended. What he knows, and what I know, is that he’d have to be crazy to try to manage his garden the way I manage mine.

While particular solutions don’t travel well in complex circumstances, the overall message – that they don’t travel well — is itself pretty general. I just read a book that documented the same point as it’s sinking in among people who worry about foreign aid, and look for new ways to make it more efficient and increase its staying power. The message is a frustrating one, for obvious reasons. The task of “finding a solution” gets dauntingly hard at the scale and scope those people work. If you think of throwing money at problems as you’d think of pitching baseballs, then it might occur to you that not all hitters were the same. So finding a pitch and a location that worked with one hitter might not convince you that you ought to throw the same pitch in the same location to the next hitter. Baseball is usually more complex than that – unless you’re Sandy Koufax, and never have a bad day.

June 12, 2019

Financing regenerative agriculture

by Carl Dyke

Three articles turned up in my feeds today that taken together, illustrate the state of play with regenerative agriculture, and in particular its possibilities of expansion from the latest romantic back to the land fad to a serious challenge to industrial agriculture. Here at Slow Farm NC we do regenerative ag with the modest ambition to build a nice little life for ourselves, our critters, and our land in general harmony with the surroundings. We don’t think we must or can find some way to become world-changing in this. But it is fair to say that the contrast of regenerative and industrial agriculture is currently stark, and perhaps existentially consequential. How that shakes out is a matter of larger concern whether we like it or not.

Our land is right on the edge of two geological zones, the North Carolina Sandhills and the Piedmont. We’ve got a substrate of the red clay and overlay of ancient seabed sand that makes the local metropolis of Sanford the “Brick Capital of the USA”.  Our dirt is officially characterized as loamy sand, which essentially means that we start with a relatively poor soil with no particular alluvial advantages and a relatively short natural history of organic cycling. This is not amber waves of grain dirt. As a result this area didn’t have much in the way of large scale plantation agriculture, nor was there immediately a mass market crop after the local longleaf pines got logged out and boiled down for their “naval stores,” tar, pitch, and turpentine.

Somewhere around a hundred years ago, like lots of others in this area our plot was turned over to tobacco production in a family farm format. We know an old local guy who fishes our pond sometimes who ran a mule team here when he was young, and we’ve spoken with lots of older locals who talk with a distinctive mixture of fierce pride and wistful trauma about childhoods lost to the rigors of small scale tobacco production. It was a living, as they say.

Tobacco grows well in the local climate, but it beats the hell out of soil. Decades of intensive tobacco cultivation essentially strip mine all of the natural mineral and organic fertility out of soil, leaving an inert growth medium into which each year’s crop has to be artificially input as “fertilizer.” Weeds, blights, and pests are obliterated with poisons. This chemical assault finishes the job of killing off the biology of the soil that was started by the depletion of its food supply. Make no mistake, this works: one of our neighbors continues to get a big tobacco crop each year, another does well with mostly sorghum, and the third is a wizard with field peas and mixed vegetables, conjuring them from the ashy ground in astonishing abundance.

It’s a living, but not for the communities of the soil, so in the meantime big stretches of our dirt are essentially dead. On the plus we have woods and wetlands that remain biologically active and give us a head start on regeneration, and a few years of doomed horse farming by our predecessors got some manure on the ground and grasses established. In our own regenerative practice we aim to enable and support the whole biological community, from the bacterial and fungal microbiomes of field and gut and rumen that do the actual digestion at the heart of biological fertility, to the plants that pull in and convert sun and atmospheric gasses into organic materials, to the bugs and mixed livestock that eat it all and poop it back out again as composted fertilizer. It’s a bigger, fuller living, we like to think.

We call our place Slow Farm because all of this just happens if you set things up for all of the critters to live and do their things together, but it doesn’t happen quickly or in any immediate sense “pay off” except in good will and warm fuzzy feelings. After nearly four years our soil is still mostly dead and ashy, we still only rarely see dung beetles, stray worms are still cause for remark and rejoicing, and the livestock dung still mostly sits on the ground washing through and drying out rather than getting trampled in and feeding bugs and worms and processed into rich soil by the microbiome that still, mostly, just isn’t there yet:


Fossil goat poop or Kix cereal? Who could tell?

We don’t have a crop or anything to sell, really, nor is that our model, really. In some sense the essence of regenerative ag is that you not be removing any valuables from your environment, but rather keep cycling them back in. You can fudge and claim the sun and the air as universal commons, and of course you’re buying in feed and fuel and so on to make the books kind of balance. Because our livestock team includes chickens and ducks and pigs we love, we sell some eggs and we do a fine business in heritage breed kunekune piglets, who leave young without taking too much of the place with them. But I’ve just gestured at the fact that the economics of regenerative farming are inherently odd, which brings me to those articles I mentioned at the top.

This article from Modern Farmer is a genre piece celebrating the plucky agricultural ingenuity of a new small farmer, and bonus! – it’s a woman. She came to regenerative agriculture through a series of happy accidents and associations, working her way from a window planter to a half-acre farm-to-table vegetable plot to the organic cannabis industry. She’s thoughtful and good at it, there’s passion of course, and it’s honestly an impressive and inspiring story.

Obviously in the larger scheme of things one good farmer more or less isn’t much, but we’re all meant to nod and wave our hands around and solemnly proclaim that “It’s a start!” But no, actually it’s not a start. Romantic holism and back to the land movements have a long history. There are always these people around, they’re always figuring stuff out and being creative and bucking the trend, it’s always cool and admirable, and there’s always the hippie dream that you can scale up from these little serendipities to changing the whole world. And for many, many reasons, the next time that actually happens will be the first. When this kind of story becomes interesting as a data point of transformation is when there are so many of her that she becomes ordinary and unremarkable. “Local man chooses SUV over minivan” is the scale we want this story in. “Local man rides recumbent bike to work, thinks you should too” is a freak show, and so is this. But good for her, bless her heart.

Next we have an interview in Time with filmmaker, TV director, and regenerative farmer John Chester, whose documentary “The Biggest Little Farm” I have heard great reports about but not yet seen. The interview itself is brief and can’t possibly show Chester in his best light, but hopefully shows him at his hand-waving, talking point spewing worst. Chester and his wife have 200 acres where they grow “about 250 different things.” Extractive industrial ag is unsustainable and crazy. The farm doesn’t make money, but they experiment and they get $15 for a dozen eggs and they have investors. “And the meaning that is derived from the reconnection to nature is by far superior to any form of dopamine feedback loop that I know out there.”

We should be shopping at farmers’ markets and composting, Chester says. He may never have lived in a city or eaten on a budget. It is certainly true that mixing our organic wastes with toxic ones and burying them in sealed landfills or flushing them out to sea is, erm, unsustainable and crazy. But framing this as a matter of individual choice and virtue is, erm, unsustainable and crazy. For lots of people, the infrastructure of collection and distribution to make composting a real option does not exist. Composting our own sewage is a challenge at yet another odor of magnitude. Ironically, he likens composting to recycling, which as you know Bob has recently turned out to be quite a headache even at the relatively small scales at which it’s practiced. This is another of those places where “it’s a start” thinking is just pragmatically wrong.

$15 eggs make sense if you think about how much it costs to maintain land and structures and practices for chickens to live pleasant and fulfilling lives. The cheap egg industry is indeed a horror show. Farmers’ markets are great for local produce in season. They’re also, of course and for good reason, a much more expensive way to buy produce. Treating this as a matter of choice treats household consumption as a wonderland of ethical optionality, not the anxietizing minefield of constraint and consequence it is for most of us. I can illustrate.

A couple of years ago, being small farmers ourselves and knowing full well all of the things about the ethics and economics of small farming, we contracted with a fellow local farmer to buy our Thanksgiving turkey from her. The price was something like $10/lb for a happy, pasture-raised, humanely slaughtered bird. At that price and with a lot of other similar products, along with a whole lot of hustle, this farm is making it for the moment.

The total price of the bird was a bit north of $100. It was robust and flavorful, a good feed. Upon reflection, last year I bought a factory farmed frozen turkey from Aldi’s. It was about the same size, and cost a bit north of $6. Although not as robust and flavorful as our friends’ bird, it was also a good feed. It should be noted that even with optimal distribution and minimal middlemen, the farm that grew the Aldi chicken got a maximum of $3 for that bird, and probably much less. Why they grow them fast and cheap and in very great quantity becomes easy to see.

Relatively speaking we are rich people, and we can “afford” $100 for a turkey once a year. But like a lot of people our wealth is highly leveraged. The bank owns most of our farm and the mortgage is a non-optional expense. Rachel has student loans from undergrad and graduate school in the tens of thousands of dollars. We bought the farm’s tractor, an essential piece of equipment to manage 47 acres with just the two of us, with a home equity loan. I got a nice deal on a used machine, but still that’s $10K to pick at when other expenses like vet care for the critters and repairs to the vehicles don’t chew up the surplus. We’re responsible people so everything has to be insured, including Rachel’s health, which since she works for an arts organization and for the farm we are self-funding.

In short, while we can always find $100 here or there, our monthly budget is tightly spoken for and any “extra” should go to debt reduction. Any money we don’t spend on debt reduction continues to cost us the rate of interest. At about 6%, $100 that I spend for a turkey rather than flipping to the home equity line quickly compounds, so two years later has grown to at least $112 and climbing. It’s entirely possible that we will have paid $200 for that one turkey by the time it’s all settled up. Meanwhile, the Aldi’s turkey is still south of $7, minus the debt retired with the saved $93 and its future compounding.

My point here is that no one but the independently wealthy can afford $100 turkeys or $15 eggs or any damn thing you can buy at the correct price for sustainability of regenerative practice at the farmers’ market as a matter of pure ethical optionality. It’s only in the brutal trade-offs of domestic budgets and finance that those costs can, rarely and exceptionally, be absorbed. And this means that regenerative agriculture at scale simply cannot be funded out of household consumption. All of that money is tied up elsewhere in those budgets, obviously all the more so for people less wealthy than us. Personal choices and virtues are powerless before this brute fact. “Rarely and exceptionally” is not the right scale for transforming a food system.

Chester may be oblivious to all that. Of course he’s not responsible for changing the world, and he’s got investors who are currently willing to fund his losses in the name of experimentation. It remains to be seen if being a hobby farm for rich do-gooders is sustainable for him, but it certainly isn’t a transformation model for the rest of us.

The bottom line here is that the money is in all the “wrong” places for regenerative agriculture to become anything but kewl marginalia, feelgood human interest stories, or peak experiences for yuppie dopamine junkies. Transforming the food system will be unbelievably expensive, which makes it prohibitive to people whose only relationship to money is to spend it. This may mean it’s just not going to happen, but for it to happen, the big money is going to have to become heavily involved, which means finance and ultimately the government. What changes the world is shifting trillions of dollars of finance from one profit regime to another. And right about here someone starts going on about capitalism and neoliberalism and Monsanto or maybe regulatory capture and the nanny state, and all that sort of mystical nonsense you can usually smoke out if substituting “Satan” as the name for the Big Other doesn’t significantly change the gist of the screed. “Satan is corrupting everything and ruining our lives!” Yep, right. Good luck with that, bless your heart.

The final article is a puff piece by a corporate shill at General Mills about regenerative livestock management and carbon sequestration at a lovely little place called “White Oak Pastures.” It’s earnest and informative and obviously serves the PR purposes of the food industry by recasting their profit-seeking practices as environmentally responsible research in the public interest. What this means, and it is by no means a sure thing or without the usual costs, is that the smart money is moving into position to fund regenerative agriculture. If they can find profit in it, and we can elect people who will move the fiscal and regulatory and subsidy incentives toward it, a lot of ifs there, it might be we can get something done. At least it’s a start.

February 5, 2019

Teaching to the fences, or what I’ve learned about world history from pigs and goats

by Carl Dyke

There’s nothing more obvious to a livestock farmer than using fence to control the movements of critters. You don’t just let them go wherever they want. There are some places you want to keep them in, and some others you want to keep them out, and rotations among those from time to time as a field gets grazed out or breeding and birthing is taking place, and distinctive forage patterns for each sort of critter, and so on. To a farmer it can only be shockingly surreal to question the value of physical barriers as an elementary tool of responsible stock and flow management.

On the farm our goats are, more or less, free ranging. We have fenced pastures and some perimeter fence, we have doors we can close, we fenced in the garden. Realistically the goats can defeat any of these barriers and occasionally have. For example they were well contained in our bottom pasture until suddenly they weren’t. They figured out how to get under the fence and jailbroke it in multiple locations. We could have firmed that up, notably by adding a couple strands of electric wire, but instead we accepted that they were out and about and that’s mostly worked fine.

sf goats 1

The younger pigs were out for awhile too. That was a lot of fun – kunekune pigs are delightful – but in their case we have a much stronger incentive to constrain them, to manage breeding and pilferage of the other critters’ snacks.

sf porch pigpile

The pigs are pretty content to stay put in a fenced pasture as long as they’re getting fed adequately. Kunes mostly graze, and we supplement with grain. They enjoy some room to spread out and we don’t crowd them. Once our boar Chubs got a whiff of the hot piggie girls the next pasture over he quickly figured out how to put the fence on his snout and shrug under it, so it’s pretty clear fence is just something they accept about their world rather than an actual impediment. Other farmers confirm this – motivated pigs are rough on fence. We try to arrange things so they’re not motivated.

The same could be said for the goats, but we’ve learned it’s a little more complicated with them. Goats are not grazers so much as browsers. A field of grass is not their idea of a good time for long. They’re happiest and healthiest when they have free choice of many different types of vegetation. They do a lot of sniffing and nibbling and are quite selective. They even eat things that the internet assures us will kill them dead. We’ve learned that they are actively managing their rumen for nutrition, body temperature, microbiome symbiosis, and parasite control.

The goats range pretty widely, but they’re able to get all they need from the top half of the farm, which is a mixed environment with field, woods, and wetland. Once they got out of their pasture they settled into a circuit where they amble around and hit all the zones. Other than the garden which we fenced defensively, they devoured every single thing we had planted on purpose, demolished the scrub, and cleaned up all the trees from ground to adult-goat-standing-on-hind-legs height. As landscaping goes it looks sparse but quite professional. Toots and Remy in particular have a taste for cardboard so package deliveries left on the porch are not safe, but after a couple experiments they’ve shown no particular interest in defeating the perimeter fence and eating our neighbors’ crops. There’s nothing over there they can’t get over here.

Barriers come up in world history too. In my Contemporary World History class we spent some time pondering the question why medieval cities had walls, but modern states do not. There are a lot of parts to that answer, having to do with the costs and benefits of controlling stocks and enabling flows. Roughly speaking, you get a lot more economy out of enabling flows than you do out of controlling stocks, but you need the larger security environment afforded by states to fully tap into that dynamic.

In my introductory world history class we’ve been trying to understand how the Europeans got into the exploration business in the 15th and 16th centuries.


You can see the bottleneck around the eastern Mediterranean. A lot of stuff becomes clear about early modern history if you look at the flow pattern of trade over the Silk Road, and then plop the Ottoman Empire down into the middle of it. Eurocentric kitsch about heroic exploration and the spirit of adventure doesn’t survive looking at the map. When the Turks fenced Europe off from the goodies of the East, some of them put their noses down and grazed in place, some started pushing and digging, and some went looking for another way around. Portugal in particular was left dangling off the edge of the world, but with free flow to the route south around Africa. Browsing their way down and around the coast and devastating the shrubbery is the sort of thing a goat might do, and the sort of thing it would be hard to keep a goat from doing.

Columbus was a known crackpot and a low cost dart throw for a queen flush from the completion of the Reconquista. Once the Spanish piggies got a whiff of the Americas though, they got the Atlantic up on their snouts and shrugged right through it. In deference to the scale of human misery that followed I’ll just drop that analogy now. But here is another case where you could see why the locals might have wanted some wall, and why it was unlikely to do them much good.

I make a point of not taking political positions in class. But I talk about the taking of political positions a lot. You can really see why it would make sense for people close to the management of livestock and with shrubbery to lose to default to fence as a solution to inconvenient stocks and flows. You can see why people habituated to modern cities in the context of states and international systems have no feel for fence. Free ranging is delightful and works great if forage is distributed and fungible. It’s not so great when the goats crash the corn field. No one pushes fence when there’s plenty on both sides. And when there’s not, there will be the violence of exclusion or the violence of invasion no matter what.