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Mini Farming, Self-sufficiency on 1/4 Acre

Mini Farming


I admit to being a little skeptical when I started reading Mini Farming, Self-sufficiency on 1/4 Acre. I’ve seen a few books that were written by people who didn’t have a clue what they were writing about with titles similar to this. Some of these books have unworkable ideas and make claims that are just not true.

This book on the other hand has much useful information and ideas that can help you gain a greater level of independence on fairly small areas of land. I think a better and more accurate title would have been “Mini Farming, How to Gain a Greater Level of Self-sufficiency on 1/4 Acre”. Obviously, no one can have total self-sufficiency on a 1/4 acre but the author of this book grows 80% of his family of three’s food on just that much land.

The author has developed a system of gardening that takes the best of the Biodynamic, Grow Bio-intensive and Square Foot Gardening methods. He utilizes double dug raised beds, vertical gardening, compost and organic growing techniques. His “mini-farming” system also includes raising chickens for eggs and meat.

I appreciated one area that Markham covered in the area of economics and “mini-farming”. He shows how the two income family is much better off by having one spouse stay home and raise food and children. He runs through the numbers and proves that in all actuality families are further ahead financially by doing this. I think that his argument will wake up many working mothers to fact that they are running themselves into the ground for very little return.

If nothing else, this book shows how to grow a substantial amount of a family’s food on a very small amount of land. Granted, the average Christian homesteading family is much larger than the author’s, but it still drives home the point that you don’t need a huge amount of land and if fact you probably haven’t even begun to utilize the land you already have.

I think that the book is ideal for beginners because it covers everything from seed selection to harvest and preservation. Not an exhaustive treatment of any subject, but very informative. I thought that the section on soil health was very well done. Considering how inexpensive this book is, I think that anyone who is trying to utilize a small holding of land to raise food should own a copy.

Read full article on North Country Farmer

The Pilgrims in 1621: Agriculture

First Thanksgiving by Brownscombe

As the American holiday of Thanksgiving is celebrated we often will hear some bit of the story of the Pilgrims and their “First Thanksgiving.” Regrettably, their story is often boiled down to the basics and we lose some of its fullness. Here I want to flesh out a small part of the story concerning the Pilgrims’ work in agriculture.

In the spring of 1621 the Pilgrims and the Indian tribes planted and worked in the fields of agriculture. We can see that both the English and the native tribes had skills and abilities the other lacked. We read in William Bradford’s book Of Plymouth Plantation, “Afterwards they…began to plant their corn, in which service Squanto stood them in great stead, showing them both the manner how to set it, and after how to dress and tend it.” Squanto and the Indian tribes had great experience with the land that the English lacked. They had a history of learning from mistakes and finding what worked. They knew the right seeds to plant. Squanto taught the English to fertilize their corn with the fish that would spawn in the river nearby at just the right time. If they didn’t, the nutrients in the land would get used up.

Pilgrims with Samoset

Here we can recognize that God provided the Indians with fish that would spawn at just the right time to fertilize the land so they could eat and live. As Matthew 5:45 says, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Here the Pilgrims reaped the benefits of working with the pagan tribes by learning the good things God had given them. This was a very providential blessing as their own seed did not do well, but thanks to this help they had enough food.  But despite God’s blessing on the native tribes, they were not exactly prosperous and thriving. The help was not all one sided, as we can see from an event that happened two months later.

It had been a little time since the English had seen Massasoit and so they sent two men along with Squanto to meet with him. This expedition had several objectives. First, to reaffirm peace with Massasoit and to keep a good relationship with him. Second, to exchange for seed for experimentation. The Pilgrims wanted to make sure that had a variety of things planted in case some failed. Third, to find out which tribe it was that they had taken corn from in the winter, so they could pay them back for it. Fourth, to explore the area around them. And fifth, to limit hungry visitors. It is this last objective that shows something about the Indians’ work ethic and food production. What was happening was there were many Indians that were taking advantage of the Pilgrim’s hospitality and staying there eating up their food. The Pilgrims wanted to be hospitable, but did not want to run out of food and so asked Massasoit to limit visitors to the amount they could handle. They were generous with gifts and hospitality, but did not want to become welfare providers, especially when they couldn’t afford it.

Pilgrims with Wampanoag

As the small expedition went out they could start to see why many Indians preferred to get the food from the English. The Indians, despite having a great abundance of natural resources, still struggled in having a stable food supply and clean habitations. As Edward Winslow (one of the two men on the expedition) says in his book Mourt’s Relation, describing a meager meal they had with Massasoit, “this meal only we had in two nights and a day, and had not one of us bought a partridge we had taken our journey fasting…he was to have us stay with them longer: but we desired to keep the Sabbath at home: and feared we should either be light-headed for want of sleep, for with bad lodging, the savages’ barbarous singing (for they use to sing themselves asleep), lice and fleas within doors, and mosquitoes without, we could hardly sleep all the time of our being there; we much fearing that if we should stay any longer, we should not be able to recover home for want of strength.”  Bradford remarks concerning this lack of prosperity among the Indians, “For the Indians used then to have nothing so much corn as they have since the English have stored them with their hows, and seen [the Englishmen’s] industry in breaking up new grounds therewith.”  On their trip some Indians desired that the Englishmen kill some crows, because they had been ruining the corn. There the two Englishmen with their superior weapons killed 80 crows in an afternoon.

We can see that the Indians benefited both from observing the English work ethic, and the technology it produced (such as guns and hows). This work ethic had come from the long history of Christendom where it had been taught that work is worship to God, that work is a blessing, that we are created to work and produce to the glory of God, that our first command from God is to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” (Gen. 1:28).

Even the monks in the Middle Ages were taught this and spent much of their time in working and agriculture. The Protestant Reformation continued this and expanded it with its teaching of vocation, that the farmer and the pastor are both doing God’s work. The Pilgrims understood the importance of work and produced great things. When my family and I were in Plymouth in 2009 we saw a mill built only fifteen years after the Pilgrims first landed. It was amazingly intricately designed with all sorts of wheels, gears, stones, and levers–and it’s still working! We can see that the Christianity of the Pilgrims made them hard-working, productive, and a relatively prosperous society. It was this culture that built America.

Read more at The Christian Philosophy of Food

There’s a Food Crisis and You are the Solution


Food is not what it used to be, at least not the food found at the supermarket. The modern world boasts of a bountiful harvest provided by technology – the wonders of industrialization applied to agriculture.  But the result of this production system has largely become one of turning a few crops into commodities and engineering a vast new sea of “foods” from them.  The modern western (and especially U.S.) diet largely consists of highly processed food products, far removed in form and nutrition from the original life form that they came from.


The Industrialization of Food

This commoditization of food has been greatly aided by government subsidies for corn and soy, to the benefit of the food processing and fast food/junk food industries.  The creation of very cheap inputs into factory foods by government policy is a foundational contributor to the change in the nature of food in America over the past several decades.  This, combined with the cultural changes valuing mobility and convenience over family time and traditional cooking, have led the sea change in the way that Americans interact with food.

The results have been devastating.  We now have widespread (if not epidemic) rates of obesity, heart disease, cancer of all kinds, food allergies, and behavioral problems linked to poor digestion and gut health.  It is not coincidental that these changes have come with the change in the American diet and lifestyle.  Causal is a better term to describe it.

Industrial Agriculture
Industrial farming has leveraged economies of scale to produce for the mass market through factory farming, but the land, animals, and humans have suffered the consequences in falling nutritional quality and illness caused by chemical farming techniques.  And industrial farming is petroleum based farming, turning oil into food.


The era of cheap food is over. 

Even before the great American drought of 2012, rising oil prices have combined with third world nations’ rising incomes and increasing demand for more meat and other higher-cost food, to drive food commodity prices ever-higher.  Food has traditionally gone down in price, at least the trend had been that way for the last 100 years. According to Global Financial Data, food prices have dropped over the last 100 years by 82%, and looking at the economic business cycle for food, it would seem this would just be another “bust.”

FAO food price chart Oct 2012

But two important factors reveal that this may be a more long term trend. First, oil is now more than ever a critical input to commodity crops, and therefore food production. According to a study by Cornell University, it takes 140 gallons of fossil fuel to grow and harvest one acre of corn. This fuel is not just for the tractor; this includes all the petroleum used to make the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, and this number does not include the cost of transporting the corn to a market, or the petroleum used in the packaging of the food. As volatile geopolitical situations arise, and as sources of oil continue to diminish, the price of food will rise regardless of regional food price differences. Ill-conceived government subsidies for ethanol that is turning food crops into fuel have only exacerbated this trend.

A second factor at play is the diminishing amount of farmland. The demographic trend continues to be individuals gravitating towards large urban population centers, and not out to the farmland. The American Farmland Trust estimates that American farmland is disappearing at the rate of 2 acres per minute. As farmers and their land become more scarce through industrialization, the system becomes more susceptible to shocks and rising food prices.

With a severe global economic downturn setting in and millions of families worldwide facing difficulty in figuring out how to feed their families, we have now entered a global Food Crisis.  The “Arab Spring” was one of the many indications that the global food system is precariously balanced at the edge of a cliff.

But the crisis caused for millions due to the increasing price of food is a lagging indicator. More fundamental is the drastic way that food production, distribution, and consumption has changed over the past few decades.  With increasing urbanization has come the loss of productive farmland and the decline of family farming around the globe.  This makes the modern food system much more susceptible to risks of various sorts, everything from weather and crop failures, to market conditions in oil markets and global geopolitical events.  The 2012 drought in America’s heartland – the worst ever – is an important recent example.  Even local disasters can produce serious problems with respect to food availability due to the long supply lines in modern food systems.


What is the Solution?

With so many systemic problems in our food system, what is the solution?  The solution to all of these problems – to our depleted soil, shrinking and aging farmer population, our toxic environment, diminishing nutrition, chronic health problems, and rising prices – is YOU. You are the solution!

Learning early
As much as you are able, grow your own food.  Being productive with what you have is an essential first step.  Buy fresh and buy local. Know your farmer and support your local economy.  Buy from a farmer you can trust, one whose farm is not entrenched in the factory farm system.  Join a CSA or community garden.  Localization is a key to transforming the food system.

Top Tomato receiving from Farmer Matt

Know the risks associated with buying chemically-produced food, and choose to buy organic and sustainable products.  Self-education is a critical foundation for transforming the way your family deals with food.  Don’t rely on someone else to do it all for you.  Further, research and implement traditional food preparation methods, which will help you maximize the nutrition that your family receives and keep them healthy.

Plan ahead and buy in bulk from trusted suppliers.  Join a food co-op or buying club to get better deals on whole foods, buying in bulk  to utilize aggregated purchasing power.  Build up a food storage supply – the larder of olden days – to be prepared for emergencies and ready to share with neighbors in need.  Forward thinking is required to get out of the rat race that comes with “convenience”.


Is It Really That Simple?

With such huge challenges facing us with our broken modern food system, could it really be that simple?  Yes, it is that simple.  You are the Solution.  It requires action by individuals and families to change the system, because food choices are what support the system.  It was, in fact, only because people changed the way they acquired, prepared, and ate food – adopting “convenience” and price as determining factors – that our current system became what it is.  Stop feeding the beast with your purchases – opt out, as much as you are able.  Change what you are demanding, and the market will change to accommodate you.  In fact, it already has begun to do so.

Grow a garden.  Know and support your local farmers.  Join a buying club.  Build your food storage.  Grow community around food.  It really is that simple.  It starts and ends with you.  You are the Solution.



Sustainable Farming – The Dilemma for Young Farmers

DSC_0273The USDA announced on August 30th, 2012 that $18 million worth of aid would be distributed to new farmers and ranchers, particularly those who were “socially disadvantaged.” The program (titled the "Beginner Farmer and Rancher Development Program") is a new wave of aid enacted through the 2008 farm bill designed to entice a young workforce to enter the farming occupation, specifically to establish themselves within the developing sustainable niche.

The program sets aside money for college and university programs, nonprofits, and organizations that promote off-grid living, and collective farming operations. The USDA claims the program, “will help beginning farmers and ranchers overcome the unique challenges they face and gain knowledge and skills that will help them become profitable and sustainable,” without considering the grand irony of the federal government being involved in “sustaining” agriculture.

The Meaning of “Sustainable”

Sustainable” has a specific meaning in my agriculture worldview. It does not merely serve as a placeholder on the “progressive foodie” cereal box, and it is not just the philosophy to live by for the good of humanity. Honest advertising and moral concerns for the planet play a part in the “sustainability” label, but as a market garden manager, sustainability for me is separated into two connected categories: economic security and biological diversity. 

A farmer must budget for what his farm can sustain and what it will need, considering future projected income through crop and animal yields. How then could the farmer use government funds and still be sustainable if his farm must profit from grants? Even if the grant is just a startup investment, a marketplace unable to sustain the start-up businesses that provide for the most basic human need is a poor marketplace to be a part of, and one I certainly would avoid.

At the least, the farmer is not appropriately preparing for what the market will dictate. The aid offered through this specific grant, and other grants which the USDA pushes on young farmers, will never strengthen the market for the farmer, but will only induce a system of dependency on government aid.  It will eventually cause the loss of independent farms and farmers that the very programs are trying to prevent. 

Is the USDA Really Supporting Farmers?

Despite my previous denunciation of government funding for sustainable farming, I think most sustainable farmers would expect a farm bill to contain direct grants (as in previous bills) for individual farmers, yet the majority of the funding (after the university programs) is given to organizations that support sustainable gardening or collective programs.

One organization in Illinois, The Black Oaks Center for Sustainable, Renewable Living, is more of a working community than a farm, and is more focused on teaching survival skills in a “post-carbon” world, creating renewable energy, and on collectively farming for the common good, than on producing food to economically sustain a family.

I believe such a program would have positive effects on individuals and families weaning themselves from a consumer-heavy mindset, but at best, this grant provision show the ignorance the USDA has when it supports sustainable farming, in the context of the business of farming.

USDA Really Supports the Industrial System

The USDA has traditionally manipulated the market for farm products, turning many crops into commodities in order to enable low cost food products to the consumers, and at the same time offering aid to the farmers taking the risk so they can hedge against crop failures. Without the need to plan for the risk of losses, farmers have developed an agricultural landscape that supports monoculture, quickly harvestable and often environmentally misplaced crops.

Sustainable farming has no place in such a system, and if anything has come of this system, it has neither helped the farmer nor the consumer. The system has made the farmer dependent on debt and industrial technology, and the consumer has experienced a reduction in real food and poor nutritional quality.

It is no wonder that over the last decade we have seen a rise in the demand for organic and sustainable food products. The companies who support agribusiness are still making their profits, and one would think the USDA would support them entirely, so why would the USDA suddenly decide to help the small, limited market? I believe the answer lies with the consumer.

The USDA is no doubt noticing the impact that such labels as the organic label (a $32 Billion industry in the US) and the sustainable label have had on consumers and producers alike. These labels have been processed through bureaucratic jargon to come to mean nothing from the governmental regulatory standpoint. Organic foods can contain many different chemical agents, either applied in the field or in a processing plant.

At the same time, this is the same agency who has shut down small farming operations across the United States because they marketed products that consumers sought, even though the products were considered unsafe for consumption or production by the USDA (I am speaking of raw milk, hemp, raw honey, etc), while greenlighting the use of GMO seeds and hormone enhanced cattle, neither of which are sustainable.

Now, the USDA seemingly wants to find a way to extend an olive branch to the new generation of young entrepreneurs who want to positively affect the food supply, yet I think it has more to do with the influence that young farmers will have on their land.

The Farming Generation is getting older, not younger

Supporting Family Farms?

The USDA will attempt to redeem themselves by pointing out that they have stood for family farmers, although to what degree? 98% of US farms are family owned.  An encouraging sign, but of those farms, only a few are true polyculture farms, growing for biological and economic sustainability. Their agricultural production is dependent upon the industrial systems used to sustain vast monocropped land.

This industrial system has created many casualties.  There are 330 "family" farmers are leaving their land every week because they aren't able to make ends meet. This statistic would be less sad if there were a new generation of farmers to fill the void left, but not many exist.

The mean age of farmers in this country now stands at 65. So, the USDA is doing their bit to provide the educational needs of the new generation of farmers, bringing them into the "21st Century" of farming. Yet, this kind of thinking produced the problem in the first place! The grants have an educational focus on how to "engineer" the farm, instead of how to let the farm produce on it's own. I am not denigrating college in anyway, or stating that it doesn't have a place in helping upcoming farmers understand the science involved in creating a truly sustainable farm, but within a system supported by agribusiness, there is no a silver lining.

What Will Really Support the 21st Century Farmer?

"The young farmer only needs a little more education" is the cry, and the USDA can be seen promoting and supplying the “socially disadvantaged” young farmer with the tools for the 21st Century. But the 21st Century has shown solutions that are not in support of the young sustainable farmer.  Although such programs exist that promote organic or sustainable agriculture, they do not give a farmer any edge over the internet-savvy individual who can mine the knowledge base of the internet, and who can invest more money into land or sustainably developing his farm. Being socially disadvantaged (are they meaning to say, "dumb hick?") does not necessarily mean technologically inept.

That is what the 21st Century has really offered the new farmer, the possibilities of infinite knowledge sharing and the verification of results. Results is what the classroom farmer will still be offering, the "slightly smudged" organic tomato which has all the outward certifications of organic, but the internal poverty of mismanagement and licensed cheating. But to the true sustainable 21st Century farmer, land becomes the resource to be sought, not costly knowledge, and most importantly, the freedom to farm as one pleases, and as the consumer market dictates.

The USDA can certainly try to sell their wares to the young generation of farmers, but I believe these strong, hard-working growers are seeing through the deceptive hypocrisy. Government cannot solve the ills that have been built up over several generations of conventional farming, supported by the USDA, and government is not the answer to the decline of American farming.

This aid is not the support young farmers should desire, nor is it the redemption the USDA craves. The solution is the farmer and his field, free from the tyranny of government regulation and unadulterated by government handouts.

Congratulations to Joel Salatin for 30 Years of Full Time Farming

We'd like to congratulate Joel Salatin, his family, and the team at Polyface Farm for making it to today: 30 years of full time farming by Joel at Polyface!

Joel is a very unique man.  He has been a visionary leader of the sustainable farming movement, a prophet of sorts, calling people back from the destructive ways of modern industrial farming to return to a sustainable agriculture model that utilizes technology appropriately while honoring God's design in creation.  Take a few minutes to read this reflective note from Joel written this morning and posted on the Polyface Farm Facebook page, and rejoice with him on this momentous occasion!

Joel Salatin

A note from Joel…….

Sept. 24, 1982 marked my first day of full time farming. It was a Monday, just like today, and the Friday previous
I had cleaned out my desk in the Staunton News Leader newsroom and waved goodbye to my fellow journalists.
Everyone thought I was making a huge mistake. Farming? Anything but that.

Even farmers thought I was making a huge mistake. And then to know that I was not going to use chemicals. That
I was going to pasture chickens and pigs. That I wasn't going to build silos and plow the soil. How could anything be
as ridiculous?

This morning I awakened to a farm festooned with balloons. I had mentioned the day and its 30-year importance in
passing a couple of times during the summer, but frankly have been too covered up with responsibilities to plan any
big celebration for myself. No worries. I'm surrounded by the most loyal, grateful, creative, dependable, conscientious
team of young people you can imagine.

I've been crying all morning.

I think Eric and Brie led the plans. Overnight, they and accomplices decorated the farm with balloons, strategically
placed to intercept my morning routine at every step. From the clothesline beside the backdoor to the equipment
shed, balloons lined the path. The Massey Ferguson tractor they knew I would use to move the Eggmobile had
balloons anchored to the wheels. As I approached the Eggmobile to hook it up, balloons cascaded off the front.

As is my routine, I went out to get the morning newspaper–once a news junkie, always a news junkie–and the farm
entrance literally floated with ballons and our entrance sign had an explanatory addition in huge letters: Happy
Anniversary Joel Fulltime Farming 30 Years.

Tears welled up uncontrollably as the reality of the love and support of these young people overwhelmed me. To
be this age, farming, surrounded by this kind of enthusiasm and honor–could it get any better than this? And then
I had to chuckle: take that, friends, farmers, experts. All you folks that said I was throwing my life away, being foolish.
Can you see me now? Ha!

I always check the cows in the morning. Yes, balloons on the 4-wheeler (my personal Japanese cow-pony). Streaming
behind me, the balloons followed me up the three-quarter mile farm lane to the farm pasture. And as if that weren't enough,
all along that route, from the trees and bushes, balloons heralded the celebratory day. We're here! We've made it
this far! Touchdown! Hallelujah! Say it however you want to; scream it from the rooftops. We're still here. And not
only have a survived, we've thrived.

Tears streaming down my face, I topped the little knoll before coming to the cows and there, adorning every electric
fence stake in the cross fence, were more balloons. The cows, mostly lying down on this 38 degree morning (we
actually had the first patchy frost of the season), simply burped up another wad of grass cud to chew on. They looked
at me completely ordinarily. Nothing much upsets their routine. Nothing is as placid as a placid cow.

With gratitude and a deep sense of blessing welling in my heart, tears streaming down my cold cheeks, I headed
back to the house for breakfast, the newspaper, morning emails, and desk work. My spirit is overflowing today.
Teresa and I had a dream. We worked at it. We prayed over it. We babysat it. We lived and loved it. Today it shines
like a burning bush, attracting people from all over the world to come and see. Thank you, Lord, for 30 wonderful years.

And lest you're wondering, we don't think we've hardly started yet. Now we're not just a couple of people standing on
the shoulders of our parents, but we're a tribe, with the next generation and the next and a whole team of players
plugging the gaps where we're weak and leveraging our expertise where we're strong. Look out, world. Here we come.

Thank you, family. Thank you, Polyface team, staff, interns. Thank you, patrons who have stood by us monetarily,
supporting us with your smiles, your eating, and yes, your dollars. Polyface Farm is charitable, but not a charity. It is
a business, but not only a business. So raise your glasses, folks. Here's to another 30 years. Thank you.


Learn more about sustainable farming and local food in the Local Agriculture and Farming group.


Famine, Food, and Freedom

“People have, age after age, starved to death in lands with small populations and rich soil, and also lived richly in heavily populated areas…Much of the world has rich soil, but little of the world has the free men to make use of that soil.”~R.J. Rushdoony (Law and Liberty, p. 184-185)


Getting Started with Bees: An Aurora Farm Update

Opening a hive

My brother, dad, and I recently drove two counties over here in our homestate of Texas to pick up 8 local bee hives. The bees and their honey will form the backbone of our "artisan" product offering to our market-garden customers, and are a welcome addition to our current stock of sweetless produce. The adventure of picking them up was a success, but not without a fair share of trouble. The easiest way to minimize the hassle transporting bees is by performing the task at night when they are sleeping in their hives. We chose a moderate evening to move them.

"Summertime is when we transport our bees," Dad mentioned, referring back to his days as a beekeeper on his family orchard. Of course, the weather in Washington State was different than Texas. It is imperative that bees be transported at 50 degrees above Farhenheit, since bees tend to cluster at temperatures below 50, and when the hive is jarred on the journey to a new location, the clusters began to break apart, and the bees die. I would have enjoyed transporting during a Texas fall evening, but at least that night, Texas experienced a surprisingly low high of 85. A moderate wind also gave some relief to the chore. 


Frames full of bees

We arrived at the property where a first set of hives were kept, and unload our trailer and my brother. His task was to collect all the empty bee boxes, and dead hives he can pick up. Dad and I continued on into the night to a property where the remaining hives are.

We placed the most important tool for transporting bees, a smoker, behind us in the truck bed. If you ever have to light a smoker and travel to where the hives are, it is a good idea to pack even more fuel for the smoker then you anticipate using. In our case, the wind blowing through the bed burned through fuel out quickly. When we arrived at the location, we decided to attack the hive without the smoke. 

The hushed rustle of a thousand wings emerge from the inside of the box. That is the sound is the winged creatures during their sleep. The pioneers had their homes built for them, but they were the ones that carved a place on the land, collecting pollen, and building stores of honey in comb.

Four of the hives have not survived the year, and so they are quickly loaded onto the truck. The front lights fork into the grass, and illuminate our large, netted hats, as we head out to grab the "live" hive. Our gloves are slaked with sweat. We formulate a plan for moving the hives while dad secured the hive boxes together with a staple and hammer. It is best to secure the hive boxes several days before the move, since the bees do not take kindly to someone hammering on their home in the middle of the night (and who wouldn't!). Soon enough, the hammer's pounding made us wish we had not run out of smoke! 

The hive began to stir as we reached underneath the shallow crevices at the bottom of the box. The hive creaked; it was weighed down by the the bees, and the full honey combs they have stored over the course of the season. Later we find out that this is the strongest, most menacing of the hives. 

As their home became airborne, The bees begin to swarm out in droves, colliding into our protective clothing and helmets. We stumble sideways, bearing our cargo to the lowered tailgate of the truck. As soon as our cargo is deposited, it is a race to get away, and dive into the tall grass.

At that moment, every single killer bee documentary I watched flashed through my mental theater. If I could advice my younger self of anything, it would have been to never watch those National Geographic specials! The do not make the process of collecting bees any easier.

It did not get any better when I found I had not secured my helmet correctly, and two bees had slipped inside the netting. I retreated (although it appeared more like a route), and slipped the helmet off as I did, batting the bees away. I definitely would have benefited from having my dad check my gear. Thankfully, no harm was done. In fact, I survived the night without a single sting; my brother suffered 5; my dad, 3. 

It took 20 minutes for the hive to settle down so we could approach it again. When we finally did close the truck bed, the guard bees were still whacking into our clothes. Another 20 minutes, and we were off toward the first set of hives.

We made it back, the dead hives were on the trailer, and safely secured. It is always a good idea to secure the hives with straps during transport. Even with the weight, the hives could topple, and the disorganized swarm lost.

Lifting a frame

The hives at the first location were more easily loaded. Our smokers were loaded, and the smoke they produced was thick. Many people have the notion that smoke somehow puts the bees to sleep. This is not true.

The bees sense of smell is their most powerful sense, and smoke masks the bees alarm pheremones. Smoke also triggers their flight instinct when faced with natural fires. The bees retreat back into the hive and fill up on honey in case they have to move their hive to a new location. For us, it was a matter of minutes before we had moved each hive onto the back of the trailer. The final ropes were attached around the live hives and we headed for home. 

While in transit, the hives' weight already did their bit to slow our vehicle down, but it is worth noting that continued jarring will not help keep your bees calm and inside the hive. It is best to travel well below the speed limit and keep a slow, steady pace. The vibration of the engine will keep the bees quiet. 

Home for our bees was not on our land. We still haven’t prepared for the bees, so for now, they wait on a friend’s land, while we build a permanent platform. Unloading the bees required only smoke, and by then it was 4 AM. With our charges on a makeshift platform, we departed to the comfort of our beds.

Once we get our bees on the land, I'll check back in and share some more about maintaining hives..

Thanks goes to Robb Wokaty for input on some researched points.

For more info on how to get started with Beekeeping, check out Beekeeping for Beginners.

Why We Farm! Or a guide to relational farming…

Farm fresh produce

The ritual begins during a fading Texas evening. I open the rear hatch of my van, and pull two picnic-worn coolers out onto the chapped pavement. I clear the beads of sweat from my forehead before opening the big white cooler and pick out a healthy specimen of cantaloupe. Behind me stands a small gathering: two newlywed couples, a gurgling baby in a baby carrier, a father and daughter, and a doting grandmother perched over the infant. Their task in this ritual is to watch.

“These were picked this morning,” I say, carefully handing my charges to the first couple in line. The husband flips the fruit around in his hand, inspecting the tiny ridges, and nestles his nose into the plant’s navel. He sniffs in the aromatic perfume with pleasure and satisfactorily deposits the fruit in his wife’s handbag.

I move onto the blue cooler, pulling out a crinkling store-labeled grocery sack stuffed with purple pea snaps, bell peppers, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers, banana peppers, basil, and oregano.

“Eighteen dollars and fifty-eight cents.” I recite from the yellow receipt, and the husband hands me a crisp twenty.

“I hope you have change,” he states, subtly reminding me of my lack of change the previous week.

“Yeah, I do,” I say, quickly shuffling through the stuffed envelope of coins and cash until I find the right amount. After he is done, the couple stands there and admires their food while I move onto the next couple’s order. The wife occasionally glances back to her mother-in-law and infant and smiles.

“My baby girl just loves the squash you gave us last week. I mashed it up, and she just took it right down.” I turn my head far enough so she can see me smile, and reply, “I’m not sure if anymore will come this season.”


“But I’ll check to see if any will be here by next week.” My brother, Gerred, owns and runs the farm, I just run the business side of the operation. I often find myself telling customers that I must check, since he keeps a constant check on the farm's pulse.

“Thank you! I like using it as her baby food.” I listen as she describes how long the produce has been lasting in their fridge, longer than any produce they could purchase in a store. I listen on as her mother-in-law, a woman whose eyes light up at the red beefsteak tomatoes, describes just how good the cucumbers were last week. 

“Best cucumbers I’ve tasted in my life,” she states and goes on to describe the thin skins and moving down to the rich, succulent meat of the vegetable. Having eaten some earlier that day, my own mouth revisits the textures and flavors. One by one, I finish the orders, finally passing off cantaloupes to the father and daughter; the former sniffs the fruit without saying a word, while the latter chuckles, “I think he’s really going to enjoy himself tonight.” Everyone trickles off except for the newlywed couple with the infant, who now sleeps soundly in the growing dusk.

“You know, this coming growing season we’d love it if you would grow some acorn squash,” the husband requests, “I can eat that all day! Oh, and we love spaghetti squash.”

“Do you think you could give me an estimate of how much you’d eat in a month?” I ask. They provide me an answer and I mentally log the numbers for my brother to consider.

“We’ve enjoyed your produce,” are their parting words, “I don’t think I could ever find better produce at the store.” They scurry to their car, and the ritual ends, and I watch my charge, my food, become another item in someone's fridge. As I drive home, my mind wanders to the farm work, keeping communication with our various buyers, trying to determine what they will want next growing season, and all the feedback I need to get back to my brother. It’s that time of year, a transition from summer to fall, zucchinis and cucumbers will dissipate to allow in cabbages, lettuces, pumpkins, and squash; as I calculate the figures of how much we can make on our small plot of land, I consider the grand scheme that has brought me to this most basic of professions.

* * * * *

Where does your food come from?

Why farm? Why choose a profession and lifestyle that runs against a cultural tide of sharply dressed, well groomed talking heads, who preach the advantages offered by fancier, cleaner, and more lucrative careers? American culture may claim to romanticize agrarian life, but the love is less than legitimate. USDA statistics show small farms and their farmers have been declining in size since the 1940s, even though number of large farms producing single crops have grown. Yes, the dirt and grime attend to the farmer as an occupational certainty, but any college management class will inform you that “employees” are more motivated more by “intrinsic rewards” than “extrinsic rewards,” or, more simply, workers want to feel as if their work has lasting value. What greater reward could be given than the foreknowledge that one is satisfying the hunger of humanity and your community? The answer lies with the changing idea of American food philosophy, what I would call a purpose-driven understanding of the role of food and American food suppliers in culture.

In an age when food has cheapened with advances in science and technology, we have allowed the doctrines of food and food production to shift, even from my grandfathers’ time to my own, when he grew apples in Washington state during the 1960s. He lived under the philosophy touted by the US Department of Agriculture, which made the US farmer out to be a national hero. He says to have grown food to supplement his teacher’s salary, but the country also saw a national icon and international competitor for American interests, and the American farmer had an built in intrinsic value that extended beyond profits.  

My grandfather’s generation of men sat in darkened movie theaters and watched Frank Capra's classic series, “Why We Fight!,” which taught them why the nation’s role in World War II was necessitated. My grandfather went on to rivet B-17 wings for the war effort, and when he was done, he found that his country needed him in a new capacity. The Government had gifted my grandfather and all American farmers with a new vision: The farmer could forget about the people and the land, and see only a machine, carefully oiled, static, and prosperous for the faithful user. For farmers like my grandfather, any affects that the land experienced were of no concern to him. The system made him more money as long as he kept improving the “machine,” and the food appeared unchanged. If the soil was affected, he could believe that a fix would be over the horizon. The miracle workers of World War II had made a new miracle. 

* * * * *

Industrial farming has taken the heart out of our food

The USDA produced films that showed the miracle of modern food production: thousands of individual farms brought together in a large corporate system to supply supermarkets with a cornucopia of produce, meat, dairy, and canned goods from disjointed regions of the US; the laboratory extending into the field, making larger, more nutritious, and better tasting crops; and the consumer, offered the convenience of this food, enjoyed the prosperity of American ingenuity. The purpose for growing food was simple: Be a part of a new miracle and make more food with less land using whatever means suited that end. It was a system that begat success, so long as the system’s management was carefully regulated. Our food philosophy had shifted, and despite this growth, one factor from previous generations of farmers remained: The community knew the farmer, and the farmer had a social accountability to that community which the government could not override. Even as farms began to cannibalize each other to remain in the system, the farmers were still “independent agents," able to still create life-filled nutritious food, instead of merely "safe food."

The USDA first began to preach this system during World War II, praising farmers for working alongside the government to slowly bring this massive food supply system to being, accepting the government’s aid, and producing what they needed for the war quotas. In one film titled, “Henry Browne, Farmer,” the farmer was described as a “soldier of production” who must produce the right amount of "oil and fats" to combat the Japanese agricultural production. Government had a reason for centralizing farming, out command the marketplace. The farmer’s duty would not be divided between field and national duty.

The national audience grew accustomed to this changing view of farming. Originally, our former food doctrines allowed for a collection of decentralized family farms that occupied the 1910s and 20s, and these businesses had not satisfied the nation's stomach during the depression. Food had lost its plentifulness in the land of plenty, and the government was determined to make ordinary food into something it could have never been on its own, and for a broader use in the world stage. The farmer still had his local connection, he still provided food for his neighbors, but the marketplace was making a way for him in the world, a way that my grandfather would fill, and now, a way my brother and I could fill: the way of mass production, yielding a greater world, filled with complacency toward the simplest action of our humanity. 

The modern world driving home I see different farms as I drive home from my delivery run. These farms are still run by grandfathers, with some migrant workers that drift through. Some have families who work together, but most do not. The crops I see are one of three: Corn, Sorghum, or soybeans, grown to fill the stomachs of cows and humans as cheaply as possible, while the farmer remains accountable to state regulations only. And what a world those regulations have built. The fields are still alive with food, but the food is empty, plastered together with an assortment of chemicals, pesticides, and other toxins that render the life still imagined in the soil a hopeless corpse; at least they can say our food is safe, free from the bacteria that harms us. The plants grow as they are supposed to, guided by their genetic modification, but they remain merely signposts set against the sky of what this world has become. Vastly rich, but hollow-shelled, flavorless, and impotent. The modern farmer can assert he has the same reason for growing food as his predecessors, for although he still feeds that masses, his food has no heart left to give to the table. That's why we don't farm anymore. The life that was found in the fields, is no longer life to us. It doesn't provide substance to our bodies, it doesn't even provide a bottom line for the farmer, it just replicates mindlessly, without thought.

* * * * * 

The beauty of the harvest

I return to the farm after the delivery run and help my brother plant the fall crops. I think about the series "Why We Fight!," and wonder, if I made a documentary entitled, "Why We Farm!" what would it try and communicate to an audience. The answer slowly comes to me among the rows of peppers and tomatoes. I mentioned in the beginning of this piece that I consider my work a ritual. This ritual is the familiar way to be a farmer, or the way I have found familiar. For far too long, farmers have become familiar with growing food better, but I want to be familiar with growing food right.

In "Why We Farm," I would say I grow food because I imagine myself being a part of the world that takes longer to mature, to achieve success, but remains a work in progress. I grow food so it becomes rich again, full of life, and containing the DNA it was supposed to contain. I grow food because I imagine one day, when I have kids, I will want them to grow as they were intended to grow, at a slow, steady pace, ready at the right season to accomplish what they are supposed to accomplish. I grow because a mother sees her child starting that journey, and believes the food I am growing will yield an abundance for the body. I hope that people will see the value in the food, the richness of nutrition, the communities that knew the seminal work that made any table look like a feast. The joy of the God-given command to, “Be fruitful.” I grow food, and the reasons why sprout up to say hello without fail every season.

Now, I am hoping you will ask yourself a similar question to mine, “Why am I not farming, or at least growing food in a pot?” I think the answer is easily found. You only need to look in a mirror, and see a face that is packed full of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, and rub it until you know it’s real. Then, stand at the edge of your child’s room or find them in the yard and watch them play, see their muscles attached to tendons attached to bones moving back and forth; lastly, I go to the fridge, and take a stock of what is contained inside. Consider the value of that food, whether it was made to give you strength, or whether it was made just to fool an eater. I believe the answer to your question will come easily. 

Walk Your Farm with THE Owner

Walk your Farm with THE Owner

It is a very busy season around the farm here, and it is hard to take time to blog. I guess blogging on a farm changes with the seasons along with everything else. The Lord is very gracious and merciful, and has blessed our growing season more than my skill and efforts merit. May he help me to be faithful in the little things everyday. The picture above shows the beautiful garden of a dear family that we visited this past weekend.

The following is an excerpt from my book that several people have said they appreciated, so I thought I would share it with all of you.

Walking Your Farm with the Owner

One thing that could help promote a better sense of stewardship in our hearts is taking a walk around the farm. The goal of the walk should not be to dwell on the work you need to do on the farm, but rather to simply walk the farm with its Owner. Apparently God walked with Adam, the first steward, in the garden of Eden. And I think the Lord would enjoy walking with us around the farms He has given us.

On your walk with the Lord go alone if possible. Pray out loud or whisper if that would be more comfortable. But just talk with the Lord and give Him a tour of the farm. Give Him thanks for all that He has blessed you with. Show Him the garden, the chickens, the pasture, the greenhouse, the cows—whatever you have, and give Him an account of how you have been caring for and working them. Acknowledge that they all belong to Him and ask Him to show you how you can better manage them. When you come across the chickens that are walking around in mud because you have been putting off moving them, then repent and ask Him to help you do a better job. Tell Him about the problem you have with disease on your tomato plants, or erosion in your newly planted pasture and ask Him to show you a solution. At times just be silent and observe. Look at His design in Creation. Pay attention to the needs that you may have previously overlooked. And give notice to any opportunities that He may reveal to you, like the acorns in the woods that could be fed to the pigs. At the end of the walk give thanks to God for granting you this land and dedicate it to His glory.

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An Experimental Potato Plot

growing potatoes in hay


As regular readers know, our family is pretty big on potatoes. We eat them 3 meals a day, every day! I’ve always grown good potatoes. The boys took over potato planting back when we lived in southern NY and even won first prize at the Broome county fair with their Red Pontiacs. After moving up here my success with taters ended. Heavy clay soil is one thing, but wet clay soil is another. Our farm is very wet and has standing water in most areas from spring till freeze up. Its almost impossible to grow good potatoes here. I had thought about trying to grow them in vertical towers but decided against it because we would need such a large number of them to grow any decent amount of potatoes. This year I decided to try growing them above ground under a heavy hay mulch. Here is the process we used…

The first thing we did was bring up several loads of composted hay/manure from a spot where cattle had been fed round bales outside several years ago. We covered a 15ftx25ft area with this material about 8 to 10 inches deep. Some of it was well rotted compost, some was half decomposed hay and some of it was clay.

Next we planted 50 lbs of potatoes intensive style, about 12 inches or so apart across the whole area. We didn’t bury them, just layed them on top.

After we got the potatoes on the ground we brought over a round bale of hay that was baled with a roto-cut baler. We spread 3/4 of the bale over the spuds.

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