The Contrary Farmer



Gene Logsdon
From Our Archives May 2007

A farmer of deep ecological sensitivity is to the plow jockey on his 200-horsepower tractor what a French chef is to the legions of hamburger handlers at fast food chains. The chef’s work is infused with artistic, scientific, and spiritual satisfactions; the hamburger handler’s is infused only with the ticking of a time clock. To the plow jockey, soil is a boring landscape of clods that need to be crushed. To the ecological farmer, every clod holds a wondrously exotic, tropical-like world of brilliantly colored microorganisms, the very stuff of life.

Walk with me over our little farm where biological diversity is our first order of business. On this farm lives a human family along with several families of corn, oats, wheat, orchard trees, grasses, legumes, berries, and garden vegetables, the whole domestic tribe living in a sort of hostile harmony with the wild food chain: animals, insects, and plants in such diversity that I have not been able to name them all. On our little farm, I have identified 130 species of birds, 40 species of wild animals (not counting coonhunters), over 50 species of wildflowers, at least 45 tree species, a myriad of gorgeous butterflies, moths, spiders, beetles, etc., and about 593,455,780 weeds.

I believe that the more diversity of species on a farm the more the various forms of life keep each other from achieving out-of-balance population relative to the other species. This increasing diversity means more than merely “balance,” which is a negative accomplishment. Increasing diversity means to me increasing biological dynamism which leads to an increasing amount of total food produced without increasing the amount of human labor or purchased agricultural supplies. The most obvious example is growing clover. Clover works with rhizobia bacteria in the soil to draw nitrogen from the air and make it available to itself and other subsequent plants without any effort or cost to me. A factory to extract nitrogen from the air costs millions of dollars and society’s tendency is then to use the nitrate so produced to make gunpowder, not to enrich the soil…

As all these life forms interact with each other, they create effects that individually they are incapable of. For example, cow flaps draw earthworms to dine on the organic matter. Young trees that have crept into the meadow over the years from the adjoining woodlot draw the cows to their shade. The cow-manure-earthworm-tree environment draws woodcocks to the farm. These birds come for the earthworms under the cow flaps and under the moist dirt bared by tree shade and cow hooves. Not incidentally, the combination has also produced on occasion a fairy ring of edible mushrooms. And also not incidentally, the animal manure is all the while being broken down and returned to enrich the earth. All we have to do is stand and watch in awe and pick the mushrooms.


Wood Is More Precious Than Gold


Gene Logsdon
From Our Archives January 2008

The price of gold is going crazy as investors look for a shelter from a dipsy-doodling stock market.

It reminds me of one of my grandfather’s stories. During the bad financial times of the early 1920s in Germany, the peasants (ancestors of ours) traded their potatoes for gems that the rich people were forced to pay to get something to eat.

That story is one reason why in 1974, I took my family out of Philadelphia where I had a good job, bought a little piece of land in my home country, built a house on it, and prepared for a severe economic depression, which fortunately did not come. Yet.

The only requirement I insisted on in looking for land was that it have several acres of woodland on it. I knew I could have a garden producing food in a hurry, but it takes time to grow the wood to keep a house warm and to cook with, if it came to that. I did not want to depend entirely on faraway oil to stay alive, and in a pinch I wanted to get by without electricity if I had to.

Whether I am just paranoid or prophetical I don’t know yet, but as I sit in my woods, resting from the work of splitting firewood, that decision has continued to make sense to me even in times of stable economics. (Is our economic system ever stable?) What I have gained in enjoyment alone makes my investment in two mature woodlots at least as “profitable” as investing an equivalent amount of money in gold.

You can’t eat gold like you can the bounty of trees in fruits, nuts, maple syrup, and various edible mushrooms and herbal treasures of the woodland. You can’t warm yourself with gold. You can’t bask in the shade of gold. You can’t make fence posts out of gold. A gold house would be mighty expensive. You can’t make a windbreak out of gold. You can’t make furniture, violins, guitars, wall paneling, picture frames, gun stocks, tomato stakes, flooring, barns, chicken coops, and hog houses out of gold. You can’t mulch a garden with gold leaf. Gold does not take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen to preserve an environment we can live in. Gold does not provide habitat for millions of wild animals and zillions of insects necessary for a sustainable environment. And in fact, you can make methane out of wood much more efficiently than ethanol out of corn. All gold can do is go up and down in price and invariably it turns out to be a poor investment, as many panic buyers learn the hard way.

I’ve known my two woodlots intimately for over 70 years. The one of ten acres was my playground as I grew up. The other, of about four acres two miles away, I also tramped as a child and have lived in, literally, for the last 34 years. There are so many ways to figure the value of woodland, so many intangibles that don’t show up on ledgers, that I doubt anyone can make an accurate estimate. But I want to try, using only my own rather uncomplicated experiences, leaving out intangibles like how the tranquility and exercise I’ve gained from caring for my woodland may have affected my health beneficially.

I paid $700 an acre for the four acre woodlot in 1974 and $2000 an acre for a ten acre woodlot in 1979. The four acre plot was really the lot for our house, so to speak, and so it is hard to try to calculate its value as woodland alone. So I will focus on the ten acres although what is true for one is true for the other.

Twenty thousand dollars for ten acres of woods was extravagant by local standards in 1979 but that’s what I had to pay to keep a corn farmer from bulldozing it away. I presume that if I had invested that money in the stock market, it would have doubled or tripled by now, but then again, after the recession in the 1980s when the market took a beating, and again in 2002, and now in 2008, maybe not.

A few years after we bought the ten acres, a timber buyer offered us $20,000 if we would let him clear-cut it, which of course I had no intention of doing. But I did sell five white oaks as veneer for $5000. A few years after that I sold another $2000 worth of logs. About 1995, my son, who was getting in the home construction business, hired a sawyer with a bandsaw mill to saw about 10,000 board feet of lumber which my son and I have used in various ways. The slab wood “waste” made several loads of firewood too. The sawyer charged thirty cents a board foot as I recall. We figured the wood was worth, above that cost, about a dollar a board foot, possibly twice that. If you have purchased wood from a lumberyard lately you know that you can carry $150 worth out to your truck in one trip. My son used some of the red oak as trim throughout his new home. It is breathtakingly beautiful. What is that worth? I sold another $2000 worth of trees in 2007.

Every year I harvest about four cords of fuel wood from the 14 acres of both woodlots. My son and other family members have been harvesting firewood from the ten acres too. Experience teaches us that an acre of mature woodland will produce indefinitely at least a cord of wood annually just in deadfalls, blowdowns, and thinnings, without lessening the over all yearly production of wood, and in fact increasing it. One mature tree containing two sawlogs to sell or make lumber from, also has enough branches to make a cord of wood.

The price of cord wood, needless to say, is going up as fast as the price of oil. I’ve always figured that a cord of oak replaced about $100 worth of other fuel but now the replacement value is higher. In general the wood I’ve used to keep the house warm over the last 25 years saved us an average of $400 a year even after deducting the cost of five chainsaws I have worn out in the process. My son figures that today his wood replaces about $300 of other fuel per winter month. He heats almost entirely with wood. I let our woodstove go out at night in favor of backup electric heat unless the weather is very cold.

Actually I rarely count wood by the cord but by the amount I need to heat the house for a day. Experience has shown me that I can cut from the log and split a day’s supply of heat in about an hour if the wood is straight-grained. Could do better when I was young. So to work up enough wood to last a hundred winter days, which is what I do, takes about a hundred hours. Since I like to work in the woods, and since I am not paying money out of pocket to someone else, I consider that labor as part of the profit.

Obviously the original $20,000 was an excellent investment. The woodlot will go on producing fuel and lumber and satisfaction forever with proper management. Even discounting that, the land is still there, going up in value whether it has trees on it or not. And if I were to sell the land, it is worth far more for homesites if it has mature trees on it than if it were bare land.

When I was a boy, farmers followed a code of ethics that proscribed a ten acre woodlot be kept for every hundred acres of farm land. That of course was forgotten when coal, fuel oil, bulldozers and subsidized corn became easily available. Would we not have much better homeland security today if that practice had remained as part of our cultural heritage?

Snow Pastures


From Our Archives January 2008

For many years I have had an impossible dream for which I give credit to both my now deceased friend, Bob Evans, who made a fortune with a chain of restaurants, and to the American Plains buffalo. What could Bob have in common with the buffalo? Both believed fervently that animals could thrive on year-round grazing, come hell, high water or snow, without any soil cultivation for grains at all. Once Bob and the buffaloes got that notion lodged in my mind, I could no more deny it than I could deny that one plus one equals two.

Millions upon millions of buffalo roamed this land of ours for centuries, providing food, clothing and housing for native Americans without benefit of one plow, one stalk of corn, one irrigation ditch or one environmentally-blind human transplant from Europe. Bob Evans understood what the American bison and the Indians had tried to tell us. He decided that what the wild buffalo had shown to be eminently practical for a sparse population of humans could be made eminently practical for today’s denser populations, using domesticated farm animals and verdant farmland where rain is plentiful to grow more grass that the dry plains ever dreamed possible. Always a farmer, even after becoming a fast food tycoon, he created a pastoral paradise in southern Ohio to prove his conviction. By and by he led me, practically by the nose, all over his farm to show me the proof. Pastoral farming could produce milk, butter, eggs, and meat just as well as plow farming and a whole lot cheaper. (You can find a profile of Bob in my book, All Flesh Is Grass, page 47ff.)

I spent the next 20 years seeing if I could mimic his efforts in northern Ohio on a very small acreage. Turned out to be easy in spring, summer, and fall once I rid my mind of thinking that farming was about growing annual grains and making the Chicago Board of Trade wealthy. But winter grazing in a harsher climate than Bob’s proved to be a real challenge. Northern pasture farmers were planting annual crops of turnips, winter rye, and grazing corn to beat the snow. Since my goal was to get away from the whole frightening cost of cultivating and harvesting crops, I wanted to avoid even this much annual cultivation if possible.

After trying about every pasture plant that would stand above snow or endure being covered with snow temporarily, I learned from a rancher in Kansas, about the snow pasture possibilities of that old standby, red clover, supplemented by fescue which is a grass not as nutritious as clover but capable of providing some grazing all winter in more southern climes. Red clover is also a favorite hay crop of farmers here in Ohio, but I had never realized how it could be stockpiled for winter grazing (alfalfa works well this way too). I simply needed to let it grow in late summer and fall, not cut it for hay. This was hard for a farmer with ingrained traditions of European husbandry to do. Let all that nice hay go to waste, turn brown and dead, and get buried under the snow? Hard to believe that.

But I did know that red clover was the easiest of all the legumes to get started simply by broadcasting the seed on top of the ground in late winter. That meant no annual cultivation. Then agricultural researchers came out with findings indicating that late hay crops left standing in the field were still fairly nutritious even when grazed in winter when they were more or less dead and brown.

So I gritted my teeth and let the late hay in one paddock grow two feet tall, blossom, go to seed and die. Being fairly upright, the plants would bear the weight of quite a bit of snow and still be semi-erect and therefore easily grazed. After we got our first five inches of snow in December, I turned the sheep in. First they ate off the dead blossoms and stems above the snow. An old herbal of mine says that red clover blossoms and seeds are “…one of God’s greatest blessings to man … a wonderful blood purifier…excellent for cancer of the stomach … and various spasms … very soothing to the nerves.” I wonder if the sheep know that.

Then they pushed down through the snow and burrowed along, grazing just like buffalo do, bulldozing the snow out of the way with their heads. Amazing grace. A second five inches of snow fell the next week. Same story. The plot, which is hardly an acre in size, fed 20 sheep until Christmas and is still providing a little clover and some fescue to nibble on as I write this. If I had a couple more acres of snow pasture, the sheep could graze until the middle of January, maybe longer, maybe until the bluegrass in other pastures starts to grow in March. Being basically a disbeliever, I’ve never had the guts to stockpile enough clover in the fall to find out. A side benefit: some of the clover seeds missed by the sheep or passed through the sheep in the manure, will sprout in the spring and make a new stand.

Bless you, Bob. Bless you, buffalo.