Saturday, August 24, 2013

Artisan sourdough bread

Recently I read Michael Pollan's book Cooked.  I'd give a review, but mostly I'd just tell you it's awesome and you should just read it.  But it will make you hungry.  Really, really hungry for barbecue and beef stew and sourdough bread and sauerkraut.  I did a lot of cooking the week I read this book.

Instead, I'll just give (my version of) his recipe for sourdough bread.  He got it from Chad Robinson, the author of Tartine Bread, and messed with it to make it with more whole wheat and more the way he wanted it.  I then messed with it some more, so who knows whose bread it's more like.

Michael Pollan uses stone-ground whole wheat flour, which he sifts to get out the biggest chunks of bran.  I did that the first time, and then the second time I just used regular whole wheat flour because it was what I had.  Either is okay.  Pollan also uses part rye flour, but I just used more whole wheat flour.

You need to have a really active starter to use this recipe.  If you bake with it often and it's been fed daily for the past few days, it's probably good enough.  If not, his recipe does leave room for adding yeast (but why would you do that?).

Pollan insists that you need to use a scale to measure things correctly.  So I did, but it turns out my scale is absolutely useless.  I thought I'd test it (halfway through adding ingredients, of course) by putting in 100 mL of water and seeing if it came to 100 g.  Instead it didn't even budge the scale -- I used 300 mL to get 100 g!  Something's wrong there.  So I just guessed the best I could and had very wet dough.  The next time, I converted everything to cups, only I forgot that it's really important to scoop the flour into the cup lightly with a spoon and then level it off.  Usually I'm eyeballing the recipe anyway so I just scoop away with the cup measure.  So I ended up with it so dry I couldn't mix all the flour in, so I had to add a whole 'nother cup of water.

Yeah, yeah, not exactly the perfect artisanal start, but sourdough is pretty darn forgiving.  Even if it isn't really the right shape or crumb or whatever, it still tastes awesome, so who cares?

Here are the amounts.  The cups aren't exact, but the proportions should be about the same, so if you don't have a working scale (like I don't) they should work fine so long as you measure properly.

NOTE: After making this bread several times and subbing in different flours, let me warn you.  Regular whole wheat flour is more absorbent than stone-ground, and white flour seems to be more absorbent still.  So if you mess with the flours, you are just going to have to guess with the water.  Basically, you want the dough to be wet, with no dry patches anywhere and not thick enough to roll into a ball.  If it's not like that, add more water until it is -- and make sure you do this when you first mix the flour and water.  Adding water the next morning doesn't work -- it won't mix in.

For the leaven
50 g stone-ground whole wheat flour (1/2 cup)
50 g all-purpose flour (1/2 cup)
100 g warm water (1/2 cup)

For the bread
600 g stone-ground whole wheat flour (5 cup)
250 g all-purpose flour (4 3/4 cup)
150 g other flour (rye or pumpernickel) (1 1/2 cup)
900 g warm water (3 1/2 cup)
25 g salt (4 ½ tsp table salt)

The way I make it, you start in the evening, ferment it for a day, and bake the following day.  So if you start Wednesday night, you can bake it in time for Friday lunch.  You can also replace the overnight refrigeration with two hours of rise time and get it done by Thursday evening, if you really want.

Day 1, evening

Make the leaven by combining leaven ingredients and 1 tablespoon starter in a small bowl.
Soak the flours in a large bowl by combining them with 850 g water, mixing until there is no dry flour left.  (It should be a wet dough.  If it's firm enough to roll into a big ball, you probably have too little water.)

Cover both bowls and leave in a warm spot overnight.

Day 2, morning

Mix the leaven into the wet flour in the large bowl. Mix the salt into the remaining 50 g water and mix into the dough.  You're going to have to use your (wet) hands for this part, and it will seem like it's not really mixing in, but it should mostly incorporate with a little work.  It still will seem more like messy batter or paste than dough, but that's okay.

For the next four to five hours, leave the dough in a warm place. Every 45 minutes to an hour, turn the dough: With a wet hand, reach down to the bottom of the dough and fold it over the top. Turn the bowl and do it three more times around the bowl. Watch for the formation of air bubbles; smell and taste along the way. The dough is ready to be divided and shaped when it feels billowy and cohesive – it wants to stick to itself more than the bowl. It should smell mildly yeasty and slightly sour.

If it still feels really sticky, put it in the fridge and shape in the morning.  It won't hurt anything, I discovered.  Conversely, if it's really sour, you want to jump to shaping no matter what time it is.

Day 2, afternoon

Pollan says: "When you're ready to shape, sprinkle a work surface with flour. Spill the dough out onto the surface and divide it into two halves. Shape these into globes, using your floured hands to rotate the dough against the work surface until it forms a ball with some surface tension."  Honestly I don't know what he's saying there.  If you want you can look on YouTube for "shaping tartine bread" and get all kinds of hits.  I just sort of convinced the dough into a ball.  I won't say I rolled it, because the consistency is so different from any dough I've dealt with before.  You may need to dust a lot of flour all over everything.

Cover the two globes with a towel and let them rest for 20 minutes.  By the end of that, they will have flattened a good bit.  Take one disk and flip it over.  Then you do the stretching and wrapping thing, which feels like swaddling a baby.  Pollan describes it like this: "Grab the edge of the dough farthest from you with all your fingers, stretch it away from you, and then fold it back over the top. Do the same to the edge of dough closest to you, and then to each of the sides. You have before you a rough rectangle of dough. Next take each of the corners in turn, stretching and folding over the dop. Now cup your hands around the package of dough and roll it away from you until you have a short, taut cylinder, with the seams on the bottom."  Does that make sense?  If not, I refer you again to YouTube.  You may need to dust with more flour between every fold, and dust the counter again before you roll the lump over.

If you sifted the bran out at the beginning, you can roll the loaf in bran.  Then prepare your "banneton," which is supposed to be a special basket, but in my case is a bowl for each loaf.  You want to flour it pretty heavily, because if it sticks (mine stuck once) you end up with a very unsightly loaf.  Better still is to rub a towel with flour and line the bowl with that.  I had the best results when I did that.  Put the loaf in there seam-side-up.  And then do the same procedure -- stretching, folding, rolling in bran, putting in banneton -- with the other loaf.

Put both bowls into the refrigerator overnight -- or let rise another 2-3 hours and proceed with baking, if you still have enough day left.

Day 2, evening, or day 3, morning

Take the dough out of the fridge and leave out for 1 hour to return to room temperature.

Place the top and bottom of a Dutch oven on the center rack of the oven and preheat to 500. Take out the hot Dutch oven.  Try not to burn yourself on it, but who are we kidding?  Even in the instructional video I saw, the baker forgot and tried to grab the handle.

Overturn the bowl and dump the loaf into the pot. Score the top.  You're supposed to do it with a razor, but I don't have anything like that.  My knives all just tugged at the dough instead of cutting it.  The trick turned out to be using scissors.  I just snipped a cross with my kitchen shears.  You can score it in any pattern you like.

Put the lid on and put it into the oven, lowering the temp to 450.  Bake for 40-45 minutes, taking the lid off partway.  Pollan recommends taking it off after 20 minutes, but I don't like a very crunchy crust so I leave it on for half an hour.  When the time is up, if the loaf is golden brown, dump it out of the Dutch oven.  It's done if it sounds hollow on the bottom, they say.  Cool for a few hours.  If you're like me and don't like an extremely crunchy crust, wrap it in a towel while it's cooling.

When it's fully cool, or at least down to warm, you can cut it up with a sharp serrated knife.  Other knives will just smash the bread or tear it up.  It's good with butter, jam, cream cheese, or as a grilled cheese sandwich.

My loaf never is very tall, but soft and tasty!  White flour will give you more rise than whole wheat, but whole wheat has more of a taste to it and, of course, is better for you.

My favorite grilled cheese sandwich: swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and mustard.

Kind of a project, but it's pretty tasty.  I just want to figure out now how to make the crust not so crunchy.  Is that unusual?  I find this style of bread always ends up with a very thick, chewy crust that quickly turns hard once I start to cut into the loaf.  Any tips?

ETA: Turns out I was baking it too long.  I didn't set a timer and was just guessing.  Now I set the timer for 38 minutes and it turns out perfect.  And, following Alaina's advice in the comments, I wrap it in plastic once it's cool, and the crust doesn't harden.  Thanks, Alaina!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Quick Takes


I have been spending all of my blog time lately reading Enbrethiliel's posts on Far From the Madding Crowd.  Good book!  Even better conversation going on in the comments.


I hope at least some of you have read my last post about the death of the small family farm.  I think it's really important to clear up a few misconceptions that most people seem to hold -- specifically, that the death of the small family farm is due to increased technology and therefore is unavoidable.  Considering the same shift from small farms to massive farms happened in ancient Rome and several other times throughout history, it's not about tractors.  It's about division of wealth.  You don't hear people say, "I know your dream is to start a business, but there just aren't any more small businesses nowadays.  Give up."

If they say that about farms, they're wrong.  There are some political reasons why large farms have prospered lately (can't believe I forgot to mention over-regulation and an industrial food system that takes a cut of everything farmers make!) but even those haven't made it impossible to succeed on a small farm.


Lately I've been working on baking the perfect loaf of sourdough bread.  It's harder than it sounds, but on the other hand even the funny-looking loaves are delicious.

The first loaf I made, I was set to bake on August 15th.  (It takes three days.)  Only I decided to go to the 8 am Mass because it's a Holy Day of Obligation and the noon Mass is during naptime.  I have to walk, because John has the car.  So I put the bread in the oven, got ready, took it out, wrapped it in a towel, and stuck it in the stroller basket.

The church was crowded and I was a little late, so I parked the double stroller in the back, kept the kids buckled, and was sort of able to pay some degree of attention.  But the whole time that cooling bread smelled so amazing.  First time in a long time that fasting before communion was remotely difficult for me.

Then we walked from there to the park and I was starving by the time we got there.  It was a beautiful, clear day, a little cool.  From that park you can see the Blue Ridge Mountains and there is always a bit of a breeze.  I unwrapped that bread, cut it up, spread butter on each slice (score one for preparedness!) and we just sat eating that delicious bread on an absolutely perfect day.

I would like to put that moment in a bottle and keep it forever.


On that note, the weather lately!  Oh my goodness!  I always love August in Virginia, where the intense heat of July starts to dissipate, but this August has been extra special.  It feels like Seattle.  It feels like September.  Only with cicadas and long days and haymaking in the fields on the way to church.

Every time the weather gets like this, I get nostalgic for everything.  First for my childhood and all the perfect days I remember experiencing in my life.  And second, if it's possible, for all the things I would like to happen in the future.  I can imagine making hay in my own fields, baking bread, milking my cow, picking apples.  I want a homestead badly at all times, but especially in August.


Marko refuses to answer to his name anymore.  He is Martha, from Martha Speaks.  Sometimes this a bad thing, like when he refuses dinner because he is a dog and only eats dog food.  Sometimes it can be worked in our favor, when we tell him that dogs love meat and Martha always finishes hers.


Remember how I've been complaining about Marko and his awful behavior?  I've been thinking of Dr. Sears's phrase that when a child feels right, he acts right.  Generally I think, "Well, that's nice, but I can't always insure my kids will feel right."  And yet I did notice a pattern was emerging.  He'd be super picky about food, or just forget to ask for food, and I'd forget to give him any, thinking he would ask if he's hungry.  Then suddenly he'd be starving, but only for one specific thing, always something unavailable.  (If he accidentally picked something I would say yes to, he immediately changed his mind!)  Then he'd start to get crabby from hunger and get even more rebellious and picky and refuse to eat dinner either.  Then he'd sleep badly and be up for the day at five a.m., whining and crabbing because he was starving ... and refuse to eat anything because it's not what he wanted.

Infuriating, but a little extra attention helped him eat better, which resulted in better sleep, which resulted in better moods.  We haven't had many awful days in several weeks.  It helps to have a pretty reliable schedule for meals and snacks, which I always try to do, but sometimes get careless about.  As long as he has food offered to him before he's absolutely famished, he's much less picky about it.  It also helps that we've finally got him reliably going to bed on his own.  I train him into it every time John is gone, but then John comes back and Marko just has different expectations for when Daddy is around.  Finally he seemed to get the idea that once he goes into his room at night, that's where he'll be till morning.  He doesn't have to sleep, he just has to lie in bed.  He could think about dragons!  Or Frog and Toad!  Or Martha Speaks!

He's asleep in about 20 minutes, I am pretty sure.


I started signing with Michael recently because he talks so little and so badly.  And it's helped a lot!  Not only does he do the signs, but he also has started using more words.  At this point he reliably says more, nurse, water, eat, dog, cat, ball, and quite a few others.  I'm trying not to compare -- Marko used at least 100 words by this age and was making two-word sentences -- because I know this is perfectly normal.  Also, Michael has a skill that Marko didn't pick up till almost three: he can give hugs and kisses, not just receive them.  If you asked Marko to hug a teddy bear, he would sort of lean on it.  Michael knows to give a big squeeze.  I wonder if that's because he's watched his big brother more, or he just is better at translating other people's actions into his own.

This post is so late I don't think I'm going to bother linking it up.  I'm not sure if anyone clicks through all 200-some posts each week, but I know I don't.  You all know the way to Conversion Diary, though, if you want more quick takes.  Might I recommend just clicking on the ones that look interesting rather than starting at the beginning?  Because the same people always end up at the beginning because they're disgustingly prompt.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The death of the small farm

This isn't meant to be a depressing post.  True, the gradual flight from the countryside into cities can be a sad story for those of us who like the countryside better.  But unless we understand how we got to this point, it's going to be hard to see a way back.

It was always my understanding growing up that you simply can't farm anymore, not unless you want to be Amish.  That the modern world has developed to a point that makes it completely inefficient and impractical to farm on any but a massive scale -- and that, of course, you'll never be able to break into.

That isn't true.  There are many reasons why so few of us are farmers (less than 1% of Americans today) but none of them are necessities just because we live in a modern age.  Some developed countries (Japan, for instance) still have an agricultural system based on small farms.

1.  Land grabs
The harshest reality about small farmers is that they are often actively driven off their land.  Either the land is confiscated by the government to give to a large corporation, or the smallholders are pressured into leaving by a variety of methods.  I've been reading about a lot of these in Land Grabbers, by Fred Pearce (which I hope to review in its entirety later).  I think the worst examples were rice farmers having their farms destroyed by large sugar planters in Laos, but there were also examples of African herders being fenced out of new game or wildlife reserves, Indonesians agreeing to a small amount of logging on their community land and having the whole dang forest clear-cut, etc.  In many cases the farmers don't have an official title, especially in former communist countries where all the titles were burned a generation ago.  In others, title is simply ignored, or the farmers are "compensated" by being given a sum of money, an apartment unit, and a job.  In many cases there is no actual choice.

Here in America, that doesn't happen often (that is, since we did it to the Indians), but it does happen here and there.  For instance, if the government needs your land to build a highway, the Constitution gives it the right to seize your land so long as it pays you.  Sometimes land is ruined without being seized, like when fracking residues poison the groundwater or a hog confinement operation moves next door and pollutes your land with manure.  Technically you should be able to sue, but if you're the little guy, it may be cheaper to just move.

2.  Population growth.
As the population gets larger, people are going to gather in cities.  That doesn't mean no one can farm anymore, but the percentage of farmers is going to be a smaller in a very populous nation than an emptier one.  Say there's a thousand acres out there of very good land, which can feed a thousand people.  We could give each of the thousand one acre each, but at that point it would be mostly taken up with houses.  It makes sense to put the houses on less fertile land, and to save the good land for farming.

Or consider a man with a 100-acre farm making a very good living.  He has five sons, so he divides it up into 20-acre farms.  These still make a good living (a small farm can be as profitable as a large one sometimes), but if they each have four sons, each son will have only four acres, and their sons will only get one acre each!

In reality, most people don't have four or five sons each, and often only one or even none of the children actually want to farm.  So haven't seen that kind of subdivision of farms here in America.  In England, where owning land was an enormous status symbol, the problem of second (and third and fourth) sons was a huge issue because no one wanted to divide their estates.

3.  Subsidies.
This is specifically an American problem; I know nothing about agricultural subsidies in other countries.  In short, subsidies were invented to keep farmers from going out of business.  Some time ago, so many farmers were growing corn, and with such amazing yields, that the price was dropping too low and the farmers couldn't sustain themselves.  With such high supply and low demand, the logical thing would be for some of the farmers to stop growing corn and start growing something else.  Instead, farmers were going under.  For awhile the government paid farmers not to produce so much in order to keep the price of corn high; later a system was invented to pay the farmers to keep producing a lot, thus keeping the price artificially low and then making up the difference with a handout.

The subsidy system favors large farmers; the more you farm, the more you get.  It also isn't at all determined by need, so the wealthiest farmers usually claim the biggest subsidies.  And the subsidies are only for selected commodity crops -- corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton being the biggest.

The result is that corn costs almost nothing, and we're glutted with it.  The response has been to find more things to put it in.  So sugar is replaced with high fructose corn syrup, olive oil with soybean oil, and gasoline with ethanol from corn.  (This last is so hugely inefficient that it takes at least a gallon of gas to produce a gallon of ethanol.  But at least it is Creating Jobs.)

Another side effect of the subsidy is to make it unprofitable to be anything but a Midwestern corn farmer.  So it's unprofitable to grow vegetables because you still have to pay taxes, which get paid out in subsidies to your neighbor, who is growing corn.  And the price of American corn is so low that farmers in the Third World and in Mexico can't compete.  Everyone in their countries buys American corn and the local farmers go out of business.  Then the landless farmers go .... to America, of course!  Whereupon we call them illegals and argue over what to do with them.

In short, subsidies are trouble.  What it's taken me a long time to understand is, if they're so bad, why do we have them?  Surely there must be some point to it, or we wouldn't be doing it.

Turns out it's the nature of lobbying.  Think about it.  Only 1% of Americans are farmers--perhaps more in certain areas, but the bulk of votes still come from city voters, who don't care about the Farm Bill.  Your representative probably doesn't care about a few hundred votes from small farmers.  He does, however, very much care about the giant check that a big farmer is willing to write for his campaign, so that he can buy some TV ads for the city folks.  And that's exactly what my congressman, Bob Goodlatte, has done every time the Farm Bill comes up -- shoot down any effort to reduce subsidies, winning some very powerful allies for himself.  Few people know or care about that bit of his voting record, but I do.

At least here is one cause of the decline of small farms that has an obvious free-market solution: end subsidies.  Do it fast, do it slow, but we need to stop paying farmers to grow something nobody wants.

4.  Turning productive activity into consumptive activity
Farming is primarily a productive activity.  You take land and human labor, and you produce goods.  The price of these goods isn't high (and one should hope not, considering everyone has to consume them three times a day), but that's all right as long as overheads are low.

But what happens when the salesman comes along and tries to sell you a mowing machine, a new plow, a tractor, some nitrate fertilizer, special hybrid or GMO seed that has to be bought new every year, or what-have-you?  If you're smart, you wait till you can afford these things.  Most farmers instead thought, "Well, if I buy this new thing on credit, it'll boost my yields so much that I can pay it off in a few years."  That promise usually falls flat.  Nitrogen fertilizer props up yields for a short time, but then they level off when other nutrients in the soil start to be depleted.  Farmers end up adding more and more to maintain their yields.  GMO's that are designed to kill bugs or weeds soon stop being useful as well, as the bugs or weeds develop resistance to the toxins used.  A tractor saves labor, but it won't boost yields unless you buy more land, going further in debt.  And it requires fuel and new parts all the time.  Next thing you know it, farmers are deeply in debt and have to keep buying and buying new things just to keep up yields enough to make their payments.  The more debt you have, the more land you're going to have to farm to break even.  That's why people say small farms aren't profitable.  If you have debt, they aren't.  Just yesterday I read the quip (in Gene Logsdon's All Flesh is Grass), "There will be only two farmers left eventually: one on either side of the Mississippi. One will be Tyson Foods, and the other, Cargill, and eventually one will have to buy the other out because neither will be quite big enough yet to make a profit."

Meanwhile the Amish are getting by just fine on small farms and horse plows.  They don't net much, but their overhead is extremely low.

The end result is that when you buy your week's groceries, it is possible that of your $100, $20 goes to shipping, $50 to processing (like making wheat into the bread and pasta and crackers you actually buy), $20 to the farmer's expenses of fertilizer and tractor parts, and $10 to pay the farmer himself.  So while you can't afford food, the farmer is also barely getting by.

5.  A taste for industrial goods
One thing capitalism does very well is make consumer goods.  After all, there's lots of opportunity to specialize and get all the best materials from all over.  After selling that sort of thing to the city folks, the salesmen headed off into farmland and sold them to farmers too.  At one time there was somethng of a cultural stigma among farmers against using "boughten" stuff.  You wanted to be wearing homespun; you didn't want to be that stuck-up guy in factory cloth.  But that shifted over time until "boughten" things started to be a source of prestige.  Rather than prove your self-sufficiency by appearing in homespun, you wanted to prove your wealth by wearing calico.

You can see this all the time in Laura Ingalls Wilder's books.  Again and again, Pa and Ma fall prey to the lure of glass windows, metal nails, fancy stoves.  And again and again, they try to count the crop that's going to come in soon as money in the bank.  Every single time, it seems, there's a hailstorm or a locust swarm and the whole crop gets eaten up.  Pa and Ma lose everything ... again.  They forgot that farming is a somewhat uncertain business; you may be likely to make it year by year, but you can't count on sure cash income each year like a wage slave can.  You have to make your own things and let the city people call you country people and make fun of your children for being barefoot and wearing outgrown clothes.  There are many blessings to being out in the fresh air with an abundance of healthy food growing outside your front door ... but you can't always have all that and eat white bread, too.

Now the Ingalls do eventually learn, and they finally "make it."  They are able to buy their sewing machine and their organ with cash, and their standard of living improves to what the city people have.  But Laura doesn't seem to have quite caught on.  In The First Four Years, she caves and buys a clock on credit, and (not to spoil the story) that ends up being a bad choice.  I guess people didn't quite realize then -- as often they don't realize now -- that salesmen are sometimes willing to sell you things they know perfectly well you won't be able to pay for.  See also: housing bubble.

To some extent, though, this is changing.  Most people would rather receive a gift of a basket of fresh produce, homemade jam, or home-baked bread than their equivalents from the grocery store.  I brought my cucumbers, in a salad, to a party a few weeks ago and they got lots of praise and a place of honor, because everyone was impressed that I had grown them myself.  Whole-wheat bread, hand-carved furniture, and knit sweaters are in; mass-produced goods, though they still sell well, are seen as not worth very much.

6. A lack of respect for farm life

Together with the last point, we can see that farming is not a respected profession in modern culture.  No one wants to be the bumpkin, the Farmer Hayseed, wearing overalls and never traveling outside the county or going to college.  There's a great deal of prestige in city jobs with large incomes, in college degrees, in city clothing and culture.  However, that's in many ways a false image.  People are just as happy on farms as in the city, and many people who leave for the city find it a disappointment.  Some find themselves in abject poverty, living in slums, unable to find employment.  But once you've sold your farm and spent the proceeds on expensive food and rent, there's no going back.

I get annoyed when people tell me the reason for urbanization is that it must be better in the city, or else people wouldn't go.  There must be jobs in the city, or why would they leave the farm?  But that's ignoring a very loud cultural script that says making it to the big city is success, and staying on the farm is failure.  Everyone in the movies always wants to get off the farm and make something of themselves.  No one ever finds themselves feeling empty in the city and longing to get back to the land in the movies.  But seeing as movies are made by people who left the country (if they ever were there) to go to Hollywood and "make something of themselves."

7.  Lack of knowledge
Last of all, there is a lack of knowledge.  In this country it's particularly rampant, because there isn't a long history here.  There isn't anyone whose family has farmed in the same spot for twenty generations and can tell you what that specific patch of land needs most.  When the pioneers arrived to the Midwest, they just said to themselves, "Virgin soil!  No trees!  Let's plow as many acres as we possibly can and plant them all to corn!"  The whole Midwest was one big cornfield before they realized they were eroding it.  The Dust Bowl is an example of that, and it wiped out thousands of small farms.  That gorgeous topsoil just blew right away because there was nothing holding it.  Other farmers lost their land when they faced unexpected pests, like locusts.

Even in other countries, though, a lack of knowledge destroys farms.  Cry, the Beloved Country has some interesting parts about how the South African farmers were plowing up and down the hills instead of across them, leading the furrows to turn into little rivers when it rained and the soil to wash right down the hill.  You can also read in British and Russian novels about landlords who spent all their time partying in the city while letting untrained hirelings run their farmland to the ground, contrasted with good landlords who took care to share their knowledge with the peasants.  Anna Karenina is a good example.

Farming isn't rocket science, but it's hardly child's play either.  Farming without knowledge can have two outcomes: either you fail your first year out and go back to the city poorer than you set out -- or you get fine yields the first ten years while degrading your soil, and then they start to diminish without your knowing why.  Then not only do you go out of business, but that farm is now no good to anybody else either.

The good news

Not one of these things is a necessary death knell to the small farm.  Not one.  Land grabs and subsidies are the biggest enemies, because it is impossible to opt out of them, but these can be combated politically.  Population growth does put a limit on the number of farmers there are likely to be, but it seems to me that there would be few food-independent countries that couldn't manage to sustain 10% of the population on the land instead of 1%.  That would be a large improvement, and I don't think very many more than that would even want to farm.

The rest are all choices.  You can choose to ignore the cultural script that tells you farm work is drudgery and office work is freedom.  You can choose to farm in a way that avoids expensive inputs (which means it will probably turn out to be organic, though it doesn't have to be labeled as such).  You can choose to produce your own goods and take pride in them, ignoring the temptation to buy a lot of mass-produced goodies to keep up with the Joneses.  And you can choose to stay out of debt.

It's sadly difficult to get into farming in the first place.  Because of regulation, it can be hard to find a market.  But if you manage these things, it is quite likely that you can make it out to farm, if you just want to badly enough.

And if you just want to homestead instead of farming for a profit -- producing as many as possible of your own needs while maintaining a steady income from off the farm -- you can certainly do that.  More people are doing it all the time.  Telecommuting and internet businesses can make that easier.

But don't be deceived: it will take more work than you would be expected to do in the city, and you will end up with less money.  It's up to you to decide if the benefits are worth it.  I'll talk about those (probably, if I don't get carried away arguing about feminism in the combox of my last quick takes post) next time.

I forgot two of the most important restraints on small farming!  Neither one is impossible to overcome, but they sure do make it difficult.

The first one is the industrialized food system.  Farmers don't sell direct to the consumer anymore; they sell to the processor.  This means two things: one, since the product is pooled, there is absolutely no advantage to doing things any differently from the next farm over.  If your neighbor is cutting corners, you'd better cut them too, because he is saving money you're not saving, and you're both getting the same price.  And the second is that, since the product is pooled, food safety is a lot harder to come by.

An example is milk.  Bob Little has only 30 cows.  He treats them like family.  They all have names and eat good grass every day.  They get plenty of sunshine and exercise.  His operation is scrupulously sterile.  Joe Big down the road has 30,000 cattle which never see the light of day.  He milks them straight through mastitis, gives them hormones to make them overproduce, and isn't picky about whether they eat grass or surplus candy.  (Yes, in this country we feed cattle surplus candy -- I believe including the wrapper "for fiber."  Not even kidding.)

On the one hand, Bob and Joe can't really compete against each other.  Although Bob's milk is better, it gets mixed together at the plant and so the consumers don't know it's better.  But Joe can produce his milk much more cheaply, and manages to drive down the wholesale price of milk to 25 cents a gallon.  (I know YOU don't get milk at that price!  The producer pockets the difference.)  Bob goes out of business, obviously.  Then when Joe's milk gets contaminated with listeria after pasteurization and by the time it gets recalled, it's already in six states and fourteen people have died.

Is this necessary?  No, not really.  It is more efficient in many ways, so that the industrial food system is able to sell for cheaper.  (Compare the price tag between conventional and organic, or try pricing grassfed milk at the farmers' market if you have it.)  And, because the processors have money to spend on advertising and marketing their product to grocery stores, odds are you don't even know there are alternatives.

Currently there's a vast countercurrent of people buying direct from farmers in order to cut out the middleman.  Prices are still higher because fewer corners are being cut, but demand stays high enough that farmers are actually able to make a living this way.

The second issue I didn't mention before is overregulation.  Of course we want safe food; no one disputes that.  But it seems to me the really unsafe thing is pooling large amounts of food and redistributing it across the country.  If one cow has e. coli and we don't mix meat, that means a few cases of e. coli, all in the same place.  If we mix it, suddenly half the nation's beef supply has e. coli.

But instead we have laws about what dairies are allowed to look like, how many chickens can be in a shed of X size, laws regulating who is allowed to sell what.  Laws against raw milk are an example.  Meat must be inspected, at the producer's expense.  It's no biggie to keep an inspector on the payroll if you are processing a million animals a day, but if you sell a hundred a year, that may end up being a major inconvenience.

Some of these laws are so ridiculously stupid that one wonders why we have them.  Answer: see subsidies, above.  Big Ag has a lot of lobbying power, and you and I do not.

However, there is a law coming up in Virginia next year called the Farm and Food Freedom Act, which basically states that farmers may sell direct to the consumer without following the regulations the industrial food system has to, provided the food is labeled as not having been inspected.  My delegate has said he'll vote for it, and E. W. Jackson, who is running this year for Lieutenant Governor, supports it as well.  If you live in VA, I recommend contacting your delegate and asking him or her to support this bill.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Capitalism, agrarianism, and the free market

While my updates have been sparse lately, it's not because I have nothing to say.  Things have been busy and I've been tired, but I've been reading a lot and thinking a lot.  I would very much like to plan out a clear, unified series of posts to share my ideas about agriculture and economics, but the more I plot it out in my head, the bigger it becomes -- and the less likely that I'll ever post it.  Rather than let these ideas just sit in my head, though, I'm compromising: I'll write a disconnected, rambly, disorganized series of posts instead!  Lucky you.

First, I need to talk about some definitions.  So today I'm going to give you my working definitions of capitalism, agrarianism, and the free market.

Wikipedia defines capitalism as "an economic system in which capital assets are privately owned and items are brought to the market for profit. . . . Central elements of capitalism include capital accumulation, competitive markets, and wage labor."

Often capitalism is considered the same as the free market.  But here's the definition of free market: "A free market is a market structure in which the distribution and costs of goods and services, along with the structure and hierarchy between capital and consumer goods, are coordinated by supply and demand unhindered by external regulation or control by government or monopolies."

They're not quite the same, although there is overlap.  A capitalist economy may include plenty of regulation by government, or conversely it could be rife with monopolies.  It's capitalist enough -- all the assets are owned by individuals or corporations -- but people who want to buy or sell goods are not doing so in actual freedom.  It's not a free market when I can't buy raw milk -- that's government regulation.  It's not a free market when Wal-Mart is the only game in town and so I have to pay Wal-Mart's price -- that's a monopoly.

Capitalism is also distinguished by its focus on wage labor.  It is an economy based on cash.  You trade your labor for cash, and then you trade your cash for other people's goods.  In a free market, however, it is possible to avoid relying on cash and wages by owning your own land or business, producing what you need by yourself, and bartering or trading favors rather than buying or hiring.  That's a free market, but it isn't the typical capitalist paradigm.

When I was a kid, if the toilet was broken or the house needed a coat of paint, my dad used to say, "I am not good at fixing things around the house.  Luckily I am good at market research.  So we can have everyone do what they do best.  I can do market research, and with the money I earn at that job, I can hire someone to take care of the plumbing and painting."  That's the capitalist dream, right there.  Everyone does what they do best, and trade it around.  Everyone can specialize.  No one needs to do a kind of work they don't like.

My dad even said once that there is no reason to sing when we have CD's full of professionals who can do it much better!  And there, you see, is where I part ways with the capitalists.

G. K. Chesterton is famous for saying "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."  My version is "Anything worth doing is worth doing yourself."  Sure, I don't sing as well as Celine Dion.  But I like to sing!  Why should I hire someone else to sing for me when I enjoy it more when I do it myself?

And once I've gone that far, why not fix a toilet?  Why not paint a house?  Most of us don't really love our jobs.  (I do, but my "job" doesn't fit into a capitalist scheme, so let's talk about the average person.)  If you make widgets for a living, it is possible you may get tired of making widgets.  And yet you're not ready to go to sleep yet.  What are you going to spend your time doing?  May as well paint a house -- it's a change, and change often feels restful.  You'll also get some exercise and sunshine.  You can get the house exactly the way you want it, instead of just a contractor's close estimate.  You don't have to deal with the possibility they may cheat you or overcharge you.  You can just paint the house.

That will also save you money, of course.  If you keep up this way, maybe you'll be able to cut back your hours at the widget factory and have more time you can spend how you want, instead of how your boss wants.

Of course, it's a matter of taste.  Some people enjoy their jobs and don't mind working eight or more hours a day, but when they get home they want to relax and just watch TV, not fix toilets and paint houses.  Other people (like me) take a ton of pride in doing productive things for themselves, don't really like buying or consuming things, and would rather do almost anything than work an eight-hour day for somebody else.

A free market leaves room, at least theoretically, for both choices.  But the latter choice is not really capitalist.  Capitalism is about producing one thing, and consuming everything else you need.  But it is also possible to produce a great many things and consume very little.  You could even, if you're very dedicated, produce everything you need and not hold down a job at all.

And that leads us to agrarianism, defined as "a social philosophy or political philosophy which values rural society as superior to urban society, the independent farmer as superior to the paid worker, and sees farming as a way of life that can shape the ideal social values."  Agrarianism isn't an economic system or a political system which mandates farming for everybody.  Instead it's a system of thought that prefers farming.

I prefer farming, or better yet, homesteading.  But I don't think everybody should do it.  I'd like to see more people do it, for many reasons.  First, I think more people want to than are able to, thanks to a market that isn't really free and a system that is weighted toward big farms, big business, and big money.  Second, I think many people who aren't currently into it would like it.  Living in the country is more pleasant for most of us than living in the city -- especially if you aren't rich.  Being your own boss is also pretty nice, and many people would jump at the chance to do it if they thought it was possible.  And third, I think homesteading is a great deal more efficient than wage work.  Isn't it a little counter-intuitive to spend eight hours a day on your butt staring at a screen (which is terrible for your health) and then spending your hard-earned wages so that you can work out on an elliptical machine?

There are many other reasons why I identify as agrarian, and I think I'll have to leave all those for another post.  But I am certainly not alone.  Famous agrarian writers include Hesiod, Virgil, Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, Thomas Hardy, and Leo Tolstoy.  In every generation, while people flow into the cities toward greater industrialization, there has always been a counter-current, sometimes slower and sometimes faster, of people getting back to the land.

Agrarianism is not in opposition with the free market.  There are free-market agrarian systems and communist agrarian systems and feudal agrarian systems.  The opposite of agrarianism is industrial capitalism, or you could call it urban capitalism.  Rather than an economic system, it's a value system.  People who judge others by how much money they make, who sneer at you for wearing thrift-shop or handmade clothes, who couldn't stand to quit their job because that job gives them a sense of self-worth, are reflecting the values of industrial capitalism.  They measure status by wealth and job title, and have a strict delineation between work, which they are paid to do, and entertainment, which they pay for the privilege of doing.  They would be ashamed to be caught doing something themselves that others hire out.

The agrarian value system holds paid work in low esteem, and agrarians would prefer not to work for someone else.  Handmade crafts or foods are considered more valuable than storebought versions.  Entertainment time is spent on free activities or productive activities like crafting.  They would be ashamed to have to pay someone else to do something they should be able to do for themselves.

Next up: reasons for the downfall of the American small farm.  Or else, How the industrial capitalist dream falls short.  Or else, my views on private property.  Who knows?  I hope to get to all these topics eventually, if I can find the time.  I feel like I owe you guys, because I'm learning so much and I think it needs to be shared.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Quick takes

If I can't manage a whole blog post, surely I can do quick takes, right?  If I start a day early?  Maybe?


The weather lately has been perfect.  Mostly it's been cool and breezy, some days even breezy enough to keep the mosquitoes off!  We can actually use the back yard sometimes!

I don't know if I've mentioned it, but we live two blocks from the Shenandoah River.  As a result, there is really nothing we can do to keep from being overwhelmed with mosquitoes.  The back yard, being shady, is so thick with them we usually don't go out in it all summer.  Within two minutes you're swarmed with them; while you're slapping one, another is getting the back of your neck.  The front yard isn't usually so bad, but we still have to stay in after three p.m. or so during mosquito season.  Only a good windy day keeps them under control at all.


This cool weather has had a few effects: one, we've been going to the park or on a walk almost daily.  I love that.  It's a huge mood booster to get out of the house, and the kids behave better when they'd been out as well.  The downside is that I get so physically tired that I don't want to do anything when we get home!

Another effect of the cool weather is that I am so strongly reminded of being pregnant -- since I've gotten pregnant in the late summer and fall twice now -- that I actually feel sick.  I know for certain that I'm not pregnant, but when the breeze hits me I suddenly feel kind of like gagging.  It's weird.  I think it's the smells in the air this time of year, which are actually very pleasant, but remind me of being sick.


This past week we discovered Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood.  It's a spinoff of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, which we all love, so I was hopeful.  Unfortunately I hate it.

I like Mr. Rogers for the following reasons:

*He talks about feelings a lot and how to manage those feelings -- an important lesson.
*It's live action and slow-paced, so it isn't overstimulating.
*Mr. Rogers has a nice voice I like to listen to, not a shrill fakey one like EVERY other kids' show I've ever seen.
*It has a lot of real-life stuff, like meeting people with disabilities or learning where milk comes from.  I loved the episode where a fireman shows off his mask and explains what to do in a fire, or when Mr. Rogers goes to a restaurant to show what you do at one.
*Mr. Rogers was a real person, who really did care, and it shows.  When he says "I love you just the way you are," he means it.

Daniel Tiger ONLY has point 1.  It's a show about feelings.  But it's animated, jazzed up, fast paced, run by imaginary animal children, and SHRILL.

There is one improvement made on the show, which is that the songs are improved a bit and sound a little less like what someone made up in the shower.  But even there, they don't seem to know what the point of those songs was.  Why change "It's such a good feeling to know you're alive, it's such a happy feeling when you're growing inside," to, "It's such a good feeling to play with a friend, it's such a happy feeling when they lend you a hand"?  Not everything has to be about playing with other kids.  I liked how Mr. Rogers talked about things that you can do and feel all by yourself.

Daniel Tiger doesn't look like the Daniel Tiger in the original show, who was gray and very quiet and shy.  That was kind of the point of Daniel, that he was not a typical tiger and he needed to learn to love himself the way he was.  But the new version has a Daniel who is very much a typical tiger and has no particular personality.  In fact, there are no personalities.  O the Owl (is that X the owl's son, or little brother?), Katarina Kitty Cat, Prince Wednesday, etc., have no actual defining features besides looks.  What happened to bossy X, sensitive Hen, crotchety Lady Elaine?  Lady Elaine does appear, but she looks very boring and typical instead of being rosy-cheeked and wart-nosed.

I do like the songs about feelings, like "When we do something new, let's talk about what we'll do," or, "Grown-ups come back."  Marko's been singing them, and I don't mind them.  But when I tried to sing "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood" and Marko wanted me to only sing it the way Daniel Tiger does ... I decided I can't let him watch it anymore.  I want to sing the old songs.  It's like the directors didn't realize a sweet, long song while Mr. Rogers puts on a sweater and changes his shoes would teach my son to put on a sweater and shoes!  That's an important part of the show, you can't replace it with animation and sparkles and backup vocals!


Yeah, I'm a little mad about it.  So I went to YouTube to watch the old show the way we used to, and it was TAKEN DOWN!  Every single clip over five minutes appeared to be gone!  Netflix doesn't have it, we don't have Hulu Plus or Amazon Prime ... I think we're out of luck.

I think Mr. Rogers would be ticked.  After all, he testified before Congress in favor of VCRs, because he wanted parents to be able to tape his show and watch it with their kids whenever they wanted.  And now that he's dead we're not allowed to watch his show anymore.  *angry face*


This has honestly got me wanting to make a kids' show myself.  I don't have time or energy or resources, but if I did, here's what I'd make.

It would be live-action, and the hosts would be a grandma and grandpa who lived on a farm.  Mostly it would be just them, showing you around the farm and the different chores they do.  The animals would all be important characters.  Sometimes they'd go to town and show you the different people there, or they would get visitors to the farm like the mailman or the vet.  And sometimes the grandkids would come and they'd sing songs and play games.

Every episode, there would be a "classic literature" bit, where Grandma or Grandpa gets out a book of poetry and reads some famous children's poems, like Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll pieces.  That would be the only part of the show with animation, illustrating what's happening in the poem.

There would also be music, both classical and children's stuff, and also crafts like basket-weaving and cooking that the hosts would show you how they do.  There would be lots of talk about feelings, both monologues (like Mr. Rogers used to do) and examples, like if Grandma and Grandpa were angry at each other, or one of the grandkids was scared of something.

It would be awesome.  I'm just throwing that out there in case anyone has the ability to make it, and wants to release an episode every week for free on YouTube.  You totally should.  Or I will, when I'm old.


We are seriously contemplating getting chickens.  Because we live in town that is stupid and regressive, there are legal implications, so if we do, I probably won't tell you about it.  But I heard a rooster crow in the neighborhood just yesterday, so it's not like we'd be the only ones.  I do have to ask my neighbors though.

My dream is to have a chicken tractor with two or three hens for now.  That would take care of most of our egg needs, as well as keep the weeds down in the backyard, and perhaps root out some of the bugs.  And it would be good practice for when I have a homestead and go in for chickens in a bigger way -- laying hens and meat birds, all free-ranging in a fruit orchard.  (No place buggier than a fruit orchard!)  I've got my heart set on Australorps for that setup.  But for now, I'd take whatever I could find on Craigslist.  You can get a laying hen on there for $12.  Since the tractor can be made from salvaged materials, this would be a very low-cost project.  Cheaper than our dog, anyway!


Despite squash bugs AND squash borers in the pumpkins, slow-growing broccoli, and late tomatoes, we are eating green beans and carrots at least.  Michael's a fan!

More quick takes are at Conversion Diary.
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