He who has water and peat on his own farm has the world his own way. -Old Irish proverb.

Category: Row Crops

Change–For Better and For Worse

I tend to ignore the conventional side of the farm. On this blog, that is. Truth is, I never wanted to be a conventional farmer. Row crops–corn and soybeans–with their genetic potential and maturity dates, their herbicides and pesticides, their crop insurance and FSA payments, their demand for large and expensive equipment, their moisture levels and storage charges–they’re not what’s got me whistling while I work on the farm, if you know what I mean.

But I want to be very honest with you all about my relationship with conventional row crops, so that you can be honest with yourselves about yours: the row crops on this farm have been financially propping up the organic acres for 4 long years now and they should receive the credit they deserve. And I think I’m safe in assuming that row crops have probably been financially propping up your ability to buy organic and local as well. In other words, we all need to be better about leaving the judgment behind while we strive to do better.

We made some changes this year regarding our row crops. Changes for better and for worse. You see, last year was one of those years that just about breaks a farm. I have already whined and complained enough about the quadruple whammy of last year’s high input costs + lower crop revenue + wet harvest weather + a gazillion dollars worth of drying charges, but the result isn’t pretty. The result is a farm walking a fine line between financial solvency and financial ruin. I think the most shocking part of the whole situation is that it only took one year to get to this point! One year! (Ok, so the quadruple whammy also coincided with some needed equipment purchases and the removal of one field from the sugar daddy row crops to that cute new hussy on the block named Organic Transition.)

Anyways, since I’ve run the farm I had refused to plant GMO anything. Straight conventional all the way, baby. I was filled with self-righteousness and an unending optimism that only new farmers have: if it worked before it’ll work again.

Except it didn’t work. The weeds on our farm are typical of the weeds on most farms that have been conventionally managed for over 50 years–resistant to many conventional herbicides. Yes, we sprayed. And yes, the weeds thumbed their noses at us and laughed all the way to maturity. (Remember those posts that have Marcel and I wielding machetes and felling giant ragweed?) After 3 years of ineffective herbicide applications, low yields and falling farm revenue, I had to be honest with myself that my system wasn’t working.

So we changed our rotation to favor corn in order to level out the farm revenue we could expect year after year. We have 3 fields in row crops, which had meant if this year 2 of them would be planted to corn and 1 to soybeans, the following year 2 of them would be soybeans and 1 corn. Corn makes more money than soybeans–depending on the year it can be substantially more. So the way it was, we would have a decent farm income one year and a bad one the next. On and on and on.

We switched our rotation so that every year we’d have 2 fields in corn, meaning field #1 in 1st year corn (corn after soybeans), field #2 in 2nd year corn (corn after corn), and field #3 in soybeans (soybeans after corn). Revenue should level out so that we know, more or less, how much money is coming in. Better income control means better planning means more stability. Stability means less stress and less risk of financial ruin. Whew.

The bad news: corn on corn requires more nitrogen. (We used the same amount of anhydrous ammonia as last year, but also put on a pelletized, slow release product that will give the corn an extra boost as it grows.)

The good news: I planted non-GMO corn again, because the herbicides you can use on straight conventional corn are still effective and because we feed corn to our chickens and grain-fed beef. Our beef, egg and chicken customers don’t want GMO feed, so no GMO corn.

Soybeans are another story. Our soybean fields have been a horrible mess and our yields have been falling. There are fewer conventional herbicides that can be used on soybeans and our weeds are resistant to them. It has gotten to a point where they control large percentages of the field, crowding out the crops and competing for nutrients.

The bad news: we switched back to GMO soybeans. Round-up Ready, to be exact.

The good news: our weeds will be better controlled, our yields should increase substantially, and we’ll make a little more money off of the field. (More money = more money for that hussy O.T.)

On the fertilizing front, we made a definite change for the positive. A company based in Wisconsin, Midwestern Bio-Ag, sells fertilizers, soil amendments and forage seeds and work with both conventional and organic farmers. They promote balanced, mineralized soils for improved crops. Blah blah blah, you can read more about them on their website.

We have purchased our organic fertilizers and soil amendments from them for the past few years and have had wonderful results, but had stuck with the local Coop for the conventional land. This year I decided that I needed to move forward, even as I moved backward; I needed to give our conventional land some TLC. I gave it a good, healthy dose of readily-available calcium (calcium increase a plants ability to absorb nutrients) and high quality fertilizers with micronutrients and will continue to do so until we get the soil balanced.

What I must do:

1) Get the weeds under control.
2) Balance the soil.
3) Force the hussy O.T. to support herself.
4) Give some loving to the conventional land.
5) Transition the land to organic as soon as financially able.
6) Keep the Repo man far, far away from the farm.

What you should do:

1) Support organics.
2) Support farmers in transition to organic.
3) Support medium-sized family farms, conventional or organic. (These are the ones suffering the most, and the truth of the matter is that conventional farms are better for the environment than housing subdivisions.)
4) Stuff the judgment to the very back of your junk drawer.

Change. It can be good or bad. For better or for worse. But it is what’s called for in these tough times.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. -Albert Einstein

Mumble Grumble

Blogging hasn’t been high priority lately, obviously. But this fall has kicked my butt and I hate to write negative posts. I prefer my witty, delightful posts about how picture perfect everything is, or the ones about how I solved some huge problem by the sheer force of my intelligence and charm.

Wait…?? Who’s blog is this?? Sorry….I confused myself with someone else.

Reality is I’m a farmer now, and I’ll be damned if farmers don’t bitch and moan every once in awhile. So here it goes…

This year’s corn harvest dogged me for weeks. It went anything but smoothly, and I was grumpy through the whole dang process.

The weather didn’t cooperate at all, raining every other day for basically a month or so. Now I know talking about the weather isn’t that exciting for most people, but weather is to a farmer what a moody boss is to the low-level worker. You gotta follow their lead, but you never know what they’re gonna throw at you, and most of the time you don’t like it.

This harvest season, the weather tossed us a nice mix of rain, mist, cold, some more rain and mist, and suprisingly little wind. Which means we were harvesting wet corn off of wet ground on cold, dark, and yes, wet days.

So what’s the problem?

Well, wet corn means that we have to pay exhorbitant charges at the local grain elevator to dry the corn down to 15% moisture. 15% moisture is the level at which corn can be shipped and/or stored without risk of sprouting or fermenting. (Although fermented corn doesn’t sound so bad…ahem.)

Thanks to the wet fall, our corn didn’t dry down in the field like it could have. We were harvesting our corn at about 23% moisture. Shall we do the math?

The elevator charges $0.07/bushel to dry corn one half of one percent. (Yes, you read that right.) So that means $0.07 to dry it to 22.5%, another $0.07 to dry it to 22%, etc. etc. When you add it all up, we paid $1.12/bushel to dry the corn down to 15%.

I understand that they have to recoup their energy costs, but to the tune of $1.12/bu? Youch. When you’re making $4-5.00/bu on the corn, that’s 25% of your profit right there. Today’s corn prices are at $2.95 or so. Take a smooth buck off of that and we’re talking a 35-40% loss.

Wet land means that the oh-so-heavy equipment like the combine, grain wagons, tractors and semi trucks are driving around our farmland and compacting the crap out of our soil. Soil compaction is horrible for the health of the crops, prohibiting the flow of nutrients and water and causing all sorts of terrible problems with run-off, weeds, etc. In a no-till system like ours, soil compaction is your number one enemy. We don’t have the option to moldboard plow the land to break through the hardpan, as they call it.

We had a semi truck and a tractor get stuck in the mud. That’s how bad it was. And there are huge ruts everywhere, which I can’t look at without getting agitated.

Wet, unpredictable weather causes one more major problem….you never know when you’re going to be able to harvest. For three weeks, I could go nowhere, do nothing, see no-one. I’d have my boss at Atwood take me off the schedule because I thought we’d be working. Then it’d rain. I’d put myself back on the schedule, and Mark would show up to work the combine for a few hours.

Sometimes I’d think, “The ground’s way too wet to harvest today”, so I’d go to my exercise class or run to the store. Upon return, I’d find that Mark had been working for over an hour, the wagons were all full, and I still had to connect the tractor to the auger, lift the top off the bin, etc. The constant set-up, catch up, take down, set-up again was exceedingly frustrating.

Needless to say, I was swearing like a sailor by the time we got it all finished. But finish we did. Thank God for that.

Yeah, farmers complain a lot. We do. But if your schedule and your success was dictated by and determined by something as unforgiving and unpredictable as the weather, you’d complain too.

We’re a sorry lot, we farmers. You’ll just have to forgive and excuse us when you can. And when you can’t?

Deal with it.

Monday Happened

Phew. Thank goodness it’s Wednesday. ‘Cause a few days ago, we had a Monday. And boy, what a Monday it was.

It’s corn harvesting time, and it’s been a tough season. We had an incredibly cool and wet spring, followed by a wet summer, a month-long dry spell in August, and then a return to rain, rain, rain ever since. The corn harvest started over a week ago and should take us about 4 to 5 days to complete, yet we’re barely half-way there, thanks to this wet weather that won’t go away.

I knew Monday was going to be hectic. I had a full schedule that started at 5:30 a.m., which included getting the kids off to school, harvesting corn all day, and work at Atwood from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. But Marcel had opened the lid on the bin for me, bless his heart, before he left for work and I was thinking I was sitting pretty.

It was cold, mind you. The temperature had dropped to the high 20’s overnight, and that means the tractors must be plugged in to keep the diesel fuel warm. I was pretty confident farner Mark would start combining at about 9:30 or so, so I was planning on plugging the tractors in at 8:00, and even thought I could run to the store for some milk and bread before we got started. Just as I was brushing my teeth, at about 7:45 or so, I heard a knock at the door. Yep, it was farmer Mark, ready to get started.

“Well, yes, of course I’m ready to go,” I lied, “I was just getting ready to go out and connect the tractor to the auger.”

“Well, okay then, I’ll get started.” replied Mark. “I’ll need a few more wagons out there in a minute or so.”

Assuring him that yes, I’d get everything moving, I called my mom in a panic and told her I needed her to get Armando fast. Then I ran and plugged the tractors in. Maybe they’ll heat up in the 10 minutes or so that it’ll take me to run the wagons out to the field, I thought.

I thought wrong.

When I tried to start our John Deere, a huge, troubling puff of white smoke billowed out of the exhaust pipe as the motor slowly chugged, chugged, chugged….and nothing. Chug, chug again…..and nothing. Then I jumped over to farmer Bill’s tractor that he had lent us. His tractor chugged a little more enthusiastically, but wouldn’t start either.

The tractor motors wouldn’t start, but unfortunately my motor was going strong, and the muttering and grumbling started tumbling out….

“I can’t believe I didn’t plug the @^*&#% tractors in earlier.”
“I wish Mark would’ve called me and told me what time he was starting this morning.”
“Where is my mom to get Armando?”

Well, Mom did show up pretty quickly and got Armando, and I quickly called Marcel to ask him what I could do to speed things up. At this point, farmer Mark had two of my four wagons filled and I was getting really behind.

Marcel told me to wait 10 more minutes and try again. So I did. But this time the starter motor was really sluggish, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I wore the battery out. I called Marcel back in 10 minutes, grumbled at him pretty good, and had him listen to the motor. “Yep, you’re gonna have to charge the motor,” he told me. Which incited some more whining, swearing, and general gnashing of teeth on my end. He walked me through the process, and after another 15 minutes and another full wagon of corn in the field, the tractor started.

Hallelujah, we’re in business.

I quickly pulled the tractor out of the barn, got it in position to hook up the PTO to the auger, and quickly found out that the auger’s arm that connects to the PTO was frozen. It should usually slide back and forth pretty easily to help you slip it over the PTO on the tractor, but this time wasn’t moving an inch.

So now I’m really cussing like a farmer, folks. I call farmer Mark on the cell phone and, with much embarrassment, told him I couldn’t get the auger hooked up. My thoughts at this point were going downhill fast, and consisted of some really mature things like, “I’m such a girl,” and “God, I’m an embarrassment to myself and this whole family,” and other nice things. Can you tell I was a little more than frustrated?

Mark came over, tugged and pulled, and finally pounded the ice out of the auger arm. We got the tractor hooked up, and I have to admit I was relieved to see him struggle with it and felt a little vindicated in my wimpiness. He went back out to combine some more, and I made an SOS call to farmer Bill…..”if you’re home, could you please come and help me for a little while?”

Just as I pulled up to the auger with my first load of corn, Bill showed up. Mark was pretty much waiting on me at this point, so Bill’s help was going to be a godsend. I tugged and pulled and hung like a monkey from the wagon door that is soo hard to open, and finally started unloading the corn into the bin. And as the corn flowed out of the wagon, the relief flowed out of my body. Bill helped me get a handle on my Monday, and am I ever grateful.

I just hope we finish the corn harvest before another Monday comes around.

Oh, and Bill? Could you clear your calendar, just in case?

Goin’ Against the Grain

I had a nice visit with our conventional pesticide and fertilizer supplier dude earlier today. I’m sure he has a title, but I have no idea what is is. So pesticide and fertilizer dude will have to do.

It was really nice to have a long talk with a farmer who’s squarely planted in the conventional world but who also doesn’t freak out and have a heart-attack when I tell them we plan to go organic. We had a long chat about different planting options, about my concerns with our ragweed problem (which wasn’t solved by the machete work), about his concerns with soil erosion in organic grain systems, and about the challenges of balancing our concerns for the environment with the economic health of the farm.

I must say it was pretty cool to receive advice about different things we could do to help us reach our goal faster, especially coming from a man who spends most of his Spring driving one of those tall, monstrous pesticide-sprayin’ vehicles that just look evil and remind me of a giant moon rover. (Not that I’ve ever seen a moon rover.)

Because I gotta tell ya, I can feel myself faltering once and awhile. It simply gets harder and harder for me to maintain one foot in the organic world and another in the conventional world. Let’s be honest. I have to constantly explain the rationale behind keeping part of the farm conventional when talking with my organic cohorts. And then I have to explain why I won’t plant GMO crops to my conventional cohorts. Especially when I see, we all see, the major weed pressure in our non-GMO fields and a simple switch to Round-Up Ready would take care of it.

I know where I want to be. I just want to be there already.

OK, I admit…patience isn’t my strongest quality. But this path in the middle is not easy. Not at all. And the worst part is that I know the longer we allow the ragweed to populate our fields, the larger the problem is going to grow. I am pretty sure that within a year or two, we’ll be at the point of no return, especially in one particular 45-acre field.

I asked Mr. fertilizer dude about planting wheat. Wheat requires less nitrogen and harvests mid-summer, which would cut back the ragweed. It also bumps up your future soybean yields, something that has lagged on our farm for years. He said the ragweed could cause a big problem with our wheat crop, though. Plus, we’d have to coninue to mow the fallow field the rest of the season if we wanted to keep the ragweeds down. Can you say diesel, diesel and more diesel?

The best option we came up with is to take that field out of row crops altogether and sock it into hay ground. We could get a premium oat-hay crop in late Spring, and then two more cuttings of Alfalfa that summer. Which means we’d mow down the ragweed 3 different times. The field could be left as hay ground for two more full summers, getting mowed 4 times each summer. Then you plow in your hay field and plant corn, which would need no nitrogen since the alfalfa provided it for us. Follow that with a year of soybeans and then back into alfalfa for three more years.

And maybe, just maybe, after three more years our cattle herd might be at the size that we’d need the land for grazing. So we wouldn’t even need to put it back into corn or soybeans.

Hmmn. Hmmn. Hmmn.

The only teensy-weensy miniscule problem I can find with this new little seed of a plan is this: we’d have about 95 acres of hay to cut, dry and bale next year!!!!! And you’all know that cutting, drying and baling hay without it getting rained on isn’t an easy task. It isn’t an easy task when your dealing with 42 acres. Add another 40-odd acres and what do you get? A stressed-out farmer, that’s what you get!!

Guess I’ve got me some thinking to do. And guess I gotta consult with the family.

Let’s see. What should I bring up first? My great idea on how to get rid of our ragweed problem? Or the fact that we might be hayin’ on 95 acres next year?

If you have any advice, this is the time to cough it up. Unless you’re the conventional-judgemental type or the organic-judgemental type. Then you can just keep it to your nice little self. Thanks in advance.

Felling the Giant, one machete-swing at a time

That’s right, I said machete. Machete. A third-world tool that no self-respecting, American-born, tractor-drivin’, weed-busting conventional farmer would ever, ever touch.

I guess that’s why I’m not your usual self-respecting-American-born-tractor-drivin’-weed-bustin’-conventional farmer.

Cause a machete is what’s been occupying my right hand for a few days straight now, and I gotta tell you……ouch, ouch and ouch. My forearm is extremely sore, and my middle finger (yes, the naughty one) is barely working this morning. My hands are blistered and my waist hurts so bad from the rythmic ‘bend-swing-fell’ movement of the machete that I’m walking around, preggo-style, with my arms propping up my lower back. And no, I’m not nine-months pregnant! ‘Cause if I were, I wouldn’t be so %#$&* sore from using a machete.

But machete I did, and machete I will do again. Because we’ve got this little problem going on around here. OK, it’s a big problem. In fact, a giant problem. A giant ragweed problem.

Gaint Ragweeds are the enemy of all conventional farmers. They are this huge-mongous weed that grows about 11′ tall (seriously), their roots send out many stalks that happen to be as thick as small tree-saplings, and then. Then! Then they do something that is quite amazing, and extremely frustrating, especially if you’re 1) a farmer, or 2) a person who suffers from hayfever.

They put up this glorious (in their mind, at least) flower head, with copious amounts of pollen waiting for the most minute gust of wind to carry them straight to your nose and mine. (Cue sneezing and wheezing.)

And when the pollen does its job of mixing with its friends (yes, it’s called cross-pollinating….I’m not really as dumb as I make myself out to be), the flower-heads will turn into seed-heads and drops thousands upon thousands of tiny Giant Ragweed seeds into my corn or bean-field. Which will promptly turn into thousands of huge-mongous Giant Ragweed plants next year. Noooooooo!!

Giant Ragweed are all too common in these parts. Especially on farms like ours where we don’t plant Round-up Ready anything. Round-up Ready corn and soybeans are also known as GMO crops–Genetically Modified Organisms. The scientists take genes from unrelated plants and splice them into the DNA of the corn or soybeans. This change allows farmers like me to herbicide-spray the crap out of our corn or soybeans without killing them. Except farmers like me don’t plant GMO crops. Did I already say that?

But before you think we’re all virtuous or something, we do spray herbicides on our fields. They’re called pre-emergence herbicides, and they’re sprayed on the land before we plant the crops. They kill all those sneaky little weed seedlings that sprout the moment the weather warms. And they give our crops a ‘head-start’, a chance to get established before the weeds come back and give ’em a run for their money. Or our money. Whatever.

Gosh, this is getting long.

So, we spray in the spring, and then try not to spray again if possible. If it’s really bad, we can re-spray, but these herbicides WILL shock the living daylights out of the corn or soy, and we don’t like to do that.

Re-enter the machete. Here I am, getting ready to go to work:

(OK, not really. I’m just being goofy.)

Marcel and I spent 5 hours slaying the giant over by my sisters house last week, and 4 hours at the back of the main farm two days ago. Yesterday I spent 2 hours, all by my lonesone, machete-ing in the same bean field as the day before. Another 2 hours will finish that field up rather nicely, upon which we’ll move over to a major infestion left by Laura’s. That one will take a good 5 hours or so. And I’m hoping that’ll be it for this year!

I’m also hoping that by the time we’re all said and done, my fingers, forearms and waist muscles will still be functioning and that we’ll have prevented 459.768 billion ragweed seeds from forming. Or something like that.

And that, my friends, will make it all worth it.

So look out, Giants. There’s a Machete-Wielding Gringa in these parts. She’ll getcha sooner or later. If she can move, that is.

Groan.

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