Saturday, August 12, 2006

I'm in Kansas - Next stops...pumpkin patch...emu farm...the Land Institute!

Good morning ya'll.

This is gonna be a quick one. I'm in Eureka, KS today.

Since my last update I've visited a Wild Harvest farm called Goods from the Woods in Licking, MO; attended a country fair; stayed overnight on a Bison Ranch called Ozark Plateau Bison in Mansfield, seen an heirloom seed festival at Baker Creek, and a pastured poultry, pork, turkey and grass fed beef operation in Bois D'arc. In between I had some of the best Dutch Cherry Pie in the universe at Cooky's; received a late night visit from a young woman on horseback in Golden City, MO; rode my bike through a biting thunderstorm complete with a horizon to horizon rainbow; and received a meal of Bar B Q venison from a Lutheran minister just west of Girard, KS. Oh yeah, I also caught a wild bird in my bare hands. This doesn't even include the fascinating encounter I had with a couple of retired circus/carnival professionals, who used to train elephants and Courtney from Toledo, KS who has built from scratch the most divine Italian restaraunt this side of the Atlantic. Her back porch is made out of a grain elevator, and her dish station out of a meatlocker. I ain't been bored.

Kelly rode up to my picnic pavillion where I was reading Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and struck up a conversation. She remained mounted for the entire 40 minute conversation, during which her parents drove by in their truck checking up on her. She is concealling a 32 ounce Coors Light on the other side of her horse Kola which is an Indian word for friend. Notice the braided mane.

Upon leaving Golden City, I experienced a very appropriate Golden Sunrise complete with rainbow.

Yes, I now possess the power to tame wild animals. Does anybody know what kind of bird I've got in my hand? I do not possess the power of ornithological taxonomy.

I also met a 19 year old who gave me some perspective on the younger generation that wants to farm with a passion. They talk about it endlessly and consider themselves the last of their kind, because despite their passion, virtually everyone that they know farms in addition to a part or full time job, and even then is just barely making it. Here's a quick summary of a conversation I had with Brother John of the Lutheran Church and young Matt who helps to clean up the church as one of his odd jobs.

"Matt obviously kept a day job at Stanford’s Automotive. I don’t know how many other odd jobs he kept, but work was something that had obviously occupied a lot of his short life. Every job he’d ever had he could remember the details behind it, like it was yesterday. He’s now nineteen years old and he had already spent six years of his life working at a dairy. He talked about farming with a passion. It was something that he and his friends obviously talked about continuously. They were the last of their kind, they often joked. Many of them were working on some of the bigger farms, but Matt acknowledged that their was little hope of any of them getting into it successfully.

He cited two main reasons. One was the land to do it. This could only be overcome by inheriting or marrying into land as it was simply impossible to buy land outright. But this challenge seemed small compared to what it would take to actually start to farm. It was the cost of equipment that made it impossible. There was simply no way to start small with a discer and a few other machines and ramp up. You had to have the whole shebang from the start, and then be prepared to purchase more equipment every few years. That required constant banking, and banking, and banking until next thing you know, you’re bankrupt. I asked if people often went bankrupt and the answer was no. They eventually widdled the debt down, but often times had to sell the land to finance their retirement. Matt's own grandfather had sold his land, thereby virtually eliminating Matt's own chances of farming, despite his obvious passion. "It's something that gets in the blood, I guess."

John and Matt were both avid hunters and fishers and talked passionately about deer. To them, it was less about the event than about “putting meat in the freezer.” They discussed different ways of preparing jerky; Matt described using a standard box fan with the meat fastened to the backside of it in between two air-conditioner filters- a process that took about two days. He would also add a little bit of cola to it to sweeten and tenderize the meat. He recalled fondly when his mother used to make deer sausage. Food was a topic of great interest, and the favorites seemed to be wild foods, wild game, and Morel mushrooms. John shared a secret about morels. Apparently they do quite well on a recently fallen elm, a year or two after dying.

And then the two got to talking about squash and zuchinni. Matt liked it fried. I asked how people got their fresh foods and they both agreed that people pretty much fended for themselves, meaning, they grew it themselves. There was a small farmer’s market in town, but it was real small and people didn’t rely on it too much. They just grew what they wanted. A lot of people did that. They’d have just a few head of cattle for their own use too."

I hope to spend some more time with this younger generation. Matt really impressed me with his knowledge and his understanding of modern agricultural realities. Even at such a young age he was entirely capable of taking on and managing a farm. He had already learned the work ethic, the responsibility, the attention to detail, and most importantly the love for the work. And yet it's probably not what Matt will do for a living. It will always be a side passion, an aid to putting quality food on the table, but not a realistic way to pay the bills and raise the family. For that he would have to be a mechanic, or some other reliable, more practical profession, with benefits.

The contrast between Matt and most urban 19 year olds I know was pretty striking too. He was an adult. He was someone you could trust. He had knowledge, had been taught discipline, showed respect. How much did this have to do with being brought up in farming, especially farming with animals. time you hear from me I should be on my way to the Land Institute. Wes Jackson is a guru of natural systems agriculture, a philosophical approach to agriculture that calls us to mimic nature, rather than dominating or ignoring it. Nature's ecosystems are so effective at building up nutrients, increasing fertility, improving water retention, and converting sunlight into calories that we might follow her instruction by developing perennial plants rather than annuals that require wasteful tillage, and utilizing a diversity of plants rather than monocultures that attract pests. Well, that's what the Land Institute is researching, how to change agriculture in as dramatic a way as our introduction of fossil fuel fertility.

Sounds intense!

This entry was posted on 8/12/2006 11:28 AM
  • 8/12/2006 4:37 PM Kip Glass wrote:
    that bird you had is kind of hard to tell without the whole picture.
    It looks like a young night hawk. Not a true "hawk", they catch insects in the late evening air. If it had long tapered, narrow wings and white bar markings on the wings, that is what it was. THe eye looks like that is what it is. If when you were trying to catch it, it opened its mouth gaping wide in retaliation is another sure sign. They have really wide mouths for catching insects in flight.

  • 8/14/2006 9:42 AM vicki pense wrote:
    Hey Justin,
    We enjoy hearing from you and watching your trek across Kansas. I can relate to young Matt who wants to farm and loves hunting, cooking, growing things. When we were in Yale Oklahoma lots of the people talked that way. They also said that the key to a sucessful rancher was a wife who worked in town! Sad but true

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