January 11, 2009 – PFI Conference Wrap-Up Part 1

OK, the Practical Farmers of Iowa annual conference has now come and gone. It’s time for some reflections on the meeting.  First, it was a treat to meet a very successful sustainable farmer, Joel Huesby, of Thundering Hooves near Walla Walla, WA.  Linda was set to introduce him, so she fetched him from the airport and was able to spend some time with him.  Perhaps the most fun was when we took him out for dinner along with holistic vet Will Winter after the conference ended.

Some things that Joel has done include having the only, or one of the only, on-farm USDA inspected “mobile abattoir” or slaughterhouses on wheels. The carcasses are then transported to the cut-up facility that Thundering Hooves also owns.  Because slaughtering techniques and treatment of the animals before slaughter and during processing are very important to meat quality, (and respectful to the animals) Joel’s keen eye for detail led him down this path.  Only recently have people like Temple Grandin brought to light humane slaughtering procedures.  Just think how much less stress those animals have in them as opposed to those getting loaded in a truck, moved down an interstate and held in holding pens at a slaughterhouse.

I’ll give you a piece of Joel’s story, in his words, copied from Thundering Hooves web site:

In the summer of 1994, I had an epiphany, a life-changing realization, and I haven’t been the same person since. I remember the day well. I was out burning a field of wheat stubble, trying to quickly rid myself of what I thought at the time was the bothersome organic matter in my way, so that I could plant alfalfa that fall. Only a couple of weeks earlier I received the yield results from a crop of snap beans. I had grown them under contract for a local cannery and yielded 5 tons per acre. This was a good yield, but the cannery was only paying me $102 per ton based on the tenderometer reading (the cannery’s measure of the quality of the beans based almost solely on the timing of the harvest, which is determined by the cannery!) This came to a little over $500 per acre. Then I started to do the rest of the math per acre. Seed cost $100, fertilizer $60, water $120, weed control $35, equipment $80, land payment… operating loan payment… insurance… interest… taxes… And oh yes, I got to pay myself with what was left over!

I saw problems on my farm that weren’t being addressed. The dirt was blowing away. The soil wasn’t holding moisture. I was barely scratching a living. Worse yet, the canneries and the fuel man and the parts man and the fertilizer man and the aerial spraying man and even the migrant workers were all making a living from my land, but not me.

The way things were going; I had to ask myself, “How long can we keep doing all this?” “Should we get out?” We watched as other long-standing farm families were forced to sell everything and move to town. Were we next?

It had become painfully apparent to me that my choices were to either get a job to support the farm and my family, or to borrow more money and fall further into debt until we could no longer make the payments. Our story was not unlike countless other producer/farmers in the commodity business across the country.

What makes this story — and our farm — unique is what I decided to do about it. Remember the wheat stubble I was burning that day? From that fire, as I watched the land turn to black, rise in a dark smoke, and fade into the sky, so also my dreams of making a living in modern commodity agriculture were set ablaze and blew away. Let’s face it; it had been a failure since the beginning – on all levels -financially, ecologically, socially, and personally. At that time I did not yet know where to turn, nor what to do next. All I knew was what did not work for ME. So it was that from that moment I resolved to do NOTHING the same again.

As the weeks went by, I came to view my farmer brethren across the country as being caught in the same circular living from which I had just divorced myself. We always needed bigger equipment to farm more acres faster, and more and more fertilizers to get bigger yields that made greater supplies that lowered prices which meant we needed bigger equipment and on and on.

I could see no future in this for me. Like a giant whirlpool with no way out, I could literally hear the great sucking sound of our finances being pulled up from our farm if I stayed in the present paradigm.

So, what to do? It sounded intriguing to say, “I will do NOTHING the same again,” but what did that really mean? I began to read more and think more, and slowly it dawned on me why my farm was not supporting my family and I. I had broken the law. I was a criminal. Not in the legal sense, but in a much more vast, universal sense. What do I mean? In a nutshell, here is my confession; I had compacted the soil, fed it artificial food, removed organic matter without putting any back, laid the ground bare, disrupted the soil community of microorganisms by use of tillage, poisoned the soil with chemicals and dumped my commodity on the market and wondered why I got a dump price.

one year ago…”Congrats to Linda”