Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The myth of young farmers

I recieved an email today, which I've copied a bit of, below:

American Meat, the pro-farmer documentary that examines hog, cattle and chicken production in the United States is coming to Washington State. [...] We are interviewing young farmers in each of the 10 locations we travel to... creen the film and were wondering if you would be interested in being part of our Video Series in Washington.
To give you an idea what some of these videos look like here are links to Young Farmer Videos from Missouri and Iowa:
We are interested in finding both conventional and alternative farmers in Washington while we are there from November 12th - November 19th. If you are or can point us in the right direction of young (under 35) farmers that might be interested we would greatly appreciate it.
Through this series we hope to inspire and help generations to come who are thinking about farming as a career."
This is something that I've run into many times.  The local food movement seems to have a fascination with young farmers.  Here they're pretty explicit about it -- if you're over 35, they'd rather not hear from you.  I like that honesty.  It's nice when it's clear.  Most of the time it's just implicit. 
So I watched the two videos (links above) and both of the people there were what I call inherited land farmers.  The fellow in missouri is farming land his grandfather bought in the 1970s, and the guy in iowa is working on his dads farm.   

Take home lesson:   You can only farm if you inherit your land. 

Farming, at the scale that you can make a living off your farm, requires money.  Depending on the type of farming you do, it can take quite a bit of money -- Tim, over at Natures Harmony, has spent the better part of a million bucks setting up his farm.  He hates it when I say it, but it's true.   He's milking less than 20 cows. I don't see how he'll ever make a profit, but I guess writing books will help. 

I use him as an example of a fellow who wants to farm and didn't inherit his land.  His solution?  Go make a million bucks somewhere else and use that money to start his farm. 

So lets look at the Missouri guy again.  How about we interview grandpa about how he got the money to buy that land, and what the challenges were, and see what he has to say about becoming a farmer.  Clearly he's done well, and his son (and HIS son!) are still involved with farming.  In this case, I think that grandpa is the hero.  No fault to grandson -- I'm sure he works hard.

John Deere model 210 disc
Old School farming, and didn't inherit his land:  Irwin

I was looking for a disc and found one about a hundred miles away at a good price, and I made arrangements to go over and look at it.  On arrival I met the farmer selling the disk, Irwin. 

One of the questions I ask when I purchase equipment is why they're selling it, and Irwins answer was that he was not going to be farming any more.  He's in his 70s I think, and he'd like to live closer to town.  So he's selling his farm and equipment and retiring.  The disc was in good shape, some cash and an handshake, and we had a deal. 

To get the disc onto my trailer I had to take it partially apart, as it's 15' wide and about 12' deep, and while I was doing that Irwin and I talked about farming.  He was selling the 60 acres we were on to one fellow, and another 60 acres to another fellow, and the third 60 acres to... you get the idea.  Irwin was, by most definitions, a very successful farmer.  So I asked him how he started? 

"I was a civil engineer for the city of San Francisco".  Whoa.   You didn't inherit the land?  "Nope, I bought this property in the late 70s, an d that in the 80s, and another in the 90s, and ..."

So you've been farming for the better part of 40 years now... I'm guessing that there were some times that weren't so good.  "yea, the 80s really were bad.  I had a tough time, and I had 4 kids in college, and it really made it hard, but we got through..." 

Isn't that sort of the vision we have of an ideal farming life?  Hard work, clean living -- supporting our family, and providing for them, and then being able to retire with a decent amount of comfort? 

But there's that awkward part in the narrative.   The part where you make enough money to be able to afford the land, and then work two (or three) jobs to keep it going.   Your farm job, the town job, and the other job you take when that crop just doesn't work out -- like my friend Paul who's doing his best to make a go of his farm, but had to take that off-farm job to make ends meet. 

There's  reason that most farmers are over 35.  It takes a while to amass the money to be able to get into farming, at least on land that you own.   I'm a lot more interested in the story of people who make it on their own, and who don't inherit their land, or have land that "...has been in the family since we homesteaded it in 1887...", .

How about you show a realistic path that people can actually follow? 

My great-great-grandfather, Samuel C. King was the largest landowner in Atchison county, Kansas in the 1890s.  Very successful man, but over the next 120 years, the land was sold, and so when I was born there wasn't much of the original land -- I'm still entitled to a burial in the family plot in Mt. Pleasant,  KS, but that's about it.   By the way -- my great-great grandfather earned the money that he used to buy his land from his off-farm job.  Funny how that works, eh? 

Most people today who are interested in farming don't have the luxury of having the land handed to them, and no matter how much you wish, there's no such thing as the land fairy.  But there is a tried-and-true way to get into farming.   

Friday, October 26, 2012

Tax foreclosure auction, 2012: What recovery?

I go to the county tax foreclosure auction every year, and I do so because I find that it's a pretty good place to purchase agricultural properties,  but I'll buy just about any kind of real estate if it appears to be a good value. 

One way to measure the current health of the local economy is to look at what sorts of properties are being auctioned off, what the value of the property is, and how many properties there are in the sale. 

In 2008, there were 47 properties in the sale.  I ended up purchasing a 9 acre parcel that I use for seasonal grazing of cattle, and a couple of building lots.  None of the properties in this auction were what I would consider "prime" real estate -- every parcel had some issue or other that made it less valuable. 

In 2009 I purchased a couple of improved building lots (electricity, water) and the quality offered had improved.  There were 54 properties in the sale. 

In 2010 I purchased a 3br 2ba townhouse that was 6 years old for $101k; that was the most expensive property at the auction that year, but the quality was again better.  There were 65 properties at the sale. 

I didn't attend the 2011 auction

The 2012 tax foreclosure auction has 345 properties. 

Unlike banks, the county sells the properties when they get to a particular point -- regardless of the state of the economy or the real estate market in general.  So unlike banks, who can keep a property off the market for years, the county auction is a pretty honest reflection of how the real estate market, and generally, the local economy, is faring. 

There are million dollar houses being auctioned.  There's a 50 room commercial hotel in lynnwood.  There's over 100 building lots.  It's not a single group of people, this is as widespread a sale as I've ever seen.

Over the next 6 weeks, properties will be removed from the list, but I think it's safe to say that this tax sale will be the largest that has happened in this county for at least 10 years. 

No matter what the media or the government says about the economy, by this indicator, we are farther in a hole than we have ever been in my lifetime. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012


 We get thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables a week, and it's always interesting to see what the pigs select out of the pile.  They have a wide variety of things that they can eat.  One of the really surprising things that I would not have picked is squash. 

They really like squash. 

Here they're eating a "sweetmeat" squash; I noticed a knot of piglets tussling over something, and I walked over to see what they were eating.  They were busy biting hunks of of it, and then taking mouthfuls of the crisp orange flesh. 
When they finally got into the center, they stopped eating the flesh for a couple of minutes to suck up every single one of the squash seeds.  Once those were gone they went back to the meat.  To get to this particular squash they ignored pineapples and pears and other things. 

With these kids you don't have to work very hard to get them to eat their vegetables.  I think they pick a great diet out for themselves. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Food safety & risk

food risk is interesting.

  I buy a lottery ticket because somewhere in my primitive hindbrain I think I can win despite 237,000,000 to 1 odds.

So for me, there's a part of me that says that even very small odds are a possible risk.  In the case of lottery tickets, there's a better chance that I'll be eaten by an alligator or killed by a rabid skunk, both of which seem to me to be really unlikely events.

 So when I assess the risk of drinking raw milk there's that part of me that says that it can happen with long odds. 

What is the risk that you'd be willing to take?  1 in 10?  1 in 100?  1 in 1,000?  one in a million?   For small kids or folks with compromised immune systems, the consequences can be pretty dire -- kidney failure and lifelong dyalysis or just plan old death. 

I figure that raw milk is an adult beverage and a great ingredient for cheese; speaking as someone who's raising a dairy cow and plans to drink raw milk when she calves, next july. 

Foundation farms was a small raw milk dairy in oregon; they had an outbreak and the farmers own 4 children came down with it.  Four kids spent some quality time in the intensive care ward and three of those four are on kidney support because of kidney failure.  Whatever nutritional or health benefits those kids got from it probably is not worth the risk to them.  The dairy itself is out of business now.
Whole foods doesn't stock raw milk because a recent trend is that when there is an outbreak the dairy gets sued, the distributor gets sued, and the retail store gets sued.  Given that choice,most stores just opt out.  And insurance companies are having a hard time pricing policies; when someone dies or requires lifelong care, especially a child, juries are very sympathetic and often award millions of dollars to the bereaved parents. 

Small farms love raw milk because of the high margins it affords compared with traditional dairy,  but they often don't have the financial backing that a bigger farm would, and in the event of an outbreak, most just quietly fold and auction their cows and then they're gone.  That's what foundation farms did.  I don't know who's paying the medical costs for that upgrade, but I'm guessing it's us as taxpayers.  I'm all for free choice and rugged individualism, but most of the time when this stuff goes bad it's the taxpayer that picks up the bill.  A single day in an intensive care unit can cost 30 to 50 thousand dollars.   So it looks like a high profit margin item to the individual running the farm, but when you look at the overall cost of treatment, any profit that foundation farms made is probably a drop in the bucket.  Society as a whole did not profit from that farm at all.  This is the farming equivalent of a superfund cleanup site.    

Food risk.  What odds are acceptable to you?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

dirtwork, part 3 - plowing and disc ing and tilling

 Behind the pig you can see a newly plowed field.  You'll see big strips of sod that are turned over. 
This is the same area after two passes with a disk.  Same dirt.  Use the fence as a reference point.   

I've got a big rototiller that I use inside the greenhouse and for stirring things, but I understand now why the disc harrow is such a popular implement.  I can drive over the ground at 3 to 4mph and in one pass chop up sod or crop residue, fill holes and smooth the ground.  With more passes the clods of dirt left get smaller and smaller.  Now this doesn't give me the finished seed bed that I'd like for a good pasture -- I'll go over it with a power rake for the flat, finished surface, but it's not bad

I've found this to be the fastest way to go from heavy sod to seed bed: 

Mow tall grass because it's easier to plow mowed sod than deal with the long grass and sod both. 
Bottom plow to break up the soil into big clods
Disc until you've got the texture  you want

Figure roughly two hours per acre. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Filling the barn

When I said deep litter, I meant deep.  Here's an idea of the scale of the litter.  The concrete blocks you can see in the background are 2' tall, so the liter is about 2.5' deep.   There's still a good 3 to 4 feet above the litter so that the pigs can't get to the roof. 

To fill the barn consumed quite a bit of material; around 180 cubic yards of wood chips.  That's 18 dump truck loads (full-sized dump trucks).  That's quite a bit.  This bedding will remain in the barn for the next 8 to 10 months, and it'll absorb all of the manure and pee from the pigs. 

To maintain it the theory is that you run a rototiller across the top about once a month, and if it gets too wet you add more bedding.  I have lots of bedding material, so that's not a problem.  As we loaded these chips in they're actually steaming -- generating quite a bit of heat from naturally composting. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012


 We have problems with coyotes mostly twice a year; once, in the early spring, when they're raising their pups and need extra calories, and again in the fall, when the pups are kicked out of their parents territories and have to set up shop somewhere else. 

As a rule, I much prefer to not kill coyotes.  When you take out a mature animal, younger dogs move in, and there's a learning curve that everyone goes through.  A mature coyote that knows what the basic rules are is much less trouble than a young dog that doesn't know any better. 

Unfortunately, it's hard to teach the coyotes the rules.   I lost a sheep yesterday, and I found this one this morning.   This sheep shows pretty classic coyote wounds.   You can click on any of these pictures for a closer look.  In the top picture you'll see a wound on one side of the neck.  In the picture below, a wound on the other side.  You can see the canine teeth marks in the lower picture. 
 This is a young coyote who is not used to taking down sheep or deer.  The way that an experienced dog will take down a sheep is to clamp down on the windpipe and choke the sheep out.  After it goes it'll kill it.  This dog tried for the neck, but didn't get a good clamp on the windpipe, and ended up tearing out a chunk of the skin and wool on one side.  It tried on the other side, but for some reason didn't finish the job.  This particular ewe is pregnant and probably won't survive these wounds, but I'll do the best I can for her. 
It's mostly the wound in the picture above that concerns me.  There's a big chunk of skin missing, and quite a bit of material in the wood.  Irrigate it, get it as clean as possible, and then sew it shut.  Finish with a shot of antibiotics to combat the infection that often comes from a predators mouth, and hope for the best.  Poor girl. 

I don't know what happened to the mature dog that used to be on the other side of the fence; this may be an interloper, or maybe the older dog isn't with us any more.   I tracked the coyote to where it's entering my pasture.    This ewe was attacked 15' from my barn. 

Since I've had two attacks in two days I don't feel like I have much choice.  I cleaned and oiled the rifle tonight, and I'll be sitting out tomorrow morning waiting for it.

rain coming

Our dry spell is ending, with most of the weather professionals saying friday by noon we'll get 2-5 inches, followed by a week of gusty winds and continuing rain. 

So today I'll be doing the last bit of field work, and filling the new barn with chips, and battening down the hatches for the coming storm.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Roofing score

 I was making a pickup of some supplies and spotted an agricultural building being re-roofed.  They were taking off the ag metal roof and replacing it.  I asked what they were going to do with the roofing -- scrap it -- I asked how much?   and they said $160/ton.  So I said I'd pay $320 a ton and they said DEAL. 
1500lbs of metal roofing at around 2 cents a pound.  Total was  $249.  Enough to build my new cow barn and a loafing shed.    I love recycling!

Monday, October 8, 2012

dirtwork, part 2: The lime

 The soil tests reported that I needed to add lime to my soil to bring the PH of the soil into a range that would be best for growing grass.  The rate of application was 6 tons per acre.  I found a local company that sells aglime for a low price -- $60 or so a ton, in 50lb bags - but I wondered if there wasn't a way I could get it cheaper, and I asked if they had bulk delivery? 
 What they usually do is blow this stuff out of the truck, which means you really have to have an enclosed area to blow it into, or you'll lose half of it in the form of dust.  I don't have an enclosed area, but I asked if they could just dump it.  And sure enough, they could. 
This was dumped by gravity.  Just open the valve at the bottom of the truck and this stuff flows out.  move the truck forward a few feet, and more comes out.  Eventually it's all there.  We scooped it up with the front loader of the tractor and applied it to the field.  Took about 4 hours to get it all out there, and afterward it looked like it had snowed.  Price of bulk delivery was $30/ton, plus $200 for the truck, so about $800, all said and done. 

Once applied, this amendment will be good for 4-5 years.  After that, if I want to keep the PH at the same level, a top-dressing would do.  We spread this on the surface and then disc'd it into the soil. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Barn complete

Finished the barn that will provide winter quarters for the hogs.  I'll be operating it as a deep-litter barn.  It'll have 3 feet of wood chips on the floor.  It's the first time I've tried a deep-litter system for barns, and I'm interested to see how it goes. 

The basic maintenance is to run a rototiller over the surface about once a month to break it up and mix it.  The pigs might do that job by themselves.   The weather has been glorious the last month and a half, and it's allowed me to do a lot of work that is usually rain delayed.  It's nice to be able to work in the sun. 
It's 30' wide and 72'  long (the concrete slab underneath it is 34x80) and I chose to do ecology block walls to allow easy cleaning by tractor.  Just scrape it out in the spring.  Means we can use tons and tons of litter/bedding easily. 
The roof actually overlaps the edge of the blocks, so I expect it to be pretty weather-tight.  I'm They sell end kits for these barns, and I'm debating it.  I will probably enclose one end so that the wind doesn't blow through it, make it a little warmer for the pigs. 
We did most of the work by hand.  Pulling the cover over was a bit of a chore, but it was nice to get it done, and you couldn't ask for better weather. 
The inside of the barn is 18' tall at the peak, which was not a very easy height to work at.  I rented this man lift and it made the job mush easier and faster. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


It's funny, but I can look back at last years blog and I was doing the same sort of thing at this time of year.   I have to wait all year for my land to dry up enough to be able to work the ground, and while it's there I have to hurry to get it done before the window of opportunity closes.  
pigs:  Natures plow

Using a 3 bottom plow from bruce king on Vimeo.

 A pig is natures plow.  A full sized pig can easily make a furrow, and they really enjoy pushing their nose through the dirt.  It's the same motion that they make when they nurse -- the piglets "plow" the udder of the sow, rhythmically moving their heads up and down, massaging her with their snouts.  I'm guessing that it feels good for both the sow and the piglet, and the piglets continue that motion when they're adults -- but they are rubbing their noses against the ground.

This sow has come over to the electric fence line to investigate what I'm doing.   I think she would be happy to do it for me, and doesn't understand why I'm wasting an opportunity to rub my face in freshly turned soil.  I do love the smell of a freshly plowed field. 

 On the right side of the picture you can see a newly plowed section of my pasture. 
freshly plowed furrows
 It's an 18" plow, which means that the blade on the plow is that tall, and it flips over the sod to expose the dirt.  Flipping it over also means that the grass roots dry out, and if that doesn't kill the sod, it sure does slow it down.   One of the biggest inventions in agriculture was  the moldboard plow, which allowed more efficient tilling of the ground, and to grow crops on less fertile ground, but they're getting less popular as time goes by, being supplanted by no-till farming, but in America, no-till farming usually also means an increased dependence on herbicides to clear weeds vs the mechanical clearing that other methods, like plowing, provide.   I never use herbicides or pesticides of any sort. 

my reason for plowing
My property was at one point about 50 years ago, a junkyard, with hundreds of cars in various states all over it.  40 years ago the county stepped in and made the owner move the junkyard, and clean up the property, and it was used as grazing land after that.  7 years ago when I purchased the land it was covered with 6' tall grass, and looked pretty good.  River bottom land that had good, fertile soil and had no 'cide application for at least a decade.  (cide:  pesticide, herbicide). 

That first year was kind of rough.  As I mowed and got to know the ground, I'd find odd stuff, but all covered in 12" of topsoil. The grass in this area had added 12" of soil depth in the 40 years it had to grow.   So that first year I worked hard to pick up the stuff that the pigs rooted out, mostly big chunks of iron like engine blocks and axles and drive shafts, but every once in a while some hideous 1950s plaid car upholstery or license plate or chrome hood ornament.

The plow was the only way that really worked to cut through the 12" of soil and get the big stuff kicked up to the surface so I can recycle it.  So I'll plow a field, and then make a second pass and pick up all the stuff that the plow turned up, and then I'll plow again at a 90 degree angle, to make sure that I've covered the whole area, and make another pass.   After the second pass I've got most of the big stuff. 

Then I'll go over the while thing with a big rotary tiller I've got -- a giant, tractor-mounted rototiller.  It's 8' wide.  I till it because I can hear metal stuff hit the rototiller and that gets me stuff like pieces of chrome, cables, wires and chains -- the stringy stuff wraps around the rototiller, and I usually just cut it off with a torch.   A rototiller is slower than a disc harrow , but a disk harrow wouldn't be as good at finding smaller bits of metal, which is the whole reason I'm doing this, so I choose the slow route. 

The river bottom soil I'm on doesn't have any rocks in it.  So anything that hits the rototiller with a PING is probably metal debris. 

If I were just doing this to prepare for a crop, I'd probably just disc the ground and not plow. 

And then I go over the whole thing with a power rake, to make the seedbed.  So every part of the renovated pasture gets at least 6 passes over it -- but at the end, it's really beautiful, level, pasture, and I don't have to till it for at least another 5  years, maybe 10, if I can believe the claims of the grass seed supplier. 

I did some pretty extensive soil testing, so I know that this area needs some lime but is ok in all other respects.  The soil test called for 6 tons of lime per acre.  I found a source for ag lime that was $30 a ton, delivered, so I'm having 20 tons delivered in 6 days. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Thanksgiving turkeys: Sold out

We're sold out of our turkeys for this year; if you'd like to be on a waitlist in case of cancelations, email me at bruceki at bigpig.net and put "turkey list" in the subject line. 

We raised some extra this year, but the demand is higher than it's been in the last 4 years.