The Purpose Trumps the Plan

Years ago we established a family mission statement. A number of books we have read emphasized the need for this but The Thomas Jefferson Education got us to actually do it.

The Jordan Family Mission:

We work together as a team to steward God’s resources, create a welcoming home, share with others, encourage one another, learn and explore new ideas and pursue our God given purpose.

That should be seen as a work in progress. In fact, it is still in draft form and is revisited regularly. But what is included? Cows? Pigs? Money? Only as “God’s resources”. Money, that great bug-a-boo, is a means not an end. The end is learning and personal development. Enlightenment. We use money to buy books and to heat our home so we can read in comfort. It’s just a tool. The cows are a way of caring for the land and generating a little money (so we can be warm and can buy books). Cows are just a tool. A means not an end.

feb cows

We don’t bother to name tools in the mission statement. We don’t specify plans either. The mission statement is the what, not the how.

I have this vision of what could be. A preferred future. I have written about it before so I’ll just go on. I have a plan to get there. 11 cows today. 5,000 cows tomorrow. Simple as that. Oh, along the way I’ll have to learn about sales, I’ll have to accumulate more land, time will pass, money will be lost, money will be made. Then I get old, they bury me in the family cemetery and succeeding generations continue to succeed. The Jordan family grows to eclipse the Rockefellers.

No plan of battle ever survives contact with the enemy
-Helmuth von Moltke

The cold, hard reality of the world can’t be planned for. My detailed, step-by-step agenda could include my great-grandchildren building long-range ships to ranch all of Mars. Will it happen? Is that important to the objective? Cows on Mars is not the objective. Honoring God, welcoming people and seeking personal growth is the objective. 

So if the plan goes awry…well, we’ll survive. If we fail as farmers we are still a family. If we fail as a family the farm won’t be needed. What is important here?

What is important is that each of us see the big picture.

Plans are useless but planning is indispensable
-Dwight D. Eisenhower

Since we have a farm we should try to do something with it. So we make plans. These plans don’t make or break our family. Julie plans to get rid of clutter on a weekly basis. Is that time wasted if the house burns to the ground or is carried away by a tornado? I don’t think so. The weekly exercise has forced her to change her thinking about our possessions. It has helped her to focus on the objective and certainly helps make a welcoming home. But the weekly exercise is not the goal. The welcoming home is the goal. By planning to clean a little more each week we inch closer toward our objective.

The focus is not on the plan. The focus is on the purpose.

The cows are part of the plan. The cows are not the purpose.

Cleaning the house is part of the plan. A clean house is not a purpose.

Money is part of the plan. Money is not the purpose.

Johnny Cash’s music is part of our family cultural heritage. Johnny Cash’s music is not our family purpose. (lol)

It is not always so easy to distinguish plans from objectives…especially when emotions come into play. But I think we are off to a flying start.

Now what?

Now we pray/hope/teach our kids to recognize the objective. We make a few plans. We turn the next generation loose and get out of the way. The most important thing I can do is to give control to the next generation as soon as possible. I am beginning to notice that I am not as fearless as I have been in the past. Maybe it’s time to move myself to an administrative position in our organization. I am reaching the point where I am no longer fit to lead the troops on the front lines. I have raised a generation of creative, intelligent, hard working children. Their intelligence and creativity exceeds my own (thank God). Our objective is personal development. The farm is the incubator for that development. It’s almost time for them to fly.

If I retain control the farm will stagnate. We’ll have cows. We’ll have chickens. We’ll have pigs. I’ll blog. I’ll write books. But what won’t I do? We will continue moving toward our purpose but the toolset will be limited. The kids may continue the livestock but add in Android applications, cookbooks, automated cattle fencing and a series of rental cabins on the farm. I can’t even imagine what they will come up with…and I’m excited to see it.

feb dot

So rather than close them out, rather than force them to move on and seek funding for their own ideas, I would rather move into an advisory role. To offer them counsel and financial enhancement (but not dependence!). College? Sure, if you want. Seminary? Sure, if you want. Recording studio for a podcast? Sure, if you want. Come up with a plan. Show me how it fits into the overall purpose. Even if the plan fails, the purpose remains.

And my children know our purpose. We defined it together.

We work together as a team to steward God’s resources, create a welcoming home, share with others, encourage one another, learn and explore new ideas and pursue our God given purpose.

Kids, I’m here for you. I love the work we do together. I hope we can always work together. And I’m excited to see where you take it next. Whenever you are ready. We’ll fulfill our purpose together. And as soon as possible, pass it on to your children.

Beyond The Thomas Jefferson Education, the following books have been valuable in directing our family purpose:

You might think it’s funny for po’ folk like us to read books with lofty titles like those. It’s not funny. It’s inspiring.

Also, portions of this post were influenced by this series. Hats off to Project Managers everywhere.

Advertisements

Should I Sell All of My Cattle?

It is interesting how people find my blog. Various search engines bring in a lot of traffic. Someone was searching the internets for an answer to the title question. That has inspired me to write a little bit.

Should I sell all of my cattle in 2014?

There are a lot of variables in that. It’s like asking if you should go ahead and buy that Plymouth DeSoto.

I’m not interested in owning a Plymouth DeSoto at any price. But they do have value…which means they are valued. Should you buy one? I dunno. Do you want one? Do you have the money? Where are you going to park it? What will your spouse say? What is the plan?

But there is so much more to it than that. In essence the reader is asking, “Is it better to have cash or cows right now?”

I’m going to switch gears and talk about eggs and dollars briefly. Dollars are a product. Eggs are a product. But dollars are infinitely liquid, eggs are less so. For example, anybody can give me $4 and I’ll give them a dozen eggs. But not everybody will accept a dozen eggs in exchange for $4.

Dollars are infinitely liquid, cows are less so. It is unlikely that I could trade my cows for a Plymouth DeSoto. But you can’t eat dollars. So the question becomes, after you sell your cows, what will you do with the dollars? Do you just want to stack them up in your house? Maybe build a couch out of $100 bills? That wouldn’t be very comfy. And I doubt there are any real women in red dresses that would lounge seductively on a stack of paper.

100Couch

Click image for source. No, really. It’s worth your time.

So what do you do with the money? I mean, before you do something you should decide what it is you are actually going to do. You probably don’t want the dollars. You want the convenience of the dollars…their near-universal acceptance. You might hold dollars for a period of time but you aren’t going to make a couch with dollar bills. You are eventually going to buy something with them…and probably not a brunette in a red dress. Cows? Grass? Pasture? Dollars? Plymouth DeSoto? The idea is to put your resources to their best and highest use. If not cows, then what? Could make for a fun night at the casino but is that what you want? Because if you swap out the cows for cash and don’t have a plan…well, you may as well have a good time. What is the marginal utility of a hangover?

Rather than focus on getting out of the cattle business you need a plan for getting into the next thing. Trading cows for cash may accelerate your efforts…if you are going somewhere. If he/she has some culls to spare, this is a chance to get a great price on sub-par genetics! Maybe A. Person meant to type, “Should I sell all of my cattle and buy cattle of a higher quality.” OK. I have heard of a number of ranchers who have sold out of the cow/calf business because they believed calf prices were abnormally low (so calves produced were not covering costs). They sold family herds that had taken generations to build to buy heavily into cheap stockers. Then when the market skewed the other direction they quit raising stockers and bought a nicer herd of cows than they had owned previously…making money on every trade…always looking for the class of cattle that were relatively undervalued. Not just selling the cattle, trading one appreciating asset for another with dollars in the middle.

But let’s assume A. Person doesn’t want to sell out completely. As I mentioned earlier, high cattle prices are the time to cull out the worst of your herd. When prices go down again (and they will…and maybe by a lot…and maybe for a long time since this cycle has been up for a long time), buy in quality again. If that’s the plan, sell some cows now.

Or maybe none of his cows bred this year. Sell them.

Or maybe he has noticed his cows can’t perform in the absence of corn, Ivermectin and alfalfa cubes. Sell them.

Or maybe he is just looking for a new opportunity. Sell them.

In fact, if you are asking the question at all…the answer is yes. Do it. You obviously want to sell them. Go. Carpe some diem. Don’t look back. Embrace a brighter tomorrow for you. Just get the cows out of your way. There is no obligation with cows. It’s not a marriage. They aren’t children. There is no business contract. Do what you need to do to move onward and upward. Devise your plan, make it happen and cherish the consequences!

Maybe that’s just me though. That’s kinda how I tend to run. Always looking for deep water to jump into and dealing with the results.

Should I sell my own cattle? Nope. They are part of the plan. Should I train up my son to take over control of the cow herd when he turns 15? Sounds great to me. I’ll move onward and upward to the next thing. He will be the “Head Farm Steward” and I will move into an advisory role. Awesome. I have a plan for that…should it come to fruition.

Should you sell your cattle? The better question to ask is, “What am I going to do next?” because my response is, “What’s the plan?”

Going Easy on The Cows, Hard on the Future

Are my cows bred? I dunno. Some of them are really starting to show. Others? Well, I dunno. 19 bellows and stands at regular intervals. She’s not going to make the team. 27 and 70? Dunno. I have never seen any sign of heat from 70. Ever. At all. But she’s not showing. At all. I don’t think she’s a freemartin so I don’t know what’s up. I guess I should just invite the vet to preg check them for us.

So what if some aren’t pregnant? Well, then they don’t get to stay on the team. I bought these cows off of hot feed, not from a grazing herd. The odds are against them genetically. That’s why every grazing expert you talk to says to buy cows from an established grazing herd. It is expensive to return cows to eating grass. Isn’t that an odd thing to say?

I am not in the business of providing cow retirement. I don’t need cows to eat grass. I need cows that can reproduce while eating grass. I need to increase beef production per acre while reducing the amount of fuel that goes into each pound of beef. That’s what I need. Rather than spending money on tractors, balers, rakes, conditioners, barns, hay elevators, wagons, (this list could go on for a while so let’s just sum up and say “iron”) I am investing in cows. Some investments turn out great. Some investments don’t. But over time I can breed toward a greater tendency for success.

“But”, asks my father, “what do the cows need? Surely a little oats to warm them on cold nights wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

It wouldn’t. Not if these were pet cattle. But I’m not raising pets.

What does a cow need? Boil it down to the absolute essentials. Forage, water and a little salt. Barns are not for cows. Barns are for storing feed and for feelings…as in “I feel better that my cows don’t have to stand in the rain.” Or barns are for status…as in, “Look at those nice buildings. That’s a successful farmer!” That’s what you see from the road. What you don’t see from the road is the amount of time and resources used to build and maintain the buildings, the debt gained to have the buildings and the vacation days burned to repair the buildings after a wind storm.

BarnDamage

I’m not interested in status. My kids think I’m cool. Good enough. The more stuff I own the more stuff I have to fix. I don’t want to fix stuff. I want to play with my kids, read books and sell cows. But I do store a little feed. To some degree, I regret having hay in the barn. Who works for who in this deal? Do I work for the cows or do the cows work for me? I sweat, sneeze and cough in May, July, August and sometimes September to put hay up there. Then meter it out as winter passes, a little at a time, to …well, to do what exactly? My cows are still grazing grass we grew last summer. I guess I give them a small portion of their daily feed in hay as a treat. Same as my dad suggesting that they would like a little oats.

Shoot.

Let’s be completely fair about hay though. I don’t think anyone would argue that I should own zero hay. I would like to go years without feeding any hay though. We are expecting a serious ice storm this weekend. With events like that coming it makes sense to have a little hay on hand (and the barn roof repaired). But feeding hay every day when I have acres of fescue out there doesn’t make sense, except that my pastures currently need a little help. They were overgrazed and under-rested for decades. But they’ll come around. Will I come around? Or will I continue feeding a little hay in the winter out of habit?

Fencing is another example of my needs vs. cow needs. I have several neighbors with 7-wire high-tensile fences. Those are dang-near deer proof! Oh, how I would love to rip out my fencing and start fresh…properly follow keylines, get rid of the barbed wire and make the farm look nicer! But do I need that? My cows are rarely against the perimeter fence anyway. The perimeter fence is really just insurance. I bought several rolls of high-tensile fence a few years back but haven’t built the fence. I would rather have the cash…so I could have more cows. Cause this is a cow business. Not a fence business.

Will all of my cows respect a lesser fence? Will all of my cows thrive on pasture stockpile? Will all of my cows reproduce without supplemental grain? Nope. They won’t. But the ones that don’t are not a good fit for our program…obviously.

What kind of cows do I want? Do I want infertile cows? Nope. Do I want to haul in grain? Nope. Do I want to put up (or even buy in) hay? No more than I have to. Not every cow can make it without grain. Not every heifer will breed early and often. Those who don’t make the cut won’t stick around to drag down the herd of the future.

From today’s Pharo Cattle Company update (I realize it’s an ad. But it’s also right on.):

When you need a bull, who are you gonna call? There are hundreds of seedstock producers who would love to sell you a bull, so how do you decide where to go? Do you look for a place with pretty white fences, big buildings and busy feed trucks? Do you look for someone who places expensive four-color ads in all the beef magazines? Do you look for a producer who displays over-fat cattle at the stock show? Or… do you simply look for the cheapest bull that meets your basic color requirements?

If you’re in this business for the long haul… you need to purchase your bulls from a seedstock producer who demands more from his cattle than you demand from yours. If they don’t demand more from their cattle, they will NEVER be able to improve the genetics of your cattle. Unfortunately, nearly all seedstock producers have a pampered herd of high-maintenance cows.

The goal is to capture solar energy and convert it into beef and increased soil fertility. The goal is not to own big barns and big tractors. Will a little grain and hay hurt? Well…yes. It will cost me money (that I could use to buy better cows) and it will cost me time and storage resources and, worst of all, it will cost me the chance to find cows that will thrive without. We are seeking solar power. That means some cows won’t make the cut. And good riddance.

Now, how can I figure out which cows are pregnant without getting elbow-deep in the question?

Internal Predation

We brought our pigs home late in January. They were 60 pound pigs at the time.

Because winter has been so harsh we thought the best place for them was in the greenhouse with the chickens. Salatin gave a presentation (The one I’m thinking of was at UC Berkley in 2005 but the link appears to be broken) where he says at 75 pounds the pigs get a hankering for chicken legs.

Pigs

Well, that only took two weeks. We now have one less New Hampshire pullet.

I can’t afford to feed my layers to my pigs. The pigs just aren’t worth it.

So off they go. We wheelbarrowed the pigs out to the shed with just two days of negative temperatures remaining in the forecast. We bedded them on the remaining bedding from the previous batch of pigs we shipped out about a month ago. There is a good pile of straw they use for a nest on cold nights.

They are dry. They have a warm place to lie down. They have food. They have water. They don’t have chicken dinners. I wish they were still in the greenhouse though. Maybe I’ll figure something out for next year. More that that, I’m counting down the days until the pasture thaws and firms up.

Satisfying My Inner Weird

I took a vacation day yesterday to finish getting our chick brooder ready and cut some firewood for next year. I also took care of a few odds and ends around the farm. Finally, the thaw and rain have caused a little flooding so the cows had to be moved to higher ground. Thank God I still have stockpiled forages up high! I haven’t been writing much lately because that’s just how the days have been. I get up, I work. I finish working, I go to bed. I try to make time in there to just hang out with the kids which means I am not writing. 

A friend at work asked me if I had fun on my vacation day. “Yup. I did. I cut a bunch of firewood! I’m really sore today too!”

She replied, “That doesn’t sound like fun.”

My inner weird showed up again in an email to a friend. I have convinced him that he needs a couple of pigs to boost fertility in his yard and garden and help cycle resources that otherwise go underutilized. I said, “If you haven’t met me, I’m all in favor of boiling something down to its essence. You might call it “oversimplificaiton”. Further, I don’t scare easily. And I’m willing to endure significant pain to get the desired result. Let me give you an example. I could save 70% of each paycheck if I just had a modest home in the suburbs. That money could be invested in any of several index funds. With all my free time, I could write books about homeschooling or family government. But instead I’m pouring all of my money and time into a farm, driving 3 hours/day and fighting to keep animals alive so I can kill them in the dream that farming will at least prove to be a wash financially.”

That’s a frightfully honest assessment of my situation. Maybe cynical…but still…not dishonest.

I wish I could write more. Lots of neat things are happening around the farm and I would love to show them to you. This morning there were small, green blades of grass behind where the cows have grazed! You should see the manure the cows put down in the pasture as we strip grazed through the snow! But then, there’s that inner weird again.

StripGrazing

We have lived in the suburbs…within distance of pizza delivery. I have cut the grass and washed the car. That’s a sweet gig. I have chatted with neighbors over the fence and discussed our favorite sports teams and ribbed each other’s joking inadequacies. It was fun but I was bored. Unfulfilled. It was like I was waiting for something to happen. Try as I might, I couldn’t make it work. My inner weird was always lurking…ready to shock the world. “I was thinking of pulling out the burning bush and replacing them with blueberries. They would still be pretty but would also give us fruit.” Somehow (and I really don’t understand why) that was just the wrong thing to say. For reasons I still can’t fathom, food can’t come from people’s yards.

So here we are. Too busy to tell you about it. Still as weird as ever but with a 60 acre yard and lots of food.

The Way I See You. The Way I Love You.

When I was 16 I saw you for the first time. You were beautiful. But I didn’t see you on that first Valentines day. You weren’t my girlfriend. You were just some girl at church and school. Pretty, yes. But just another girl.

On Valentines day of 1995 you were much more to me. You were acceptance. Appreciation. Affirmation. My 18 year old eyes didn’t see you that way but that’s what you were. And I thought I loved you. I had no idea.

In 1997 we were married. I’m embarrassed to say I saw you as an object when we were first married. Certainly we were still friends and were supportive of each other but I didn’t see that. I just saw, and appreciated, your beauty. On Valentines day of 1998 I thought I loved you. I had no idea.

Wedding1

When I was 30 we renewed our vows. Events in our lives had drawn us very close together. I thought I loved you then. I had no idea.

Wedding2

Now it is 2014. I have seen you nearly every day for 20 years. (Kissed you nearly every day for 18 years.) What I see has changed over time. Not changed. Evolved. As has my understanding of the word “love”.

We have changed. Our relationship. We grew up together and have grown together. Our paths have merged more fully. When we were first married we were two people sharing some stuff and time. My concept of “closeness” had more to do with proximity than with emotions. I thought we had arrived! Woo Hoo!

I had no idea.

Valentines day is not just some made-up holiday to sell cards and chocolate. Valentines day gives me an official excuse to stand on a mountain and proclaim to the world that I love you. But I don’t have a mountain. I have a blog. (Thanks Ron Burgundy). I love you so much more than I did when I was 18. I have outgrown that love. I have outgrown the love I had for you when I was 30. I had no idea what love was. And now, as I stand at the edge of 38, I see more clearly what we are becoming.

Christmas

Becoming.

I thought I had arrived when we swapped rings 16+ years ago. I thought we had arrived when we bought a house. I thought we arrived when we had kids 1, 2, 3 and 4. I thought we had arrived when we moved to the next house. Or the next house. Or the farm itself. We have not arrived.

We are still traveling. Together.

I wouldn’t trade you now for the “you” of 10 years ago. I need you as you are now. In another 10 years I’ll know you so much better. You will teach me more about what “love” means. I’m excited about how I’ll see you in 10 years. But I’ll wait.

I have no idea what is next. I know where we are aiming. We have written down our shared goals. I know what we are trying to do. But today we are here.

And I’m so happy to be here – right here – with you now.

I love you Julie Boo.

Sleeping Pastures

Wake Up!

There is a goofy Disney movie called Rocketman. In one scene, because of an accident, the main character doesn’t go into “hyper-sleep” with his crew mates and is isolated and alone on the ship for eight months. He does everything he can think of to pass the time. He makes a chain of paper dolls, paints the ceiling and goes bananas screaming comically for his fellow crew members to wake up. Wake up! Wake Up! WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP!

I was thinking about this recently as I stood in my pasture.

SnowGrazing

I’m killing time.

Waiting.

I look out over my fields, feeling helpless against the endless snow pack. I live in a desert of ice. The cows are grazing through the snow pack but we still supplement with hay …and the hay pile is running low. The wood pile is running low. Propane is crazy-expensive. I’m ready for winter to end.

IceWater

How many more months to go? How long before the world comes back to life?

Wake up! Come on! I’m ready already! Let’s butcher some chickens! Let’s build some fence while fighting mosquitoes and dodging poison ivy! Bring on the milk cows slapping us in the face with a manure-covered tail. ..and the flies, oh! the endless, beautiful clouds of flies! At least let it warm up enough to tap the trees!

It can’t happen fast enough.

And when it does I’ll be ready for winter again.

Parts and Patterns

Julie bought me the book Holostic Management 5 or more years ago. We took a stab at reading it at the time but really couldn’t get through the meat. We had a conceptual understanding of grazing but no real hands-on experience…and experience was needed. So we put the book aside.

I am overdue for another stab at the book and as I read it again I am fascinated. This time I seem to be getting it…or, at least, getting more of it. And that’s good since I sent a copy of it to dad’s friend Marty…and I know he’ll breeze through the book.

Chapter 3 kicks off a discussion of Jans Christian Smuts’ book Holism and Evolution, presenting the concept that, though we tend to break things down into individual parts, we need to look at wholes. In a recent post I discussed the loss of native diversity because in our local oak/hickory forests, Yellow Lady’s Slipper orchids are a part of the whole. Remove that part and the whole is diminished by the loss…the remainder becomes increasingly fragile.

The book gives several examples of ecological degradation caused by predator removal. If I trap out the minks I will open a void in predation. Minks eat mice. Extra mice may be a benefit to other predators but the loss of the mink makes our farm slightly more fragile. What happens when I kill the mink and disease removes the coyotes and foxes? Can the owls pick up that much slack?

But who cares about mice and minks and owls? We are farmers. We grow cows and pigs and chickens. And minks eat chickens. And owls eat chickens. So why not just kill the minks and scare off the owls and raise chickens in greater security?

Because of the whole interconnected web occurring on the farm. Owls also eat skunks. If there are no owls what will eat skunks? Maybe I could get a big dog? But that won’t eat large numbers of mice. So…barn cats? But those will eat song birds too. I could keep searching for substitutions to force my will on the land but it is not hard to imagine that I would be better off nestling, rather than imposing, my farm into the countryside. To make my farm an enhancement of the natural order rather than a replacement of the natural order. I need to find a pattern of farming that compliments the patterns of the landscape.

So I have to manage for diversity. And that includes making room for my enemy, the mink.

But I also need to recognize and enhance patterns. Hackberry trees grow alongside walnut trees. Gooseberry grows in their shade. Opossums eat gooseberries. Squirrels eat and plant walnuts, acorns and hickory nuts. Hawks eat Squirrels. All of them add manure.

The wildlife can’t begin to eat the gooseberry, nut and squirrel crop. I happen to like gooseberries, hickory nuts and squirrel. I have to find ways to fit myself into the landscape without diminishing the whole. Further, I have to fit cows, pigs and chickens into the landscape while retaining and respecting coyotes, foxes, mink, mice, squirrels, owls, hawks, deer, raccoons, groundhogs, skunks, opossums, rabbits, gooseberries, walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns and Yellow Lady’s Slipper orchids.

There are patterns holding this abundance of life together and my job, as a farmer, is to weave myself into the pattern, not to unravel it.

That only scratches the surface of the chapter but it is enough for today’s posting.

How are you weaving yourself into the patterns you observe?

Isolated and Fragile

I had a chance to visit with an old friend of my father’s I haven’t really seen in 20 years. He was a biologist for the state and is a large part of the reason I have a degree in biology. The last time I saw him was nearly 17 years ago (at my wedding rehearsal dinner (not so much a dinner as a 4th of July party with a bluegrass band at my parent’s house)) and I talked his ears off about the amphibians I had collected the previous week in the Columbia River Gorge (Ask me about dicamptodon or ascaphus!). This time I tried to avoid talking his ears off about grazing cattle.

I did it anyway. He is a polite listener and I really had to pry to get him to talk about his own interests. Marty is now retired and spends his days volunteering to help retain native diversity in Southern Illinois forests. He also is a decade into a prairie restoration program on some land his family owns.

I should have taken notes.

Obviously it is important that we manage for pasture diversity. Marty further suggested that I should be looking for local sources of native grasses to help re-establish those in my pastures. There is a clump of big bluestem that grows in the cemetery. I don’t have the foggiest notion where I could come up with Eastern Gamagrass though. Hopefully, by proper management and resting a portion of my pastures each year, I’ll see some of those natives come back out of the seed bank in the soil. By “proper management” I mean managing my pastures for what I want, not managing to limit what I don’t want. If I want additional native forages and pasture diversity I have to let the natives achieve maturity. Gamagrass may take 3-4 months to go to seed so I can’t just let the cows lop it off every few weeks. So if I want that, I have to plan for it.

Speaking of things I don’t want, I live in the part of Illinois that was recently on the news because of the massive dust clouds coming off of the farm fields in the wind, causing road closures. Some of this is due to drought. Some due to fall plowing. But mostly, it’s because there is nothing protecting the dirt, binding and holding it in place…and few windbreaks. The trees have all been cut out of the fence rows because they shade out the corn. So I invited Marty to dad’s back deck to look into the woods with me. Dad’s house is built in a 15 acres stand of trees near another 20 acre stand of trees. There are clumps of trees all around and a solid, unbroken canopy following a big creek from North to South for miles and miles. Talking to dad, he keeps the woods because he likes the woods. He thinks (and I agree) we need to have areas set aside for wildlife and recreation. But it is difficult to realize the economic advantages of turkey, deer, squirrels, raccoons and coyotes and keeping these areas forces us to operate at some economic loss…loss that is multiplied if we work to manage the forest by cutting out invasive species and removing sick or dead trees. So I asked Marty:

  • What is the economic advantage of retaining these trees?
  • Where is the incentive to cut out invasive species?

Marty survived a career of working for the government. One might think he would be looking for a government solution but he’s not (well, not overtly). Marty volunteers, apparently, massive quantities of time to cutting Japanese bush honeysuckle out of our forests. Marty says if it isn’t done – if we allow Japanese bush honeysuckle and autumn olive and other exotic invasives to persist – we are allowing our forests to decline and die. At this point, we can’t afford to lose our native forests (dominated by oak and hickory trees) so we have to actively destroy the invasives (by using glyphosate) allowing the sub-canopy to regenerate native species. He further said that our part in this process is particularly important because our tree stands tend to be isolated and fragile. (I believe Marty said “fractionated”, not “isolated”…)

600 words into the post and I finally get to the title. There is so much I want to do with those three words. “Isolated and Fragile”. In my head I’m swearing in disbelief like Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. In one little phrase everything falls into place.

I don’t want to be isolated and fragile. That’s why I read blogs. That’s why I blog. That’s why you are reading my blog. That’s why I’m married. That’s why I bought the farm next to my folks. That’s why we are encouraging our kids to work with us. Heck, that’s why we had kids. I don’t want to be isolated when I’m elderly. Beyond social issues, that’s why our farm isn’t our only investment. That’s why my job isn’t our only income.  Isolation leads to fragility.

And that’s the problem with those fields. The dirt is blowing away because there is nothing to hold it down. The soil is fragile. The dirt exists in isolation. There is no polyculture. No grass. No chickory. No dandelions. No clover. No dung beetles. No worms. The crop residue is minimal, most of it has already been digested by the soil. There is no structure to the soil, it was plowed in the fall to help it dry out more quickly in the spring. Just grains of dirt, sitting all alone.

Getting back to Marty, he believes that if the native plants are shaded out by the invasives, we’ll lose that native diversity. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. The stands of trees are too isolated and if the seed is not present there is no way a Yellow Lady’s Slipper Orchid can grow. The isolated stand of trees becomes diminished by the loss of a single species. This can also happen with acorns. If saplings are shaded out or smothered by Japanese bush honeysuckle and the mature trees climax and decline, what will replace them? Pioneer trees may be carried in by birds but how far do acorns get carried? And how many decades will pass before the native oak/hickory stand is again dominant even by way of intervention by man? And how many decades or centuries will be required to return the forest to a condition that will support orchids?

Now, I realize my fellow permaculturists may have a bone or two to pick with the notion that “invasive” species need to be managed…especially the native species that have been labeled “invasive” by the man because they are too good at their job. The argument could be made that they are only growing to fill a void and that cutting them out doesn’t fix anything. I don’t think that’s incorrect thinking…and I shared those thoughts with Marty. I’m not sure Marty was entirely sold on the idea but he repeated that these stands of trees are only a few acres in size. They are isolated. They are broken apart, mismanaged and lacking health. His efforts aren’t to fix a problem so much as retain local diversity. The problem is bigger than Japanese bush honeysuckle and Yellow Lady’s Slipper Orchid. But that’s where he can help.

So Marty is actively participating in making the world a better place. He’s not roping off a section of forest and letting nature take its course. He’s not lobbying for the government to do something (well, maybe he is…but he’s not stopping there). Obviously I took a lot home from that conversation.

I could go on and on about these ideas but I think you can see what I’m saying here. Isolation and Fragility are things I am working to avoid with my land, with my family, with my finances…but it took a conversation about forestry for me to really acknowledge it.