Monday, March 1, 2010

Researching Nothing

OSU sponsored a Small Farms Conference last weekend. Nobody’s farm is smaller than mine so I felt right at home. I went to the first session on alternative poultry feeds. It was very surreal. The small producers were talking about having smaller but great tasting birds but looking for ways to cut the cost of supplemental feeds and Jim Hermes from OSU was explaining how it wasn’t economically viable to feed anything but corn and soy if you are raising birds (that he got donated for the “research”, as if this was something new, from Foster Farms) bred for commercial meat production.

Great tasting means a lot more to me than what it does in my mouth. We evolved to recognize the difference between nutritious foods and garbage. Garbage can kill you, good food-not so much. Things that don’t taste so good either have some kind of toxin or depleted nutritional value. Fortunately Naomi Montacre of Naomi’s Organic Farm Supply was in my session and blurted out that she has organic non-soy/corn feed that people seem to be doing well with at a reasonable price. Carol Miles, a WSU extension agent that used to be located in Clark County but was transferred to Mt. Vernon when WSU gave up on agriculture in SW Washington, reported on how her fava bean experiment failed because they were winter killed-which happens about 50 percent of the time in many parts of the PNW according to the Extension bulletins I read after the conference. Most people in this area plant favas in February because it isn’t a reliable winter crop. That would be especially true in Skagit/Whatcom County where Carol does most of her work. Miles and Hermes are very talented people but it seems like they are being turned into weapons of mass destruction against the democratization of food instead of agents of change to help rebuild our country.

I need to point out that this isn’t the research that these folks wanted to do. This is the only thing they were allowed to do by WSU and OSU because the university's internal rules for what and how research has to be done excludes doing anything of intelligence. That reminds me of the Samuel Clemens line about not letting schooling get in the way of your education. When the land grant colleges can’t even get their act together to do research based on what is of interest to the vast majority of the producers because of their institutional incompetence, maybe we should count our blessings. If it ever got out that family farms were economically viable, corporate agriculture would probably press even harder than they are now to make them illegal.

I also went to the Small Scale Grain Production session and was astonished to learn that people were getting $2.50-4.50 a pound in the farmer’s markets for unmilled grain and beans. The normal price when sold by the bushel on the commodity market is closer to $.03 a pound. I don’t think that is a huge market but I don’t think you can have real food security in any county or region without local grain and pulse production. Unfortunately, there is no land anywhere in the area that would be suitable for research or agriculture ;-) as evidenced by ceding the 80 acres of our local research station back to those soon to be world famous agricultural historians-Clark County Parks and Recreation. Or, is it that the real mission of the Extension service is to make sure that nothing gets in the way of cheap food and corporate agriculture?

Probably the best thing about the conference was hearing Mas Masumoto (Epitaph for a Peach) give the keynote address and then to attend the “Farmers as Writers” session which he led. A third generation farmer of Japanese descent he has an easy charm that comes from having days at a time to spend playing with his mind while alone going back and forth up and down the rows working the fields on your tractor. I have been a Josh Volk fan and took a class he taught on managing cropping systems with spreadsheets and read several articles by him and several more that I sent you. He writes some of the best technical articles on small to medium scale vegetable processing and farm equipment published anywhere. But to also have Zoe Bradbury there who has been writing “Diary of a Young Farmer” in Edible Portland magazine all talking about how and why they write I was in writer’s heaven. It is so interesting to me to hear these particular people talk about their craft. I couldn’t figure out if so many people attended that last session because they wanted to hear Mas some more or if there were that many budding literary talents in the young farming community. We had to move out of the little session room back into the main hall because so many people wanted to hear this discussion. Masumoto is a lyrical writer and speaker. It looks like I will have to find time to read a couple of books for pleasure, a former passion of mine that I haven't done in quite a while.