Scotch Hill Farm, Its history and My life as a Farmer
Many of the rural residents involved in our 10-year-long effort to protect water have been unable to speak up at events beyond our community. Responsibility to broaden awareness of our water protection needs has often fallen on Tony Ends. Ends spoke most recently on a panel of four agricultural producers at the annual Volunteer Stream Monitoring Symposium, March 24th and 25th, 2011 at the Lussier Family Heritage Center in Madison. Here are his responses to questions put to all four producers:
Every person has a biased, limited perspective. Only by being honest as individuals, talking together in a group like this, does the Earth have any hope that we’ll arrive together at greater truth than any one of us has. The world’s on track to grow to 9 billion people, livestock population’s on track to swell to 300 billion hogs, cows and poultry in the next 40 years. Inventories of land show there’s not enough ground to sustain that kind of growth. If we don’t find greater truths, serve greater truths together, our children are going to suffer even greater collapse than we’re witnessing in the global economy and ecology right now.
Here’s my bias.
I believe life is a miracle. From the first time I witnessed and took part in a birth, I’ve believed this with all my heart. From that moment forward, all of life began to come into my awareness as nothing short of miraculous. Micro-biotic soil life. Seeds. Plants. Birds. Animals. My children. One moment, there seems to be nothing. The next moment, there is life, breathing, growing, yielding, life in a cycle, all of it working together, bending birth and death to an infinite process over and over. Life is a miracle.
To farm, more than any other work I’ve done from age 10 to 56, is to experience, study, know, serve and protect life, in all its forms, as a miracle. It’s forever to be a diligent student of the Natural world that orders and orchestrates the life cycles. Unless a farmer is in touch with the sense of miracle in what he or she does, the vocation, the business and the culture of agriculture will eventually break the farm family down. It’s physically, financially and emotionally hard, hard work. Just look at the annual statistics the USDA updates on line every year. Farmers spend 5 times more than they earn every year. Farmers borrow 5 times the worth of their annual net farm income every year. Only the profound joy that comes from being in gardens and fields, experiencing life, being a part of growing things, every day has kept me doing this for 16 years.
The farm I serve and protect is all that’s left of a traditional Wisconsin dairy farm, one of tens of thousands that rose up over more than 100 years and died out in shake-out after shake-out since World War II. My wife Dela and I started a fresh vegetable operation and small-scale livestock farm with the remaining 5 acres and buildings about 15 years ago. We did this simply because we wanted to live what we believe. We wanted our children to learn to raise their own food. We wanted their food to be safe. We wanted to spend our time, our lives and our money this way, rather than the ways television and radio advertising were telling us to live.
We couldn’t afford to finance the land originally part of our farmstead. We’ve had to rent from other landowners in our rural neighborhood. We rent 27 acres about a mile away, and 13 acres about 4 ½ miles away. It takes about an acre to grow vegetable crops for 20 to 25 families. It takes about 250 families for a subscription farm to become self-sufficient. Not inheriting or having the means to buy land outright is a huge obstacle to self-sufficiency, ecology and sustainability. We worked 15 years to build our subscription base from 5 customers to 215. We had to work multiple jobs at the same time all those years to provide for our family, help finance things we needed, cover the mistakes we made as we learned by trial and error.
We raise more than 100 varieties of vegetables and sell them in subscriptions to several hundred households. Half our customers are in the Madison area or pick up their produce from us weekly at our farm. Half are in the Chicago area, where we deliver once a week, 22 weeks out of the year. To feed our flocks of sheep, dairy goats and poultry, we also raise wheat, oats and hay. We must buy the balance of our feed, again because we do not own enough land.
(1) Pressures on Agriculture Today and in the Future
Energy costs – 80 cents and sometimes more than 90 cents of every dollar we earn in farming pays bills, covers production expenses, increases efficiencies of our farm. About 20 percent of that goes to heat, electricity and fuel. And almost everything we buy and use is costing us more every year because it also requires fossil fuel of some kind. More than ¼ of all the fuel burned up in this country every year is from food and farming systems. ;
Land costs – we bought, rehabilitated and sold two houses to have enough equity to cover a mortgage on the 5-acre farmstead we’re still paying down 18 years later. Land shortly before we moved to western Rock County was running $800 per acre. It is now $4,000 to $5,000 per acre. Subsidies to ethanol production, inflating grain prices and shrinking stocks for feed and food, are driving up land costs and land rent, even as the rest of the real estate market is languishing.
Transitioning to the next generation – I have two sons and a son in-law who all want to have farming businesses, but they cannot afford the start-up costs. They saw their parents start out with no tools, no equipment, no livestock, no savings, no knowledge or experience in farming. It was extremely difficult. I really don’t know how we succeeded. We scavenged in dumpsters for materials to build greenhouses. We befriend salvage yard owners and hauled sinks, a walk-in cooler, counter tops and shelves home from a closed grocery store. We bought used equipment and made it work. But more and more, salvage is going to China. Start-up costs are outpacing wherewithal and means of common people. There are even fewer teachers for young people interested in agriculture today than there were 18 years ago.
Social, political and economic instability – every direction I look, systems my community and I depend on, appear to be slipping out of our control. Farming is production, marketing and financing. Scales of farming that tend toward monopoly, over-production, imbalance, price swings, the cheapening of goods and diminishing returns receive preference in funding, subsidy and public policy. Political control changes every two or four years. Banks tie up their lending ability with single loans in the tens of millions of dollars to single industrial enterprises, and then cannot extend sufficient credit to small- or mid-size producers. And the people who buy our goods directly, are losing their jobs, being cut back, going on furlough, suffering foreclosure. We need sane, humane, sustained policies that strengthen local economies and build relationships between consumers and farmers. We need to restore local control and regain collective problem-solving abilities before everything gets so out of control that the big systems we have put in place over our lives fall apart from the heavy, heavy reliance on fossil fuels and non-renewable sources of energy.
(2) Factors Influencing How We Manage our Farm
As an agricultural producer, I’m ever mindful of the damage I do to soil and soil life. One pass over a field of perennial grasses and hay with a plow releases 80 percent of the sequestered nitrogen in that ground. Every plant I grow is mining to greater or lesser degrees minerals out of the soil. Every harvest I undertake is removing minerals from plots of ground, gardens and fields.
If I put more than 5 or 6 small animals or 18 birds on an acre of pasture, I risk over-grazing, over-applying nutrients to the space, loading the soil with phosphorus that binds to soil and is released or taken up over years of time. If I apply even an organic-approved botanical spray to kill or deter a pest harming my crops, I may kill beneficial predatory insects and vital pollinators. I know that a minimum 6-year rotation is recommended for organic production, but I have barely access to land to keep that sort of schedule and sustain sufficient vegetable crop production, which is 80 percent or more of our net farm income.
Soil life drives decomposition of organic matter and restores minerals to the soil. As such, As such, I’m not feeding plants. I’m feeding soil, building soil fertility. Organic matter is decaying plant and animal life. The quality of both plant and livestock waste directly influences the success of soil life in restoring soil fertility and health.
The manure we employ, either by composting or early-season incorporation into the ground, is in solid, largely pellet form, layered into pulled-down hay and switch grass, wheat or oat straw. We apply in rotations with our crops, and we leave grass paths and borders around plots and fields and employ cover crops in rotation with manure applications.
We minimize leaching in this way. We halt erosion in this way. We protect both water and soil in this way.
(3) Water Quality as a Part of Farm Management Decisions
As a certified organic grower, I’m required each year to submit a test of our well and written explanation for any high nitrate reading or presence of toxic substances. I could lose my certification if I failed to address pollution of my well water even if my water was tainted as result of a neighbor’s chemical fertilizer or liquid manure application on thousands of acres surrounding my farmstead.
Clean, protected water quality is a byproduct of organic production. Wide rotations of crops. Solid manure, incorporated with straw bedding and pulled-down hay, releases nutrients slowly. Unlike chemical fertilizer or liquid manure, they do not leach 50 percent of their nitrate into the ground water or field tiles, moving miles within minutes by fractured bedrock and polluting wells and streams. It’s as close to Nature’s way of restoring the bank of minerals as we can perform in farming. Nature gave us clean ground water and streams. We must mirror Nature or see the ruin of human, animal, environment and economic health.
(4) Farmers’ Responsibilities to Reduce Negative Impacts on Water Quality
Water is as vital to human beings as food. To justify agricultural practices that pollute or degrade water as necessary to ensure a food supply or preserve the health of an economy, is to ruin the credibility of all farmers. How can we convince the public of our service to life by threatening health and life?
I’ve listened to justifications for fostering, incentivizing, subsidizing, legislating into existence huge concentrated animal feeding operations. These arguments decry the occasional bad example of a small livestock producer who allows his animals to run down into a creek or who applies manure on frozen ground in winter. I live about 2 miles from a CAFO that consolidated the heifer production of five farms onto one. The animals never leave the quarter-mile long cattle barn until ready to replace cows in production 6 miles up the road, as part of a 5,000-cow dairy operation. The heifers never go near the creek that crosses the 400+ acre property, which is within view of my barnyard.
Yet when the local township hired scientists and technicians looked closely at the impact of this scale of production on water locally, this is what they found. Advising the town were soil and water scientist Dr. Byron Shaw, aquatic ecologist and bio-geochemist Professor Emily Stanley, hydrologist and aquatic biologist David Marshall and hydro-geologist Peter Taglia. They studied the CAFO’s crop records and soil samples. They tested wells, surface water and drain tiles. They carefully evaluated agronomy, health, safety, local geology and soils at the operation’s dry cow feeding barn and massive slurry, built to accumulate 6 million gallons of manure every 300 days. Water upstream of the CAFO tested safe for nitrate in Norwegian Creek, a state Exceptional Water Resource in Green County. Yet this creek tested more than 200 ppm as it crosses the CAFO’s property – 20 times the level EPA flags as unsafe. At least 3 wells had toxic nitrate levels from the livestock facility operation. Nitrate pollution’s health impacts include Blue Baby syndrome, developmental and birth defects. It is affiliated with forms of cancer, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and bladder cancers. Risks to other organisms, including livestock, are slowed growth, slowed body functions that can result in stillbirth and even death. Prof. Emily Stanley told the town board that continued nitrate loading in Norwegian Creek risks health for all forms of life. She testified that she’d never seen in her entire career such high nitrate concentrations in a stream or tile.
This instance of the most serious water pollution from nitrates ever recorded in Wisconsin, all took place with a Wisconsin DNR waste water pollution discharge permit in place and a completed permit that met every letter of the new state livestock facility siting law. DATCP was urging the local township to give this CAFO a conditional use permit under the new state law and its own administrative rules and check list at the same time the town was documenting serious, serious health and safety problems from the CAFO’s operation and practices.
Reducing impacts of agricultural practices must be the responsibility and legal right of everyone where they live. CAFO numbers in Wisconsin have swelled from 20 to more than 200 almost overnight, and MEA is receiving 2 and 3 calls of grave concern from local citizens around the state almost on weekly basis because of proposed and operating CAFOs. At a time that state services are being slashed and the abilities and resources of state agencies to protect public health and safety eliminated, local citizens must become involved in water monitoring efforts so that documentation is available to present in court if no other defense of water can be found.
(5) Water Monitoring Volunteers and Our Farm
I’ve seen excerpts of the program’s DVD course of instruction. I’ve read some of its materials. I’ve heard presentations on the program and attended demonstrations at a creek near my home. I’ve tried to encourage volunteer water monitoring, especially in ways that engage children and young people. I’ve seen how hard it is for local people to take part in a water-monitoring program on a volunteer basis. As citizens of this nation, we need to reclaim our public waterways and ground water as a civic responsibility, as a vital resource. If we do not become aware of what water systems need to give us health and life, our children and the Natural world they depend on for survival are going to suffer.