Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Accidental farmers" review

Tim and Liz Young have a lot to say about farming; they've blogged, they've done interviews,and they're now running a farming forum called farm-dreams.  This is a review of the book that they wrote about their farming experiences. 

Tim is the author of the book, and I'll talk about what is said as if Tim said it, but Liz has some part of the farm and is involved in the day-to-day operations; not ignoring her, just working with the book as written.  Hi, Liz!

This book is self-published, which is perhaps the easiest way to get published.  You really don't have to have anyone proofread or edit it, or write about something that a publisher would consider interesting to a wide audience, and this book shows some of that.  A good editor is always a good investment.  Chapter 9 is a bit of a slog for that reason. 

Tim decides to become a farmer
Tim had a prettty typical midlife crisis; of confidence, of desire, of goals.  Riding horses one day at a resort, he decided to become a farmer, and set about purchasing land. 

Having impulsively purchased the land, the problem soon became what the heck to do with themselves, and so began the pattern that runs throughout the entire book: 

1) Decide that something is a good idea
2) Start trying to build a market, or promote whatever it is as the best thing ever
3) Buy/build/grow the good idea and broadcast the  good idea to a wide audience.* 
4) Decide that the good idea isn't such a good idea, or didn't work out as planned
5) Dump everything involved with it, and start over with the next Good Idea

Here's an example:  In chapter 5 he talks about purchasing berkshire pigs, which of course are the best thing since sliced bread according to Tim. (In fairness, I raise berkshire pigs, and know the breed very well, and they are pretty great).  Step 1

He starts talking about how great pastured pork is and looks to line up customers before he has pork to sell.  Step 2

He buys an electric fence setup, and puts the little pigs out on the pasture, only to be shocked to find out that the pigs ignore it.  Various mishaps ensue.  He has a hard time with breeding.  he has a hard time with farrowing.  He loses a litter of piglets.  He loses several litters of piglets.   Step 3 and 4

Tim concludes from these struggles that it's the pigs fault -- that they have no mothering skills or instincts, and eventually gets rid of everything but a feral breed of pigs, step 5.   Ossabaw pigs, a feral breed, being the next Good Idea that he's promoting. 

If the goal was to raise animals that could live in the wild, why start with chickens and pigs?  Deer do just fine on their own. 

Tim does this over and over again with different breeds of livestock.  He lets his sheep die of parasitic infection, watching them waste away despite having an easy cure available.   He allows hundreds of laying hens to get sick, and so many die that he has to use his tractor to pick up the bodies; when a simple vaccination may have solved his entire problem, and throughout this he talks about the evils of factory farming, and how the instincts have been bred out of the animals - and having had hands-on experience with the animals he's talking about, I just don't agree.   I have a big problem with the basic philosophy of letting everything die when there are cures readily available.     

When you're a new farmer, as Tim is, you're going to make mistakes and lose animals.  I have no problem with that; we all hate it, but it's part of the process; what I object to is the overall feeling that he's trying to fit a square peg in a round hole:   He makes an assumption about livestock, it turns out wrong, and he doesn't learn anything from it and hundreds of animals suffer needlessly.   All of the animals he tried are raised all over the country by thousands of farmers successfully.   
Here's what a reviewer said on Amazon, about this practice: 

" Also, the ideology involved in wanting their animals to live completely "natural" lives doesn't jive with the fact that livestock are not wild animals. The point to which they expected their animals to live with minimal support on depleted soil scares me a little, and I wonder if these chapters will end up as fodder for the animal rights movement and conventional ag to argue that pasture-based agriculture is not a viable solution."

Tim talks about his experience in corporate america, and his marketing background.  That's a field where it actually makes quite a bit of sense to cut your losses and move on  if things don't work out, but my experience of farming is that it's slower, more deliberate, and not at all intuitive.  Not accidental in the slightest. 

With any venture it takes time and effort to become proficient at it.  What Tim does over and over again is set himself up for farming failure.  With the pigs/chickens/rabbits/sheep/beef/bees, he doesn't stick with it long enough to know what it looks like to succeed at it, and at this point he's not raising any commercial quantities of many of the animals he describes in his book; beef cattle, laying hens, rabbits, large black and berkshire pigs, bees and sheep.  None of those products are for sale from Natures Harmony now.   

Tim talks about Joel Salatin in this book.  The difference between them is that Joel is still in business, still producing food, and still using the methods he promotes.  Natures harmony isn't doing the majority of what Tim describes in the book, and he never talks about the reasons he stopped doing any of it.

In my opinion, sustainable means you're still in business, and by that measure, Natures Harmony as described in this book is unsustainable. 

Tim, you could make this book much more interesting if you included a few pages on the end of each one of your farming attempts (sheep, bees, beef, etc etc) that talks about why you don't do that any more.  As it is, the reader is left with the impression that he's still out there doing this, when in fact, the interns have been dismissed, the equipment sold or given away, and the farm train has left the station. 

As a book that would like to influence farmers, I'd find it much more credible as a "sustainable" farm if it had lasted more than a year or two.   

Would I recommend this book to a new farmer?   No.  I wouldn't because it doesn't have any way to overcome the hardships that are talked about here.  I'd rather that they started with a more balanced book that talks about problems and solutions, perhaps one that is based on a farm that has figured out and overcome the typical problems and has found a way to make a profit.  

Tim does spend a bit of time in this book talking about making a profit; in fact, chapter 10 is mostly about Tims view of farm economics and making a profitable farm.  With this much animal death and destruction, purchase and then disposal of equipment and the huge sums of money spent on the custom house, swimming pool and acreage (and 14,000 feet of woven wire fence and 8,000 feet of water lines installed), in my opinion I  can't see Tims farm as having pulled a profit at any time by any reasonable measure. 

* While Tim does like to broadcast his views, he takes a dim view of anyone who has any view that is in any way contrary to his.  He's banned me from his site, his blog, farm-dreams and any other venue where he has editorial control.  Tim is strictly broadcast-only with his view on farming.  It's not a dialog. 


becky3086 said...

To me, you should only write a book if what you have done is successful. If it isn't, you don't know what you are doing yet and then you just have a book full of "what not to do".

Eightway said...

I like your posts about farming a lot more than ones picking on feeble farmers.

Keep it positive.

Maybe this blog becomes a nucleus for your own book?

Bruce King said...

Eightway, I hear you. My goal here is to talk about farming, and part of that discussion are people who are promoting various farm practices. So I write about the farm incubator as a good idea, and this sort of stuff, too.

Tim can do whatever he'd like to on his farm, and I'm glad that he's found another new idea that he can promote in the form of farmstead cheese.

I just disagree with his conclusions as stated in this book. The problem wasn't the animals or the idea.

As I've said had he overcome these issues and made a go of it it would have been a much more interesting book, or if he'd just talked about why it didn't work for him.

Rich said...

What sort of irritates me about the whole deal is that Tim appeared as an expert on Fox, his farm was on the Food Channel (I think that was the one) representing the local, slow food, or sustainable farms (whatever was the buzz word at the moment), and I saw them on The Georgia Farm Monitor show as an example of the new desirable type of farm and farmer of the future.

Do you want someone like Tim representing you or your farm or defining local, or sustainable farming (not to mention being "the most awesome, sustainable farm in America and the entire whole Universe"?

He posted videos of his farm that clearly showed him loading cattle up to take to be butchered about a year after he first bought cattle (those must have been some quick growing calves) And, those cattle were Hereford and black baldies while he was claiming that he was selling home-raised Murray Gray cattle that produced the best grass-fed beef in the world.

How would someone in his area that was actually doing what he was claiming to be doing (raising their own calves and finishing them on grass) compete with someone that was buying steers and marketing them as home-raised and finished?

I think he ran his farm using these types of methods, and when people started looking at his blog and figured out what he was doing, along with his animal husbandry methods, the novelty wore off and they stopped buying his products.

sheila said...

perhaps a re title would be best for this book...

A Cautionary Tale of
how to go broke playing farmer