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Growing a Farmer

December 27, 2011

Animals make a farm

Recently David borrowed a book from the library and handed it to me. “This looks good,” he said. “I got it mostly for you.” Intrigued, I picked up Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land, by Kurt Timmermeister, and finished it in about a week.

Growing a Farmer, by Kurt Timmermeister, chronicles the author’s journey from baker and restaurateur to farmer and artisanal cheesemaker and locavore chef. It’s quite a journey, with trial and error, much labor expended and money spent, and tips on animal husbandry learned along the way. The pale green dust jacket is adorned only with images of a dinner fork pointed up, matched by a hay or compost forked turned down, reflecting both the author’s culinary skills and farming skills. The former kept the farm afloat financially while he learned the latter, and today both are an integral part of the farm.

Timmermeister tries his hand at several farming business ventures on first, just 4 acres of land, then eventually 12, from growing vegetables for a CSA and the farmers market and local restaurants, to keeping honeybees, to fruit trees, chickens-keeping, raising and slaughtering pigs, to a raw milk dairy, to cheesemaking.

Wall Street Journal review summarizes the financial difficulty in making such a farm pay off. Were it not for the fact that he bought the land before prices skyrocketed, plus he had outside income for the first few years, one wonders how he could have make it work. It is not only the cheese that pays the bills now, it is a weekly farm dinner, prepared from foods grown on the farm, that keeps Kurtwood Farms afloat.

I was please that the Wall Street Journal review summarized the history of raw milk dairies quite sympathetically:

As he explains in a chapter devoted to raw milk, the government’s pasteurization requirements for milk are a classic case of crafting rules to address the lowest common denominator. They are rooted in the 19th century, when dairies moved into urban areas to be near the whiskey factories that sold cheap, left-over grain mash as feed for cows. The poor-quality feed made for poor-quality—and sometimes diseased—milk. Governments looked to Louis Pasteur’s method of heating liquid (originally intended for wine) to make milk safe. Meanwhile, dairies outside the cities set their own standards to differentiate themselves from their dodgy urban rivals.

Despite such standards and self-certification, a belief took hold that all milk should meet a uniform standard. By the 1930s, pasteurization was required for all dairies. “The original supporters of pasteurization had no intention of requiring pasteurization of all the milk,” Mr. Timmermeister contends, “only the dangerous, poor-quality milk produced at swill dairies.”

City Slicker to Farmer

This is a genre I have long loved. From Farm City to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, to Farewell My Subaru, I eagerly devour stories about those intrepid souls that have left behind city life—or reinvented urban living, in the case of Farm City—to learn to make a living raising plants and animals.

I was the girl that read Mother Earth News as a kid in the 1970s (and still today) as well as The New Farm and Harrowsmith—both sadly defunct—and wished more than anything to live on a farm. Part of that desire was rooted in my love for horses; part in my instinctive yearning to live a more authentic, holistic life rooted to the soil and the miraculous processes of Nature.

The miraculous process of Nature that first intrigued me was rotting, specifically the process of creating humus. I remember in elementary school, sometime around second or third grade, reading in a textbook about how fallen leaves on the forest floor turned into the fragrant humus that nourishes new life. This was terribly exciting to me. There was purpose and renewal in the death of plants—animals were not yet part of the discussion—and it seemed to make Nature make sense.

The Soil-Food Web

I later read, in Mother Earth News, no doubt, about composting, the alchemy of blending “browns” and “greens” to yield black gold, compost. I was terribly intimidated by the need to balance out nitrogen and carbon and it all seemed way beyond me. Eventually I started composting when I lived in Tokyo, Japan, using an electronic compost maker that heated and turned food scraps into lovely, sweet-smelling compost. I brought the Hitachi compost maker back to the U.S. with me and used it again once I moved to a house with a garden, but that wasn’t enough. I was soon hauling horse manure from the stables at Tilden Park in Berkeley, and combining it with fallen leaves raked up from the neighbor’s yard. I also loaded up bags of leaves left for garbage collection and sneaked them back to my yard.

During that period I read a book  that had a huge impact on me: Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil-Food Web. This expanded my understanding of what was going on in compost and in the soil, such as the exchange of nutrients between plant roots and the symbiotic soil organisms surrounding them. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Save the World, illuminated the role of mycelium, and their fruiting bodies, mushrooms, in the life of the soil.

These books, along with Wild Fermentation and other books and classes on lacto-fermentation, were my introduction to the fascinating world of microbiology that envelopes us and makes life as we know it possible. I started to realize that microbes—which are mostly benign or beneficial, with but a relative few varieties that are pathogenic—were not only an integral part of life, but literally an integral part of the human body, without which we couldn’t efficiently digest our food. They’re in us, they’re on our skin, and they outnumber our human cells by 10 to 1, according to various reports.

How bizarre, then, is this obsession with hygiene and antiseptic levels of cleanliness in the modern world. Which brings up a favorite quote from Growing a Farmer. Timmermeister quotes Lord Northbourne’s 1940 book Look to the Land:

Hygiene is all very well, but it is no substitute for health. We have got into the habit of thinking that health can come form the mere avoidance of germs or dirt, while we neglect the foundations of health and so get more and more into a state in which we cannot withstand bacteria or dirt, and so we get more and more terrified of them. Asalways, negative policy directed solely to the avoidance of evil is useless in the absence of constructive work for good.

We’re not yet surviving on farm income, but hope to do so someday. Meanwhile I’m we’re learning about keeping chickens, raising and butchering goats, pasture maintenance, and myriad other things that keep a farm going.

Farmer Joel Salatin is famous for saying he’s above all a grass farmer. Grass is the foundation of any sustainable livestock business, and the foundation for healthy pastures is fertile soil, and for fertile soil, you need organic matter that feeds the micro-organisms that make soil alive. Hence the adage, Don’t fertilize the plants, feed the soil—the soil will feed the plants. And to accomplish all that, you need animals on the land.

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