Letter to the New Farmer in Chief

November 6th, 2008
ballot.jpg

There is a resurgence of hope across America in the wake of Tuesday’s election of Democrat Barack Obama as President, promising a new direction of change for the future of our nation. Those of us who have been paying attention to the global financial meltdown, increasingly severe food shortages in the wake of global warming, and the outrageous poisoning of our citizens and livestock/pets by corrupt Chinese producers (a glaring example of globalization’s failures), are hoping that a new dawn in America will bring with it the serious changes to our agricultural policies that have grown increasingly necessary through decades of decline.

Now, politicians don’t generally talk much about agricultural policies while they’re stumping for votes in big cities. And they’re often so ignorant of agricultural issues that even rural dwellers – actual farmers – get nothing but pablum and platitudes in response to their questions. Luckily, journalist Michael Pollan wrote a great ‘open letter’ in the New York Times in October entitled, Farmer in Chief. This is a must-read for all of us committed to self-sufficiency, locally grown foods, the viability of family farms and homesteads, and the future health of an environment we all depend upon for life.

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Farm Bill Up for Vote (and Veto)

May 13th, 2008

What’s In It: Good and Bad

FoodFight

Here we are nearly halfway through 2008, and the 2007 farm bill is slowly but surely making its way through House and Senate disagreements on its way to the chamber floors for vote this week or next. The final compromise, USDA chair Ed Schafer bluntly informs us, will be vetoed by President Bush.

If farm legislation doesn’t directly affect many of us rural and semi-rural homesteaders, it’s a sure bet that it will affect our neighbors who do farm on a commercial scale. Thus it’s something we should be paying attention to. According to lawmakers nearly 3/4 of the spending in this bill over the next decade will be for feeding the needy. Another 16% goes toward commodities, crop insurance and disaster relief. Increasing nutrition spending (feeding the hungry) 8+% over the previous farm bill is reasonable given the worsening food crisis both in America and world wide.

This farm bill addresses biofuels diversion of food crops (like soy and corn) by providing more than a billion dollars to expand alternate use of biomass (like switchgrass and algae) and crop by-products (cornstalks, wheat straw, etc.) rather than diverting the grain itself. It also tightens payment limits, eliminating the “three-entity rule” that the previous bill contained as justification to funneling most ag payments to huge agribusiness concerns rather than smaller farm cooperatives or family farms. It limits subsidies to anyone making more than $500,000 in non-farm adjusted gross income [AGI] per year, and entirely ending direct payments to anyone with an AGI of more than $750,000 from any source. This will effectively put Big Agribusiness in the business of actually doing business instead of simply sucking up free corporate welfare as smaller family farms disappear.
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Time to Buy Your CSA Memberships!

March 27th, 2008
producedelivery

CSA – Community Supported Agriculture. The CSA ‘movement’ in my state (North Carolina) organized, promoted and maintained per resources and educational materials by the state’s Cooperative Extension Service, the outreach arm of the state’s Department of Agriculture and land grant universities. It’s all about small farms, sustainable agriculture, natural and organic methods, and best marketing practices for what is produced.

CSA member farms offer fruit and vegetables, flowers and landscaping plants, eggs, milk (dairies specialize in cows or goats) and cheese, pasture-fed meat, and some even participate in the AgriTourism initiatives to bring urban families and tourists out to the farms for tours and work opportunities. Consumers can purchase from favored producers at local farmer’s markets, or do what we do – buy a “share” of the coming season’s crops in the spring when the farmer needs the funding to cover seeds and the costs of getting the crop in and going.

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Hemp: Our Original Industrial Crop

March 4th, 2008

Back when the country was new, its beloved “father” and gentleman farmer George Washington advised…

“Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere.” [1794]

HempHarvest

It was the #1 cash crop in the 13 new states just as it is the #1 cash crop in 50 states today. As a fast-growing “weed” that requires no pesticides or herbicides and very little fertilizers or irrigation, the close-packed stands of 8-9 foot tall plants provided more biomass per acre than any other crop ever discovered, bred or engineered. Its fiber content is 2 to 3 times as great as cotton per acre, and is both softer and stronger than cotton. Hemp paper lasts hundreds of years and can be recycled more often than tree pulp papers.

Hemp’s high cellulose content is a fine base for plastics – composites made with hemp are now used by Mercedes Benz to produce auto bodies and dashboards. Hempseed oil is both more nutritious and more economical than soybean, peanut, sunflower or canola oil. It burns brighter than any other plant oil, and can be used to produce non-toxic diesel fuel, paint, varnish, detergent, ink, home heating oil and lubricating oil. It is as easily converted into ethanol as corn, but can be grown in a much wider range of climates and conditions.

HempHay

News organizations warn that we are facing a worldwide food shortage in part brought about by the diversion of staple food crops to ethanol and biodiesel fuel production, worsened by reliance on unsustainable agricultural practices and chemical pollution of once-rich “breadbasket” farmland. Our reliance on foreign oil has caused 2 wars in this first decade of the 21st century and killed more than a million people with violence. America alone has sacrificed more than 3,000 soldiers and left some 30,000 returning veterans with life-crippling injuries. Pollution from fossil fuel burning contributes to another few hundred thousand premature deaths worldwide every year. Global warming, if unchecked, will eventually kill tens or hundreds of millions more.

The answers we seek for the future may require a re-examination of our past. Perhaps George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were right. What might be accomplished if we did NOT spend 4 billion dollars a year trying to prevent farmers from growing industrial hemp?

Links:

Fossil Fuel Cuts Would Reduce Early Deaths, Illness, Study Says
1997: Canada Repeals Hemp Prohibition
Energy Farming in America
Hemphasis: Hemp as a Fuel/Energy Source
Vermont House Approves Hemp Bill
Hemp-based biodiesel, NOT ethanol

25 Alternative Energy Strategies – 5

February 22nd, 2008

In this, the last five items in the list of 25 strategies, a look at community efforts to become self-sufficient is in order. While an energy self-sufficient homestead can exist in any rural environment, the more neighbors (no matter how spread out) who catch the bug, the more resources are available to be developed for the good of all. It’s the natural ‘next step’ in extending the idea of energy self-sufficiency toward the broader society.

The real “trick” in items 21-25 are the collective will to work together and agree upon sustainable agricultural, building, energy production and distribution practices.

Part 5: Collective Strategies for Communities

hydro2

When FDR was elected President in 1932 – in the midst of the Great Depression – he addressed the awful situation by means of the “New Deal.” Tucked away in the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 which established the huge public works programs, was the Subsistence Homestead Communities project. The plan was to relocate some of the idled workers from over-populated industrial areas into planned subsistence communities they would build for themselves with government money.

Read about the Cumberland Homesteads project for yourself, it gives a rough idea of the rewards community development can reap, even if the whole thing is privately financed by the motivated homesteaders themselves (as it must be today). Sure, there are many grants available for rural community development (such as state agri-tourism initiatives) when there is someone skilled in applying, from all sorts of government agencies federal and state. And some resources available from corporate largesse these days as well.

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25 Alternative Energy Strategies – 4

February 21st, 2008

For homestead and/or community independence

hybridhome

We’ve looked a bit at on-site electrical generation, transportation fuels and building technologies. In this installment we’ll look at some ways of putting things together into overall strategies for homestead independence.


Part 4: Hybrid Energy Systems

In a previous post a short video was offered about as small, 1Kw hybrid energy system using solar and wind offered by a company in Canada. Whether you’re planning to go off-grid with storage batteries or negotiate a price for your excess production with the local utility (and get a “backwards meter”), the same thing is true of energy supplies as is true of general homestead success – diversify. So Here are five hybrid systems, some good links and some cool ideas for planning your alternatives…

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25 Alternative Energy Strategies – 3

February 20th, 2008

For homestead and/or community independence

Homestead

A Happy Solar Homestead

When we discuss alternative energy strategies, any able homesteader is going to be concerned with building and various secondary retrofits to homes, barns and outbuildings. The more energy the homestead can gain passively – or conserve passively – the less energy will be required to supplement.

In these strategies 11-15 of the series, we’ll look at some of the ways a homesteader can use smart, green building practices and technologies to lessen their dependence on supplied energy sources.

Part 3: Building Technologies & Alternatives

11. Passive Solar Siting and Construction

PassiveSolar

Whether you’re building a new house or barn, or simply retrofitting to what’s already there, strategies for making the most of nature where you live will help to save on energy inputs.

To make the most of passive solar, consider how much direct sunlight falls on your homesite throughout the year. If you get ample sun (have a site that has an ample southerly exposure), plan accordingly. Big windows (with no significant overhang) can provide direct solar heating in the winter. Dark stain or paint on the south wall will also absorb heat from the sun. Conversely, walls that are mostly or entirely shaded during the day, plus the north wall, should have as few windows as is reasonable.

Limit heat gain in summer by planting deciduous trees (apples are good) fairly close. Also bear in mind that any south-facing roof is a good place to put solar panels or solar collectors for hot water (or both). If you do install these, you’ll want retractible awnings for your south windows because you don’t want any summer shade trees interfering.

Green Building Basics

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25 Alternative Energy Strategies – 2

February 19th, 2008

For homestead and/or community independence

Transport

In the first installment of this series we looked at 5 technologies for generating electricity – solar panels, other solar (thermal for heat differential mechanical energy or steam generation), micro-hydro power and wind. This post is about alternatives for basic transportation, motorized equipment around the homestead and in rural cooperative communities.

As the series is about all the alternatives, these transportation-related alternatives are numbered 6-10 out of the 25.

Part 2: Transportation & Motorized Equipment

Diesel

In 1893 Rudolph Diesel published “The Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat Engine” and was eventually granted an American patent on his invention. His first models operated at about 26% efficiency, which more than doubled the efficiency of steam engines. By 1897 he’d achieved an engine that ran at 75% efficiency. Diesel demonstrated his engine at the Exhibition faire in France in 1898, and the fuel that powered it was peanut oil. It was Diesel’s vision that the engine could be used by small business owners and farmers and run on vegetable oil rather than then-expensive petroleum.

Then petroleum became so cheap that the entire transportation and farming equipment industries went with that fossil fuel instead. Now petroleum is once again becoming very expensive, and the air pollution problem from the burning of fossil fuels has become increasingly dire.

Most transportation – and some electrical generation – still uses the diesel engine. That’s some cars and light trucks, most all heavy trucks, city buses, heavy farm equipment (tractors, combines), railroad engines and ocean shipping. The gasoline engine, which uses a more refined petroleum based fuel, accounts for most of the private cars and trucks. What are the best present and upcoming alternative fuels?

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25 Alternative Energy Strategies

February 18th, 2008

For homestead and/or community independence

This series will provide an overview of the most promising energy systems and strategies for homestead or rural community independence. Most of these are available right now, some can be put together by the handy homeowner or community action group, and some will be available in the near future. Combined with common-sense conservation practices these can contribute a great deal to the independence of individual homesteads and rural communities willing to work together.

These technologies and ideas will be divided into particular technologies and presented together – 1. Electrical production; 2. Transportation alternatives – vehicles, fuels and power to operate the kind of equipment necessary to a rural lifestyle (trucks, farm and garden equipment, remote generators, etc.); 3. Building technologies and direct alternatives for heating/cooling and their applications; 4. Hybrid systems that can even out production and tie together for constancy of supply; 5. Collective strategies for small, cooperative communities striving for self-sufficiency and willing to invest together for alternatives that benefit all.

Part 1: Electrical Generation

AltEnergy

We use electricity to light our homes and outbuildings, refrigerate our food, wash and dry our clothes, prepare our food, provide our in-home entertainment (music, television, computers), and sometimes to heat or supplement our heat during the winter. The “average” electricity use per home in the US (this is something we can personally adjust downward by conservation and appliance/heat alternatives) is ~900 Kilowatt hours per month. Get that down to ~700 for your home/homestead, and we’re talking less than 8,500 KwH per year.

What are the best alternative sources for that much on-site electrical generation?

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Cool “Eco-Tourism” Ideas for Homesteaders

January 30th, 2008
MastFarm

I’ve been looking around at vacation ideas, delighted to discover a nifty partnership and grant program involving folks like the Ag department, the cooperative extension services, the park and forest services and even state and local arts councils, which they’re cleverly calling “Agritourism”. It’s really quite the innovative way to put some capital and ideas to work in the rural sector. Innovative, that is, unless you’re old enough to remember the Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal.

I know that a lot of committed homesteaders spend their vacation time working on the ‘stead instead of jaunting off to ski in Switzerland or tromping through the Amazon, but it’s really nice to take a few days off and at least get off the property for awhile. And the best part of supporting initiatives like agritourism is that it’s really, truly Green!

Even better, it’s Green without costing a bundle. It always seems kind of funny to me when things show up in my searches (this time it was “green vacations”) that simply don’t apply to anybody I know or hope to know in the idle rich jet-setter category. Ah, well. Maybe “Green” jet-setting is a new fad like bottled water – you know, the dumb things people do to look really cool without a thought to whether it’s actually cool or not. For instance…

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